Bill's Speeches

SPEECH TO THE ACOSS ANNUAL CONFERENCE

SPEECH TO THE ACOSS ANNUAL CONFERENCE
BRISBANE CONVENTION AND EXHIBITION CENTRE


THURSDAY, 12 JUNE 2014



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Good morning everyone. I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet. I’d like to pay my respect to their elders both past and present. Last week in parliament as the Prime Minister was heading off to the United States, Canada, also known as ‘Canadia’ I did urge him, in all seriousness, to reflect upon the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King who said five decades ago, still relevant I believe, he said ‘In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brother's keeper.’

 

Australians have long understood, I believe, that we are indeed our brother's keeper. More than 100 years ago our home, Australia, had already gained worldwide fame, was a social laboratory, the home of dangerous radical experiments in female suffrage, fair wages, a decent aged pension. A century later I submit to you today that Australia is a great nation because we are a fair nation. Fair because of universal access to health care, Medicare.

Fair because of universal superannuation, a family payment system with a goal, the great, good goal of helping families make ends meet. Universal, equitable access to higher education and further education for young Australians and not so young Australians. A universal National Disability Insurance Scheme empowering the lives of people with disabilities and those who love them. For Labor, the Party I am privileged to lead, fairness and national prosperity are twins. They are inseparable. You cannot have one without the other. A country where people can have decent, fair and prosperous lives, a country where people who work hard to get ahead can do so and those who need help are not left behind and abandoned to their own devices. A nation where people are encouraged to pursue their dreams and community where everyone, regardless of their surname or their post-code, has the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

 

Ultimately, a great nation is a compassionate nation but in this extreme Government currently in power in Canberra, with its brutal Commission of Audit report and in its first Budget, I believe that Australia runs the risk of not meeting its obligations and responsibilities to those who go to work every day, to families, to the vulnerable, the sick and the poor. In public life, I've begun to learn over the last six years, that politicians and Governments, in fact all of us who seek to play a role in public life, we need to give account of our decisions and our actions.

 

This Government gives its account, it says, "Yes, we gave tough talk and hard actions." This Government, when it gives account of itself in the future, will be able to look back and say that the Government did cut pensions, that it has doubled and tripled the cost of university fees, that it has slashed the New Start allowance's availability to young people under 30. It has increased taxes, it has knighted people, but they cannot say, Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey cannot answer the question of whether they housed the homeless. They cannot answer the question did they encourage the sick to see a doctor? They cannot answer the question did they educate children based upon need? They cannot answer the question did they make comfortable the lives of the elderly on fixed incomes? They cannot answer the question, have they protected the vulnerable? They cannot answer the question, have they taken pressure off families? These are the questions in public life which matter.

 

These are the questions which highlight that this unfair Budget distorts the domestic destiny of hundreds of thousands of Australian families. Now I know that you as leaders of our community sector, I know that you as members of ACOSS, you know better than most that national wealth and community harmony do not come from slashing expenditure and running down essential services. You in this room, and I believe tens of thousands of other Australians as well, understand that growth depends on social mobility, it depends on fairness, it depends on giving everybody the chance to succeed.

 

Labor knows that job security's an important issue. We understand the importance of the economy in the lives of daily Australians but we understand that Government is not about a Budget, that in fact a Budget is a means to an end, that a Budget should be about the future of this country. It is not a set of numbers, it's streets of households, it's the opportunity for all Australians to enjoy in the benefits of being Australian. Right now more than one in four Australians are classified as casual employees. We need a system of work which has flexibility to ensure that the growing number of Australians who move in and out of the workforce during their lives are able to combine that work with training and retraining and their caring responsibilities. We know that we need a system in place that looks at the hidden problems of the 21st century. Loneliness, a loss of community, mental illness, exclusion. We need a responsive social framework which meets the needs of Australia's economy.

 

That's why our Shadow Minister for Families, Jenny Macklin, is bringing together the economists, the academics, the social policy experts, business and union leaders to understand how Australia invests in its society. We believe in a strong and generous safety net. We believe in a strong and generous safety net not because it catches all those who fall but because it also supports Australians to climb. We understand that the best investment a nation can make is in its citizens.

