Wages and jobs

By Terri Butler MP

26 May 2021

What is the purpose of all of this: of government, of parliament, of all of the work that people come here and do? Why do we do it? If you believe the Liberal Party, their sorts of views of the world, they would like government to just provide for national defence, make sure that there are enforceable property rights and do not much else. Other than that it should be everyone for themselves. That's their world view. But our world view, as Labor, is we think government should be here to make people's lives better, to lift the living standards of the Australian people year after year, generation after generation—that's the purpose of all of this. All of this activity, all of this work should be so that the next generation has a better life than the previous one did.

In a budget you find out what's really important to a government. In this budget we found out that they're casting around. They don't know what's important. It's no surprise. They have been in government for eight long years. They're a tired government. They're a government without a real vision for the future of this country or an agenda of a future of their own administration. You can see that from the real lack of legislation before the parliament in the sitting week—one of several in the next few weeks.

So we know that the government is casting around. They're old. They're tired. They don't know what they're doing. At the same time, you've got a Labor opposition, which is seeking to become a Labor government, that strongly believes that we can build on our past—our history as reformers. Our history is as the party that has always brought this country into the future, modernised and built living standards. We can do that if we can form an Albanese Labor government. Anthony, as the leader of the Labor Party in this place, made a series of announcements in the budget reply about what we can do. The great thing about them is that, like the best tradition of Labor throughout our history, he has looked at the contemporary challenges. What are the challenges that we face right now, and what do we need to do to face them and make things better for Australians?

I've been reflecting on our reformist past, on our history of making things better, and I always come back to thinking about my own family. I was thinking about my grandfather. My grandfather's dad worked on the railways. It was not a particularly good, long or healthy life. He'd been a World War I veteran. He'd worked on the railways. He'd died young. My grandfather, his son, grew up in a really poor family; they'd lived in a tent at one stage. He was born in 1932, so, as a child, he grew up in very difficult economic times. He grew up and his first real job out of school was as a fireman on a steam train from Mt Isa to Townsville. That was his job. He worked in this job, and it was hard work, exhausting work, hot work. My other grandfather, my father's father, had a very similar background. His dad had been a shearer in Barcaldine. They'd moved up to Far North Queensland, to a rural area on the tablelands, and my grandfather became a greengrocer.

These men had difficult lives, tough lives—lives that were lived through tough times. My maternal grandfather ended up buying his own business. He saved up through that hard work and he then started his own very successful business. You've seen the capacity for social mobility that some people have in those situations, but what does it take to make sure that everyone gets the opportunity for social mobility? What's the difference between their generation and my generation? Their kids, my mum and dad, came up through these families that were not well off. They finished school at year 10. Like virtually everyone else they ever met, they didn't go beyond year 10. I think that, as a kid, when I was growing up, the only people I knew who were adults who'd even been past year 10 were my teachers and my GP. It wasn't common to go past year 10.

They finished school in the 1970s, and what happened in the 1970s? Gough Whitlam's government came in and brought in sweeping changes that created the circumstances for social mobility so that kids from working-class backgrounds could get into universities, expand their opportunities to get trades and expand their opportunities in life. Then, in the next generation, my generation, we got to go to year 12 and we got to go to university. We wouldn't have done so if it weren't for Labor governments. We wouldn't have had those opportunities if it weren't for the Whitlam government and, then, the Hawke-Keating government.

I said earlier that the great tradition of Labor governments is to look at the circumstances and think about what needs to be done to meet contemporary challenges. You had Whitlam saying that we needed to open up education. For Hawke and Keating, the great economic challenge at the time was the fact that inflation was ridiculous. We had this terrible inflation crisis in this country. We had to bring Australia's economy into the modern age, and they modernised. That's what they did. They faced these challenges, and they did it in a Labor way. At the time, it was really fashionable around the world—you had Margaret Thatcher; you had Ronald Reagan—to go to very, very extreme liberal positions. As I said, there was this idea that you just let everyone fend for themselves. That's not what happened here, because we had Hawke and we had Keating. We had great Labor heroes who said that not only did we need to modernise our economy; at the same time we also needed to continue the Labor project of increasing living standards—building those living standards and making lives better.

So, at the same time that they were tackling those economic challenges, they understood the importance of the social wage and of the conditions that we had and that we needed as Australians. Think about Medicare. Think about universal superannuation. Think about the accord. All of this work was done to say not only are we going to face the contemporary economic challenges but we're going to make lives better for every single Australian. That's what they did, and that's what reforming Labor governments do: they manage the economy, and they manage the economy for the benefit of every person and every household, because we believe in better living standards and in leaving a better place for future generations than we found.

I have to say that this government is a such a strong reminder of why we need great Labor governments. We have a situation now where this tired eight-year-old Liberal government has just been unable to come face to face with the key challenges. Inflation was the key economic challenge in the 1980s. What's the key economic challenge right now? It's wages and slow growth. We've been having year after year after year of pathetic wage growth and sluggish economic growth more broadly. That's what we are facing as a country. We're in a situation where we've had eight years of a national government that has been unwilling to even admit that it should be doing something about wages, because it thinks it's up to everyone to fend for themselves. In fact, the former finance minister even said that low wages growth was a deliberate design feature of their economic approach. They're not fixing wages growth, because they don't think it's their job to fix it. That's what's going on here.

