Australia Fair – Driving Labor’s social policy reform agenda, Speech to Australian Social Policy Association
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I would like to first acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land we are meeting on.
Whose cultures, traditions and stories we are honoured to share and celebrate – as among the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
Thank you Peter for your introduction
It’s now a little over a year to the day since the Australian Social Policy Centre was launched – to build new networks for debate among people dedicated to developing and advancing social policy.
Already your membership includes many of the major universities, Mission Australia, Anglicare, UnitingCare, the Benevolent Society, as well as the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as well as my Department.
It is a great pleasure to speak to you today.
I suspect that all of us here are what are collectively known as ‘policy wonks.’
For me, despite the not very exciting images this conjures up, it is a label I happily accept.
It’s born of having an unshakeable belief in the power of responsive, evidence-based policy to drive progressive reform at many different levels.
Reforms which strengthen people, their families and communities, which help shape who we are and make Australia a fairer, stronger place.
Policy reform must be a continuum.
It’s not something that’s finished then filed away and forgotten.
As my English teacher, Miss Donovan told me many years ago at Wangaratta High – never rest on your laurels.
True believers in the policy development space never stop thinking, never stop inquiring, never stop assessing and evaluating.
When the Government was elected almost three years ago we confronted a social policy hiatus.
There was a lot of work to be done.
In the last two and a half years the Government has delivered reforms driven by the abiding Labor values of fairness, compassion and responsibility.
Supporting families through life’s predictable transitions and the events that we often can’t anticipate.
And the pressures that come with them.
Giving parents work and family choices.
Restoring the dignity that comes with people taking responsibility for themselves and their families.
Building a skilled workforce to see us into the future.
Making Australia a fairer and stronger place.
Take, for example the circumstances that many pensioners found themselves in when we were elected.
Struggling to make ends meet under a system left to stagnate.
Doing their best to manage with a pension base rate that was hopelessly inadequate; living from day to day with no security, no certainty.
We did the hard policy work to overcome the neglect of the past, commissioning Dr Jeff Harmer to undertake a fundamental examination of our pension system – as the first cab off the rank in the root and branch examination of the tax and transfer system.
In particular, we addressed the plight of single pensioners and the relativity between couple’s and singles’ payments.
We did this because of the appalling predicament many pensioners were in but also to deliver long overdue reforms to the pension system to prepare Australia for the future.
We understood the reality – that in forty years’ time, one in four Australians will be 65 or older compared to around one in eight today.
And we can expect to live into our nineties.
This is why, even during the most challenging economic times since the Great Depression, we made the tough policy decisions necessary to provide an adequate level of support for millions of age and disability pensioners, carers and veterans.
We lifted the base rate of the pension and increased the benchmark from 25 to 27.7 per cent of male earnings so that the value of our historic pension rise keeps up with community living standards.
And to end the uncertainty of ad-hoc bonuses paid at the whim of government we have established a new Carer Supplement of $600 paid every year to around 500,000 carers for each person they care for.
All this offset by savings to underpin the long-term sustainability of the pension system.
Anticipating and preparing for the shifts that will drive the social and economic life of the nation, we are also delivering Australia’s first national paid parental leave scheme.
After a comprehensive Productivity Commission inquiry, Australia is now catching up with the rest of the world with a Government-funded scheme that is fair for families and fair to business.
From 1 January, parents will have the financial support to make the work and family choices that are best for them in the important first few months of their babies’ lives.
And the national economy will benefit from the boost to participation and productivity.
The Government’s scheme recognises the new dynamics of Australian families – mothers wanting the flexibility to move in and out of the workforce as they have their children, fathers wanting a more hands on role in raising their families.
Paid parental leave has been too long coming for many Australian families.
As a Minister in the previous government, Tony Abbott said it would only happen over his dead body.
Cold comfort for the new parents I met recently who told me of their anguish after the birth of their baby.
