Monday, 2 March 2020
Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2019-2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2019-2020; Second Reading
After 20 years at ClubsNSW, including ten years as the organisation's CEO, Anthony Ball is leaving ClubsNSW. Our registered clubs play a vital role in our communities, particularly in rural and regional Australia, where they provide a venue for so many organisations—charitable, sporting, service clubs, just to name a few. Too often we're lacking the infrastructure that our city cousins enjoy, and our clubs fill that void. During Anthony Ball's tenure, our clubs have gone from strength to strength. As a consequence, so too have the services, facilities, infrastructure and sponsorship they provide to our local communities. It's rare to go to a children's sporting event in my electorate without seeing sponsorship provided by one of our local clubs or one of our local hotels.
Anthony Ball will be missed in this role. His supervision of the growth of the clubs is not just about their profitability and longevity but also about the role he has played in addressing a deep seated community concern about poker machines and problem gambling. On that front, he has been an innovative leader, introducing codes of conduct into our clubs—for example, introducing ClubSAFE to our registered organisations. These initiatives, with others, have made a substantial and proactive contribution to community concerns about those issues. Most recently our clubs played a role in regional Australia by providing evacuation centres for bushfire affected local communities. Local club boards, CEOs and staff can be very, very proud of that.
So we thank Anthony Ball for his legacy, not only for the way in which he has been able to further strengthen the registered clubs movement but also for the way he has shown leadership on addressing community concern about problem gambling and the way in which he has extended the reach of clubs into our local communities, providing so much infrastructure and so many local services. We wish him well for the future, as we do Josh Landis. Josh Landis has been at ClubsNSW as Executive Manager Public Affairs for some time, and he is well known around this place. I know he will do an outstanding job replacing Anthony Ball, and we wish him the very, very best in those endeavours.
Each year, the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party holds what we call Country Conference. It's an opportunity for rural and regional delegates to talk about the things that are important to rural and regional Australia, including their own local communities. It's considered a great thing to host the Country Conference because delegates come to town and spend lots of money. They do like to eat and they do like to drink—I know that is well noted—and, of course, they need somewhere to stay and to sleep. So it's a great boost to the local economy. I've been in this place for 24 years. Happy anniversary to me and happy anniversary to the member for Grayndler, who also is celebrating 24 years in this place today! Happy birthday to the member for Gorton and the member for Grayndler and, I think, the member for Rankin, who are all celebrating birthdays today! March 2 is an auspicious day in our annual calendar of events here in Canberra. Sadly, the member for Grayndler, the Leader of the Opposition, and I are the only two remaining members of the class of '96, but it is still a class of very high quality, obviously. I'm proud to boast that over the period of time, the Hunter electorate has hosted the Country Conference on three occasions: once in Cessnock, once in Muswellbrook and, more recently, over the course of the weekend just past, in Singleton. I attended my first Country Conference in Singleton in 1987, so Singleton has hosted the event on two occasions. It has been a great honour for me to be able to deliver Country Conference to Singleton on a couple of occasions.
Welcoming the delegates to Singleton on Saturday was the deputy mayor—and, I should disclose, member of the Labor Party—Tony Jarrett. Tony is a highly regarded and respected member of the community—he's a former high-school principal— and took the opportunity to boast of the town's many attributes, and there are many, and to speak about its challenges, as you'd expect him to do. He spoke very, very robustly about the importance of the coal-mining industry. I don't think it would be an exaggeration for me to say that there is not a person in Singleton who doesn't have their fortunes tied in some way to the coal-mining industry. Whether they're at the coal face or are driving the trucks or the transport in between, even right down to the local coffee shops, which thrive on the activity generated by the mining sector, and those who work in the Mount Thorley industrial estate with companies devoted totally to servicing the mining organisations, they are all in some way linked to the mining industry, and Deputy Mayor Tony Jarrett highlighted that for the conference. He also took the opportunity to lament the fact that, while we send so much bounty to both Sydney and Canberra in the form of taxation and other royalty revenues, we feel, I think quite justifiably, that we don't get sufficient return on that investment. There are plenty of examples in Singleton. We've been begging for a bypass of the town for far too long now. I thought we were getting close when, in the lead-up to the last election, the now Leader of the Opposition announced that a future Labor government would make a substantial contribution to that project to get it up and running. We grew tired of waiting for the New South Wales government to get the project to the point where you'd expect Commonwealth monies to flow, so we took the initiative, went on the front foot and I suppose attempted to embarrass the New South Wales government into accelerating the design of the project by saying we would put money up front if we won the election to try to drive that project forward.
Alas, we lost the election. We accept that. But of course that project has gone very, very quiet. We saw a report from Infrastructure Australia only last week. We welcomed the fact that the project was still in the books, but it is one amongst many other projects, and one can't hold any confidence of seeing anything happen on the Singleton bypass given the timeline that the Infrastructure Australia report sets out in that policy document. Similarly, in Sydney we've seen no activity from the New South Wales government since the election. There is no indication that the government there is taking the project more seriously or trying to accelerate the project. This piece of infrastructure is desperately needed in the community.
When Labor was in government, over the six-year period we funded the $1.7 billion Hunter Expressway, delivering the coalmining traffic to Singleton from the south more quickly and in a safer and more orderly way, making sure those coalminers and other workers not only get to work on time but get home safely. We funded the $1.2 billion third rail track, which allowed our coal to get to port more efficiently, therefore lifting productivity and our competitiveness on international markets. There were many others. I don't have time to go through in this speech, but since this conservative government in Canberra was elected in 2013, the funds are pretty much dried up. You can imagine how frustrated my constituents were to see so many stories in recent weeks about the way this government in Canberra has been spending money on infrastructure projects, projects like the swimming pool in North Sydney, the recipient of a regional sporting grant of $10 million, when we have so many projects, including the Cessnock public swimming pool in my home town. We've been chasing money for that for a long time. It's an iconic facility with great heritage value, pristine water quality, a central location right in the CBD; but of course it needs an upgrade. It is historical, which indicates it's old and needs some money. The Labor Party promised some money for the Cessnock swimming pool in the lead-up to the election but alas, we lost the election and we've been unable to secure any money out of the Morrison government. You can imagine how my residents in Cessnock felt, particularly the pool users, who are many given the number of children who compete in that pool. You imagine their anger when they saw that regional sports money was being used to fund the poor old people in North Sydney and the magnificent pool that sits just under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. These are the points that Deputy Mayor Tony Jarrett was making at Country Conference on Saturday. This government has ignored rural and regional Australia. It continues to ignore rural and regional Australia. It talks a lot about rural and regional Australia, but does not act on behalf of rural and regional Australia.
