The Coalition's inherent unfairness

One thing is apparent since the member for Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull, wrestled the prime ministership from his rival, the member for Warringah: the national mood has changed. That is, there is a palpable sense of relief in the communities. But this is misconceived. While it is certainly nice to hear that we are living in the most exciting time to be Australians, let us not confuse questions of style with questions of substance, and let's be very clear about this: is relief really as good as it gets? The problem is that this is apparent particularly in the communities I represent in this place. Under our new Prime Minister, there has been very little, if any, meaningful policy change. The Prime Minister's new politics simply use kinder language to pursue the same Abbott agenda; the same unfair, regressive agenda. This obscures but cannot conceal the realities of what this government is doing to people. The Australian people will see through this cynical approach to politics from a deeply cynical politician. People in Scullin already do.

What matters, of course, is not the language used but the impact of decisions on people's lives. The regressive agenda of the Turnbull government is carrying on the damage to communities which make up the Scullin electorate. We see that in so many areas of public policy. The former Treasurer's age of entitlement attack on universal health care and Medicare continues, not only through the GP tax by stealth but through the government's rush to change the Medicare safety net while refusing to release details on the extended impact of this on chronically-ill patients. My office has received many calls from constituents deeply concerned that they will not be able to afford radiation therapy after these changes. I have assured them that Labor will do everything we can to stop these unfair cuts. Another constituent, Felicia Murnane, contacted me upset and deeply concerned that fertility treatments would become so prohibitively expensive that they will only be available for those who have big bank balances. Felicia is a music therapist and her husband works in IT. She has had one cycle of IVF which was unsuccessful, and her parents helped her with the cost of that cycle. Felicia is worried now that, if costs go up any more, she and her husband will not be able to continue with IVF. This has been, understandably, a very emotionally draining experience for her and it would have been devastating when that cycle was unsuccessful. The last thing she needs is the added stress of the prospect of dramatically increased cuts.

We also have the threat of an increased and broadened GST. This is, of course, a real threat. By refusing to give a straight answer or simply rule this out, the Prime Minister has signalled to Australians that the government plans to not only make them pay more for goods and services but to also potentially slug them with an extra 15 per cent on fresh food as well. How is that fair? Evidence shows that a broader based higher rate of GST affects the poorest the most. It will broaden the already too large inequality gap in this country.

Let me be clear on this, as I have been to the constituents of Scullin in recent weeks: Labor stands firmly against any attempt to slug ordinary people with an extra 15 per cent on fresh food and shopping. Higher consumption taxes, of course, lead to higher prices. This is not a good thing for Australians. The rhetoric of the government, when it comes to taxation reform, is empty. The calls for a sophisticated conversation about tax are simply smoke and mirrors, as we see time and time again in question time in this place, where the government refuses to set out its plans and refuses to set out the principles by which it would approach a review of taxation.

We saw again today the Treasurer refuse to engage in any meaningful conversation about the revenue problem Australia clearly has, except to look to making those who have the least pay the most. We also know that it is not just about what the government takes out; it is about what the government does to working people's wages. At the moment, despite rhetoric from government ministers in the early years of this government about the prospect of a wages explosion, we have wages growth at the lowest on record. To compound that, we have the new Prime Minister saying that the lowering of penalty rates is inevitable. It was one of the least surprising interventions of recent months when he agreed that, because we apparently have a seven-day economy, the only reason why people value their weekends is history. This old conservative refrain does not bear any scrutiny. As my colleague the member for Wills has pointed out, the people who are against penalty rates tend to be those who do not work on the weekends—those who can afford to work in what are still referred to as regular hours. Who would these changes hurt? They would hurt students who do not have the flexibility in their courses to work weekdays, families who need that extra money to pay for groceries or Christmas presents for their kids, and young people putting in extra weekend hours, potentially to save for a first house deposit. These are, of course, also the people who would be cut most deeply by the government's GST hits. The economic effect of taking income from workers and giving it to businesses means that less money is spent and less money is circulating in the economy—and less is raised in taxes, of course.

