Senate debates

Monday, 2 December 2019


Productivity Commission Amendment (Addressing Inequality) Bill 2017; Second Reading

11:42 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Productivity Commission Amendment (Addressing Inequality) Bill 2017. This bill is a relatively short bill on a very important issue. It will require the Productivity Commission to:

… undertake research on inequality and its effects on the Australian economy and community, and report to the Minister …

Another amendment in a different section is to:

… mitigate the negative effects of inequality on the Australian economy and the Australian community.

It talks about tabling the report, but it also talks about the contents of the inequality report, which I think goes to the heart of this extremely important issue. It says:

An inequality report is to assess:

(a) economic inequality in Australia's regions and cities; and

(b) the effects of economic inequality on:

  (i) intergenerational mobility; and

  (ii) access to social, economic, educational and other opportunities for members of the Australian community; and

  (iii) social, economic, educational and other outcomes for members of the Australian community; and

  (iv) the performance of the Australian economy; and

(c) the extent to which current Government policies affect economic inequality.

It's really important that we get this sort of information because we continue to have these arguments in the public sphere about whether inequality has increased or decreased. The fact is that we have very significant inequality in this country. The last time we had this debate—and we heard it raised again this morning—there was the issue around the Gini coefficient. You can take the Gini coefficient at two points in time and say, 'Oh, look, it's the same.' The fact is—and I mentioned this in my contribution during the last parliament when this bill was introduced—the way that the Gini coefficient is quoted in the debates on inequality at the moment misses the impact of the global financial crisis and the efforts that were taken in this country to ensure that we avoided the worst impacts of the global financial crisis.

But I want to go back to the very important issues that the report would be required to talk about. First, let's look at inequality in Australia's regions and cities. We know that inequality has a significant impact in the regions. There are a number of people on low incomes living in the regions. Some actually go to the regions because rents, supposedly, are cheaper. But rents are going up in some of these locations and the cost of living is much higher. These sorts of issues are extremely important.

I particularly want to go to the impacts of inequality. I have been chairing the inquiry into Newstart, youth allowance and other payments. So far, we have held hearings in seven different places around Australia. We have been in regional centres, as well. What I want to touch on is the lived experience that we're hearing about from people living on low incomes, in this instance Newstart and youth allowance. In the first instance, we've heard about the impact on families, and particularly on children. They talk about children being kept away from school on some days because their parents can't afford to send lunch. They talk about children not being able to participate in school activities, which we know are a very important part of the education process—not being able to go on school camps, for example. We hear about children who cannot engage in social activities, such as going to a child's birthday party, because they can't afford to pay for a present for the child to take. We hear about children not being able to host birthday parties. If you can't put food on the table under normal circumstances, how can you pay for a party for your child's school friends? These things are impacting on children's education.

We all know that even public schools now are requiring payment of fees. In most cases, they say these are voluntary, but even not being able to pay voluntary fees has been impacting on the family. It has an impact on the way they feel about themselves and it can stigmatise people. I've also heard of children being excluded from certain activities because their parents haven't paid their so-called voluntary fees. That all has an impact on how the child grows up. I would argue that if they're missing out on some of those foundational requirements for their education, it also has a significant impact on intergenerational inequality, let alone their not being able to enter either university or our vastly underfunded and, I would very strongly argue, undermined TAFE system. So, growing inequality in this country is severely impacting on education.

On the subject of people's capacity to participate in social activities, one of the issues that people spoke about a lot in giving us their lived experience with trying to exist on low incomes is the isolation that people feel. Research is clearly showing the devastating impact of isolation on a person's wellbeing. People are unable to participate in a variety of social activities and they talked also about being stuck at home because they can't run a car. In a lot of cases they can't afford it, particularly if its breaks down—that's it. Very often, they can't afford bus fares.

Then we come to the issue of the impact of inequality on somebody's health and wellbeing. What we heard from people talking of their lived experience is that you can forget about any dental treatment, because the public waiting lists are so long and they simply can't afford to go to the dentist. We know of the impact that poor dental health outcomes have on people's health, to begin with. We also know that if their teeth go unattended it can have an impact on their sense of wellbeing. Also, quite frankly, it can impact on their capacity to find work, particularly if they are unhealthy as a result of their lack of dental treatment.

We also have heard of people not being able to afford their medications. This is a really, really significant issue. We heard of people having to choose between being able to eat and use their insulin, for example. So people are making a choice between whether they eat, or skip a meal or a number of meals, in order to be able to afford their medications. We heard of parents choosing to ensure their children got their medication and not themselves. This, of course, plays into people's health. It becomes a barrier to good health, a barrier to employment and has a significant impact on their wellbeing.

