Senate debates

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Governor-General's Speech


1:10 pm

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to talk about what happened on 18 May. I think we'd all like to know what happened on 18 May. I think it was a valuable lesson for those who have a lot of arrogance about them in terms of taking the people for granted.

Hon. Senators:

Honourable senators interjecting

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Hang on, Senator McGrath. Senators, this is very serious.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And I'm not necessarily saying for those opposite; I'm saying for those who take the people for granted, for those who only listen to the shrill, loud voices of Twitter, for those who only listen to the commentariat who write on the pages of Fairfax and for those who do not listen to the quiet Australians—those people who go on with their lives, who have a job, who would like to get a job, who would like to start a business, who would like to just to get on with life and who don't want the heavy hand of government, the heavy hand of unions, the heavy hand of leftist politicians telling them what to do.

For those who are still a bit surprised by the result, 18 May was a wake-up call, and I say to my friends on the left of politics, my friends on the other side of the chamber—I use 'friends' in the broadest sense of the word—that you should listen to those quiet Australians. You should listen in terms of not only what they said but what they didn't say, and of why they said that, because 18 May was not just a wake-up call. It was a clarion call to the political class to stop chasing after vested interests, to stop chasing after those who put the interests of radical minority groups before the interests of those quiet Australians who live in the suburbs and drive second-hand cars. Sometimes they might be lucky enough to buy a new car. Sometimes they can only afford a new car when they retire and use that super to buy a new car for the first time in their lives.

The quiet Australians aren't flash. They get pretty excited when they get one of those nice, big flat-screen TVs and it goes up on the wall. They're really happy they've got this great, big TV. And you know what? Sometimes they might leave it on stand-by—accidentally—because what they want to do is make sure they can get on with life. They also don't want people to interfere with them. They want to make sure that their kids and their families can have the best, and sometimes—

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

I raise a point of order. Mr Acting Deputy President, if you could direct Senator McGrath to come back to the Governor-General's address in the address-in-reply debate, rather than leaving the chamber on stand-by, that would be terrific.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I'm clearly relevant to the debate.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

Hang on. Settle, tiger. I haven't given you the call yet. On the point of order, Senator McGrath—assuming I'm going to say there is a point of order.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I apologise, Mr Acting Deputy President. On the point of order that has been raised by Senator Pratt, I'm clearly relevant to the terms of the debate.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator McGrath. On the point of order, as you know, I can't direct the senators word by word, but I would remind you that we are talking about the parliament's address-in-reply.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's going to be 16 minutes and 49 seconds of pure excitement for those who will be listening to this debate.

In terms of the address-in-reply, in terms of what was outlined in the Governor-General's speech and in terms of the broad, massive program that this government has for the betterment of Australia where it came from was from those quiet Australians who live in the suburbs—

Opposition senators interjecting

I'll ignore the interjections from the Greens. I think it's sensible life advice for most people to ignore the Greens. Those quiet Australians who live in the suburbs and live in those small country towns, like my parents—my parents who live in a little place called Toogoolawah—

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

Where do you live?

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll tell you where I live in a moment actually. My parents live in a little place called Toogoolawah, a little town in the Brisbane Valley. They are some of those people who live in wooden and tin houses. They don't have much money. Their neighbours get on with their lives. They don't want the government and they don't want the left wing telling them what to do.

The good Senator has asked where I live. I live in a beautiful place. I live on the Darling Downs

An opposition senator interjecting

I will take that interjection—

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

You don't have to.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

All of Queensland is a beautiful place. I cannot choose one part of Queensland over the other, because that would be career limiting for a senator. You should go to the Darling Downs sometime, particularly Warwick. I'm glad you raised the issue of Warwick, Senator. It's very, very sad, though—I was texting my dad before so, 'Hi, Bruce'—in that there has been no rain at home for a while. It is a very sad situation—this is a serious point—that the drought is impacting on Queensland. It has been going on for some time. That's why it's so good that the—

An opposition senator interjecting

I'm not letting go now. I got 14 minutes and 43 seconds to go. In this sitting fortnight, we have been able to pass legislation that was foreshadowed in the Governor-General's address in relation to what we can do to help those who are impacted by the drought. We can also assist those with the farm household allowance in terms of the changes that were passed by the Senate yesterday.

