Senate debates

Thursday, 25 November 2021


Wages and Cost of Living

5:01 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

At the request of Senator Gallagher, I move:

That the Senate—

(a) notes:

(i) the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics wages data show that real wages went backwards by $700 over the last year,

(ii) the 2021-22 Budget reveals real wages will go backwards over the next four years, and

(iii) the cost of housing, petrol, childcare and healthcare continue to rise, putting additional pressure on Australians' household budgets; and

(b) agrees that the Prime Minister is out of touch with the reality that Australians face every day due to his Government's mismanagement of the economy over eight long years in government, given that real wages are going backwards while costs of living continue to rise.

I rise to speak on this very important motion from Senator Gallagher today. After eight long years of this government—three terms, three prime ministers and three deputy prime ministers—Australian workers and families are asking themselves: 'What has this government done to help the cost of living over the last eight years? Are my wages going up enough to cover that rising cost of living? Are my wages going up at all under the Morrison government? Am I going to be better off under another term of this government?' The Morrison government want people thinking about the cost of living as they look to the next election. Well, we want them to be thinking about that too because you cannot think about the cost of living and how people cope without talking about wages as well. Under this government we have seen eight long years of stagnant wages, eight long years of wages not keeping up with the cost of living and eight long years where it has become harder and harder for people to make ends meet.

The government have admitted in their own budget and their own projections that they will not deliver real wages growth before 2025. That is what we can expect from another term of this lot—no hope of wages going up. In fact, under this government, workers will continue to be thousands of dollars a year worse off. Research by the McKell Institute shows that the average Australian worker would be $250 a week better off under a Labor government—$254 a week, to be precise. That's over $13,000 a year for families, or $13,000 a year worse off under the Morrison government. If this government wants to run an election campaign on the cost of living then bring it on. This is the number that Australians will remember, because there is absolutely no hope of keeping up with the rising cost of everything under this government when you have $13,000 a year less in your pay packet.

But low wages are not the only problem. Under the Morrison government, the cost of living is going up. The gap between how much you earn and what you're paying for everything is increasing. Prime Minister Morrison has implored voters to pick the team with the right track record at the next election. You may never hear me say this again in this chamber, but on this question he is right. We have all seen the track record of this government. In the past year, wages have gone backwards by $700 and, during the same time, petrol has gone up by $900. You do the math and see what is happening to the average household out there in our country. In my home city of Melbourne, petrol prices are 23 per cent higher than they were a year ago, and of course that gets even worse as you get out to regional Victoria and regional Australia. Under this government, petrol prices have gone up, prices in general have gone up and wages have gone down. This is the track record of the Morrison government: petrol prices skyrocketing, real wages going down, working families going backwards.

It's not just petrol prices that are unaffordable under this government. Let's talk about housing costs and the housing crisis. Across this country, workers who have jobs are still not earning enough to find decent housing. One of the many aged-care workers who has bravely spoken out about their wages and the impact on the housing situation is Sherree. I've told Sherree's story a few times in this place, because it's a story that cuts pretty deep and it's a story that is echoed across our country. Sherree has worked in aged care for 20 years, but she is contracted to work only 16 hours a fortnight. While she consistently works more than that, those hours are not guaranteed and her wages are low—close to the minimum wage. That means she can't convince a real estate agent to give her a lease and she can't convince a bank to give her a home loan. She is forced to live in temporary accommodation, in a caravan park, and she has noticed that in the caravan park she lives in there are seven other aged-care workers who are providing essential service to our community and who are in exactly the same situation that she is—they are on low wages, with no prospect of a wage rise under this government, and stuck in short-hour, insecure jobs. They are locked out of secure housing because, under this government, they don't have good, secure jobs with decent wages.

There is a crisis of insecure work in this country. It's a crisis that is driving wages backwards at the same time as the cost of living is going up. It's a crisis that this government not only have no plan for but don't even admit is real. The Senate Select Committee on Job Security has heard about this crisis of insecure work across the country, from workers across a range of industries and a range of regions. Workers have told us about their struggles with low wages, with not getting enough hours of work and with having to face the rising cost of living on top of that job insecurity.

