Tuesday, 21 August 2018
Intergenerational Welfare Dependence Committee; Report
I am pleased to be able to make some brief remarks on this interim report of the Select Committee on Intergenerational Welfare Dependence, although I must say at the outset that the debate that is generated by this interim report on the select committee's work, such as it is, completely misses the point. We see this in the narrowness of the review's terms of reference that have been proposed by Minister Tehan, as the member for Jagajaga identified in her contribution to this debate. This obscures the real problem that Australia's government should be getting on with solving. The problem is right before our eyes, which is that we have inequality rising—inequality of wealth, inequality of income, inequality of opportunity and inequality of power. We see our social compact fraying under the blind adherence to trickle-down economics by this government and the commitment to ever deeper cuts to those payments and programs that used to constitute a very effective social safety net. It also shows the narrowness of this government's vision. It is those two issues that I want to explore as we discuss this interim report, such as it is and such as it might be, and the wider issue of how we can structure a social compact between Australians and between Australians and their government that is fit for our 21st-century purposes to be the society we can and should be.
The contrast between the government's agenda here and that of the Australian Labor Party could not be more striking. We can start here with the work done over the last parliament by the member for Jagajaga, who was at the time the shadow minister, in taking a deep consultative look at the challenge of social policymaking in Australia. This, of course, did not come in a vacuum. As you would be well aware, Mr Deputy Speaker Andrews, it built on Labor's legacy in government. This proud legacy is largely driven by the work of the member for Jagajaga through her initiative at the very start of raising the pension age, through expanding the boundaries of our social compact in a revolutionary way with the introduction of the NDIS and through her deep commitment to reducing disadvantage wherever it's found and making it clear that that is a core responsibility of government, including those matters directly connected to the terms of reference of this select committee inquiry—the issues of entrenched disadvantage and particularly challenges facing particular communities and particular individuals in accessing the formal labour market. These are complex challenges and require a considered and holistic response.
This inquiry is not the way to go about it. The work of the shadow minister in the last parliament, as I said, presents a useful contrast. The first point I would make in that regard is about the initiation of this select committee. It was said by one of my colleagues that it appeared as if by magic on the Notice Paperno real way for any government, or any group of parliamentarians even, to commit themselves to an enterprise of this nature. When Labor considered these issues as part of a wider look at our social policy challenges of the present and of the future, we of course consulted widely. We consulted with all of the sector—organisations like ACOSS and the brotherhood and community based organisations—recognising the increasingly spatially-driven nature of disadvantage in Australia, including in suburbs within the Scullin electorate. We looked hard at the evidence and we listened equally hard to communities and individuals directly affected, so that our programs and our policies could respond to concerns that are real and felt within the community, not imagined constructs of ideology. Really, this is the nub of this question that so starkly divides the parliament and perhaps also too many Australians. On the government benches, we see a cruel, ideological focus when these terms of reference are looked at in a clear light. We see, as the member for Jagajaga has said, a relentless gaze on the so-called undeserving poor, as opposed to a commitment from all of us to recognise that different life circumstances present different barriers to full participation in life.
This, of course, includes economic participation in the form of work—we are the Labor Party; we are the party of work and the party of jobs—but also participation in society more broadly. The two cannot be easily separated, and they should not be easily separated. In that regard, Deputy Speaker Andrews, I see that this government has come quite some way from the big society that you promised early in your tenure as the minister, under the government led by the member for Warringah. I thought that that was an illusionary promise, but at least it presented an aspiration for all in our society to equally participate. It presented a clear vision of a way forward, obviously reflecting some engagement with the government led by David Cameron in the UK on a way to harness innovation and enterprise within the third sector as a way of driving better outcomes for the most disadvantaged. As I say, it's not an agenda that I find compelling or attractive, but at least it was a genuine and considered attempt to deal with a real problem—not simply to break up Australians into categories based on their circumstances in life. And so, Deputy Speaker Andrews, I find myself, perhaps not for the first time this week, in agreement with you on a matter of public policy. May there be further opportunities for agreement as the weeks continue.
I think this is worth touching upon, because, while the policy drive behind big society is something with which I would disagree, the breadth of aspiration is something that I think we should all have regard to. If we are serious about welfare—welfare provision and cycles of welfare dependence—we should be looking at the whole picture. We should be giving consideration to how our economy works and how that shapes our society. If we approach these questions in a narrow way, we miss the point, which, for me, on this side of politics, is to build a good society. That is the fundamental responsibility, in my view, of Australia's government. Our job here, I believe, is to articulate what the constituent parts of a good society are.
As I go about my electorate and when I have the opportunity to visit the electorates of my colleagues, as part of my responsibilities in the schools portfolio or otherwise, these are the questions that I try to articulate, not just to discuss with people what is challenging them in their lives today, in education or otherwise, but to ask them to consider what a good government could do, a government which is listening and a government which is on their side, to make a difference, to open up opportunities and to remove barriers.
That is the challenge with which any responsible minister for social services should be grappling. It is, of course, a complex challenge, but it is a challenge that will be impossible to overcome unless it is accompanied by a high-level vision of what a more equal society may look like—as I said, what the component parts of that are. Access to employment, in my view, has to be a part of it, and we have to look at the barriers to employment. A history of family dependence on welfare is one marker. Disability is, unfortunately, another marker. Youth, it appears, has become a key marker of inability to access formal employment and, particularly, secure employment. This is particularly concentrated in some communities in the outer suburbs and the regions.
There are complex reasons which underpin that, and they go to the complex interactions between the world of work and our various programs that support people who are either out of work or at the fringe of the labour market. They also go, of course, to our responsibilities in the field of education. We know that early years education is the best investment governments can make, yet this government, under Minister Birmingham, has been neglecting its responsibilities quite cruelly. We know that, second to that, schools education is the biggest driver of change, and year 12 completion is a shocking but reliable indicator of life opportunities more broadly. Yet this government is short-changing our students in all of our schools. Beyond that, we go to post-compulsory education, and it's very clear that we have not built a system that is ready for the world of work today, much less the world of work tomorrow. These are the questions the government should be having regard to, not a narrow focus on one segment of the community, even if their desire is to improve their circumstances. I urge the government to take a broader look.