Thursday, 13 February 2020
Pensions and Benefits
The debate we're having today does raise a couple of very important issues that I know many people in the community are concerned about. They are the general level of support being provided by the government in the wake of the recent bushfires and also specifically issues around the rate of Newstart that is currently being paid to unemployed people around Australia.
I'll say at the outset that Labor believes that in both cases the government needs to do more. In relation to victims of the bushfires, we do think that the government needs to do more and increase the financial support that it is providing to the thousands of bushfire victims that we see around the country. But, more broadly, we have said for some time now that we do believe that the rate of Newstart being paid to unemployed people in Australia is too low and does need to increase. I'll have more to say about the Newstart issues a little bit later in my contribution but I do want to begin with the bushfires.
Obviously, I've had quite a lot of involvement through my shadow portfolio with the victims of the bushfires and I spent a lot of time visiting bushfire affected regions before and after Christmas, in particular with the Labor members for the seats of Macquarie, Eden-Monaro and Gilmore: Susan Templeman, Mike Kelly and Fiona Phillips. I want to pay tribute to the effort they have put in, working nonstop, seven days a week, in each of these bushfire affected areas for a number of years. I acknowledge that obviously there have been a number of government senators, ministers and members of parliament who have also worked very hard over summer to assist their constituents.
In the condolence motions particularly, we've reflected on the significant damage that was caused to human life, property and the environment. People don't need me to go over those statistics again, but I think it is worth reflecting on the people who are suffering incredible financial losses that they will go through for a long period of time, even if they haven't suffered the loss of a home being burned down or some other loss of property of that nature.
I've said before that it has been unfortunate that any objective observer would say that the government grossly stuffed up its preparation and planning for the bushfires that we went through. I've gone through that in some detail previously. Warnings were repeatedly provided to the government, whether that be by ex-fire chiefs or their own agencies. The Department of Home Affairs, for instance, provided advice to government in its incoming government briefs about the level of risk that was faced from bushfires this year and was ignored by the government. We saw the government comprehensively fail to prepare and plan for the bushfires that we saw hit this year. Then when we actually got to the bushfires, again, we saw gross failures on the part of the government to properly respond to what was happening on the ground and confusion about the different levels of government levels of responsibility and who was doing what. Meantime, Australians were faced with highly dangerous conditions.
Now that much of the country is in recovery mode, my great fear is that we are going to see the government stuff this up and fail Australians in the same way that they failed Australians in the preparation and planning for the bushfires and in the immediate response. We have been saying for some time that there are major gaps in the recovery effort of this government. We've asked questions about it in question time this week. We've raised issues with the National Bushfire Recovery Agency in the private briefings that we received this week—and I should thank the head of the agency, former Commissioner Colvin, and his team, for providing us with that briefing this week. We raised concerns there, as we have done in this chamber, about the slowness of payments and the bureaucracy that people are having to fight through in order to receive the payments that the government has said it is making available. My great concern is that—just as we have seen in other policy areas under this government, and I'm particularly thinking of drought relief—we are again going to see the government's marketing effort not being matched by what it actually delivers to people on the ground.
No-one disputes this Prime Minister's ability when it comes to marketing, when it comes to ads and spin. But there are very real questions about this Prime Minister and this government's ability to actually meet the claims that they make and follow through on their promises. At the last estimates period, we were able to establish that for all the claims this government made that it has a $7 billion drought package—which I think Australians thought was a good thing—that when you actually dig into it, it's only worth, in total, a couple of billion, and most of that hasn't actually been released yet. We've had many instances where the government was making announcements that it would provide loans to drought-affected farmers and grants and all sorts of things, but when you start asking a few questions, actually very little has been paid out.
We're already starting to see signs that the same thing is happening with the recovery effort from the bushfires. If you've been listening to any ministers in this chamber over the last fortnight—I'm sure it has been the same in the House of Representatives—you'll know they would have you believe the government is doing a magnificent job of providing recovery payments and all sorts of other support to Australians who've gone through the bushfires. If you've seen any of the Prime Minister's press conferences, you'll have seen he's really raised expectations about what the government is going to provide to people. But the minute you start asking a few questions about that you're accused, first of all, of politicising the issue, when you're just trying to hold the government to account for the statements that it makes. Then, once you get through that, you actually find out that what the government is delivering to people falls well short of what it says it is doing.
Over the last couple of weeks we've been able to put to the government real-life examples of people who have suffered through the bushfires and are not getting the support that the government claims to be making available. I'll refresh the Senate on a couple of the examples that we raised in question time this week. Mr Joe Borgia lives in Wytaliba in New South Wales. A month after losing his home in the bushfires, Mr Borgia, who is an RFS firefighter, had only received the disaster recovery payment. He was still waiting for other funding approvals and was forced to accept donations from neighbours in order to keep going. That's not what the government is talking about. The government would have you believe that Mr Borgia and other people who have gone through these bushfires are getting incredible support from the government, that they are getting everything they could possibly need. I'm sorry, but that's not the fact. People like Mr Borgia are having to rely on donations from their neighbours in order to stay afloat. Ms Rae Harvey, in Runnyford, lost her home in the bushfires. She's been living on her property with no running water, electricity or wi-fi. She has twice applied for a disaster relief payment and has been rejected twice because she couldn't provide bank account details for a government payment that she received 20 years ago. What sort of bureaucracy is this government imposing on people that they have to find and show bank account details for government payments they received 20 years ago in order to qualify for the payments that the government is out there marketing right now?
There are many examples right now of small businesses who are not receiving the support that the government claims to be providing. Even in question time today, I asked Senator Cash, the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, about how many loans had actually been provided to small businesses who have suffered losses through these bushfires. We had the extraordinary situation where the minister for small business, who the day before had been telling us what a great job the government was doing for small businesses that have gone through the bushfires, was completely unable to even tell us how many loans had been approved for small businesses. Fortunately for Senator Cash, the Prime Minister answered this question in the House of Representatives yesterday and confirmed that, for all the government's talk about making immediate support available to small businesses, they have actually only provided one loan anywhere in Australia to a small business that has suffered losses. So in all sorts of ways, whether we're talking about individuals or small businesses and other forms of support, the marketing effort that this government is putting in is not being matched by the reality.
I acknowledge that it's relatively early days in terms of the recovery effort. Maybe the government will get it together. I really hope that they do, because I don't want to have to come back into parliament in a couple of weeks time and provide further examples of people who are not getting the support that the government says it is providing.
Specifically in terms of the disaster recovery payments that have been asked for, Labor has already been on the record as saying that they are too low. Coincidentally, I noticed that the Prime Minister announced an increase to the disaster recovery payments for children within a matter of hours of Labor's calling for it. It is a shame that it took Labor's calling for an increase to disaster recovery payments for the government to respond. It has only done so, for the moment, in relation to children rather than to adults. There is no doubt that the disaster recovery payments the government is currently providing are too low. We have Australians who are absolutely desperate for support at the moment. They can't pay their bills. They've got all sorts of bills that they're now going to have to pay in order to rebuild their properties and get themselves back on their feet. The least that they should be able to expect of their government is a degree of support to help them get back on their feet, and that the government might actually deliver the things that it is out there advertising that it is doing.
People are sick of this government's level of dishonesty. They're seeing it in the sports rorts, they're seeing it in all sorts of policy areas and now they're seeing it in terms of bushfire support, where you have the Prime Minister out there crowing about the immediate support that his government is making available, but a quick look at what's actually happening on the ground shows that the reality is that that is not the case. People are not getting from this government the support they're looking for. It's got to get this fixed.