Thursday, 17 October 2019
Matters of Public Importance
I have received a letter from the honourable member for Barton proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The Government's failure to address disadvantage and ensure a fair go for all Australians.
I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
This week is Anti-Poverty Week—and I’ll just let the other side know that it does have something to do with the economy. Three million, or over one in eight, Australians live below the poverty line. More than one in six Australian children, or three-quarters of a million, live in poverty—a devastating and damning statistic. The Anglicare Jobs Availability Snapshot 2019 demonstrated that there aren't enough jobs for the number of jobseekers; employers receive on average 19 applications per vacancy advertised; and those that do have a job aren't receiving enough hours, with over 1.1 million Australians underemployed.
Poverty has real-world consequences for real people—people who we represent. The government appears to have its head buried in the sand. It stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that we have a serious problem facing this country, and it's widespread poverty—and it's getting worse. It is especially obvious in rural and remote Australia. I have seen these things up close. I don't see a plan from those opposite to create jobs or alleviate poverty. There is no economic strategy.
Children should all have a good start in life, but, as I said, there are three-quarters of a million children in Australia who don't. These children grow up in shocking circumstances. They grow up deprived of a fair start in life. They grow up living in poverty. Children are the biggest group within the poverty sector. It is almost inconceivable for Australians to understand this, but it is true: children make up the biggest cohort in the poverty sector. For children, living in poverty can mean going to bed on an empty stomach. It can mean not having a safe and secure home to live and sleep in. It can mean going to school with not only the pain of hunger but also the shame among their peers that they are missing out—or they don't go to school at all. They don't get to go on school excursions or participate in team sports or spend time with friends, leaving them lonely and isolated. They are missing out on healthy food, physical activity and interacting with people their own age, which are all critical to a child's development—the first five years of a child's life being the most important.
Children living in poverty can experience severe physical and health complications. Living in poverty can create emotional scars that last a lifetime. This will impact on their concentration in the classroom, their homework and, ultimately, completing their education. They are experiencing anxieties that they should not have to deal with and which will remain with them for a lifetime. Children in poverty are not only anxious for themselves; they worry for their families, they worry for their mums and dads and they worry for their brothers and sisters.
For families living in poverty, parents are struggling to get to the end of their pay cheque, if they even have a pay cheque. Parents are skipping one and two meals each week. Sometimes they are going a whole day without food. They are delaying buying medicine or going to the dentist. They are driving their children to school without a licence or a registered car because they cannot afford to pay for these things. They are forgoing new shoes, a haircut or clothes for a job interview. They do their best to shield their children from these realities, with mums assuring their kids, 'Don't worry; I ate while I was cooking,' or sitting on the back step trying to work out what bill to pay next and how on earth they are going to do it. No parent should ever have to do this. It is not always possible to shield children from these realities, but parents try.
The impact of poverty, especially on young children, can have a profound and lasting impact on their outlook on life as well as their quality-of-life outcomes. We know that poverty and the cycle of poverty can transcend generations. Poverty snuffs out potential. Poverty means you can't imagine a future. Just think about that: not being able to imagine a future.
When our citizens are deprived of the opportunity to reach their full potential, our workforce is deprived, our economy is deprived and we as a country are diminished. When our children are deprived, our country's future is diminished. So, whether you live above or below the poverty line, poverty and its impacts affect us all. When a person cannot afford clothes for a job interview or transport costs to get there, they cannot re-enter the workforce and contribute to the economy. When they have to choose between a bus fare to get to a job interview and medication from the chemist, they cannot properly participate in society. When people cannot afford the basics and essentials, our local businesses have less to spend on wages and jobs, and, when businesses have less to spend on wages and jobs, people have less to spend on local businesses. Yes, Minister, it does affect the economy.
All Australians feel the impact or effects of poverty in one form or another. They feel it in their stagnant wages. They feel it in their lack of job security. Poverty is a collective challenge, and addressing poverty is a collective responsibility. It requires leadership, something this government seems to lack and seems to shirk when it comes to the economy. We have not heard one word from any of them about Anti-Poverty Week this week. It is shameful.
When Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke committed our country to eliminating child poverty, we may not have eliminated it completely—I see the snigger from the minister, but listen to the next fact—but let us never forget the huge strides we made as a country. We reduced child poverty by 30 per cent. The Hawke Labor government demonstrated to us the power and capacity of government to lead and enact real change so long as it is prepared to demonstrate real leadership—nothing like what we're seeing now. It was a different time with a different government under a different leadership.