The drought is an issue that is threatening not just the viability of rural, regional and remote Queensland, it is a natural disaster that will impact upon the entire economy of Australia. We know that when the bush does well that the cities do well. We also know that when the bush does not do well—when that rain does not fall, when that dirt does not become mud and when those crops do not grow and the beasts do not live—the cities will hurt.

We are in the midst of a drought that is akin to the one that hit Australia in the seventies. We can talk about the great drought of the 1890s—there's nothing great about it when you think about it. This is the terrible drought of the 2000s.

As Senator Scarr, Senator Stoker, Senator Renick and Senator McDonald know—we have almost the full suite of Queensland senators here, and Senator Canavan is no doubt watching me in his office—there are children in Queensland who are yet to feel the magic of rain falling on their heads, because the drought in parts of Queensland has been going for almost eight years—

Senator Duniam interjecting

That is a shame, as Senator Duniam says.

The government cannot make it rain, but we can help those who are suffering, whether they are on the land or just as importantly in the towns because—this is what people sometimes don't understand—when it becomes dry in the bush the towns also become dry, because it means the graziers and the farmers do not have the money to spend in the shops. They do not have money to spend in the farm supply businesses. When the money is not spent in those towns and villages it becomes this vicious, vicious cycle, because those businesses do not have customers going through their front doors. And if the customers do not go through the front doors it means staff will have to be laid off and that perpetuates the cycle. That is why, sadly—and Senator McDonald in her brilliant maiden speech talked about the ghost towns of Queensland—we are seeing, or have seen, living towns at the moment that are on the verge of dying. This is where the government does have a role—a role to help those towns survive, to help those on the land survive. This is why you go into power. This is why you go into politics. This is why you go into parliament because you want to go in to help people, and you want to help those people who do not have a voice—those quiet people.

Some of those who spoke up on May 18 were those quiet Australians who wear the big hats and have those sunburnt faces from spending a lifetime out in the sun. Those quiet farmers and graziers, those who work on the land, spoke up, because they wanted to make sure that they had a government that was on their side. Because, sadly, what the election showed was that some on the left of politics no longer understand rural Queensland and rural Australia. The opposition want to bring in vegetation management laws—and they want to do preference deals with the Greens—and replicate the Queensland Labor Party's vegetation management laws nationally. They thought that was the answer to the drought: to bring in more bureaucracy, to bring in more red tape on farmers, to stop those farmers from getting on and turning Australia into a food bowl—a food bowl for not just us but the rest of the world.

With your permission, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, I will make a slight diversion: I was in Hughenden on Saturday in the Flinders Shire. We, the Queensland senators, all know Jane McNamara, a wonderful mayor. There are many wonderful mayors, but you don't want to choose a favourite up in that neck of the woods because the others will lynch you. They're all brilliant mayors, but Jane McNamara, the Flinders Shire Council and a lot of people did a lot of work to bring together an agreement between the shire, the people of the shire and a company to build a meat-processing facility—an abattoir, in plain English—and a feedlot, in Hughenden. This is so important because they want to be able to process some of the finest cattle in Australia in Hughenden and send it direct to China. The emerging middle classes in India and China know that Australian produce, whether it is from cattle, sheep—or even goat, in some cases; if you go out to Charleville people are pretty keen on goat—or our crops, is clean and tastes good. We can value-add to it, as my colleague Senator Scarr, said. That is a good story. That is something that should be able to unite everybody in this chamber: in a small remote part of Queensland—I don't think it is remote; Hughenden to me is just down the road, but it's classified by those who know better that it is remote—a small rural council has been able to work with a company to try to bring together a facility that will put jobs into Hughenden, stop the decline of that town and stop it turning into a ghost town. That is brilliant, brilliant news.

