Senate debates

Tuesday, 9 October 2012


Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Bill 2012; Second Reading

1:33 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to indicate that the Australian Greens, of course, will not be supporting schedule 1 of the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Bill 2012 that is before us, as my colleague senator Rachel Siewert has indicated earlier in her contribution. This route goes to the heart of what sort of country we want to live in in Australia. It literally goes to the heart of what the purpose of a budget is. A budget and an economy are nothing of themselves. Budgets and economic tools are only there to deliver for the community at large. There are only two real things in the world: people and nature. We developed economic tools to govern that relationship so that it would be a sustainable one in the longer term and to govern the relationship between people. At the heart of the relationship between people needs to be equity—equal opportunity for all. Surely that goes to the heart of what is the point of an economic system and its economic set of tools. What we have here is economic tools delivering appalling outcomes for the community. If that is the case then the tools need to be changed. We need to be looking at what the indicators are of what we want to be measuring in Australia to determine whether we are successfully having tools that deliver in the broadest sense—so that we have ecological sustainability and a healthy and happy community into the longer term.

The bill before us impacts 100,000 single parents, 85 per cent of whom are women, who are dropping from the payment they have to a Newstart allowance payment, which puts them at the poverty line. They are going to lose between $60 and $100 a week when you take into account not only the loss in payment but also the tax thresholds. You have a point where you are saying that in order to reach a budget surplus, which is a political surplus, you are prepared to put 100,000 people into poverty. I ask you, Acting Deputy President Cameron: how is that justified on what we hear time and time again from the Prime Minister about Labor values and working families? How is putting people into poverty a Labor value? How is people putting into poverty a Labor value when at the same time you see the ongoing areas where we could be raising money, like getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies for a start; like blocking the loophole in the MRRT—any number of ways we could be raising money. But, no, in order to reach this surplus, the government is prepared to put 100,000 single parents into poverty.

Now let us go to this issue that somehow that will help people get jobs. We know that driving people into poverty will preclude them from employment. It actually costs money to become job ready. In fact, the only increase in employment support that ACOSS have been able to identify in the budget is $3 million to extend a telephone career counselling service. They go on to say that they understand that the increased allocation for JET childcare assistance reflects higher demand for an existing childcare subsidy, not an extension of access to that program. The fact is if you are unemployed and you are going to have even less money to be able to be job ready then you will be less likely to be able to achieve employment.

Let us go back and talk about what will happen to the children who will be affected when the single parents, 85 per cent of whom I have said a moment ago are women, are in these circumstances. I would like the Prime Minister to tell Australians how the children of single parents who are now being forced into poverty are going to have equal opportunity with other children in Australian society. The reality is they will not—and equality of opportunity is not only important in terms of a value. Let me put a monetary figure on it. We know that in countries where the gap between the rich and the poor gets wider and wider there are many increased costs in terms of the level of public safety, for example, and we also know about the health care and other associated costs that go into the mix as a consequence of where you have gated communities of the wealthy and other communities of the very poor. That is where this is headed in Australia and that is what I find so offensive about what the government is doing. It cannot be justified. I understand that there was a vigorous debate in the Labor Party on this particular issue and I understand that the views were reasonably evenly divided in relation to the matter.

Nevertheless, the test of this will be to see who actually crosses the floor on it. We heard from Senator Back a little while ago about how appalling it is to drive people into poverty—and he was absolutely correct that it is—but, Senator Back, will you vote against schedule 1? That is the point. It is all very well to rail against poverty but when push comes to shove and the vote is called on this, who is going to vote to prevent the 100,000 single parents losing this payment? Who is going to vote to prevent them being pushed into poverty? I think everybody concedes that Newstart is actually driving people into poverty to the point where you have parliamentary committees having met in this place and having said that this will drive people into poverty with, in fact, those committees saying the government should delay this legislation until the committee looking into Newstart, for example, actually reports.

Then you have got the humiliating scenario where the Australian Council of Social Service, the National Welfare Rights Centre, the St Vincent de Paul Society, the National Council for Single Mothers and their Children, Women Everywhere Advocating Violence Elimination, the Council for Single Mothers and their Children Victoria, Women's Legal Services New South Wales and the Human Rights Law Centre have become so desperate that they have all been getting together to send a letter to a United Nations special rapporteur over the federal government's decision to bring on this legislation against the advice of those parliamentary committees. In that letter it is pointed out, of course, that the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights had already advised the government to delay the bill, citing major reservations. One of them was:

• If Newstart combined with other benefits is not sufficient to provide an adequate standard of living for affected individuals, the measures risk being a violation of human rights under article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.

