Senate debates

Monday, 27 March 2023

Matters of Urgency

Pensions and Benefits

4:41 pm

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Senate will now consider the proposed matter of urgency which the President has received from Senator McKim:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today the Australian Greens propose to move "That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

Poverty and homelessness disproportionately affect women and are compounded by gendered violence, with single mothers and their children particularly vulnerable.

The upcoming Budget must scrap Stage 3 tax cuts and instead fund measures to support those most at risk, including by raising the rate of income support, investing in social housing, and extending Parenting Payment Single".

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in the ir places—

With the concurrence of the Senate, the clerks will set the clock in line with the informal arrangements made by the whips.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

At the request of Senator McKim, I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

Poverty and homelessness disproportionately affect women and are compounded by gendered violence, with single mothers and their children particularly vulnerable.

The upcoming Budget must scrap Stage 3 tax cuts and instead fund measures to support those most at risk, including by raising the rate of income support, investing in social housing, and extending Parenting Payment Single.

In recent weeks, we've seen reports from ACOSS and analysis by Anti-Poverty Week confirming that poverty and homelessness are disproportionately impacting women and children. This is a crisis, and it demands an urgent response. We know that women make up more than 60 per cent of those relying on the lowest income support payments. We know that women and girls made up more than 60 per cent of clients of homelessness services last year. We know that rental prices are skyrocketing and that the fastest-growing group of people at risk of homelessness is women over the age of 45. Across the country, people are living in tents and cars. And we know that all these risks are compounded for women and children leaving abusive relationships. Women are given an impossible choice: stay in an unsafe home, or leave and put themselves and their kids at the mercy of a system of inadequate support, stretched DV services, housing shortages and punitive income tests.

I spoke last week in support of the bill to help close the gender pay gap in workplaces. As I said at the time, that is critical, but it's only one piece of the puzzle. We cannot address economic inequality without looking beyond work and reviewing our approach to income support, to housing and to unpaid care work. The JobSeeker rate is too low. Austudy is too low. Pension rates are too low. Parenting payments are too low. In a wealthy country, there is absolutely no excuse for keeping income support below the poverty line, and there is certainly no excuse for keeping the most vulnerable in poverty while offering tax cuts to the wealthiest Australians.

At a forum last week, we heard from single mums struggling to make ends meet. Brave mums Jacinta, Aradia and Angela talked about how, for each of them, their already strained budget was stretched to breaking point once their youngest child turned eight. At a time when it's getting more expensive to feed kids, to meet their public school fees, to pay for sports, and to pay for braces and basic health care, that's when single mums are getting punted from parenting payment single onto the even lower JobSeeker rate, losing around $200 a fortnight. This could mean missing a rental or mortgage payment. For Angela, it meant possibly losing her home and genuine fear that she would not be able to keep a roof over her kids' heads. It could mean putting off their own doctor appointment to make sure the kids can eat. For one mum, her own disability needs took second place to make sure her disabled son could get the help he needed. It could mean putting further study on hold because they need to take on extra shifts to make ends meet. For Jacinta, further study would have helped her get higher-paid work, but she had to defer completing the course for years after the drop in income support made it impossible to continue.

I was encouraged to hear Sam Mostyn say that the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce has advised the government to focus on the needs of women in the most precarious situations. They should start by reversing the terrible decision of the Gillard government to cut off parenting payment single when kids turn eight. Doing so would cost $1.4 billion, a fraction of a fraction of the stage 3 tax cuts and the AUKUS spending, but it would be life-changing for 500,000 single mums and their kids. Cost-of-living rises, housing shortages and the ongoing national crisis of gendered violence demand urgent action.

The upcoming budget is the government's chance to start turning this around. Raise the rates, restore parenting payment single, invest in housing, fully fund frontline domestic violence services, scrap the stage 3 tax cuts and the billions for submarines, and fund the things that will actually help the people who need it.

4:46 pm

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

I'm very pleased to rise in this place to speak against this resolution. The first point we need to note is that there are millions of Australians who are going to benefit from the stage 3 tax cuts. This notion that it's just the billionaires at the top end of town who are going to benefit from the stage 3 tax cuts is simply false.

