GOVERNOR GENERAL'S SPEECH - Address in Reply

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (10:54): The formality of this speech requires some explanation to those who might be reading it hence and wondering, 'What is thing called an address-in-reply to the Governor-General?' Seven months ago, the Governor-General gave a speech which purported to set out his plan for the next three years of the 45th Parliament. It is a sad indictment of the capacity of the government to manage the business of the House that it is nearly seven months after the opening of the parliament and we are still dealing with the addresses-in-reply to the Governor-General's speech.

I have to say I do look forward to the time when the parliament is opened by an Australian head of state who is chosen to represent the Australian people and is directly accountable to no-one else but the Australian people. Until that time, might I suggest that a modest change to the way that we deal with these opening proceedings of the parliament might be to dispense with the fiction where the Governor-General has us all traipse over to the upper house and lip-syncs a speech that has been prepared in the Prime Minister's office, under the guise that this is his or her plan for the future of Australia. I mean no disrespect to the man or woman who holds the title of Governor-General. In fact, when it comes to the speech that was delivered at the opening of the 45th Parliament, it would add to the dignity of the office if the Governor-General did not have to pretend that it was his plan—because it is a woeful plan for the future of this country. It would do great dignity to the Governor-General if what he or she did instead was say, 'I have this speech that has been prepared for me by the Prime Minister, who has been able to gain a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, and I'm going to set it out for you.' That would enhance the dignity of the office, not distract from it, and it would make very clear to all Australians the ridiculousness of the fiction that we currently have and, I would say, it would add to the enthusiasm that I and the majority of people on my side of the House have for having an Australian head of state who is directly accountable to the Australian people.

In my address-in-reply for the 45th Parliament, I want to speak in great detail about one of the most challenging issues for all Australian parliaments. It is the one that I intend to make the key focus of my work, both as the member for Whitlam and as a shadow minister responsible for regional economic development, regional communication and regional services. Labor believes that we need a strong economy, including a strong budget and the capacity to reduce the deficit over time, but we need to do that in a way that does not increase the growing inequality in this country but, in fact, decreases inequality between those who have very much and those who have very little. Australia's growing inequality is a particular challenge for regional Australia. On so many measures, the gap between those who live in rural, regional and remote Australia and those who live in our large urban centres and in our cities is growing.

Inequality is not an inevitable result in any society. Inequality is the result of policy choices. There is nothing on the agenda of the Turnbull government that addresses inequality, particularly when it comes to inequality between regions and the cities, but there is plenty which exacerbates that growing inequality. Until recently, inequality has not been at the top of the agenda, but I think, when we are seeing the tensions that are growing, particularly in regional Australia, people are starting to sit up and listen. The history of the second half of the 20th century shows that Australia's progressive tax and transfer system has, rightly, been the envy of most developed economies around the world. Added to that is the important role that our unions and our unique systems of conciliation and arbitration have in ensuring that workers are fairly remunerated for the work that they do and that there is a minimum social safety net for all people who earn their living through toil. We have a unique system, which has served us well. While we can look afar to other countries battling the demons of inequality; the discontent and cynicism about politics; the rise of populists with their shallow slogans—and there are those in this place who seek to mimic them; the rise of the working poor and the decline of the middle class, we know that we have some answers to these problems. But we are not seeing them in the program of the Turnbull government.

You do not need statistics to know that our egalitarian heritage, handed down from our grandparents, is rapidly vanishing. We will be passing on to our grandchildren an Australia very different from the one we grew up in. It is a future where job security can no longer be taken for granted. It is a future where we can no longer take for granted the fact that, if you work hard, apply yourself and save, at some point in your life you will have the capacity to own your own home. It is a future which includes fear about our capacity to see a doctor and get the best health care, or our capacity to get the best education for our kids, which will set them on the pathway to success in their own lives. In the regions, this future is more uncertain, and these anxieties about fair access to services and a meaningful role in society and the economy are deeply felt. We see not only that inequality is growing in Australia but also that the inequality gap between rural and urban Australia is growing.

In 2015, the Australian Council of Social Service released a study on this very issue. It found that wealth concentration was growing. The top 10 per cent of wealth holders own 45 per cent of all wealth, and somebody in the highest wealth bracket owns more than 70 times the wealth of somebody in the lowest quintile of wealth. If you are in one of those top wealth brackets you are more likely to be living in a capital city, and if you are in the bottom wealth bracket you are more likely to be living in regional Australia.

If you look at the key indicators of health, education, housing affordability and income, you see there are growing gaps. Regional Australia is being left behind urban Australia, and the policies of this government are making matters worse. If the Prime Minister benchmarked growing inequality between regional and metropolitan Australia against his own electorate, he would see what I am talking about. Compare key indicators such as unemployment, rental stress, digital access, life expectancy and full-time participation in work against the indicators in the seat in which the Prime Minister lives, the seat of Wentworth, and it is crystal clear that regional Australia is falling behind. So, instead of a $50 billion tax cut to big business, the Prime Minister might like to focus on some of the following.

Let's look at average wages, which are between $20,000 and $40,000 a year lower in regional Australia—areas like regional Tasmania, where the average wage is a little over $47,800 a year; regional Western Australia, where it is $63,000 a year and falling as the mining boom comes off; regional South Australia, where it is a little under $48,000 a year; and regional Queensland, where it is a little over $55,000 a year. Compare those to the average income in the Prime Minister's own electorate, which is over $80,240 per annum. You can see, through that one snapshot, how life is very, very different in one of those regional areas compared to the area that surrounds the Prime Minister.

