HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, CANBERRA
THURSDAY, 24 NOVEMBER 2016
Suppose for just a moment that the 10 minutes allocated to this speech was distributed as unequally as Australian wealth. If that was true, I would spend the first six minutes and 13 seconds talking about the richest fifth, then two minutes and three seconds speaking about the next fifth, just a minute and eight seconds speaking about middle Australia, 31 seconds speaking about the second-bottom fifth and the last five seconds speaking about the poorest. In short, it would sound an awful lot like the typical Liberal speech.
This is a government that says it fights for freedoms. But the problem is that the sorts of freedoms they fight for are not the freedoms ordinary Australians care about. They fight for the freedom to stash your cash in a tax haven. The freedom for big banks to avoid a royal commission. The freedom to buy a negatively-geared home for your one-year-old baby. The freedom to tax deduct a $6,000 toaster. The freedom to be named in the Panama papers.
Plutocratic politics is on the rise. We on this side of the House thought it was pretty bad when John Howard said he would not move into the Lodge. Now we have a Prime Minister who is too good to move into Kirribilli House. Yet he lectures us about elites. Let's face it: being lectured about elites by this Prime Minister is like being lectured about sportsmanship by John McEnroe, about abstinence by Ozzy Osbourne, about driver safety by Troy Buswell, or about loyalty by the Member for Cook.
This is a government that never takes responsibility. When Adam and Eve were caught in the Garden of Eden, the Liberals sent around talking points saying it was all Labor's fault and that if only we had supported a company tax cut the serpent would not have got there at all.
That side of politics cut the wages of the people who clean their offices, while fighting tooth and nail against closing multinational tax loopholes. They are the group who do not want cabinet to sit on a Sunday and do not open their electorate offices on a Sunday but who want to cut the penalty rates for workers who work on a Sunday. They just do not realise how the other half live.
I was in the suburb of Ravenswood with the member for Bass last week. It is a suburb where the average income is $32,000—not individual income but household income—where the unemployment rate is 16 per cent and where those opposite do not visit. They do not care. It is not just in Ravenswood where people are hurting. Low-income Australians live six fewer years than affluent Australians and they have an average of seven fewer teeth. We are coming up to Christmas and, according to surveys, one in 20 Australian families say that they cannot afford to buy Christmas presents for their friends and family. In Australia most categories of crime have fallen over recent decades, yet the share of Australians behind bars today is the highest it has been since 1901.
Some of the other speakers in this MPI debate are going to focus on the rise in inequality, but I want to note that that is showing up in unexpected places in the United States, a country where the top 0.1 per cent now have a larger share of income than the bottom 90 per cent and where the life expectancy for white working-class women has actually been falling over recent years—a phenomenon that Angus Deaton and Anne Case call 'deaths of despair'. I commend the shadow minister for finance for his detailed analysis of how Australia could walk down that road.
Australia has a great egalitarian tradition. As the Leader of the Opposition has pointed out, it is Labor that is defending not just our tradition but that of the nation. We are a country that does not much like tipping—we prefer to pay a good wage, where many of us will sit in the front seat of taxis and where you cannot buy a private area on the beach. That is the Australian way. When in 2009, with leadership from the member for Lilley and the member for Jagajaga, Labor raised the pension and brought one million Australians out of poverty we were not just fighting for low-income Australians; we were fighting for the Australian way of life.
Part of the great egalitarian tradition of Eureka, Curtin, Lawson and Lingiari is our great trade union movement. Unions are not just the organisations that brought you sick leave, the eight-hour day and the weekend; they are also the strongest bulwark we have against rising inequality. Indeed, about one-third of the rise of inequality we have seen over recent decades has been caused by the declining union membership share.
I need to be clear: Labor has no tolerance for corruption, whether we are seeing it from mining companies, construction companies or former Liberal Party directors. We on this side of the House understand that unions have played a critical role in egalitarianism. It is unions that fight for dollar pay increases and for pay equity across the workforce, for pay equity for women in the workforce and for Indigenous Australians. The SACS Equal Pay case recognised that women had been systematically underpaid in feminised occupations. It is unions that are arguing for gender pay equality. If you are against unions as a whole then you are on the side of the billionaires, not the side of the battlers.
Inequality is fundamental to so much of what we do in this place. If we do not tackle inequality, we are not going to close the gender pay gap, which has stubbornly failed to close for a generation. If you believe in Closing the Gaps, which all of us in this place do, then you have to recognise that one of the reasons why the Indigenous and non-Indigenous gaps have stayed stubbornly wide is rising earnings inequality in Australia. If you want to increase the homeownership rate, which is now at a 60-year low, then you have to care about inequality. No, the solution is not that wealthy parents ‘shell out’ to help their kids get a home.
If you believe in closing the opportunity gap and that the postcode into which you are born should not determine your life chances, then you need to care about inequality—because an Australia where the gaps between the rungs are widening is an Australia where it becomes harder and harder to climb up and down the ladder of opportunity over the course of a lifetime.
As the shadow Treasurer pointed out in his address this week on ‘The Case for Opportunity’, new estimates on social mobility show the problem is worse than we thought and that intergenerational mobility in Australia is lower than had previously been thought. Part of the reason for that is rising inequality. In the United States, it is unequal places where people do not have a chance to move up the ladder -- as a result of inequality.
I hear those opposite saying, 'Oh, it's just the United States,' as though there is nothing wrong with Australia going down the United States road. But, if you look across the world, you see systematically that countries with more inequality are countries with less mobility. If you believe in the maxim that any kid, regardless of his or her background, should be able to make it, then you have to believe in egalitarianism. We believe in that Australian value on this side of the House. That is why we are standing up for the Australian values of home ownership and the right to be rewarded for working on weekends. It is why we on this side of the House believe in egalitarian funding of schools and providing equality of opportunity through our school funding. It is why we stood against the government's GP tax and it is why we have consistently stood for a fair taxation system.
In July of next year, this government is going to bring down a tax cut for those earning over $180,000 a year. Everyone in this House will be a beneficiary of that tax cut, but that is because many of us in this House sit in just the top couple of per cent of the Australian income distribution. Indeed, 94 per cent of the benefits of that tax cut will go to the top one per cent, a group that has doubled its share of national income over the course of the last generation. The top one per cent of Australia does not need yet another tax cut from the Turnbull government.
But there is one area in which the Turnbull government has given us more equality. Since the member for Wentworth became Prime Minister, we have seen more equality in this House. When the member for Wentworth became Prime Minister, there was a lot of inequality—a lot of people on that side and fewer people on this side. But, since the member for Wentworth has become Prime Minister, the numbers in this House are a lot more equal. And it is not just the numbers in this House; it is the votes as well. For the first time in 50 years, we are seeing a bit of equality. A few votes in this House are coming out in favour of this side. Equality: it is a great Australian value and you cannot keep it down.