This government refuses to even acknowledge the critical socio-economic challenges threatening the Australian way of life, let alone lift a finger to do something about it. Meanwhile, Australia waits, waits and waits. The government has got plenty of old, stale ideas. It's got nothing more than distractions and wedges. It is so obsessed with devising new and humiliating ways to harass and prod vulnerable Australians with urine testing and cashless cards, but it does nothing about alleviating poverty. It just doesn't have any ideas to create jobs or get the economy moving. Is this what Australians can expect over the next three years? Australians simply want this government to do something.
Over the past five years, under the Liberals and Nationals, the proportion of Australians over 55 relying on Newstart has surged to a staggering 45 per cent. We know that Australians over the age of 55 have particular difficulty re-entering the workforce. They face structural barriers, and often they need a bit more time to retrain and reskill so they can get back into the workforce. They also face significant workplace age discrimination. These are people who have worked hard and contributed all their lives but have been made redundant. These are people who have spent years as carers but have seen changes in personal circumstances such as loved ones being moved into a home. They too will require a bit more time to retrain and prepare themselves to re-enter the workforce.
The government's refusal to increase Newstart seems to be detached from reality. Newstart is the way to lift children out of poverty. With over 1.1 million Australians underemployed, we know many of those who have a job still have to depend on Newstart. Australians are doing it tough, Minister. Many have not seen a pay rise in a very long time. Many only see the cost of living creeping over their pay cheque, with less and less left over for them or their children.
Why isn't there a plan to alleviate poverty? Why isn't there a plan to address disadvantage? As I said at the beginning of my matter of public importance, three-quarters of a million children face uncertain futures. It's untenable, and it's the responsibility of government to take it seriously and give it the credence that it needs. When our children are deprived, the future of our country is diminished. It's cruel. It's demeaning. It's unacceptable. Children should not have to carry this burden, and the government needs to do more about getting the economy moving, having a plan to address jobs and, most importantly, addressing the issue of poverty, particularly when it comes to children.
I'm pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate about how we address disadvantage. I want to start by agreeing, very much, with the proposition that the shadow minister has just put, which is that there is a strong link between the economy and how we address disadvantage. In fact, the data is very clear: there's a strong link between unemployment and poverty, and the best way that we can move people out of poverty is to get them into a job. And the best way to get as many people into a job as possible is to have a strong and growing economy which is generating jobs.
My source for the proposition that there is a strong link between employment and moving people out of poverty is a recent report from ACOSS, the Australian Council of Social Service, and UNSW in Sydney, Poverty in Australia 2018, which points out that only seven per cent of households whose main source of income are wages are meeting the test of poverty set out in the report. I hasten to add that the test of poverty used in that report is a relative income, or relative poverty, test rather than an absolute one. But I think we can all agree on the proposition that the more people we can get into employment, the more we can move people out of poverty.
Every Australian who moves from welfare to work experiences a personal victory, but our nation is also better off the more people are able to move from welfare to work. That is why our Liberal-National government has had a relentless focus on a strong economy which generates jobs. That's why we've focused on lowering taxes for small and medium businesses, those with turnovers up to $50 million: around nine in 10 jobs are private sector jobs. If we reduce the tax burden on businesses, we make it easier for them to employ people. That's why we've entered into free trade agreements with China, Japan, Korea and Singapore and why we joined the TPP-11. It's about generating new export opportunities for Australian businesses. It's about generating jobs. It's why we're investing $100 billion in infrastructure around Australia: infrastructure projects generate jobs.
The plan is working. Since we came to government in 2013, the strengthening economy has generated more than 1.4 million jobs. As we see more people getting jobs, we see a fall in the number of working-age Australians on welfare. In fact, as at June 2018, the number of working-age Australians on income support payments was 230,000 fewer than in June 2014. That is progress to celebrate. Of course there is more to do, but we are seeing our plan working and, as a consequence, the share of working Australians on income support payments has fallen to 14.3 per cent, the lowest rate of welfare dependency in 30 years.
I make the point that these outcomes are of particular importance for vulnerable Australians, because, as we get more vulnerable Australians into work, that has particular benefits for those at the lowest end of the income distribution. The statistics are noteworthy. Between 1988-89 and 2015-16, that group, those at the lowest end of income distribution, has experienced much stronger growth in labour income than elsewhere in the distribution. In turn, what that reflects is a substantial increase in the proportion of those at the lower end of the income distribution engaging in paid work. Over that same period, it's risen from 29 per cent to 44 per cent.
