Wednesday, 22 March 2017
Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017; Second Reading
We seem to be going through the same process we did earlier today. When I was speaking earlier, I talked about the process that the community affairs committee has had to consider the various iterations of these issues that are in front of us in this new bill. As I was saying, it is really important, and I value the fact, that governments actually listen to the evidence that is brought forward in submissions and public hearings. And it is worthy that governments take up some of the issues that have been brought in through that process. It does not always happen. But in this case, belatedly, this morning—I am not quite sure what time but it was sometime before 9.30—the government did take up one of the core recommendations that people had made during the hearing quite recently, which was to separate into two bills the proposed bill put before the committee.
Consistently, submissions and evidence that came to us talked about the division that the previous bill had caused. It fact, it had divided people who would be subject to loss through this bill through budget savings. I will go through that later, and many senators will talk about the most vulnerable people subject to cuts. It set up a division between people who would be losing entitlement and losing some process through this bill. And it put that in direct contrast with the child-care package, for which the community had been waiting for many years. There was a clear division created, seemingly a conflict, which was expressed by many of our witnesses.
The way the government had presented the omnibus bill, the statements by ministers, and speeches in the other place and in the media all told the community that, unless we were prepared as a parliament and a community to accept the budget cuts—some of which had been around since 2014—the child-care package would not be funded. It was clearly, 'Take it or leave it.' My understanding is that that rhetoric continued certainly until this morning's media. There was no clear understanding that there would be a decision from the government to present two separate bills into this place, but they did. There was a little bit of a problem in that we did not have a copy of the new bills when we came in early this morning. I believe that was expressed earlier by Senator Siewert.
By the way, Senator Siewert has been involved in every single committee hearing in this place on the cuts since 2014. No-one knows this process better than she does and no-one is across the detail of the legislation more than she is, but this morning she was unaware of exactly what the new bills would look like. I do not think that is an effective process. We can disagree on the content and the policy, but what about the process? There are regular negotiations all the time in this place trying to get the magic number to get a bill passed. All of us know the protocol of that. We all know how it works. We often wait for bills to come on. They move up and down the red. We can see what is going to be debated at what time. If something pops up, we think, 'The deal has been done.' That is how this place operates.
I am unaware of a previous process like this morning's. The bill was not only divided. It was not just, 'Here is the bill that the Senate committee looked at only a couple of weeks ago'—and I think we brought down our report only yesterday—'Here is the original bill and what we are going to do now is split it.' All the work had been done and the evidence had been given. They were not just going to split the bill and take out a key element, no. We found out that the savings measures in the bill, which are in the legislation that is in front of us in this debate, are not the same as those we debated only last week in the committee. There have been changes. I am not arguing about the changes, as some of the elements of the bill to which I had the most objection are not in this new bill, so that is a good thing. However, we did not know that when we were preparing our arguments to consider this important piece of legislation.
This is such an important piece of legislation that we are now going to be confined in the parliament to listen to a series of deeply-important speeches that will be passionately made about this issue and, if they are not concluded by midnight tonight, we will come back and be here until midnight tomorrow night and then we will be here on Friday. Senator O'Sullivan spoke loudly across the chamber this morning and in his wisdom suggested that, if we did not get our act together—and I took that as personal; I think it was 'our act together'—we could sit on Saturday and Sunday as well. My understanding is that Saturday and Sunday are not in the current hours resolution, but certainly the intent of the government this morning was that we stay until these two bills, which are the two bills from the previous omnibus bill, are concluded. We are going to continue staying in here until they are concluded.
Firstly, the government considers that these bills are so important that we had to have a special hours resolution to ensure we behave and stay in this place. Secondly, we did not see a full copy of the new legislation until after the hours motion had been put. Thirdly, when we started the debate we were not even clear on what is in the legislation. That is not how you get sensible debate. You may get an outcome—and certainly we understand that a deal has been done. It is pretty clear after this morning's series of divisions what those numbers might be. That is not a reflection of the best arrangement in terms of looking at the issues and how the debate should be handled.
I get back to the bill in front of us. In the savings bill, the part that looks at social services, are a series of cuts that we have considered many times. In fact, when we had the omnibus bill hearing a couple of weeks ago I could not remember how many times we had considered some of these proposals. But every time we have considered them the evidence before us has been that the community reject them. In terms of the priority that has been decided by the government about where they will place their key savings measures, what has come before us consistently, via a range of community and specialist evidence, is a rejection that this is the priority for the savings. We have identified and heard that the cuts to family tax benefit parts A and B, the income-free areas for working age and student payments, and the ordinary waiting periods—issues with which we have become very familiar because they have come before us in a number of pieces of legislation—will focus on the most vulnerable people in our community.
The current family tax benefit regime has been around for many years. In my previous work in the Department of Social Security and in my work since I have been elected to this place there has been cross-party support for family tax payments. They are social welfare payments. Both the major parties and the crossbenchers, in terms of the Greens and other people, have seen the motivation and background for the family tax payments. Whilst it is very important that they are effectively targeted—and there have been debates in this place over many years about how we most effectively and most efficiently target these payments—the core element is that we look at the people who rely most on these payments to ensure that their families are safe, are well looked after and have a reasonable expectation of a quality of life that will ensure that children in particular are well cared for. That is the background of family tax payments.
What we have seen in the last few rounds of cuts that have come through this place under budget measures has been a targeted attack on the quality and the quantity of family tax payments. What is before us again in this bill tonight is a further reduction in the family tax payment process. If only people could take the time to look at the evidence that has come before the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee from people who work in this field as part of their job, as part of their life choices, and who identify exactly what the impact will be from the cuts that are in this bill, they would understand that it will have serious ongoing impacts on the quality of life for some of the most vulnerable families in our community. When people vote on this bill they must remember that. If their choice is that this legislation would best suit the way that we should make savings then they should be aware that people in this place will probably never be reliant on these payments—the family tax payment or the waiting period or the income-free areas for working age and student payments. I do not want to presume that, but it will be probable that no-one in this place will be reliant on these payments. So, when you all take a vote on this piece of legislation, remember that the evidence has been about the impact it will have on families, on parents, on students and on people who rely very heavily on the augmentation of a low wage or, in fact, in the case of waiting periods and the income-free areas for working age and student payments—no wage. These are the people who are reliant on this process.
These savings measures have been consistently rejected by the Labor Party. I will put on record, as you well know, Madam Deputy President, that a number of the propositions brought to us by the government for savings in the social welfare area have been supported by Labor. We have not taken those decisions lightly. We have considered whether the impact of the saving is balanced by the need for budget repair. We have accepted whole chunks of savings over the last four years. In fact, from that awful 2014 budget onwards there have been a number of debates where we have voted with the government on savings. So, for anyone from the government to say that we never support budget savings, that we have no understanding of economic realities, it is just not true. All you have to do is look at the record. What we are saying is that the savings in this bill are not effective. They will harm and, in the end, they will not be the best way that we can support families in Australia.
We have split the omnibus savings bill. In terms of the way the legislation will proceed, I think it is a good result to have split it into separate bills. But there is a feeling of division, a feeling of judgement, in the community that some families are being set up as being less worthy than others and that, if we are going to have effective child care, other parts of the community have to have things withdrawn. That remains. Whether the bill was split or not, that judgement remains. The people who came and spoke to us in community affairs feel as though their rights have been weighed up as being less worthy than others. I do not believe that that was the intent of the government. I believe that the government was aware of the need to have effective child care in our community—but at what cost? And will families continue to be divided? Will people continue to email us feeling as though their rights have not been supported, particularly stay-at-home parents, who feel as though they are not being valued in this process. They talk to us about how their needs should be addressed. This bill does not support them. The splitting of the omnibus bill may actually get a deal through and the separate bills will be passed—and that is what happens in this place. We understand it. But the impact and the harm to any sense of cohesion, to any sense of trust in the system, will remain. We will continue to have further debates and, as they continue, we will continue to have people come before us and talk about whether they genuinely believe that their parliamentarians understand their circumstances, and what may seem to be a relatively small part of the community will hurt. (Time expired)
As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I rise in support of the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017. This legislation continues the efforts of the government to generate savings in response to the legacy of debt and profligate spending left by the previous failed Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. This includes their ridiculous legacy of expensive and unnecessary school halls, deadly pink batts that caught fire, the NDIS black hole and, of course, who could forget the multibillion dollar technological dinosaur of the NBN—all designed to grab headlines.
I also take this opportunity to congratulate the government on its decision to split the omnibus savings bill into its logical component parts. This is exactly the course of action advocated by Pauline Hanson's One Nation, and I am pleased to see that the government listened to us. Pauline Hanson's One Nation was very concerned that a range of disparate legislation was being clumsily bundled together and presented as a fait accompli to the Senate. This approach was entirely contrary to the spirit of parliamentary democracy. Separating savings bills to allow each measure to be considered separately makes sense, and I am very pleased that the government has recognised One Nation's argument to this effect and has shown its respect for the crossbench by amending its legislative program accordingly. I know that I speak for other crossbench senators when I say that we are grateful that the government has listened and acted in accordance with the wishes of the crossbench. This is real democracy in action.
As a strong supporter of Aussie working families, Pauline Hanson's One Nation strongly supports measures to help families cope with cost of living pressures, as part of which we support responsible changes to social services legislation to make income support for families sustainable in the long term, not just now. That is exactly what this bill does—making responsible savings to protect families in order to allow income support where and when it will be most needed.
This bill seeks to achieve savings of $2.4 billion over the 2017-18 period, increasing to $6.8 billion over the following years. These are highly necessary savings. The Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 reprises three components of the former government's omnibus savings bill, namely: firstly, maintaining income-free areas and means test thresholds for certain payments and allowances at their current levels for three years; secondly, automating the income stream review process to allow improvements in the accuracy of income support payments; and thirdly, reductions in customer debts and appropriately extending waiting periods for the parenting payment and youth allowance for a person who is not undertaking full-time study and who is also not a new apprentice.
This bill also includes a new schedule to maintain current family tax benefit payment rates for two years at their current levels from 1 July 2017. As the minister has previously noted, this measure will not cut family tax benefits payments and will also not increase fringe benefits tax payment rates to offset the phasing out of family tax benefit supplements which was contained in the previously proposed social services legislation amendment. These are very modest and very necessary savings measures. They build on the efforts of the first omnibus savings bill which passed the Senate on 15 September 2016 and achieved $6.3 billion in budget savings.
In waiting to speak in support of this bill, however, I have had the I have had the misfortune to listen to the self-righteous and hypocritical cant emanating from the Greens and their Labor puppets. What absolute rubbish they speak! Just as Labor, the former party of the workers, is in lock-step with the industrial vandals, the Greens, in their efforts to abolish workers' jobs in coalmining, forestry and power generation, so too we see them here doing their very best to undermine even the government's modest efforts to balance the budget and to focus welfare to families in need.
No party stands up for working Aussie families like One Nation. Only Pauline Hanson's popular nationalist party stands unapologetically behind coalminers, loggers and power station workers, whilst the Labor Party, which was originally formed to represent those people and their union, the CFMEU, stab them in the back. We do not trade away worker's penalty rates for corrupt union kickbacks and hookers for union bosses. To think that those opposite and their glorious leader have the nerve to try to claim that the government and One Nation are somehow responsible for the Fair Work Commission's decision to reduce penalty rates on weekends when they themselves have already sold them to the highest bidder. Let us not forget that the Labor Party froze family tax benefits A and B, that Labor lied when it claimed that One Nation supported cuts to pensions, and that Labor lied with its despicable 'Mediscare' campaign during the last election—
I retract the word 'lie'. They wilfully sought to deceive ordinary Aussies in a campaign in a desperate attempt to grab power from the Liberals. Labor misrepresented 'Mediscare' and they are now misrepresenting the effects of this legislation. How despicable! How contemptible! Complete disregard and disrespect for the people of Australia and for this parliament. Labor's hypocrisy is just breathtaking.
The great Ben Chifley and John Curtin must truly be turning in their graves. If they were alive today, I have no doubt that Ben Chifley and John Curtin would be One Nation leaders. They would know that Pauline Hanson's One Nation is the party that stands up for the rights of proud Australian workers. Ben Chifley and John Curtin would not sell out workers for political kickbacks like the Leader of the Opposition did. They would not sell out their own workers' jobs in mining, forestry and energy and today's so-called Labor Party has done. They would know where the light on the hill was. They would know the ALP have extinguished that light and plunged states like South Australia into darkness. Even the name ALP applied to the rabble of corrupt union apparatchiks and crypto-Marxists who fill the opposition benches would be an affront to Ben Chifley and John Curtin, those champions of the nationalist working class. No wonder they removed the letter 'u' from their latter day party name; they were no longer a labour party and they did not want a real worker to sue them.
I can just imagine what Ben Chifley and John Curtin would have to say to those opposite right now. They would be absolutely appalled. I can just imagine the great Ben Chifley thundering his opposition to Labor and their anti-Semitic Greens partners, fellow travellers in this chamber. Can you imagine what a One Nation Senator John Curtin would have to say to the leader of the Labor Party here in this chamber? What would he have to say to Senator Wong? He would be shocked and ashamed that the likes of Senator Wong pretend to lead the party that he used to represent and sneer at the honest Aussie workers her party should be defending.
However, in truth not absolutely everything that those opposite have raised here is wrong, and this is to be expected. Despite the great hypocrisy of the current opposition leadership, its ideological bankruptcy and its extraordinary irrationality, right thinking may still not be beyond them. It is said that a baby, given enough time, will eventually recite the Gettysburg address. Or perhaps more prosaically, we know that even a stopped clock gets the time right twice a day. So we see that this is where Labor's truth is to be found these days—in the indubitable twice-a-day wisdom of the stopped clock. I note that, in a rare moment of clarity, an opposition senator observed that the budget measures proposed in this bill are very small savings compared with what could be generated if foreign multinationals paid their fair share of tax here in Australia. Well, honourable senators may be surprised to hear that One Nation could not agree more. This is why I raised this issue in my first speech six months ago and why our leader brought on the debate yesterday on multinational taxation.
Labor is, of course, a late convert to catching up with multinational tax dodgers. They recently had six years in government, which they spent like drunken sailors, but failed to even consider tackling this issue that is vital to families' cost of living. Contrary to the conclusion of my Labor colleagues, we do not consider fair taxation of multinationals to be an argument against the government's legislation. In fact, to conclude this actually makes no sense at all. Yes, foreign multinationals need to pay a fair share of tax here. We agree; and, unlike the Labor-Greens junta and the Liberal government, we intend to take steps to ensure that they do. However, these future increases in revenue are not an argument against taking responsible and long overdue steps to rein in the budget deficit now—'as well as, not instead of' should be our motto here.