So, the people in Hughenden understood that 18 May was about the future of Australia to make sure that those who shriek on Twitter weren't running this country. The people who are running this country are—

Senator Sinodinos interjecting

those quiet Australians, as Senator Sinodinos says. Those people aren't actually on Twitter. They probably don't know what Twitter is—and that's also sensible life advice: never go on Twitter! Although, Senator Sinodinos, I think you are on Twitter, aren't you? Renowned troll! But I digress—a troll of the Left, which is very, very good. So, these quiet Australians wanted a government to get out of their lives, to cut taxes. What is the first thing that this government did?

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Cut taxes!

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It cut taxes. Because cutting taxes is good for you. It is good for your family. It is good for your job, whether you are working for a small company or a big company. It is good for the company that employs you. It is good for you if you want to get ahead and start your own company, for those people who have a dream.

Those of us on the Right and the Centre Right of politics believe in this concept called freedom; those on the Left don't. We believe that you, as the individual, as the family unit, as the community, should have the freedom to do as much as you wish without impinging upon the rights of the other, and the classic case of this is the freedom to spend your money. Because it is your money. It is not the government's money. It has never been the government's money. It is your money because you worked for it, whether you were digging holes or sitting in an office, whatever you were doing. It is your money. And we on this side of politics—and it is that defining streak that goes through this chamber—believe you can spend that money as you wish, because it's your money and you know what to do with it. It's not the government's money.

The government has a role to play—a limited role, in my view—in the affairs of the nation. The nation is best served by powerful individuals who have the means, through their own blood, sweat and tears, to go ahead and do as they wish and not be controlled by a government that taxes them from birth until death and spends their money, often on vanity projects of politicians, like Pink Batts, 'clash for clunkers' and many of the other renowned—I don't know if 'renowned' is the correct word to use there—schemes of the Left.

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Infamous—thank you, Senator Scarr—notorious schemes of those on the Left, who think that they can make people happier by taxing them more, taking their money off them and giving it to other people. We say: no, you should have that money. You should have that money in your purse or in your wallet. You should have that money because it is your money. You can spend it on buying a car—often it will be second hand—and you can spend it on buying that new TV if you wish, because that is what a society is about. It is about ensuring that the individual and their family, in whatever colour or make it comes in, has power over their own destiny, without that ugly hand of the state intervening in there.

That's why we are so proud on this side of the chamber—so proud—that we were able to vote for tax cuts. One of the premier elements of the Governor-General's speech, when he came here at the opening of parliament, was our tax plan. It's a tax plan that didn't just start with tax cuts on 1 July, a mere month ago; it's a plan that takes tax cuts for the next few years. Sadly, one of the big complaints that people level at politicians is that we're too short-term, that we focus on tomorrow, on the headline, on our re-election. This is a party and a government—the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Country Liberal Party, the Liberal-National Party, this coalition of the Centre Right—that took to the election on May 18 a long-term plan for tax cuts, because we wanted to show to the people that we trusted them and that this is what we thought they should be doing with their money.

You know what the people did? They wandered into those polling booths in the pre-poll period. They didn't say much. I remember Bribie Island. Bribie Island was on fire, because they wandered in and they were cranky with those on the Left. They couldn't understand why any political party would want to raise taxes and take away their money. They couldn't understand why self-funded retirees—in some cases pensioners—were going to have their savings effectively taken away from them. They couldn't understand why people who had worked hard all their lives, with calluses on their hands, who had given up so much for themselves, for their family and for their community, were going to be punished by a political party for doing the right thing.

That is a sad reflection upon the Labor Party. And I'm a little bit of two minds on this, but I probably don't want the Labor Party to learn the lessons from this last election, because if you don't learn the lessons from the last election you'll repeat them at the next election—and I hope you do repeat those mistakes at the next election, because then more quiet Australians will understand that with Scott Morrison and Michael McCormack we have a government of humility, of seriousness, who want to take politics off the front page of the newspapers and put it on page 4 or 6 or 10 or 11 and let people get on with it.