That takes me to the bushfires. It's almost a consensus in this place now. I don't think anyone sitting on the other side would try to claim that the Prime Minister's response to the bushfires was sufficiently quick. Certainly it wasn't sufficiently robust. That was the initial response, but it's also true that the ongoing response has been inadequate. I heard the Leader of the Opposition—and the member for Gorton was with him—at a press conference earlier today, talking about all those people they and others have visited, small businesses in particular, that haven't been able to get the assistance they need because, they weren't directly affected by the bushfires. The fire didn't go through their business house, vineyard or cropping territory, but of course their business has collapsed because of the impact the bushfires have had on local communities.
I've used in this place before my own example in the beautiful Hunter wine country, where vignerons have lost their vintage—100 per cent in some cases. Now, if they lost it because of the flames, they would be eligible for assistance. Because they've lost it due to the smoke from the same flames, they aren't able to secure assistance. I understand why a program might be developed and these things not realised until after the program is developed and put into place, but we've been telling this government for many weeks now about the problems and the short-comings of these various schemes, and I don't understand why the government hasn't been able to or been prepared to act.
In closing, I said it last week, but I'm going to say it again: I'm so disappointed by the way people continue to try to politically weaponise the issue of our changing climate. They are on the left, where they see political opportunity—the Greens and other activists—to suggest that we are doing nowhere near enough. They are on the right, with the National Party, One Nation and others, who claim that you can't take meaningful action on climate change without destroying our local economy and jobs, particularly in rural and regional Australia like those in the coalmining industry. Both of these propositions are patently false. I've been dealing with these climate wars in this place for much more than a decade now. It's time they came to an end, it's time that we found a political settlement on this issue and it's time that people on both the left and the right got out of the way and let the sensible people not just in this place but across our community, industry and elsewhere progress sensible policy that will make a real difference in terms of our natural environment and will also protect local—including regional—jobs. We can do this.
We're now being led by a whole range of companies—Santos, BHP, BP, Qantas, the Business Council of Australia, Meat and Livestock Australia and the National Farmers Federation—who all say we can meet net zero emissions by 2050 without harm to the economy. Indeed, we can reach that target while bolstering our economy. The lunatics should get out of the way and let us get on with the job.
by leave—I was about two-thirds of the way through my contribution on Thursday before we adjourned. I was of course focusing my comments then on the Urban Congestion Fund, to remind everyone in the chamber that didn't check the Hansard in the last hour or two about the comments I made. I'm of course very grateful for the investments that are being made in the electorate of Sturt: nearly $200 million worth of infrastructure upgrades to major intersections in my electorate. They are going to be a great benefit to many in my community from a safety point of view and from a speed point of view. People will be quicker home, safer home and with more time with families and also the economic benefit of that activity locally for jobs.
I want to spend the remainder of my time talking, from a community point of view, about three other smaller but very important commitments that are contained in this appropriation bill in my area. The first is the $5 million that we are contributing towards the upgrade of the Max Amber reserve in the suburb of Paradise in my electorate. With support from the Campbelltown council, this is going to see a transformative upgrade to the Max Amber playing reserve for the Athelstone Football Club and the Athelstone Cricket Club, and there is also now the establishment of a netball club as part of this upgrade. We are knocking down completely the current building. It has provided great service to the community, but it is getting quite long in the tooth, and I don't think anyone from the clubs that currently use it would find it offensive to say that it is in dire need of an upgrade. They themselves are the ones who have been fighting so hard to see this commitment made, so I was very pleased to be part of a team that, in the recent election campaign, committed to contributing $5 million to that project if we were successful. The community consultation on this, conducted by the Campbelltown council, has finished now. It's got very strong community support. We've now settled on the design principles and we have an indicative budget. The $5 million from the Commonwealth is now committed. The Campbelltown council are moving forward to do the work needed to start construction of that, probably at the end of this football season in around October this year.
This builds on the back of some great sporting infrastructure investments that have gone into my electorate over the years. My predecessor was very effective at getting support for other upgrades, like the Campbelltown Memorial Oval and the ARC leisure centre. Those both had significant Commonwealth contributions, and now we have this contribution for Max Amber. I am eternally grateful that when we raised this with the Deputy Prime Minister he understood the benefit that this would provide to our community and was only too willing to commit to that for a re-elected Morrison government.
The second project I want to talk about is the Magill Village Project. We are making a $2 million contribution to the Burnside council on this. This is a joint project between the Burnside council, the Campbelltown council, the state government and of course the Commonwealth government, through our contribution of $2 million. We've seen the undergrounding of power lines in the stretch of road on Magill Road—which is the boundary between those two councils—between the St Bernards/Penfold intersection in Magill, down through the retail area. The undergrounding of power listens has occurred at a cost of around $7 million to $7½ million. The icing on the cake with this project, now that the powerlines have been buried, is the opportunity to re-streetscape that area, plant lots more trees and put in place lots more public amenities to create a better public realm and better atmosphere for pedestrians and people out with their families during the week and on weekends. Businesses can get on the back of that and see the benefit of the more activated village precinct that we are planning to put in place there as part of this project. So that's a very exciting investment from the Commonwealth, which was the difference between whether or not that project went ahead. Now it is going ahead, and I'm extremely proud of that.
