Mr BROADBENT (McMillan) (10:54): The member for Wills began his address talking about the emperor not having any clothes, and I would like to stay on the same theme. On 29 May 2013, in a second reading speech, some fine words were read by the former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and now Leader of the Opposition:
The Gillard government believes that everyone who is able to work should be able to benefit from the economic security and dignity that having a job brings, which is why we are introducing this bill to help more unemployed Australians to transition into work.
Having a job is essential in ensuring that all Australians can share in the benefits of Australia’s economic strength and receive the promise of a long, good life that comes with being an Australian.
In combination, the measures contained in this bill amend the social security law to provide around $300 million to improve the incentive for income support recipients to work, support them in the transition to work and provide extra assistance to engage in study and training.
This package, which I support wholeheartedly, represents the very strong advocacy of government MPs, including the member for Canberra, the member for Page, the member for Chifley and the member for Throsby, amongst many others. I also acknowledge the advocacy of the council of single mothers.
Yes, the member for Canberra is still here, the member for Chifley is still here and the member for Throsby is still here, but I wonder how many single-parent families put paid to the future employment in this House of the then member for Page.
A dark day dawned on 1 January 2013 as the laughably named Fair Work Incentives Bill came into effect, forcing all single-parent families whose youngest child had turned eight onto the Newstart allowance. For a family getting by on the bare minimum it was a savage blow. It did not herald a new start, but rather an abrupt halt. In fact, the only thing that starts when families are forced onto this lesser benefit is a deeper slide into poverty. It is their children I think of most. Former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke had the grand aspiration that no child would live in poverty by 1990, but his party’s descendants seemed to have the opposite plan. Sole parents have been trying to dig themselves out of poverty, and the Labor Party would not even give them a spade.
In my electorate of McMillan there are 15,610 people living in single-parent households, among them almost 10,000 children. Around the country, 69,000 families have been stung by this discriminatory legislation. The Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten, said on 29 May last year that this legislation would ‘provide Australians receiving income support with greater incentives and support to find and keep a job’. The ‘incentives’ Mr Shorten alluded to were nothing but a mighty big whack with a mighty big stick. Sole parents working 15 hours a fortnight on the minimum wage now have to work twice as long just to get back what they lost.
A single parent on Newstart with two children—one aged eight, the other 12—loses $160 per fortnight just in benefits. She cobbles together a weekly income from family tax benefits A and B, $2.03 from her telephone allowance payment and $4.07 from the income support bonus. This family’s rent alone costs $350 a week. The incentive to work has nothing to do with breaking the shackles of disadvantage and everything to do with the survival of that family. Is she rewarded for her commitment to the workforce? No: for every dollar over $62 per fortnight she earns in paid employment, 40c in the dollar is taken from her benefits.
Someone earning $180,000 per annum is taxed just 33c in the dollar. Where is the equity? Where is the justice? Incentives, indeed! On the other side of the divide, a partnered mother whose husband earns $130,000 per year can still work part time, earning $200 per week. Is there a penalty? No: as a nice bonus she receives family benefits of $85.56 per fortnight.
While sole parents were told in no uncertain terms by the former Labor government to get off their lazy backsides, the truth was and still is that most were already working—some 60 per cent, in fact—with most in part-time and casual jobs battling alone to try and meet the parenting and cost pressures of raising a family. Such support, indeed! Not only do sole parents pushed onto the Newstart allowance receive less but they are also allowed to earn less under the previous Labor government’s legislation. They are no longer entitled to earn $180.60 per fortnight with an additional $24.60 per child before their benefits are reduced, but now only $62. In addition, the total amount they can earn before their benefits are taken away altogether is $519.35 per fortnight less than what it was.
Under the Work Bonus Scheme a single age pensioner can earn $250 a fortnight in private income without fear of losing benefits. In fact, a pensioner earning $300 a fortnight in private income will only be assessed on $50 if he or she has no other income sources. Because $50 is less than the pension income test-free area of $156 a fortnight, he or she will still receive the maximum rate of the age pension. The pensioner can earn up to $460 per fortnight and nothing is lost.
I do not question the pensioner’s right to a chance of earning extra income, but why not a single parent too? Magnanimously, the Labor government decided to bump up the sole-parent minimum earning threshold by $38 a fortnight, a measure to take effect on 20 March this year! It was sold as a wonderful win for those families struggling on Newstart, but the reality is that its effect will be negligible. While our single pensioner can earn up to $406 a fortnight before their benefits are touched, our sole parent with two children earning the same amount from private income loses 34.4 per cent of their welfare allowance, or $186.50. Mr Shorten trumpeted the credentials of this insidious legislation, saying:
… everyone who is able to work should be able to benefit from the economic security and dignity that having a job brings.
I read that out before.
“This Government wants to avoid the entrenched disadvantage that can arise from long periods of joblessness,” Minister Shorten said.
