THURSDAY, 17 NOVEMBER 2016
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Good afternoon everyone
Firstly, I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, I pay my respects to their elders both past and present.
And, here, in a room full of people who have dedicated their intellects, their energy, their emotion to tackling inequality I renew my party’s pledge to Close the Gap.
Closing the gap in terms of jobs, schooling, housing, justice and life expectancy - all the forms of unfairness which separate our first Australians from all those who have come afterwards.
This is my third ACOSS conference as Leader of the Opposition. I am looking forward to coming here as Prime Minister.
But I think about how much has changed since the first time I spoke to you as Labor leader, in the wake of the 2014 Budget.
Indeed, a lot has changed since I was here last year.
A different Prime Minister, a different Treasurer, a different Minister for Social Services, 17 fewer Liberal Members of Parliament in the House of Representatives - not all change is bad.
But the Coalition Government’s attack on the marginalised, the dispossessed, the less well-off has not stopped or abated in the slightest.
The social policy debate, fostered by the Government and some of their cheer-squad in the conservative media continues to be hijacked by alarmist rhetoric, by divisive commentary from the powerful, by ideology, by chest-beating, by scaremongering about time-bombs, blow-outs and bludgers.
This is precisely why Australian politics precisely needs you all here today.
The national conversation on the direction this country and on social investment needs your advocacy - and it needs your evidence.
Your analysis, your willingness to sift through the rhetoric and stand up for the facts.
In what you do, you take on the ideologues, the shock-jocks, the tabloid writers, the conservative columnists in the public marketplace of ideas.
Australia needs you, making the case that prosperity should not be the preserve of some, it should be the preserve of all.
Making the case, for a strong safety net, for an economic and social program that tackles inequality by affording every Australian the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
Making the argument for the Australian social contract.
Making the argument for the institutions that have made us a more equal, more inclusive society:
A minimum wage that is a living wage, rising regularly, keeping people who work out of poverty – not trapping them in it
Medicare, universal, accessible, affordable healthcare where your Medicare card not your credit card determines the quality of the healthcare you get.
Universal superannuation – so Australians don’t work hard their whole lives and then retire poor
A fair pension system, conferring dignity and security in retirement
And a fair welfare system which supports you if you fall on hard times, lose your job, get sick or suffer a setback – a family payments system that keeps children out of poverty.
Those institutions are worth defending.
These pillars of our society are more than a measure of a kinder, better Australia.
The safety net that this nation has collectively built is an investment in stronger, more widely shared economic growth.
Not a dividend paid for by prosperity – a precondition for prosperity.
Sustainable growth and fairness are not strangers. They are twins in our progress.
We must argue for a rising tide that lifts all the boats – not just the yachts.
Inequality – and how we tackle it – will define our future success as a nation. It is not a marginal issue - it is a fundamental issue at the core of where we go.
I believe the most urgent economic and social challenge is making change work for all of us.
Supporting people who have been dislocated, downsized, rationalised, casualised and contracted-out, supporting them to be able to re-engage with the economy.
Delivering a just transition that doesn’t leave some people behind and that doesn't ignore small country towns and postcodes where employment isn't enjoyed by all.
And friends, if we are unsuccessful in our endeavour to argue for inclusive growth, for a fairer society and the fundamental contribution that is to who we are as a community, the alternative is sitting back and hearing the same old stories rehashed time and time again.
You know that over the last three years, regardless of how nice the suit that the Prime Minister is wearing or the revolving door of social services ministers, you know that the script remains the same.
The same old boring right-wing, welfare-bashing shopping list:
- “We are wasting money on people who don’t need it”
- “The welfare budget is growing beyond our control, swallowing our economy”
- “The welfare system is overwhelmingly riddled with undeserving rorters”
- “And but for the comfort of government payments, every citizen would be entering a new golden age of agility, excitement and innovation.”
These dusty, tired clichés are the enemy of good economic policy.
They are driven by either a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of social investment and the social and economic value of investing in all our people and what it has done for this country, or a wilful blindness as to how and why our system works and exists.
Whether it is ignorance - or something worse – this kind of prejudice, this opinion not supported by the facts but by repetition, undermines our capacity to help the most vulnerable.
The unlucky Australians.
People who’ve been forgotten, neglected, dispossessed and marginalised.
People who can’t simply ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ – because they don't own that pair of boots.