Of course, there are government senators serving on this committee—government senators who have sat there, as I have, and listened to the stories of these workers, who have bravely told us about what it's really like to have an insecure job with low wages. What is the government's response to this, when evidence of the crisis of insecure work is right in front of their eyes? The government senators on this committee wrote in their dissenting report that it is 'a Labor lie that job insecurity is an issue in this nation'—a Labor lie. Well, tell that to workers like Sherree who are struggling on short-hour, insecure jobs with low pay that just doesn't cover the cost of everything they need in order to provide for themselves, to make ends meet. The government persists in the idea that job insecurity is a Labor lie, even when the evidence is right in front of their eyes, even when workers are literally telling their stories about it to these government senators.

This is a government that cannot admit that job insecurity even exists. This government is seriously out of touch. Even this week we've heard Morrison government ministers in the other place call issues of job insecurity in labour hire 'made-up issues'. Minister Fletcher thinks that labour hire workers getting paid less than their co-workers doing the same job is a made-up issue. Well, perhaps Minister Fletcher should have a chat to his colleagues in this chamber, Senator Canavan and Senator Small, both of whom attended the committee hearings earlier this year, where we heard from the labour hire workers who are paid less for doing the same work.

We heard from Mr Chad Stokes, who lives in Rockhampton, and who has worked in the coalmining industry for 10 years, but for the past seven years he has been employed as a casual labour hire worker. Mr Stokes told our Senate committee: 'I work the same roster and shift as the permanent workers on my crew, but I have no job security, I get paid less …' Once again, even when this government come face-to-face with the stories of real workers, they still deny reality. Workers are sick of this government ignoring the real issues that they're facing. They are sick of seeing this government with its eyes shut and its fingers in its ears, pretending insecure work just doesn't exist. Workers know that if this government can't even admit that there's an issue then they can't be trusted to come up with a plan to fix it.

The Morrison government have no plan to fix insecure work in this country. They have no plan to deliver good, secure jobs that pay enough for workers to afford the rising cost of living. They have no plan to ensure working families can make ends meet. Instead, they come to this place totally divided, unable to decide which way is up on any given day, let alone how to move forward. This government still have another week left in parliament for this year, so they still have a chance to come back here and tell us exactly how they plan to fix the crisis of insecure work, how they plan to fix the flat wages that Australians have been suffering under eight years of this government. How do they plan to deal with rising petrol prices? How do they plan to deal with getting wages moving? I encourage the government to come back to us next week with that plan.

But on our side of the chamber, Labor will not be holding our breath, because the last eight years have shown us that this government does not have any plans to help workers in this country. In fact, this government has admitted, famously, that low wages growth is a deliberate design feature of its economic plan, and has spent the last eight years trying to weaken the power of working people, stopping them from fighting for fair wages, keeping them in insecure jobs, making it harder for workers to actually stand up for themselves and demand better.

But working people in this country are fighting back. They are not taking the complete lack of action from this government lying down. They are joining their unions and taking a stand every single day, standing together and fighting for decent wages and better working conditions. In the last week or so, we have seen that in many workplaces across the country. I give a particular shout out to the workers at Country Road Group—low-paid women workers, many of them casual, who decided to stand up and win proper pay rises and fairer conditions, with no thanks to the Morrison government. Workers have taken it upon themselves to fight against low wages and job insecurity. Labor are on their side, because an Albanese Labor government will deliver a plan for more job security and better pay for working Australians. We will legislate same job, same pay, and we will make sure that there is a proper pathway for casual working into jobs that are permanent and more secure. Labor is always on the side of working people, and a Labor government will always put good, secure jobs at the heart of everything we do. There is no future for this country if we do not have a plan for good, secure jobs, and there is no plan for good, secure jobs under the Morrison government.