Their newborn son was in hospital with health complications but financial pressure meant they were both back at work, trying to juggle their shifts so one of them was always with their baby in hospital.
The young mother, who worked in hospitality with no access to paid parental leave, told me she’d tried to maintain breastfeeding but because she was working she had found it impossible to keep going.
These are the families who will now be eligible for paid parental leave under our scheme.
Historically, entitlement to paid parental leave has been skewed in favour of women in high-paid jobs.
We know that until now less that a quarter of women in low-paid, casual or part-time jobs have had paid parental leave compared with three quarters of women on higher wages.
Now casuals, part-timers, the self-employed and contractors who meet the work test – around a day a week for ten of the 13 months before they have their baby – will have access to the increased financial security of paid parental leave.
It will be paid to eligible primary carers at the Federal minimum wage, now just under $570 a week, for 18 weeks.
As well, under the Government’s scheme, parents will have the flexibility to transfer or share leave between them.
Our scheme lets parents choose how they share leave because we know that more and more dads want to be hands-on at home.
For example, if mum takes 14 weeks leave and then wants to go back to work, dad can take the remaining four weeks so they are both involved in the care of their new baby.
These landmark reforms to restore fairness to the pension system and give parents choice have their genesis in progressive Labor Governments of the past.
It was the world’s first majority Labor government – led by Prime Minister Andrew Fisher – which saw too that many babies were being born into poverty and established our first baby bonus, paid at lb5 per chid.
More than 100 years ago, Andrew Fisher also saw the appalling poverty people were living in when their working lives were over and led the introduction of the old age pension – still the bedrock of our modern pension system.
In 2007, the Labor Party’s election to government saw the confluence of two powerful drivers for change.
Our obligation to meet the expectations and fulfil the hopes of Australians who were hungry for change and put their faith in Labor to deliver it.
And our passion and determination to build our social infrastructure and restore social policy as a driver of positive change.
When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, setting off a catastrophic domino effect on economies around the world, we used social policy levers to cushion the Australian people.
When jobs were under threat, families were under pressure to pay the bills and retirement savings plummeted we delivered economic stimulus payments for more than two million families and three million pensioners.
And invested in nation building projects to help protect jobs and insulate the Australian economy.
We doubled emergency relief funding to meet people’s urgent needs; providing more than $80 million extra for more emergency relief and financial counselling over two years.
We shielded Australians from a crisis not of their making – a crisis that would have seen hundreds of thousands of Australians lose their jobs, their homes and their businesses.
And Australia came through stronger than almost any other advanced economy.
But even as we dealt with the seismic impact of collapsing global economies, we didn’t take our foot off the policy pedal.
Stepping up to take national leadership to tackle disturbing levels of child abuse and neglect, working with the states, territories and non-government organisations to establish the first National Framework to Protect Australia’s Children.
With better information sharing between agencies like Centrelink, Medicare and state child protection authorities so children at risk don’t slip under the radar.
And for the first time, we are establishing new national standards for out of home care to safeguard the safety, health and wellbeing of the more than 34,000 children who can no longer live safely with their families.
That’s an increase of more than nine per cent in the last 12 months; and a rise of 44 per cent over the last five years.
Across all states and territories we are setting national benchmarks in health, education and training for children in out of home care – including comprehensive health assessments when children go into care and written health records that move with them if they change placements.
And recognising that on any given night, 12,000 children are homeless we are driving a national effort to provide more affording housing and tackle homelessness.
Boosting spending on homelessness services and increasing the supply of affordable homes by 80,000 in the period to 2012, through the National Rental Affordability Scheme and social housing.
These are very significant changes to housing for the most disadvantaged in our community.
We have fundamentally changed the approach to Indigenous policy.
Over decades, Government policies have failed Indigenous Australians.
To begin the process of setting this right we offered a national Apology to acknowledge the injustices and great hurt and suffering of the past.