How humiliating is it in a global sense for a rich country like Australia to be risking violation of article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights because we are driving people into poverty and the people being driven into poverty are not only single parents but also children? Where does that leave us in terms of global standing in the UN system? We have already embarrassed this nation with violation of human rights when it comes to the treatment of refugees. Now we are going to humiliate ourselves again by being in violation of human rights when it comes to economic, social and cultural rights.

The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights was also not convinced that the affected single parents would be able to maintain access to appropriate levels of social security support if placed on Newstart and, as a result, it argued it would be premature for the government to introduce these measures prior to the completion of the Newstart inquiry. This is really an extraordinary situation and I think it puts paid to any notion when the Labor Party stand up and say that they stand for Labor values and that the Labor values somehow go to equality of opportunity, a decent life for all, minimising the gap between the rich and the poor, and facilitating people getting into meaningful work, with the human dignity that is associated with that. They cannot claim to be promoting all of these things if they legislate to save $700 million off the backs of single parents and their children. It is disgraceful that this is being driven through this Senate at a time when parliamentary committees have said quite clearly this is premature and they need to look a bit more at what is going on with Newstart.

Actually, they really do not need to look any further into what is going on with Newstart. We have heard from practically all the social justice agencies in the country, who have submitted that Newstart is actually entrenching poverty and acting as a barrier to people looking for work. We have heard that from Dr Cassandra Goldie, the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Council of Social Services, we have heard it from the Salvation Army and we have heard it from many others. The Salvation Army submitted that:

Newstart allowance is inequitable and inadequate as it is lower than pensions for retirees, below the poverty line, and has a more restricted earning threshold compared to the Parenting Payment.

That is what this parliament is going to vote on, and I think it has come to the point where people need to put their vote where their values are.

It is no justification to say, 'I fought this in the caucus' or 'I fought that in the party room, but ultimately I am going to vote for what the party line is.' In the future when we see a single parent with their child and we see the poverty line consequences of actually taking this money from them, every single one of us who votes in support of this legislation has voted for that outcome. That is why the Greens will not be supporting this bill. We think that if the government is so committed to the surplus it should find money elsewhere—for example, by taking away the fossil fuel subsidies, by blocking that loophole in the MRRT. There are any number of ways by which we might raise money. But raising money on the back of single parents and their children is a disgraceful comment on the state of social justice, on the state of generosity and on the state of equity in this country.

I would defy any senator to take a child from your own family and go and live for a week on the amount of money that is going to be allocated, and see how you do trying to clothe and feed a child plus put a roof over their head in the current circumstances. We know that is poverty and we know exactly what we are doing—and there is no excuse for it. And there is no pretence about it either. Let us not have any suggestion that people here do not know what they are doing. Of course, everybody knows what they are doing. You only have to go to any one of those providers of support and welfare in the community who will tell you exactly what this parliament will be doing.

It will be a very sad day for Australia if this legislation gets through. It will also be a line in the sand in terms of the community and what they think political parties stand for. I can tell you that the Greens stand for equity. We want equal opportunity for people in Australia. We want to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in this country. And we want to make sure that the economic tools that we have actually measure the things that count—that is, the level of education, the level of homelessness, the level of health and happiness in the community and sustainability in terms of our engagement with the environment. They are the sorts of things that are basic to everybody—food, shelter, clothing and being able to live on a planet that is able to sustain us.

If our current economic tools do not deliver those outcomes, there is something wrong with the tools and we should change them. We should not drive people into poverty in order to meet the strictures of reaching a budget surplus simply because the government cannot withstand the attacks from the coalition by not meeting its political surplus, when every economist in the country would be saying: 'Look at the state of the economy. The Reserve Bank is cutting interest rates. Can't you see things are slowing?' It is inappropriate to continue with this obsession with the surplus and this refusal to raise money from people who can afford to pay and instead take it from children of single parents. It is disgraceful.

We will not be supporting this bill and nor will we be listening to the excuses of people who say, 'We voted for it because it was the party line.' This is actually a matter of true and core value. What do you value as a person? What sort of society do you want in this country? That is what this piece of legislation stands for. It goes to the heart of the matter. Stop people on a street corner anywhere in the country and ask, 'Do you think single parent payments should be reduced to the point of Newstart so that we drive people into poverty?' Do you think people on street corners would say that they thought that was a good idea—especially if you put to them that we could raise that $700 million by removing a fossil fuel subsidy or that we could get that $700 million by not repaying to the big miners the royalty increases that states might have made? Just about everybody on a street corner would go for the latter options and say, 'Raise the money elsewhere; don't take it from the backs of children.'

This is really a moral issue. It is a totally moral issue and it is a matter of choice about what sort of country we want to live in. The Greens are very clear about the direction we want to see the country go in—and this is totally the wrong direction.


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