Thursday, 30 November 2023
Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee Bill 2023; Consideration in Detail
I appreciate the minister's comments yesterday, but I'm disappointed, and having talked to people since yesterday I've come across many disappointed people who feel very strongly that, unless the issue of poverty is explicitly addressed in the way in which the committee considers economic inclusion, then one of the matters affecting some of the most excluded people in the country won't be dealt with.
I gave the figure of 3.3 million Australians living below the poverty line, including almost one million children. Surely everything we do in this parliament about domestic policy should be looked at through the prism of poverty and what we can do to lift people out of poverty. Spending government money to lift people out of poverty is often a very good investment. It can lift people up, ensure that they can enjoy a good level of health care, ensure they can be healthier, ensure they can eat properly and ensure they can have a safe and secure roof over their head.
Along the way, we should take the opportunity to look at those drivers of poverty in this country. There's the fact that our supermarkets are charging record high prices at the same time as making record high profits. There's the fact that the banks are charging what in recent years are record high interest rates and saying they've got no say in it—that it's a matter for the Reserve Bank and the way it sets the rates, when that's not the case. Banks have room to move. The fact that they raise interest rates so quickly but lower interest rates so slowly at a time when they're making record profits is something that needs to be looked at, including by the economic inclusion committee. There's the fact that the energy companies are charging near record high prices for various forms of energy at the same time as making record high profits.
There are very simple reasons for the poverty in this country, and unless the economic inclusion committee is tasked to look at all those drivers of poverty, I fear poverty will continue at rates we're seeing now. I made a reference yesterday to the Central Land Council and communication from them just yesterday, and they're observing that the rates of poverty in areas they're responsible for are going up. They're going up in one of the richest countries in the world.
Through you, Deputy Speaker, to the minister: I do note that you will not be supporting the amendments, but I do ask again that the government consider subsequently amending this bill to ensure that the economic inclusion committee do look at the issue of poverty and that they are explicitly tasked to look at things through the prism of poverty when they look at everything from banks to supermarkets to energy companies to housing to medical care and so on.
by leave—I move amendments (1) to (8) as circulated in my name together:
(1) Clause 2, page 2 (table item 1), omit the table item, substitute:
(2) Clause 8, page 6 (line 5), at the end of subclause (2), add:
; (h) the process and timeline for developing and achieving national poverty-reduction targets, or, if those targets are already developed, the progress towards achieving those targets.
(3) Clause 8, page 6 (lines 15 to 19), omit subclause (5), substitute:
Timing of report
(5) The Committee must give the report at least 15 business days before the Commonwealth Government budget is delivered in the House of Representatives.
(4) Clause 8, page 7 (lines 1 to 4), omit subclause (9), substitute:
(9) The Minister must cause a report given under this section to be published on the Department's website within 5 business days after the day it is given under this section.
(5) Clause 11, page 8 (after line 12), after the heading to subclause (2), insert:
(1A) In appointing the Chair and other members of the Committee, the Minister must ensure that at least 5 members are persons directly affected by poverty.
(6) Clause 11, page 8 (line 14), omit "each member", substitute "each of the members not covered by subsection (1A)".
(7) Clause 11, page 8 (lines 29 and 30), omit paragraph (3)(a), substitute:
(a) ensure that at least half of the members of the Committee are women; and
(aa) after consulting bodies representing Indigenous persons, ensure that the membership of the Committee consists of a sufficient representation of Indigenous persons; and
(8) Clause 14, page 10 (lines 3 to 8), omit the clause, substitute:
14 Remuneration and allowances
(1) A member of the Committee is to be paid the remuneration that is determined by the Remuneration Tribunal. If no determination of that remuneration by the Tribunal is in operation, the member is to be paid the remuneration that is prescribed by the regulations.
(2) A member of the Committee is to be paid the allowances that are prescribed by the regulations.
(3) Subsections 7(9) and (13) of the Remuneration Tribunal Act 1973 do not apply in relation to the office of a member of the Committee.
