Feb 28, 2017

Hansard – Social Services Legislation Amendment (Omnibus Savings and Child Care Reform) Bill 2017 – Second Reading

I rise to oppose the omnibus saving bill and to support the amendment moved by the member for Jagajaga. When the history of the Abbott and Turnbull governments is written, their record will be one of unceasing attacks on those Australians who have the lowest incomes. Whenever this government feels that it is losing control of the agenda, it makes a show of targeting people on welfare. It operates on the motto, ‘When in trouble, attacked the poor’. Consider the Centrelink debacle, the refusal to stand up for penalty rates, the pension changes that took place in January and the mothership of cruelty under this government—the 2014 budget. The bill before us is the latest example. It is an attempt to sneak through many of the unfair changes from the 2014 budget, changes that were not only rejected by Australians overwhelmingly but changes that cost Tony Abbott the prime ministership.

The impact of the cuts and punitive measures in this bill would be felt right across the country, including in my electorate of Grayndler. Young people, new parents, low- and middle-income families, pensioners and elderly migrants—these are the people who will pay the price for the government’s economic policies. Those opposite know that there is a human cost to these cuts, but it is a cost they wilfully ignore. They would rather give big businesses a $50 billion tax cut than help single mothers keep food on the table. They would rather withhold financial support for unemployed young people than crack down on big corporate tax evaders. And if anyone has the courage to complain, as has happened to people in my electorate of Grayndler, then government vilifies them and attacks them. No wonder this government is in such trouble. No wonder the member for Warringah is stalking the Prime Minister.

Labor will never turn our backs on vulnerable people. For us, it is a fundamental principle that it is the role of government to maintain a fair social safety net. You judge a society not by how it looks after its billionaires, but by how it looks after its battlers. We also believe as an article of faith that the government owes basic respect to all of our citizens, wherever they live, however they vote and whatever their bank balance.

This bill targets families. It contains cuts to family tax benefits—cuts that will leave a typical family on $60,000 around $750 a year worse off. One and a half million families will be worse off through the loss off their end-of-year supplements. That is $726 a year per child each year for Family Tax Benefits Part A and $354 per family each for Family Tax Benefit Part B. On top of that, single-parent families will lose their Family Tax Benefit Part B entirely when their youngest child turns 16. A single-parent family on $60,000 with a 17-year-old child in high school will be around $3,300 a year worse off. Just think about that: a family on $60,000 a year being $3,300 worse off. Overall the cuts in this measure would affect at least 4000 families in my electorate of Grayndler.

This bill targets parents. It has in it cuts to paid parental leave. Some 70,000 new mums with a median income of $62,000 would be $5,600 worse off on average. As an example, a retail worker who gets eight weeks’ paid leave from her employer will only have access to 12 weeks from the government instead of 18 weeks. This new mother would have 20 weeks of paid leave at home instead of 26 weeks, a loss of some $4,030 in support.

This bill targets pensioners, scrapping the energy supplement—a billion-dollar cut to pensioners, people with disability, carers and Newstart recipients. Scrapping the energy supplement to new pensioners will be a cut of $14.10 per fortnight to single pensioners, or some $365 a year. Pensioner couples will be $21.20 a fortnight worse off, or around $550 a year worse off. This bill also targets young people, with a five-week wait for Newstart, forcing young people under 25 to live off absolutely nothing for five weeks before they can access income support. How are these people supposed to afford food? How are they supposed to afford shelter? How are they supposed to survive during that period? The government does not have an answer to that. These are draconian measures put up by a government that simply does not understand that not everyone has a rich mum and dad to look after them. A lot of people in those circumstances are out there surviving by themselves and to cut them off from all income is just extraordinary.

