Thursday, 25 March 2021
Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2020-2021, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2020-2021; Second Reading
What a privilege it was to be here for the contribution of my friend the member for Macarthur, who brought to bear his life experience, passion and understanding in his consideration of these measures and the context in which they are situated. In my remarks on these two bills, Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2020-2021 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2020-2021, I want to set them out in their context as well as dealing with those measures that largely relate to the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. They are measures that require some comment because the budget, obviously, is the way in which Australia's government expresses its values, our values and our concerns. But there are other matters which we should be considering, as well as the measures contained in these bills—and, frankly, the measures that would have been contained in these bills had we a government as good as the Australian people; a government on the side of Australians, particularly working-class Australians and vulnerable people, the people we work hardest to represent in this place, as you well know, Madam Deputy Speaker Vamvakinou.
I'm very conscious, as I stand here, that on 1 April, in just a couple of days time, huge changes will come—huge changes to the disbenefit of hundreds of thousands of Australians. Changes to income support will, in many cases, rip people away from employment and deny them the opportunity to maintain a dignified standard of living. In the other place right now, questions are being asked about the real-life impact of these changes, this ill-considered withdrawal of support. Lots of good questions have been asked; few satisfactory answers have been given. It seems that officials can't answer questions about the impact of significant changes, such as that to the partner income test. When we see what has happened in all of our electorates, we see the difference that the addition of the supplement has made to people and families. It is quite extraordinary that the impact, particularly on children who have been supported, which is enormous, has not been properly attended to by this government. It is one more shameful indictment in a series of shameful indictments on the part of this government.
I wanted to touch on that because what's going to happen on 1 April will have an extraordinary impact on the communities we all represent. There will be an extraordinary impact also on us as a nation, as a people. We've seen Australians at their best through the pandemic and, from time to time, even this government have come to support them, generally when they've exhausted all other options. The strength that we've seen, our compact that binds us to each other, has been undermined by a government which doesn't recognise that now is not the time to rip away fundamental supports. Now is not the time to remove people from a connection to work, which is so fundamentally important, particularly when we see the disaster that has been the JobMaker program and particularly when we see the absence of any meaningful plan for reconstruction that's built around having secure work. I hope government members, including the member for Braddon, who is here and I know is a decent person, can talk to colleagues about the impact of these changes and seek to persuade them that now is not the time to take away these precious supports that have secured people dignity. They can't be ripped away right now.
In this building today and over the past few weeks, we've had to think about a broader context: how unequal our society is and what we might do about it. Last year, 2020, didn't only bring us the experience of a pandemic; it presented a reckoning around the world on race, with the Black Lives Matter movement—a movement that energised and captured the anger and frustration of so many in the United States, in the UK and, of course, here, as we grappled with so many aspects of injustice, particularly impacting First Nations Australians, 30 years on from the royal commission into deaths in custody. I understand that today there is more tragic news on that front, taking the number of Indigenous deaths in custody since the royal commission to well over 400. The reckoning on race, about who we are as a people, is something that we are yet to grapple with effectively. The government is failing to grapple with its dismissive attitude to the Statement from the Heart—a generous offer by First Nations people for the rest of us to walk with them to reconciliation and a shared equal future. And there is the failure to do the right thing in recognising the other half of the modern Australian story, our immigration story, with the cruel rhetoric and cruel decisions, cutting people off from income support and, frankly, treating people appallingly with the rhetoric of going home—people who couldn't go home and should not be told to go home. This again rips apart our social fabric, with racism on the rise, with anti-Semitism on the rise and with Islamophobia on the rise. We need clear leadership—leadership in words; leadership in deeds from our government. This has been lacking.
I acknowledge that there have been statements from members of the government and the Prime Minister condemning racism, but they fall far short of what is required, which is a strategy founded on first principles, on our values of treating everyone equally, ensuring that every aspect of our society is equally open to everyone, regardless of their background and regardless of their faith. That is informed by listening, but we have a Prime Minister who doesn't listen. He demonstrates that every time he presents himself as having listened, with every one of his resets that we have seen. Of course none of us can escape the other reckoning that we're going through, which is the reckoning on women's rights, on how women are treated in our society and, most pointedly for all of us in this place, how they are treated in this building. This place which should be an exemplar to our society has in fact proved to be the reverse, where the most fundamental acts of decency seem to be beyond this government.