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

You'd like that.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, I would like it. I'd like people to focus on real issues, rather than the scatterbrained yahoo-ness of politics, of people shrieking at each other. Let's have serious policy discussions. Let's talk about where this country is going over the next decade. Let's talk about what we're going to do—the solutions we'll find to youth suicide, the solutions we'll find to the appalling infant mortality rate in Indigenous communities. Let's talk about what we're going to do in drought-proofing this country. Where are the answers for that? Stop playing yahoo politics.

On 18 May the people decided to vote for a government, for a political party, who believe in the individual and believe in freedom and believe in people getting on with their lives. That's what this government is going to do, and that's what the Governor-General said in his speech to this parliament, because it is all about freedom, all about making sure that people can get on with their lives. (Time expired)

1:31 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will take my hat off to Senator McGrath—which is something I don't often admit to—because he was left holding the baby while that side was disorganised and couldn't get their speakers down. Even though he'd called a quorum to get people down, it still didn't work.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That's not true.

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I've got the speakers list in front of me, so I know what was supposed to happen. Anyway, I do take my hat off to you for holding the government on your shoulders for that last 20-odd minutes.

In acknowledging the Governor-General's address outlining the Morrison government's program, we couldn't help but notice the lack of any serious plans to tackle the major challenges facing this country's future. Witnessing the 18 May election you could be forgiven for thinking that the Liberals' entire message consisted of a big old-fashioned scare campaign about Labor's policies, or at least their misleading representation of our policies. I can't really think of one positive policy this government can hang its hat on and say, 'This inspired Australians to return us for a third time.' It was really a triumph of fear over hope, and they campaigned on fear because this government has nothing else left.

Over the past six years they've gutted our Public Service, sent our 21st century National Broadband Network back to the Stone Age, failed future generations on climate change, overseen the lowest wages growth in history and brought the economy to the brink of recession. They couldn't campaign on their record, because their record has been abysmal on just about any measure. And they couldn't campaign on future policies, because their tax package was the only major policy they had. With the bulk of their campaign platform already implemented, those opposite are now faced with the task of running the country for another three years, with no plan for the economy, no plan for wages, no plan for the energy market, no plan for climate, no plan to fix our schools and hospitals after the damage they've inflicted on them, and no plan to tackle the housing and homelessness crisis facing Australia. This government's plan consists of two things: (1) implement the tax package that was ticked off in the first sitting week and (2) the hidden agenda they have now revealed, after the election, which is to attack the union movement.

Among the myriad failures this government has overseen, I'm going to use my contribution in this address-in-reply today to highlight one, and that is the growing inequality in our society. To make matters worse, the latest Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia, or HILDA, survey found that living standards have gone backwards. The HILDA survey finds that real median income in 2017, the latest year of the survey, was lower than when the Liberal came to office in 2013. I particularly want to highlight, as a senator for Tasmania, how the inequality in both wealth and income affects my home state disproportionately.

Before I do this, let me address the two-word phrase that this government raises: every time we talk about inequality, every time we talk about fairness, they accuse Labor of engaging in what they call 'class warfare'. They've taken our advocacy for what is a core Australian value—the fair go—and turned it into a negative. Their use of the phrase class warfare is utterly disingenuous, and it's insulting to imply that Australians are inciting some kind of conflict when they call on the government to do its job by ensuring that their basic needs are met. There should be no controversy over the idea that every Australian should receive the essential government services they need to stay sheltered, warm, fed, healthy and educated—nor should it be controversial to expect those who have the means to pay for those services and still live a very comfortable life on their remaining funds to do so. Yet those opposite, through their rhetoric, have been very successful in making fairness seem like a vice and greed a virtue.

The irony of their use of the phrase 'class warfare' is that it's actually the Liberals who are engaging in class warfare, but they're doing it on behalf of the wealthiest Australians as well as their mates in big business. It's especially ironic because they throw the class warfare tag at Labor in the course of waging their own class war. It's rhetoric designed to persuade Australians to accept the policies they put forward to widen the wealth and income divide and to reject the policies we put forward that are aimed at reducing the gap.

The Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, says that if you have a go you'll get go, and this underlines the philosophy of the Liberals perfectly. It basically espouses the economic philosophy of conservatives: that wealth is a reward for hard work; anyone can succeed provided they earn their success. It's a variation on former Treasurer Joe Hockey's 'lifters and leaners' quote but expressed in less controversial terms. Consistent with Mr Hockey's declaration about lifters and leaners, the flip side of Mr Morrison's statement is that when you do not succeed in life then it's your own fault—not society's, not the governments, but yours. Contrary to this view, the reality is that many Australians have been having a go for years and are not receiving the just reward for their effort.

I believe there are a number of reasons Labor lost the last election, but our advocacy for fairness was not one of them. I still believe the fair go is a core value of Australians, yet one to which those opposite do not subscribe. I expect few Australians would consider it fair and reasonable that the one per cent of wealthiest Australians own more combined wealth than the bottom 70 per cent or that the two wealthiest people in Australia own more wealth than the bottom one-fifth of the population. That's just two individuals with a combined wealth of around five million of their fellow Australians.

The wealth and income gap in Australia is getting worse, and it's getting worse at a time when families struggle to make ends meet, when young Australian struggle to afford their own home and when three million Australians, including 700,000 children, are living in poverty. Thousands of children living in poverty in one of the wealthiest countries in the world is a situation that I find utterly obscene. What makes this especially obscene is that this government has consciously adopted policies which have made the situation worse, especially in my home state of Tasmania.

When it comes to the standard of living, Tasmania has a number of indicators which lag behind the other states and territories. This makes Tasmania and Tasmanians particularly vulnerable to rising inequality. For example, average weekly earnings in Tasmania are the lowest of any state or territory. The last figures from November 2018 show Tasmanians having average weekly ordinary-time earnings of $1,399, or $206 below the Australian average. Median income data for the greater Hobart area also shows that our capital lags behind all other states and territory capitals on this measure.

Because Tasmanian incomes are low by national standards, our state is impacted more than any other by the record-low wages growth overseen by this government, and it's grossly unfair that growth in the wages of workers, particularly the lowest paid, are being far outstripped by growth in the economy and company profits. The tax cuts passed by the Senate will provide Australia's lowest paid workers with some relief, but more needs to be done. Not only does the government continue to sit on their hands while wage growth stagnates but they are actually making the situation worse. At a time when wage growth is at historic lows, you would think a government with an ounce of common sense would acknowledge that there is a need to restore the balance when it comes to the bargaining power of workers and businesses, yet this government's response is to launch another assault—one in a long series of assaults, I might say—against the trade union movement with their so-called ensuring integrity bill.

They are also doing nothing to ensure that minimum wages provide a decent standard of living. Labor went to the election with a policy of making the minimum wage a living wage. Surely all Australians, even those opposite, see merit in the principle that a full-time minimum wage should be sufficient to provide a reasonable standard of living and that every full-time worker should be able to at least afford the essentials in life. The economy is meant to benefit all of the people, not just the government's mates, yet this Liberal government has overseen six annual wage reviews and at no time in those six years have they supported a real increase in the minimum wage. Instead, they have provided a multitude of arguments against real increases.

This is the same government that has stood by and allowed 700,000 workers in retail and hospitality to have their penalty rates slashed. These are some of Australia's lowest paid workers, who rely on penalty rates to make ends meet. By the time the cuts are fully implemented on 1 July next year, some workers will be worse off by up to $26,000 a year. Despite members of the government telling us that cutting penalty rates creates employment, not one new job has been created as a result of these cuts—not one. This is a fact that has been conceded by the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia. This demonstrates evidence put to the Fair Work Commission that the theory that cutting penalty rates would generate employment was flawed.