But perhaps the biggest problem with this legislation is that the government's ambitions to rein in debt and overspending are far too modest. There are many areas outside social services that we have identified and will pursue in the months ahead. Perhaps because the government continues to pander to Labor, to a leftist media and to flip-flopping centrist crossbenchers it seems to only ever tiptoe around the real issues in terms of spending cuts—window-dressing—just as we see very weak and timid measures proposed in other areas such as the drawn out and ultimately inconclusive agony over the fundamental issue of free speech.
The basic problem seems to be that the government is terrified of offending someone and being seen as too far to the right. One Nation is not afraid. We do not care about these perceptions. The Greens may believe that morality is a contorting Brazilian gymnast with a colourful costume, unlimited flexibility and an uncertain gender provenance. The Greens may believe that truth is an optional luxury or just another lie as yet undiscovered. But One Nation does not. Truth does not change depending upon one's standpoint, it does not disappear when it proves inconvenient, and it is not amenable to selective re-interpretation.
There can be no greater difference between political parties than revealed by the difference between the lying hypocrisy of Labor and the cultural Marxist immorality of the Greens compared with what One Nation represents. Love us or hate us, no-one can deny the utter sincerity of our beliefs. We do not try to say what we think will be safe or popular. We say what we believe is right and we face the consequences. Our nationalist movement recognises that objective truth exists. What concerns us is not perception but clarity. Win or lose, we will never resile or recant, we will never quit and we will never waver in our commitment to tell the truth and fight to restore the prosperous, law abiding, cohesive, monocultural nation that successive leftist governments have sought to destroy for over 40 years. One Nation will not linger ineffectually in this place nor slowly fade away. We will burn brightly like a meteor in the southern night sky, a harbinger that heralds the rebirth of One Nation to bring back Australia and protect Australian families.
I have an eerie sense of deja vu as I rise to speak on this bill. Already, less than 12 months after the election and 12 months after entering this chamber, I have already had a number of reasons to give speeches about the consequences of the dirty, dodgy preference deals between Pauline Hanson's One Nation party and her Liberal Party coalition partners. I have already had a number of reasons to speak about this. Not that long ago, in the debate about the ABCC bill, despite all their racist and xenophobic rhetoric about how everyone from overseas is a bad person and should be kept out, we saw Senator Hanson and her colleagues vote with their Liberal Party preference deal friends to make it easier for building companies to bring overseas workers on 457 visas onto Australian building sites at the expense of local workers. We saw Senator Hanson and her colleagues vote with the government only a few weeks ago to allow building companies to get rid of requirements in their enterprise agreements which would require them to employ more apprentices and give more young Australian kids a start.
This week we have seen Senator Hanson flag that she is going to vote with her Liberal Party coalition colleagues to support the cut to penalty rates that will hurt so many Australian families right around this country. And tonight we see Senator Hanson and her colleagues again buddy up with Malcolm Turnbull and the LNP, as we know them in Queensland, to cut income support to the most vulnerable families in our community.
As I have said on many occasions, Senator Hanson and her colleagues have done a fairly good job over the last few months of running around Queensland in particular, and all around Australia, holding themselves out as the only people who care about the battlers in our community. If you are poor, disenfranchised, worried about the future, worried about what kind of job you are going to have and worried about what kind of job your kids are going to have, Senator Hanson and her colleagues would have you believe that they are in your corner fighting for you. But, time after time after time, we see Senator Hanson and her colleagues come down here into Canberra, where they think they are out of scrutiny and away from what Queenslanders and other Australians can see them doing, and they get behind closed doors and do dodgy deals with their coalition mates to deliver cuts to the most vulnerable people in our community, the very battlers that they say they are in politics to represent.
Tonight is yet another occasion when we are seeing this from Senator Hanson and her colleagues. It is not enough for them to go after the penalty rates of low-income working Australians. It is not enough for them to go after apprentices on building sites who are just looking to get a start to their career. It is not enough to go after the working poor; tonight they are coming in here and going after people who are not even working and not able to earn an income, by cutting some of the vital social security payments that these families depend upon to be able to feed their kids and make ends meet.
We all know—it has become legendary—about the preference deals which were negotiated by Senator Hanson and her One Nation colleagues with Senator Cormann, Senator Cash and other members of the Liberal Party in Western Australia. What we are seeing tonight, again, is the pay-off for those preference deals. They stitched up a nice little deal where they would swap preferences and get themselves elected in Western Australia. But any of us who have been involved in a deal or a negotiation, whether it is about buying a car, buying a house or getting votes, know that you do not get a deal without getting something in return. Tonight we are seeing yet again what the Liberal Party is getting in return for giving preferences to One Nation, and that is support for legislation which is going to hurt the most vulnerable people in our community. It is an absolute disgrace that vulnerable people in our community should be hurt by Pauline Hanson's One Nation party and the Liberal Party as the price of preference deals. We do not know what preference deals are going to be struck by these parties heading into the Queensland state election, the next federal election or other state elections all around the country, but what you can bet your bottom dollar on is that the price of getting any of these preference deals into the future is going to be the continued support of Senator Hanson and her colleagues to get through disastrous, draconian legislation that is going to hurt the most vulnerable people in our community.
This afternoon, as I was getting ready to speak in this debate, I thought about someone I had spoken to who was thinking about voting for Senator Hanson at the last federal election. She was a very poor woman, just outside a very poor school in Rockhampton. She had dropped her kids off to school, and we had a bit of a chat to her about why she should vote Labor. She was telling us that she was actually thinking about voting for Senator Hanson, because she was really struggling to make ends meet, and she thought that Senator Hanson was the only person who was going to stand up for her. I said to her: 'Look, I understand why you feel unhappy and threatened by what's going on in society, and I understand why you can be tempted to vote for Senator Hanson, because she's saying all sorts of things that you might like, but you can bet your bottom dollar that, if she gets elected, she is going to sell you down the river. She is going to cut your social security, she is going to cut your wages and she is going to cut every benefit you get from the government, because she actually just doesn't care about poor and vulnerable people. She only cares about herself, her profile and keeping herself in parliament.' That woman was rightly sceptical; politicians say a lot of things during election campaigns. Well, wasn't I right? When I talked to this poor woman, who was clearly really struggling to make ends meet, wasn't I right that Senator Hanson was going to come in here, sell her down the river and sell out everything that she was promising to do for this woman? She is doing it again tonight.
Just briefly, let's think about what some of these cuts actually mean. First of all, the government, with the support of Senator Hanson, is going to freeze family tax benefits for two years. What that means in practice is that the family tax benefits that people receive from the government to help them make ends meet are not going to increase for two years. They are not going to keep pace with the cost of living increasing. Electricity bills might go up, the price of food might go up, the price of petrol might go up and phone bills might go up, but you are not going to get a single cent extra from this government and Senator Hanson to help you pay those increased costs.
We are not talking about wealthy families that are getting these benefits. There is a misconception out there in the community that it is wealthy or middle-class families that are getting these kinds of benefits. It is not true. There are 600,000 families in Australia who are getting the maximum family tax benefit A rate, which means that their household income is less than $52,000 per year. That is not a rich family, and they are not going to get any more money in family tax benefits from this government, with Senator Hanson's support.
The government is also, through this bill, going to freeze income-tax-free thresholds for single parents, jobseekers and students—again, no cost-of-living increase for any of these things—and they are going to extend the waiting period for parenting payments and youth allowance. So a single parent—a person, most likely a woman, whose family has broken up, who has custody of her kids and who is on her own—might in the past have been able to go to the government and get a parenting payment to get through, but she is now going to have to wait. What a kick in the guts for someone who has just gone through a family break-up! And who is making this happen? It is the LNP, the Liberals and the Nationals, with the support of Senator Hanson. How is that helping battlers? It is not; it is selling them out.
Even worse, these cuts are actually not needed. We already have the most targeted social security system in the world. This is not a bloated system going to waste; it is highly targeted at people who really need it. These cuts are not needed to pay for the childcare reforms that the government is putting through. Even childcare operators, who stand to gain from the childcare changes that are being made, told the Senate inquiry into this bill that the changes to child care have already been paid for. These cuts are not needed. They are not needed for budget repair. We all know there are other options that this government could be exploring if it actually wanted to bring in some more money for the budget. It could get rid of its $50 billion tax cut for big business. It could get rid of the negative gearing concessions that are available to wealthy Australians buying multiple investment properties. Why isn't Senator Hanson making the government take up those changes? That would be something that would actually help battlers. But no—she is in here voting with the government to hurt battlers and to take money off them.
In politics from time to time you have to pick a side, and I am very proud that Labor has picked a side, and that is the side of battling people, vulnerable people and lower income people right across this country. We are standing up for their penalty rates, and we are standing up for the minimal social security payments that they already receive. On the other side of this chamber, the Liberals, the Nationals and Senator Hanson have also picked a side. They are for big business and for rich people in this community. They are not for battlers; they are going to sell them out every day of the week, and this is another tragic example.
Well, here we are. What a surprise. I am glad, in some respects, that I am following Senator Roberts, because he came in here to put the position of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party and he failed to put forward a coherent argument as to why they are supporting these measures.
No, I am not surprised. He came in here to attack the Labor Party and to talk about why he is supporting these measures in front of us, but he failed to do so—he failed to coherently argue why. He attacked the Labor Party—the Labor Party who always stands up for working families. He talked about the light on the hill. I am very proud to be a Labor Party senator who protects the light on the hill—the light on the hill that is shining brightly.
I hope that One Nation supporters listened to Senator Roberts's contribution in this debate tonight, because they will not be happy with his contribution. They will not be happy with the fact that it looks like Senator Roberts walked past the Liberal Party caucus room and picked up some speaking notes on this measure. They will not be happy that once again One Nation have thrown their lot in with this government, which is determined to rip money from those most vulnerable—the struggling families in our community. I hope anyone who is thinking of voting for One Nation heard that contribution, because just six weeks ago this government tried to ram through—again with the assistance of some of the crossbenchers—massive cuts to working- and middle-class families, to pensioners, to young people and to vulnerable Australians by tying these enormous cuts to their childcare package. We are finally landing where everyone knew we would. It is an absolute stitch-up—a dodgy deal cooked up in the dead of night with crossbench senators to rip money out of the pockets of struggling Australians. I am going to say this again, just for the benefit of Senator Roberts: struggling Australians. This is what this will do; this is what this bill before us, the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017, will do—it will rip money out of the pockets of struggling Australians. It is absolutely galling to have the government come in here and try to ram through this new legislation without even allowing the Australian people, through the parliament, an opportunity to scrutinise the measures. It is a shameful act indeed. If senators have had, as I have had tonight, emails asking, imploring and begging them to vote against these measures, they should really go back and think about what ordinary Australians—their constituents, most likely—are now emailing them about. They are asking us to vote against the measures that we are debating here tonight.
We have had no opportunity to scrutinise these measures, and they are from a government that is so out of touch with the Australian people they actually think it makes sense to make life harder for struggling Australians—the vulnerable, the sick, the elderly, the young, the jobless, the working- and middle-class families—while at the same time proposing to give away one of the biggest ever tax cuts in this nation's history to the big banks and multinational corporations. It is an absolute disgrace.
This bill is a smash-and-grab on the hip pockets of ordinary Australians. It makes this country more unequal. The government is seriously suggesting that, by taking money from the pockets of hardworking and struggling Australians and handing it over to multinational corporations that have money spilling out of skyscrapers in downtown Manhattan, they are acting in the interests of the Australian people or this nation's budget. This is about robbing ordinary Australians of assistance and of what they need to make ends meet—to put food on the table, to pay the rent. To come in here this morning and try to foist this on the Australian parliament without allowing proper debate is a low act indeed.
Speaking of low acts, let us not forget that the Treasurer even tried to put into question future funding for the National Disability Insurance Scheme by tying it to his government's now split omnibus bill. They should be ashamed of what they were trying to do. They go out there, they say they support the NDIS, and then they try to pit one section of the community against another. It is a shameful, shameful act. The Treasurer seriously said to Australians with disability, their families and their carers that he was going to put in jeopardy their NDIS just to satisfy his base political need to rip money from ordinary Australians and then shovel it off to his big business mates in a giant tax giveaway.
The rushing through of this legislation is indicative of just how much chaos this government is in. Yesterday we had the Prime Minister, on Harmony Day, forced into proposing a bill to weaken the protections for race hate speech, just to satisfy the Abbott agitators in his party room—a bill which is dead on arrival in the Senate. His much vaunted childcare package, which he inherited from Mr Abbott, is the measure used to justify these zombie budget cuts from the horror 2014 Abbott-Hockey budget.
The Prime Minister is simply implementing the agenda of his predecessor. It is a very sad state of affairs and an indictment of his leadership. It is no wonder that the Australian people have very quickly looked Mr Turnbull up and down and decided they are done with him. This government has nothing new to offer unless you are a big bank or a multinational corporation. They are still pursuing measures from their 2015 budget, measures comprehensively rejected by the Australian people.
This bill before us tonight has $1.4 billion in cuts to family payments. Let's look at some of what is now in here—some of what has been snuck in by the government through their late-night deal making. The bill will freeze current family tax benefit rates for two years. This is a very impactful measure. It affects 1½ million Australian families, all of whom will be worse off. It leaves more than two million children worse off. Up to 600,000 of these families are on the maximum rate of FTBA. That means their household income is less than $52,000 per year. That is hitting some of the lowest-income people in Australia—families who need our help, families who expect us to do our job. How are we supposed to do our job and protect these families when the government and crossbenchers want to cook up cosy little deals to hide these cuts from the Australian people by ramming them through the Senate?
That is what is happening here tonight. Make no mistake—these bills are being rammed through the Senate with little scrutiny and with absolutely no opportunity for the Australian people to understand what the government is putting forward that will impact on them. Presented in this place, without any opportunity to scrutinise the contents of this bill, $1.4 billion is ripped from the pockets of low-income Australian families. It is another zombie measure from 2014, universally acknowledged as one of the most unfair budgets in Australian history. Of course we know what happened to former Treasurer Hockey, mostly because of the terrible 2014 budget.
Labor opposed this cut and we continue to do so now. Labor will not resile from our support for working and middle-class Australian families. We will stick up for them. We will defend them. We do not sell them down the river so we can give a huge tax cut to big banks and multinationals. This Government would not know a working-class Australian if they tripped over one. They are too busy rubbing shoulders with the big business elite. They are arrogant, they are out of touch, and it shows in this bill. This bill shows that they do not care how they will hurt ordinary Australians. The manner in which they have stumbled into the chamber today and thrown this onto the table shows just how out of control this ramshackle mob are. When Labor last opposed this measure the Liberals actually withdrew it from the parliament and took it out of the budget.