The final project I want to talk about is our contribution of $3 million towards the Kensington Gardens Reserve, which is famous as the home of the Kensington Cricket Club—Sir Donald Bradman's cricket club. More importantly, this is an environmental project to provide a major upgrade of what is at the moment quite a dangerous local hazard, particularly for young people: a duck pond that was built many decades ago, which captures water on Stonyfell Creek. We've had to fence it off because it's become quite dangerous from a drowning point of view, and it's also not very hygienic. What we are going to do with this project, which we are working with Burnside council on, is turn that into a nice, free-flowing wetland. That's going to provide an excellent environmental outcome and a great safety outcome, and improve the local amenity for residents in that area. It's coupled with a commitment to reline the hardcourt tennis courts that the local tennis club use there in the Kensington Gardens Reserve. This is another fantastic local project, where we are working with local communities, local sporting clubs and local councils to invest in local community.
I intend, for however long I'm lucky enough to serve in this chamber, to always be someone who fights for these local community projects and secures financial support from the Commonwealth as regularly as possible. When we invest in our local communities, there's such a fantastic outcome—from a safety point of view, an economic point of view and a community point of view. I reiterate that I'm very proud to be a part of a government that understands the importance of investing in our communities and is doing so in spades.
It gives me great pleasure to support this bill and the amendments it will enact to the Farm Household Support Act. This bill is another step up in the government's range of assistance measures for farmers. Since its inception the farm household allowance has been a key mechanism to support farmers facing hardship, whether through floods, drought or other natural disasters. That is why the government has worked to continually improve this program—to make sure we are getting it right for farming families and to help more people where they need it.
Farmers have informed government about their views regarding policy approaches and targets. Indeed, I travelled with Minister Littleproud to meet with Millewa farmers to hear firsthand their struggles and issues through the current drought. They told us of specific gaps in the previous policy settings and asked for the ability to access support for agistment, restocking and replanting. Their ideas informed changes to government policy on agistment, restocking and replanting, which is now part of the Regional Investment Corporation funding criteria.
This farm household support bill is the next instalment of the government's response to the independent review of the Farm Household Allowance program. The review, commissioned by the minister for agriculture, David Littleproud, in 2018 and released in 2019, made a number of recommendations to government. After considering these recommendations and feedback from farmers and industry on the ground in Mallee, the government has made a suite of changes to the farm household allowance since 2019. These important amendments increase the maximum time a person is able to access the Farm Household Allowance program from four years over their lifetime to four years in every 10-year period. This change recognises that hardships faced by farmers are unpredictable and can last longer than in the past.
A one-off lump sum payment was introduced for farmers who have exhausted their four years of payment on or before 1 July 2020. From February this year, Services Australia has paid relief payments to over 1,100 people. In addition, the ability to earn money off farm was expanded and increased from $80,000 to $100,000. The assets test under the program was also simplified so that all assets—farm and non-farm—are now subject to a single net threshold of $5.5 million. Setting the bar at this amount responds to the fact that some farmers are asset rich but cash poor, thereby allowing greater flexibility for farmers with an extensive asset base in drought.
The rate at which the farm household allowance is paid has been set to a fixed amount and is no longer varied by the recipient's income. This change recognises that it can often be quite difficult for a farmer to estimate their income over a shorter period of time. It also provides certainty each fortnight by paying the maximum rate available. Furthermore, the activity supplement under the program was increased from $4,000 to $10,000. This supplement is payable for eligible activities, such as legal advice, training or study. The supplement has also been extended to include accommodation and travel costs associated with eligible activities. For farming families in Mallee, this is a very useful support.
The changes made to the program under the bill currently before the House build on those contained in previous amendments. The first of the changes under this bill removes provisions which give rise to business income reconciliation. Currently, a recipient's income estimate is reconciled annually using tax returns and financial statements. This process can result in the recipient incurring a debt if their annual income was above the estimated amount. This provision will be removed from the act, meaning farmers will no longer need to conduct an income reconciliation and will no longer have to worry about whether a debt is raised at the end of a year. This means the person's rate of payment will be more simply based on their current income. This change significantly reduces the complexity of the program and, when combined with previous changes to provide a single rate of payment for the farm household allowance, farmers will have greater certainty about how much they will receive fortnightly and annually.
The second set of amendments under this bill extends the 28-day time limit for conducting a farm financial assessment by a further 28 days, providing flexibility and appropriate time lines to identify the most appropriate person to conduct the assessment. Farmers that miss this window will no longer have their applications delayed or withdrawn. Taken together, these changes will significantly increase uptake of the program.
I have spoken to a rural financial counsellor from Mallee who believes these new changes will be a positive step forward and will be welcomed by farmers. I was advised that some farmers had been reluctant to engage with the program because of the business income reconciliation component. The possibility of overestimating income due to the sporadic nature farm income has was a risk for some farmers. The possibility of incurring a debt through this process has clearly been a lingering concern for many, and by removing this complex process from the program the changes will provide additional peace of mind to farmers engaging with the farm household allowance.
I believe that by addressing these barriers we could see significant uptake of the program. In Victoria there are approximately 6,200 people that are eligible for the program but have not yet applied. I am sure that some of these people will now consider applying due to the removal of barriers within the program. At the end of the day, we don't want our farmers to have to rely on programs like the farm household allowance, but if farmers need to make this choice the government is making sure there is a safety net for our primary producers that is easily accessible.
This safety net is so important, especially if the drought continues to worsen this year. This has been the case in my electorate, with large portions of the Mallee facing severe drought. The Wimmera has been one of the hardest hit in my electorate. I am assured by the Rural Financial Counselling Service that many Wimmera farmers have accessed these payments. I want to reassure all from my electorate that, if the drought continues to worsen, the government's response will continue to increase. It will step up. I have been working closely with Minister Littleproud, conveying the difficulties facing farmers in Mallee. I would like to thank the minister for his continued support throughout this difficult period.
