Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

BILLS - Productivity Commission Amendment (Addressing Inequality) Bill 2017 - Second Reading

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (10:56): In December 2014 this Senate brought down a report with the title Bridging our growing divide: inequality in Australia: the extent of income inequality in our nation. It was a very concerning report, for the very reason that we had seen that the issue of inequality-we're talking about 2014-had been discussed both in our own community and internationally and that a range of recommendations and issues had arisen that focused on exactly what the issues around inequality were. As you know, our process of developing reports includes taking evidence from a range of experts across the nation and, most importantly I think, having the opportunity to visit communities all around our nation and to listen to people who genuinely care about their lives, about their communities and, in this case, about what they perceived as genuine inequality-a situation in which our nation was actually not responding to fairness, not actually going forward with equality but identifying a clear danger that the inequality would impel our society and our community as we knew it.

Well, the report came down, and a number of recommendations were made. I know many people in this place made contributions to the debate, and several months later the government responded and said that in fact there wasn't inequality in Australia. The government's response to that was particularly concerning because it went back over so many of the arguments we've already heard in this place, which were simplistic, and came up with simple answers, saying things like, 'Well, it's not as bad as it used to be' and 'If we get the budget right it will improve' and various other things. I'm not trying to verbal the government, but I'm trying to encourage people who are interested in this topic to go back and have a look at the build-up of evidence, community concern and personal stories showing how people feel about their lives and whether or not they believe that things in fact are equal and whether it's getting better.

So, this report came down. Within that report was a particularly worthy piece of documentation provided by Professors Peter Whiteford and Andrew Podger, which was a graph-and we had many, many graphs in this report-showing results of selected studies of inequality in Australia. It didn't go back to Federation, although it possibly could have. Nonetheless, it took a time frame and gave us a bottom line about which we could have our discussions and look into what we should do next. It began with the Bradbury study in 1992 and then went through over 30 studies up to Bray in 2014. It gave a synopsis about whether or not these reports indicated growing inequality. The reports all looked at our community-not the world, not the international aspects, but what was happening in our own communities. They consistently said that there were serious concerns. I will quote from the ABS's Survey of Income and Housing-and it's a long one which sounds like economics, which is not my strength, but I'm going to put it on the record:

While the mean household net worth of all households in Australia in 2011-12 was $728,000, the median (i.e. the mid-point when all households are ranked in ascending order of net worth) was substantially lower at $434,000 This difference reflects the asymmetric distribution of wealth between households, where a relatively small number of households had high net worth and a relatively large number of households had low net worth

This was then illustrated in a series of graphs that came after. The survey went on to focus clearly, and I have deliberately made that quote because we're looking at people who had income, who had strong income, as I noted. We weren't talking about the gap between the wealthiest and least wealthy-those who are very poor in our society-which is sometimes where this debate focuses, showing that great gap. It talked about people who were already in income-solid families and showed how that inequality had increased. However, it went on to show stats, which I know have been quoted in this debate, that over 1.2 million households, which is 14 per cent of our community, had net worth of less than $50,000, with 114 of those households having negative net worth-one per cent of all households. That's where it really hits home, where, despite many protestations made over many years, there is clear acknowledgment that there are people living in our community, who are our neighbours, who have not only limited income but negative net worth.

Discussions around inequality and income often degenerate into a war of graphs and statistics, and I'm not saying that that is always bad. It's important to understand the statisticians' information, and that we have very clear data-and I'll come back to that later. In the Australian context, we have a range of academic institutions that look carefully at what's happening in our communities and a number of universities have very strong research areas that follow the economic inequalities and livelihoods of Australians.

The key Australian Bureau of Statistics data came out of two surveys: the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey, the HILDA; and the Survey of Income and Housing, the SIH. These surveys provide ongoing statistics that look at what is happening in our community, and it's on that basis that Treasury also make statements about income such as the one I read earlier.

The whole reason we're having this discussion about this piece of legislation is that we want the Productivity Commission, which is an economic based organisation that lives and breathes statistics and how the economic process impacts on our community, to have a more regular high-profile role in looking at exactly what's happening in inequality in Australia, and putting it to the forefront so that not only does it review these issues but, as often with productivity reports, they come back consistently to the parliament so that parliamentarians are able to discuss what the recommendations and findings of those reports are. The core issue is then to turn that into effective responsive policy. So, where we identify inequality, we're able to consider the reasons for the inequality and access the information that we have across the board. We can then look at how we can develop policy that identifies where people are in need and where people are not benefiting from other advances that are going on in our economy and respond to that. That is the job of policy development, and Senator McAllister's bill makes sure that we have that front of mind and integrally linked to the development of all policy that comes from what's happening in our community.

We know that we have data. We know that we have information, but I'm particularly keen for people who may be interested in this issue to have a look at Senate committee reports such as Bridging our growing divide: inequality in Australia and many others that have come here. We have talked many times about individual areas that are disadvantaged and the particular problems some of our community have with getting solid financial security.

Beyond the statistics are the kinds of issues about which Senator Polley was talking. They're the people who have actually had the courage to come and talk with their parliamentary representatives about what's important to them and-sometimes with absolutely admirable courage and devastating honesty-talked to us about the terrible things that have happened in their personal lives and in their communities which have caused them to have the serious inequality issues that have brought them to talk to us. Whilst the 2014 report does not in a final report give a lot of data from communities and from representatives, when people who are interested go into the parliamentary records, read the submissions that people have provided and read the Hansard records of the public hearings, that's when the faces, the families, the immediate impact of financial insecurity and the growing inequality-and I state clearly that it is growing inequality-in our community become most real.

