Tuesday, 10 September 2019
State of the Nation
It's a cliche to say that Australia is at a crossroads, and yet at no other time during Australia's peacetime history has our country faced so many escalating challenges and left so many of those challenges unmet. The reality is that all great nations are perpetually at a crossroads. We always have a choice about the future we want for our country and how we contribute to the future of our globe.
We know that the most important national challenge facing Australia is climate change, because of its increasing and projected impacts upon national security, economic security, food security, public health and our natural environment. The policy solution to climate change has been clear for decades. In order to incentivise changes in behaviour and the way we structure our economic production at both the corporate and household level, we need price signals that include the real cost to society of the pollution that induces climate change. In simple terms, this means we need an emissions reduction scheme or an emissions intensity scheme, and there is a broad expert consensus on this approach. Former Prime Minister John Howard accepted this expert advice, as did Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Malcolm Turnbull and my good friend Nick Xenophon, when he was a senator in this place. However, what subsequent governments have all struggled to master is the politics. The failure of Australia to adopt a meaningful and durable energy and climate change policy is the essential failure of Australian politics of our age.
In the climate change space, it is not only the top-tier issue of energy policy on which we have repeatedly failed; it is also Australia's vehicle emissions standards. We are the worst in the OECD by a wide margin—worse than Europe, worse than everywhere. And things are just getting worse. CO2 emissions from new Australian passenger vehicles are increasing at an accelerating rate. The public health outcomes of our inaction are diabolical. While tight estimates are difficult to formulate, traffic pollution is estimated to cause approximately 3,000 deaths a year, and so we can reasonably conclude that improved standards would have the potential to save at least hundreds of lives. The government last conducted in-service vehicle emissions testing in 2009, so we do not even have an up-to-date or detailed understanding of Australia's vehicle emissions profile and how we should adapt international standards to Australian conditions. The Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions was established in October 2015 and has consulted broadly but has yet to implement anything of substance. The horrible irony of all of this is that improving vehicle efficiency standards would not only lead to better environmental outcomes and better public health outcomes; it would save households, businesses and the government money, because having efficient fuel means you buy less of it.
Demographic change is a multidimensional challenge facing Australia, and we continue to grapple with it. First, I will talk about population growth. Australia is predicted to have a population of 41 million by 2060 and has some of the fastest-growing cities in the OECD. We know all too well that successive governments at both state and federal levels have struggled to sufficiently progress the infrastructure needed to address the bottlenecks. Interest rates—the cost of money—are the lowest and cheapest faced by any Australian government since Federation, and yet the federal government has been delaying infrastructure project spending in order to preserve the political benefits of a budget surplus.
I fully recognise the importance of balancing the books over the medium and long term. However, when determining major public investment decisions, the economic rather than the political cost-benefit analysis should predominate. Now is the time to invest in major nation-building infrastructure. Goodness knows, we need much more of it, certainly in my electorate of Mayo. As our population grows, so does the proportion of older Australians. Between 2011 and 2031, the number of people in Australia aged 65 years and over will increase by almost 85 per cent, from 3.1 million to 5.7 million. The home-care package system is facing dire shortages in government funding, and either more funds or new models of care are needed to address this deepening community need.
If we're going to meet the challenges of our ageing demographic, we also must take action today to ensure that we have the workforce we need to meet the challenges of our ageing demographic. The aged-care workforce is estimated at 366,000 people, but the Productivity Commission estimates that by 2050 we will require a workforce of almost one million people to provide direct care to people who are ageing. And yet the HESTA survey of 2017 showed that, in a sample of an estimated 500 aged-care workers, only 60 per cent intended to stay in their current job for at least five years, and an estimated 23 per cent of aged-care workers intended to leave for jobs outside of the aged-care sector or resign within five years. We need the government to have a clear policy framework for the recruitment and retention of skilled aged-care workers.
More broadly, the best way to build the social support system of tomorrow to meet the needs of our elderly, disabled and disadvantaged Australians is to provide wide and inclusive economic opportunities to more Australians. The tax and transfer system can and should smooth off the worst edges of Australian social and economic inequality, in tandem with significant additional public investment in areas that reduce inequality, by providing more opportunities for Australians who are searching for but cannot secure them. Specifically, this means additional investment in education, teacher training, vocational education, preventative health care and physical and digital public infrastructure, all with a particular focus on those disadvantaged outer metropolitan and regional areas far from the CBDs of our capital cities.
Related to the demographic challenge is that old chestnut: housing affordability. We know this all too well. Younger Australians are increasingly unable to afford their own homes in major cities without family assistance, which makes the future financial security of young Australians increasingly determined on the lottery of birth, and this should not be the case. We all lose when this is the case. Housing developers will argue that increased housing supply is the only answer, but I believe it is only part of the answer. We also need to look more broadly and ensure that mum-and-dad investors in particular have an opportunity to participate in investing in social housing. Some limited concessions on property investment may be appropriate, but we need to substantially level the playing field.
Competitive policy is another major area where reform has been stalled. Greater market competition leads to better prices and products for both Australian businesses and consumers and drives innovation, productivity and economic growth. However, in Australia, we have too many markets dominated by a limited number of companies to the direct detriment of consumers and businesses and our long-term economic potential. Unfortunately, unlike comparable jurisdictions, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission does not have divestiture powers. This means it has no means by which to break up companies that have accumulated an overconcentration of market power that is against the public interest. No-one more than the Australian farmer feels the brunt of not having divestiture powers here in Australia.
Telecommunications presents another persistent challenge that subsequent governments are struggling to address, with ongoing inequity in the access to telecommunications experienced by Australians living in regional, rural and remote areas compared to urban counterparts. The 2018 Australian digital inclusion index revealed substantial differences between rural and urban areas across access, affordability and digital ability. Every Australian, irrespective of where they live or work, should have access to quality, reliable and affordable voice and data services with customer support guarantees. In order to ensure that we have regional, remote and rural Australia in the best position to retain people for the long term, the government needs to establish a universal service obligation. It needs to ensure NBN is fully resourced to maintain an upgrade to the NBN satellite, and it needs to make sure that we create a targeted concessional broadband to support low-income residents, particularly low-income residents in regional, rural and remote Australia.
I've covered a lot of issues today. This is about creating the best Australia for the future, because the work we do in this place today must always be about making a better Australia for tomorrow.