This government, the Morrison-McCormack government, is working together to respond to the concerns brought to us by farming families and communities affected by drought. The government has taken a holistic approach in its response to this drought because we know that drought doesn't just hurt farmers, it hurts small businesses and the wider community as well. This is why the government has allocated an additional $50 million to extend the Drought Communities Program to another 52 local government areas, including Connewarre shire in my electorate. This funding is targeted at local infrastructure and other activities that provide employment for people whose work has been impacted by drought and to get money to flow through local shops and suppliers. It's also why we have committed another $82.5 million to the Drought Community Support Initiative through the Salvation Army or the St Vincent de Paul Society. This measure responds to the unprecedented demand from farming households under this initiative due to one of the worst droughts on record.
The Morrison-McCormack response to this drought has been multifaceted, and the farm household allowance is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. The program has helped more than 13,700 farmers and their partners, paying over $406 million to these households. The farm household allowance exit survey, implemented in 2017, shows that almost 89 per cent of respondents felt that the allowance had improved their current financial circumstances. More than 50 per cent expected to stay on farm, with greater farm income and less debt. Clearly, the farmhouse allowance has made a difference for many farming households across Australia. I don't doubt that the amendments contained in the bill will improve the outcomes for farmers and farming communities further and continue to help farmers get back on their feet.
I rise to speak on today's appropriation bills but also to strongly support the second reading amendment. Whilst this may be a third-term government, they are certainly, looking at their performance, a third-rate government when it comes to delivering for the Australian people.
It's hard to know where to begin in describing the failures and continuing embarrassment that is this coalition government. That's why I am glad about this second reading amendment regarding their six years of office and the floundering economy. Every week, we see an internal battle, and day after day we see headlines about the government being more interested in fighting with each other or looking after themselves than looking after the Australian people. Obviously, that is because there is pretty hardcore evidence on a daily basis around what the Prime Minister knows, or who knew, about the sports rorts—but I'll come back to that a little later.
Perhaps I'll start with the decay of the government's credentials when it comes to the budget and managing the economy. We're starting to hear excuse after excuse as to why the economy is struggling on the government's watch. I want to make it crystal clear that the government has to take responsibility for an economy that was floundering well before the impact of the summer bushfires and well before the outbreak of the horrific coronavirus. I quickly bring the chamber's attention to the MYEFO 2019-20, where we saw economic growth and wages downgraded, and unemployment upgraded. That's from the government's own records, that's for everyone to see. And we're dealing with the appropriations bills today.
Blind Freddy could have told you this was going to happen with the government's overambitious accounting. Who can forget the spin and marketing technique of all those coffee cups with 'Back in black' on them, coming off the conveyor belt as quickly as possible? There was the black-and-white silhouette photo of the Prime Minister—a wonderful marketing technique, wonderful marketing tool. Perhaps there was a song, a jingle? They're really good at the jingles, really good at the ads. We saw it in the bushfires. They're really, really good at promotion—self-promotion, I should say. But I somehow suspect those 'Back in black' coffee cups are being packed away, put in boxes, sent back to the distributor or marked down to only $5. 'Let's hide all of that.' We will see about that.
So, faced with the prospect of a hollow and broken promise to the Australian people, we're seeing these excuses being trotted out time and time again. We all know that wages growth is still at record lows, and there are almost two million Australians looking for work or for more work. That's two million Australians without enough money in their pockets every single day. Yet we see no meaningful action from this government to actually fix the issue, happy to let the status quo go on. We can't hide from these facts.
The government doesn't ever really talk about debt. But I put it on the record again: net debt has more than doubled. In the 2019-20 MYEFO, we saw that budget surpluses over the forward estimates have halved. So the dream or fantasy of a growing economy, more jobs and increased wages from a government without a plan to achieve this is now unravelling. What do you expect from a government that doesn't support wage growth? The finance minister said low wages were a feature of their economic plan—not a plan to increase wages, not a plan to increase the standard of living of working Australians, but a deliberate economic plan to keep wages low. More Australians are looking for work. We are seeing a struggling retail sector, and a budget bottom line that is growing more out of control day by day.
The economy is floundering because the government had a plan to buy the election—subset 'sports rorts'—but not a plan to boost wages or growth, or see the economy grow. We know that the impact of the bushfires and coronavirus cannot be ignored. We know that the government, I think it would be fair to say, or kind to say, mishandled the bushfires—and with the Prime Minister being overseas, the defence minister being on holidays. We saw the terrible response: 'Nothing to see here; fires happen all the time. We don't need the Army. We don't need the ADF deployed. We've got it all under control.' And then we saw the whole scenario spin out of their control. We saw handshakes that people didn't want to have. We saw a whole lot of spin and marketing—TV ads, all sorts of things—but not actually a plan to deal with one of the greatest natural disasters our country has ever seen. Obviously I place on record today my deepest condolences for those who tragically lost their lives and those businesses that have been smashed.
I welcome the announcement this morning by the leader the Labor Party, Anthony Albanese, and the shadow minister, Brendan O'Connor, and their support for small business, making sure that when communities need support they get it. This is an area where I think we can work in a bipartisan way. Just as we saw the Labor leader lead over the summer by constructive, positive policies to help those communities get through the natural disaster, now we're seeing constructive, positive policies by our shadow minister, Brendan O'Connor, and the Labor leader to get those small business communities. I want to commend the work of the members for Macquarie, Eden-Monaro and Gilmore—Fiona Phillips—who have done an outstanding job in working with their small business communities. But we know that the government can do more. We know that they control the levers, and we know that those small businesses are hurting. As the member for Macquarie, Susan Templeman, said today, some of those businesses weren't affected or destroyed by fire, but they may as well have been. It is time for the so-called the party of small business to stand up and back in what the small business communities are asking to get more support.
