Senate debates

Tuesday, 11 October 2016


Healthy Welfare Card, Bass Strait Fast Cat Feasibility Study, Aged Care

8:48 pm

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, Senator Rhiannon stood aside for me and, as far as I am concerned, she had 20 minutes allotted.

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Lambie, you have 20 minutes.

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I recently returned from Ceduna, South Australia, where the Healthy Welfare Card is undergoing trials and turning up some interesting results. The feedback I have received from the community indicates that alcohol consumption is down and gambling is down, and the community seemed happy with the results when I visited recently. However, if the rollout for the Healthy Welfare Card is not managed well, the potential for harmful unintended consequences is great, which is why I have made my support conditional.

This is something Tasmania could really benefit from, but I will support the rollout of the Healthy Welfare Card if the following five conditions are agreed to by the federal government. First, I want to introduce laws that give parents the right to detox their children if they become hooked on ice or other drugs. We also must back up law changes with more resourced and funded rehabilitation facilities and medical professionals. Second, I want to establish a special economic zone, with zero payroll tax, which would encourage our existing Tasmanian employers to create more jobs in the areas covered by the Healthy Welfare Card. Third, I want to reform and revolutionise TAFE so that trade apprenticeships and traineeships are awarded and trades are taught to young Tasmanians who are not yet employed. Fourth, I want the federal government to waive Tasmania's $200 million public housing debt. Fifth, I want a $200,000 fast cat feasibility study for Bass Strait.

I met with Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest this morning, the driver behind the Healthy Welfare Card. He listened and paid attention to my views. I cannot say that he agreed with all of them, but we have started an important conversation where I feel he is listening to my ideas. After all, these five conditions only complement and improve the lives of those people who are forced to depend on welfare. I understand that Twiggy has invested a lot of time and money into creating the system around the Healthy Welfare Card. I also understand that, even though he is a famous Australian businessman, his motivation for this investment is not money. Like every supporter of the Healthy Welfare Card, it is my observation that Andrew's motivation is to genuinely improve the lives of people stuck in the welfare trap—and, given my experiences with famous Australian businessmen, I think that is a rare quality in billionaires.

I hope both the Liberal state and federal governments will take on board my ideas—which are really from the community—because we will be able to take something from good to absolutely great. I believe in the Healthy Welfare Card, but without my five conditions it is likely to have a negative impact on Tasmania because we need to quickly create real jobs, sustainable full-time jobs, for those who can work and want to get off welfare. We also need to provide medical treatment and rehab to addicts who are funding their drug habits with taxpayer generosity.

I made the fast cat feasibility study a condition of the healthy welfare card because of its job and apprenticeship creating capacity. We need a carrot at the end of the stick if we want to break the pattern of welfare dependency. We need to create meaningful employment for Tasmanians. Tasmania is in the midst of an unemployment crisis. Northern Tasmania in particular has an unemployment rate of 7.7 per cent. The ongoing employment created by a fast cat ferry service would go a long way in bringing that unemployment rate down.

I understand there are some concerns regarding the use of catamarans as ferries across the Bass Strait, and these concerns were warranted 25 years ago, when the fast cat was dubbed the 'spew cat', but technology—my word—has come a long, long way in 25 years, and I am confident a feasibility study will show this nickname is no longer true. Instead I expect a feasibility study to show a significant reduction in the cost of travelling across the Bass Strait, especially for those with a car or caravan and for Tasmanian producers. It would drastically reduce the travel time and it would certainly give SeaRoad and Toll a run for their freight charges. If the outcome of the feasibility study is as I expect, a fast cat would supercharge Tasmania's tourism industry and certainly our economy.

I commend opposition leader Bill Shorten for the courage and curiosity he displayed when he promised to support my vision and fund a feasibility study to the tune of $200,000. I again invite Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to match Mr Shorten's offer to fast-track economic and job growth within Tasmania. The build alone would create 500 jobs over two years, and I would like to see the thousands of jobs and the wealth it could create just from the extra visitors and increased exports which will no doubt come as a result of quicker and more frequent crossings of the Bass Strait.

The wealth would not be isolated to Tasmania either; Victorians would also reap the benefits of a fast cat service, and I invite Victorian senators and federal members to take up my vision for a fast cat service across the Bass Strait and begin lobbying the government on this important issue. I have consulted with catamaran manufacturer Incat's Richard Lowrie, who said that a fast cat service has the capacity to increase visitors to Tasmania by 3,000 a day. This is the antidote to Tasmania's ailing economy. A fast cat addresses the cost of freight, which is the main concern of Tasmanian producers and exporters; it increases accessibility for tourists with Tasmania as a destination; and Incat's catamarans are highly sought after right across the world: the US military and Denmark are already using these intricately designed and well-built catamarans. It is a shame Incat does not have the support of its own state.

