I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 1) Bill 2014 and the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (2014 Budget Measures No. 2) Bill 2014. These bills are the mechanism by which the government wishes to implement all its heartless, selfish and un-Australian cuts to Australian pensioners, young job seekers and families. Australians believe in a fair go and helping each other out. It is a principle of mateship that underpins the Australian ethos. We believe that we should help those who are less fortunate.
The bills we are discussing today are the very definition of unfair. They target those who can least afford to lose any income at all. It is just another unfair part of an unfair budget. We know for fact from the Treasury analysis that those opposite removed from the budget papers and tried to keep hidden that Australians on lower incomes will be hit harder by this budget than those on higher incomes. These bills taken together would leave millions of Australians worse off and, by Mr Hockey’s own analogy, those on low incomes are expected in this budget to do most of the lifting.
These bills include the measure to index pensions by CPI instead of wages, an attack on 3.2 million age pensioners, disability support pensioners, carers and single parents. They include measures to cut family tax benefit B when a child turns six, an attack on around 600,000 single parents and single income families. They include measures to cut young job seekers off Newstart for six months, an attack on a generation of young people looking for work that will push them into hardship and poverty. And they include measures to abolish the seniors supplement, a further attack on senior Australians. The Australian people did not vote for this.
The debate on this bill today is a very, very important one. As I said in the MPI debate last week, almost every Australian is affected or cares for somebody who is affected by the changes in this bill. These cruel cuts to pensions, family payments and young job seekers do not hurt faceless, fairytale bludgers out in tabloid TV land; these changes hurt Australians—Australian grandmothers, mothers, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters. For those listening at home, these changes could hurt your aunt, your sister, your grandparent, your son or your daughter—the list goes on and on.
These cuts do not hurt abstract figures on a spreadsheet. It is your family and your friends who are being hurt by these cruel cuts. It is people you care for who will be affected—real people. These cuts cannot and should not be looked at in the cold, calculating way that this Liberal government have been looking at them. It is real people who will be hurt and the Liberal and National senators opposite should have the courage to go out into the community and look those people in the eyes and explain to them why they think that those who are least well off in our society should have to pay more than those with a higher capacity to pay.
The government say there is a budget emergency—unless the Treasurer goes to New Zealand, in which case there is no budget emergency—and that is why they have to introduce these cruel and savage cuts to pensioners, young job seekers and families. We all know that that is absolute rubbish. Two weeks ago, a group of 63 leading economists, including former Treasury Secretary Bernie Fraser, the Executive Director of the Australian Institute Richard Denniss, and academics from the University of Sydney, University of Adelaide and University of Melbourne put their names to a statement rejecting the idea that Australia is facing a budget emergency. The statement says:
‘Australia’s ability to manage public debt is very strong’, with the country not facing ‘any present or imminent debt crisis’.
… … …
Major spending reductions by the commonwealth government are economically unnecessary and socially damaging. The first priority of Australian fiscal policy should be to strengthen investment, employment and growth. Government can and should pursue this priority without jeopardising its long-run fiscal strength and stability.
… … …
The most effective route to restored fiscal balance is to help more Australians find work, earn incomes, and pay taxes … major and unnecessary reductions in government program spending and public sector employment would have the opposite effect.
So there you have it: the whole explanation for the need for this bill blown completely out of the water by 63 leading economists. The truth is that the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have concocted a budget emergency to try to con people into accepting some of the most radical cuts in our nation’s history. If there really was a budget emergency, the government would not be proceeding with a $22 billion plan to give $50,000 to wealthy women having babies. I know their Paid Parental Leave Scheme for millionaire mums is not supported by many on their own side. The Liberal senators opposite must be extremely frustrated that we are here today to debate Liberal cuts to pensions when they are giving large cash handouts to those who need it the least. That is fairly hypocritical.
The second falsehood is that Australia’s welfare spending is out of control. It is not. Across the OECD, we spend less on welfare than any other country except Iceland. If we look at the figures we can see that welfare expenditure in Australia accounted for just 8.6 per cent of GDP in 2013 compared to the OECD average of 13 per cent. Recently, the Melbourne Institute released a report which clearly indicated that Australians are also dramatically reducing their dependence on welfare. In 2001, 23 per cent of working-age people in Australia received a welfare payment each week. In 2011, that had dropped to 18.5 per cent. Australian’s need for welfare is not ‘spiralling out of control’, as those opposite would argue, but is actually decreasing and it is decreasing significantly.
