Thursday, 8 October 2020
Treasury Laws Amendment (A Tax Plan for the COVID-19 Economic Recovery) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Treasury Laws Amendment (A Tax Plan for the COVID-19 Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 and to consider the context in which it is presented. Senator Scarr has given us a long dissertation about the underlying economic management philosophy of this government. He spent quite a lot of time talking about how what we need is for government to get out of the way. I would make two observations. One is that it's a pretty funny thing to hear from a group of people who have just delivered a budget indicating that we're about to hit a trillion dollars in debt. It's a pretty jarring thing to hear in that context. The second thing I'd say is that it's also pretty tone deaf, because if the pandemic has shown us anything it is that government matters. When a virus, beyond our control, sweeps through our country and across the globe, government can't get out of the way. We've seen overseas what happens when they do: uncontrolled spread of the virus, uncontained disruption to the economy, unemployment, financial hardship and financial distress.
It was actually the inclination of this government to take that same approach. They had to be dragged kicking and screaming to provide financial support to households and businesses and to provide fiscal support to the Australian economy. Wage subsidies were totally impractical and not on the table, until they were. The government were not interested in measures to support businesses until the Labor Party pushed for them. It's been the pattern, all through this period of COVID-19 and all through this year, that the government has only acted to support the economy when we push them to do so—measure after measure after measure in response to a Labor suggestion. We have tried to be constructive. It is a national crisis and an international crisis, and we have tried to play the role that a good opposition should at this time: to hold this government to account but to be constructive. But these guys make it pretty hard, because their contempt for ordinary people, their contempt for the information they hear from people on the street and their exclusive focus on their own interests make it very, very difficult to support the direction that they seek to chart.
We didn't have a lot of confidence in their economic management. The economy was already floundering before we came into the pandemic. Every now and then, when the government gets desperate, it thinks, 'What are we going do?' and it searches around in the bottom drawer for some ideas about how they're going to grow the economy, restore productivity and get the country moving again. Usually they say, 'Yes, we've got this marvellous Productivity Commission report from 2017: Shifting the dial: improving Australia's productivity performance.' I just thought I'd have a look at that. I recall it had a good set of initiatives. When you go to the Productivity Commission website, it indicates that there is still no government response to the Shifting the dial report. So you've got an economy with flatlining productivity and a desperate need to get jobs moving—this is even before we come to the pandemic—and a government that can't be bothered to even go and respond to the document that they commissioned from the Productivity Commission.
I remind people on the other side of what was in that. There were some suggestions about healthier Australians and reforming the health system. There was a whole set of recommendations about future skills and work. There's a set of recommendations about better-functioning towns and cities. There's a whole section about improving efficiency of markets, with an intense focus on the energy market, the great policy failure of this government, which has managed to get through seven years without a single energy policy that's actually implemented but 20 policy ideas that they never got around to doing anything with. The fifth thing is more effective governments.
Wouldn't it be nice if there'd actually been some economic reform of some kind in any one of those domains prior to hitting January this year? Wouldn't it have been nice to go into the pandemic with an economy that was actually firing on all cylinders? Wouldn't it have been good to have a training system that was actually preparing our young people, and people throughout their lives, for jobs of the future? Wouldn't it have been nice to have an R&D system that was actually supporting innovation in the business community? Wouldn't it have been nice to have done something about women—about the pay gap, the retirement incomes gap, their participation in the labour market and their need for child care that is affordable and of a high quality?
Wouldn't it have been nice to have done something about all of those things, all of those reform options that have been laid out time and time again for a tone-deaf government that refuses to listen and refuses to take responsibility for its role in the Australian economy? We've had to wait till there's a pandemic to see them actually take responsibility of any kind, and then, as I said, only when pushed by the Labor Party.
So we find ourselves this week with a budget that tells us we're up for a trillion dollars in debt but signals no coherent story at all about the future of the Australian economy. People will know that I've spent quite a bit of time since I had the very good fortune to be elected to this place thinking about the role of women in our economy. This pandemic has highlighted how significant the female workforce is and how important the female workforce is, particularly when things go bad, but also how precarious the nature of women's employment truly is. When the pandemic hit, who got laid off first? The casuals. And who comprises the casual workforce? It is the women of Australia. So it was women's hours and women's jobs that suffered the greatest hit. It was women who took up more and more care obligations at home when children were at home and being homeschooled. And it was women who bore the risk of turning up to frontline roles—in nursing, cleaning, retail, teaching and early childhood—to continue to keep things ticking over while we faced down this pandemic.
You might have thought that the conversation that had started to bubble away amongst Australian women would have filtered through to those on the other side. You might have thought they would find it within themselves to come up with just something of meaning for Australian women and their workforce participation in this budget. But, no, it is a budget devoid of empathy or interest in the lives of Australian women. It is a budget devoid of empathy and interest in the economic security of Australian women. It contains very little for them. We are spending twice as much on an IT system for the Department of Human Services as we are on the initiatives in the Women's Economic Security Statement. It is incredible! The Women's Economic Security Statement comprises one-third of one per cent of the new measures in the budget.
I think that, in part, this situation arises because there are so few women in the cabinet, so few women on the ERC and, worse, so little interest by the men of the coalition in listening to the women around them. It is just shameful, because if they listened to the women in their electorates—listened to the women who work in their schools and the women who are dropping their kids off each morning—they'd know that there are a whole range of priorities that Australian women want to see addressed. But we won't find them in this budget. You won't find anything about tackling the pay gap. You won't find anything about improving access to child care. You won't find anything about the disproportionate taxation that occurs when women increase the number of working days from three to four, if they happen to be the second income-earner in their household—you won't find any responses to that. You won't find any relief for the women who emptied out their superannuation accounts because they were shut out of JobKeeper, because JobKeeper was designed in a way that didn't support the working lives of Australian women. You won't find any additional money for women fleeing domestic violence and looking for support from frontline services. It is incredible to me, and incredibly tone-deaf, that, in a period when there has been article after article in every mainstream news outlet about the rise in the prevalence and severity of domestic violence, this was not made a priority in the budget this year. What a depressing indication of the seriousness with which this situation is taken on the other side! How can you rack up a trillion dollars in debt and not do something about the epidemic of violence that is sweeping through Australia's households?
This is not a budget that responds to the economic needs of this country. It is not a budget that responds to the social needs of the households in this country. It is not a budget that does the job in charting our new course.