Senate debates

Thursday, 1 August 2019


Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Survey

5:36 pm

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Government Accountability) Share this | Hansard source

I can't help but laugh at the Orwellian phrase, 'the best form of welfare is a job'. Because what this leads me to believe is that the government might think someone has to go to a Centrelink office, they can tick a box marked 'best welfare', and they get a job—I don't think so. I don't think that happens. So the use and overuse of that phrase by this government is something that they say they don't agree with—and that is an Orwellian state. That's what it is.

I rise to speak on Senator Gallagher's motion on the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey. The latest HILDA survey reinforces what many Australians already know: they are worse off today than they were when this now three-term government was first elected. Not only has median household annual disposal income failed to keep up with CPI, it has actually dropped to the level it was at in 2013. Back then, it was $80,208. In 2017, the figure was $80,095. This is just another sign of trouble on the economic front.

Every respected economist in the country has sounded warnings. The Reserve Bank of Australia has acknowledged a weak economy. It has said that wages growth has remained at record lows and that GDP growth has been well below trend. Interest rates are at record lows, and, in the face of the overnight US Federal Reserve cut, there will be pressure for another cut here. RBA Governor Philip Lowe is quoted as saying that 'it is reasonable to expect an extended period of low interest rates'. We can now even envision a situation where interest rates hit zero per cent. Remember, it was also in 2013—the year this three-term government came to power—that former Treasurer Joe Hockey said of an interest cut that had the rate at three times what it is now: 'They're not cutting interest rates because the economy is doing well'. Thank you, Joe Hockey. Interest rates are being cut to 50-year lows because the economy is struggling. With the economy screaming out for help, the RBA is basically out of levers to pull. The RBA is doing its job. It's the government that needs to start doing its own job.

One of my favourite photographs of recent times is the current Treasurer and the RBA governor in a photograph which was almost like a proof-of-life shot—so the Treasurer has the RBA governor there, as a bit of a prop, and it's like the Treasurer is saying, 'No, no, the economy is fine. We've got the governor here, and we've brought him here so that he can say "There's nothing to worry about, move along".' We all know that in fact the RBA has said that our economy is in deep, deep trouble. That is because this government went to an election with essentially one policy—and that was income tax cuts which have now been legislated—and an interesting concept around the housing loan guarantee scheme. So let's see what the contingent liability on that turns out to be.

Of course, this government has been on that side of the chamber and on the Treasury benches for six years. Failing scandal or defections—and don't discount the possibility of those; they are onto their third Prime Minister after all—they will have been there for nine years by the time of the next election. The government could bring forward planned infrastructure spending now. This would give the economy the boost it needs and perhaps stop a further downturn that would only compound the hurt Australian families are feeling as evidenced in the HILDA survey.

But it's not just inaction that's the problem. This government actively pursues ways in to punish Australian workers are already feeling hurt and fiscal pain, and they are trying to maximise that. They've cut penalty rates. There's a protection racket going on for people who are committing large-scale systematic wage theft. They seem desperate to dismantle our world-leading superannuation retirement savings schemes and have an ideological obsession with attacking working Australians' representatives in their unions. Remember: it is those unions that have actually exposed wage theft. So, in fact, they are trying to stop those registered organisations from doing their job and exposing and bringing to light large-scale wage theft, and there have been many cases over the last few years. It's essentially taken a celebrity chef and the public outrage about George Calombaris and the MAdE Establishment group that has made the government think: yes, maybe we should do something about that. But of course we've been through many wage thefts in the last few years in the life of this government where they have done nothing. Those wage thefts include 7-Eleven, the Lush group, Michael Hill Jeweller and Domino's Pizza to name but a few.

Though he was a conservative himself, Winston Churchill's definition of a fanatic fits aptly those who are on the Treasury benches. He said:

A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.

They see the evidence in front of them that Australian families are hurting and that the economy is tanking, but they won't change their mind. There's nothing to see here; move it along. They have the ability in government to do something about this. They have the levers. They can stimulate the economy, invest in nation building and stop punishing workers, but they won't change the subject. It's the big, bad scary unions, they say.

Mr Morrison's government and his country reserves team of ministers stand here while people literally have to choose whether to eat or pay their power bill so they can turn the heating on this winter. The fact that there are some people who live with such little dignity in our country is a total indictment. The government's answer to whether they will raise Newstart, a payment that hasn't received an increase since the early 1990s, is: 'But these people get other payments, and anyway Newstart's only meant to be a transition payment.' And of course my favourite: 'the best form of welfare is a job' is the common catchcry. It's patronising and it's cruel. These are people who need, in order to get a job, to be able to spend money on public transport and be properly attired for work or for a job interview, but they don't have that option—not on this payment. And, of course, the total disregard for the argument that: if you increased Newstart you would, of course, have a fiscal stimulus because people receiving Newstart would go out and spend that money so that would stimulate the economy and you wouldn't have centres in regional towns where most of the shops are empty.

While there are some of those opposite who seem to lack even the most basic of human compassion, one member of their team seems to have undergone a conversion of sorts, albeit in ministerial exile. The member for New England has this week come around to the idea that many of those on Newstart, those who are doing it the toughest, should receive an increase to their payment. I am not going to denigrate Mr Joyce for arriving at a position of empathy and passion, no matter the path he trod to get there.


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