I too rise to speak on the appropriation bills, the bills which form the backbone of the Abbott government’s first budget. This is a budget of cruel cuts. It is a budget built on lies and broken promises. This is the budget where the Abbott government demonstrates to the Australian people, if they haven’t already realised it, that the government they got is not the one they thought they had elected. Mr Abbott went to great pains to assure the Australian people that, despite declaring a need to make savage cuts, he would protect and defend their vital public services. On the eve of the election Mr Abbott, hand on heart, promised ‘no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no changes to pensions, no changes to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS’. With the exception of ‘no change to the GST’, every single one of these promises has been broken, and the rhetoric coming from the government’s front bench, especially the ministers with financial portfolios, suggests that the GST promise could end up being broken too.
The Abbott government declared, through its Treasurer, Mr Hockey, that ‘the age of entitlement is over’. Yet they have shown that the age of entitlement is well and truly alive when they are pushing a paid parental leave scheme which delivers the biggest entitlement scheme in history, one that writes out $50,000 cheques to millionaires to have babies. Add to that the entitlement for billionaire miners to make super profits without giving the rest of Australia its fair share, and the generous tax cuts for Australia’s 16,000 richest superannuants. I guess what Mr Hockey really meant was that the age of entitlement is over for the people who really need the support. After all, it will be the 3.6 million lowest earning workers who will be paying through their superannuation taxes, the millions of age pensioners and the seniors who have to work till they are 70 who will be doing the heavy lifting, as Mr Hockey would put it, to pay for the entitlements of billionaire mining magnates and millionaire mums.
Of course, even after the election, we still hear those opposite—without a hint of irony—claim that they have to take drastic action to fix some fictional budget disaster. I say it is ironic because those opposite, shortly after coming to government, doubled the deficit through a series of spending decisions and pessimistic forecasts. And the now government claimed in opposition they wanted to ‘end the waste’. Yet they are engaging in some incredibly wasteful spending, such as their gold-plated Paid Parental Leave Scheme and their $9 billion unsolicited gift to the Reserve Bank, both of which were contrary to expert advice, from the Productivity Commission and Treasury, respectively. This reckless fiscal management is true to the form of their predecessors, the Howard government, in which the current Prime Minister was a minister, and which the IMF exposed as the most wasteful government in Australia’s history.
Mr Abbott said he wanted to lead a government of no surprises. He said the Australian people were ‘sick of nasty surprises’ and that he wanted to lead a government which, instead of breaking promises, would ‘underpromise and overdeliver’. Instead, what the Australian people see are broken promises and nasty surprises at every turn. You see, the 2013 federal election and the 2014-15 federal budget together tell a story: it is the tale of the two Tonies. First there is the pre-election Tony, or fake Tony. This was the Tony who railed against cost of living pressures. This was the Tony who decried debt and deficit, and declared that he would ‘fix the budget’ and ‘end wasteful spending’. This was the Tony who extolled the virtues of honesty and preached day in, day out about the evils of breaking promises. This was the Tony who said he would spend his first week as Prime Minister in Arnhem Land—which, by the way, turned out to be his first broken promise.
The Liberal-National coalition was at such great pains before the election to elevate the fake Tony that their frontbenchers started waxing lyrical about the ‘Tony they know’ and what a great bloke he was. They even held back the real Tony and the real coalition agenda until after the Western Australian by-election and the state elections in South Australia and Tasmania, by sitting on the report of their commission of cuts. Now, with this budget, we see the real Tony. We see the Tony who breaks promises, who subjects struggling Australians to abject poverty and abundant cruelty and whose dismissive response to the outcry of the Australians who elected him is, ‘Where’s the problem?’
Of course, you have all heard this line of argument before, but there is a particular reason that I wanted to make a contribution on the bills. What I want to do today is not talk about the statistics and how a family on X dollars will be worse off by Y dollars; not talk about the overwhelming evidence from welfare organisations, professional medical associations and other community groups about how this budget will severely attack the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society; and not even talk about the cuts to programs and services such as health and education, Landcare, the ABC, the Arts, the CSIRO, social services and Indigenous programs. What I want to do in my contribution today is give a voice to some of the ordinary people who have contacted my office and who wish to tell their stories about how this cruel budget is going to hurt them.
