House debates

Thursday, 21 February 2019



4:30 pm

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The abbreviated autumn sittings are about to end without actually making it into autumn. As I look across the chamber, I see a wasted government, thoroughly rattled by problems that are mostly of its own making. I see a government on the run from the parliament, avoiding the problems the nation wants and needs addressed. I see a government that believes its only hope of survival is reprising the deceptions of the children overboard affair. I see a Prime Minister, a jingo of a Prime Minister, who's warped idea of Australian history caused Matthew Flinders's grave to be discovered—because he was making so much noise as he was turning in his grave!

I see a government making wild and unjustifiable claims, including that it will deliver a jobs bonanza that it says can only happen under it and not under Labor. Such claims defy logic and deny history. A coalition election win would, in all reality, make it harder to find a job that pays a living wage. There been a serious fall in unemployment in just one of the coalition's nearly six years in office. Jobs-wise, it's had one excellent year, two average years and two duds. Coalition budgets have made little effort to attack unemployment directly, because of misplaced fears that it might pump up wages and inflation. They relied instead on trickle-down economics, and they've got it wrong. Unemployment is down but inflation and wages growth are still below the Reserve Bank target range. Employment growth has been a stop-start affair—barely enough to offset the growth in the working-age population and modest improvements in labour productivity.

The benefits of economic growth have self-evidently not been shared. Wages are stagnant; the wage share has collapsed. Cruelly, the government sponsored cuts to penalty rates and household incomes have been left flatlining. Unemployment across the advanced economies fell on average by 2.5 percentage points between 2013 and December 2018. Here it inched down by only around three-quarters of a per cent. The Prime Minister now boasts that he has a plan to increase jobs by 1¼ million over the next five years. Adding those extra jobs translates to an annual rate of jobs growth of about 1.8 per cent, a rate that is actually below trend and which confirms the drop-off in jobs creation since around mid-2018. As targets go, it's not what you'd call ambitious.

Barring a major calamity like the GFC, our labour force will grow solidly because of higher rates of migration. Even in the depths of the GFC, employment growth still bumped along at a bit over one per cent. We've got a robust labour market because we've had such a sound financial system over many years, and a well-educated and adaptive work force. Stable government would promote certainty, too, but we've had little of that of late. Like many a coalition plan, this one is woefully short on detail. The Prime Minister doesn't distinguish between high- and low-wage jobs, part-time or full-time work, or say how many jobs will be created beyond New South Wales and Victoria or in regional Australia. Clearly, he hasn't realised that his mooted plans to cut migration would reduce job growth and undermine his grand job plan.

What this government has stood by and watched is a growth in the number of persons employed but only a marginal increase in the total number of hours worked. Underemployment remains at near record levels. The government has put the squeeze on working Australians. Not being able to find enough work to offset low wage growth has driven many into debt and many into stress such as mortgage stress. Wage and salary earners on $80,000 a year have had more and more of their pay creamed off in government taxes, courtesy of fiscal drag and bracket creep. This government has only ever pursued one change to the tax treatment of ordinary workers: a failed attempt to increase the Medicare levy. This government falsely claims to have generated more than a million jobs, when the Reserve Bank and the states and territories deserve the lion's share of the credit.

The coalition's third Treasurer in four years just may land a small budget surplus, but it will be due to cuts to the poor, higher commodity prices and the enforced generosity of wage and salary earners, especially those on $80,000 a year or less. Australian workers have little to show for years of wage restraint and higher PAYE taxes. They're under more financial stress, and this government has done little to help them in areas such as health care, in areas such as education and in areas such as social policy. It's a shame, and shame on this government, whose performance today demonstrated how inept and lacking in vision they are.