So what is the reason for these measures? Why such a tough budget? Why all the cuts in these bills? Mr Hockey and Mr Abbott have led a campaign of deceit in order to impose an ideological series of cuts to low- and middle-income Australians. That is what this budget does and it is what this legislation contains. The government hate the idea that they have an obligation to help out their fellow Australians. Labor will fight them every step of the way with regard to this. Before the election, Mr Abbott said there would be no cuts to pensions. We now know that this was a hollow promise, like so many other promises that he has broken since the election.
It is through this legislation that the Prime Minister is making changes to pensions and dramatically so. Two point three million age pensioners will have less money in their pockets as a result of this lie. According to the Australian Council of Social Services, ACOSS, this measure will leave pensioners, as Senator McEwen just said, around $80 a week worse off over time. For pensioners, who already live on around $20,000 a year, this is a cruel attack on their financial security. Of course, it comes at a time when they will also be slugged with a new GP tax whenever they visit the doctor, the chemist or any other medical service, and a new fuel tax whenever they put petrol in their car. They will have to put off visiting the doctor, buying medicines or putting petrol in the car.
Australian pensioners feel absolutely betrayed by this government, and so they should. As I said, this government was happy to promise no changes to pensions. I would like to quote from a transcript—found on the Liberal Party website—of Mr Abbott’s address to the National Press Club on 2 September last year. Mr Abbott said:
… the Coalition can more than fund tax cuts without a carbon tax through the sensible savings that were announced months ago.
There are no cuts to health.
No cuts to education.
Pensions don’t change.
Again, to Sabra Lane on AM on 5 September, Mr Abbott said: ‘No cuts to health, no cuts to education, no cuts to pensions.’ Mr Abbott and his government should be ashamed of themselves. Australian pensioners will experience pain and suffering because of the cuts and taxes of this government. It is absolutely unbelievable that, in a nation as prosperous as Australia, the government have taken these actions. That the government want to rip away support for people who have worked their entire lives to build this nation is quite immoral.
It is not just age pensioners who will be impacted. People on the disability support pension, carer payment and parenting payment single will all lose because of this cruel measure. To attack the living standard of those on a disability support pension for cheap political gain is, quite frankly, pathetic. We have an obligation to ensure that everyone has the ability to live a life of dignity and opportunity—that everyone has the ability to live a life of dignity and opportunity. I repeated that for those on the other side. I do not think that the message sinks in with them. The changes are causing real distress for those on the disability support pension and people have, understandably, become extremely anxious about the changes. For many of these people who spend large portions of their life on the pension because of their inability to work, this is particularly cruel.
The measure to index pensions by CPI instead of wages will see a cut in the pensions of 3.2 million Australians, including disability support pensioners, carer pensioners, single-parent pensioners and 2.3 million age pensioners. Frankly, they deserve better.
When Labor was in government we legislated for the biggest increase to pensions in 100 years. This measure brought millions of Australian pensioners out of poverty and ensured that their pension enabled them to live with dignity, because Labor understands that Australians deserve the security of a fair pension to support themselves in retirement after a life of hard work. Labor understands that the lottery of life means that some are born with or develop severe disabilities and that these people and their carers deserve the security of a fair pension to support themselves. This government is taking away this security. It is leaving pensioners with less money in their pockets and less security in their minds.
I have spoken many times in this chamber about the harsh measures in these bills, and the cuts to support for young job seekers, which are particularly bad. Here we have a government that is willing to throw an entire generation on the trash heap. And they have an attitude that everybody can get a job. Well, if you keep your commitment to increase the number of jobs available then that may well be true, but at the moment that is not happening and not everybody can get a job.
The measures contained in these bills will see young people left without any income support at all for a period of six months, and possibly longer, when they become unemployed—without any income support at all. Having no income will make it even harder for young people to enter the workforce. If you cannot afford transport to a job interview, or appropriate clothing, or a mobile phone so that you can be contacted by an employer, how are you supposed to get a job? And what if you cannot afford public transport? Public transport is not always available, of course; I come from the state of Tasmania and, to be honest, in a lot of Tasmania there is no public transport available. In some areas, especially some of the lower socioeconomic areas, public transport is not as good as it should be. So these people actually have problems getting to job interviews in a timely way, and even have problems getting to doctors’ appointments and things like that on time—let alone spending hours in a Centrelink office waiting for an interview and then having to wait hours to catch a bus home again.
But the government wants to shift blame onto young job seekers for not being in work rather than to keep its promise to create more jobs. Mr Abbott said in Devonport in Tasmania on 8 August last year:
I am confident that the Coalition’s economic plan can produce one million new jobs in five years, 2 million new jobs in a decade, by reproducing the kind of jobs growth that we had under the former Coalition Government.