Given the weight of evidence that these penalty rate cuts have failed to achieve their intended purpose, why does the current government insist on doing nothing to reverse them? The only possible explanation is that they are putting the profits of business ahead of the needs of the workers who rely on penalty rates to pay the rent, pay their electricity bill or feed and clothe their children. Their indifference towards the situation of thousands of Australia's lowest paid workers is deplorable.

It's bad enough that the Morrison government is overseeing record low wages growth, but now they're also preparing for an assault on workers' retirement savings. The Prime Minister has failed to rule out supporting a growing movement from his backbench to scrap the scheduled increase in the superannuation guarantee to 12 per cent. Mr Morrison used weasel words to dodge the question on Sky News recently, saying:

… it's not the Government's intentions or plans to change what's legislated at this point in time.

Note the words 'at this point in time'.

Recent analysis shows that there is a massive gap between the retirement savings of workers and what they need for a comfortable retirement. This gap is even worse in Tasmania, which in 2015-16 had an average superannuation account balance of $129,000 compared with the national average of $188,000. An increase in the superannuation guarantee is badly needed, but Mr Morrison's recently announced review of superannuation appears to me to be setting up the government for a backflip on these scheduled increases. The government needs to rule this out unequivocally and immediately.

I want to now turn to some of Australia's poorest people: jobseekers on the Newstart allowance. The Newstart allowance is currently $278 per week, which just under $40 a day. A number of politicians regularly get asked by the media whether they could live on $40 a day. Who in this place could honestly put their hand on their heart and say that they could? After all, former Deputy Prime Minister Joyce claims that he can't even live on his parliamentary salary. I notice that a number of government ministers have dodged this question when it was put to them. Instead, they respond by saying, 'Newstart is a transitional payment.' It may be a transitional payment for some jobseekers, but in this country we have around 165,000 long-term unemployed—that is, people who have been unemployed for more than 12 months.

In my home state of Tasmania, the rate of long-term unemployment is 1.7 per cent. That is much higher than the national average of 1.2 per cent. This means that around 4,500 Tasmanians have been languishing for over a year on this so-called transitional payment. The state I represent also has a longer average duration of unemployment. It is around 71 weeks, as compared with the national average of 49 weeks. When it comes to Newstart, I urge those opposite to take up the policy of reviewing the payment that Labor took to the election. Those opposite are steadfastly refusing to even consider raising the rate, but the need for an increase is the only conclusion you can possibly reach if you acknowledge two very simple facts: (1) the rate of Newstart is too low to live on; and (2) despite any government's best efforts to get people off Newstart as quickly as possible, there will be people relying on it for more than a year. How can these people be expected to actively look for work when it's enough of a struggle to afford their basic living expenses?

I know that government members and senators understand that the rate of Newstart is too low, even if they can't bring themselves to acknowledge it. But, while acknowledging that Newstart is too low, there is also a need to address unemployment in my home state of Tasmania, which has lost almost 6,000 jobs in the last 12 months. Instead of taking action to address Tasmania's unemployment rate, which is the highest in Australia, the government has slashed 550 Commonwealth Public Service jobs from the state and threatens another 100 with its plan to privatise visa processing services.

Another area in which Tasmania is particularly suffering from inequality is homelessness and housing, as I outlined in a recent senators' statement speech. In that speech I pointed out that Hobart has become the least affordable capital city in Australia on the Rental Affordability Index and that there are over 3,000 Tasmanians on the public housing waiting list. We also know that 20 per cent more Tasmanians are now accessing homelessness and crisis housing services than were accessing these services two years ago. This government is severely lacking in plans to address the housing and homelessness crisis in Tasmania, or even Australia-wide. They capped the National Rental Affordability Scheme at 38,000 dwellings, and we're still not clear about whether there was a deal to cancel Tasmania's $157 million housing debt or when this will be implemented.