· Single mothers with teenage kids, working late shifts balancing childcare and the bills
· Grandparent carers who in their life have raised children but because their children have got into hardship, become parents of their grandchildren
· Older jobseekers who because of their age are rebuffed and knocked-back – again and again
· People battling substance abuse and addiction - and their families
· Young Australians with severe and profound disability, passing their days in nursing homes
· The parents of children with special learning needs – made to feel like bullies because they seek to advocate for a fair go for their child.
· Renters with no prospect of ever owning a home
· Australians in our small and regional towns, where the ‘for lease’ signs spread like weeds down the main street.
These are the forgotten Australians in our public debate.
Australians falling through the cracks, through no fault of their own:
- Troubled kids in school written off as ‘angry’ and ‘too hard’
- Women who flee family violence who can’t afford legal representation, secure accommodation or and their ex-partners not paying child support.
- People with mental illness unable to secure the time of a nurse or the treatment they need.
It’s not enough to tell our fellow Australians in these circumstances that “there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.” That’s simply not true.
More than ever, the traditional levers for fairness, the link between hard work and reward for effort are under attack.
- Penalty rates – not a luxury, not the sole-preserve of dental students working at a hardware store on Saturday on their way to make millions of dollars. Millions of our fellow Australians depend upon penalty rates just to make ends meet.
- Childcare costs devouring wages. How on earth did we end up in a predicament where it is cheaper for people not to work than to go to work because of the cost and lack of support for childcare?
- And the dream to have enough money for retirement. Many of our fellow Australians still have insufficient amounts for their retirement.
- We understand that work is the best way out of poverty but increasingly, we see that the jobs being lost are full time jobs and the jobs being created are part time jobs.
- We see the rise of casualised, irregular labour-hire and insecure work - and if work isn't what delivers you out of poverty, then we have a real challenge.
We need to understand, the politicians and the leaders, my party and I, need to understand that there are millions of our fellow Australians who are hungry for recognition from their government. Recognition that they are doing it hard and they need a government which gives them a helping hand.
We should never condone the complacency that another Australian’s misfortune is someone else’s responsibility.
We are a country that gathers people in, that leaves no-one behind and we are not doing that sufficiently well.
And those who talk about division and ‘law-and-order’ and conservative values, they need to understand that those who would make fairness too difficult, make the splintering of our society too easy.
Yet for three years, this government in its various incarnations, has preferred to focus on headline-chasing distortions.
For three years, three Liberal Ministers for Social Services have lived by the philosophy that:
‘if you torture numbers, you can get them to say anything’
Kevin Andrews used to warn we were on track to be the next Greece.
Scott Morrison preferred to talk about the welfare budget ‘swamping’ the Federal budget.
And now Christian Porter has settled on the big number he wants.
At the National Press Club, he spoke of:
The future lifetime welfare cost of the present Australian population of $4.8 trillion.
He went on to state “That is a very large figure,” - he said with figures crossed – “and no doubt it will receive considerable attention”.
Today, I wanted to give it some attention.
Malcolm Turnbull’s anti-pensioner rhetoric is his domestic version of the need to find “weapons of mass destruction” –
Just like that lie, the problem of course is that the evidence doesn’t stack up to back this Government's assertion.
The problem of course is, what is this $4.8 trillion actually measuring? Because at first glance, people say: 'Gee, that's a lot'.
$4.8 trillion is the total amount of money spent on every Australian alive today, for the remainder of their life.
In other words, the projected spending out to…2085.
As one commentator noted, tongue firmly in cheek: the projected government revenue over the same period will be $360 trillion.
An even bigger, even less meaningful number.
The latest warning of a welfare ‘bomb’ was meant to give the impression that young, lazy Australians were ripping billions out of the national coffers.
That everyone on welfare is lucky to be collecting it and busy taking the government and the taxpayer for a ride.
And by the way, I for one am sick and tired of the Government saying that many Australians don't pay tax. Every Australian pays tax when you buy something with the GST.
What the Minister didn’t say was that the overwhelming majority of his big number was made up of the aged pension - you can't help being old - and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Is the government seriously arguing that these Australians, by virtue of age or impairment are the problem?
Let's be straight, the aged pension is hardly a king’s ransom – it is a modest sum.
Australians who have spent the majority of their working lives in a system without universal superannuation are entitled to dignity and security in retirement.
I also have to say, in regards to people with disability, as an Assistant Minister and Minister, I had the privilege of working closely with, and meeting thousands of, remarkable Australians with disability and their carers and families.
I never met a single Australian with a profound or severe impairment who would not gladly hand back the impairment rather than keep the pension.
Of course no one likes it when you have individuals rorting the system, and of course we have to be on the look-out for those who try and take advantage of the system.
