COMMITTEES;Community Affairs References Committee;Report – 03 Dec 2014

I also would like to take a few moments today to talk about the Community Affairs References Committee’s inquiry into income inequality. Along with Senator Siewert and Senator Peris, I also would like to thank the witnesses and the secretariat and all those who submitted to the inquiry for the hard work they did. It is quite clear from the statistics, the evidence given at the inquiry and the anecdotal evidence that we as senators hear from the community that there is a growing gap between the least well-off and the most well-off in Australian society. Inequality is growing in assets, incomes, health and education outcomes, and quality of life.

As a member of the committee and as a Senator from Tasmania, it was of particular importance to me to hear evidence from Tasmanian witnesses at the Hobart hearing, but I also heard evidence throughout Australia from other people. The reason it was so important to me was that I understand that Tasmania is highly affected by income inequality—no matter what Senator Seselja might like to portray. Unfortunately, 32 per cent of Tasmanians are in the lowest 20 per cent of income nationally, and 14,000 Tasmanian children are estimated to live in poverty. It is unfortunate that this government used its first budget to pursue an ideological agenda to start the process of removing the social safety nets that have been a fabric of our society since the time of Prime Minister Whitlam. The cruel cuts and broken promises in Mr Abbott’s budget will only result in more suffering from Tasmanians—in particular, young job seekers, students and pensioners. Evidence given by Meg Webb from the Tasmanian Council of Social Services highlights just how bad this government’s policies are for Tasmania. Ms Webb said:

The impact of the 2014-15 federal budget measures are likely to be felt across Tasmania for many years. The reduction in levels of federal funding for health, education and housing through the cessation of a number of national partnership agreements, and the removal of some special purpose payments, will have a significant impact on the Tasmanian budget. In fact, the Tasmanian Treasury estimates that the financial impact of the Australian government’s savings initiatives on Tasmania will be $2.1 billion over the next 10 years. Proposed changes to income support will have a significant impact on Tasmanians and Tasmania.

I do not know how the Tasmanian government members in the other place—Mr Nikolic, Mr Hutchinson and Mr Whiteley—can say that they have been standing up for Tasmania, when their federal Liberal government wants to rip $2.1 billion out of our state.

Witnesses at the Hobart hearing included Baptcare, the previously quoted TasCOSS, the Youth Network of Tasmania, and experts of housing business, economics and sociology from the University of Tasmania. These witnesses gave many examples of how Mr Abbott’s government is failing Tasmania’s most vulnerable. Baptcare were particularly concerned about the effects that the government’s policies would have on young Tasmanians, telling the Hobart hearing:

… Baptcare is concerned about measures in the recent federal budget which will increase income inequality, long-term and severe disadvantage, and financial and housing stress amongst our client groups. … We are very concerned that the plans to severely limit eligibility for Newstart and to move to 22- and 23-year-olds to the even lower youth allowance will lead to the loss of rental housing and increase levels of homelessness in the under 30s. And we are concerned that this may aggravate Tasmania’s already high youth suicide rate.

We on this side of the chamber know just how important education is to lift people out of poverty. That is why Labor in government invested in the Gonski school education reforms and increased funding to higher education. That is why we oppose this government’s plans for $100,000 degrees. Dr Blacklow reinforced this view to the committee in the Hobart hearing, saying:

… education generally is probably one of the key ways to address inequality.

Earlier this week, we debated the government’s attempts to hike student fees while slashing Commonwealth funding to universities; however, we in this place have to ask ourselves how our policies will affect an individual’s access to higher education. Unfortunately, the policies of the Abbott-Liberal government will take away the opportunities for children from low-income families to attend university. This will hit young Tasmanians particularly hard. The representative from the youth network of Tasmania warned the committee of the effect that the government’s policies would have on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing higher education. She said:

We are definitely of the view that young people, particularly young people of disadvantaged backgrounds, will be less likely to engage in higher education. It will be a goal that is just that more out of reach for many young people, particularly when you think about the difficulty in getting employment, the difficulty in getting affordable housing and things like that.

…   …   …

But here, where we have one university, it is going to be very challenging if, under the proposed rules, that university is able to set their own rates and it is then out of reach for many young people. I think that would cause a big problem.

At the Hobart hearing the committee also heard evidence about the dramatic effect the coalition’s policies would have on the University of Tasmania and Tasmania’s reputation as a quality higher education provider. Professor Jacobs, Deputy Associate Dean of the School of Social Sciences at UTAS, told the committee:

The areas which could attract people here are actually not getting the necessary funding to maintain their reputation abroad. The University of Tasmania is a major employer in this state. But the reforms going through the Senate will seriously jeopardise the budget of the University of Tasmania and it will become less attractive internationally for students to come here.

This government’s policies on health care will also lead to a greater increase in health inequality in Tasmania. Again I would like to draw from evidence, given by Meg Webb from TasCOSS, who said:

Visits to the GP—primary health care—is the best way to avoid the much more expensive end of acute hospital care. Tasmania more than anywhere else needs to encourage better usage of primary health care. We need nothing to discourage people from attending their GP appointments regularly. A co-payment does that outright. Particularly for people in Tasmania who are on low incomes, who are on allowances and pensions, any level of co-payment required will be a deterrent and that will inevitably lead to worse health outcomes and a much more expensive health system for our state in the long run.

We already know that Tasmanian Senator Abetz does not have any empathy for the young people who are seeking work in Tasmania. He callously told young job seekers they should go fruit picking or move to get a job, but evidence given at the Hobart inquiry would argue against the view that it is easy to get a job. Mr Brendan Churchill, lecturer in social sciences at UTAS, told the committee:

For young Tasmanians, if they move and they want to move to a nearest population centre, there is no guarantee that they are actually going to find work. There is no immediate solution. I know Victoria and South Australia are also experiencing similar levels of youth unemployment, so even if they do make the jump to the mainland there is no guarantee that this issue is resolved. It is just one person less that the Tasmanian community has to worry about, which is a shame.

I call upon members of this place to read this important report. In particular I encourage crossbenchers who are trying to determine if they support a particular policy to read the report and the submissions to this inquiry, because a mountain of evidence was gathered in opposition to the government’s policies.

This inquiry got to the root of income inequality in Australia. It demonstrates that inequality is growing across Australia, in particular in rural and regional areas like my home state of Tasmania. The committee heard evidence time and time again about how this government’s dysfunctional budget would increase inequality across Australia. I call upon the government to stop its ideological attacks on students, on pensioners, on young job seekers and on those who are not as well off as them and to start delivering policies to support all Australians, not just their mates in big business. I call upon the government to return to the ideal of Australia as an egalitarian society where we help those who are in trouble and where everyone receives a fair go because that is the Australian way.