Another way in which this government has furthered inequality is through their savage cuts to essential public services. These are services which the more disadvantaged in society particularly rely on. I mentioned earlier the high rate of long-term unemployment in Tasmania, a situation that is exacerbated by this government's savage cuts to Centrelink. While jobseekers are struggling to get by on Newstart, they are also waiting for hours on the phone to Centrelink, or even getting a dial tone when they just want a simple query answered. Cuts to health hit a state like Tasmania most particularly hard, as we have, on average, an older population and higher levels of chronic disease. The emergency departments in our hospitals are in a state of crisis, with elective surgeries constantly being cancelled, while ambulances are ramping and staff are working double shifts to deal with the overwhelming demand.

Then there are the savage cuts to government schools. There's $14 billion that still hasn't been returned, even though the government fully restored the funding from the cuts to the independent and Catholic schools. This is fundamentally unfair when government schools serve a higher proportion of students with disability and from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is particularly unfair to Tasmania, which has a higher proportion of students enrolled in government schools when compared with the national average. Tackling inequality is not only a just and fair thing to do; it's also economically responsible.

As I pointed out in February last year when speaking on Labor's private senator's bill, the Productivity Commission Amendment (Addressing Inequality) Bill 2017, greater income equality leads to faster economic growth. This is the finding of analysis conducted by the OECD in 2014, backed up by Nobel prize winning economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz. The logic underpinning this is quite simple: those who have less money tend to spend a greater proportion of it. It isn't rocket science.

It is high time the Liberals accepted that their failure to address inequality has led to a situation where economic growth and consumption have slowed and Australia is teetering on the brink of recession. Yet, against the weight of the evidence to the contrary, the Liberals still subscribe to the outdated notion that you can create economic stimulus by looking after the top end of town. They still defend to the hilt the generous tax concessions that go to the wealthiest Australians while also defending their savage cuts to public services such as schools, hospitals and housing. They still conduct an all-out assault on trade unions when it is the union movement which is fighting to ensure that Australian workers, especially our lowest-paid workers, receive just reward for their efforts in driving the economy. And they still prioritise property investors over first home buyers. Why? Because those opposite have abrogated their responsibility for making Australian society more fair and equal. It is at the core of the Liberals' philosophy, and has been throughout the history of their party, that each individual is entirely responsible for their own success or failure in life. But we know that this is not true. My Australia is not one in which individuals clamour over and step on each other to get to the top of the ladder, and I have faith most that Australians subscribe to that view. The individualistic philosophy of those opposite could not be more at odds with Australian values. Australia is the land of the fair go. We believe in helping out people who have fallen on hard times and giving them a hand up when they need it.

We, on this side of the chamber, believe that inequality is an outcome of policy decisions and something that government has a responsibility to address. This is an enduring Labor value, and I can guarantee it would underpin the policies we bring to the next election. Those opposite may well call it class warfare, but we have another word for it: we call it fairness.

1:51 pm

Photo of Amanda StokerAmanda Stoker (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm so pleased to be back in this chamber to contribute to the debate and to take this opportunity to acknowledge all of the new senators in this chamber in the context of replying to the address given by the Governor-General, because there can be no greater honour than sitting in this place and making your mark on governing what I think is a nation of enormous potential. It is so wonderful in particular to be able to welcome my Queensland colleagues in Gerard Rennick, Susie McDonald and Paul Scarr.

We've recently been through an election campaign. In many ways the tone of it was, I felt, out of step with how so many Australians feel about themselves. In so many ways it flogged class warfare, attempted to turn Australians against one other—neighbour against neighbour, young people against retirees, employees against employers and the well-off against those who are on hard times. The fact that Labor continues down this vein I think is shown by the way that Senator Bilyk has in her address in reply just now talked so much about the top end of town.

The truth is here in Australia we have so much more in common than we have in differences. One of the most common characteristics, a long-held attribute of our culture and our identity, is aspiration. Australians chose a government that values, that understands and that wants to foster that aspiration to grow opportunities for them to chase their own perfect version of a great life—to chase their dreams of a new job or a promotion, to get a home of their own, to pay it off, to provide for their family, to save for their retirement. These are all noble pursuits. I'm proud to serve as part of a government which puts on its priority list policies which recognise and reward hard work, effort and achievement—something we should always celebrate.