Let's not forget that family tax benefit payments play a critical role in helping to alleviate child poverty. They help low- and middle-income families cover the costs of children. They are a fundamental bedrock of the Australian tax and transfer payment system, a system designed to spread equity, to boost equality and to foster inclusive prosperity. This proposed freeze to indexation of family tax benefits means that these payments will not keep pace with the cost of living for two years. That means two years of cuts—cuts which will have an ongoing affect after the freeze is lifted.
Families are under real pressure in this country. Bills are rising. Rents are sky high. Health costs are ballooning. Families cannot afford this. They do not deserve it. This bill is just another kick in the guts to hard-working Australian families. The truth is the Liberal Party's vision for Australia's future is about ripping up the basic social contract in this country. They want to make life harder for ordinary Australians, to make them poorer, all so they can line the pockets of their mates at the top end of town. It is 'lifters and leaners' all over again. That is just not the Australian way. We are a generous and compassionate country that deeply values fairness. Labor will never stop fighting for the values we know that Australian people hold. We will defend the lowest-paid workers in this country, many of whom will be affected by the proposed cuts to family tax benefits contained in this bill today. It is another blow to many workers who face real cuts to their take-home pay—700,000 workers who face a pay cut of $77 a week, cuts imposed on them by Mr Turnbull and his government because they refuse to back Labor's bill to protect penalty rates. It is a real demonstration of their priorities: all take and no give, unless—I am sure you know the answer, Madam Deputy President—you are a banker.
This bill attacks the incomes of students. It freezes for three years the income-free areas for all working age and student payments. This would mean that for three years the income tests applying to payments for single parents, jobseekers and students will not keep pace with the cost of living. This affects Newstart payment recipients also—again, some of the people doing it the toughest. This government, this Prime Minister, this Treasurer and some on the crossbench all say, 'I know: let's stick it to the jobless. Let's kick them while they're down.'
This bill will affect 204,000 Australians on the lowest incomes. The thresholds being frozen are already incredibly low. For example, for parenting payment the threshold after which the payment is reduced is $188 per fortnight. There is no rationale to freeze this for three years, no explanation for why this would be done. After all if the budget can afford a $50 billion splurge on the big banks and multinationals, some of which are overseas companies, why can't it afford to look after vulnerable Australians? These priorities are all wrong. The cuts in this bill mean that for Newstart the threshold after which the payments are reduced is $143 per fortnight. Let that sink in: $143 before their payment begins to be cut. And this will be frozen for three years. In 2020 it will still be $143. But we can afford to give big banks a tax cut. It is unbelievable.
Labor will stand up in this place today, tomorrow and Friday—whenever, wherever—and oppose these cruel cuts. But that is not all that is in this bill; oh no. The Liberals want to extend the one-week waiting period served by recipients of Newstart and sickness allowance to recipients of parenting payment and some youth allowance recipients. They also want to make it harder for people who are already in a perilous financial situation to access the financial hardship exemption by requiring that they also be experiencing a personal financial crisis. This is just one more example of Mr Turnbull's clear disregard for those who are struggling to make ends meet. Again, there is no policy rationale for this—just cuts to the most vulnerable: cut, cut, cut; hammer, hammer, hammer. That is all the Liberals know.
Well, we have already beaten their draconian five-week wait for Newstart, but now here we go again. Of course these cuts will be felt particularly acutely in my home state of Tasmania. We have a higher proportion of people in need of assistance payments. It is no wonder that when you treat the young, the sick, the aged, the jobless, and families and low-paid workers with such contempt you get a result that sees massive swings against the Liberal government and the loss of all their lower house seats in Tasmania.
And it goes on, because now they are even raising and issuing fake debt notices to payment recipients—demanding that they pay back money they do not even owe, putting the onus on them to prove that they do not owe it. How outrageous. Following the Centrelink robo-debt debacle, why would we trust the government with automation of payment review processes? Yet in this bill, again, supported by some in the crossbench, we have a measure that will automate the process by which the Department of Human Services collects income stream information. From 1 January 2018, a six-monthly electronic data collection process will be introduced for income stream information from financial service providers. We have already seen thousands of ordinary law-abiding Australians who did nothing wrong but were sent debt letters—pensioners being shaken down by debt collectors, horror stories, stories of unfairness. Now they want to extend the debacle. Well, it is just not on.
Labor will fight this smash and grab on vulnerable, working and middle-class Australians. We invite crossbenchers to do the same. Instead, some crossbenchers have come in here today and supported an hours motion to derail the orderly business of the Senate so they can support this bill. If the government were actually in control of their own agenda, if they were not in a constant state of rolling crises, they would be able to put their legislative agenda through the normal processes. But they do not want scrutiny. They do not want the Australian people to have the opportunity to see what it is they are seeking to ram down their throats. But of course, this bill fits neatly into the Liberal agenda. It is about making the poor poorer and the rich richer—textbook Liberal ideology. They all know it. It is in their DNA. It is the founding principle of Liberal philosophy. It is arrogant. It is out of touch: 1½ million families left worse off because of this bill, Tasmanian families left worse off because of this bill, 1½ million children worse off. They cannot afford it, they do not deserve it and they certainly do not deserve this government.
Thank you, Senator Dastyari, for very kindly arranging to assemble a crowd for my speech. I forgive senators if they go back to their tasks at hand. I know there is a lot of work being done tonight in this building and I am sure there are very important duties that must be returned to.
Well, colleagues, what a cynical and petulant display we have seen from the Australian Labor Party tonight. They have mustered filibustering, talking it out, trying to keep us here as late as possible so they can demonstrate to their unions that they have at least put up a fight, they have tried their best, they know they do not have the numbers, but they are going to go down kicking and screaming in true Labor Party style. I have only been here for a year but I have seen it more often than I thought I would—tokenistic debates to drag out the time this afternoon to put on this petulant display.
Let's introduce some facts back into the debate. Let's remind those opposite of the situation they left this government in which has forced it to do the responsible and necessary thing of ensuring that important social reforms like the one proposed in child care this week by the minister, Senator Birmingham, can actually be paid for and delivered. I hate to have to remind those opposite, but these are the facts. The federal government this year is headed for a budget deficit of about $35 billion, just as it was last year. Gross debt is well on its way to $500 billion. That is the legacy this government was left by the previous government and that is the legacy that this government is trying to deal with. Unfortunately, we have had very little assistance from those opposite in dealing with that task. We would very much like to have fixed this task and dealt with it much sooner, but every reasonable attempt we have made to negotiate and propose different solutions to get the budget back into surplus and to get the debt paid down has been refused.
Let's remember it was those opposite that broke the budget during the global financial crisis with reckless stimulus spending. We now know with hindsight that it was clearly excessive and unnecessary to keep the economy going. Let's remember it was those opposite had bedded into the budget long-term spending initiatives with no capacity or plans to pay for them. They knew, of course, that they were on the way out and it would never be their problem—it would never be up to them to balance the budget. This government wants to keep in place many of those important social reforms that we supported, such as the NDIS and good funding for schools, but this government is not willing to put the tab on future generations. This government knows that we have to pay today for the spending we incur today. We know that it is morally wrong to leave future generations to bear the burden of the excesses of this generation. Every dollar we spend today that we do not have is a dollar that will have to be paid back with interest by our children and grandchildren.
The young people who will benefit improved initiatives in this childcare package are also the ones who will have to pay the full cost of that and many other things the government spends money on today. That is because those opposite left the budget in such a state of disarray and worked so hard to obstruct this government's attempt to return to surplus. I think that is morally wrong. I want to see improved, better-targeted, quality child care, as the minister has devised. I would like to see families receive the benefit of better-targeted child care and subsidies to ensure the money is going to those who need it most and not to those who do not need it—those highest income earners. In order to do that, we have to pay for it. It is not responsible to continue to put it on the credit card.
Let's remember that those opposite took to this election a childcare policy which made no changes to the broken system. They simply planned to pump more money into a bad system that everyone in the sector and every expert said was broken and needed to be fixed. Let's remember that it was this government and the minister, Senator Birmingham, who proposed a solution to that—a reform which has been widely praised within the sector and by experts as being better targeted, as going to those who need it most and as an initiative that will encourage workforce participation. The reform will ensure that families do not run out of childcare subsidies halfway or a third of the way through the year and are then faced with the difficult decision of having the second income earner continue to work or to stay at home and look after the children, even if they prefer to be working.
That is the reform proposed by the government, which those opposite suggest they support to some extent, although they have not been clear whether they will actually vote for it. I eagerly await to see how they will exercise their votes this week. I will go through some of the initiatives that this government has proposed for funding this program. I think they are incredibly reasonable initiatives. Of course, no-one in government ever likes to cut back or to rein in spending but any responsible government knows that it is not right to send more money out the door than you are collecting. That is what those opposite propose that we do.
This new bill contains three measures from the original omnibus bill. The first is maintaining income-free areas and a means-test threshold for certain payments and allowances at their current level for three years. That is not taking anything away and that is not cutting anything back; it is simply maintaining the status quo for the next three years. It is a modest and reasonable measure. The second is automating the income-stream review process to improve the accuracy of income-support payments and reductions in customer debts. We know the trouble those opposite have in ensuring that the right amount of welfare is paid to those who are entitled to it, but not a dollar more. We know the protests that they have put in place against the government's attempts to recoup the debts which were incurred during their time in office, but which they made no reasonable attempts to recover. We know their desire to stop a successful program which today is discovering people who have been wrongly paid welfare they are not entitled to, and we know how much they have fought efforts to ensure those taxpayer dollars have been put to good and appropriate use.
The third measure extends and simplifies ordinary waiting periods for the parenting payment and for youth allowance for a person who is not undertaking full-time study and is not a new apprentice. The bill also includes a new schedule to maintain the current family tax benefit payment rates for two years at their current levels from 1 July 2017. This measure will achieve savings of about $2 billion over the 2017-18 forward estimates, which will build to $5.5 billion over the medium term.
It is really important that we note for the record here tonight and for anyone who might be watching that under this new measure there will be no cuts—that is, no cuts—to family tax benefit payments. You could be forgiven, having listened to some of the emotional speeches from the other side, for thinking that that might be the case, but it is not. Indeed, over the two-year maintenance period, many families will in fact see an increase in their payments as a result of increases to particular income thresholds for family tax benefits. As the minister said in the other place earlier this week when introducing this legislation, the government has also reversed a previous decision to increase FTB payment rates to offset, in part, the effect of the phase-out of FTB supplements, which was a measure contained in the original omnibus savings bill. Not proceeding with that increase in family tax benefit payment rates will, compared with the previous social services omnibus savings bill, reduce the cost by a further $2.3 billion over the current forward estimates period and reduce the costs over the medium term by about $11 billion. So we are not proceeding with an increase that was actually included in a previous bill, which those opposite indicated they would not support.
The bill further builds on the $6.3 billion in budget improvements over the forward estimates achieved through the original omnibus bill, which passed the Senate earlier this year. Here I give due credit to those opposite. They did vote for one initiative that reduced spending and helped get the budget back to surplus, but they should not be too proud of that, because all that initiative did was take the savings measures they proposed during the election and put them in a bill that was introduced into this place. Of course, it was not an easy process. They did kick and scream on the way to voting for their own savings initiatives, promised at the election.
It is the government's intention to secure the passage of both this bill and the childcare bill through the Senate this week. If we are able to do that, Australian families will be able to rely on a childcare system that better suits and targets their needs and that helps control the cost of child care, which families have told us is the No. 1 pressure on the household budget. That is what this government has been seeking to do since the election, and that is what this government has been frustrated in its attempts to do by this chamber, in particular those opposite. I hope, through the long debate tonight and probably tomorrow night, that those opposite take the opportunity to reflect on the fact that they are standing in the way of a better childcare system which better targets the scarce resources that the government has at its disposal. The bill will ensure child care is more affordable for families and better targeted to those middle-income families who rely on it most and on whom it will have the most positive impact in terms of workforce participation. I hope those opposite reconsider their decision to delay, obstruct and prevent it from being implemented.
We have heard loud and clear from Australian families, particularly those with young children, that this is an important and overdue reform, and we are doing our very best to fix the broken system that was presided over by our predecessors. It is disappointing, but not surprising, that those opposite are not assisting us in that task, but I hope they have cause to reflect on that over the duration of this debate.
What a pleasure it is to contribute to this debate on the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 and to follow Senator Paterson. I want to take a couple of moments to address some of the issues that he raised. To stand there and say that in having this debate we are looking after our union friends is bordering on ludicrous. Mr Acting Deputy President, for a bloke like Senator Paterson—whose greatest achievement to date in life has probably been to stay awake in his university lectures—to come in here and talk about family budgets is, well, a little bit rich. Here he is in this chamber lecturing the Labor Party about who we represent. I have to tell you, Senator Paterson, we know who we represent, and in the main it is the ordinary hardworking Australians who go carefully about their business, building the fabric of Australian society. Occasionally, their skills and their expertise do not allow that. But of course, as I think one of the government's ministers stated: 'No problem—if you've got an issue buying a house, just get a better job.' Well, where I live, quite often those better jobs are not available. People go to work every day and make ends meet in difficult circumstances. Occasionally, though they go to work every day, five or six days a week, their income is still not enough and they are entitled to some compensation, some assistance, from a benevolent government. May I say, I think some of the initiatives that they now enjoy originated in the government of Prime Minister Howard, probably one Senator Paterson's heroes, who saw fit to recognise that working families without the capacity to 'go and get a better job' might actually need a bit of assistance.
What we have here is a remnant of the 2014 budget. After the 2014 budget, a very long serving senator said to me that six weeks after most budgets no-one can recall them, but the 2014 budget is etched in the memory of every voting Australian. We know the lifters and leaners speech. We know the whereabouts of the former Treasurer—we know he is in Washington enjoying life large. It was the end of his career, the 2014 budget—the night of the big fat cigar and the glass of wine, when he was playing 'The best day of my life'. It was not the best day of his political life, because he is no longer in the parliament and he no longer enjoys support of his colleagues. Fortunately for the Hon. Joe Hockey, he is now in Washington enjoying a vastly superior outcome to that of most of the working families in South Australia, most of whom are on $52,000. That is probably his grog bill in Washington for a year.