Of course, the link between a strong economy and supporting our most vulnerable—responding in the best way to those in disadvantage—is relevant because it's so important that we can fund the social welfare safety net. Spending on social security and welfare, at $180 billion, is more than one-third of the entire Commonwealth budget in 2019-20. When our spending on social welfare is such a large part of the Commonwealth's budget, it is critically important that our spending is sustainable.
We make a promise to Australians that, if they have particular needs, they will be supported with a particular benefit, be it the age pension for those over 65½ who meet the income and assets test; be it Newstart for those of working age who are unemployed; or be it the disability support pension for those suffering from a permanent disability that stops them from working. If we make that promise, it is so important that we keep it. We never want to run the risk that we do not have the money to pay for the benefits that we promise. Yet this was the risk that the previous Labor government ran. Under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, social security and welfare spending grew at around twice the rate of revenue growth—6.2 per cent a year, compared with total tax receipt growth of 3.3 per cent a year. That was unsustainable. We ran the risk of not being able to meet the promises we had made to vulnerable Australians. Thankfully, we've worked hard to turn that position around since we came to government in 2013 and it is now the case that expenditure on social security and welfare is growing at a sustainable rate—and it is growing at a lower rate than the rate of growth of tax receipts.
I want to make the point that it is so important that we have a clear focus on what the issues are and what the needs are. We have heard from the other side of this House, over quite a number of years, the claim that we are seeing rising inequality. In fact, the most recent Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey, from 2018, showed there had been little net change in income inequality between 2001 and 2016. The respected Melbourne Institute economist, Professor Roger Wilkins, recently commented:
… not only is income inequality not rising, our best guess is that it is actually falling.
There is another point to make here that is very important: economic mobility is high in Australia. Almost everybody moves across the income distribution over the course of a lifetime. While at any point in time there is a distribution with those on higher incomes and those on lower incomes, the data shows that many people move through that distribution. There may well be reasons why your income is low at a particular point, but it may well be that your income is relatively higher at later stages.
I also make the point that, as a nation, we have enjoyed a 29-year period of uninterrupted economic growth. That is so important in being able to deliver increasing prosperity to all Australians. Indeed, it's noteworthy that, according to the recent Productivity Commission report on poverty, over the period from 1988-89 to 2015-16 those at the bottom of the income distribution saw their incomes grow by an average of two per cent a year. That's actually a little higher than the growth we've seen from those in the middle of the income distribution.
Here is what Commissioner Jonathan Coppel said in summarising the findings. He said that he hoped this major piece of work by the Productivity Commission would:
… dispel the popular perception that the benefits of growth are not being broadly shared.
I'd also make the point that, compared to many countries, we have a very tightly-targeted social welfare system. In other words, that $180 billion overwhelmingly goes to those with the greatest need. The evidence is that Australians in the lowest 20 per cent of incomes receive the highest amount of social assistance benefits, an average of $517 a week, whereas those in the highest 20 per cent of incomes receive only $28 per week. You may say that that is as it should be. Of course it is as it should be. But I make the point—this is something both sides of parliament can take some credit for—that our tightly-targeted social welfare system in Australia achieves that outcome in distinction to less-well-designed social welfare systems in other countries, where, in fact, a proportion of benefits go to those already on high incomes.
I close with this question: what is Labor's position when it comes to these issues? What would they practically do? It is very hard to work out what their position is on Newstart, for example. Prior to the election, we were told that Labor's position was that there was going to be a review of Newstart. You might well ask: if Labor were serious about this, did they include in their costings the over $3 billion a year that it would cost to provide the increase to Newstart that they were strongly hinting they were going to provide? Do you know what? They did not include it in their costings. This is classic Labor, walking both sides of the street and hinting they were going to increase Newstart. Bill Shorten said, 'We're not reviewing Newstart to keep it at such low levels.' They never included it in their costings. Typical Labor—unfunded empathy.
There are some very clear indicators of a struggling economy and a struggling society. Low interest rates, high household debt, the number of people seeking food relief and homelessness are all at or near record levels right now in Australia. Interest rates are at 0.75 of a per cent. That is a very clear indicator that the economy is struggling. The minister said that you link a strong economy with poverty. If the strength of the economy is any indication of poverty then you can't get any lower than that.
Each month, around 815,000 people seek food relief. That is a 22 per cent increase over the past year of people asking for food. Across the country, 116,000 people are homeless. There are 200,000 people on social housing waiting lists. Household debt, at around $2½ trillion, is at 199 per cent of household income.