I will start with a pensioner couple in a rural area in my home state of Tasmania. This couple spoke recently at a forum organised by the Tasmanian Council of Social Services to discuss the impact of the Abbott government’s $7 GP tax. One of them has several chronic health conditions. This means she has to have regular appointments with her GP and various specialists. This couple is already struggling to get by with mortgage payments of more than $400 a fortnight. Being from a rural area, they have to travel into town for specialist appointments, which can cost them about $40 for just one week.
They explained to the forum that they found the Treasurer’s suggestion that $7 is a couple of beers or a third of a pack of cigarettes deeply insulting. They do not drink or smoke. In fact, they have very little discretionary spending. To them, $7 might be a few loaves of bread, a couple of bottles of milk or cat food for their cat. This couple are going to be hit from several directions by this budget should all the measures pass the Senate. Not only are they concerned about the GP tax, but they could also face higher fuel costs when they travel to Hobart to visit specialists. As custodial grandparents for a teenage boy, they also face the prospect of losing family tax benefit part B and the schoolkids bonus. They are also concerned about the challenges their grandson will face if he relies on youth allowance after leaving home.
This couple are active participants in their local community centre, their local branch of the pensioners’ association and a variety of other community organisations. They are absolute icons of their rural community. If they lose the capacity to participate in their community not only would they lose but also the community as a whole would lose. This couple have not only shared their own story with me but they have also expressed their concern about people in their community who they have come across through their volunteer work. They mention, for example, those who rely on their local GP for health care and or the people who rely on the local community centre for something as simple as a phone call to Centrelink.
Another person who has conveyed their story to my office was a mother living in a rural area whose youngest child had just turned nine. Her husband has a modest income and the family is only just scraping by. The cuts to family tax benefit part B alone could see the family losing more than 10 per cent of its income. She and her husband have three children in their care. They also have a grandson in Sydney, who they see very rarely because they could barely afford the travel. In her words, ‘The only time we get to see our grandson is when someone dies.’
One small luxury her children have, if you could call it that, is participation in weekend soccer games; yet if the budget measures go through she will not be able to afford the registration fees. She quite reasonably regards the weekend sport as an important outlet to develop the health and fitness of her children and for them to socialise with other kids. A trip to the cinema is, in her words ‘out of the question’ even if they could afford the petrol to get into the city. To illustrate how reliant the family is on their income for the bare necessities, when the woman recently turned 50 and was asked by her dad what she would like for her birthday she asked for new tyres for the family car. That was her 50th birthday present—car tyres from her dad. Imagine how this family is going to struggle, not only losing income from family tax benefit but also paying a GP tax every time a family member visits the doctor and paying additional fuel tax on their car trips. Imagine how they would struggle to pay for school fees and uniforms with the loss of the schoolkids bonus. These are two comprehensive examples of families who are going to suffer if the measures in the Abbott government’s budget are implemented in full. In both cases, a particular budget measure on its own could plunge these families into severe hardship, not to mention a combination of several measures.
I will now provide a few quotes from other people who are concerned about the impact the budget will have on them. These are from people who have contacted the Labor Party or contacted my office to share their concerns. From a 50-year-old mother on Newstart allowance:
These cuts will affect myself and my family from every angle. My son is 10 years old. Having Family Tax Benefit B cut is going to disadvantage him in many ways. Even the basics like staying warm, a hot shower and having fresh fruit and vegies in the fridge will be luxuries. Already, any activities outside of school hours are unaffordable. We live on a day-to-day basis. We have discussed, many times, the importance of continuing to higher education, but my hopes of keeping our future dreams alive have faded to the point of a creeping depression setting in. I cannot see how this move will help break the ‘welfare cycle’ as I see nothing in the future for us but a poverty driven life that I will be powerless to break.
This one comes from a teacher at a school in a very disadvantaged area in the South of Tasmania:
I teach at a low SES school where the students often come to school hungry and tired. There is a high rate of mental illness that results from the trauma these students have suffered. Their parents are impoverished and there seems to be a high rate of illness. Teachers are often blamed for poor performance results in NAPLAN, but if you knew these students you would know that learning isn’t as simple as it is for other students. When you are malnourished, tired and your focus is on other things, absorbing information and concepts is very difficult.
This budget is going to make things a whole lot worse for these students.
A pensioner told me in an email that she had visited the doctor six times in the last two weeks, which would have cost her $42 with Mr Abbott’s GP tax. As she explained to me:
I would not have spent that $42 on beer or cigarettes. It would probably go towards my power bill, or food.
