GRIEVANCE DEBATE – Howard Government: Social Justice
18 June 2001
Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (5.21 p.m.)—My grievance today is about the relentless agenda of the Prime Minister and his cabinet in governing for the elite few. Over the last five years, Australia has been subjected to government by the elite for the elite. There is little compassion on the government frontbench, little real understanding of social justice or of `the fair go’. Of the 17 members of John Howard’s cabinet, 13 went to elite schools, eight of which were category 1 private schools. Elitism is in their blood.
This government is led by a man who has only rear vision. When the Australian defence forces were finally sent to assist in East Timor, the Prime Minister rejoiced at the title of deputy sheriff to the US for the region. Certainly, in his dealings with the battlers in Australian society, his role has been far more akin to another well-known sheriff—the Sheriff of Nottingham. There are no Robin Hood fantasies in the Prime Minister’s head about redistributing wealth to the poor. Rather, he is like the sheriff sitting in his castle counting the coins squeezed out of the peasants living on his estate. It is not surprising that he is most animated when talking about new ways to tax working Australians with the GST, of which he is proud. We have witnessed an extraordinary human rights meltdown on the frontbench, presided over by this Prime Minister.
Possibly the most outrageous example of this has to be the denial of the existence of the stolen generation. The Prime Minister believes he represents mainstream Australia on this issue and, as such, has refused to say sorry. How wrong he is. On 28 May last year, I felt honoured to take part in what was without question the largest gathering in our history of Australian people committed to a particular cause. The walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the subsequent walks in other Australian cities and towns across Australia sent a clear message: mainstream Australia is committed to the reconciliation process and it is the government that is out of step with its people. Obviously the sight of hundreds of thousands of mainstream Australians walking across the harbour bridge in support of reconciliation was too much, so the Prime Minister left Kirribilli House and scuttled off to Canberra to watch the rugby.
We do not have to dig too deeply to find other examples of the government’s human rights meltdown. Mandatory sentencing of juveniles is a great leap backwards for Australian society, catapulting us back into the 19th century. And what was the Prime Minister prepared to do about it? Nothing. After all, he believes we have a lot to learn from the past. He lives there. The problem is that he wants the rest of us to stay back and keep him company. Asylum seekers have also felt the heat of the meltdown. They have been demonised by the government and have had to endure often prolonged detention in overcrowded centres in isolated parts of the country. The overwhelming majority of these people’s only crime was to escape tyranny and persecution in the hope of giving their families a future. This mean-spirited approach to refugees is politically motivated. But, as with its handling of indigenous issues, the government is only too keen to subtly play the race card. The overwhelming majority of illegal migrants in this country arrived by plane and are from the UK and other Western nations—but there has not been a word from this government about them. These measures, like the denial of the stolen generation and the tacit approval of mandatory sentencing, show the government’s racist underbelly. They show that the government is always looking for the lowest common denominator in the hope that it will win back the One Nation vote.
Being a man who thinks locally and acts globally, John Howard has also disputed UN rulings on human rights, greenhouse gas emissions and heritage listings. The government has announced that it will no longer cooperate with UN committees. After all, this government believes that international conventions on human rights should not apply to Australia. Women in particular should not be allowed to appeal to Geneva against discrimination. In fact, the Prime Minister feels so strongly about this that he went all the way to New York to attend the UN Millennium Summit just so that he could boycott signing the UN protocol on sexual discrimination. Back home, the government has redefined `mutual obligation’, making it a one-way street. It has slashed spending on public housing and then breached Newstart recipients who move to areas with more affordable housing. And now it has refused funding to WESNET, Australia’s peak organisation working to eliminate domestic and family violence and whose funding runs out on 30 June. There has been no compassion and no empathy from this government.
This government is also hell-bent on cracking down on `welfare cheats’—to use a term that it throws around at will. The problem is that thousands of Australians who have either made a simple error or who have been unable to keep their appointments with Centrelink for valid reasons have had their benefits cut. In fact, since the government came into office there has been a 250 per cent increase in breaches. The budget shows a figure of $212 million to be saved in penalties against these people. We are talking here about the most vulnerable people in our society—people who live on the edge.
The social welfare safety net has developed huge holes under this government. More and more families are slipping through the net. Many more have been adversely affected when the companies they work for have become insolvent, leaving employees high and dry without any of their entitlements. Recently in my electorate 100 workers of Champion printing were sacked. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union has campaigned for these workers’ entitlements. They have lost $500,000 in wages, leave payments and entitlements. But this is not uncommon. Corporate collapses which have left workers without their due entitlements include Cobar mine, National Textiles and, in recent weeks, One.Tel, with 1,400 employees. This mean-spirited government actually gave every assistance to Patrick to restructure their company during the waterfront dispute to avoid—deliberately—their obligations to their work force.
A Beazley Labor government will implement a scheme that provides 100 per cent protection for the entitlements of all Australian workers if their employer becomes insolvent. And Stan Howard will not have to be a company director before there is intervention by the government. This government’s natural constituency lives at the top end of town. Ask people living in rural and regional Australia who face the very real prospect of deficient telecommunications services with the full privatisation of Telstra. And ask the people living in my electorate under the flight path in Sydney. Government members often fly over their heads in and out of Sydney (Kingsford Smith) Airport, but very few spare a thought for those forced to endure the aircraft noise close to the airport.
In March this year the legislated cap of 80 movements per hour was broken eight times at Kingsford Smith airport. On 16 May a number of my Labor Party colleagues and I resigned from the government’s Sydney Airport Community Forum. In the elitist and dishonest way that this government loves to operate, the so-called `community forum’ has been continuously ignored by the Howard government. Whether it be the legislated cap, the need for a second airport, reneging on commitments for noise insulation, opposition to the introduction of the precision radar monitoring system or privatising the airport before a solution to aircraft noise is found, the government has ignored the SACF and indeed its own policies.
The final insult was the appointment from outside the forum of Senator Helen Coonan, who has no record of speaking up on aircraft noise, as chair. Her ignorance was exemplified by her statements in the Sydney Morning Herald the day after our resignations where she explained the government’s failure to implement its own policy and the resolutions of the forum with the comment that perhaps the problem is the `poor use of language’ in the resolutions. It is extraordinary that someone would see a political problem as a grammatical one.
Perhaps the best example that I can give you of the elitist nature of this government concerns school visits to Parliament House. During the last week of the last sitting period, a number of schools visited Parliament House. On the Tuesday, the special education class of Marrickville High School visited, and I went to see them. The day after, students from Newington College visited Parliament House, and I went to see them as well. I believe that you should give support to students in an equal manner, no matter where they come from. However, I was told that I had to see Newington College before 3.30 p.m. because they were having afternoon tea with the Prime Minister. Thirty-eight schools have visited Parliament House from my electorate, and only one—the richest and the most well off—got afternoon tea with the Prime Minister, on top of the extra $1.8 million per year given in category 1 funding. I do not criticise the students; I criticise the government for not treating all Australian students properly. What happened is not surprising, and this is an accurate depiction of the way that this government treats people.
On the issue of caravan parks and the GST, those opposite have derided my campaign and my persistence on this issue, but I am persistent because this issue symbolises the mean-spirited, elitist nature of this government. Yesterday, when addressing a meeting of caravan park tenants in Shortland, the electorate of Jill Hall, I pointed out the Prime Minister’s comments on AM that the GST was necessary because of the mini-bars being filled by the park owners. It just shows how out of touch this government is. (Time expired)
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.