New research by Fidelity International shows that health care, education, insurance and child care are just some of the many mandatory cost of living expenses that have rocketed way above wage and salary growth over the past two decades. In my time remaining I want to focus on child care, which is up 97 per cent, while housing is up 94 per cent and food and non-alcoholic beverages are up 62 per cent, while the average inflation rate was just 2.5 per cent. The Sydney Morning Herald report said:
In the past year alone, while inflation remained relatively muted at 1.7 per cent in the year ended September 30, we saw big price hikes in tobacco (8.4 per cent), domestic holidays, travel and accommodation (7.3 per cent) … However, by far the largest price rises in the past 20 years is in private secondary school education – up a whopping 203 per cent – and private pre-school and primary education (up 159 per cent) …
The cost of medical and hospital care has almost trebled in the past 20 years. Integrity Life managing director Chris Powell says the hike means many families are now trying to cut corners to save money by forgoing emergency protection products such as total and permanent disability, life and health insurance.
The price of insurance itself has jumped about 118 per cent.
All of these massive increases have happened whilst wage growth remains uncomfortably stagnant under this government. The member for Cowan and myself were out in our communities on the weekend. This is not an unfamiliar story that we hear at coffee shops, at muffin breaks, at street corner meetings—all over the place—where the community talks to us about what is happening in the economy. 'The economy is not working for me.' We're seeing people looking for work who can't get jobs. We're seeing the cost of living rising through the roof. We hear this day in, day out. People genuinely ask, 'What is my government doing about this? Not making coffee cups saying 'back in the black'; not talking about everything other than the economy. We see a government focused on funding programs skewed to one side of politics; we see internal fights within the National Party like we have never seen; but we're not seeing an economic plan for this country. They have no plan and no idea when it comes to actually delivering, with the cost of living the way it is.
One of the issues I have been championing in the last parliament and this parliament, because I have seen it firsthand while working with welfare agencies and support groups, is the issue of short-term loans, also known as payday lending. This feeds into that data I was talking about before, where everything is going up except wages. People are turning to all sorts of short-term finance just to pay the bills. Your car might break down; there might be a problem with the roof; you might have health care costs; so you turn to immediate sources of income. I want to place on record today data recently released by the Consumer Action Law Centre and the Stop the Debt Trap alliance, which shows that the number of households currently holding a payday loan is fast approaching the one million mark.
These payday loans are almost exclusively used by people on low or very low incomes to try and keep their heads above water, when, as I said in my earlier remarks, you've got flatlining wages and low incomes as, I guess, proud hallmarks of this government. Research has shown that more than 15 per cent of people who take out a payday loan will fall into a debt cycle, with outrageous fees and interest rates of almost 900 per cent. Because of this, an estimated 324,000 households have been allowed to enter a debt path that might result in bankruptcy. This represents a rise of 23.13 per cent of all borrowers, with 41 per cent being women and single parents.
I have been campaigning on this for about two to three years. I introduced a private member's bill, which used the government's own wording—until the hard Right of the Liberal Party and the economic vandals got their hands on that legislation and ripped it away from the former financial services minister, the Hon. Kelly O'Dwyer, and the former Deputy Prime Minister, who supported that legislation.
For roughly four years consumers have been ripped off under a government that is not delivering increasing wages and has been seeing the cost of living going right through the roof because it doesn't want to introduce legislation that can help people with financial reform. We have had a succession of ministers through the portfolio. The latest minister, Minister Sukkar, has of course, ignored the issue. He's sat on his hands and done absolutely nothing, while consumers in my electorate, in the member for Cowan's electorate, in the electorate of the shadow minister at the table, and those in just about every other electorate in Australia, have been ripped off by these loan sharks.
This is an important issue—when you're buying a fridge that should cost $400 but ends up costing $4,000 due to payday loans and leasing! This week we find out that payday lenders are rebranding themselves as hipster fintech credit and buy-now pay-later providers. They are abusing screen scrapers to scrape out when consumers' bank balances hit a low point before hitting them with pressure marketing for high-cost loans. These reports are really disturbing. That is the reality painted by Drew MacRae, the policy and advocacy officer at the Financial Rights Legal Centre, who is staring down a barrage of intense lobbying by the Australian FinTech centre to legitimise screen scraping under open banking and a review of transaction liability regulations.
We know that there is a simple solution to these customers being ripped off. The government know it. They did a report and a review that made 22 recommendations. Two of those recommendations—
That's a good question. I'll take that interjection. Whilst more and more Australians are being ripped off under payday lending, we know that this government doesn't want to take action. There was a Prime Minister once who did want to take action on this: Malcolm Turnbull. He wrote to me and said—
Mr Pasin interjecting—
I know that the member for Barker is not a big fan of the former Prime Minister.
He says it's an overstatement. I won't be distracted by the interjections. I know that when he wrote to me and said, 'Legislation will be brought before this House'—two weeks later he was rolled for the current Prime Minister.
The consumers that I represent—and my electorate has some of the highest payday lender rip-offs of any electorate in Australia. I want to make it clear: this is an issue that welfare agencies, churches and consumer advocates all across Australia are calling for action on. There is no reason for this government not to take action, apart from the fact that the payday lenders themselves are placing enormous pressure on this government not to take action. I will keep calling out their behaviour. I will keep calling out the fact that Australians are being ripped off. They don't like it when I say that. They write to me. They send me emails. They will even meet with me and say, 'If these reforms are passed, we don't care; they're not going to do anything.' Why do they care about them then? What's the big deal?
We know the recommendations on small amount credit leasing, which the government have been sitting on for over four years now, demonstrate that they can take action. The government brought in legislation; they did a draft exposure. They brought it in. Minister McCormack, who was the small business minister and is now the Deputy Prime Minister—I've had private conversations with members from the National Party as well, who have come up to me and go, 'Keep going with it; we really want to do it.' (Time expired)
The appropriations bills—these being Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2019-2020 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2019-2020—are always great opportunities to talk about what we as a government are doing prosecuting our national agenda. I'd like to take the opportunity to talk about a few projects that are taking place in my electorate at a really local level that are very important for the people in those communities.