In South Australia, where the unemployment rate is above the national figure, the food relief numbers are much worse. According to a Foodbank report, 134,620 South Australians—that is one in 13—go hungry every month and seek food handouts. Since 2018, 17,500 more South Australians are seeking food relief every month. Most of them are women. South Australian charities report that they are unable to assist almost 8,000 people each month. These figures are not surprising when we consider that three million people live below the poverty line and, of those, as the member for Barton has quite rightly pointed out, 739,000 are children. There are 1.1 million people who are underemployed, and another 700,000 plus are unemployed. In my state, of course, the figures are worse; 16.3 per cent of South Australians, or one in six, can't get enough work. We also have 961,000 people each year delaying or avoiding taking medicine due to cost. Similarly, 1.3 million people avoid medical visits because they can't afford it. We see petrol prices and energy costs going up literally every day. Right now, petrol prices are probably at a 10-year high.
The cost of living increases whilst income continues to fall. What is the Morrison government doing to help people that are struggling? Absolutely nothing. This week, in Anti-Poverty Week, we might have expected some announcement or some commitment towards helping people that are struggling in this country, but we didn't hear a single word—not even a statement from the government in response to Anti-Poverty Week. The government's response, as we just heard from the minister—and as we hear here time and time again—is, 'Get a job.' There is no care and no compassion for people facing real hardship. The government not only simply says, 'Get a job,' it actually targets the most vulnerable, trying to squeeze every last dollar out of them. It targets them with things like robo-debt, the cashless welfare card, the drug testing of welfare recipients or targeting pensioners by trying to cut the energy supplement, changing the indexation method, changing the assets test and even trying to increase the pension age to 70.
For people reliant on the National Disability Insurance Scheme struggling with a disability, the rollout has been a disaster while the government tries to save $4.6 billion so it can balance its budget. Simultaneously, people on home care packages and elective surgery—who, in most cases, are people who are very much struggling—are on waiting lists of up to years.
Then we go to deeming rates, which this government refuses to bring in line with reality. I know that pensioners across this country who, as a result of the low interest rates, are having their income cut are also struggling, because, simultaneously, the deeming rates are not even looked at.
I haven't even touched on the poor people that have to rely on Newstart, nearly half of whom are over 45 years of age. These are the people who have most likely had their place of employment closed down and been made redundant. At their age, it's almost impossible for them to get a job, particularly if they only have limited skills.
The reality is that this is a government that has no compassion and no care for people who are struggling. It doesn't care about the health outcomes, the education outcomes, the self-worth or the low morale that poverty imposes on people. This is a government that has no plan to alleviate poverty and ensure a fair go for all. Almost half a year after the election, this is a government still stuck in its own post-election party.
The government believes that the best way to address disadvantage and to ensure a fair go for all Australians is to give them the opportunity to get jobs. That's why our priority is jobs. Fourteen thousand and seven hundred Australians got a job in September alone. The Prime Minister said today in question time that the numbers released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics today show that we've had three years of consecutive monthly jobs growth. This is the longest consecutive run of jobs growth in our history. This is a very important fact released today that deserves underlining and acknowledgement in this chamber.
The 5.2 per cent unemployment rate this month is half a percentage point lower than when we came to government. The participation rate is near record high at 66.1 per cent, as more and more Australians are encouraged to enter the labour force. Female workforce participation is also at a record high, and three-quarters of Australians aged 15 to 64 have a job—another record high. The youth unemployment rate, while still too high at 11.7 per cent, is at its lowest rate in the past six months and one percentage point lower than when we came to government. Over 1.4 million jobs have been created since the coalition came to office, and just over 310,000 have been created in the last year. We exceeded our previous commitment of a million new jobs in five years, and we've committed now to create a further 1.25 million jobs over the next five years, including 250,000 jobs for young Australians. We believe that a strong economy is the vehicle that you use to create jobs and address disadvantage.
But the question we have before us today is: what is the purpose of our welfare system? Is it compensation for where someone has found themselves in life, or is it an investment in where they can go? This is the nub of the debate we have before us. Welfare is not a socialist redistribution of wealth. It is not payments to someone to simply set and then forget them. It is an investment in their future. Those policies that we took to the Australian people and that are supported by the Australian people are designed to invest in those people, to give them a future.