Senator Polley listed a number of gut-wrenching examples in her contribution. I refer meanwhile to the 2014 report, where we have the particular identification of sectors of our community who are most vulnerable. At the moment, one of the areas that is causing a great deal of distress for many of us is ongoing discussion with people who have disabilities and the impact of the absolutely clear evidence that shows that, for people with disabilities, the whole range-their income earning capacity, their livelihoods, their ability to have effective housing and education-is negatively impacted. The contrast between those families that are working with disability and those that are not is a clear area where there is need for effective policy to respond to that and acknowledgment that that is an area of need.

Chapter 4 of the 2014 report looks at particular areas. I want to pick up on one area about which I have spoken many times in this place: people with mental illness. The National mental health report 2013 said:

2‑3% of Australians - around 600,000 people - have severe disorders

Another 4‑6% of the population (approximately 1 million people) have moderate disorders, and a further 9‑12% (approximately 2 million people) have mild disorders.

The committee recommendations go on to say there's a strong correlation between homelessness and poorer health and wellbeing, especially in relation to mental health. The rates of labour force participation are impacted, and Mr Fear went on to say we know that only about 38 per cent of people with mental illness work full time, compared to 55 per cent of the rest of the population. He goes on to talk about the issues with Newstart and Centrelink. We have much more in terms of other areas, particularly regional disadvantage.

Many years ago there was a report put out that Wayne Swan was involved in which looked at postcodes. If you look at postcodes across Australia, you can zero in and see significant contrast between various postcodes in our community with regard to financial security, access to health and access to employment. That is a clear sign to all of us in this place that we have to acknowledge that inequality exists. We need to acknowledge that not everyone has been advantaged by the statements that have been made about the strength of the economy over many years. We do acknowledge there has been increased wealth, but acknowledging there's increased wealth does not remove the reality that there are people who have not been benefiting from these advances. We shouldn't run away from that, we should try very hard not to allocate blame about that and we should look at how we, working as a parliament, can respond to it most effectively.

At the moment there are a number of issues pulling together that give us in Australia, in our parliament, a very clear encouragement and opportunity to respond to the recommendation from the 2014 Bridging our growing divide: inequality in Australia report. It called for us to take the issue seriously and look at having a report to parliament about what is happening in our community. That's what Senator McAllister's private member's bill has done in recommending the Productivity Commission amendment.

Also, internationally-and I've spoken about this many times in the parliament-the world has made an agreement, across all continents and in all countries, that we can identify inequality in our own areas and then work together to respond to that. The Sustainable Development Goal: Agenda 2030 looks at reducing poverty and, most importantly, at how our communities can ensure absolutely-and this is the theme that we should all hold dear to our hearts-that no matter what policies are introduced or what happens in the economies, we are going to leave no-one behind. This, to me, sums up the debate around inequality. If we had genuine commitment to effective policy development in our country as we moved our policies forward, as we looked at responding to the various pressures that impact on our nation and if we genuinely made a commitment that we would develop policy that would leave no-one behind, we would not only be ensuring that inequality would be reduced but we would also be acknowledging that people need to have that security-that we can, in fact, have a 'leave no-one behind' agenda.

There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals, but the first one is to end poverty in all its forms everywhere. I know that's a challenge, but if we're looking at genuine equality we would be looking at removing poverty. The subclauses of goal 1, to end poverty in all its forms, go through the various things that were defined four years ago when we were looking at the evidence around developing the inequality report. We were looking at ending hunger and ensuring food security. There is devastating evidence in the 2014 report that talks about hunger in Australia and the impact that we're having in terms of food banks and kitchens which are being developed to ensure that people in our streets, in our communities, are not going without meals. I'll refer anyone who's interested in this situation to the evidence that was received there.

I think that sometimes we become very comfortable. In our own lives, we become extremely comfortable. When we hear about world poverty, we immediately think of something overseas-devastating malnutrition and things in our Pacific neighbours' countries, as Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells would understand. We don't think about our next-door neighbour in our own street in our own community, but the evidence we have from people who work in food kitchens and food banks indicate that there is poverty in Australia. If we're going to make an international commitment on the world stage to end poverty, that should mean everywhere. We should be looking at the data, the information and the people who are suffering from poverty, malnutrition and a lack of security in our own communities. In looking at that part of the Sustainable Development Goals, immediately we have a responsibility domestically as well as internationally. If we are to respond effectively to the Sustainable Development Goal: Agenda 2030, to which our country has signed up and about which we're going to make our first report back to the UN this year, we need to ensure that the data collection, information and education processes within Australia are addressing the identified issues of inequality, which are the same here as they are overseas.

They may well have lesser impact here. I'm not making a claim that Australia has the same desperate poverty as places that are suffering drought and famine, like central West Africa. I'm not making that claim. But I'm saying there is genuine inequality in our communities and we need to identify and address that, and then, as part of our genuine commitment to ending poverty in all its forms-to leaving no-one behind-we address openly what's happening in our own communities, using the data sources that we have. We have enviable data sources. In fact, the Australian Bureau of Statistics is seen as an international expert in looking at data collection, and one of the things we're going to be doing as part of the 2030 agenda is sharing our knowledge in this space with other countries. So let's use that effectively within our own community: address hunger, address homelessness, address housing shortages, address health shortages, address the environmental impacts of disasters and address what is happening in our own community overall-which is causing people to feel they're not respected and that they are not sharing the increasing wealth of our nation.

That's the hint of inequality. We have the opportunity to do something about it. We shouldn't dismiss it. We shouldn't pretend it doesn't exist or make comparisons showing that everyone is doing better so, therefore, everyone is okay. That's clearly not the case. When you hear people talking about their own experiences, they don't feel as though everyone is doing okay, and we have the capacity, as a nation, to respond.