The calling card of the Abbott government was cutting benefits to those who could least afford it. Sadly, this is the only thing that is considered. Recently the Department of Social Services told a Senate inquiry that over 130,000 single-parent families would lose out if the government's family tax benefit cuts passed the Senate. Single parents would lose up to $3,000 a year. Grandparent-carers would lose out as well, as soon as the children they care for turn 13. Parenting of course does not stop when your child becomes a teenager. The Turnbull government is keen to paint single-parent families and grandparent-carer families as system abusers, but all the while big business pays too little tax and the government is unconcerned to do anything about it. Of course, on the Labor side we recognise that the welfare system as it stands is not perfect and could be better targeted, but unfairly cutting out the most disadvantaged from access is neither an evidence-based approach to policymaking nor a sustainable one.

The current freeze on $100,000 degrees is no good for students considering their futures or for tertiary providers. Let us be clear about this: no young person or their family should have to face a $100,000 bill because they propose to study at university. Many residents of the Scullin electorate are concerned that higher education will become unaffordable for everyone but the elite. This government fails to recognise, despite its trickery over the delay, the breadth of benefits of higher education: increased workforce participation, knowledge and skills growth, economic growth and employment—to name just a few. This is, of course, something that should be open to everyone regardless of their circumstances. It is deeply unfortunate that, rather than seeing higher education as an investment in the future of Australia, this short-sighted government instead views it as simply another cost. It would rather leave 21-year-olds with $100,000 in debt before they have even joined the workforce than invest in the future of the country. I say this to the Prime Minister: you can talk about a nimble knowledge economy all you like but, unless you invest in it, it simply is not sustainable.

There have been many cuts to community services which have continued under the Prime Minister, including cuts to groups in the Scullin electorate like Whittlesea Community Connections, which provides vital services to women and children who are the victims of family violence. This is a national priority but it needs national support. We think also about the impact of child care. One in four parents who use child care in Australia will be subject to the prospect of losing their childcare benefits. We saw again today the government refuse to provide the modelling of proposed childcare reforms that would appear to be unfair and completely ignorant of the workload that having a child presents. To simply presume that stay-at-home parents should not be able to have their child cared for also disregards the advantages in socialisation that kids can receive. I think particularly of the impact of the Bubup Wilam Aboriginal childcare centre, which has been unable to receive any funding certainty, putting at risk a range of children who have suffered very significant trauma.

When we turn to one of the Prime Minister's former pet projects, climate change, we see again some of the challenges this government has failed to grapple with. If we ignore the creative accounting that has led to the environment minister literally unbelievably claiming that Australia has already met its 2020 targets, we are left with one of the greatest failures of this Turnbull government—one that is of deep concern to the constituents of Scullin. This Prime Minister, who once said he would not lead a party that did not act on climate change, has now, funnily enough, had a change of heart. We know that independent figures from RepuTex show that emissions will rise six per cent on 2000 levels by 2020. Of course under Labor they were declining. Labor wants Australia to do its share and mitigate the worst effects of climate change. The Abbott-Turnbull policies are simply not good enough for our future.

It will come as no surprise at the conclusion of this speech the deep concern I have about a government that is unconcerned for the constituency I represent—unconcerned for them now and unconcerned for them in the future. All the cheap political language of this Prime Minister is nothing but sophistry. It is dishonest to talk about agility, open policy, making new politics and exciting times. If you look behind the scenes you will see that they are gutting services to the neediest and plotting to cut penalty rates and impose a GST that will affect all families regardless of capacity to pay.

Relief in the change of Prime Minister has now worn out. The government will be judged, firstly, by the impact of its policies and, secondly, by its vision for our future. On both measures it is clear that the Turnbull government, like its predecessor, has failed dismally.

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