I'll start with the Sturt Reserve at Murray Bridge. Our government is investing in our regions. We're making our regions better places to live and work, and this of course includes Murray Bridge in my electorate of Barker. Murray Bridge is in fact one of the largest communities of my electorate. It's indeed known as a rural city. The township centres on the Murray River. It's a river that in this place we're quite familiar talking about because of its importance to so many communities dotted along the length of that mighty river, communities which rely on that water for their economic, social and environmental benefits. It's the lifeblood of many communities and towns in my electorate, and Murray Bridge is no exception. Murray Bridge is a beautiful part of the river, but over the past century-and-a-half the town has grown, shopping centres have been built and the river bank has not, in my view, been developed to its full potential.
Sturt Reserve is a wonderful open area that facilitates enjoyment of the river. It's home to the Murray Bridge Rowing Club, the Murray Bridge community club, the Murray Bridge Lawn Tennis Association and the popular Riverscape café, but it's in need of upgrade to realise the full socioeconomic potential of the riverfront. That's why our government has invested $200,000 that will support the new Murray Bridge war memorial, which is to be located at the Sturt Reserve. Interestingly, Murray Bridge has never had an appropriate war memorial, and it's our government, in partnership with the rural city Murray Bridge and the Murray Bridge RSL, that will deliver that for this community. This is important because it's obvious that we need to continue to recognise the contribution of our local veterans. In partnership with the local RSL and council, this new memorial will provide that opportunity at this improved location. The new memorial will be a place of peace, tranquillity, reflection and commemoration where future generations can pay their respects to those who have served our nation.
Our government is investing in this council project upgrade to the Sturt Reserve Precinct as well. We recently provided $1.35 million from our government's Building Better Regions Fund that will help deliver a $3 million project to reinvigorate the recreation precinct, which will include a new boat ramp and parking areas. This will help unlock tourism and community potential at the site and improve access to the Murray River and the heart of Murray Bridge.
The Building Better Regions Fund has also delivered funding for the Murray Bridge Rowing Club, located at the Sturt Reserve, for a regional rowing facility to be built there. This will not only be a regional rowing facility but I hope will become our state's rowing centre of excellence. And our government's Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program has helped see upgrades to the Murray Bridge Lawn Tennis Association clubrooms, located—you guessed it!—at Sturt Reserve.
These individual projects all contribute to an improved lifestyle in the Murraylands. They all find themselves at Sturt Reserve, because that is becoming very much the beating heart of Murray Bridge's social infrastructure. It's projects like these that make regional communities even better places to live, work and raise a family. I'm excited about the vision that the rural city of Murray Bridge has for Sturt Reserve, and I'm doing everything I can to make their vision a reality.
Our government is supporting community infrastructure through the Community Development Grants Program to promote stable, secure and viable local and regional economies. This program is funding a number of projects across local communities making a real difference to the lives of Australians everywhere, including in the small timber town in my electorate of Nangwarry. It's a town of roughly 500 people 30km north of Mount Gambia, and, although small, Nangwarry is large in community spirit.
The Nangwarry Saints footy and netty club are significant assets to the Nangwarry community. Once a powerhouse, winning four flags between 1993 and 1999, I'm disappointed to report to the House they haven't won a game for a while, but it makes no difference to the club's spirit or the importance of those clubs to that town. Understandably, community morale took a hit when a fire destroyed the Saint's clubrooms, chaired by the netball club, on 9 January 2019. It was an arson attack, and anger was raised. That being said, support from not just the Nangwarry community itself but the whole of the south-east region poured in. In fact, it came from across the state. There were funding programs, there were fundraising events and there was even a joint training session, with rival clubs coming to the Nangwarry oval to support their fellow teams.
Without clubrooms, members have used the Nangwarry swimming pool's facilities and the Nangwarry Forestry Museum for larger functions. However, I'm pleased to confirm our government is contributing $200,000 to the rebuild through our Community Development Grants Program, because our government knows how important this club is for that town and the south-east region. Like many regional towns, footy clubs are the central part of local communities. Nangwarry is no different. It has a 54-year proud history and is critically important to the future of Nangwarry. I am very much looking forward to the finalisation of those plans and shovels going in the ground.
I want to take this opportunity also to talk about work that I'm doing to support the local Limestone Coast Foodbank, which is based in Mount Gambier. Deputy Speaker Georganas, you know, as I do, that Foodbank is an exceptional organisation with locations all over the country. Its core concept is a simple one: to supply food to those in need, redistributing surplus goods that for various commercial reasons can't be sold or are surplus to requirements. In short, it's the perfect solution to a very real problem for many people struggling to put food on the table.
The Limestone Coast Foodbank began with the late Barry Maney OAM some 15 years ago. I'm proud to say I knew Barry, and he was someone who I very much looked up to in the community. Barry and his wife Shirley were instrumental in the establishment of the regional Foodbank. In my view it's Barry's greatest legacy to the city of Mount Gambier. Foodbank in Mount Gambier was first opened in 2005 and, since then, has distributed over a million kilograms of food to the residents of the Limestone Coast. In March last year our government announced funding to help Foodbank purchase, expand and renovate the premises they're currently in.
Foodbank SA continues to play a vital role in the Limestone Coast community as it grows its presence and distributes more and more food to people than ever before. Our government funding will be used to expand the coolroom and freezer capacity to accommodate more fresh fruit and vegetables as well as frozen products, including meat. We all know how important fresh fruit and vegetables are to all our diets but particularly for those people who are struggling to make ends meet.
To help offset the facility's operating cost, additional solar panels will also be installed using this funding. Not only is the federal government funding ensuring the Limestone Coast Food Hub remains a sustainable part of the Limestone Coast community but it will be able to increase the services offered by dint of the fact that we're providing this funding. This is yet another example of the Community Development Program promoting stable, secure, caring and giving communities. I congratulate all the volunteers at Foodbank Limestone Coast. I look forward to continuing to work with them to deliver for people in need.