5:14 pm

Photo of Andrew BraggAndrew Bragg (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on Senator Gallagher's motion. It's always a pleasure to make some remarks on Australia's economic policy settings. I guess I'd have to begin by acknowledging the last contribution, which almost makes the point that the government could legislate jobs. Now, we live in a market economy where jobs are, generally, created by the private economy based on investment. I think maybe one in 10 jobs in Australia is located somewhere in the public sector, so the vast bulk of the Australian nation work in the private economy. The conditions that government applies in this space are a relevant consideration. And, as much as we may like the concept of a government sitting in Canberra, in a purpose-built capital far away from the real economy, legislating jobs, it doesn't work that way.

As a person who is committed to the principles of the market—but not unfettered markets, because we do believe in regulation where it is justified—I have to reflect upon what the big levers are that we would have here in Canberra to generate the likelihood of jobs growth. I don't think this is a particularly difficult exercise. We can go around and we can look at the work that has been done by various international groups, world banks and the like, on what actually determines a nation's competitive position—given that, for the past 250 years, and I imagine for the next 250 years, Australia will rely upon foreign capital. This is a country that cannot fund itself. And so, with a heavy reliance on foreign capital, we must always look at these things through the prism of where we stack up compared to other jurisdictions. I know there are mixed views about these things, but I think we have to look at the reliance on foreign investment going up over time as some of the most important data points here. Our tax settings, our tax complexity, our tax rates, our labour laws, the general dynamism of our policy settings, how fast we are to respond to changes—all these things are important. As a general principle, we have been committed to passing incremental tax reforms to try to incentivise the idea of private investment.

It has been a subject of much consternation—before I was in this place—that there should be a more competitive tax arrangement for companies; certainly, in this parliament, lower taxes for workers have been enacted, and there is always more that we can do there. As a general principle, most people would describe the tax system as very complex, and any attempt to try to simplify the tax system is always going to be time well spent. But perhaps the area where we could do the most to improve our competitive position would be to simplify the labour laws. I generally try and avoid making too many partisan and unnecessarily political comments, but there are many contributions made in this place that have been written elsewhere and that are designed to entrench the complex labour laws because it suits particular organisations. In fact, if we didn't have complicated, convoluted labour laws, we wouldn't need to have as many people working for registered organisations.

On this issue of trade unions, I think there is a very good case for trade unions to represent the interests of low-income earners, in particular—migrants and the like—but I do think that there has been too much power given to these organisations, certainly, in the law, by virtue of the complexity and, certainly, in politics, by virtue of one of the major parties being owned by that particular movement. I think that is a real problem and it has made it much harder for us to have a sensible debate about these things. The idea of a simple small-business award should be something that is easily done. Simple conditions that protect workers and could be applied across the economy could only be a good idea, but that is resisted. I think that is a real shame.

So you work through these things like the tax settings, tax rates, the labour laws and then, as I said before, there is a hard-to-describe factor which I generally try and think of in terms of how dynamic your policy settings are. Parts of our economy are being massively disrupted, as we speak. Unless we're prepared to deploy more policy in the payments and the digital assets space, we're looking at the prospect of Silicon Valley and perhaps other parts of the world controlling huge parts of the economy. If you think about the idea that the major tech companies in the US, which already have enormous knowledge of us as individuals, could get into banking and could, effectively, eat the Australian payment system, you really need to think carefully about what sorts of policy settings you want to have here and how quickly you can respond to these changes.

I have to say that, I think, this week in the House, there was a bill introduced which is going to offer the opportunity to people to use a corporate structure as a collective investment vehicle. This was a recommendation of Mr Mark Johnson, who performed a review of the competitive position of Australia's financial sector for the Rudd government. To their great credit, the Rudd government commissioned that review. It should haven't taken 11 years for us to enact that recommendation. If you look at a lot of the reforms that were enacted following the National Innovation and Science Agenda discussion around venture capital in particular, they occurred in three to six months. So we need to move more of our policy responses, which probably means pushing the official family a bit harder, from time to time, to the three to six months time frame rather than the 11-year time frame, because things will just move on.