I don't expect members opposite to share my sense of how the world should be or the policy decisions a government should make, but surely it should not be too much to ask for basic decency in how people are treated, particularly people who have been through the most unimaginable circumstances. Yet that is what we see: a failure to listen; a failure to listen to those voices that were so extraordinarily powerful in the March 4 Justice. All of us in this place have privileges, but to stand out the front of the parliament just over a week ago and feel the anger being turned into an energy for change was something that I was struck by and continue to be struck by. I'm struck by it every day in the conversations I have, both when I feel the pain that has been triggered in so many of my friends and colleagues, and in the conversations I have in the electorate.
People are looking for leadership. They're looking for unequivocal leadership and a government that is on the side of Australian women, a government which does not just say it listens, but demonstrates that it is engaged in dialogue across the community to deliver a society in which everyone can participate equally. That's got to start with having a parliament in which everyone can participate equally, as members, as representatives in the other place, as staff, as everyone who works in this building, the journalists, the cleaners, the attendants.
This is an incredibly difficult time. I don't presume to know how difficult for many, but I think we all know that. We have all seen the pain. The question for those of us in this place is, what will we do with that knowledge? What will we do with our understanding of what has gone wrong? We cannot be silent. We must send signals that this building is the exemplar to the Australian community that it must be. We can't refuse to answer critical questions that go to character. They go to the character of the Prime Minister. They go to the character of his government. They go to our character as a nation. Ms Higgins deserves so much more than that, but how can she be denied that?
This is something that I find extraordinary: the absence of any sense of responsibility. We speak about this often in relation to this government. We have a Prime Minister who had ambitions for the highest office in the land that aren't matched by his ambition for the people he should be serving. At every level we see that in this government. The paucity of vision contained in the legislation we're debating now is one illustration of that.
I, with all of our colleagues, am up for a debate about our alternative vision for Australia, the policies that we think can secure a recovery, the policies that we think can give every Australian a reasonable shot at a decent life, a secure job, a roof over their head, education for their children, access to early learning and child care—all of these things. That's the debate that we're up for, but we can't really have that debate until the issue that's clouding this building is resolved and until the Prime Minister and perhaps those around him accept their responsibility to do so, their responsibility to Ms Higgins, their responsibility to every person who works or has worked in this building to secure a system of work, a place of work, that is safe, where people can articulate their concerns without fear of reprisals, without fear of having their name traduced or their loved ones' names traduced in the media—to be treated with respect, and when they raise serious issues, a Ms Higgins did out the front of parliament in such powerful and courageous terms, for the Prime Minister not to dissemble and deflect. Thirteen times the member for Ballarat has asked him what steps he has taken to look into this allegation. She's asked no more than that, no more than for him to look into the very, very serious allegation, concerning integrity and decency, that has been made against people who work for the Prime Minister. And, here we are, none the wiser, because there will be no effort made to look into this. We're not seeing progress, let alone justice. We're not seeing an acknowledgement that there is justice to be pursued. That is so far from good enough for Ms Higgins, for all of us.
I just hope that, when we return at two o'clock to hold the government to account, the government will respect that process, for once, and the Prime Minister will address his remarks through us, through the Speaker, to the Australian people, to show finally, through all the presentations that are supposed to be resets, dressed up as mea culpas, that we will actually see a reset, that we will actually a mea culpa, not a shuffling of the deckchairs, which seems to be the answer. This isn't about the politics of every day. This isn't about managing the media cycle. They are the hallmarks of this government—I get that—and that probably won't change, but this is a fundamental question. This is a time of reckoning that is beyond these issues that make up our ordinary political conversation.
Trust in government has actually gone up. Trust in the institutions that shape the lives of Australians has gone up. But it will disappear very, very quickly if action isn't taken. Anyone who comes to this place, from whatever perspective, is surely here to do good. We can only do that if the Australian people will give us that licence. Fundamental to that licence is having national leadership that will stand up for what is fundamentally right, that will treat people with respect, that will recognise that we are at a point of reckoning on gender and, frankly, that this parliament has let Australian woman down.