In a few years the state government will have to spend $150 million to $200 million replacing the Spirit of Tasmania ferries. Before this happens, a fast cat feasibility study should be complete to ensure the state government is making an informed decision which will support Tasmania's own world-class shipbuilding industry and its workers.

Did you know there is $37 a week between the pension and the poverty line? A recent OECD report showed that 36 per cent of Australian pensioners lived below the poverty line, making Australia's pensioners some of the poorest in the OECD. In response to that report, ACOSS released a document which identified that the poverty line in Australia is $400 a week and the average pension is $437 a week. So our pensioners are making decisions to freeze in the winter and boil in the summer because they cannot afford the power required for heaters and air conditioners. They are pureeing their meals because they cannot afford dental work if they break a tooth—a choice between medical treatment and meals. They face social isolation because they cannot afford the fuel for their car, fare for the bus or to get a cab.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a meme on my Facebook page, with the message, 'The pension isn't welfare; it's a reward for 40 years of working hard and paying taxes.' That meme has been viewed more than 17 million times. When you consider there are 15 million Australians using Facebook, this number is extraordinary. It is absolutely mind-blowing, and it has all happened within a week. This reaction tells me that mistreatment of pensioners resonates with Australian people from all walks of life and that they have had a gutful. They are fed up.

The Liberal government's attempts to, firstly, push out the qualifying age for the pension and, secondly, change asset testing and the adverse defined benefit scheme are a kick in the guts for a group of people who have worked damn hard and paid their taxes all their lives. Many pensioners continue to contribute to their community by volunteering in their retirement, and many take on childcare duties because Mum and Dad cannot afford childcare fees. And what is their reward? There is no reward from either side of this parliament—just cuts and continuous changes to the retirement goalposts.

This year the government is attacking the aged-care sector with a proposed $1.2 billion worth of cuts to the sector over the forward estimates that in reality is expected to actually be about $3 billion. These cuts mean that the people who need the greatest care will not receive it. Instead they will be shoved to the public hospitals, where it costs four times as much just to look after them.

Essentially, the cuts to the aged-care sector are a cost shift from the federal government to the state government in the name of a supposed crackdown on claiming rorts. Minister for Health and Aged Care Sussan Ley explained in a speech to the National Aged Care Alliance that she did not believe the funding blow-out which led to these cuts had anything to do with 'increased frailty', stating that one in eight claims to the aged-care funding instrument is a rort. But the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare identified 3.5 million Australians aged 65 and older in 2014, which is expected to more than double to 8.4 million by 2050. The honourable minister is naive to expect aged-care funding to remain the same as our ageing population grows.

The aged-care sector accepts that the aged-care funding instrument is outdated and unnecessarily complex, calling for the government to replace it. I support their call and offer the suggestion that a new funding instrument be much simpler and easier to navigate, ensuring fewer mistakes and less time and money wasted on administrative tasks. Perhaps then Minister Ley's one-in-eight statistic will start to disappear.

I also challenge the state governments, especially the Tasmanian state government, to stand up to their federal counterparts on this issue, as the Tasmanian aged-care sector—one of the state's biggest employers—is expected to lose $40 million and cut 750 jobs over the next four years, and that is being conservative. The impact on the already ailing public hospital system in Tasmania is unquantified but imminent. This is a situation where Premier Will Hodgman must put aside party politics, come out and stand up for Tasmanians.

Following the announcement of a long-overdue backflip on the backpacker tax by Treasurer Morrison, I have called on the federal government and the Labor opposition to both support a new backpacker tax which at least matches that of New Zealand's backpacker tax, at 10.5 per cent. I and many Tasmanian farmers would like the backpacker rate to remain unchanged at zero per cent. However, we are happy to meet the government and the Labor opposition half way, at 10.5 per cent. By fixing the rate at 10.5 per cent instead of the government's new rate of 19 per cent, the government's $10 million tourism-backpacker advertising campaign is guaranteed to work and the unnecessary damage that the Liberal government has already caused to our farming and tourism sectors will be more quickly repaired. As its stand now with the government's proposed 19 per cent backpacker tax, the backpackers are bypassing Tasmanian farms. And, while certainty is what our farmers want, they are still facing significant financial loss and uncertainty, even if this parliament passes a 19 per cent backpacker tax. Just when farmers—especially Tasmanian farmers—thought it could not get any worse after being subjected to shameful and incompetent treatment from this government, media reports this afternoon indicate that Labor is choosing to delay the passage of the backpacker tax.