One of the areas that's targeted by those opposite is the bill on the drug-testing trial that has recently passed this place and is now going for debate into the Senate. This is a trial that's very important to me personally. I've seen, like many others in this House, the intersection of drugs and welfare and the impact it has on not only the user but their family and their friends. One of the things you won't hear from those opposite is that the trial of the 5,000 participants at the trial sites of Canterbury Bankstown in Sydney, Logan in Queensland and Mandurah in Western Australia is designed to identify those people who need intervention in their lives at a point at which drug taking is affecting their ability to find work. What you don't hear from those opposite is that $10 million worth of support services will be directed to support these people with the intervention they need. We know that you can't get a job if you are bombed out of your brain on drugs. So the first thing that we need to do is help people with drug addiction move away from drug use. This is not just the issue as we see it. It is also how it's seen by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, whose research we know shows that illicit drug use is higher among those Australians without work. What we want to do is give the people that need support the support they need.
What we're also doing is making sure the cashless debit card is working. I visited the trial site in the East Kimberley, and I know it's working. What's very interesting is that the Labor Party were very happy to support these trials when they were in majority Indigenous communities, but, as soon as they were going to be in majority white communities, that support stopped.
That is the truth, member for Barton. That is the truth. What I am saying is that there is a very interesting intersection of time: between when these trials were in majority Indigenous communities and when they moved over to Queensland into the Bundaberg region, where they're proving a success, that support changed.
It's tempting to respond to that load of tripe, but I think we have important things to talk about here, which is the reality that our communities face. I say respectfully to the minister and to the shadow minister: you need to get out more. You really need to get out more. Let's talk about reality here. On the government's own figures, there are 19 job applicants for every entry-level job. Back in 2006, 22 per cent of vacancies were entry-level jobs, and now it's 10. Ten per cent of job vacancies are now entry-level jobs. They're the jobs that young people go into. They're the jobs that people who come from disadvantaged communities who haven't had the educational opportunities go into. It's dropped from 22 per cent in 2006 to 10 per cent now, and there are 19 applicants for every one of those jobs. Tell me anything in the government's 'plan'—and I'm using inverted commas because they don't have one that actually addresses that issue. Fifty per cent of job vacancies now require a university degree. That's a massive increase.
The Department of Employment told a Senate committee last week that the average time that a person spends on Newstart is 159 weeks—that's three years. The average time a person spends on Newstart is three years. Long-term unemployment—which was 13 per cent in 2009—is 23 per cent today. Nearly a quarter of people on Newstart are now long-term unemployed. The minister and the shadow minister need to get out more, if they think the answer is 'get a job'. They should go and talk to these people who are desperate to get jobs, and can't find them because the jobs don't exist. The jobs do not exist. Show me anything in the government's plan—if it says it's so fantastic at creating jobs, show me where they are. They don't exist. It also shows up the statement that the government makes over and over again, that the Newstart payment is just a holding payment to last people a few weeks while they get another job—it shows that up as the extraordinarily dishonest statement that it is. If the average number of weeks that a person spends on Newstart is 159, Newstart is no longer a transition payment. There's something going on in the economy on this government's watch which means that people are spending more and more time on Newstart. It's about time the government got out and spoke to some of their community about that because this is an appalling failure of this government. But what we get instead is: 'Let's drug-test them.' I can tell you, if there are 19 applicants for one job, and the government is not changing that, then what difference does it make to those 19 people? They need more jobs.
I want to talk about my electorate. I know my electorate very well, and I want to talk about two suburbs in my electorate in particular. One is Parramatta, where just under six per cent of households had their electricity disconnected in the three years from 2015 to 2018. Nearly six per cent of households had their electricity disconnected in those three years because they were unable to pay their bills. Nearly 15 per cent of households in Parramatta earn less than $650 a week, and the unemployment rate is 9.5 per cent. The unemployment rate there—in a CBD in the centre of my electorate!—is 9.5 per cent. Why don't you go out and tell them to get a job! They want jobs. Jobs are not there for entry-level applicants at all. Worse than that is South Wentworthville: for nearly 24 per cent of families there, the family income is less than $650 a week. That's nearly a quarter of the people in that suburb who have a household income of less than $650 a week. The unemployment rate there is 9.8. Nearly one in five households there are sole-parent households.
Again, to any of those government members over there that think 'get a job', 'do a drug test' and 'it's just a transition payment' I'd suggest: go and talk to the people that live in these suburbs. I do. I doorknock them. I talk to them. I know how desperate they are to get work. And those that do have work want more work. We're not talking here about underemployment, which is even worse. On the numbers we're talking about, a person is employed even if they only work one hour a week. (Time expired)
I'll take the statistics from the member for Parramatta as read—that we have a challenge with underemployment, particularly youth underemployment. Let's agree on that and move on. The challenge here is about maximising employment opportunities in a great nation that's doing it better than every other country in the world. I've made this observation off the record. I'll now make it on the record: members on the other side of the chamber need to go and talk to small business, and that means going through the front door, identifying the staff and talking about how small business works and what the blocks to employment are.
