Senate debates

Tuesday, 5 December 2017


Bennelong By-Election, Inequality

7:49 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make some remarks about the inequality that exists in Australia and concerns that the gap between the rich and the poor is at a 70-year high. Hardworking Australian men and women are struggling with the cost-of-living pressures under the Turnbull government, and they're particularly doing that right now in the seat of Bennelong. They're struggling with rising costs of energy, and the people of Bennelong have a chance to do something about that on Saturday, the 16th.

They're struggling with higher house prices in Bennelong—

Senator Williams interjecting

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Williams!

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The voters of Bennelong have an opportunity to do something about that on the 16th of this month and return a new member to this place in the form of the former Premier of New South Wales, the great Kristina Keneally.

I am sad to say that I'm not at all surprised that these terrible pressures that exist on Australians don't even seem to register with the Turnbull government. The government doesn't even believe that there's a growing gap between the rich and the poor. It doesn't think we've got a problem with growing inequality. You don't have to take my word for it; it's on the public record, with the Treasurer of the country saying, 'Inequality—it's actually got better,' indicating that he's happy with the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in Australia. Better? Really? That's what they think across there. The people of Bennelong, on 16 December, have a chance to send a message to this out-of-touch government that simply doesn't understand the reality of the pressures of house prices, energy prices and the growing gap payment that people have to make to get health care because of the attacks on Medicare and the freeze that this government has inflicted on Australians.

I don't know who the Turnbull government is talking to, but it's not talking to ordinary Australians. If it's talking to them, it's certainly not listening to them. Australians are barely experiencing any growth in their wages. Just last week, the RBA Governor, Philip Lowe, said:

Growth in average hourly earnings … is running at the lowest rate since at least the 1960s.

That's a statement from the RBA Governor. They're the facts about which this government remains in denial. Mr Lowe said that Australians are more likely to be in insecure work and facing rising cost-of-living pressures. That is the reality that's emerging in Australia on the watch of this Liberal-National government, which continues to deny it. Instead of tackling these issues, the Turnbull government is solely focused on implementing more of the failed trickle-down economic policies that are their signature. They actually believe that cutting company taxes to the tune of $65 billion, $7 billion of which will go to the banks, will somehow trickle down and help ordinary Australians. They're choosing big business and the top end of town over the protection of penalty rates. They want average Australians, struggling to earn a decent wage to support their families, to face an income tax hike. That's it: tax cuts for the big businesses, but let's put a tax hike on the hardworking, ordinary Australian family, and, at the same time, let's see what they do with a tax cut for millionaires. We know the government said that it had a bit of a problem with its debt and deficit, so it decided that those people who had a pretty high income should pay a little bit more. Recently it decided that wasn't a problem, so high income earners got a tax cut. These are the signature policies and implementations of a government that reveals it's simply out of touch.

When Labor argues for better protections for hardworking Australian men and women, those opposite say we're killing aspiration. You know what kills aspiration? It's not being able to afford food and a roof over your head. You know what kills aspiration? Not having a decent wage and a secure job so that you can go out and get a car loan—being permanently in casual employment while the government tells Australians it's okay. 'You're better off having a job at all with less pay,' I've heard it said in this chamber. The problem is that people cannot make ends meet, and further policies are entrenching all of this action by the government to make it harder for Australians to get on their feet and get ahead.

Just last month, Assistant Governor (Economic) of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Luci Ellis, said:

… liberalisation and reform are not ends in themselves. The focus must be on the end goal, the welfare of the population. If a specific reform doesn't deliver that, it ought to be modified …

That was the advice that was given on 15 November in a speech entitled 'Where is the growth going to come from?' It's absolutely time for this government to have a rethink about its neo-Liberal agenda. But we'll have to wait, because I haven't seen any signs of that developing. In the meantime, whilst the Turnbull government plays catch-up to the rest of the Australian population, who knows things are pretty tough out there for hardworking men and women, it's left to Labor and other people of good conscience to protect the workers of this country. The government should be undertaking this task, but instead they've hived it off to the employers, to the marketplace. That is not a sound policy to follow. As the RBA Governor, Philip Lowe, said:

Businesses are not bidding up wages in the way that they might once have.

In that context, unions have a fundamental role to play in ensuring that Australians earn a decent wage. For instance, the SDA, the largest union in Australia, has a long and proud history of securing rates of pay and conditions of employment for retail and fast food workers which are amongst the very best in the world. Improving and defending the award safety net is vital, and the SDA has been at the heart of this work for over 100 years. Recently we have seen the SDA advocate for fairer outcomes for those working at Domino's. This week I have made some comments in this chamber about the SDA's campaign to make sure that people who are working in retail industries, particularly over this Christmas period, are treated with due respect in the work that they do. Sadly, too many of the people in our retail sector are being subjected to sexual harassment in their workplace. It's not on. It's not okay.

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

So is that our fault?

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We can lead on these things—and I will take Senator Ruston's interjection. It's not your fault? Well, it is your fault if you don't do something about it. We've had people in here talking about domestic violence. We've talked about violence against women. If it's happening in our shops, we need people to stand up with regard to it. We'll be waiting a long time before this government even thinks that is their job, let alone determines to do something.

Whilst the Turnbull government fights to cut taxes for millionaires and big business, it's left to Labor and the unions to defend penalty rates. The Labor Party believes that penalty rates remain a fundamental part of a strong safety net for Australian workers. They allow low-income workers and those working in casual employment to have a decent wage. Employer associations have for years been trying to abolish weekend and penalty rates for low-paid workers. Each time they've done that, standing in the way of their attacks on fairness, standing up for workers, were unions such as the SDA. In the last two years alone, the SDA union has, sadly, had to spend over $2 million on legal fees and on expert witnesses, reports and other ancillary costs related to the Fair Work Commission penalty rates case.

We had people in this place and the other place talking a big game in terms of how they were going to take on the banks, going to do the right thing by Australians. The member for Dawson was going to stand up for the working people and make sure that Australians got their penalty rates. And what did we see? He rolled over in his gear, with his whip, and he had his tummy tickled. He did nothing. He walked away. In fact, this week he has actually declared himself to have told lies. Fancy that! Fancy telling lies to the media of Australia. But, worst of all, he has lied to the people who believed that he was going to stand up for their penalty rates. Even the ones who say that they are going to stand up for the penalty rates on the other side, even the Nationals—who I definitely have a bit more time for than the Liberal Party with regard to this—have let ordinary working Australians down.

That's why the work of the SDA is so important. There's a huge investment of union funds in resources and money to make sure that the good work that needs to be done to support workers and protect their interests is actually undertaken. The SDA is certainly investing in looking after working men and women in places like Coles and Woolworths. Why? Because they understand that hardworking Australians cannot afford a pay cut and they don't deserve one either. The individuals working on weekends are giving up valuable time with their families—their parents, their children—and other loved ones to ensure that they can put food on the table and a decent roof over their heads. The opportunity cost of working is significantly higher on those who work on weekends. It's curious that those opposite, who continue to talk about the value of family and community, do not see weekends as different to weekdays. Kristina Keneally, running for the Labor Party in the seat of Bennelong, is a person who can bring fairness and equity to this place. I urge people in the seat of Bennelong to give her their support on 16 December. (Time expired)