Finally, I want to speak briefly about the Riverland Dinghy Derby, which takes place every year in the Riverland town of Renmark. The Riverland Dinghy Derby is a highlight on the social calendar for those living in the Riverland. It brings visitors from all around the country to compete or, as I did this year, to take the opportunity to watch. The event is said to have begun in 1981 when a few mates made a bet about how fast they could race some tinnies. I said recently, at the opening of this year's event, that I can't think of anything more Australian: blokes racing their tinnies, an event which has come to great heights but started as a bet between mates, no doubt over a beer, with one mate boasting to another that he was he could drive or navigate a tinnie faster than his mate.
In any event, that's when the dinghy derby started. Forty years later the event now attracts huge crowds of spectators along the creeks and river to watch drivers and navigators peel past snags, hidden logs and various course obstacles. One of the particular bends is called Carnage. There is Carnage 2, or New Carnage. It gives you an idea of the event. They are very brave drivers and navigators.
If I look at the club today it's hard to imagine whether anyone had an idea of what it was to become. This year over 100 competitors joined the race, which I was pleased to attend and officially open. The full weekend event has six rounds, from the Dash 4 Cash to the Hunchee, with five classes of entries, from standard to sports. A team of officials overseas each event, with the weekend culminating in the presentation of four trophies. I'm pleased to report that river safety is taken very seriously.
This is the kind of regional event that is great for local communities and their economies. It's why our government is investing in projects that support clubs like the Riverland Dinghy Club. On behalf of the government I was pleased, in the lead-up to the election, to announce $100,000 that will go towards the building of club rooms for the dinghy club. This increasingly popular event will benefit from the new infrastructure and have wider benefits for the Riverland community, helping to promote stable, secure and viable economies.
By highlighting these four local projects across a broad range of endeavours, for anyone who may be listening and those who subsequently may take the opportunity via Facebook post or other things, I hope to highlight that good government is about providing leadership at a national level but also at a local level. My electorate is a complex patchwork of communities. There are communities within regions, communities within communities. For example, the community of Renmark is a particularly strong one, which you're familiar with given your cultural links, Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas, but there are those within the Renmark community who are part of the dinghy derby community. That's so strong, in terms of community links, that it's almost a family. It is important that we provide support to these organisations because the volunteers who run events like the dinghy derby do it in their own time. They don't ask much in return. It's a particular boon for the Riverland and Renmark communities during the weekend of the dinghy derby. It fills the hotels; the bars are full; accommodation is brimming. They do it and ask very little in return. The very least we can do in support of these endeavours is to provide them with the infrastructure they need to make the volunteering they do so much easier.
That's exactly what the $100,000 for the Riverland Dinghy Club will do. It will provide the capital they need to redevelop their club rooms, which means that the current tin shed they're operating from—I visited it, but unfortunately we couldn't get inside because it was so full of the kind of equipment you need to run the event—will be laid out correctly. It will be a place for them to meet. It will be social capital for that community. This facility will be available to be used by other members of the Riverland and Renmark communities. A small investment from that capital means their volunteering is made easier, they're more likely to volunteer and the event is likely to be sustainable. It is exactly the sort of project we need to be investing in as a government.
I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2019-2020 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2019-2020. As I move around my community, it's very clear that there is probably one word that summarises the mood of the electorate, and that is 'uncertain'. There is grave uncertainty in many parts of Australia and, indeed, in many parts of my electorate of Greenway, where people are uncertain about nearly everything in their lives. They're uncertain about whether they will have any work the following week. They are uncertain about their kids' futures and what jobs they will have. They're uncertain about key infrastructure issues, particularly in the growing north-west part of my electorate, where once there were paddocks and farms. The number of houses going up in these areas is gathering pace every single week. So there is tremendous uncertainty about what that will mean for the quality of life of local residents.
It is the job of governments to ensure that that uncertainty is addressed with a plan that recognises the needs of local communities and their desire to have a quality of life that one would reasonably expect in the year 2020. It's therefore of great concern that we see what is happening under this Liberal government in the way the economy is floundering. You only have to look at a couple of the key facts in relation to economic indicators. Economic growth has slowed since the election last year, slowed since the now Prime Minister became Prime Minister and slowed since the Liberals came to office. Underemployment is high, with almost two million Australians looking for work or for more work. There is weak wages growth—and it has slowed even further. This government is presiding over the worst wages growth on record, and wages are growing at one-fifth of the pace of profits. Household living standards have declined under this government, with real household median income lower than it was in 2013.
As I move around my community, no-one is saying that they feel things are going well, no-one is saying they think that there is a plan in place, and no-one appears certain about the future. That impacts on different communities in different ways. As I'm sure with many other members of this place, I service an electorate that is very diverse. It has people who have some of the most challenging socioeconomic conditions, which only seem to be becoming exacerbated and worsening.
I have door-knocked people I represent and I have asked them how they are feeling, what they think government should be doing, and what needs they have and how I can respond to them. I continue to be overwhelmed by the number of people who call themselves part of the 'sandwich generation', which I mentioned in a speech a few months ago in this place: people who are around my age—around middle-age—who have their own children and who are looking after elderly parents, in some cases grandparents. So, in fact, they are the primary carers of essentially two different levels of their own family. Many of us are fortunate in that we have the support of families and the incomes to enable that to happen. But I don't know what happens to those individuals who don't have that support. I don't know what happens to those individuals who don't know how to reach out for help or have reached out for help and haven't been able to get it.
As I mentioned, the issue of underemployment is again one that continues to be exacerbated in our society. In another reminder of the structural issues in the labour market—as my colleague the member for Gorton pointed out—1.2 million Australians are looking for more work but are unable to find it and almost two million Australians are underutilised. They are looking for work or more work because the economy is floundering, as stated earlier. With an underemployment rate of 8.6 per cent and an underutilisation rate of 13.9 per cent, our most critical resource, the human capital of our society, is going to waste—and there is no plan to turn this around. There is no plan for those people who want to be hardworking Australians, who want to do the best for themselves and their families and get ahead—and that is a crying shame.