Opposition members interjecting—
You can guffaw as much as you want, but the reality is that this mob on the other side know nothing more about small business than the opening hours. They vaguely wander past with the union movement and wonder where their next free sandwich is. This is a union driven political party that treats small business as anathema and has no insight into running a small business. They wouldn't know what an Excel spreadsheet was if it dropped in their laps. They would barely understand the privations of sitting at home at night and working out how to pay their staff. But that's at the heart of the Liberal-National coalition.
Let's move to the grounds upon which we have decided, since 2013, to bring to this place the very simple principle that, if you take income replacement for having a job, you've got to be ready to do a job—if you're healthy and of working age. It's absolutely logical that you can't be addicted to drugs and still be able to turn up and do a job. There are 3½ million Australians out there who are drug tested in the workplace—3½ million Australians who can lose their job and get a criminal record if they're on the juice. And this group over here cannot handle a trial of 5,000 drug tests, with an embedded $10 million of support for drug rehabilitation and treatment, because they regard it as a 'violation of human rights'.
This Labor opposition feel that unemployment is genetic—that you stay there forever and just moan about the unemployment rates. But this government says: 'No, it's not. It is a transition back into work.' We have the audacity to hope that every person on the payment will one day get a job. And do you know what?
Opposition members interjecting—
The answer will surprise that side over there. That's actually what people want. People dream of a job. There might only be two people in the gallery, but there are tens of thousands of Australians stunned by your inability to accept—through you, Deputy Speaker—that drug testing of welfare recipients, to make sure they're ready to work, is thoroughly reasonable. It is not punishment. This building was randomly drug tested without any problem at all. Let's be honest: you can't just sit around, hands folded, saying: 'Intergenerational welfare—it's just going to stay that way forever. Household unemployment, with no-one having a job and children growing up never having a role model with a job, is okay. It's just tough luck.' It is not a life sentence. It's something Australians can transition out of.
What's the proof for what I'm saying? Let's have a look at how state Labor run homelessness. How do they run public housing? They take the housing stock, the transitional housing, and they fill it all with permanent residents. So there's no transitional housing anymore, and the public housing system can't respond. You've got no chance of getting new people in until old people, who have been there for a long time, just depart the premises at some point. State Labor have no idea about how to run public housing. What happens? You get the public housing and then you stay there for life? Do you think that homelessness and public housing are a life sentence? No. We transition out of public housing into private housing, and we work every day in that direction.
Where's the evidence for that? Let's do a bit of actuarial analysis of how that opposition, when in government, ran the welfare system. Since that time—thank goodness, it was 2013—we've seen 390,000 Australians no longer on the welfare system; they're back in the real economy. There have been 90,000 removed in the last 12 months, 2017-18. As long as a government keeps its eye on the transition from public payments and public transfers to moving into the real economy, it's creating vacancies for those that truly need transitional housing.
There's plenty of lip from the other side. None of them are in Queensland, so they don't know just how bad it is.
We believe that every working-age person who's healthy has not only a right and not only an obligation but the true challenge to ultimately enter the workforce. Those in this government never resile from that and never take their eye off it. As long as we have a Labor opposition chirping about how it's an absolute breach of human rights to do a drug test, Australians will continue to laugh at Labor's approach.
I'd like to start by just acknowledging the people that I have the honour of representing. I have an electorate I'm very proud of. It's very colourful. As a matter of fact, it's the most multicultural electorate in the whole of Australia. With that diversity comes colour and vibrancy and many other things that we in my community should be very proud of, and I think we do it very well—we are, as many have referred to my area in the south-west of Sydney, the most successful example of multiculturalism in the country. I think that does actually distinguish us in many aspects.
Apart from that, there are a couple of things I'm not real proud of. One is that we have significant pockets of less than privileged people living out there in Fowler. In other words, we have pockets of disadvantage.
In Fowler, I receive not exactly the majority, but, per capita, a high degree of all the immigrants coming to this country, particularly refugees. My electorate actually embraces that. We work with that. I know that the people who come to this country bring their aims and aspirations with them. What they want is a better life for themselves and their families. And you know what? They want to work. They come here to work because they know that working is the great enabler. But what we don't have in Western Sydney at the moment are the jobs. We don't have the employment opportunities.