Those on the government side come in here and lecture us about doing work to support these people. It is our duty. It is why we were elected. It is what we are here for. We are here to support working families and people who do not have position, power and privilege. That lot on the government benches are on side with those who have position, power and privilege. They are all for it. They want a $50 billion tax cut for them. They want to look after position, power and privilege.
On the Labor Party's side, we are very proud to be on the side of those who occasionally need a leg up. They do not need it all the time. People on our side of the political spectrum are successful. They are small businesses, upper-middle-class people who have make good, people who have enjoyed a free tertiary education. They are loyal Labor Party members. But we all recognise that there are people who occasionally need support, whether it is because of geographical reasons or whether it is because there was a decision to shut down manufacturing industry and, in terms of motor vehicles, put potentially 200,000 Australians out of work. There has to be recognition of their circumstances, and occasionally there has to be government intervention in terms of making sure those people get a fair shake. That is a humane, ordinary political measure, but it does not come naturally to the dry economic rationalists, like Senator Paterson, who have never had a day when they have had to worry about paying a bill or a mortgage, who have never been worried about whether there is enough food to feed their children, who have never had an unemployed neighbour who is struggling from week to week and needs to come and borrow a couple of bucks to get through till the weekend.
Let's have a look at what the government are doing. They are actually making a $1.4 billion cut to Australian families. Their argument is: do not worry, we are just going to give it back in another way. Those people whose rate is frozen for two years will be worse off. This means that 1.5 million families will be worse off, and, most importantly, those who cannot yet vote—2 million children—will be worse off. Is that what Senator Paterson and his side really want to do?
They go on about fixing the budget. All senators in this place are across a number of committees. I am on the Public Works Committee, and I am not impressed with the way this government spends money. Some 85,000 square metres of new property has been leased at a cost of $900 million. There is no real justification of the need for the new property. It will cost $250 million to fit it out and $256 million to put furniture and chairs and tables in it. To add insult to injury, they are borrowing about $150 million of that and paying $44 million in interest. Then they come into this chamber and say that someone on Newstart is getting too much. The Business Council of Australia recognises that Newstart is a disincentive for people to be able to find work. If you are on Newstart, there is not enough to allow you to clothe yourself, get the amenities of life and present properly for a job interview.
The government cannot keep cutting these areas. It is counterproductive. And it wants to make them wait longer. Senator Hanson is saying, 'Well, they just finish school and get on the dole.' I do not know any people like that, but I do know that people on Newstart are doing it extremely tough and this government wants to make it tougher. There will be 1.5 million families and almost two million children who will be worse off. There are 600,000 households that are on the maximum rate of FTB A. That is an acronym; no-one understands what 'FTB A' means when you use acronyms. We are all fond of this sort of jargon, but the guts of it is this: their income is less than $52,000 a year, and this is for a family. They have to pay their rising electricity costs, they have to pay all of their rising grocery costs and they have to pay their public transport costs.
I will digress for a moment. No-one has actually written to the American government or to America and said, 'Thank you for inventing hydraulic fracking and making yourself self-sufficient in fuel,' because the one thing that has not really gone up in price in Australian society is the cost of fuel. However, if you are on a Newstart payment, it is still a significant impediment to filling up a car's petrol tank. I do not know if Senator Paterson has ever realised this, but at many services station there is now a minimum purchase amount. There is a $20 minimum at the service station I go to. If you are only getting 150 bucks a week, a $20 minimum when you go to the service station to fill up the tank for that job interview during the week is a pretty severe impost. We are making it tougher for them—tougher, not better. It is an absolute disgrace.
But those over there on the government side will rest easy because those with position, power and privilege are who they are looking after. Their main game is to give big business a tax cut funded out of budget repair which attacks those in the economy least able to defend themselves because of where they live geographically, because of the reduction in manufacturing or because they do not have the educational qualifications that would enable them to get that better paid job that someone on the government side said they should get. They have no worries about house prices, just 'go and get a better job'. These people are completely out of touch with reality. They ought to climb out of their ivory towers, forget about power, position and privilege and start mixing with ordinary Australian workers in ordinary Australian electorates. I dare say there are plenty on the backbench who would understand and recognise what I am saying, because they probably do move in circles a little bit less august than that creme de la creme who purport to be the leadership of this Liberal government. I reiterate: a lot of these measures that will be cut would have originated with the Howard government recognising the place of families in Australian society and their need for these measures.
We get accused of filibustering. I do not think it is a filibuster when you carefully and appropriately identify what is coming. At the end of this vote, what is coming in this budget is a regurgitation of Joe Hockey's horrendous 2014 budget—the one that got him the sack, if you like; the one put the entire government on the nose, if you like; the one they celebrated with a cigar and wine as 'the best days of our lives'; and the one that was going to repair the whole of Australian society until people actually understood what it was doing. It was the antithesis of what the electorate wanted.
So we have moved on. We have moved on from the Hon. Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, we have moved on from the Hon. Joe Hockey as Treasurer, and they are at it again. They are building up, coming in here, lecturing us about our opposition to what is a dastardly attack on ordinary Australians going about their business and trying to make ends meet.
Let's just talk about some of the things that this bill will do. This bill will also freeze, for three years, the income-free areas for all working age and student payments. Think about that. They are entitled to a payment and they are entitled to the income-free area. I would have thought, in order to get someone off a payment, you would be more generous in what they could earn income free. You would be more generous, not less generous. Look, if somebody is on Newstart and is able to get three months' work up the Riverland picking fruit or learning new skills, I would have thought you would be more generous in that area, not less generous. Through that investment, people may then, through some casual work, be able to get their endeavours recognised. A reasonable employer may say, 'Look, I have to move a bit; I can get a bit of assistance from the state government of South Australia—$10,000 for a worker. Maybe I can make a go of this and we'll offer them some employment.' But instead of making that more accessible, this bill makes it less accessible. They are freezing the income-free areas for all working age and student payments. This means that, for three years, the income test applying to payments for single parents, jobseekers and students will not keep pace with the cost of living. You are almost consigning people to endless poverty because you are not allowing them to go out and have a go. I mean, if they go out and have a go and it is reduced and they get into the bureaucratic red tape, and they cannot get back to paying their bills, they end up completely behind the eight ball. This will affect 204,000 Australians on the lowest incomes. It is particularly of concern with Newstart. The Australian Business Council recognises that Newstart is actually a disincentive for people who get it to actually get a job. They are not getting enough money to actually present at an interview in a way that will gain them employment. That is not the unions or the Labor Party is saying. That is what their mob is saying—that Newstart has fallen to such a level that it is an absolute disincentive to prepare people for work.
They come in here and say that we are opposing it because we are supporting trade unions. We are opposing it because what they are doing is manifestly unfair. It is bad enough that is manifestly unjust and unfair, but it is also economically stupid. It is economically stupid to consign people to a poverty rate payment where they are not able to move off it. To reduce the income-free area is madness. It does not keep pace with inflation; it does not keep pace with anything. What are these people supposed to do? What the more enterprising of them will do is seek cash payments. They will try and go around the system. If I was in that situation, I would not be shy about it. It is manifestly economically stupid to reduce the income-free payment. You should be actually making sure that people can earn as much as they can in a robust manner so as you can move them completely off the dole, and then everybody wins. But, no, that is not what this government is doing.
Waiting periods—they want to extend the one-week waiting period served by recipients of Newstart and sickness allowance to recipients of parenting payment and some youth allowances. They want to make it harder for people who are already doing it pretty tough to access financial hardship exemption. Basically, you will have to prove that you are experiencing, say, personal financial crisis before you can access any of the remedial payments that might help your circumstances.
Malcolm Turnbull, obviously, has never met a person who has struggled on Newstart. He may say that he has, but the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull has clearly not looked through the world from the prism of Newstart payments. Good luck to the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull; he is a very successful character. He is worth more money than most in the parliament and I do not begrudge him one cent of that. But I do begrudge a government that looks at it through a totally punitive prism and says that the $143 that you may be able to earn income free is going to be frozen. We are not going to allow it to go to $150, $155 or $160.
The reality is that we should be more adventurous in this space. We should be allowing these people to take on employment for six months, hoping that we move them completely away from that bloody horrendous poverty trap. But we do not do it, because we have that party over there—One Nation and Senator Hanson—alleging that the only people on the dole are people who do not want to work. Well, that could not be further from the truth. I do not think I have ever met a person on Newstart who actually wanted to be on Newstart. It is an accident of their educational circumstances, geography, personal health or mental health in a lot of cases. They all want to move off it and we—and I would include Labor in this—have not done, in recent history, a good job of designing a system that allows them to move away from poverty. And this makes it worse. It is draconian.
For the moment, we have beaten the five-week waiting period, but, make no mistake, as with the penalty rates issue they will just keep coming. Senator Paterson—it is led by that sort of type. He has never had a real job in his life. The only thing he has ever done is stay awake through three university courses. Now, he is a senator over there lecturing this side of the chamber about how workers think and how workers feel in the real electorate because he has this prism that says, 'Our debt is rising.' I tell you what, why doesn't the government actually look at the debt and say, 'What is for infrastructure? What is productive debt? What debt have we borrowed for infrastructure? And what is the productivity factor on that borrowing?'
If you excised that, looked at your income, looked at your recurring expenditure then you may have a valid case. If you have got income and recurring expenditure, take out your productive debt, take out the debt for infrastructure, but they do not choose to. They lump it all together because they can frighten people with bigger numbers to attack the most vulnerable people in society—those on Newstart, those on parenting payments, families earning less than 52,000 bucks a year. You have got school fees, rising electricity costs, grocery costs, and this government is coming in here expecting us to say: 'You have got the numbers so we are not going to have a debate.' I am looking forward to debating this for as long as we possibly can. I am up to the challenge of pulling people like Senator Paterson into line. His budget at the moment is how much can I spend everywhere? His budget is not how much do I need to save?
The reality is we are here to represent ordinary hardworking Australians who, in a lot of cases, are still doing it extraordinarily tough. If I go back to Newstart, it is a disgrace that we have not got a system that allows people to take a job, earn a reasonable amount of money over six months and then vacate the system, vacate the whole Newstart process. The system is really punitive. If that does not work for them, they then go back to: how do I survive? Do I have to go couch surfing for a living?
I will start by pointing out the obvious as others have done; this bill is unfair. There has been $1.3 billion taken out of family tax benefit through freezing the indexation, a $1.3 billion cut for Australian families. And by freezing indexation, the government is ripping money away from people and families that need it. We have a tightly targeted welfare system. There are some countries that have broadly available welfare payments but Australia is not one of them. In our country, in order to be eligible for these payments, you have to prove some level of need.
There are almost 600,000 families on the maximum rate of family tax benefit part A. What that practically means is their household income is less and $52,000. It is not much. These are not families that have money for luxuries. This family tax benefit goes towards paying the grocery bills, goes towards buying new school shoes, goes to paying for excursions, and the freeze on indexation of these payments means that they will not keep pace with the cost of living over the next two years. The freeze for three years on the income-free areas for all working age and student payments means that the income test will not keep pace with the cost of living, and Australians will work less and less before the payment reductions start to kick in.
I know in this place arguments about the impact on vulnerable people fall on deaf ears for that side of the chamber. This government is not moved by these arguments because it obviously does not care. Since the 2014 budget, the government has gone out of its way to strip support from the poor and from the vulnerable. But the government's war on the poor has macro-economic consequences and they come at a time when we cannot afford them. Payments to low-income earners stimulate the Australian economy. Here is the logic: low-income earners are more likely to spend all the money they receive. If you are an economist, you call this the marginal propensity to consume, and the rest of us just call it common sense.
If you are a single mother working in retail in my state, say, somewhere like Dubbo, then the most recent census figure shows that the average retail worker employed in a regional area will earn just $32,000 a year. What will that woman do? She will stretch her income to last the week and she will have to spend every last dollar. This will not change from week to week because discretionary spending is not a characteristic of this woman's life; it makes up a much smaller portion of household spending for lower income earners than higher income earners for very obvious reasons, because money is always spent on the essentials. This woman is less likely to save because she really just does not have money to spare and she is certainly less likely to spend money overseas on her $32,000-a-year wage. If this woman receives support from the Australian government then that money will be spent here in Australia in her local community and that drives growth. This is not just wishful thinking; this is the view of the IMF.
The IMF released a discussion paper back in 2015 where it explained that if you lift the income share of the bottom 25 per cent of a nation by one percentage point then GDP growth increases as much as 0.38 per cent in the country over five years. By contrast, if you lift the income share of the top 20 per cent by one percentage point then GDP growth decreases over that same period. It is interesting to note in that context that we are having this debate at exactly the same time as the government continues to insist that it will legislate a $50 billion tax cut which will have benefits for the very wealthy in this community. What did Christine Lagarde say about this? She suggested that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the benefits of higher incomes are trickling up, not trickling down.
It is worth considering too that we debate this in a week when the government continues to insist that it is supportive of cuts to penalty rates. Cuts to interest penalty rates for Australia's low-income workers does not just hurt them; it hurts us. Analysis by the McKell Institute found that a partial abolition of penalties in the retail and hospitality sectors would mean that retail and hospitality workers in rural Australia would lose between $370 million and $1.5 billion each year depending on the extent of the cut. This in turn would reduce disposable income for spending in regional areas by between $174.6 million and $748.3 million. The McKell Institute concluded, quite rationally, that this would have a disastrous impact on the financial viability of the local businesses which rely on the wages of local employees to buy their products and services.
This government is hurting the economy, taking active steps to hurt the economy at a time when it needs help. The national accounts showed that we grew in the last quarter, but it is not the whole story. The wage growth in this country has become decoupled from economic growth, because the growth is being driven by export prices rather than by domestic demand. And what are we doing? What does the proposed legislation ask us to do? It asks us to further reduce domestic demand at the same time that we have lower wages and salaries, which in themselves are reducing domestic demand. It is hard to see how this could possibly be helpful for the health of the Australian economy.
I talked about the impact of penalty rate cuts in regional areas. I remind my fellow senators that I come from a regional area. I grew up in a place that had extraordinarily high levels of long-term unemployment. A lot of people go to the north coast for holidays, and it is a very nice place to holiday. But it is also a place that has continuing high levels of poverty, very high levels of unemployment and very large numbers of households with very low incomes. I know that cuts to benefits and cuts to penalty rates have a very particular impact on the region. In those regions where dependency on penalty rates and benefits is high, people depend on those things to make ends meet. Eight out of 10 of the poorest electorates in our country are in the regions. What is proposed this evening would reduce the income of people who would otherwise spend the money in local businesses in their own towns.
