Thursday, 29 November 2018
Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Promoting Sustainable Welfare) Bill 2018; Second Reading
Voters in this country very shortly are going to be facing an election, and Australian voters have a clear choice to make. I hope Australians are paying attention to what's happening in this chamber today, and to the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Promoting Sustainable Welfare) Bill 2018, because there are some very instructive lessons that might help them make their decisions when they go to the polling booths early next year. Before us we have a piece of legislation that every single Australian who is progressive, who cares about helping the vulnerable, who cares about a social safety net, which is part of the backbone of this country, and who cares about the role of government in protecting the vulnerable should be paying attention to.
They have a choice. They can turf out this government, and they're probably not surprised that we're seeing a piece of legislation like this from the Liberal-National Party. Sadly, going back to 2013, to the zombie budget cuts, the cruel and heartless agenda of, at that time, Senator Cormann and Mr Joe Hockey, this is exactly what we saw then. Clearly, the Liberal-National Party haven't changed their spots in five years. They haven't learnt their lessons. Certainly in my home state of Tasmania, where the so-called three amigos were all turfed out because three electorates had some of the most vulnerable people in this country, they clearly haven't learnt their lesson. But that's not surprising. I'm a bit of a cynic, having been in this chamber for a few years now. That ideology and philosophy are firmly embedded within the Liberal Party.
But I am surprised that Labor are supporting this. We've heard some fantastic contributions from my colleagues today. I'm not going to go into the detail, but I do want to raise a point that Australians need to think about. Those who care about a progressive country, those who care about the role of government in looking after the most vulnerable and about managing this country so that everybody has a fair go, need to remember this legislation and remember that the Labor Party in government are capable of doing exactly what the Liberal-National Party have done in government. They need an influence in this chamber, the Senate, to hold the Labor Party to account, and that's exactly what the Greens are doing today. That's what we've done since we've been in the Senate, since the early 1990s, and that's what we will continue to do.
This is exactly the example they need to look at to understand that parties of government will do what parties of government do: make decisions that are in their self-interest. In the interest of getting elected, they will put their own interests ahead of the interests of the people, especially vulnerable people—essentially a 'whatever it takes' approach to getting elected.
One point of difference in the contribution today that I want to make is that, in the context of the debate today, it's very important to note a report this morning in The Age, in the Fairfax media, that the government are planning to bring forward over $10 billion of personal income tax cuts for medium- and high-income Australians—income tax cuts that the Greens opposed when they were first proposed by the government in their last budget. The idea is that somehow we will now take our $200 billion fiscal war chest—that's the way it's been described in this article—and reward high-income earners in this country and continue to lock in inequality, and this is when we're taking a billion dollars, through this legislation, away from some of the most vulnerable people in our country. It's a stark contrast. The motivations behind this are very clear, in my books. The government are going to run a campaign to get themselves elected. That's what governments and political parties do. They're going to offer Australians an inducement: to take a tax cut and vote for them.
The question I have today is: what are the Labor Party going to do when these tax cuts come before this parliament? Labor have said that they won't support these tax cuts to medium- and high-income earners because they're too far into the future—they're in the never-never. They're not taking them seriously. If the government do bring them forward in their budget next year—and we have been told that the budget is likely to be on 3 April, if the calendar stays as is—then it's very clear that we will need to make a decision, if the legislation comes before this chamber or even if it doesn't. The voters will want to know how the major parties, the minor parties and the crossbench will vote on bringing forward tax cuts. So Labor have to think long and hard about this. If the political debate is going to be around those tax cuts, and that's clearly going to be a major campaign for the Liberal Party to get themselves elected, we will continually remind the Australian people and the Labor Party that they voted for a piece of legislation today to take a billion dollars away from some of the country's most vulnerable people while it's well known that we are entering a period of fiscal stability and fiscal surplus, when there is money available to help the most vulnerable people in this country. Decisions are being made by politicians and political parties in their own self-interest to give tax cuts to high-income Australians when it's a time when we can actually afford to look after our most vulnerable.
Senator Siewert has consistently raised the issue of Newstart, and she did so very eloquently in this chamber this morning. Seventy-five dollars a week is what the Greens want to see as an increase in Newstart. It is not enough to live on and it's a particularly big issue in my home state of Tasmania. In the north of Tasmania we saw, during the Braddon by-election, that the issue of raising Newstart was very important for voters. We know that raising Newstart can also stimulate the economy. It can be good for small businesses and good for the economy because that money is spent directly in local economies. It's not discretionary expenditure; it's usually money that goes straight to essentials, so it has a very direct impact on stimulating a local economy as well as helping the most vulnerable. So we have money to increase Newstart; we have money, for God's sake, to look after immigrants in this country when they arrive and they're vulnerable. We don't need to do this. We can afford not to do this.
For those of you who aren't interested in the values based propositions in this debate, at least think about the economic proposition. This country doesn't need to do this. We can afford to look after migrants when they come to Australia. Migrants have helped build this nation. We all know that. We're well represented in this chamber and in the other place by people who have come to this country and have contributed. Senator Faruqi spoke very passionately about this earlier. Why are we doing this? We're doing this because this is dog-whistle politics—taking money off the most vulnerable at a time when it's absolutely not necessary to do so. We've got to make a very strong statement about our priorities as politicians, as senators, as individuals and, of course, as members of different political parties.
I'll just state finally that the policies and priorities of my party have never wavered. We will look after the vulnerable, and we will find ways to pay for it. We will have responsible policies that can raise revenue and help look after this nation's most vulnerable. Right here, right now, this country is about to go into a period where we will have extra money; we do have higher receipts than expected. We should be thinking now about how we can look after this nation's most vulnerable, not getting together to pass legislation like this. It is totally unnecessary. It is totally uncalled for. It is dog-whistle politics at its worst, and people won't forget. The Greens will be here in the Senate to continue to remind both the major parties that they have a duty, a responsibility and an obligation to this nation's most vulnerable—an obligation to reduce inequality, to restructure the economy and to put up big ideas that we know can help the lives of all Australians no matter who they are. This is not necessary, and the Greens wouldn't be supporting it.