Fine words, fine sentiments, but how could a woman raising a family alone—and let us not forget sole-parent dads too—believe that the former Labor government was really trying to help her by taking away $110 a week?
the Leader of the Opposition said—
this is about helping job seekers being able to fulfil the potential which exists in all Australians.
Inexplicably, he did not seem aware of the economic carnage his party had left in its wake. Job seekers were one thing but job getters were a much rarer breed. Incentives and support are truly what sole-parent families need, not just Labor definitions.
Targeting one of the most vulnerable groups in our community, being single-parent families, not only increases the hardship of these people who are already under stress but can compound when the social and emotional impact of these cuts begin to manifest themselves in later life. The economics of reducing the funding to our most vulnerable citizens balanced against these social impacts is a gamble that this nation should not take.
If you indulge me, Deputy Speaker Mitchell, there are a few other things that need to be considered, especially for single parents in rural areas such as mine—and yours. For a single mum raising three small children with no support there are several assumptions being made in this legislation. One is that suitable child care before and after school, not to mention school holidays, is available. For the mother who works in a supermarket or cleans offices, child care is not available to assist them when they have to work early morning shifts or late evenings. The second assumption is that public transport is available. Yes, there are many rural areas with one bus a day to a regional centre, but they do not necessarily fit with working hours or child pick-up times.
There is also an assumption that a job will be available. I point to a constituent of mine who lives in a small hamlet, I will not name where it is, whose youngest child had reached eight years of age so she had to find more work—this so-called transition from paid parenting to Newstart. The problem is that there are no jobs. When she explained that she did not have a car to look further afield she was told to take public transport, but there is no public transport where she lives. Any of my regional colleagues will understand the absolute impracticality of these suggestions. Yes, there are people who need to make a greater effort to join the workforce. However, there has never been any understanding or recognition of the difficulties that rural and regional people encounter.
I know there will be those who are looking at the screen today, saying, ‘Here he goes again—the member for the lost, the lonely, the disabled, the single parents!’ If that is what I am accused of, here I stand accused. It is hard enough to bring up children in this country when there are two of you, when you have got a caring ‘partner’, as we say these days, who is going to support you in times of difficulty when things get a bit rough. And I do not know a family at all where things have not got a bit rough at times. I put to this parliament and to this nation that when things get a bit rough and you are on your own—and because I have not lived it, I can only think what it would be like—and you are on a parenting payment, struggling along on that parenting payment, do you know what is the first thing to go? Every mum in this place will know—it is the $3 to go down to the pool in the summertime; it is $3 a day and mum cannot afford $3 a day. What is the next thing to go? It is the keyboard lessons at school that they cannot afford anymore. But the worst part for the children under this legislation introduced by this opposition leader is that the children know they are different to the other kids because they know they cannot go on the excursion. They know that their clothes are different. They know that mum is struggling. They know how mum responded when they turned eight, which I addressed in a previous speech.
The previous speaker, the member for Wills, pointed out that we are in a wonderful wealthy, healthy nation. Things are a bit tight budget-wise now, yes they are—the wheel will turn. But I say to this House: we have put so much effort into addressing the plight of the disabled; we have put so much effort into addressing the need for greater educational opportunities, which changes the lives of people in this country; we have put a lot of effort into welcoming newcomers to Australia and welcoming them with open arms; yet at the same time we can introduce legislation that affects thousands of families right across Australia and all they are is single-parent families.
I want to finish with this. When I went to Moe the other day to have some discussions with the local television station, I met two local proprietors who own a furniture store and a cafe. They were sitting out the front having a cup of coffee. They said, ‘Russell, what are you doing here?’ I said that I had come to talk about an issue with the local press that is very important to us. They said, ‘What else are you doing?’ I said, ‘I have actually got a mini campaign on how we treat single parents in this country.’ He said, ‘There is a single parent,’ and there was a lovely lady in her 30s standing there with a pram. I said in my previous address that people are often single parents through no fault of their own. She said, ‘That lady is a single parent. Her husband just died of a heart attack at 38 years of age three weeks ago.’ So, through absolutely no fault of her own, that lady has gone from being in a stable household to being a single parent, with all the connotations that go with that and all the things she will have to struggle with because of that. Hopefully, that will be a happy story because she will—what do they call it nowadays? They don’t call it ‘meet another person’; they call it re-partnering, don’t they? I hope that that young woman will find another person in her life and she will live happily ever after. However, she is not alone in that, as there are probably lots of other single mums who do not fit the stereotype.
I repeat: the people you attacked in this legislation were vulnerable people who are already doing it hard, and we have made it even harder for them. I point out the comparison between how we treat other people under the system and how we treat single-parent families. If anybody is going to examine their conscience, as the new member for Griffith said with regard to same-sex marriage, I think this House should look to its own conscience about the way it addresses single-parent families. If you are going to consider your conscience, then consider young women, consider young children and consider your conscience about how you treat them as compared to other people who get outlays from the federal government.