There are cuts to young people between the ages of 22 and 24 by pushing them onto a lower youth allowance—a cut of around $48 a week, or almost 2½ thousand dollars a year. How are they supposed to travel to search for work or a job interview with no income? Those opposite have no answers. If the government were serious about the welfare of young unemployed people, it would invest in them—invest in their education and invest in their training to make them job-ready. It would embrace its responsibility to act in a positive manner to help people find their way into work so they can become productive members of the community. This would be good not just for the individuals but for the economy because the earlier you intervene to provide that support the sooner people will be earning income, contributing tax and boosting the national economy, but, instead, the government has a punitive approach, a narrow-minded approach, a short-sighted approach and an ineffective approach. Those opposite say that people can just survive by getting money off their parents. They just do not get it. This is the nation of the fair go and we must simply not allow the accidental circumstances of a young person’s birth to prevent them from achieving their potential.

The bill also targets migrant pensioners. It cuts the pensions of around 190,000 migrant pensioners by limiting the amount of time they can spend overseas and still get their full pension, from 26 weeks to six weeks. Across my electorate in places like Marrickville, where I live, there are a lot of Greeks who came here post the Second World War, have worked their whole life and go back to see relatives. In Leichhardt and Haberfield, you have the Italian community. In Petersham you have the Portuguese community. In Ashfield is the Chinese community. In all of those areas there are substantial numbers of pensioners from migrant backgrounds. They are proud Australian citizens, but they still honour the heritage of their birth. They help care for loved ones, visit relatives and maintain cultural ties.

The government’s lack of care for low-income earners is made worse by its disturbing response to criticism. Earlier this year, I did a press conference in my electorate. I stood up with two people who were impacted by the government’s Centrelink debacle, where they sent out robo-letters to people threatening them with action unless they paid money back. In many cases it was just wrong. There were people like Tony Barbar in my electorate who was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. He went on sick leave from his employment while he was receiving chemotherapy. He survived, and in January 2011 he went back to work. He is an honest young man in his twenties who contracted cancer and dealt with it, and as soon as he could he went back to work because that is the ethic in his family. In the lead-up to Christmas he received a debt letter from Centrelink informing him that he owed over 4½ thousand dollars. After these issues were raised publicly, the truth is that the government reduced his debt to just $400 from the 4½ thousand dollars.

Another constituent of mine is Curtis Dickson from Leichhardt. He received Austudy while he was at university from 2007 to 2012. In the lead-up to Christmas, Curtis received notice that Centrelink believed he had been incorrectly reporting his earnings during the period and he needed to repay $750. That is simply not true. Now his debt has been reduced to zero. He had no debt whatsoever, and yet the response of the government was for the staff of Minister Christian Porter to go up to the gallery here and brief out wrongly that Curtis had voluntarily contacted Centrelink and that he did not receive a debt letter or a notice. They just lied about it. They lied about his personal details. They broke common decency, if not the law—and perhaps the law—by releasing those details. They released a photo to The Australian newspaper, an old Facebook photo, of him next to a Labor candidate in a state election, thereby suggesting somehow that he was unworthy because, at one stage, he may have handed out material, apparently, for a Labor candidate in a state election. They attacked his character in the most vicious way. They bullied and victimised people because they had the courage to stand up over the injustice that this government was seeking to repair.

The fact is that the opposition does believe there is a need for budget repair. Under this government the debt, in terms of the budget deficit, has tripled. Net debt has climbed substantially. That is why the opposition has put forward alternative savings measures: changes to the capital gains tax discount and negative gearing, and a genuine crackdown on tax evasion. We are prepared to be constructive—we have shown that with previous legislation. What we are not prepared to do is to simply sit back and be silent while these changes that target vulnerable people go through. What we are not prepared to do is to walk away from the principle that a nation is only as good as the way in which it treats its most vulnerable citizens.

We must do better. We can do better than this mean-spirited legislation which shows that they did not get the lessons of 2014. That is why they are being rejected by the Australian people. The penalty rates changes are only the latest in the attack on people that we see represented by this legislation. The bill is flawed and should be rejected.