Senator Penny Wong

I say two things? Firstly, can I acknowledge the very touching contributions from my friend and colleague Senator Gallagher, and also from Senator Lambie earlier. I think they really do merit remark, because they were both, in their own ways, very moving.

Before I start on the bill itself, I did want to make a very brief response to Senator Hanson’s interesting contribution. I would just make a couple of points. Senator Hanson spent time attacking the elites, but failed to explain in any detail, nor with any accuracy, her basis for supporting legislation that takes money from some of Australia’s poorest people. She told people that she wanted to stand up for the battlers, whilst voting for, or agreeing to vote for, cuts to some of Australia’s most vulnerable families. She told us all that we should do what is best for Australia.

Well, I can say this to her: that is precisely the way in which the Labor Party has approached this bill and other pieces of legislation. We have agreed to budget measures and budget savings which we thought were reasonable, but we will not stand in this place and ask the most vulnerable families in Australia, and their children, to bear the brunt of this government’s so-called budget repair, because it is certainly not budget repair that is fair and it stands in very stark contrast to the $50 billion worth of tax cuts for the corporate sector which remain at the heart of this government’s policy. Well—at the moment it does.

I do want to talk a little bit about the government because, as we sit over here watching their antics—you would have to say the government are unmatched in their legislative incompetence since the ill-fated government of Billy McMahon—we think of many things. One man I have thought of is a man called Fiorello La Guardia. Who was he? Apart from having LaGuardia Airport named after him and creating New York’s amazing skyline, La Guardia banned organ-grinders from the streets of New York. Whilst I have never had much affection for the organ-grinders, I have felt sorry for their monkeys. La Guardia did a good deal for monkeys, and I suspect that Mr Turnbull is desperately lamenting the fact that there is no La Guardia around to save him, because what a totally undignified position this Prime Minister finds himself in.

Do you know what Mr Turnbull is? He is the monkey to the Abbott organ-grinder. This is where the carefully manicured Prime Minister finds himself—dancing to the tune played by his predecessor in the 2014 budget, because the proposed cuts to family payments, the bill before this chamber, is a return to the past. It is a return to the past that not only was repudiated by the Australian public but also ultimately led to the repudiation of its progenitor by his own party. Yet such is the power of Mr Abbott the organ-grinder that his monkey still dances to his tune.

This wretched Prime Minister and the motley crew that pass for his government want to rip $1.4 billion from the pockets of Australian families—families with young children and all the expenses that go to their care and their upbringing. For the most part, these are families whose finances are vulnerable and exposed as they face the rising cost this government has been totally unable to control. The revisions of this bill seek to freeze current family tax benefit rates for two years, and I would invite Senator Hanson to understand the difference between rates and thresholds. In effect, it wants to penalise those who are most exposed to cost pressures. It seeks to penalise around about 1½ million families and, with that, over two million children.

Mr Abbott might have thought it was clever to take the cudgel to hardworking Australian families and make them fund budget shortfalls that this government is evidently unable to control, but the public made its position clear and he now sulks on the backbench. But I wonder if Mr Turnbull is set to discover he is headed for the same fate.

This bill is an attack on at least 600,000 families whose household incomes are already less than $52,000 per year. These are the families who are already on the maximum rate of FTB Part A. This bill is not only an attack on those least able to bear a freeze on benefits but also a return to the 2014 budget. Remember that? The 2014 budget was a budget which has become legendary for its unfairness and for the regressive transfer of wealth from the less well-off to the very well-off. It may well have gone down well in the land of harbourside mansions where public transport is a fun thing to do on weekends, but let me tell you: it hits hard for those who live two or hours from their workplaces and for whom public transport is just part of the daily grind.

Labor is a party of social justice, fairness and equity, and that is why we have opposed these measures—this idea in the 2014 budget—when we forced the coalition to take it out of the budget and withdraw it from the parliament. We will continue to stand our ground. The payments that we are discussing tonight are designed to assist low- and middle-income families to cover the costs of their children and to alleviate child poverty. What the organ-grinder proposed in 2014, and what his monkey is now reintroducing, is a freeze to the indexation of payments that is there to enable less well-off families to meet rising costs of living—things like the cost of energy, the cost of utilities and the cost housing.

Mr Turnbull used to represent himself as one who was full throated in his support for the basic social contract—that social contract which does hold our nation together. It is built on compassion and generosity, and it is deeply ingrained in a country which values mateship and values fairness. We help each other out. But the coalition is about the destruction of this social contract. Remember Joe Hockey? He used to drone on about lifters and leaners. Well, the sad fact is that this bill is proposed by the most inept political leaners this country has seen, and it actually hits the nation’s lifters.

This bill does not restrict its harshness to our less well-off families but extends it to working-age students as well as seeking a three-year freeze on the income-free areas for all working-age student payments. Not content with taking the cudgel to families, the coalition wants to go after jobseekers, single parents and students, and the proposed fees mean that these groups will be even less able to keep up with the cost of living. This is of particular concern for those on Newstart payments where there are already concerns about the adequacy of the payments.

Along with the 600,000 low-income families and their children that this bill focuses on, this bill wants to penalise another 204,000 Australians who are on the lowest incomes. This government’s approach seems to be that, if you are going to be unfair, you may as well be indiscriminate as well. These are people who are already living on the poverty line, where the thresholds to be frozen are already incredibly low. This bill is an assault on the most financially vulnerable Australians. It has no basis in social justice, it has no basis in sound economic management and it has no basis in an equitable society. It is, quite simply, unfair. It is, quite simply, disgraceful.

The one piece of advice I would give to this Prime Minister is that he would be better off shaking loose the shackles that bind him to the former Prime Minister and the miserable ideas that fashioned the 2014 budget. Only then might this Prime Minister actually be able to get on with the business of governing. We are all still waiting for that. But, to do that, Mr Turnbull would need to understand that Australians place a high value on care and compassion when it comes to those who are doing it tough, and measures such as those proposed in this bill fly in the face of the common decency that Australians expect of their government.


Chamber Senate on 22/03/2017 Item BILLS – Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 – Second Reading

Speaker: Wong, Sen Penny 

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