Let me give you some examples. A hairdresser earning $60,000 a year will benefit by $400 every year from the stage 3 tax cuts. A teacher earning $70,000 a year will benefit by $620 each year from these tax cuts. An executive assistant earning $80,000 a year will benefit by $900 each year from these tax cuts. A scientist earning $90,000 a year will benefit by $1,120 each year from the tax cuts. A qualified diesel mechanic earning $100,000 a year would lose more than $1,370 a year if this Greens resolution were accepted. These are ordinary, hardworking Australians who are benefiting from these stage 3 tax cuts.

The fact of the matter is that in Australia we have a progressive income tax system, as we should have. The more you earn, the more tax you should pay—absolutely. Let me just give you an insight with respect to how progressive our tax system is. Someone earning $200,000 a year pays eight times more tax than someone earning $50,000 a year. That's appropriate. That's a progressive tax system. Sixty per cent of the personal income tax received by the government is provided by the top 20 per cent of earners. Again, that's a progressive income tax system, as it should be. In fact, the top five per cent of earners contribute 33 per cent of the personal income tax receipts of the federal government. Again, that is a progressive tax system. When you have seven per cent or eight per cent inflation, you need to move the tax thresholds, or else everyone—the hairdresser, the teacher, the executive assistant, the research scientist, the qualified diesel mechanic—will be moving into higher tax thresholds. You have to adjust the tax thresholds. That makes basic common sense.

The other point I want to make about this—this is an important point—is that the government went to the last election with a promise that they would stay true to the stage 3 tax cuts which I voted for in this place before the last federal election. The government made that promise. The Greens, through this resolution, are asking the government to break their promise. Where's the integrity in that? The government, at the last election, went to the people and got a mandate, which I acknowledge and respect, on the basis they would deliver those stage 3 tax cuts. The Greens now come into this place and put a resolution that the government should break their promise to the Australian people. Is that integrity? Where's the integrity in that? The same lack of integrity was seen before the last federal election, when the Greens said their plan was fully costed and fully funded. That's what they said to voters in my home state of Queensland—that their plan was fully funded and costed. That's what they said.

Do you know what was released after the last federal election? The Parliamentary Budget Office, which monitors election commitments, did a study on the Greens' promises before the last federal election. Were they fully funded and costed? No. And you don't have to take my word for it that the Greens misled the people of Queensland. The Parliamentary Budget Office, in their analysis of the Greens' election commitments—this isn't Senator Scarr; this is the Parliamentary Budget Office—found that the introduction of Greens' policies, which were supposedly fully funded and costed, would result in the headline cash balance in the budget deteriorating by $112 billion. The Greens said—and the Greens don't like hearing about their broken promise and how they misled the people of Queensland—their policies were fully funded and costed, but the Parliamentary Budget Office, here in writing, say the Greens' policies would lead to a deterioration of the cash balance in the budget by $112 billion. That's a broken promise.

4:51 pm

Photo of Linda WhiteLinda White (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's true that the current rate of homelessness in Australia is too high. We saw in the census data reported last week that almost 123,000 Australians are experiencing homelessness. We also know that women on low incomes in the age group of 55 and older are the most at risk of homelessness and have been for at least the last five years. We know that women and children who are fleeing family and domestic violence don't have enough secure housing. So it is often those who are the most vulnerable that are forced to turn to the street or to live in their cars. We also saw, just a few weeks ago, in the Closing the gap statement that First Nations Australians continue to struggle with long-term and stable housing. Issues of overcrowding, a lack of supply and housing that doesn't meet the needs and requirements of these communities are still problems. Put together, these facts are a concerning snapshot of the current state of homelessness in Australia.

Our government wants to ensure that every Australian has the security that comes with having a roof over their head, because when you have stable and secure housing you have a better chance economically and getting a job is way easier when you have a home.