Unemployment rates are high in Sydney's eastern suburbs, which has a 12-month unemployment average of 3.1 per cent. That is 3.1 per cent too high, I have to say, if you are an unemployed person living in the Prime Minister's seat. But if you compare it with regional New South Wales, which has a 12-month average close to 5.6 per cent, regional Queensland, where it is 6.6 per cent, or regional South Australia, where it is close to 5.7 per cent then you can see there is a huge gap.

Then, when you drill down to jobless families, you see we have an even bigger problem, and this is an issue we need to focus on. If no-one in your household, no-one in your street and no-one in your social network has a job, where do you get the life examples? Where do you get the life connections? How do you have the capacity to get a foot on the ladder, to get a toe into the labour market, when the majority of people nowadays get a job through somebody they know? If you are living in a jobless household in a jobless street, you are behind the eight ball before you even start. Typically double the proportion of families with children under the age of 15 in regional areas like regional New South Wales are unemployed compared to such families in urban and inner urban areas. In regional New South Wales, 16.5 per cent of households in this bracket are jobless households; in regional Victoria, close to 15 per cent; and in regional Queensland, 14.6 per cent. Compare those areas to an area such as Waverley or Woollahra, where the figure is a little over 6½ per cent. That is 6½ per cent too many, but you can see in each of those examples I have cited that it is a factor of three—three times the number of jobless households in those regional areas compared to those inner city areas. And I am not talking about retirees; I am talking about families which have a child aged under 15 years.

People in regional Australia are delaying medical treatment because they cannot afford it, at a much greater rate than anywhere else in the country. In the wealthy eastern suburb of Woollahra in Sydney, around six per cent of people are delaying medical treatment because they cannot afford it. That is still six per cent too many, and we need policies to assist these people. But compare that to an area like regional Tasmania, where a massive 17 per cent of people are delaying medical treatment because they do not believe they can afford it, or regional Northern Territory, where over half the population—53.8 per cent—are delaying medical treatment because of economic factors. This is at a time when the government persists with a version of the GP tax which will make access to a GP even more expensive, and at a time when it is increasing the pharmaceutical benefits thresholds to ensure that the cost of medicines is more expensive. These policies are going to make existing inequality even worse.

Rental stress is often thought of as something that only affects people who live in the cities. In fact, in a famous intervention about a month ago, the Deputy Prime Minister said, 'Well, that's only an inner-city issue—it doesn't affect people in regional Australia.' We who live in regional Australia know that that is an issue. In regional Australia around 26 per cent of people are undergoing rental stress—that is, they are spending more than a third of their income on housing. That is significantly higher than in areas like Waverley or Woollahra, where it is around about 12 per cent. Nearly a quarter of people living in regional Australia are suffering from rental stress.

It is not for no reason that I am referring to these comparisons as a Wentworth index. It is an index of where people in rural and regional Australia are at, when you look at all of the proxy measures of disadvantage and inequality in this country, compared to where people in our capital cities are at. What could be better than using the Prime Minister's own electorate as an example, as a benchmark? Of course, it has the added benefit that, if the Prime Minister currently seems either unaware of or unmotivated by the growing inequality that exists between urban Australia and regional Australia, perhaps the production of a Wentworth index will help him to understand that the world that the majority of Australians are living in is not the same world that he lives in.

Of course there are solutions to all of this, but you will not find them in the Governor-General's speech-in-reply. If we are going to do something to close the gap between life expectancies for people who are living in the regions, as opposed to the cities, then you want to pull down on education as a key lever, because we know we have got a huge gap even in the area of education.

There is a gap of nearly 7.5 per cent in participation in secondary education when you compare the regions versus the cities so, if we are going to make a difference, we have got to close that gap. And you do not do that by failing to commit to funding the additional years of expenditure, the critical years of expenditure for our schooling system on a needs basis, commonly known as the Gonski funding arrangements. You do not do that by ripping nearly a billion dollars out of apprenticeship support and traineeship schemes; in fact, you invest in education, you invest in our TAFEs and you invest in your universities. You do not persist with a policy that is going to see students lumped with $100,000 university debts. There has to be a better way, if we are going to give these people a better chance in life.

I was pleased to see last week that the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, called a skills summit to bring all of the key stakeholders together to ensure that this was on Labor's agenda, if it is not on the government's agenda. It was a fantastic summit, and there will be more policy announcements in this area over the course of the next couple of years.

It was laughable to many when a couple of weeks ago, in fact, not two weeks ago, we saw the Treasurer Scott Morrison tell Australians that his No. 1 economic priority for the year—that was last week's No. 1 economic priority for the year—was to increase wages. I ask you to think about that for a moment: the man who today will refuse to vote in favour of Bill Shorten and Labor's plan to protect penalty rates so that existing wages are not reduced said the No. 1 priority, the No. 1 economic priority, is to boost wage growth in this country. At last they understand: if you boost wage growth, you stimulate demand, you have people with money in their pockets so that they can invest, they can spend that money in small businesses so that they can afford to invest in their children's education. At last, he has cottoned on, but you have a massive gap between rhetoric and action.

Something that the government could do, something that the Treasurer could do, immediately to boost wages, or to at least protect wages to ensure that they do not good backwards, is to ensure that people's penalty rates are not cut by 25 per cent which the government seems to be supporting, as we stand today.

We only have the capacity to stand in this place because of the great work that is done by literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who assist us over the course of a campaign and, in my case, over the course of my previous three years in this place. I want to place on—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

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