Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (4.00 p.m.)-I think something which is often missing from discussions about poverty is a recognition that good social policy and good economic policy are not mutually exclusive. That is something that Senator Lightfoot recognises. They are often presented as though they are alternatives-as though you have to choose between a good economic policy and a good social policy. They are not in conflict. The truth is that you cannot have a good social policy, you cannot have a good and compassionate society, unless you have a strong economy. As the Treasurer is very fond of saying, it is a little like breathing in and breathing out: you have to do one before you can do the other.
Senator Hutchins-You talk to him regularly.
Senator FIFIELD-Indeed. A lot of our near neighbours are in situations of what we might describe as poverty. It is not that they want to be in poverty. It is not that they do not want to have a good social policy. It is that they do not have an economy that can afford a good social policy-they do not have an economy that can sustain one. It is all well and good to wish and hope for good social policy, but you need a strong economy to fund it.
It is because of good policy that this government has pursued over 10 years-and also, to give credit to the previous Labor government, some significant economic reforms that they made in their early period in office-that today we enjoy a strong economy, prosperity, and high and rising living standards. These living standards are highlighted in the recent ABS household income data. This reports that the real disposable incomes of low-income households increased by 22 per cent between 1994-95 and 2003-04. This increase is similar to the gains of other population segments. The ABS concluded that there has been no significant change in income inequality from the mid-1990s, which is good news.
Some Australians, however, do continue to face disadvantage. We recognise that there are challenges and we obviously want to do what we can to assist those who are suffering from hardship. The problems of those affected by hardship are not easily categorised by very broad terms such as ‘poverty’, especially when this is defined by relative income poverty measures and depends on survey data that often does not accurately record incomes. Apparent low income is often a very poor indicator of wellbeing. As Senator Lightfoot mentioned, there are other significant factors that contribute to poor wellbeing-poor education, poor health, physical and mental illness, alcohol, disabilities and gambling.
Simplistic approaches such as large increases in income support do not necessarily address the cause of hardship or the cause of real poverty. The keys are strong support for Australian families and for their children, and economic and social participation for all Australians. I think what we want to see more than anything else is people in a job. The best way to protect families from poverty is to make sure that the parents in those families have a job.
That is why this government has been talking a lot about its Welfare to Work package. We want to take people out of disadvantage and put them into work. It is a good package. It builds on a lot of things that we have done, a lot of good policies that have helped create this low inflation, low interest rate environment. We are also looking to free up the labour market again to try and help employ more Australians. The proof of the success of the sorts of policies that we have been pursuing is seen in NATSEM’s research, which has reported that the real average disposable weekly income of low-income families with children-that is, the poorest 20 per cent of families-increased by 18.5 per cent, which is about $86 a week, between 1997-98 and 2004-05.
But we do recognise that there are Australians who are doing it tough. It is not acceptable that over 600,000 families are jobless in Australia, that sole parents are on income benefits for an average of 12 years, that only 10 per cent of DSP recipients are working and that six out of 10 Indigenous people of working age are on income benefits. They are bad statistics. They represent disadvantage in people’s lives. We are trying through our policies to address those people who are still in that situation. That is where the $3.6 billion Welfare to Work package comes in.
Labor’s idea of addressing this very serious issue at the last election was a poverty summit. In The Latham Diaries, the former Leader of the Opposition described the policy in the entry of Friday, 26 October, on page 170. Who knows whether this entry was entered on that day or post facto-senators opposite would have a better idea than me. But it is instructive nevertheless. It says:
Is this the low point in our five wasted years? A Crean-Swan press release today announcing that our election policy on poverty is to convene a summit. How can a Labor Party not know what to do about poverty? This is the issue that should make us radically different from other parties-an intense and burning passion for the elimination of poverty, defining our sense of purpose in a fast changing world. They announced it at the ACOSS congress, so it’s not hard to guess what sort of summit it will be-Left conservatism, ACOSS whinging about all the things they don’t like in the world. But not offering any answers, other than increased transfer payments. They just don’t get it.
If there is one thing that Labor just does not get in relation to poverty it is the absolute importance of a job, of employment. We had some terrific news today: the labour force figures for September 2005 showed that, in trend terms, employment rose by 7,800 jobs in September to a record high of over 10 million jobs-which obviously reflects the resilience and strength of our economy. I should mention that the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose slightly in September to 5.1 per cent, but the unemployment rate does remain less than half of the peak of 10.9 per cent recorded in December 1992 when Labor was in office.
Under this government, more than 1.7 million new jobs have been created. That is good for individuals, but it is also good for families. Findings of the first wave of the longitudinal survey of Australian children found that over 70 per cent of parents agreed that working made them feel more competent, with 49 per cent specifically indicating that their working had a positive effect on their children. Senator Lightfoot touched on a very important point: poverty is not just an economic measure; it is also to do with the wellbeing of a family and how a family feels about themselves. How the individuals in that family feel about themselves is also important.