Note: The effect of this subsection is that remuneration or allowances of the members of the Committee will be paid out of money appropriated by an Act other than the Remuneration Tribunal Act 1973.
(4) This section has effect subject to the Remuneration Tribunal Act 1973 (except as provided by subsection (3)).
The amendments I am moving today to the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee Bill 2023 do five things to strengthen the bill and ensure the government receives and listens to the best possible advice on ways to lift economic inclusion and reduce disadvantage. I want to thank the Australian Council of Social Services not only for the work in advocacy they do every day for all Australians, most importantly our most vulnerable, but also specifically for their help in identifying the ideas I am about to present. I'd also like to thank Senator Pocock for his work in advocating for this committee and the member Andrew Wilkie for the work he has done here today already and to congratulate the minister, Minister Rishworth, for making this legislation a reality.
The establishment of this committee, and the work it may be tasked with doing, has the potential to significantly impact Australia's social policy framework in a positive way which transcends any one government. But this will only happen if it is set up to function effectively, with the right processes in place to ensure its advice is heeded. In this context, then, the first amendment I am moving will require the committee to report on defined national poverty reduction targets. If the purpose of this committee is to help our government and this parliament shift the dial then we must know not just what we are currently dealing with but where we are trying to get to. Improving policy to eradicate poverty for all people in this country should be a central part of the committee's remit. As we are already seeing, growing inequality undermines social cohesion and is detrimental to economic growth. It is pivotal, therefore, that the very committee tasked with providing independent advice to the government on economic inclusion and how to tackle disadvantage put poverty reduction front and centre. My amendments task the committee with setting out the process and time line for the development of national poverty targets and measures and reporting on the progress made to achieve those targets.
Secondly, these amendments require the committee's report to be released to the public at least two weeks before the budget. As we know, the interim Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee was established earlier this year pending this legislation being passed. Yet its primary recommendation—that 'the government, as a first priority, commit to a substantial increase in the base rates of the JobSeeker payment and related working age payments'—was not implemented in the most recent federal budget. Similarly, the interim committee's call for the scrapping of the activity test for child care subsidies went unheeded. This shows us there is a real risk that the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee's recommendations will be ignored by the government, and it is imperative that the committee's report be made public at least two weeks before the budget to give the public, individuals, peak bodies, NGOs and social services time to consider the committee's recommendations and then monitor which are taken up come budget day.
Thirdly, these amendments require that the committee be composed of people with lived experience of poverty. While efforts are being made to ensure that a diverse range of experts sit on the committee, the perspectives of a peak employer group, a business association or an academic are not the same of those of people with real lived experience of poverty and economic disadvantage. Only a woman actually living in a car knows exactly why she is there and why there is no other option, just as only a young person trying to survive in a city while seeking work knows what it's like to struggle, and only an older Australian trying to balance their pension across competing priorities knows what it's like to go without.
To ensure people from all walks of life and all socioeconomic backgrounds can become committee members, these amendments provide for committee numbers to be remunerated. Making committee membership a paid position reduces the risk of people not being able to afford to participate or having limited capacity to participate due to a lack of resources.
Finally, these amendments ensure there is gender equality and Indigenous representation by requiring that 50 per cent of the committee be composed of women and requiring sufficient Indigenous representation on the committee as determined through consultation with Indigenous representative bodies.
My community of North Sydney and I strongly believe everyone deserves respect and a fair go no matter their background. We can have healthy, productive, thriving and inclusive societies, but to achieve this we must address the root cause of disadvantage, look for ways to ensure economic and social inclusion for all and provide adequate social security safety nets. That's why I welcome the establishment of a committee to provide advice to the government ahead of every federal budget on ways to boost economic inclusion and tackle disadvantage. It is an excellent opportunity to improve policymaking and outcomes for the Australians with the least. But to achieve this the committee must be diverse, independent, transparent, empowered and respected. If my amendments are not taken up today in this place, I call on the minister—through you, Mr Speaker—to remain open to ways to further improve this legislation and develop it in ways that enable tangible, measurable outcomes. (Time expired)
I'd like to thank the member for North Sydney for her interest in this bill and her passion for advocating for our most vulnerable Australians. I acknowledge her commitment to that, but the government won't be supporting these amendments. I'll walk through the reasons why the government won't be supporting these amendments.