We also heard about the impact of the fact that people are missing meals. There is such a thing as 'nutritional poverty'. In other words, people are buying calorie-dense, often unhealthy, food because it actually fills your stomach and it means you're not going hungry and your kids aren't going hungry. This is a very significant issue and it is a growing issue—and I will come to the issues around Foodbank in a moment.

There is also the issue—and people have spoken about it—of access to affordable housing and the fact that housing is more and more difficult for people. I think there is a lack of understanding by the government about the impact of unaffordable housing and the fact that people are spending a very high proportion of their very low income on rent, and the impact that has on the other issues I have just mentioned such as their children's ability to participate in school and social activities—that is, for people to be able to afford health.

The growing digital divide and digital poverty is also a huge issue. For example, the government is shifting—and wants to shift even more—it's mutual obligations under the compliance program to digital. So people have to have a computer or have access to the internet so that they can participate in the employment process to try and find work and also to meet their mutual obligations. So if you can't afford the internet, if you can't afford a mobile phone, a tablet or a laptop, it is yet another barrier to employment. It is yet another area where you can then be subject to the compliance framework. Again, it is all part of the inequality in this country which then plays out very strongly into intergenerational mobility.

We are hearing more and more about intergenerational poverty. It is created by wealth inequality and income inequality. We need the Productivity Commission to look at those issues. One of the areas that is included in this bill, which is very important, is the extent to which current government policies affect economic inequality. That is particularly important because government keeps denying that its policies are having a direct impact on equality in this country. You only have to look at the government's flat refusal to increase Newstart and youth allowance. The impacts that I've just described are people's lived experience—homelessness as a direct result of not being able to keep a roof over your head because Newstart isn't high enough. There is a direct impact—the increasing demand on Foodbank, for example. We heard during Anti-Poverty Week of the increase in poverty in this country and the role that payments such as Newstart and youth allowance play in that increase in poverty. But that's not the only flaw in the government's approach—for example, the disability support pension. I've got to say, the previous government also played a role in the situation we're seeing at the moment, which is an increasing number of people being denied access to the disability support pension, when they really should be on that pension. They are now struggling to survive with a disability, with a vulnerability, on Newstart. Again, yet another barrier to employment, and it's increasing inequality.

While people would argue that this bill is not about lifting people out of inequality and addressing inequality, I'd argue that it would strongly assist with that, because it would point out what the current impact of inequality is. It would start trying to properly measure the degree of inequality and also specifically look at what role government policy is playing to worsen that. One would think that they would then look at that information and want to do something about it. For example, let's look at Newstart and what the government could do to address inequality by addressing Newstart. That would be of significant assistance in addressing inequality in this country.

I remind the chamber of some of the basics about poverty. Of all Australians living below the poverty line, 53 per cent relied on social security as their main source of income, hence the importance of these payments. This shows that our current rates of income support payments are keeping people below the poverty line. There are currently over 700,000 children living in poverty. The Foodbank hunger report 2019 found that the number of people seeking food relief has increased by 22 per cent over the last 12 months. It also found that 42 per cent of people experience food insecurity because they are living on a low income or pension. The Anglicare Jobs availability snapshot 2019 highlighted that it is taking people, on average, five years to find work.

Newstart is not a transition plan. It is not a transition payment anymore, because, over the last 25 years, guess what? The world has changed. Australia has changed. There are fewer jobs available. It's not so easy to find another job if you fall out of employment. Over 40 per cent of people that are on Newstart have a partial capacity to work. Those things do not suit well a system that is based on the concept of 'it is a transition payment' when, on average, people are on Newstart for 156 weeks. That is not transition in anybody's imagination.

We've seen the number of sick or disabled people on Newstart skyrocket over the past few years. We now have over 300,000 people on Newstart who are sick or disabled. As I said earlier, people are being forced to choose, literally, between eating and taking their medication. They will space that out and prioritise their children. If you look at the replacement rate, Newstart is the second-lowest unemployment payment in the OECD. We have obligations internationally under the Sustainable Development Goals. The first goal is to end poverty in all its forms everywhere. This sets a target for all nations to halve the proportion of people and children living in poverty by 2030 according to national definitions—of course, that would be better if we had a definition of 'poverty'.

This is an important bill. I'm not pretending that it would solve the issues of inequality. I'm not pretending that it instantly solve the massive wealth inequality issues we have or the massive income inequality issues we have in this country. But it would certainly help us to force the government to look at which government policies are driving or helping to drive inequality and which policies could help to address inequality in this country. It would help end this constant toing and froing about whether inequality is growing or not in this country and help us to focus on the things that matter in terms of addressing inequality in this country. The Greens will be supporting this bill.


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