Having safe and stable housing is a gateway to better social outcomes across a whole range of life's important measures, and the Albanese government knows that this is the case. That is why we introduced the Housing Australia Future Fund Bill. The legislation backs in a long-term funding strategy to build social and affordable housing and homes in Australia. Its $10 billion will deliver tens of thousands of better homes for those who need them—30,000 homes in fact. And 4,000 of these will be allocated to women and children, as I mentioned before, who are most at risk. They are the women who are fleeing family and domestic violence and need a place to call home, and they are women who are over the age of 55 and are living dangerously close to the precipice of homelessness.

On top of that, the future fund will build 10,000 homes for frontline workers. There will also be $200 million to improve and repair housing in remote Indigenous communities. These are the people who are at risk of becoming homeless and the people who are homeless. They are the Australians who live on the edge, and they are people that Labor's housing fund will help, if only the Greens in this place would support it.

We know that there is a huge demand for social and affordable homes in Australia, but no single level of government can solve these problems on its own. We need to work together—local, state and federal governments. That's why the Albanese government is committing a fund of $67 million to boost states and territories through the National Housing and Homelessness Plan, which will secure hundreds of homelessness support jobs. These are the social workers and housing support workers that we need to attract and retain in the homelessness sector, because often it is only those workers who stand between a young family and that family becoming homeless.

At the Australian Services Union, I work with these workers. The jobs they do are vital and important, and they daily work with those most at risk. What they tell me is that they need more housing stock. For them, there's nothing more demoralising than being forced to give someone facing homelessness a tent and sending them on their way. This is just not a story from one location; it is a story I've heard across Australia from many homelessness services for a very long time. So I'm proud of what the government is doing to make housing more secure and affordable for Australians and to tackle the issue of homelessness by getting more homes built more quickly. The Greens political party have been out campaigning against the government's plan to ease this problem, but if the Greens want to see more investment in social and affordable housing, if they really want to achieve something rather than just attempting to wedge the government, then they should support the Housing Australia Future Fund. If they wanted to make a difference, the Greens political party would stop politicising Labor's $10 billion investment and act. I can't imagine standing in the way of this legislation.

It's a similar story for the coalition. We have experienced a decade of inaction on homelessness policy and we've seen the problem get worse on the coalition's watch. There was no leadership for the states and no long-term plan. Now, when the Liberal and National parties have a chance to do something about it and support these reforms, they say no. I believe it's time to support the largest contribution to social and affordable housing by a federal government in more than a decade and to celebrate it for the massive reform that it is. The Greens political party and the coalition would do well to put politics aside and remember these lines from a poem by John Howard Payne:

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,

Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.

4:56 pm

Photo of David PocockDavid Pocock (ACT, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

The 2021 census showed that the number of women experiencing homelessness increased by 10.1 per cent. We know that one in four women and children fleeing violence are not getting the accommodation support they need. We clearly need more social and affordable housing, which brings us to the Housing Australia Future Fund. Under the current proposal, the government will spend, at best, $500 million a year on new social and affordable housing supply. That's 30,000 social and affordable houses over five years. Translate that to the ACT and that's at best 540 houses. At the same time, the ACT is set to lose over 2,000 National Rental Affordability Scheme properties. That's 2,000 affordable rentals, but don't worry—we're going to get 540 social and affordable homes!

Let's compare the $10 billion off-budget fund, which will hopefully return $500 million, to what the government spends subsidising investment properties through generous tax concessions: $23.7 billion in revenue foregone on capital gains tax discounts for individuals such as property investors and for trusts, and tax benefits of around $3.6 billion in 2019-20 through negative gearing. Even the Medical Research Future Fund, at $21 billion, disperses more annually than the HAFF will. Then we have the $250 billion stage 3 tax cuts. My community has made it clear to me that they expect the stage 3 tax cuts to be redesigned to deal with the big issues we face. Australians are sick of these issues being politicised by the major parties at the expense of all of us. Let's make decisions that are good for all Australians and our future.

4:58 pm

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

I, too, to rise to speak on the urgency motion moved by Senator McKim. I thank the senator for raising this issue. I'm glad to have the opportunity to talk about the importance of social housing and our government's commitment to it and the opportunity to talk about the urgency of addressing the poverty, homelessness and violence affecting women and how we intend to fund that work. Every Australian deserves the security of having a roof over their head. Too many do not have that security. Too many are battling homelessness. Too many are trapped in unsafe homes because they have no alternative. Too many are suffering extreme rental insecurity. That is exactly why we are working hard to make the biggest single Commonwealth investment in social and affordable housing in a decade.

