Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (4.51 p.m.)-The authorship of this motion is worth noting. It is interesting that it is a collaborative effort of Labor, the Democrats and the Greens. This is interesting at a time when the ALP is endeavouring to convince the community that they have joined the economic mainstream. There is no point pretending that the policy responses to the issue of poverty are something that we agree upon; we do not. I merely note this because the authorship of this motion indicates a world view-a philosophical outlook which Labor, the Democrats and the Greens share-and that leads to particular policy proposals. I do not think that we should pretend that we actually agree on what those policy proposals are.
None of us likes poverty. All of us are in the business of public service, I think, because we want to raise the living standards of Australians and to do whatever we can to achieve that outcome. All of us want to reduce poverty. All of us want to ameliorate the causes and consequences of poverty, but the two sides of this chamber do not, as I have said, agree on how to get there.
I think we should remember Bob Hawke’s declaration that by 1990 no Australian child need live in poverty. Poverty is not something that you can will away; it is not something that you can legislate away. I well recall the debate at that time about the original text of Mr Hawke’s speech. The text originally supposedly said that no child need live in poverty. I think that original text was right-that such is the social welfare system in Australia that no-one should or need be hungry, homeless or lack the medical care and attention that they need.
I would like to say something that I know might not be fashionable or popular: there will always be income inequality in Australia. Some people will always be relatively better off than others will. For a variety of reasons, there will always be people who are at the margins of society. Some of these people will be in difficulties because of circumstances entirely beyond their control-domestic violence, family break-up, mental illness or just plain bad luck. There will always be people in those particular circumstances. We can, we should and we do look after people who are in those particular circumstances.
There will also always be people who are in difficult circumstances that are partly of their own making-it might be through drug abuse. We can, we should and we do look after those people as well. There will also always be people who are in difficult circumstances entirely as a direct result of decisions and choices that they themselves have made in their lives. It is unfashionable and not popular to say that, but that is the case.
Again, as a community we can, we will and we should do what we can to help those people. We can and we should do what we can to help all those three categories of people to reduce the incidence, the number, of people in those circumstances and to help them once they are in those circumstances. That is something that I think we agree upon around the chamber.
But I am troubled by the premise of this motion. It presumes that poverty can be eradicated. As noble as that goal may be, I do not think it can be. The second premise that I think is false is that the government has not done all that it can to address poverty. I think that is implied in the motion. On this side of the chamber, our approach-and it has been partly ridiculed today-is that the best poverty buster is a strong economy because a strong economy leads to lower unemployment. The best way to lift a household’s income is to give the members of that household a job.
I believe that many of those opposite do not understand that economic and social policy are not mutually exclusive; each is necessary to the other. You need a good and strong economy to afford a good social policy. Many other countries in our region would love a good social policy; they would love to reduce poverty. It is not that they are against doing that; it is that their economy does not give them the financial capacity to do so-to ameliorate the effects of poverty. A good economy, a growing economy, creates jobs, lowers unemployment and lifts people’s individual incomes as well as their household incomes.
But a strong economy does something else. It allows a government and a community to fund a social safety net for those who, for a range of reasons, are left behind. We all acknowledge that there are people who are left behind. Sadly, it is those opposite who have routinely opposed every measure that this government has designed to create the foundations for a good and strong economy-whether it has been through balanced budgets, of which every single measure designed to bring the budget back into balance has been opposed by those opposite, whether it has been through tax reform or whether it has been through industrial relations reform.
Those collective policies have achieved a fantastic result for the Australian people. Under the coalition, real wages have increased by 16.4 per cent; under 13 years of Labor, they actually decreased by 0.2 per cent. There have been 1.9 million new jobs created. Unemployment is now at 4.8 per cent; when Labor left office, it was 8.2 per cent and it peaked under them at 10.9 per cent. Under Labor, household wealth increased in net terms by only 2.9 per cent per annum; under this government, household wealth has actually doubled since 1996 and the spending power of Australians has increased as well. It has been a good result for the Australian people. We all want to do more to help those who are poor. But I have to say that, if I had to pick any country in the world in which to experience hard times, I would pick Australia-and, if I had to pick a government under which to experience hard times, I would pick a Liberal government.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Chapman)-Order! The time for the discussion has concluded.