We are moving to a new version of the two-speed economy between the cities and the regions. At the beginning of March, research was published that showed Australia's two largest cities drove two-thirds of Australia's growth in the last fiscal year. Sydney's central business district, stretching out to Macquarie Park, made up 24 per cent of GDP growth in the financial year to June 2016. Inner Melbourne contributed 11.4 per cent of GDP growth. It is in stark contrast to regional Australia, particularly those regions where the end of the mining investment boom means that there has been a very significant slowing of the economy.
You can see it reflected in the unemployment figures. In Sydney's eastern suburbs—the Prime Minister's part of town and a nice place to live—what is the unemployment rate? It is 3.1 per cent. In places like New England and north-western New South Wales, what is it? Unemployment is more than double. It is sitting at 7.7 per cent. There is a similar pattern in Queensland. In Brisbane, unemployment is 3½ per cent. In Cairns, the unemployment rate is closer to eight per cent. In outback Queensland, it sits at 11.6 per cent; that is up from about four per cent just 18 months ago. The regions are already doing it tough, but do we see any measures being brought into this chamber to deal with that, to actually stimulate regional economies? No, we do not. Instead, we see cuts—cuts to penalty rates and cuts to benefits that pile up on top of the pressures already being faced by country towns and regional towns.
I started by saying that I understand that those opposite will not be moved by talk of hardship. They have not met an ordinary working family that they did not want to rip money away from. But you would think that those opposite would care about the economic impact of their decisions; they do not. I put it to you tonight that that is because they are stuck in an old economic paradigm—one better suited to the 1980s than to the circumstances we face now. It is one that I acknowledge is closely aligned to their ideological preferences for blaming individuals when they find themselves in hard times and one that means they bring in legislation like this that will hit the poorest and most vulnerable in our community.
The weird thing is that I expect, over the course of the next few hours or the next few days, that Pauline Hanson's One Nation, the Nationals and the Nick Xenophon Team will vote with the Liberals on this. They will vote with the Liberals on this to sell out country people, to sell out battlers and to sell out poor people. It is part of an irrational, ideological campaign by the Liberal Party. For the life of me, I cannot understand why these other parties are speaking out in support of it. I say tonight: shame on them.
I rise tonight to speak against the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017. Once again, we see the truly twisted priorities of this coalition government in evidence in the bill before us. I want to focus on the heartless cuts to the family tax benefit, which is one of the biggest cuts as part of this particular measure. Before I do so, I want to comment on the fact that—this picks up on Senator McAllister's point—not only is this a truly unfair and heartless measure, it also defies economic logic and comes within the category of economic vandalism. I will explain what I mean by that.
Recently, the Treasurer, Mr Morrison, indicated that record low wage growth was 'the biggest challenge facing the Australian economy'. He made those comments following the decision of the Fair Work Commission which we have discussed quite often in this place. That decision attacks the Sunday penalty rates of thousands of hospitality and retail workers. We know that Mr Morrison has indicated that low wage growth is a big challenge, but I understand he told Bloomberg that he was committed to ensuring workers took home more money each week. He said that he is looking to increase the pay packets of workers and to increase household income. That is a laudable objective. We do not dispute that it is a great idea for workers to receive more money in their pay packets, because of the obvious fact, noted on so many occasions, that low-income workers in particular end up spending most of what they earn, and that in turn is a benefit to the economy and a benefit to small business, who end up being the beneficiaries of that spending in the economy. He said that the biggest challenge we have is to ensure that what Australians are earning every week is increasing. Having said that, one scratches one's head to understand how a massive $1.4 billion cut to Australian families is going any way towards increasing the amount of spending that is going to occur in the economy. It might be a very short-term and short-sighted budget measure which perhaps the coalition can boast about in certain quarters, but, when it comes to doing something about addressing our economic issues on a legitimate basis, this particular measure is, as I said, in the category of economic vandalism.
Mr Morrison talked about the fact that the benefit of the penalty rate cut decision of the Fair Work Commission was that workers would be able to earn more if workplaces were open as opposed to closed because the bosses were struggling to earn a profit, but I talk to people who work in the retail industry. As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President Back, I was a union official in the shop assistants union for many years. At that time my members indicated to me that they knew that retailers did not staff their stores with any degree of generosity. They would staff a store to the absolute minimum that is required to meet the workload at that time, and even then there were skeleton staff levels in place. So we know that in retail in particular, which is an area that I can speak about with some degree of authority, those cuts to penalty rates are going to be absorbed into company profits. That is where they are going to go. They are not going to go into the pockets of workers who are working extra hours; they are going to go straight into company profits. I hear those opposite saying, 'Company profits going up—that's actually a good thing and that's going to lead to more workers being employed if businesses are more profitable.' If that were the case, why is it that we have company profits at an all-time high? I understand that, as at the fourth quarter of 2016, that was the situation—company profits were at an all-time high at an average of $77.773 billion—and yet at the same time we had the issue of record low wages growth. There is something wrong with the theorem under which the coalition is operating if they think that increased corporate profits necessarily translate into wages growth in more jobs. They have to look at the empirical evidence, as my friend Senator Roberts would say. The empirical evidence says that the linkage between profits and wage growth and employment is broken. We are in a new paradigm, so we need to have another look at that.
We also know that Reserve Bank Governor, Mr Lowe, last month warned that record high household debt and record low wage rises were limiting consumer spending and hurting the national economy. Once again I ask the question: how is it going to be the case that these cuts to family tax benefits of $1.4 billion, roughly, taken out of the budgets of Australian families, are going to assist with consumer spending and how is that going to assist the national economy? I also note that many economists have predicted that the small increase in wage growth that we experienced last month is going to do little to increase consumer spending, which many businesses rely on. This is not highfalutin economic theory; a lot of this is common sense. This is something that one would have thought otherwise rational people within the coalition would be looking at, but there seems to be an ideological agenda at play and common sense is not coming into the equation. There is a set of twisted priorities which is working its way through into government policy.
The $1.4 billion cut from families was actually a 2014 budget measure. It is something that has come back. They regurgitated it after the unfair 2014 budget measures were, in many senses, seen off three years ago. By freezing the current family tax benefit rates for two years means that 1½ million families will be worse off and more than two million children will be worse off. I have to ask the question: what does this government have against the children of Australia when families are struggling as it is to meet the cost of living? Here we see further pressure being piled upon working families by this government. Almost 600,000 of these families are on the maximum rate of family tax benefit part A, which means that their household income is less than $52,000 per year. Unfair cuts are hitting these people again and again.
We know that this low wage growth is an issue. When I was in Gladstone and Mount Morgan in Queensland last week, I met with workers and unions and I saw firsthand how this government's decision to support the cuts to penalty rates, which are piled on top of the cuts, will affect them. It is going to be devastating to these people. Not only is it an unfair situation; it is lunacy when it comes to economic policy and trying to stimulate our economy, lift wages growth and get growth up generally within the economy. I ask the coalition to think about putting themselves in the shoes of a single-income family right now. Those people are literally struggling to make ends meet as it is. Today's bill only compounds the problem with $1.4 billion being ripped out of the pockets of low-income families.
Let's look at the history of these cuts that were first introduced in the 2014 budget. Let's remember: that budget became synonymous with unfairness and twisted priorities. It was a budget written by a gentleman who told young Australians to get a better job if they wanted to buy a house. He was also the Treasurer, as I recall, who formed the conclusion that poor people did not drive cars and so were not affected by the costs of running motor vehicles. This was a budget cut that was endorsed back then by our current Prime Minister, who has said that parents could just shell out for their child's first home. So we remain opposed to this 2014 budget measure. It is, I think, an indictment of this government.
The proposed freeze to indexation of the family tax benefit means that those payments will not keep pace with the cost of living for two years, so that will just pile extra pressure on households. The truth is that this government's vision for Australia's future is about ripping up the basic social contract in this country. We are not a nation of lifters and leaners, no matter what the former Treasurer, Mr Hockey, said. We are a generous and compassionate country that deeply values fairness, and Labor will continue to defend the lowest paid workers in this country, many of whom are going to be affected by the proposed cuts to the family tax benefit.
In concluding my remarks, I want to talk about those that are actually in favour of these cuts. In particular, I would like to draw attention to the One Nation party. We know that One Nation votes with the Liberals at least 87 per cent of the time. We know that during the Western Australian election campaign Senator Hanson sold Queenslanders out by trying to reduce our share of the GST. For a party that claims to stand up for battlers they are doing a fantastic job of selling them out. In fact, they have done such a great job of selling out Queenslanders that two weeks ago our local newspaper, The Courier Mail, featured a full-page expose on One Nation's unsuccessful foray into Western Australia. Make no mistake, the people who will be impacted by these cuts are the very same people who vote for One Nation. In fact, One Nation is fast becoming a haven for those in the far right of the LNP. 'Don't worry,' they say to each other, 'we'll pass these measures with One Nation, so we can hide behind their banner and each other.' When it comes to getting a fair go, Queenslanders are getting a raw deal under this LNP-One Nation coalition in the Senate. Workers are getting a $77-a-week pay cut while big business is getting a $50 billion tax cut. What I would say to both One Nation and the LNP is: stop selling out the battlers, do the right thing, stand up against these harsh cuts and stand up for Queenslanders.
It is indeed a pleasure to follow on from my colleague Senator Ketter, who spends much time in regional Queensland and who gave a good account of the impact that these cuts will have on regional Queenslanders. Particularly at a time when a lot of those local economies are struggling and unemployment is high, these impacts will be felt very deeply by those communities.
I also want to talk about the 2014 budget, which is really the genesis of what we are talking about here tonight. As many people will know, I was not in the chamber as a senator at that time, but I was obviously following very closely. I have seen some political train wrecks in my time—I have indeed been a close observer to some. But in modern history that 2014 budget will go down as one that wrecked the career of a number of politicians who contributed to it, but also set in train what has been a continual decline in the primary vote of the Liberal Party and the National Party in Australia. You can trace all that back to that budget.
I think it is important that you look at the architects of that budget. Many people in this debate have talked about former Treasurer Joe Hockey. We all know what he is doing now, but the reality was that budget was the start and downfall of his career as Treasurer. We know where he has ended up. But it was also the same with former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. That budget was the starting point of the downfall of his prime ministership, and we all know how that ended up. At that time, because I was the Queensland state secretary gearing up to run a state campaign, I saw the damage that that budget did to the Liberal Party broadly across Queensland, where the Liberal-National Party in Queensland became synonymous with cuts. Whether it be at the federal level, whether it be at the state level, the Liberal-National Party from that day forth became synonymous with cuts. Sure, it was added to in Queensland with Campbell Newman making drastic cuts to public servants, to health care and to education—the important social services that so many Queenslanders rely on—but it really was dominated and started by the federal budget in 2014.
I mentioned what happened to those two. We know what happened to Joe Hockey and we know what happened to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, but the other architect of that was Senator Cormann. He seems very good at claiming credit for being the architect of things, but accepts none of the responsibilities. He is the one that is still here in this chamber responsible for that budget. We are absolutely going to hold them to account for that. We have done it for three years and we will continue to do it for as long as it takes, because we know the community are on our side. So we look forward to taking this fight to the next federal election, because we know we are on strong ground defending those people that are going to be affected by it.
But there is another deal, and this is another example of Senator Cormann trying to get away with his actions. That is in regard to the deal with One Nation in Western Australia. We all know the devastating impact that had not only on the Western Australian Liberal Party but also on One Nation. Since then, we have seen Senator Hanson say that it was a mistake, but we have seen none of that contrition from Senator Cormann, the architect of that deal. I think that speaks volumes for the way that he has operated in this chamber and in this debate over the budget. But when it comes to One Nation, they said that that deal was a mistake—and where are we less than two weeks later?
They are in this chamber doing deals with the government over budget cuts that are going to have a negative impact on so many Queenslanders who can ill afford it. So, on the one hand they are saying they learnt their lessons but clearly they did not if they are prepared to do a deal with the government 10 days later to get these budget measures through that are going to have such a negative impact on the people of Queensland.
Regarding One Nation, think of Senator Hanson's political career. She has had a long political career of more than 20 years. For most of that time Senator Hanson has not actually been in parliament and has never actually had a vote that mattered. But in this chamber Senator Hanson and her colleagues do have votes that matter. I respect that they were elected democratically—I understand that. But when you have to front up here and vote we will hold you to account. So we make no apologies for vigorously holding Senator Hanson to account. We will do it on penalty rates and we will absolutely do it on the measures that are contained in this bill we are debating tonight, because we know what damage it will do to the most vulnerable Queenslanders, who are relying on the Labor Party to stand up for them. If only One Nation would do the same thing. With Senator Hanson and One Nation—her two other colleagues, and potentially three, when they get their Western Australian senator here—we will absolutely hold them to account on the votes that have here in the Senate. They have to explain themselves in this chamber and in the community as well. That is something we look forward to doing throughout the rest of this year and indeed as we get closer to an election.
When we look at the detail of the measures in this bill, it is something that is of significant concern to Queenslanders. When you look at the history of One Nation and how they have performed, any time they have had elected representation, like we saw after the 1998 Queensland state election, any time they have had to take responsibility for voting in the parliament, they fracture. In Queensland in 1998 they had 11 MPs elected, but it did not even last 12 months. They disintegrated. They could have worked cohesively. They could not argue their case in parliament. That was a very similar situation—there was a minority Labor government. But One Nation could not hold it together. They had splits and people leaving and quitting very soon after that happened. So it is very clear that the responsibility that comes with being elected and having multiple people elected from your party has been too much for them historically and I think it will again prove to be too much for them, because they have to defend themselves from voting continuously with this harsh Liberal-National government that continues to pursue an ideological agenda of cuts that hurt vulnerable people.
Some of the details in this bill are of particular concern. Looking at some of the measures, I think it is really important to highlight the waiting period for parent payment and some youth allowance. The Liberals want to extend the one-week waiting period. Previously, they have been advocating for a five-week period, but we have been strong in our advocacy against that. That is something we will continue to fight. There is also family tax benefit B, which is a payment to help eligible families. The impact the measures will have will result in 1.5 million families being worse off, and almost 600,000 of these families are on the maximum rate.
When you look at this from the Queensland point of view, particularly, how many of those families would also be relying on penalty rates? So think about this as a double whammy—this bill having a negative impact and then the penalty rates cut that is looming, unless we can change that in this chamber and in the other place. That is going to have a massive impact on those people who rely on penalty rates and on the family tax benefit. These are people on an income of less than $52,000 a year. These are people who are really struggling to keep their heads above water and this government is treating them in this way, firstly with this bill, but then down the track, looming over the horizon very quickly, are the cuts to penalty rates. These are the priorities of this government at the moment. It is clearly something that the Labor Party will continue to fight. While I thought that the Liberal and National parties would abandon the 2014 budget, it is surprising that I, as a newly elected senator, am continuing to debate those measures. But I am really proud of the stance the Labor Party took in 2014 and I am proud to continue that stance. I look forward to continuing to fight on this issue, not only tonight but over the next couple months and indeed as we get closer to a federal election.