More than 200,000 jobs should have been created by now if that were the case, but the government is more than 80,000 jobs short on this commitment. The government needs to tell us where these jobs are and when we are going to see some action. That is what we need to help young people, not the changes in these bills.
If these bills pass and if, after six months without income support, that young person has not found a job, the Abbott government will require them to take part in a work-for-the-dole scheme, and if, after six months in a work-for-the-dole scheme, they have still not found a job then they will lose their payments for a further six months. So they will live on fresh air for six months. This Liberal-National government is saying to young people who lose their jobs that they just do not care. And this confines young people, as I have said, to an endless cycle of periods without income, leading them into poverty. We will see many, many young job seekers pushed into poverty, crisis and homelessness. We need to be offering support to young people now to ensure that they have the skills and opportunities to gain work. Leaving them with no money to survive on for six months is unfair, cruel, and, to be honest, completely counterproductive. And unfortunately it could have even worse effects for those with no income and no support base.
This budget includes extra money for the emergency assistance that the government knows will be required as a result of this measure. So they are knowingly making it so difficult for people that they will have to seek emergency assistance. They know that this budget is so cruel they will need extra emergency assistance for around 500,000 young Australians—yet they still make the cuts.
Australian families are also under attack by the Abbott government through the cuts to family payments. The social services and other legislation amendment bill includes $7.5 billion in cuts to family payments. Once again, low-income couples with children and single parents will suffer the most.
These bills seek to freeze the rates and thresholds for family tax benefits, including the low-income free area for those who receive the maximum rate of family tax benefit A of $48,837. According to the Department of Social Services, a freeze to the low-income free area for FTB A alone will see more than 370,000 families around $750 a year worse off in 2016-17. The Department of Social Services revealed at a recent Senate estimates hearing that around 700,000 families will also lose their FTB B if the government gets its way and kicks families off the payment when their youngest child turns six. Labor will stand up for the low- and middle-income families who will be so savagely hit by the measures in this legislation and we will oppose the cruellest measures before us today.
I am extremely disappointed that this government felt it should take the most from lowest income families, because the figures are quite clear on this. A single income family on $65,000 with two school-aged children will be around $6,000 worse off each year by 2016. That is around 10 per cent of their entire family budget. In contrast, families on the highest incomes can expect to be worse off by only a maximum of 1.7 per cent in the same time frame. This is utterly extraordinary and an unfair attack on low-income Australian families. They were promised by Mr Abbott and his cronies that they would be better off under his government. Can you really tell Australian families that they are better off when you have ripped $6,000 straight out of their pockets?
I would like to take a moment to remind the crossbench senators that if they vote for the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment bills, they will be voting to cut pensions for millions of senior Australians, carers, single mothers and disability support pensioners; to lift the retirement age; to cut family tax benefits; to leave unemployed young people without any income for six months; and a host of other changes that will attack the most disadvantaged of your constituents.
I would like to make it very clear that if you vote for the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment bills you will be absolutely complicit with this attack on Australian families, pensioners and youth. And you will have to explain to these families, pensioners and youth why you agreed with the government and why you think it is fair to rip support away from those who need it the most, because these changes will severely impact millions of Australians, particularly in my home state of Tasmania. These bills will hurt Tasmanian families, Tasmanian pensioners and young Tasmanian job seekers. Unfortunately, these bills give us a very good measure of the calibre of this government. It is a government that is completely out of touch. Their priorities are all wrong.
For the Abbott government to give tax breaks to miners while ripping money away from disability support pensioners and seniors is downright immoral and pathetic. They give $50,000 over six months to women on high incomes while ripping away money from age pensioners. And they spend $50,000 flying a celebrity chef to New York to feed delicacies to G20 finance ministers while ensuring young job seekers have no money to buy food for six months of every year. Australians are angry at this government’s callous cuts to families, young job seekers and pensioners.
Senator O’Sullivan: Go back and look at Kevin Rudd’s itinerary!
Senator BILYK: I know that there have been mumblings from the other side of the chamber. They know that we are right, because they have to make such a loud noise to try to interrupt us and disrupt us.
Senator O’Sullivan interjecting—
Senator BILYK: Senator O’Sullivan, you have not been here that long, but I will tell you a story. I used to be an early childhood educator. I worked with screaming three-year-olds. So you do your best, but you will not stop me talking, Mate. This government should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. They know it and that is why they are interjecting. I know that Australian pensioners are ashamed of them and ashamed of the fact that some of them even voted for them. I have had people come into my office and say to me, ‘I actually voted Liberal and I really regret it. My life will be so changed and so damaged.’ And Senator Sterle said that people come into his office. You may think on that side of the chamber that you are very smart, but let me tell you: you are not.