Firstly, when it comes to committee members being remunerated, as is the case currently the committee members are appointed because of their expertise.
Often they have full-time work in an advisory capacity. It has not been, and never was, intended for them to be remunerated. However, the government does recognise that for the advisory committee to do its work that it does need resources to carry out its work and is providing $8.7 million in funding over the forward estimates to support the committee to execute its functions, including research, consultation and secretariat support.
The other amendments, being the measures of poverty—while I recognise the measures of poverty in the spirit that the member for North Sydney has put forward, poverty is a complex issue and the government has a very broad range of metrics to ensure different circumstances of people can be considered in assessing their wellbeing. The government has moved to measuring those different measures of wellbeing, including through our development of the Measuring What Matters framework. Our bill supports the committee to provide advice on a wide range of matters relevant to economic inclusion, including trends of inequality and poverty in Australia—as they have reported already in their first report—and to make international comparisons.
In terms of the timing of the committee's report, we do need the committee to provide advice with adequate time for government to consider it as part of its budget deliberations. A specific timeframe of at least 15 days ahead of a budget, as proposed by the member for North Sydney, would mean that the committee could deliver its advice potentially only three weeks ahead of the budget. This is just simply not time enough for government to have any serious consideration of the committee's advice.
In relation to the publication of the committee's advice, I note the government bill does require the Minister for Social Services to publicly publish the findings of the committee on the Department of Social Services' website. At the beginning of this process, the government has committed to do this at least 14 days ahead of the budget as we did with this year's report, and that commitment from the government has not changed, so we won't be supporting those amendments.
In terms of the characteristics of the committee, I would like to reassure the member for North Sydney that we recognise that the membership of the expert committee must reflect the diverse experiences and expertise necessary for considering the complex and multifaceted issues of economic inclusion and disadvantage. Our bill does require that in making appointments the minister responsible should have regard to reflecting the diversity of the general Australian community. It also specifies membership, including representatives and organisations which advocate for or consists of individuals with lived experience from the community sector.
Importantly, I would like to say that lived experience is critical to informing the committee, and that is why the government has provided funding for the committee to carry out its work to consult with those with lived experience, to consider and listen to the perspectives of what is a broad range of people who are experiencing economic exclusion and disadvantage and, importantly, to hear about their experiences in different parts of the country and what would help them.
While we won't be supporting the amendments from the member for North Sydney, I can reassure her that the government takes these issues very seriously. We won't be supporting these amendments but we will, of course, when it comes to appointments, think very carefully about the appointments to the permanent committee and ensure that they do represent the diversity of the Australian community.
I want to thank the minister for her response to the amendments as proposed by myself and my community, and I would just take a moment to reflect back to the minister and this government the point that it is one thing to provide budget for this community to operate but it is another thing to ensure that those who have a permanent seat on this committee actually are those who have lived experience in this space.
I refer again to my speech as I tabled these amendments the concepts that only a woman living in a car knows why she's there, only a young person trying to live in the city like in my electorate of North Sydney on JobSeeker why they look for work knows what that is like and only an older Australian currently trying to juggle their life under what we classify as an appropriate pension knows exactly what they are foregoing week on week to ensure that they can afford other things.
Academics and heads of organisations are one form of people. I pay no disrespect to them in terms of the knowledge and expertise they have, but I think involving those with lived experience at the heart of this on a day-to-day basis, not just in a passing, consulting fashion, would significantly improve this committee.
To that point, I return to the fact that those people are the people who will not have the financial resources to participate in this. So, again, while I acknowledge that $8.7 million has been set aside over forward budgets, I would suggest that people like me will be looking for reports on how that budget is expended and whether part of that funding is used to enable those who are most vulnerable in our community to participate in this process. It could be compensating them for turning up for meetings or their travel arrangements. I think that would be an incredibly appropriate use of funding in this point of view. I think Australians would support the minister and the government in doing just that.