I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017. It appears the main aspect of this bill is the freezing of indexation for three years on most working age allowances and for parenting payment single, as well as the freezing of indexation for two years on family tax payments. It does not matter how you package the new social services bill, it still cuts almost $2 billion from Australia's most vulnerable families. In the four years it will take to raise almost $2 billion from families who need it most, a modest financial transactions tax on Australia's highest high-frequency share traders could raise four times that amount. We are wasting our time arguing over crumbs when 600 out of 1,500 companies do not even pay tax. The Liberal government wants to hand over $50 billion in tax cuts to their big-business mates, and that is a tax on profits, not revenue, so we know businesses are not losing.
But do you know who is losing out in this deal? It is the everyday families who are struggling to make ends meet. If the government cuts $50 a fortnight from families, the government has cut the family's power budget or their insurance. On the other side of the tracks, high-frequency share trading companies will not even notice a 0.01 per cent or 0.1 per cent financial transactions tax. A financial transactions tax would have the capacity to raise $1.4 billion a year, with little impact to the economy, and it would fund the Liberal government's childcare reforms, and more, and that does not even include other economic reforms I have been talking about for more than two years now, which includes a 15 per cent death tax on estates worth more than $5 million and a cap on the capital gains tax exemption for houses worth more than $2 million. Combine those measures with a financial transactions tax and the government could be raising almost $10 billion a year of the budget, without taking from Australia's poorest families.
If the Liberal government had the political courage to tie these measures to the childcare reforms instead of playing the game of: 'how much money can we get away with taking from poor Australians this time', we would not still be debating this bill. If the Liberal government had the political courage to tie these measures to the childcare reforms then perhaps they would have the funds to expand the childcare reforms to the children who need them most so they can access early childhood education and childcare. There are many families out there who have no desire to meet the generous activity test the Liberal government have proposed, and it is these children who need childcare the most. It is these children who are a part of broken homes, surrounded by devastating circumstances that no child should have to be subjected to, let alone live in. Twelve to 15 hours of child care a fortnight is not enough to rescue these children from their environment.
It is established that disadvantage perpetuates disadvantage and that is why we are stuck in this intergenerational welfare cycle. We also know that the first five years of a child's life shapes their attitudes, health and wellbeing for the rest of their life. Intergenerational welfare will continue to be a burden on the federal budget unless we nip it in the bud right now. Spending money on our children and families now is an investment in Australia's future.
Please do not take my word for it. Perhaps my colleagues would be persuaded by Harvard University research. In 2010, Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child released a document called Core Concepts in the Science of Early Childhood Development that stated:
When we invest wisely in children and families, the next generation will pay that back through a lifetime of productivity and responsible citizenship. When we fail to provide children with what they need to build a strong foundation for healthy and productive lives, we put our future prosperity and security at risk.
Cognitive, emotional and social capabilities are inextricably entwined in the brain. Likewise learning, behaviour and both physical and mental health are highly interrelated throughout the life course. One domain cannot be targeted without affecting the others. The brain's multiple functions operate in a richly coordinated fashion. Emotional wellbeing and social competence provide a strong foundation for emerging cognitive abilities, and together they are the bricks and mortar that comprise the foundation of human development. The emotional and physical health, social skills and cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years are all important prerequisites for success in school and later in the workplace and community.
The Harvard University paper also said:
Scientists now know that chronic, unrelenting stress in early childhood, perhaps caused by extreme poverty, neglect, repeated abuse, or severe maternal depression, for example, can be toxic to the developing brain. While positive stress … is an important and necessary aspect of healthy development, toxic stress is the strong, unrelieved activation of the body’s stress management system in the absence of the buffering protection of adult support.
The government is supposed to support the Australian public and not be the source of toxic stress for families. I know that protecting family tax benefits for Australia's most vulnerable and providing a safe, positive environment for disadvantaged children on their own will not end intergenerational welfare dependency. We need a holistic approach, which is why I will be submitting a motion to the Senate encouraging the government to include the Cashless debit card in their May budget. My motion will note that, as per the Cashless debit card trial evaluation: wave 1 interim evaluation report of February 2017, of the 66 per cent of CDC participants who reported drinking, gambling or taking drugs before or during the trial, 33 per cent reported a reduction in at least one of these behaviours. Thirty-one per cent of the participants indicated they had been able to save more money. Thirty-one per cent indicated they could care for their children much better. Thirty-one per cent logged an improvement in technology use. Forty-six per cent of non-participants said life in the community was better; only 18 per cent disagreed. Only six per cent of all participants explicitly raised stigma or shame associated with the CDC as an issue. Community leaders and stakeholders generally responded that they had seen an increase of between 32 and 56 per cent in ability to afford basic household goods, in ability to pay bills, and in nutrition, health and wellbeing.
It is common for adolescents to begin drinking alcohol at 14 or 15 years of age, with the behaviour increasing as they get older, with its ability to impair judgement and coordination. Excessive drinking contributes to crime, violence, antisocial behaviours and accidents. Adolescence is often characterised by rapid physical and psychological transition, experimentation and risk-taking behaviour. This includes illicit drug use, causing both short- and long-term mental and physical health issues. Those who participate in early drug use are more likely to continue with future illicit and problematic drug use.
Australia wide, people 17 years and under are learning to become productive members of our community, so introducing the CDC to this age group and breaking the cycle of addictive behaviours would be beneficial in the future to their own development and to the communities that they live in. I will be calling on the government to support the inclusion in the upcoming May budget of a further rollout of the CDC for all persons 17 years of age and under who are on ABSTUDY, living allowance, assistance for isolated children, carer payment, disability support pension, parenting payment (partnered), parenting payment (single), special benefit, youth allowance, apprentice youth allowance, other youth allowance, and students across Australia on 1 January 2018.
The Liberal government suffered a great loss at the last election in Tasmania, and it is because of bills like this. This bill affects Tasmanians disproportionately, and any money the government takes from families is money that is snatched from the engine that runs the Tasmanian economy, which is small business. Trickle-down economics does not work. When you give money to a multinational corporation, more often than not that money does not stay in the country; it is sent offshore. But, if you give some money to families, they spend it all in their local communities, keeping small businesses alive, keeping their doors open. They do their groceries at the IGA down the road, they buy their gifts from the cute little gift shop in town, and maybe they take their kids out for a hot chocolate and a trip to the cinemas once a month. For families living pay to pay, the family tax benefit forms a vital part of their household budget, and I cannot sit back and let the government make cuts to that.
I want to tell you a little bit about my story. I want to tell you very quickly what happened to me when I was medically discharged from the armed forces in 2000. When I was medically discharged, I thought, 'No worries—the Department of Veterans' Affairs will help me get back on my feet and they will look after me.' That did not happen to me. So for me to be able to survive as a single mum with two kids I had no other choice but to go to Centrelink.
I had worked. I had been serving at Rotary tables from the time I was 10. I was working at the speedway at 12 and I had my first job at Kmart when I was 14 years and nine months. I worked in nightclubs and I worked in a supermarket during that time. I took a gap year and went and worked in the real world. That is what I did. So you can imagine what it was like to me, how shameful it felt and how demeaning it was for me, to work my whole life to become a single mum living with two kids and to try to support them on a disability support pension.
During that period, times were tough. There were times when I had to say no to my son, who was great at football, great at athletics and great at basketball, and who had the vantage of being able to represent his state. I told him on two occasions, 'I'm sorry, mate, but you can't go because I can't afford for you to go.' At one stage there he was wearing football boots that were too small for him, from the winter beforehand, because I could not afford to get him some. He had to wait. There were times when I would sit in a corner and cry because I felt so ashamed. For two days, I did not know how I was going to put bread and milk on the table. There was a time when my fridge broke and for three weeks we lived out of an esky. I put the esky under the house, so the ice would last longer. That is what my life was like. There were three occasions where I could not afford my rego—for four weeks one time, six weeks another time and 10 weeks another time—and I drove around without a registered car. On two separate occasions, I drove around without a licence because I could not renew it.
In 2006, I was going bankrupt and I would have lost my family home. I struggled for another 12 months until I went into Nick Sherry's office and begged him to help me to get my super released. Nick Sherry was very good to me—former Senator the Hon. Nick Sherry. He got that money for me within three weeks. But I paid dividends for that, because there are no clauses in there to cover when you are sick or injured or in dire straits. You will still get taxed because you are taking it out early. I lost a great deal of my super. But in the meantime, at least it saved my house. It gave us a little bit more breathing space. Had it not been for the honourable Senator Sherry, then I can assure you, Madam Deputy President Lines, I would have gone bankrupt. That is what my life was like for seven years.
I had to beg and borrow to fight a government bureaucracy in the court system until I won and paid that money back. But I can tell you that I was so far behind by the time that I won that case—and my money was backdated—that my bills had piled up. Seven years on a disability support pension; I sure as hell did not come out in front. This is what it is like. It is not a choice for many of us to be on welfare. It is shameful and it is embarrassing and it is bloody tough. But we do it not because we want to but because circumstances put us there.
For you take to more money off those people—you have no idea how bloody tough it is. Every little cent counts to those people. What you are doing is shameful. If you really realised the damage that you are continually doing to that part of society, you would stop doing it. I know you have not been through that so I am just asking you. But there are some of us in this place who have, and it was difficult in our lives and our kids paid the price for that, through no fault of our own. I just wish you would reconsider what you are doing. We are not living when we are like that; we are surviving. We are in a bloody war zone and we are surviving, and that is all we are doing—each day we are surviving. We are surviving to try and put bread on the table. We are surviving to try and make sure that our kids can get the basics in life. We are trying to make sure our kids are better, so our kids can go to decent schools if we want that choice. I was really lucky in some areas, and I thank St Brendan-Shaw College. When I got in very difficult situations, they allowed me not to pay school fees for three years for my children. But they let them stay there. I want you to know: that is what it is like to be at the bottom of the crap pile; for many of us, through no fault of our own.
I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017. I have sat through this debate all day, and to be able to speak after Senator Lambie is such a stark contrast to the nonsense from Senator Roberts that I had to sit through earlier this evening. Here we have somebody who has been in this place a very short time, but he had the arrogance to talk about luminaries of the Australian Labor Party—to say that, 'they would been One Nation Prime Ministers,' was just astounding, to be quite frank—absolutely astounding. But I guess that is what happens in this place when you have a government that changes the order of business for the day and comes in with a new piece of legislation because it has done some dirty deal with the crossbenchers—at least some of them, like One Nation, which is really just a faction of the Liberal Party. Those on that side are the masterminds, yet again, of attacking some of the most vulnerable people in our community, but they are not in here debating this piece of legislation. They have left it to people like Senator Roberts.
This government are incompetent, dysfunctional and unable to govern this country with any sort of agenda. They have waited until the eleventh hour to do their dirty deal, to have the Xenophons of this world, along with One Nation, join with them to bring about these changes. They have done this deal. They have gone through a process today. We have been in this chamber. Labor senators and others on this side are supporting our position and opposing this legislation, but very few on that side have come into this place defending their government.
The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Omnibus Savings and Child Care Reform) Bill 2017, which is what we were supposed to be debating, was originally announced in 2015. Since then, the government who are running this country have failed to recognise how out of touch they really are. They still do not understand that the budget of 2014 was so bad that it was rejected overwhelmingly by the community. But they still insist on bringing this type of legislation here before us. And they have done it at the eleventh hour. They expected my colleagues to come into this place, with little more than half an hour's notice, and debate this piece of legislation—and we had not even seen it. We did not even know what the details of it were. I expect very few on that side knew the details either, otherwise they would have been in here defending it.
Quite frankly, this government knew that the omnibus bill would never, ever get support in this place. So they have had to run around, as I said, do a dirty deal and then make some sort of token gesture by having a few of their senators come into this place. It is not just Labor and people on this side of the chamber who were opposed to the omnibus bill. Women's groups and early childhood educators gave evidence to the committee that looked into the bill. We know that there is so much concern out in the community. The government have no idea, no understanding, of the effect that they are having on ordinary, everyday Australians, some of whom are doing it really tough, through no fault of their own; it is circumstances. Now some of the same people who are going to be affected by the cuts to penalty rates are going to get yet another slap by this government. This government will be remembered in this country as a government that had no vision, had no plan and had a leader with no soul. If he did, if he really understood what the Australian community were feeling, how they are hurting, what these cuts are doing to people, he would not be going down this track. This is not the man who went to the election promising so much to the Australian people.
We on this side will always fight for those who are disadvantaged in this community. We will always fight for those on low incomes, the lowest-paid workers in this country. Inequality is at a 75-year high. Wages growth is at record lows. Underemployment is at record highs. There could not be a worse time to cut penalty rates or cut family tax benefits.
The government said that there would be no cuts to family payments in this new bill, but that is a complete and utter untruth. It is a lie. Once again, they are being totally dishonest with the Australian community. We know that $1.4 billion will be cut from the payments. Through this bill the Liberal government, as I said, will take away $1.4 billion from Australian families. This is actually a 2014 budget measure. Can you believe it? Here we are three years later and they are trying the same stunt. Today they have regurgitated another unfair 2014 budget cut to families. They want to freeze current family tax benefit rates for two years which means 1.5 million families will be worse off and more than two million children will be worse off. Many of these families are on the maximum rate of FTB Part A, which means that their household income is less than $52,000 per year. That is $52,000 a year to raise a family.
Let us look at the history of these cuts when they were first introduced with the budget of 2014 which became synonymous with unfairness. It was completely rejected by the Australian people. Labor opposed the cuts then and we will oppose those same measures today, tomorrow or next month. We always will because the Australian families who are struggling with their everyday living expenses, trying to manage their budget and balance it, are relying on us to protect them. They know that the government have failed them, not once, not twice, but every single time they bring in legislation to attack these families through cuts to health and education, and these families know that they have been let down and they rely on us on this side of the chamber and others to support them and to protect them.
This government's proposed freeze to indexation on family tax benefits in this bill means that families will not be able to keep up with the cost of living for two years. Costs of living are rising around the country, and people are struggling, as I said, to put food on the table and to send their kids on school excursions, and the list of concerns that we have goes on and on and on.