My area used to be categorised as being a hub of light manufacturing for blue-collar workers. A lot of that manufacturing has already gone. In fact, the most significant group of blue-collar workers my area has are those aged 55 and over who have been made redundant and are not able to find another job. It's no fault of theirs that industries have restructured. And, by the way, they're living on about $40 a day. I listened to the last speaker, Andrew Laming; he would have us believe that this is some form of transitional aspect. Well, I've got to say: people aged 55 and over in that predicament know that they're not exactly going to transition into the digital economy, so it becomes their lifestyle.
There's another aspect of my community that I'll talk about—and I know that homelessness has been mentioned in this debate. The University of New South Wales conducted some research on homelessness and they found that my electorate of Fowler came up No. 1 in terms of rental stress. So it's not just about being able to afford a home. The private and public rental markets are so stretched at the moment that in my electorate people commit more than a third of all the income they get—and I'm talking here about welfare payments—to paying for their rental accommodation.
So when those in the government come in here and try to demean the issue of poverty, in Anti-Poverty Week, I say this. We have all been very fortunate here. There are 151 of us all up who have the privilege of representing our communities. We need to be here to make a difference for the better, for the people we represent. If you'd listened in this debate to those on the other side, you'd think they don't have anything to do about poverty or homelessness in their electorate. I'd say: go home and have a look, because you'll find pockets of disadvantage in every one of your communities. Being in the privileged positions that we are in, part of what we should be bringing to bear in this debate is what we can do, as a collective—I know they don't like that term!—to make life better for people.
We should do that not just electorate by electorate but generally, whether as to how we address poverty or how we make sure that kids don't go without. One in six kids is living in poverty in this country. We often talk in here about what we do for young people. Well, if we've got a situation where one in six of them is living in conditions of poverty, this is a drawback on our society.
We are a wealthy country. We should be moving to ensure that our wealth actually ensures the wellbeing of all of our people, not just a privileged few. I think on a week like this week, it being Anti-Poverty Week, we should be doing whatever we can, collectively, to alleviate poverty. One of the places where we should start is Newstart itself. The idea that we can have people living on $40 a day who can actually go out and clothe themselves and find a job is absolutely ridiculous. We need to be reasonable, we need to be realistic and we need to act now.
I must say, as I have listened to the other side in this debate, they are some of the least optimistic people you are likely to run across. Talk about the glass being half empty—they are down to the last few drops! They seem to believe that equality in Australia will be when everybody is on a raised Newstart levy. It is not so long ago that their side of politics was attacking retirees and wanting to take away their retirement savings. They were intent on taking away their franked dividends and bringing them down to a level where they did have to go on the pension. That was their aim. That was their determination.
What we on this side of the chamber are about is making Australia is a stronger, wealthier place, and I am proud to be part of a government that not only has Australia back on track; it has Australia back in the black. That's because you can't pay for extended welfare unless you can make some money, unless you are operating in the black. When Australia does well, everyone does better.
Engineering equality is a little bit like investing in the environment. If you look around the world, the only countries that can afford to seriously invest in protecting their environment are those that are wealthy. It is the same with caring for people. When it comes to a welfare system, when it comes to an aged-care system and when it comes to an education system, you can only invest in it if you are paying your bills and have the economy ticking along.
The strong economy in Australia is delivering a record expenditure on health. The strong economy in Australia is delivering a record expenditure on education. The strong economy in Australia is delivering a fully funded NDIS. Do those opposite know what 'fully funded' means? We had a half-funded NDIS under them. Now, with a strong economy, we have a fully funded NDIS. We have a mental health system that we are increasing assistance to on an almost weekly basis. I am very pleased to say that in my own electorate we have had three new headspace units either delivered or under construction in the last three years. We now have four headspace units across the length and breadth of Grey, and I am committed to making sure we get one at Port Pirie in the near future.
We have drought assistance. Drought is undoubtedly a handbrake on our economy, but we are handling it. We've managed to put over $3 billion in direct assistance, thus far, into supporting those people affected by drought, including communities, not just farmers—the tradesmen and the other people that work within these communities—through the community drought scheme, with a total commitment thus far of $7 billion, because we on this side of politics know that a job is the best form of welfare.
Youth unemployment across Australia is down a full point since we came into government. That is a good move. It needs to go further. In the last three years there has been an increase in the jobs in Australia every month—1.4 million extra people have a job in Australia since this government came to power.
