Inequality points to economic malaise

Published on Mon 10 October 2016 11:59am

Inequality is not just a social ill but a symptom of wider economic malaise, and reducing poverty should be the first measure by which we judge our progress towards a fair and inclusive Australia.

Mr Wilson (11:59am) — I thank the member for Goldstein for bringing this motion and other members for participating in the debate. While Australia is, broadly speaking, peaceful and prosperous, we cannot forget that many Australians live a very different kind of life and that poverty levels here are relatively high by OECD standards. What is more, the proportion of people living in poverty is growing as inequality grows and, of course, our region comprises of some of the poorest and least developed nations.

It was two years ago that the Australian Council of Social Service launched a report titled Poverty in Australia, which showed that one in seven people were living on less than 50 per cent of median income, a third of all sole parent households exist in poverty and the rate of poverty is one and a half times greater for Indigenous Australians and more than double for people with disability. Let us remember that the maximum rate for Newstart allowance, Youth allowance and the single parenting payment are below the poverty line.

But statistics can be numbing, so let us also consider some of the things whose absence defines deprivation and social exclusion: warm clothes and bedding, medical treatment when needed, a substantial meal at least once a day, a decent and secure home, the ability of children to participate in school activities and outings, a yearly dental check-up for kids and a separate bed for each child. It is not hard really to imagine how much anxiety, alienation and suffering is involved when you cannot depend on those things or provide them for your kids.

Absolute or extreme poverty is rare but not unknown in this country. Extreme poverty has been described by Robert McNamara, the former president of the World Bank as ‘a condition so limited by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality and low life expectancy as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency’. It is very difficult to accept that such conditions exist in a country like Australia but they do. TheClosing the Gap report from earlier this year shows we are off-track in relation to life expectancy, with Indigenous men and women dying on average 10 years younger than non-Indigenous Australians.

The cancer mortality rate is rising for Indigenous people and the rate of diabetes is three times the non-Indigenous rate.

Across our region, extreme poverty is not uncommon. Only two Pacific Island nations managed to achieve their poverty targets under the Millennium Development Goals, yet across the Asia Pacific we have seen aid cuts of 40 per cent to many country programs. Meanwhile, in Timor Leste, our close neighbour, fully half of all children suffer from stunting and the impairment of brain development as a result of malnutrition, yet under this government our aid budget has been savaged. In 2015-16, despite being told that our aid policy would be more about Jakarta than Geneva, we spent $200 million less in the Asia Pacific to reduce aching disadvantage than in the final year of the previous Labor government.

As the motion states, it is very important that we stop and recognise what poverty means, and Anti-Poverty Week provides that opportunity. But we will get nowhere if this year and next year and the year after that we merely pause and reflect on poverty in Australia, show our sympathy, say a few serious things and a few not so serious things about Bono and other views, storms in South Australia, and move on. There are things that can and should be done.

I am glad that Labor’s first priority in approaching the government’s omnibus bill was to preserve the supplement payments for a range of welfare recipients. I think it is ridiculous that funding is being cut to community legal centres next year when those services function to pull people back from the brink. I think it is essential that we remove the funding uncertainty for the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness beyond next June. When there is no clarity in relation to funding as at October 2016, damage is already being done. Organisations cannot plan for the future, staff members begin to look for other work and lose morale, and the fragile but essential bonds of trust and knowledge are put under stress or broken altogether.

Last week I visited a crisis housing service in my electorate, called The Sisters’ Place, which operates under the auspices of the St Patrick’s Community Care Centre to provide women with a safe place to spend the night. St Patrick’s is one of hundreds of community organisations in the dark about funding next year. I call on the government to pull out all the stops and deliver funding clarity and continuity to these services.

Inequality is not just a social ill but a symptom of wider economic malaise, and reducing poverty should be the first measure by which we judge our progress towards a fair and inclusive Australia.

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