There is no time to waste in getting more housing built, and the urgency of the situation is clear. If senators want to see more investment in social housing, the opportunity is right in front of them. The Housing Australia Future Fund Bill 2023 is an ambitious bill. The $10 billion fund is how we intend to fund tens of thousands of additional houses for people on low incomes. In its first five years alone, returns from the fund will help deliver 30,000 new social and affordable homes. This is in addition to existing housing and homelessness funding. This is a massive injection that Australians desperately need.

We know that women, particularly older women, are at greater risk of experiencing homelessness. That's why this fund will include 4,000 homes for women and children impacted by violence and older women at risk of homelessness. It will also specifically invest $100 million into crisis and transitional housing options for these vulnerable Australians. This is in addition to the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children.

At the Senate Economics Legislation Committee's recent hearings into the bill, which Senator McKim attended, we heard about the urgency of getting this done from almost everyone who came and submitted to the inquiry. Housing experts who came to our inquiry described the reforms as 'absolutely urgent', 'transformative', 'critical' and a 'timely re-assertion of national leadership on housing'. Further, advocates said we need to 'start building immediately', and this is a 'significant and much needed new investment'. This is actually about certainty, not just for the sector that builds homes but also for the vulnerable Australians who need action right now.

Again, this is a new funding stream. It is an additional funding stream. It is for additional social and affordable homes. It is the biggest single investment from the Commonwealth in over a decade. There is no time to waste. We are making this commitment after a decade of disinvestment and disinterest from the opposition. Only this month, the Leader of the Opposition said, 'social housing is a responsibility of state government.' We disagree. That's why we're making the biggest single injection of funds in over a decade. Under the last government, affordable and social housing was smashed. Those opposite refuse to take any responsibility. We are taking action. We are showing leadership rather than passing the buck to the states, and the Greens are siding with those opposite. The Greens are siding with those who refused to make this kind of investment over the last decade.

The best way to see immediate action is to vote in favour of the Housing Australia Future Fund. We know that the 'no-alition' is going to stand against this huge investment that the country desperately needs, but the Greens standing against 30,000 additional Commonwealth social and affordable homes is extraordinary. We expect that from the Liberals. We all know that they are the people who turn away from people in need. We know it's in their DNA. They prefer to let people slip through the cracks. If the Greens want to see more people get a home they should support the legislation that is in front of the parliament. Again, this is the single biggest injection of Commonwealth funding into social and affordable housing in a decade. You know, Senator McKim—through you, Acting Deputy President Chandler—that this is the biggest injection of funds in addition to the funding that is already there for social and affordable housing. This is a sustainable long-term model that the sector wants and that people who need a home need, and I urge you to support it.

5:03 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

This is the biggest injection of funds into the stock market from the government that I've seen for some time. I make the point that if you'd made the investment that you're proposing to make last year, then you'd be $120 million down on your investment. The idea that bunging money into the stock market is a good platform on which to build more public housing and more social housing just goes to show how far into the minds of the Labor Party the neoliberal brain worms have eaten. I know this is a radical thought, but perhaps, if you want to build more public or social housing, just build more public or social housing. This is not rocket science.

I can say that far too many Australians are living in poverty at the moment, and far too many Australians don't have a home. Both of those massive social problems are the result of political choices that have been made in this country. Over the last 10 years or so those political choices were made by the Liberal-National coalition, but now we have the same—or very similar—political choices and very similar political priorities being expressed by the new Labor government.

Of those Australians who are living in poverty and who are homeless, women are disproportionately represented. We know that it is single mums and kids who are particularly vulnerable to things like poverty and homelessness and who pay some of the highest price for poverty and homelessness of any Australians. When this government is proposing to spend a quarter of a trillion dollars on the stage 3 tax cuts, under which 80 per cent of the benefits will go to the top 20 per cent of income earners, and when it is proposing to spend $368 billion on nuclear submarines that will make this country a more dangerous place to live, that's when we see the stark reality of the political choices that the Australian Labor Party is making.