National Farmers Federation president, Brent Finlay, says Labor have walked away from farmers by refusing to support a compromise on the destructive backpacker tax. There are a couple of things I have to say about this turn of events to Labor members of the chamber and to Mr Finlay from the National Farmers Federation and other representatives of peak farmer organisations. Firstly, I am going to address Labor senators, who I hope are listening very carefully to me. There are about 10,000 Tasmanian rural workers and hundreds of farming livelihoods which depend on the passage of this bill in a timely manner.

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Families and Payments) Share this | | Hansard source

It doesn't come into effect until 1 January.

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I know that Labor is not to blame for the terrible harm that is being caused to Tasmanian farmers over this issue, but, even if it comes in on 1 January, I can assure you it is too late. They need some certainty. The whole rotting backpacker mess has been caused by the gutless and dysfunctional Liberal Party and National Party, and their leaders should be publically flogged for what they have done to my Tasmanian farmers, let alone what they have done to the mainland farmers. However, I want the Labor members of this place to know that I will be very, very upset if you unnecessarily delay the passage of this backpacker legislation. Our farmers need certainty and they need it very quickly.

I have presented to your shadow minister, whom I happen to like a lot—this is a decent man and I could have a beer with him, no problem—a compromise plan that strikes the right balance between the government's 19 per cent and the Greens zero per cent. To resolve this problem, I have placed a call to Bill Shorten's office and asked for a meeting. He has agreed to a meeting with me on Thursday and also wants to talk about Labor's position on banks, which at the moment I am happy to listen to. Secondly, I am going to address Mr Finlay from the National Farmers Federation and other representatives of peak farming organisations, who I hope are listening to me very carefully. Just after the public square is cleared of Liberal and National Party members who have been horsewhipped because of their criminally negligent behaviour in the management of this backpacker tax matter, Mr Finlay from the National Farmers Federation and other representatives of peak farming organisations should be also horsewhipped because they have betrayed their own farmers. Because of their continual brown-nosing to the coalition, they also have ensured that their members will lose millions of dollars and face unnecessary financial hardships.

My message is: do not catch the Barnaby disease. Grow a backbone, at least have half a brain and start standing up for your damn farmers! It should not take me in here to do your job! Do not act as though you fell out of the stupid tree and hit every branch on the way down. If you stood up in front of a camera, did the job you were paid to do and told the media that the government's 19 per cent is not going to fix the problem, and at 10.5 per cent a new backpacker tax has half a chance of remedying the long-term damage the Libs and Nats have already caused, then maybe you deserve to keep your jobs and avoid that public flogging.

The National Farmers Federation has been a training and recruiting ground for the conservative side of politics in Australia. Well, now is the time for the NFF executive to forget about their budding conservative political futures and put their farmers first. The next time you get a phone call from the Deputy Prime Minister and back him up, tell him about the hardship of your farmers, especially the young ones out there, instead of jumping and asking how high. Better still, tell him not to cause the problem in the first bloody place!

Turning to a different matter, I have been approached by a private in the Australian Army. I will not disclose his name tonight. Indeed, I hope I never have to disclose his name. He has a protected identity and is still technically serving in the military. The majority of his service had been fulfilled as a Green Beret in the Commando Regiment. Since joining the Army directly after high school, he has conducted one tour of East Timor and four tours of Afghanistan. Other areas of his service include duties as a shooter on the federal domestic counterterrorism team and close personal protection for members of parliament throughout the Middle East area of operations. Unfortunately, in his service he has seen many of his close friends killed on duty. He tells me that, after being diagnosed with lower spinal injuries, PTSD and major depression in late 2011, he was told by his senior commanders to 'F off and go home before anyone else gets sick.' At the time, the commanders were concerned that mental health issues were a sign of weakness, and they were also greatly concerned about the effect that mental health cases would have on their ability to conduct future operations. I have been told that at a military welfare board the soldier was put though appalling treatment by senior members of the military, whose actions give me the impression that they think they are untouchable.

I have to thank the Minister for Defence. She has agreed to meet with this veteran and me this week. We are going to get to the bottom of what is happening in the Army's military welfare boards, because what I am hearing is that welfare is the last thing they are delivering to our diggers. Based on the defence minister's care and consideration with other matters I have brought before her, I expect to see a dramatic improvement in the way the Army are conducting their welfare boards.