Of course, this motion is about wages. For people who have looked at the budget papers, it is obvious that wages growth has been sluggish in recent years. There is a small wage increase projected by the Treasury. The Treasury secretary, Dr Kennedy, has said that that will be eaten by compulsory super. That is the position. Do I think it's a good idea to allow that wage increase to be eaten by compulsory super? No, I don't. But again, there are mixed views about this. I would prefer us to have a more flexible system where people could put it into super or take it as their wage, since it is actually their money. The superannuation idea, I think, is a sound idea. It could be improved a lot. It does distort this debate considerably. Some people would argue that that is not your wages; that is something that falls out of the sky. But, for anyone who has worked in a business, particularly a small business, this is a well-established cost of employment. For people who want to pursue a wages policy discussion, you have to look at all your settings including the superannuation settings.

I am very worried that home ownership is getting harder and harder for Australians, particularly for lower income Australians. I have long been an advocate of allowing people to have access to their super for a first home deposit. That is not a silver bullet. Anyone who argues it as a silver bullet is stretching the truth considerably. There are a range of factors which have led to the difficulty that many Australians face in acquiring a first home. This is an economic debate, which is a good debate to have, but access to a home is more than just an economic debate. The system we have in Australia, particularly when you look at the way people retire generally, is based around the idea that you will have a home, that you will get access to a home, because the reality is that a retirement on the pension without a home is generally going to be a very difficult retirement. For people who do have a home, being on the pension makes their retirement much more comfortable. These are always difficult things to go into, because there are great vested interests here, whether it's about making the labour laws more flexible or it's about how superannuation works, because the way that those laws work in relation to industrial relations and to retirement incomes means there are enormous sums of money at stake. I think sometimes that we could have a much better discussion if it wasn't for all the vested interests falling over themselves to give us their best view.

Ultimately, if you want to talk about wages growth, you need to have policies which drive and promote private investment, because you need to have the tension in the market that will ultimately lead to there being wages growth. As an advocate of foreign investment, I think that is a really key part. We need to maintain a competitive disposition. That is critical over the long term. It has always been the case that we rely on foreign investment. I often laugh to myself when I hear people say how terrible foreign investment is, because I think that they generally don't make themselves aware of the hugely positive role that foreign investment plays in the bush. There are so many projects in regional Australia which would never have been funded by domestic interests, and to finish on my old favourite, on superannuation, we've had super for almost 30 years, and our reliance on foreign capital has gone up over that period.

5:27 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I think it clear that the speakers list for this motion speaks volumes about how little this parliament cares about the wages of everyday Australians. The opportunity to advance ideas on how we can improve real wages should have brought a queue of senators to the speakers list. There are only five speakers out of 76 senators. What a message that sends to Australian workers, that the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Greens and the Labor Party don't give a toss about them. Senator Gallagher is correct in painting a bleak picture of the falling living standards of everyday Australians over the last 30 years. This, though, is where Senator Gallagher's grasp of reality comes to an end.

The Australian average wage-price index rose from the early nineties until 2008 under Labor-Greens and Liberal-Nationals governments. That index fell from 2008 until the start of COVID, under Labor-Greens and Liberal-Nationals governments. The average Australian wage, however, is not the best way of checking how everyday Australians are going, as strong wage growth at the top of the public sector is masking negative real growth in the private sector. The median wage, the midpoint range of wages, is a better measure. The median wage has not increased in real terms in Australia for 30 years. Over the same period, the amount everyday Australians are spending on health care, education and housing has increased 300 per cent. If everyday Australians are feeling like they're working harder and going backwards, it's because they are. This is happening under both Liberal-National and Labor-Greens governments because these parties have the same policies. Once again this week, bill after bill has been voted through on the voices, meaning that both sides of the Senate voted in support. We do not have good government as long as the Liberal-Labor duopoly—the uni-party—are in control. We need a change in parliament. We need to bring in fresh faces from the minor parties.

Debate interrupted.