Turnbull Government MPI

29 March 2017

In rising to speak to Senator Gallagher's matter of public importance, I certainly agree with the matter of public importance that is before us. The way the government is attacking low- and middle-income Australians is a disgrace, and it is especially being felt in my home state of WA, which now has the highest rate of unemployment in the nation. What that means is that there are more people being forced to survive on the government's measly Newstart payments and many more young people struggling under the waiting periods that Senator Siewert, for example, outlined.

We have now seen for a long time this government, and its previous iteration under Tony Abbott, sell out low- and middle-income Australians. We have seen the government taking away the rights of workers, cutting education funding, trying to undermine Medicare and cutting family assistance payments. We have seen this systematic attack. Time and time again, we have seen the government sell out the people who need their support the most—not the big end of town. They still have $50 billion worth of tax cuts on the table. This is a government that does not care about low- and middle-income workers, that does not care about the ordinary mums and dads across the country who are trying to make ends meet. Those on the other side are fighting for the interests of their friends in big business by promising them big tax cuts and supporting pay cuts for the lowest paid workers in our nation.

I implore those on the other side and on the crossbench to support Labor's legislation to protect penalty rates from being cut by the Fair Work Commission. However, those opposite have said they support the Fair Work Commission's decision. That can mean only one thing: they are directly supporting the pay cuts for retail and hospitality workers. This decision will mean not only that low- and middle-income Australians will lose out but also that women will disproportionately lose out too. Women are already the most affected by marginal work arrangements, shiftwork and multiple employers. That is the working arrangement of many women in Australia, and attacks on penalty rates will affect them disproportionately.

A good example is a woman named Tanya, who, in the Save our penalty rates campaign, said: 'If my pay is cut I'll struggle to survive, even eat. I won't be able to buy clothes, shoes, toothpaste and hair spray. I won't be able to treat the grandkids on birthdays or at Christmas. If something happens to the car, I won't be able to afford it.' What we have is a government that is standing by and letting it happen. It means there are more and more workers at risk of similar decisions in other industries. Other workers, not just retail and hospitality workers, are now at risk of having their rates cut with this dangerous precedent.

Last year we saw the government pass its notorious ABCC legislation. That legislation is a part of this government's ongoing agenda to attack the union movement to undermine the capacity of ordinary working Australians to protect their pay and conditions. That legislation sought to create criminal penalties for actions that are not criminal—a direct attack on working people in this country and their right to defend their wages and conditions.

We saw that just last week for vulnerable children, with the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill, which disproportionately impacts lower income earners, who are losing out under the government's package. That package made low-income families have limited access to early childhood education. It is an absolute disgrace, and, I think, immoral to turn our focus away from the children who we need to stand up for and fight for the most. It is just more evidence for the families that Malcom Turnbull is leaving behind. A good way of illustrating this is that the government's new 12-hour safety net for single-income families is not equal to the two days support and care that the minister claimed. That is an attack on our nation's most vulnerable children. We saw within that legislation a complicated activity test that removes the entitlement of all children to that two days care. That, in my view, is appalling. The legislation, as a whole, demonstrates how little regard the coalition has for the sector and for the vulnerable families that are affected by these cuts.

I want to comment briefly on the other cuts that the government has made recently to 204,000 Australians on the lowest incomes with cuts to Newstart and parenting payment. We have seen waiting periods for access to parenting payment introduced, which is an appalling thing to do to a family in crisis. We have seen cuts to the family tax benefit parts A and B. These cuts are to people who are already on very low incomes. Freezing the threshold makes their incomes completely unsustainable in terms of keeping up with the rest of the economy. It is already very difficult to survive on these very low incomes.

We have also seen an attack on Medicare. We have seen low- and middle-income families deal with higher medical costs through the six-year Medicare fees. It is forcing bulk-billing to disappear and forcing up the healthcare costs of Australians. In the period July to September, bulk-billing rates for non-referred GP attendances tumbled by some 0.2 per cent in my home state of WA and by up to 2.4 per cent nationally. This is burdensome for Australian families. Zero point two per cent might seem small, but that is the equivalent of 6,000 GP visits in the state of WA that were not bulk-billed last quarter that would have been previously bulk-billed and 167,000 GP visits nationally.

We have seen a government that does not want to reveal that if low- and middle- income families go to visit the GP they will get a nasty surprise. This is coming from a Prime Minister who promised that no Australian would pay more to visit the doctor. That was utterly false. With the robo-debt we have also seen a farce, with false debt notices going out to people who have done all their due diligence in telling Centrelink their income over time. False debt notices have gone out to people who have declared every bit of their income to Centrelink and were absolutely entitled to that money, but have been put through the wringer by the government's robo-debt process. It really reeks, to my mind, of the government systematically trying to rip money out of the poorest households in our country.

One thing I do know for sure is that Australians will see through the government's attacks. Less than three weeks ago, voters in my home state of WA voted out a Liberal government that was arrogant and out of touch, that was not in touch with the needs of low- and middle-income Western Australians. They voted for jobs, for solutions to unemployment, for investment in better public health, for investment in schools and transport and for policies that focus on the needs of real people. The government of this nation must stand up and do what is right for ordinary Australians but, sadly, I do not think it will. I can tell you, though, the Australian Labor Party certainly will.