The Treasury Laws Amendment (Tax Relief so Working Australians Keep More of Their Money) Bill 2019, which while being a mouthful nevertheless passed in our first week, is one of the best and earliest examples of how this government is committed to rewarding hardworking Australians. The tax cuts acknowledge that working Australians should be rewarded for their efforts, for their achievements, for doing their overtime or for investing in new skills so that their working value, the amount that they can command as wages of work, increases over and over.

The cuts give immediate relief to low-income earners, people who earn up to $37,000 per annum. It does that by increasing the base offset from $200 to $255 for the 2018-19 tax year. The changes to the base offset flow on to those with an income between $37,001 and $48,000—an increase to 7½c per dollar from the previous level of 3c per dollar. For those on incomes of between $48,000 and $90,000, the benefit from the base offset increase will be great; they will receive tax relief of $1,080.

These tax cuts are sensible, they're fully costed and they're practical. They take the pressure off employers, who are often under the pump, particularly in our small businesses, who often really struggle to make ends meet, and allow our workers to take home a real increase in their wages, giving taxpayers like them more of their own money back. In effect, it gives a wage rise in practical terms: more money in their pockets. And that is as it should be.

The Treasurer and the Minister for Finance did an excellent job in so many areas of the recent budget, and this is one where I think they did particularly good work. Now, passing that legislation doesn't mean we're done, of course; it doesn't mean we plan to sit back for the next 34 months. We have a program that is all about making it easier for Australians to go about their daily lives with minimal interference or input from a big or interfering government, giving them the freedom to choose what they want to do with their money, what they want to do with their lives, while also making sure that we've got the incentives in the right place—and you can always count on this government to put incentives behind people who absolutely want to work and get ahead.

One of the major concerns that ordinary Australians raised with us in the course of the election campaign was the disturbing level of influence that the Australian Council of Trade Unions had over the opposition leader at that time and over the Labor Party as a whole. The leader of the ACTU is in many ways politically tone-deaf to the concerns of people in small businesses—and in bigger businesses—and non-union workers about the often bullying conduct of some unions and some individuals within them. We know that the head of the ACTU is on record as having absolutely no regard for the law unless it's one that she particularly likes and agrees with. But the law isn't optional. We all have to comply with it, and from time to time there are laws that none of us particularly like. That's just the nature of being in a country where we govern for all. It means we are expected to comply with the law even if we don't like it. If the head of the ACTU would like to change the law, she's got an avenue for doing that. But, no, she will just ignore those laws she doesn't like and, indeed, encourage those under her influence to ignore them when it's inconvenient. It's not so hard for them to manage that, given the enormous funds they have in their coffers to be able to pay fines and penalties that reflect that lawlessness.

Over the years, we have seen so many heads of unions exposed for various types of misconduct, whether that's misuse of union funds, cronyism, nepotism, or bullying and intimidation. More recently, this misconduct has raised serious questions about whether the union movement is prepared to tackle tolerance of domestic violence within its own ranks. But, when unions become so powerful that they fear nothing at all, is it any wonder that there are some employers who have to deal with them who are frustrated by their interactions? Is it any wonder that there are many employees that would rather not be compelled to be involved? Tackling lawlessness in unions and holding them to account is vital to business confidence, to productivity and to profitability. These aren't terrible things. 'Profit' is not a dirty word. These are things that allow people to earn higher wages. Businesses need to make money so that they can employ more people. They need to make money so that they can pay more money to the staff they have.

You'd think that those were things that the Labor Party would value, but they don't. In fact, they'd rather get in the way of it, and the policies that they took to the last election concerning re-regulation of the labour market, centrally setting wages and the like were job-killing policies. Those policies don't have anything to do with job creation. In fact, Labor in government would rather be able to centrally set wages at high levels, to their liking, even if that comes at the expense of the many Australians who desperately want a job.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! It being 2.00 pm, we'll move to questions without notice.