But I think we need to stand up and make it very clear that when you bag all disability pensioners, when you bag all pensioners for the acts of some, you do all a grave disservice. You can have compliance without denigrating the contribution of older Australians, or demonising all people with a disability.
Australians with disability are not a problem to be solved, any more than pensioners a burden on the nation.
They are our mothers and fathers, our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters, our fellow citizens, who deserve every equal chance to participate in our society and our economy.
And we should always push back at every opportunity against any argument to the contrary.
As for the ‘swamping’ Mr Morrison talks about, local, state and federal government combined represents 36 per cent of our economy
But in the home of the free, and the brave, and the Donald, the United States – it’s 38 per cent.
In the UK of Brexit – 43 per cent, in Germany 44.
In Austria, Italy, Belgium, France and Finland among other nations, it’s over 50 per cent.
The point is, we spend less taxpayer money than our peers – significantly less in many cases – and achieve a stronger, more generous safety net.
Australia’s system is one of the best-targeted systems in the world. Not perfect, not beyond improvement, but neither should it be the convenient scapegoat for vested interests.
The money endeavours to go where it does the most good, to the people who most need it.
And the fundamental consequence of this is that cuts of the kind repeatedly attempted by the Liberals – from the 2014 Budget on – inevitably inflict the harshest punishment on those who can least afford it.
All this does is exacerbate and perpetuate unfairness and inequality.
That’s why we continue to oppose the government’s cuts to middle and working class families - people on $50,000 and $60,000 a year.
Because we believe the best way to grow the economy is to grow the middle class and the best way to grow the middle class is to help more Australians join it.
That’s why we oppose the government’s plan to force young jobseekers to live on nothing for a month.
Because too often young people in this country get a bad rap.
- Young Australians pay more for their education than any previous generation
- They fund their retirement and their healthcare from the very first day of their working life
- Young Australians deserve support and respect – not scapegoating.
And – as you know - in August we opposed the government’s cut to NewStart.
Because we believe that Australia’s income support system is meant to keep people out of poverty and help support them into work.
It might be easy to score cheap points by attacking ‘bludgers’ – but that doesn’t create jobs, or help Australians find them.
If the Prime Minister and the Treasurer are really worried that government expenditure on their watch is some kind of runaway train.
Instead of picking on the poor, instead of targeting the vulnerable, instead of putting the heaviest burden on those least able to carry the load, there are alternatives.
Rather than zero-in on the welfare paid to the poor, they should re-focus on corporate welfare, millionaire welfare, vested interest welfare.
Every dollar the government spends on unjustifiable tax concessions increases the burden on remaining taxpayers.
Instead of a $50 billion tax giveaway for large companies, multinationals and the four big banks – and instead of proposing a $17,000 income tax cut for someone on a million dollars. The government should be looking at alternatives
- Rein-in and reform negative gearing and capital gains tax deductions to revive the dream of home ownership and add badly-needed revenue to the Budget.
- Close the overly-generous, unsustainable loopholes in our superannuation system, which disproportionately favour those who are already very wealthy.
- Make multinationals pay their fair share of tax.
Labor believes in budget repair – but it has to be budget repair that is fair.
We live in a time when Australians are feeling the rough edges of economic change.
· Living standards are unquestionably falling – but insecurity at work is on the rise.
· Women are paid disproportionately less than men. Baby girls born today, if we don't change the system will have to work their first 2 months at no pay comparable to baby boys born today. That is the nature of gender inequality in our pay system
· More and more Australians worry about being off-shored, casualised, downsized, rationalised and contracted-out. We see, as I have said, the jobs being created are part-time jobs - the jobs being lost are full-time jobs.
· Wages are at a standstill but the household bills keep piling up.
And perhaps even more significant than those facts, 2.9 million Australians are living below the poverty line.
Yet, in today’s Financial Review, the Treasurer says his economic priority remains a $50 billion tax giveaway to big multinationals –and cuts to families and Medicare.
And what is the Treasurer’s case for this massive corporate giveaway?
His latest argument in the Financial Review, if reported correctly, is: “Because that’s what Donald Trump would do”
Let me say this to Mr Morrison - Donald Trump's election as President of the United States makes absolutely no difference to the case against corporate tax cuts in this country.
It was a crazy plan when they brought it down in the Budget this year.
It was a crazy plan during the election which they campaigned upon it.
And it is still a crazy plan since the election.
Donald Trump's election makes no difference, adds no extra meaning to a tax plan that this country cannot afford, especially when we have more pressing priorities.
If there is $50 billion dollars in this country to give away in the next 10 years, there are many more priorities to allocate this scares taxpayer money than handing it away for projections of minimal economic growth in the future.