I also had a disability support pensioner with a chronic health condition call my office and explain that he simply would not be able to afford visits to the doctor or medication. In other words, he simply would not be able to afford to have his condition treated. I have mentioned a few examples of parents who would struggle with the changes to family tax benefit part B. One single parent who emailed me said that the money she receives through this payment, to her, is ‘survival’. She said that if she lost this payment, she would not be able to afford her rent and her family would be at risk of homelessness.
These are just a few of the many examples of how the Abbott government’s budget, if implemented in full, will literally plunge families into poverty. The Abbott government is trying desperately to sell their rotten budget as a necessary evil. The rhetoric from those opposite suggests that Labor does not accept the need for savings. Such rhetoric overlooks the fact that we did make savings in government. Over the course of our time in government, Labor put forward $180 billion in savings—to fund our budget promises. Many of those savings were vigorously opposed by the then opposition, now government, despite their continued rhetoric about a ‘budget crisis’.
You see, budgets are about priorities. Budgets are about choices. Our argument with the government is not about the need to make tough budget decisions; it is about the quality of the decisions they are making. The proposition that the government has no choice but to attack the social fabric of Australia in order to balance the budget is, quite frankly, ludicrous. The government has plenty of alternatives available to them. For example, they could scrap their gold-plated Paid Parental Leave scheme—the one which the Productivity Commission said would be wasteful and have ‘few incremental benefits’ over Labor’s scheme. They could drop their generous tax breaks for people with superannuation balances over a million dollars. They could retain the mining tax, which ensures that mining companies which make ‘super profits’, from a resource that can only be dug up once, are required to provide the rest of Australia with a fair share of the revenue from that resource—a resource which belongs to the Australian people. Instead, they choose to cut essential services like health and education and attack the living standards of pensioners, families and jobseekers.
The government have not been forced to cut pensions. They have not been forced to tax the sick. They have not been forced to slug motorists and uni students. They have made a conscious choice to do so. Austerity is not an excuse for cruelty. Yet when Labor makes the quite sensible suggestion that the government should be standing up for the poor, the sick and the vulnerable, the government accuses us of ‘class warfare’. US billionaire Warren Buffett had a refreshing take on this catchphrase ‘class warfare’. In an interview in November 2006 with the New York Times, Mr Buffett said, ‘There’s class warfare, all right; but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.’ Mr Buffett’s comments could easily be applied to Australia.
Since the 1970s, the share of income for the top one percent of earners has doubled. For the top 0.1 percent, it has tripled. The richest three Australians control more wealth than the poorest one million, and this budget will make it worse. Modelling by NATSEM, the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, shows that under this budget the 20 percent of Australians on the lowest incomes will see their incomes fall by an average of 2.2 percent. That is right: 20 per cent of Australians on the lowest incomes will see their incomes fall by an average of 2.2 per cent. By contrast, those in the top 20 percent will lose only 0.2 percent of their incomes. That is right: those in the top 20 per cent will lose only 0.2 per cent of their incomes.
With their cry of ‘class warfare’ is the government seriously suggesting that it is a declaration of war to defend the basic safety net and equality of opportunity to which Australians are entitled? To me, the only form of class warfare is that which suggests removing the safety net from those who need it in favour of tax cuts and income support for millionaires and billionaires who do not. To suggest that government income support—whether it be in the form of payments or tax concessions—should go to the Australians with the highest need should not be a controversial suggestion. This government calls it ‘class warfare’. We on this side have another term for it: ‘fairness’.
Having outlined how cruel the Abbott budget is, having outlined that we see this budget as representing a multitude of broken promises, I will echo what Senator Wong said in her contribution—that Labor will not be opposing the appropriation bills. We do not intend to throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject this budget in its entirety. To block supply would be to deny funding to vital public services, and we will not use thousands of hardworking public servants as human shields in our fight against this cruel budget. However, we will be opposing and fighting hard against these cruel budget measures when they come to this place in the form of separate enabling legislation.
We will fight cuts to pensions, cuts to family payments, cuts to assistance for job seekers, increased university fees and the Abbott government’s new GP and petrol taxes. We will do so on behalf of, and in defence of, the people whose stories I have just told and the millions of ordinary Australians like them.