It never ceases to amaze me how out of touch this government really are, that they do not listen and quite clearly do not learn, otherwise they would not continue to go down this road of cuts. They do not understand what social investment means because, if they did, they would not be going down this track. They do not understand what fairness means. This is not the United States, this is Australia where we believe in fairness and where we believe that we should help and give a hand up to those who are the most vulnerable. We on this side want to invest in people and we will never ever abandon them.
I have heard some speeches here tonight and I cannot believe that a lot of them are around Pauline Hanson and One Nation. You would think that the whole house revolves around me. Eight minutes of Senator Chisholm's speech was about One Nation and Pauline Hanson. I thought you were here to discuss what was happening in this country.
Let me put forward a few facts. We talk about the battlers in this country. The Labor Party is supposed to be a party for the battlers. In 1936 my grandfather was on the executive of the Labor Party. He migrated from England. He was a carpenter and worked hard. He was part of the union movement and he believed in a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. I was brought up with that same attitude by watching my father work 106 hours a week for 25 years.
I know what it is like to be a battler. I have come from a battling family, and watched my father work long hours. I started working in a shop serving at 12 years of age, and started a full-time job at 15 years of age. I know what it is like to be a battler. I had my first child at 17 years of age, and my second by the time I was 21. I was a single mother at 22 and having to work, so I know what being a battler is about. I found the money to put food on the table to feed my two children, and I made sure they could eat. So do not tell me about being a battler; I know.
The fact is that unless we pull back the deficit of this country, we will not have the money to support the aged, the sick and the necessary in future generations. What is happening? We need to get common sense into this debate, and we need to actually look at what is right for the people of Australia. For too long we have seen both sides of this parliament put the idea out there that they are going to give people extra benefits to get votes. When John Howard came into power, the budget was $96 billion in debt from Paul Keating's Labor government. John Howard and Peter Costello as Treasurer pulled it back, and when the Labor Party took over in 2007, it was in a $22 billion surplus. Under Labor, it went into a $400 billion deficit. Something has to give. The coalition has run up debt also, and, at the moment, by the debt clock, we are running at $547 billion. We cannot sustain this.
The cuts that are happening tonight in this budget have to be looked at in the sense of what they are going to do for Australia and for future generations. You cannot keep buying votes; make the tough decisions in this House, because that is what you have to do if you are going to be able to provide for future generations. You cannot keep giving out handouts all the time. It does not work. How many of you in this house have ever run a business? How many of you have ever employed anyone? Do you have any idea, or are you just career politicians? Most of you coming into this place would not even know what the hell you are talking about—
Senator Gallagher interjecting—
I am sorry; I withdraw that. Most of you have no idea what you are actually voting on; you see where the rest of your parliamentarians are seeing. It is very important to the people of Australia that we get it right. It is about time the people in this house started working together to do what is right for the people of Australia, because they are depending on us. Because the government may put up legislation, do not vote against it just because it is the government. Vote against it because it may be right for the Australian people.
What I am saying here is work together as a parliament to pull this country together, because people are relying on us to do the right thing by them. We have people out there who are relying on us to make the right decisions.
Senator Chisholm got up, and he spoke about me. He spoke about the GST, and about WA, and about what I am saying and that it is not right for Queensland. In the last seven months—prior to that actually; a year before the election—I have travelled Queensland quite extensively. Senator Chisholm, where were you with the Singaporean land acquisition? Where were you with the cane growers? The people of Queensland would not even know who Senator Chisholm is, or who Senator Ketter is, or who Senator Watt is. They never see them. I never see them. No-one ever says anything to me. People would not even know who the Labor senators for Queensland are; would not have a clue! What are they doing for Queensland?
As for the WA election and the GST for WA, I will just put it on record—Senator Chisholm made a comment that I was taking money from Queensland. That is not the case. I said it is an unfair deal for WA, only getting 30 per cent of the deal for GST. It is not fair. Everything that I do and say, I look at what is fair right across the board for all Australians. It is not about taking money from Queensland, because we have a lot of other states that are getting far more GST. I am looking at things that are fair, and people would expect no less of me in my position as a senator in this parliament.
They talk about the WA elections and the deal done. Labor cannot get away from it. I think Labor are concerned because they are not going to get preferences from One Nation at the next election. Let me tell you, it was the Labor state secretary who approached a member of my office to do a deal at the Queensland election. You are making comments about the WA election, but let me make it quite clear: Labor have approached us to run dead in some seats in Queensland. But you were not interested in that. You are making comments about this. The Labor Party are so hypocritical in this chamber that the people of Australia need to know this.
Senator Chisholm made a comment about me and my party in 1998. Let me tell you this: I actually had charges brought against me by Tony Abbott—sorry; it was not Tony Abbott. He funded Terry Sharples to bring charges against me. But it was the then Premier of Queensland, Peter Beattie, Labor Premier Peter Beattie, who then deregistered the party in Queensland, which forced the members of parliament to go and register another political party. And prior to my trial, it was Peter Beattie—Labor—who, instead of making it a six-month jail term or a fine, made it seven years so that the judge could convict me for up to seven years. He did that prior to my trial. This is Labor; you really are for the battlers. That is what I say to Senator Chisholm. Get your facts straight. If you are going to have a go at me, get them straight; know what you are talking about. He did not know what he was talking about.
The whole thing about this, about when the Labor Party talk about the fight for the lowest paid—I am actually ridiculed over the rates. Isn't it quite interesting that Labor were the ones, under Bill Shorten, who brought in the 457 visa holders to more than 100,000? Where were they to protect the jobs in Australia? These 457 visa holders have taken up jobs in McDonald's, in Kentucky Fried Chicken and all these other places. I owned my own small business. If I owned my own business now I would have to pay the rates of $34 an hour, but if you work at McDonald's—this is great of the union bosses; they have done the EBAs—you only get paid $26 an hour. They are really looking after their workers! If you have a cleaning business in a small motel, you pay $31 an hour. You could pay possibly $10 less if you worked for a big chain, all through the unions and the EBA agreements. Labor are really looking after the workers in this country! You have done a fantastic job!
I must remind Labor as well: didn't we have a vote in the parliament here when I moved a motion for former prime ministers of this country to no longer get their offices and staff paid for? Who opposed it? Labor. Where were you worrying about the battlers of this country? You were not. You were protecting the elites of this country. They did not need to be protected—they are former prime ministers on thousands of dollars—but you protected them. And you talk about the battlers.
Or what about when we moved a motion here on the floor of parliament on freezing parliamentarians' wages until the budget was in surplus? Who was on this side of the house voting for it? It was One Nation and Cory Bernardi and Jacqui Lambie. Where were you, Labor, and the coalition? You were on the other side of the house. You would not bring yourselves to freeze your wages at all, yet you are now whingeing and complaining about the battlers out there. You are hypocrites, absolute hypocrites. My plan, as One Nation, is about—
Senator Hanson, I have given you a little bit of latitude, but the volume now is getting a little excessive, so perhaps I could remind you to direct your comments through the chair and not to senators directly. But I would ask senators on my left to pay a little more respect to the speaker.
Than you, and I will. What I am saying here is that we really need to look at what is right for the people of this nation. We are so much out of debt, and we owe so much money. If we intend to be able to fund infrastructure, schools, hospitals and pensioners and those who are sick and in need of this, we have to rein in our debt. We have to pull in the budget, with a commonsense approach—work together on this and look at what is best for this nation. We have seen so much rorting going on. Labor is looking at the fact that we are freezing family tax benefit A and B. But Labor did the same. Labor froze the tax benefit increments indexed in 2011-12. They are hypocrites, absolute hypocrites, to actually do it. And now you are accusing the coalition of doing exactly the same. And then there are the multinationals. You complain about things—and I have heard it in this chamber—about the capital gains tax and the negative gearing, and you complain about all these things, the multinationals. Why didn't you do something about it when you were in government? Why do you now sit on the other side of the chamber and whinge and complain about all this now, saying why isn't the government doing it, when you should have done it yourselves? You had the opportunity. You had the Gillard government—
Madam Acting Deputy President, you have asked the senator to direct her remarks through the chair. We have curbed our contributions and interjections in response to your intervention. But I think it would be nice if Senator Hanson would do this.
What I was saying is that I do see the problems, what is happening here, and I will pull it back to Labor. Labor are saying that they are worrying about the battlers. But where has Labor been on cost of living? It was actually Labor that allowed for foreign investors to do developments in Australia. In particular it was brought to my attention in Melbourne that if they did a development they could actually sell off the whole development to foreign investment. It used to be that 50 per cent had to go to Australians. Now the whole lot goes to foreign investors. Where was Labor on that? Where was Labor with Queensland now 87 per cent in drought? Where was Labor when multinationals put the squeeze on canegrowers in the Burdekin?—again, a foreign investor. And, as I said before, where was Labor with the Singaporean land acquisition? So, through you, Chair, I am asking these questions of Labor. Are they prepared to answer the questions? Where was Labor on creating affordable housing?
They have allowed foreign investors in this country. Where were they when we were looking at foreign investment in houses to stop foreign investors buying them so that Australians could buy the houses? What have they done? Absolutely nothing. Where were Labor when Senator Cory Bernardi put a freeze on politicians' wages in the budget? Labor are so hypocritical. Where was Labor on regional outback Australia where unemployment is at 11.6 percent in Queensland? Labor have made so many allegations against me that it is like the Medicare scare. It is like they have to criticise Pauline Hanson and One Nation and it is like they have to show that she is not for the battlers.
I will actually stand up for what is fair, what is right and what is just for this country, for Australia and for the Australian people. I will not be hypocritical and I will not be two-faced like other people in this chamber. The fact is that I have a job to do and sometimes tough decisions have to be made. I cannot please everyone. I know that, when I make decisions or judgements in this house, I do not always vote with the coalition as sometimes I vote with the Greens and sometimes with the Labor Party, I vote on what I think is right for this country and the people. I will always direct my vote that way.
Labor brings it back just because I have done a deal in Western Australia to preference the Liberals before Labor. They will not tell you that they preference the Liberals before One Nation in Western Australia. They will not tell you that. This is basically because they are concerned about where the votes are going. They know they are losing a lot of votes to One Nation because they are not standing up and fighting for the battlers in this country because they are two-faced. They are more worried about the union bosses. What about the workers? Let's mention that $73 million of union fees have gone into Labor Party coffers over the last 10 years.
So, they are really for the battlers, are they? Let us be honest about the whole thing. I say to the Labor Party and to everyone in this chamber: have a look at the bill as a whole, look at what is right for this country and start reigning in the debt of this nation otherwise we will not be able to look after the pensioners, the sick, the aged and the needy.
You cannot continue to buy votes in this house and that is exactly what you are doing. Have a good look at this bill because people are relying on us to make the right decisions.
That was a rather extraordinary speech from Senator Hanson. If I could summarise it, in a nutshell it would be: 'Senator Hanson doesn't like being criticised in this chamber. Attempts to justify the cuts that One Nation are voting with tonight whilst pretending that they are on the side of the battler'. Then there was about 15 minutes on everything being Labor's fault. 'Absolutely everything that is happening is Labor's fault. Labor has not done enough in opposition to address some of the problems in this country and One Nation doesn't like being criticised.' Then we went back to defending One Nation's record on a bill that cuts money from over 1.5 million families in this country who will be worse off.
On one level I sympathise with Senator Hanson because she is in the difficult position of trying to defend the indefensible. It was no wonder tonight that there was no attempt to actually explain why One Nation has walked hand in hand with the government yet again, as they do on every single vote that matters in this chamber, to make these savage cuts, to enforce these cuts without appropriate scrutiny from the Senate and to attempt to blame everything on the Labor Party.
What a contrast Senator Hanson's contribution was following the speech of Senator Lambie tonight. Senator Lambie put a very human face to the impact that cuts like this have. It struck me today, when I was listening to members of the government defending this bill in the media and also making their contributions tonight in the Senate, how it is very easy to turn these matters that affect so many people in reality, when they are putting their budgets together at home, into some seemingly innocuous budget repair measure that is only saving $1.6 billion. They have all these big numbers and it is all about budget repair and how it has to be done; but what Senator Lambie did tonight was explain in very real terms about what that means for individual households and what the reality is for the vast majority of people in this country. I do not think those opposite ever have contact with them or have ever experienced the situations that these families will be placed in because of the cuts that are being rammed through tonight.
I speak from some experience in this, as somebody who never, ever thought that they would rely on social security, welfare or income support. I never imagined that I would be in that position. To build on Senator Lambie's contribution, I went to university, I always worked, I had a reasonably comfortable childhood. It was never meant to happen to me that I would have to exist week by week on the sole parent pension. But in one week I went from being a member of a two-person household looking forward to the birth of my first baby, with reasonable paying jobs. After an accident one weekend I was a widow, pregnant, unable to work, looking for somewhere to live and without enough money to pay for a funeral for my partner. The unions that are so maligned in this place day after day helped me by fundraising to help me meet those immediate legal costs.
Then I relied on the sole parent pension, then I relied on the healthcare card. I relied on childcare support when I had to go back to work part time to pay the rent and make sure that I could look after my daughter. That was my life for three years or so. I never thought it would happen to me, but I relied on the government of the day, on the Australian community, to have a social welfare system that looked after me when I needed it. It meant everything to me. Without that, I would have had to live with my parents. I cannot imagine what I would have done without that support. It does matter. I think how lucky I am now that I do not rely on that, but I also think of the importance behind protecting—it is not a lot that each household gets through family tax payment, but it is important to those families that to allow them to live a dignified life. It is very easy to package it all up and pretend it does not matter, but, speaking from experience, I can tell you that for those families it does matter—even if it is only stopping indexation. Every cost goes up. That matters to people. They rely on those small adjustments to make sure that they can live week by week. I have seen it time and time again. Even in an affluent city like Canberra, when you go past Uniting Care in Kippax and you see the mums with their kids—it is sometimes dads, but usually mums—lining up for their care packages, the petrol vouchers, the extra blankets in winter because the cost of heating your house here is so great because of the climate, you see that it is not only these payments that support people to get through; it is a whole range of other supports in our community. It is that sort of working together—the community sector with government payments, and with things like our high-quality education system, access to free hospital care and bulk-billing; all of those things—that allows us to live a much more equal lifestyle than many other countries across the world.
For me today, listening to the contributions by government members, I think that we cannot just pretend that this does not have an impact or that it is the only choice available to government. We all accept that budget repair is important, but governments also have to accept that budgets and budget savings are all about choices. We over here would say that this is the wrong choice to make. It is the wrong choice to hit these families and to ask them to shoulder the burden disproportionately for budget repair at a time when the budget also allows for tax cuts for expenditure in other lines of the budget—for the generous tax concessions for negative gearing and capital gains tax, for example, that disproportionately go to the wealthier in our community. Those kinds of tax concessions should be the government's first point of call, not these families.