How exactly will this help Australians battling flat wages today?
Family budgets aren’t done over the decade, they’re calculated by the day – fortnight to fortnight.
Repeating the failures of trickledown economics, practiced by Reagan and Thatcher in the United States and United Kingdom is not going to help Australians in Australia.
We made a different choice when corporate tax cuts of this scale were proposed in the mid 80s by people overseas. Instead we chose the social wage, Medicare, compulsory superannuation.
If Mr Morrison now wants Australia to go back to the failed policies of right-wing economists from 30 years ago – cutting taxes for the top end, instead of investing in jobs, education, Medicare and protecting the vulnerable, then we need to tell them that Australia is different.
Australia is better than that.
We are a kinder, more inclusive, more equal place.
Social investment thinking is continually evolving- and all of us in public life need to adapt to those changes.
I don’t approach an issue imagining we in Labor have all the answers.
That’s not my style of leadership.
For me, real leadership isn’t a matter of seeking narcissistic reassurance that you’re the smartest person in the room or most popular person in the class – or trying to pretend you feel people’s pain, that you know everything about everything.
It’s the job of national leaders to seek out the best ideas, to find out what are the right questions before rushing out to announce an answer.
That’s where ACOSS comes in.
The challenges facing Australia in the next decade are too real and too important for a whole bunch of silly numbers and ideological posturing.
For me, what matters is being able to address the single mum who says: 'How do I make ends meet?'
For me, what matters is to say to a grandparent carer that: “There is some support, that what you do is valued and we appreciate how expensive and difficult what you're doing is.”
For me, what matters is being able to say to that grandparent carer at the age of 50, now looking after a 13 year old grandchild, who has the prospect of never being able to retire, and having no money in retirement - this nation needs an answer we don't have at the moment.
For me, what matters is being able to say to young people at risk of dropping out of school in year 10 there are pathways and apprenticeships and trades schools if that's what interest you.
For me, what matters is to be able to speak to someone who is 55 and 60 and unemployed desperate to work, clutching a CV frustrated, losing their own identity because of continual rejection.
For me, what matters in this country is being able to say to a parent of a child with severe autism, wanting some special assistance in their school that: 'it will be ok'.
For me what matters is that this country doesn't leave people behind.
For me, what matters is when you have got outsourced and contracted-out tradespeople whose conditions in each agreement go down and down and down until they are particularly on daily hire – the fruit-pickers of the metal industry.
For me, what matters in this country is to be able to explain that an 18 year-old black kid is not automatically more likely to go to jail than university - and we can't do that right now.
For me, what matters in this country is being able to answer how we get the balance right.
And people say in this time that answers are too hard and that the answers are too expensive - that they are beyond our wit and wisdom.
What we need to do together is stand up for all of those who are marginalised, dispossessed and alienated, millions of our fellow Australians who have so much talent to contribute.
I don't look at this room and see a group of people who are feather-bedding a conservative welfare system - I see people in this room who struggle everyday to try and make a difference.
I see beyond this room the faces of literally tens of thousands of our fellow Australians who are now sufficiently disillusioned and cynical about politics that they will listen to prophets of simplistic and extreme solutions.
We need to fight hard for the Australian identity.
Our identity is not defined but what god you worship, by your gender, by how many generations your forebears have been in this country, or by your post code.
Every individual has a unique identity - every individual has something to offer. It doesn't matter if you live in the big cities or the small country towns.
It doesn't matter about how much you have got. It doesn't matter if you rent or if you own.
Everyone of us is deserving of a government and a national leadership which respects people.
This is not beyond us.
We came very close in the last election. And whilst now it looks very close, 3 years ago, it seemed a very far distance to come.
But one thing the Labor Party did in the last election is I think we went back to the basics - back to our core values.
We stood up in many cases for what many people think Labor should stand up for.
We will not waste a minute of an hour of a day of a week of a month between now and the next election to take the opportunity to improve our policies.
We want to be the party people hope we can be - and we will do that by listening very carefully to your experiences - to the voices you represent.
I regard today's gathering as most important - not only for the chance for you to compare notes and talk ideas but to send a message beyond here that story of this country is not determined in conservative newspaper editorials, that it is not all a done deal.
That we can have a royal commission into the banks and a proper system that looks after all the people I have just mentioned.
This country will be at our proudest when we are at our most generous.
This country will be at its brightest when we are our most equal.
This is not beyond our capacity, and together, I look forward to working with you and my united Labor team to keep the faith and to rebuild the people's faith in the system.