And we pledged to use the national goodwill flowing from the Apology to build new understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Working together in a new relationship based on trust and respect, embracing a future where all Australians are truly equal partners with equal opportunities and an equal stake in building a fairer, stronger Australia.
We are investing in the social infrastructure that’s essential for Indigenous children to grow up in decent houses, get the health care they need, go to school each day and receive the training and skills they need to get a job.
What we are confronting has been decades in the making.
It didn’t happen overnight.
It can’t be fixed overnight.
And it will take more than bricks and mortar to fix it.
While it will always be the Government’s responsibility to provide the infrastructure and services that are the foundation of a decent life, it is also our responsibility to support people to have pride in who they are and what they can aspire to.
So parents take responsibility for themselves and their children – getting kids to school, learning the skills to get a job, earning a pay cheque.
It’s true that social and economic opportunities are vital to counter disadvantage.
But poverty, disadvantage, welfare dependency are more than structural issues with structural solutions.
There must be behavioural change – with policies that encourage and support personal responsibility and purpose.
Looking ahead, there is still a lot of work to be done.
But the foundations are rock solid.
In our second term we will implement reforms to the welfare system based on the Government’s commitment to the principles of engagement, participation and responsibility.
At their core they aim to support and protect vulnerable people and tackle entrenched welfare dependency.
So that every Australian child grows up expecting to have the dignity and pride that comes with having a job.
A life with meaning and direction – not a life on welfare.
These reforms – that will see income management rolled out right across the Northern Territory and, over time, to disadvantaged regions across the country – have prompted a lot of debate.
I know there are critics of what we are doing.
Issues like income management are controversial but they are aimed at delivering on the most fundamental obligation of government – to protect those who are defenceless, vulnerable and at risk – in particular children – from violence, neglect and abuse.
We want welfare payments spent to give children a safe and healthy place to live – with the stability and care that gets them to school each day and shows them that life has more to offer than the next welfare cheque.
Through income management families under pressure can stabilise their finances, restore order to their lives and establish a secure platform to take back responsibility for themselves and their families.
Like Janelle, a mother of four from the Perth suburb of Cannington, who signed up to income management because, she said, “I just seemed to spend all of my money until it was gone and never saved very much.”
She went on to say that, “thanks to voluntary income management I’ve saved for rego, I’ve got my car serviced, purchased two new tyres, all these things I would have just either struggled and stressed over and possibly not even done before.”
On the other side of the continent in Aurukun on Cape York another mother, who is part of Noel Pearson’s community driven, welfare reforms, describes how income management, along with community support services, has saved her from alcohol-induced chaos.
Now she has a job, her four children are well cared for and she’s planning a future where she has a house of her own.
We have also started the process to fundamentally rethink the way we support people with disability.
We have asked the Productivity Commission to undertake an independent inquiry into a national long term disability care and support scheme.
This includes considering the costs, benefits and feasibility of such a scheme.
We want people with disability to have the same chance that other Australians have to reach their full potential, to work to the best of their ability, to be recognised for what they achieve not defined or confined by any impairment they might have.
And we want to ease the strain on families and carers whose own aspirations and potential are so often denied by their caring responsibilities.
After decades of being ignored and isolated, disability reform is on the national agenda.
A national disability insurance scheme is a complex and transformative reform that requires detailed consideration and rigorous policy analysis to determine if it is appropriate, practical and economically responsible in the Australian context.
This is what the Productivity Commission is doing and we will carefully consider its report.
With an election on the horizon, it’s timely to end with the words of two former and opposing Prime Ministers.
In very different circumstances two very different Prime Ministers, Paul Keating and John Howard, both warned that when you change the government you change the country.
They were right.
Australia did change in 1996 – and I’ll leave you to muse on that.
And then in 2007 it changed again.
Social policy was once again back in business.
The values of fairness, compassion and responsibility were restored as the drivers of progressive reform.
They will continue to drive our second term agenda.
As we continue to deliver reforms that not only respond to the needs of the present but anticipate and face the challenges of the future.