 

I'm sure that many of you may have had some time to read the extracts from Life Chance, stories of growing up in Australia, the new book by Janet Taylor from the Brotherhood. It is a very impressive piece of research, an impressive piece study, a longitudinal examination of five Australian families over more than 20 years. The personal stories do contain moments of inspiration and sadness and triumph and setbacks and all the aspects of life that we know so well. It was its concluding arguments, however, that I found most compelling. Taylor's identified four factors, four main factors in the wellbeing of Australian families; adequate income and appropriate Government support, safe, affordable and secure housing, access to affordable health care and an inclusive education system.

Income, housing, health care, education. You understand this list very well. The cruel measures in Tony Abbott's Budget put each of these essential conditions squarely in the Government firing line. The cuts and freezes to family support will fall most heavily and unfairly on families with low and middle incomes, particularly single-parent families. Next year a single parent on an income of $55,000 a year will lose about 10.5 per cent of their disposable income as a result of cuts to support and increase medical costs.

 

Yet someone on half a million dollars will lose only 3 per cent of their disposable income as a result of the Prime Minister's temporary increase to the top tax rate. By 2017/18, the single parent will be losing $120 a week, more than $6,000 a year but the person on $200,000 will no longer be paying a single extra cent, back to their pre-Budget position. Whichever way you crunch these Budget numbers, the inescapable, unavoidable, ugly conclusion is that the people who do the heavy lifting in this Budget are those least positioned to do so. Last night we saw the remarkable interjection by Treasury Hockey. He is complaining that people are calling his Budget unfair. He has advice for the critics to get off his back.

 

I'll tell you what unfair means, Joe Hockey, it means cutting support for the people who can least afford it, that is unfair. Making parents pay a GP tax to take their sick children to the doctor, that is unfair. Demonising amongst the most vulnerable people on the disability support pension, that is unfair. There is not a single disability pensioner I have ever met - and I have met many more than Joe Hockey - who would not gladly give back every dollar of pension they've ever had if they could get rid of the impairment which they live with. That is unfair. We see the doubling and the tripling of university fees. That is unfair and the sinister argument behind it advanced by the Education Minister is that the 60 per cent of Australia who don't go to university shouldn't be paying for the 40 per cent who do. Why is it that we now have a Minister for education so dangerous that he only looks at education in the context of private benefit? He fails to understand that education in Australia is a public benefit which benefits all. What is unfair about the Budget is that it is tearing up the Australian consensus. Do not lecture Australians about change. Australians change their lives every day. They cope with sophisticated decisions on change.

 

They are paying their way. They do not need a lecture from an out of touch Government about the importance of change. What they need is a Government who doesn't put more pressure into their lives. And we have a terribly unfair situation in this Budget, where we have a paid parental leave scheme paying tens of billions of dollars over the next four years, and at the same time pensioners are receiving cuts to their pension.

 

It is a shameful example of unfair priorities, and the wrong priorities of this Government I think are also highlighted by some of the first significant tax decisions taken by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. Upon forming Government they provided a big free kick to vested interests. In 2013-14, the Labor Government introduced a comprehensive package to ensure the integrity of our corporate tax base. When we say integrity of our corporate tax base, we mean collecting some. This was in recognition that a secure tax base is important to the Government's capacity to deliver the services and investments that all Australians call upon.

 

The importance of these changes was reinforced by a recent Parliamentary Budget Office report into the historical trends of Government revenue which demonstrates the central importance of corporate taxation to our revenue base. Between 1982 and 2012, corporate taxation contribution to Government revenue nearly doubled from 10.5 per cent to about 20 per cent. This trend, combined with the prominence of multinational corporations, make the fiscal imperative of securing our tax base very important.

 

All Australians, be they individuals or corporations, should pay their fair share. Based upon the updated estimates from the Parliamentary Budget Office, the revenue gains from Labor's 2013-14 package to secure our tax base are now worth over $5 billion. But in a clear demonstration of this Government's twisted priorities, the Government has not once, but twice since being elected, acted to water down this package. They have handed back, in effect, by cutting back on the taxation package we put in place, over a billion dollars to big business. They've weakened the rules around profit shifting and they've reopened loopholes to minimise corporate tax payments.