The Prime Minister said it today in question time: a strong economy is absolutely essential to everything. The social security and welfare payments in Australia this year are $180 billion. We as a country cannot afford to do that on borrowings. We need to do it on our good management. Good management entails making sure we support small businesses and business across the board. That's why we gave them a tax cut—so they can employ more people. It's a double benefit, too. A job is a great outcome. Not only does it reduce the taxpayers' outlay and improve the outlook of the person involved but in the end that person will be a taxpayer. This is a very virtuous cycle that the government has embarked on.
The Productivity Commission report said that income tax and government transfers have reduced overall income inequality in Australia by 30 per cent. That is actually a pretty good outcome. What I say to those people who have the glass-half-empty attitude on that side of the chamber is have a look around the world. See where you would prefer to have your children living and see where you would prefer to have your parents living. (Time expired)
The fact is that this government has no plan to alleviate poverty and ensure a fair go for all Australians because this is a government that is defined by who they are against and they are practically against all Australians, particularly those Australians who are struggling in regional Australia. When it comes to the regions, the people there blame the National Party because the National Party have abandoned the people who live in rural, remote and regional Australia. As I have said many times before and will say again today, National Party choices hurt, and they never fight for a fair go. They never do that. Why is that? I'll tell you why. It is because the National Party are weak. They are weak at the very heart of it. In fact, we saw that today, with them having a very public tantrum. They were quite upset when the Prime Minister made an announcement on radio at the same time as they were having a press conference. So what was their reaction to that? They had a huge tantrum! It is all outlined in a very interesting tweet by Thomas O'Brien, who, of course, is a Sky News Canberra bureau chief. I won't actually read the detail of the tweet. The wording of it, and these are the National Party's words about themselves, is actually quite offensive; indeed, I think not quite parliamentary language. But even they themselves admitted they are weak. That is the reality. The legacy of this government and the legacy of the National Party will be their failure to give a fair go to Australians and their failure to assist those who are doing it tough.
This week is Anti-Poverty Week and we have heard some of the facts, like these: three million Australians are living below the poverty line; more than 700,000 children are living below the poverty line; over 1.1 million Australians are underemployed. At the same time as these facts are coming out, the International Monetary Fund has downgraded Australia's economic growth projections. This is this government's shameful legacy. The fact is that people are struggling, especially in the regions, and this government's failure to act is making life more and more difficult, whether that is for young people looking for work or wanting to study or for our seniors struggling on their pensions or desperate for home care, or for those Australians on Newstart doing it tough or for workers impacted by the cuts to their penalty rates, or for all of those people at risk of homelessness who can't find affordable housing, or for sick people in need of a healthcare system or for farmers suffering in the drought. They are all desperate for real action from this government. The fact is: the National Party and this government have failed to support all of those people in need.
This is a government without a plan. They are not fixing the NDIS and Centrelink. They are not reversing their cuts to pensions. They are not properly investing in our schools, TAFEs and universities. They are not properly investing in our health and hospital services and, really importantly too, they have no plan for jobs and no plan for regional jobs. We have high levels of unemployment and high levels of underemployment, and they have no plans to fix the economy nor for investing in infrastructure, which is what's needed.
This government's constant attacks on our pensioners are impacting seniors right across the country. The Prime Minister still stubbornly refuses to adjust the deeming rate and, in doing so, is short-changing pensioners yet again. We know the government have a really extensive history of cuts to pensions, going back to all of their horror budgets over the past few years. Time and time again they have attacked our pensioners. We also have a government ignoring the calls from many in the community to have an increase to Newstart and, again, we call on them to do that. There is an urgent need to raise the rate of Newstart. In fact, the number of over 55s on Newstart has surged by a staggering 45 per cent under this government. With a quarter of Newstart recipients 55 or over, many people who have worked their whole lives are now living in poverty and struggling to find affordable accommodation. Indeed, in the regions there's a massive housing affordability and homelessness crisis, and people receiving Centrelink benefits are the hardest hit. Families and individuals without secure, full-time employment and who rely on some form of Centrelink allowance to survive are doing it really tough—and this government just doesn't care.
The government has a shameful economic record on top of that. Australians are really worried about their job security, they're worried about the massive increases to their living costs and they're worried about their wages. They're really concerned. But this government, with this National Party, continues to do nothing. They have no plans at all to meet the economic challenges facing our nation, and there are many economic challenges. They have absolutely no agenda at all to build a better and bigger and stronger Australia—no plans for investing in infrastructure. This is a government also that has no plan to alleviate poverty and to assure a fair go for all Australians, no matter where they live.