I say to Labor members: How are you going to ever again look in the eye of an Australian who needs government help and tell them you can't afford to help them? How are you ever going to be able to do that again? Of course, you won't be able to do it again, because you can afford to help them, but it's just that your choices won't allow you to help them. You are more interested in tax cuts for billionaires and more interested in spending $368 billion on nuclear submarines that not only do we not need but will make this country a more dangerous place to live.

The light on the hill has been flickering for some time. It is guttering away, blowing in the breeze of neoliberalism, and arguably has either gone out or is about to go out. How is it possible that we are talking about stage 3 tax cuts for the top end when the Labor Party refuses to raise income support for people who are starving while on JobSeeker? How is it possible that we are living in this country? It is possible because that's the choice that the current government has made. People voted for change. They are not getting it. (Time expired)

5:07 pm

Photo of Ralph BabetRalph Babet (Victoria, United Australia Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator McKim for moving this urgency motion, but I cannot agree with his proposal to increase taxes on hardworking Australians. The legislated stage 3 tax cuts must proceed. I'll go even further and propose that the government reduce taxes on lower and middle income earners as well.

I know those opposite often like to pretend that they can play the role of Robin Hood. I know that they do this with the best of intentions, but in reality, they are just accessories to the crime of theft by taxation. More taxes will not solve any of our nation's social or financial issues. Socialism fails every time and everywhere. It appears to be easier to just blame the rich than it is to work hard, take risks and grow one's wealth. We must not forget that in our nation it is the top 3.6 per cent of owners who disproportionately pay more than 31 per cent of taxation revenue. One does not become wealthy by chance. It requires hard work, dedication and risk—lots of risk. If we want our nation to prosper, we must encourage entrepreneurship. Instead of taking money out of the pockets of Australian families, government should be responsible and get out of the way of hardworking Australians and their families. It could start with policies like income splitting, allowing families to split their incomes, pay less tax and spend more time with their precious children. There would be less reliance on taxpayer subsidies and far more stability in the family home. Increasing welfare is not the answer. Reducing taxation, red tape and green tape—there's your answer. Socialism doesn't work, it's never worked and it will not help anyone.

5:09 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The stage 3 tax cuts are going to cost the budget bottom line $254 billion over the next decade; $254 billion is a lot of money. There is so much that this government could do with $254 million instead of pissing it into the wind with the stage 3 tax cuts. It can be hard to comprehend just how much $254 billion is, so I want to list some of the other things that the government could do with $254 billion instead of giving it in tax cuts to the ultrawealthy. For $88.7 billion we could raise the rate of JobSeeker to $88 a day, above the poverty line, and make a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the country—people like the amazing Mike and Liz from Wagga Wagga, who are struggling to raise a family on the inadequate income support rate. Do you know what they were able to do when JobSeeker was raised above the poverty line with the COVID supplement? They were able to get new pyjamas and new jumpers coming into winter. They got their car registered. They didn't have to borrow money. These are the sorts of absolutely basic things that, if you increase the rate of income support, make a massive difference to people's lives.

For $69 billion we could raise the rate of youth and student allowance above the poverty line and allow young people like Bella Mitchell-Sears, who was recently in touch with my office, to actually continue studying. She had to quit her university degree last year because the rate of student allowance did not allow her to live. She wanted to keep studying, but instead she had to quit and go out to find a job just in order to keep afloat. For $73 billion we could raise the rate of DSP so that people didn't have to decide whether to pay for their medications, pay to eat or pay the rent. For $90.8 billion we could make child care free for all parents and caregivers. $1.4 billion a year, a fraction of the stage 3 tax cuts, would mean that we could reinstate parenting payment single so that, when kids turn eight, people are still able to survive and keep their families together. $50 billion over the next 10 years would fund hundreds of thousands of affordable homes, actually clear the waiting lists of public housing and actually properly tackle the housing crisis. Yes, the things I've listed do add up to more than $254 billion, but if you add in the $368 billion for nuclear submarines you could actually fund all of this. There is absolutely no doubt— (Time expired)

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by Senator McKim be agreed to.