House debates

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Grievance Debate

Economy, Income Support Payments

5:54 pm

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In this grievance debate, where we get the opportunity to raise issues of ongoing frustration to our local constituents, I have a number of issues I'd like to put before the chamber tonight. The first is a more general problem, which has been developing since the election of the Abbott government. It's the fact that people in our communities are seeing an ongoing stagnation of their wages, an ongoing level of unemployment and underemployment, and an ongoing level of increasing cost of living. This is putting pressure on individuals, on young couples trying to make a start in life, and on families in general.

In particular, in my region in recent times, I think about the impact of the rising cost of housing and the lack of rental availability. What is available is expensive. The cost of housing has an impact not only on the budgets of people who are on government support payments but also on people who are working and often earning reasonably good wages. They are feeling very squeezed.

If you imagine many of the young families in my electorate, and I'm sure in colleagues' electorates across the country, where both of the couple are working, over the last seven years they've seen no real increase in their wage. In fact the national figures tell us that real wages have gone backwards—so it's not just stagnant; they've gone backwards. They're not seeing an increase in the income coming into the household, yet they've seen increases in their child-care fees, health-care costs and housing costs.

It seems to me that the government has absolutely no plan for supporting young families and young couples to manage this situation. Too many young couples now tell me they've given up on the idea of ever owning a home, and many of them are also now saying, 'We can't even contemplate starting a family.' These are real economic pressures on individuals in our communities that I think should be on the mind of the government. Certainly I'm on the record already as being critical of the government's proposed industrial relations changes, because they'll do quite the opposite: they'll put downward pressure on wages and cause cuts.

There are other areas where the government needs to look and not only act, but be effective in acting on the costs of living for people. Child care is a great example. The government made child-care reforms with the promise and hope that it would bring down child-care costs, but it has actually done exactly the opposite. So, particularly on behalf of young couples and young families in my electorate, I would very much like to put on record to the government that they need to look far more seriously at the realities of household economies in communities. People are struggling more and more each year as these issues are not addressed.

The second issue I want to raise in the grievance debate on behalf of constituents is that if you do have to interact with government agencies these days across support payments, whether that's older people on pensions, whether it's people who become unemployed, whether it's people relying on disability payments—there's a wide range of payments that we make—if you have to engage with a government department, I'm getting—and I can only assume most officers are—more and more frustration from people about how long it's taking to get their matters dealt with. We've seen waiting times increase year after year. I'm regularly getting people contacting me who are waiting for their age pension to be processed. This was something that never happened when I was first elected. I'm not being party political—under the Howard government I didn't see much of that sort of thing being raised. But it happens now quite regularly, and it has been for a while.

I would say to the government, 'Have a look at the staffing levels and expertise in government departments.' I think this is sometimes feeding into, in the worst cases, people getting wrong information, which can have quite serious implications for them. There is the blowout in the waiting times to have things processed. The immigration department is another example where you're seeing long waiting times. Someone puts in an application for a partner visa or a parent visa—those sorts of things—and they say, 'It's been 12 months and I haven't heard anything.' In the meantime, on the website it says the time to process them is now 24 months. These are people's lives. If you're waiting for a partner visa, you might not want to start a family until you actually know you've got the visa situation sorted out. This is affecting people's lives. In my office, day in and day out, across a number of government departments we are seeing people expressing great frustration. The other one we get regularly is about citizenship. Wonderfully, somebody has decided they want to be an Australian citizen. They're enthusiastic and go through the whole process and they wait a year or 18 months to get citizenship sorted out. These are the sorts of issues, day in and day out, that my local constituents are coming to my office about.

I think this is something the government needs to consider. I'm absolutely convinced that the people who work in these departments are dedicated individuals doing the best they can and working very hard. It's no reflection on them. But, when you've got those sorts of waiting times happening, you have to ask yourself: why is this occurring? As a government, one would think you're responsible for this and you need to think about what you need to do to address it. I suspect a great deal of it comes back to staffing cuts, outsourcing and the sorts of policies that are not ensuring that the constituents of our electorates across the country get the service that they actually need in a timely and efficient manner. On behalf of all of those constituents, whether they're waiting for pensions, waiting for youth allowance payments, waiting for citizenship applications, waiting for partner applications, and all the different types of services, it is now a consistent message across all of the government departments that people are getting frustrated because of the blowouts in waiting times whenever they're dealing with government.

The final point I want to make as a grievance on behalf of my constituents is about the aged-care sector. I have spoken about this before. In my office, we took a bit of time off over Christmas and New Year, as I'm sure everyone did. The first phone message that my office replied to when we came back was from a gentleman who couldn't get his aged-care package. He needed his home-care package and hadn't been able to get it. This is an ongoing and consistent issue. I'm sure it's not just in Labor or Independent offices; I'm sure it's across the country. If an older person is assessed as needing help to maintain themselves in their home, one would think that, once that box is ticked, it would come pretty quickly. They've already been identified as being vulnerable. It's taking many months, if not a year or more, for people to get the package they've been assessed as needing. What are the implications of that? There are their families. Women have said to me that they've given up work because they couldn't sustain a job and look after an elderly parent, even though they'd been assessed as being eligible for support. The pressure on families increases and there is the vulnerability of the older person, who may end up in residential care when they could have stayed in their home for much longer. All of these implications have serious costs for the family, for the community and for government, all because the government has not bitten the bullet and found a resolution. Dripping out an extra 10,000 places every time there's a complaint about it is not good enough. The royal commission said it needed urgent attention and that waiting lists had to be knocked down, because all we're doing is putting on 10,000 extra places and another 10,000 to 20,000 people are coming in. I've spoken about it regularly on behalf of my constituents, but the aged-care sector needs urgent and serious attention from the government.