Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 October 2015


Australian Greens

7:57 pm

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

I rise tonight to speak about part of the Australian Greens' vision for a caring society. We the Australian Greens believe in a caring society, not a dog-eat-dog competition where everybody looks after themselves. This central value—the social justice pillar of the Australian Greens—matters for so many reasons and needs very clear action in this country. A caring society, we believe, is of fundamental value in the fabric of our society. In fact, one of the key reasons that I sought to become a member of the Senate and to represent the Australian Greens is that I believe in, campaign for and work towards building a strong, caring society in Australia.

This week is Anti-Poverty Week, a time for us to reflect on the issues of poverty in this country, to strengthen public understanding and commitment to address the challenges facing too many Australians and also to encourage research, discussion and action on these issues. The Australian Council of Social Services estimates that there are more than 2.5 million people living in poverty in Australia. That includes 600,000 children and 600,000 people with disability. This is too many. It seems to me that for a long time poverty has been off people's agenda. I do not know why when it is so stark, when there are so many people in Australia living in poverty. That is why Anti-Poverty Week is so important. It is time that we addressed this issue. We should not have a society where people are left behind. We should not be ignoring this issue. We should not be ignoring the growing inequality in wealth and income in this country.

There is so much that we need to do to address poverty. Some people think it is one of those intractable problems, but it is not. People who have heard me speak on this issue before will not be surprised when I say one of the first things we can do is increase our income support payments, particularly allowances such as Newstart and youth allowance, by at least $50 a week. We know that, if people are living on Newstart, they are living in poverty. We know now, because the figures are pretty clear, that single parents and their families that were dumped onto Newstart are living in poverty. So increasing Newstart and the youth allowance by at least $50 a week would go a long way.

We know that that is economically achievable because the Greens took a package, costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office, on that to the last election. We believe that we need to take strong action on poverty. If we are to claim that we are a caring, just and compassionate society, we need to be helping those who are struggling in poverty and addressing the growing inequality in wealth and income in this country.

ACOSS and other peak bodies have analysed inequality in Australia. An analysis recently commissioned by ACOSS found that inequality in Australia is significant and is increasing. Their analysis found that the wealth of the top 20 per cent group increased by 28 per cent over the period from 2004 to 2012, while, by comparison, the wealth of the bottom group increased by just three per cent. We know from the many studies that have been carried out in Australia looking at the increasing wealth inequality and income inequality in this country that other analyses have also confirmed ACOSS's analysis. We also know from both international studies and work done in Australia that there are a lot of negative impacts from inequality on people's health and life outcomes, including intergenerational impacts, and we need to be addressing those issues.

There are a number of other organisations who have commented on this during Anti-Poverty Week, but ACOSS in particular, as the peak group, with the other COSSs around Australia, have made some very concrete recommendations about what we could be doing to tackle poverty in this country. Most of these things, unfortunately, I have raised before in the Senate. One is the need for a national plan. I will put a motion calling for a national antipoverty plan before the Senate tomorrow, and I will come back to that. ACOSS also call for increased job openings for people who are long-term unemployed and for improved assistance, including more real work experience and training in partnership with employers.

Another is a substantial increase to unemployment benefits, be they Newstart or youth allowance, by at least $50 a week. There should be a boost to family payments for sole-parent families to reduce child poverty in these households. Many of those 600,000 children I was talking about who are living in poverty are the sons and daughters of single parents who were thrown off parent payment single and parenting payments onto Newstart and, literally, into poverty. By increasing family payments and allowance payments, we will start addressing those issues around poverty. Reversing those appalling measures that were put in place by the Howard government and the Gillard government that, in fact, dumped single parents from parenting payments onto Newstart would help those families as well.

An increase in Commonwealth rent assistance to ease housing stress in low-income households is another thing that ACOSS is calling for, as well as a joint government strategy to accelerate the supply of affordable housing in local communities. These are all measures that will help address poverty in this country. These recommendations are important because a society that ignores inequality and the suffering within our community is worse off as a whole. A caring society works to fight inequality and to give people access to fundamental things such as health, education, decent income support and accommodation. Addressing important mechanisms like the minimum wage helps combat inequality. That is why a caring society also protects the rights of workers and makes sure workers can afford to live and have decent wages.

We had a Senate inquiry into inequality in 2014 that made many recommendations around these really important issues, but still we see little action in addressing these underlying issues that need to be dealt with if we are to address poverty. What we see are punitive approaches that penalise young people who do not have work. First, we had the Abbott government trying to keep young people off income support for six months. The government have now come back and said they will keep them off it for five weeks. That measure was rejected by the Senate because it was seen as clearly unfair and in fact, counterproductive because it would put even more barriers in the way of young people trying to find work. We know poverty in itself is a barrier to finding work.

What did this government do? Under the Turnbull government, within days of Mr Turnbull becoming the Prime Minister, that legislation was back in the House of Representatives to bring back into the Senate. So there has been no change of policy and no realisation that keeping young people living on nothing contributes to their debt and poverty and becomes yet another barrier to finding work. Marginalising people does not help them address poverty and find work. Providing positive incentives and wraparound services that actually address the needs of individuals is part of the approach that we should be taking. That is also coming out. It has been clear from the evidence for quite a long time that that is what helps. I was listening to someone talk about it on the radio the other day as if it were a surprise that treating people as individuals in a community is a positive way to make change. Can we please re-think how we approach poverty in this country and act to put a national plan in place.