 

This Government's shoulder-shrugging complacency on profit shifting and tax minimisation is out of step with the clearly increased international push to tackle these changes. Mind you, this is not a Government who is shy about being out of step with international trends. Indeed, when this country hosts the G20 and these items are on the agenda, just as with climate change, the Government will be reduced to saying "do as we say, not as we do." This lax approach to securing our corporate taxation base is especially infuriating when this Government is making unfair and mean cuts to our pensioners, to our schools, to our hospitals.

 

With the revenue that this Government, this lazy Government, has forfeited, they could reverse the cuts for concessions to pensioners and seniors cardholders. They could reverse the cut to the seniors supplement for Commonwealth seniors cardholders or they could undo their increase to the cost of PBS medicine. This is just one instance but it goes to the heart of the difference between Labor and Liberal in terms of how to handle this Budget.

 

We believe that we can have a sustainable Budget over the medium term without creating a false Budget emergency and without punishing the vulnerable. Our Prime Minister needs to tour Australia. He needs to visit Australian families, similar to his trip overseas.

 

In Washington and in New York, he will have driven to meet important people but he will have done so driving past doorways where there are beggars asleep, where people sleep over the grates of the subway for warmth. He might have gone near one of America's over-strained public hospitals, and their over-strained MedicAid system. He may well have passed a campus of the university which is so expensive that some American families do not believe their children can attend university. He may have missed these sights in America, but he cannot leave young unemployed Australians with no financial income for six months.

 

Fairness and the Abbott Government are most certainly in conflict. Fairness is the transformational highway which will take Australians to our shining 21st century future. The unfair Budget of this Government is a single-lane dead end back to the divisive policies of 30 years ago championed by Thatcher. The Conservative press attacked the Labor Opposition. They say to me "don't you think that you have to stop opposing this Budget and move forward with this Government's fabricated mandate to cause harm?"  The critics say to me "opposing this Budget and opposing vast tracts of this Budget will damage you personally and will damage your electoral prospects." My answer to them and my answer to you here today about Labor's intentions is this: the Abbott Government is a small minority determined to divide Australia and Labor will not retreat.

 

We have an obligation to millions of Australians, ordinary Australians, they're not always in the headlines, they're not always in the confidential pages of the tabloid newspapers. They're the real people, the taxpayers, the consumers, the parents, the grandparents, brothers and the sisters, the people who build communities. Labor has a moral obligation, a principled obligation, to stand against vast slabs of this rotten, unfair Budget.

 

This Budget is a national embarrassment. It is a national disgrace to fairness. We cannot hope in this country to achieve the full expression of Australian greatness and Australian possibility unless the warped thinking of this Government is defeated. This is not a time to sit on the fence and say everyone is the same as everyone else in politics. That is certainly not true now, and we reject the idea - and the Government and some in the media say Labor is too negative. We're not too negative but we will reject the idea that Australians are costs and economic units leaning on Australia, unable to powerfully influence their own futures.

 

We have a much more optimistic view of the Australian character and the millions of Australians who make up our home. Labor and I reject the cynicism that divides Australia into the so-called lifters: successful businessmen, Coalition Ministers, conservative media commentators, and the leaners: the disabled, the disabled pensioners, the people going to the doctor, the fixed-income pensioners and families with children between six and 16 receiving modest payments.

Labor and I reject the arrogance of right-wing politicians lecturing people about the unsustainability of free health care when in fact we already pay for our Medicare system through the taxes we pay. I believe that whatever the egotistical politician can wreck, the compassionate politician can rebuild. As I said at the start of this talk, Martin Luther King said that we’re all our brother’s keeper. He was right 50 years ago and today I acknowledge that ACOSS along with the Opposition and along with millions of Australians fundamentally believe that we are our brother’s keeper and this country is the better for it. Thank you very much.
ENDS

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