I also want to deal with the issue of healthcare—in this case the cost of seeing general practitioners. According to figures provided by the Department of Health, in my electorate of Greenway alone out-of-pocket costs to see a GP have increased 39 per cent since 2013. That figure alone is large, but, when you consider it in the context of all those other economic indicators that I mentioned, it is absolutely staggering. Specialist costs have risen even more, up 42 per cent in the same period. What does that mean? We're talking in monetary terms about an average cost of $94.59 to see a specialist. That's up from $66.65 since 2013. It is staggering, too, that only 29.9 per cent of people in Greenway are bulk-billed by specialists. So we're seeing thousands of local residents being slugged with higher costs each and every year.
I'm a great believer in primary health care. In one of my previous lives I had the privilege of serving on the board of the Western Sydney Area Health Service. It was there from very great minds that I learned the basics, and certainly it was a real insight into the economics of health. One thing that always stayed with me was being told about the importance of primary health care. It's something I never forgot and something I did not fully appreciate until I came to this place and saw what this government was inflicting upon Australians and the impact that it will have.
I say this from a very personal point of view. Around six years ago I went to see my GP, whom I had been seeing for a number of years. I hadn't been feeling too well for awhile, so he did a few tests and he basically said to me that I needed to do something really drastic with my health due to potential to have cancer because of family cancer history; diabetes, again, as a result of family history of diabetes; and also heart disease. So I needed to do a number of things. For me this was very radical. It was not a plan that I thought I could put in place. I was a relatively new mother still, I had a busy job and was busy with my day-to-day life and my family, but I decided to take on his advice. I was put on a care plan. I had referrals to a number of specialists. Because I'm of means, because I'm educated and because I took on board that advice, I was able to implement the plan that my GP set out for me. As a result, today I'm actually far healthier than I was six years ago.
I make this point because I believe we need to not only cherish our general practitioners but promote primary health care much more than we do in Australia. The unfortunate reality is that the record cost of health care means that many Australians skip seeing their GP and that we have a system that is set up for episodic or one-off care rather than long-term care. The alternative, of course, is to see a GP or a specialist only when things go wrong and to fix it there and then, not to have a long-term plan for prevention and certainly not a plan that enables you to address what it can potentially become: chronic disease, even more expensive to treat.
Western Sydney, my area, is known as the diabetes capital of Australia, most unfortunately. Coronary disease and smoking rates are still too high. I firmly believe that this requires a different model of care. It needs to be ongoing, it needs to be comprehensive and it needs to address all of those health issues in a very integrated way across health professionals.
I understand, even from speaking to my own GP and the specialists to whom he's referred me, that they want to practise in this way. They want this new model of care, but instead what we've seen is the freezing of GP payments as this government has done for four years. Unfortunately, it's that kind of backward-thinking attitude that is not going to address these crises in healthcare, particularly in Western Sydney, which has some of those chronic conditions, as I mentioned.
In summing up, there were comments made in this chamber last week by the Treasurer, one of the most senior members of the government, and I'm not going to let them go unchecked. I can appreciate why many Australians of Hindu faith have been offended by these comments by the Treasurer in question time and by the behaviour of those who sit behind him. The Treasurer referenced several themes pertinent to Hinduism that have caused offence to many believers. I know this because, as a regular feature of my role as the member for Greenway, I spend time with several hundred Australians of Hindu faith every week and, indeed, even over the weekend. I deal with them in different ways, as small-business owners and as parents in their local communities. All of them are hardworking Australians who want to do the right thing. Hinduism is one of the fastest-growing religions in Australia, and indeed some measurements say it is the fastest. There are 20 times more Hindus in Australia now than there were 30 years ago. In the 2016 census, the percentage of Hindus in Australia stood at 1.9 per cent. I'm sure that that has increased. In my electorate of Greenway it is 12.1 per cent, a significant difference demonstrating that the diversity of west and north west Sydney is only enhanced by Hindu Australians.
I'm not surprised by the statement made by the Hindu Council of Australia over the weekend, a highly respected and active organisation. Just to be clear about what they're saying—they don't mince their words here:
What is more unsettling to the Hindu Community is that the Floor of the House, the shrine of democracy, was used as the stage to disrespect the Hindu community … This behaviour shows lack of respect to the Hindu community and undermines deep faith and multiculturism that we all, as Australians, are so proud about.
The sentiments of the Hindu community are deeply hurt. They have an action point, too:
We also call upon the Liberal Party to clarify where it stands with respect to Mr Josh's remarks.
I want to make it perfectly clear in this place that I don't care what juvenile or inane comments are employed by government MPs as they go about their business in this place—in fact, I expect it. If you're looking for answers from this government, I'm not surprised that question time is considered by so many Australians to be one of the biggest wastes of time. What I do care about is the community that I represent. I care about the fact that Hindu Australians come to this place and invite us to celebrate Diwali with them. They invited us only weeks ago to celebrate Pongal, Tamil New Year, with them, just to name a few. The engagement that I have had with Hindu Australians, even before I came to this place, within Parliament House and outside it has been nothing short of welcoming and hospitable, and this is how Hindu Australians have been rewarded.
We need to do better as a country overall. This is not some flash-in-the-pan issue. Three years ago I called for greater sensitivity and respect for the Hindu community, for the way in which Lord Ganesha was featured in an advertising campaign marketing lamb. As I said at the time, I hope to see greater sensitivity and respect for the Hindu community and Lord Ganesha in advertising and marketing communications in future. That's what it's about, a bit of respect and a bit of sensitivity. I remain of the view that it is not too much to expect from our elected leaders, where multiculturalism is being challenged from many sides—including, as the boss of ASIO said only last week, by factors such as right-wing extremism. One of the most senior members of the government in this place should be well aware of the offence that is being caused to Australians of Hindu faith.
Over the weekend, I was delighted to celebrate, in just one of many celebrations that I am invited to and which I accept with such gratitude, the dedication of a new Jain temple in Western Sydney. It will be the first Jain temple in Australia. They have been working towards this since 2007. The Sydney Shakti temple is about to open after more than a decade of building. I congratulate them and thank them for their contribution to our society.