They are consistently told by this government that they have to shoulder the burden and that they have to do the heavy lifting. No wonder they are angry, when they look around and do not see anyone else doing the heavy lifting. We know from comments today by Senator Cormann that this is not the end, that there is more coming. This was confirmed, I think, on Sky News earlier today when it was put to the Treasurer about where all the old omnibus bills measures were. He replied, 'Well, those measures continue to stand as government policy.
So not only are these changes being rammed through tonight—and the crossbench have suckered up to this and accepted this; some may see it as an improvement on what was previously offered—the government has come out today, before this bill even passes, and said that the others still stand as government policy and they will be coming back in one shape or another. We would not see that as a significant win for the crossbench today. What they have done is to enable the government—they are the enablers—and the government is going to keep coming back, because none of these measures ever go away forever.
We will continue to stand up for those families. We will continue to argue that the government should look for savings elsewhere and that those who need the most support should not have to shoulder the burden of budget repair disproportionately, as they are being asked to do in this bill tonight.
Before I turn to the substance of the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 can I say two things? Firstly, can I acknowledge the very touching contributions from my friend and colleague Senator Gallagher, and also from Senator Lambie earlier. I think they really do merit remark, because they were both, in their own ways, very moving.
Before I start on the bill itself, I did want to make a very brief response to Senator Hanson's interesting contribution. I would just make a couple of points. Senator Hanson spent time attacking the elites, but failed to explain in any detail, nor with any accuracy, her basis for supporting legislation that takes money from some of Australia's poorest people. She told people that she wanted to stand up for the battlers, whilst voting for, or agreeing to vote for, cuts to some of Australia's most vulnerable families. She told us all that we should do what is best for Australia.
Well, I can say this to her: that is precisely the way in which the Labor Party has approached this bill and other pieces of legislation. We have agreed to budget measures and budget savings which we thought were reasonable, but we will not stand in this place and ask the most vulnerable families in Australia, and their children, to bear the brunt of this government's so-called budget repair, because it is certainly not budget repair that is fair and it stands in very stark contrast to the $50 billion worth of tax cuts for the corporate sector which remain at the heart of this government's policy. Well—at the moment it does.
I do want to talk a little bit about the government because, as we sit over here watching their antics—you would have to say the government are unmatched in their legislative incompetence since the ill-fated government of Billy McMahon—we think of many things. One man I have thought of is a man called Fiorello La Guardia. Who was he? Apart from having LaGuardia Airport named after him and creating New York's amazing skyline, La Guardia banned organ-grinders from the streets of New York. Whilst I have never had much affection for the organ-grinders, I have felt sorry for their monkeys. La Guardia did a good deal for monkeys, and I suspect that Mr Turnbull is desperately lamenting the fact that there is no La Guardia around to save him, because what a totally undignified position this Prime Minister finds himself in.
Do you know what Mr Turnbull is? He is the monkey to the Abbott organ-grinder. This is where the carefully manicured Prime Minister finds himself—dancing to the tune played by his predecessor in the 2014 budget, because the proposed cuts to family payments, the bill before this chamber, is a return to the past. It is a return to the past that not only was repudiated by the Australian public but also ultimately led to the repudiation of its progenitor by his own party. Yet such is the power of Mr Abbott the organ-grinder that his monkey still dances to his tune.
This wretched Prime Minister and the motley crew that pass for his government want to rip $1.4 billion from the pockets of Australian families—families with young children and all the expenses that go to their care and their upbringing. For the most part, these are families whose finances are vulnerable and exposed as they face the rising cost this government has been totally unable to control. The revisions of this bill seek to freeze current family tax benefit rates for two years, and I would invite Senator Hanson to understand the difference between rates and thresholds. In effect, it wants to penalise those who are most exposed to cost pressures. It seeks to penalise around about 1½ million families and, with that, over two million children.
Mr Abbott might have thought it was clever to take the cudgel to hardworking Australian families and make them fund budget shortfalls that this government is evidently unable to control, but the public made its position clear and he now sulks on the backbench. But I wonder if Mr Turnbull is set to discover he is headed for the same fate.
This bill is an attack on at least 600,000 families whose household incomes are already less than $52,000 per year. These are the families who are already on the maximum rate of FTB Part A. This bill is not only an attack on those least able to bear a freeze on benefits but also a return to the 2014 budget. Remember that? The 2014 budget was a budget which has become legendary for its unfairness and for the regressive transfer of wealth from the less well-off to the very well-off. It may well have gone down well in the land of harbourside mansions where public transport is a fun thing to do on weekends, but let me tell you: it hits hard for those who live two or hours from their workplaces and for whom public transport is just part of the daily grind.
Labor is a party of social justice, fairness and equity, and that is why we have opposed these measures—this idea in the 2014 budget—when we forced the coalition to take it out of the budget and withdraw it from the parliament. We will continue to stand our ground. The payments that we are discussing tonight are designed to assist low- and middle-income families to cover the costs of their children and to alleviate child poverty. What the organ-grinder proposed in 2014, and what his monkey is now reintroducing, is a freeze to the indexation of payments that is there to enable less well-off families to meet rising costs of living—things like the cost of energy, the cost of utilities and the cost housing.
Mr Turnbull used to represent himself as one who was full throated in his support for the basic social contract—that social contract which does hold our nation together. It is built on compassion and generosity, and it is deeply ingrained in a country which values mateship and values fairness. We help each other out. But the coalition is about the destruction of this social contract. Remember Joe Hockey? He used to drone on about lifters and leaners. Well, the sad fact is that this bill is proposed by the most inept political leaners this country has seen, and it actually hits the nation's lifters.
This bill does not restrict its harshness to our less well-off families but extends it to working-age students as well as seeking a three-year freeze on the income-free areas for all working-age student payments. Not content with taking the cudgel to families, the coalition wants to go after jobseekers, single parents and students, and the proposed fees mean that these groups will be even less able to keep up with the cost of living. This is of particular concern for those on Newstart payments where there are already concerns about the adequacy of the payments.
Along with the 600,000 low-income families and their children that this bill focuses on, this bill wants to penalise another 204,000 Australians who are on the lowest incomes. This government's approach seems to be that, if you are going to be unfair, you may as well be indiscriminate as well. These are people who are already living on the poverty line, where the thresholds to be frozen are already incredibly low. This bill is an assault on the most financially vulnerable Australians. It has no basis in social justice, it has no basis in sound economic management and it has no basis in an equitable society. It is, quite simply, unfair. It is, quite simply, disgraceful.
The one piece of advice I would give to this Prime Minister is that he would be better off shaking loose the shackles that bind him to the former Prime Minister and the miserable ideas that fashioned the 2014 budget. Only then might this Prime Minister actually be able to get on with the business of governing. We are all still waiting for that. But, to do that, Mr Turnbull would need to understand that Australians place a high value on care and compassion when it comes to those who are doing it tough, and measures such as those proposed in this bill fly in the face of the common decency that Australians expect of their government.
As I stand here in the chamber this evening debating this bill, the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill, guillotined in the manner that it has been, I cannot help but think of the millions of children around the country that will be affected by these cuts. There are 1.5 million families and two million children that will be worse off. As previous speakers have highlighted, many of these families are on the maximum rate of family tax benefit A, which means that their household income is less than $52,000 a year. I ask senators in this place to contemplate what it means to live on an income like that.
Currently in Western Australia we have the highest unemployment rate in the nation. We have gone from having a very low rate of unemployment to a very high rate of unemployment. That means that these are the very families that have gone from earning an income to suddenly being dependent on this kind of income support. It is income support that is the social safety net and the social contract that Australians expect in our nation.
Think about what it might be like to have gone from a reasonably well paid job in mining at $120,000 or $185,000 a year with a mortgage and perhaps a partner who works part time and children to suddenly, as the primary breadwinner, losing your job and having those mounting mortgage payments and essentially be relying on an extraordinarily reduced household income that has no capacity to keep up with the cost of living. This is the very real situation of thousands of Western Australians currently. This is really rubbing salt into the wound of what is already a very difficult situation for families in Western Australia.
This, we know, is the resurrection of the 2014 budget cuts. Again, I am sure there are more insidious measures that the coalition put before this place then that they will again. When we are talking about the most vulnerable families in our nation, we on this side of the chamber will always stand up against these kinds of cuts. We do not want to see this $1.4 billion ripped out of the pockets of low-income Australian families.
Now, I know we are talking about bringing the deficit down. We are talking about moving towards a balanced budget. This is the conversation that we are having about reducing debt. But you are exchanging that debt for household debt for the very poorest in our country, who have mounting credit card debt because, in times of crisis and in times of need, they turn to their credit cards, they pay the high interest rates and then they are stuck paying them off on these terribly low family payments. I know this because, within my own portfolio as shadow assistant minister for families and communities, I see the financial counselling services that are counselling families and I also see their emergency relief programs. These cuts are targeted at the very families who need our support the most.
When you look at families who access financial counselling, it is not because they have got extravagant lifestyles and it is not because they are necessarily bad at managing money. It is because they need someone to come in and help them renegotiate their debts, because essentially for the basic household expenses of rent, food, water, utilities and schoolbooks—all of the basic necessities of life—their income is not enough to meet these basic needs. When you look at people who access financial counselling and emergency relief, these are the families we are talking about.
That is why things like the family tax benefit exist. It is to help low and middle income families cover the costs of their children, to alleviate child poverty and, frankly, to alleviate household stress. We have thousands of families around the country who deal with family and relationship support services. What are the things that drive family conflicts? Frankly, often it is money. It is the stress that comes with that. Often, it does not really matter how resilient or good your relationship is: when those stressful times happen with your household budget, then it can often mean trouble at home.
When we look to things like the proposal to freeze indexation to family tax benefits, it is extraordinary that what we are doing is actually mounting this increasing pressure on the environment within Australian homes—costs of energy, costs of groceries, costs of water, costs of housing and costs of rent. Essentially, you are saying as a government, 'We're going to allow these cost to keep rising, because that was what inflation does, but your household income will not rise.' That is why I am proud to stand on this side of the chamber to defend the lowest paid workers in the country, many of whom rely on family tax benefit to simply make ends meet.
I really want to call out these cuts for the rubbish that they are. Malcolm Turnbull has wanted us to believe that these cuts to vulnerable Australians are needed in order to deliver reform to child care, but that is simply not the case. They want us to believe that it is to support the budget, but I say to them that they have the wrong priorities. They are seeking to hand a $50 billion tax cut to corporate Australia while putting increasing pressure on household budgets for the Australians with the lowest incomes in our country. It is extraordinary to me when you consider how low the incomes are that we are actually talking about here.
Frankly, I would challenge people to really look at how it is even possible to survive on the kinds of incomes that we are talking about here. For example, we know that when it comes to parenting payments, the threshold will be reduced to $188 per fortnight. There is absolutely no rationale, in my view, for this freeze for three years. For people who are relying on parenting payment, it is single parents that care for at least one child younger than eight years of age and partners that care for at least one child younger than six years of age below the threshold amount who are affected. These are parents who are struggling with children who are at the most vulnerable times in life, when you need that extra support to get them to school, when you need to be able to buy their schoolbooks, get transport to school and put food on the table. These are the very things that this bill attacks.
It is not just families, I would like to highlight, but students as well. Students and people on Newstart live on extraordinarily low incomes in our country. I thought it was hard enough as a student in the 1990s, but compared to today there is an extra onus on students to participate in the workforce. I do not think that is a bad thing, but I have to say time and time again I see people drop out of university because they simply cannot afford to go because they cannot balance a full-time study load with the kind of work they need to do to keep a roof over their head, petrol in their car and food on the table. These are exactly the people that you opposite are targeting.
In closing, I really just want us to think about the combination that has been placed before us between this bill and robo-debt, through which you opposite have attacked thousands of ordinary, law-abiding Australians who have done nothing yet have been sent these debt letters. You have absolutely the wrong priorities. We will always fight for what matters to Australians: local jobs, protecting Medicare and building a strong economy that delivers for all. Most of all, we will always stand up to give a leg up to the most vulnerable Australians, unlike you across the chamber.
I thank senators who have contributed to this debate. My remarks in closing this debate will be very brief.
I will just deal with some of the remarks that have been made that by pausing indexation of family tax benefit payments somehow we are ripping money out of people's pockets. That is actually not true. Out of all of the savings options that we have been able to explore with relevant senators that were prepared to engage with the government, the judgement that we all made together was to pause indexation to ensure that every family will continue to at least receive the same level of payment that they are currently getting moving forward. No family will actually receive less as a result of the changes that are before us today. They will receive the same level of payment. Many of them will receive higher payments because relevant low-income eligibility thresholds will continue to be indexed. But nobody will actually receive less than they are receiving today.
This is not something that was invented by the coalition and the crossbench; this is something Labor themselves in government have used several times. I heard Senator Pratt and Senator Wong in particular talking about the government ripping $1.3 billion out of families' pockets. I will just point to two examples, but there are many more from the Labor years in government. In 2009-10, the Rudd Labor government, with Mr Swan as Treasurer, delinked the indexation of FTB part A payments from pension indexation arrangements. That is, they lowered the level of indexation, which in 2009-10 dollars saved about $1 billion over the then forward estimates. The $1 billion over the 2009-10 forward estimates is actually more than what we are talking about with the indexation pause now.
There is more. Labor paused all indexation of all FTBA and FTBB supplement payments—not thresholds, as Senator Wong was addressing to Senator Hanson. Labor paused all indexation of all FTBA and FTBB supplements—not for two years but, wait for this, for a total of six years, in their 2011-12 and 2013-14 and 2015 budgets, saving well over $1 billion in 2011-12 and 2013-14 dollars, respectively.
So, just on those two measures, where Labor reduced the level of indexation—using Labor's language here today—Labor in government ripped money out of the pockets of Australia's most vulnerable families. We never said that then, because it was not true then—and Senator Pratt, it is not true today. What we are doing here, by pausing indexation, is the way to ease the necessary saving by spreading the effort across the broadest possible base in order to ensure that we can make this investment in additional support for families needing to access more affordable, more flexible childcare arrangements. And of course, as you know, those childcare reforms are particularly designed to improve and boost supports available for low- and middle-income families in particular.
So, I reject the criticism. I do not want to be partisan at this late hour, but in the context of what you did yourself in government, to criticise what we are proposing to do here with the sort of rhetoric that you have been pursuing today is just not reasonable. I would even call it hypocritical. With those few words, I commend the bill to the Senate.