This budget, the budget that we are responding to right now, forecasts a cut in real wages. What is a cut in real wages? A cut in real wages is a decline in living standards. It's a decline in the standard of life for Australian households. It's a decline in the ability of Australian households to provide a better life for the next generation. That's what a cut in real wages is. What are the government doing about it? We have a bloke who, as Treasurer, presided over cuts to penalty rates and, as Prime Minister, is presiding over a budget that forecast a cut to real wages after year on year on year of pathetic wages growth.

What do they do? You saw them on budget night, Deputy Speaker, sitting behind the Treasurer, looking like a wet weekend, so grim were their faces. They looked miserable. You'd think that they'd lost the last election, not won it. They were so miserable. The Treasurer was standing up. I don't think he'd ever anticipated, as a Liberal, that he would come in and hand down a budget which racked up a trillion dollars in debt, spending $100 billion with nothing much to show for all this. I've got to tell you that, if Labor were in government, we'd certainly have some legacy out of that sort of thing, but there is nothing much to show for it from this Treasurer. Behind him were the wet weekend crowd, all sitting there looking grim because they don't really want to be doing this. They came here to make sure that we didn't do things. They don't have a positive vision of their own; they just want to stop us. The reason they can't grapple with the big challenges, can't manage the economy and can't write a budget that actually sees an increase in living standards, not a decline in living standards for Australians, is that they are not up to it and they don't believe in it. Their hearts are not in it and they never have been.

We want to see a government that will take real action when it comes to wages, because this is a key economic challenge. What do you think happens in our economy when wages growth is sluggish? I will give you a tip. What's the biggest component of GDP? Is it consumption? What do you reckon happens to consumption when people's pay isn't keeping up and people aren't getting ahead? When you don't get that pay rise, do you buy the extra coffee? Do you buy the extra video game? Do you buy the extra leisure activities? Do you go and have the slightly longer or slightly better holiday? Do you go and spend more at the beautiful amusement parks that we have in beautiful Queensland? What happens to consumption when wages growth is sluggish is that consumption doesn't grow as it should, and that's a problem for economic growth. This is why we need to face up to this challenge. It's a contemporary challenge. It's a challenge that Labor is continuously pushing the government to deal with, and it's a challenge that the government are fundamentally incapable of responding to, because they don't believe in it. They don't care about it. It's not what they want to be doing. They don't care about your wages. All they are delivering is a real wages cut.

In responding to the budget, I also want to say a big thank you, not to the government—because, frankly, they've had two jobs this year, quarantine and vaccine rollout, and they've managed to botch both—but to all of our communities who in the face of the COVID pandemic, despite the national government's woeful performance in managing it, are so resilient and are working so hard. Our communities are doing their absolute best. They need a government that's going to do the right thing when it comes to the vaccine rollout and quarantine. They're not getting that at the moment, but our communities are persevering, just like communities around the world.

I have to say that locals in my communities on the south side took to this pandemic with their characteristic sense of fellow feeling, community, looking after each other, reaching out a hand and keeping in touch with older people, people at risk of being isolated and people at greater risk of being affected by the pandemic. We see people all the time doing their bit, wearing masks when they're needed and respecting the lockdowns to make sure that there's less of a disruption down the track. We have seen frontline workers in so many occupations doing their best and putting themselves in harm's way to look after the rest of us. We are so grateful. I want to say on behalf of our community that we're all so grateful to you for what you're doing.

I want to record again my thanks to everyone who works in our hospitals, GP clinics, pathology services, pharmacies and other health services. I wanted to mention that I recently visited World Wellness Group. They have been administering vaccinations and doing their part to counteract vaccine hesitancy in culturally and linguistically diverse communities. They're a great facility and I congratulate them on the work they're doing. I have been in contact with so many frontline health workers with our local hospitals via the metro south district and also our GP and primary healthcare community through the PHN. I want to say thanks to Mike Bosel and his team at the Primary Health Network. They have been work with the community towards making sure they can do their best to support the vaccine rollout.

The pandemic doesn't mean that everything else stops, of course. I wanted to say thanks to everyone who's working on the non-COVID health response as well. I want to say a big thanks to Sophie at Coorparoo Discount Pharmacy for my recent flu vaccination. She did an admirable job in administering it very painlessly—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12:46 to 12:57

Ms BUTLER: One of the quite stark things about this budget is the fact that it's really confirmed that the Morrison government has no intention of delivering on its proposal—or so-called proposal, I guess—to introduce a national integrity commission. The budget papers confirm that not a single staff member has been allocated for this commission for at least another 14 months. It's been 2½ years since the Prime Minister promised a Commonwealth integrity commission and more than two years since he and the then Attorney-General promised that legislation would be brought into the parliament before the end of 2019, but this long-promised national integrity commission has failed to materialise. In my portfolio of water, in fact, the previous interim inspector-general for the Murray-Darling Basin was meant to be able, once it was established, to refer matters to the to-be-established National Integrity Commissioner. Well, that position was never created, nor was the integrity commission ever created.

It's just promise after promise after promise from this government. They're all promise, no delivery. They're all about the photo op and never about the follow-up. It's a real problem because Australians are actually crying out for an anticorruption commission at a federal level. We've seen all sorts of scandals: sports rorts, the airport purchase where the government managed to spend about 10 times the value of the land when purchasing that particular land, rorts in other funds where the just the majority of the money is allocated quite brazenly to Liberal or Liberal-target seats. Australians actually want a national integrity commission and anticorruption commission to scrutinise government to make sure that we can have confidence that money is being spent well and that people are doing the right thing in government. That's really important, I think, to all Australians. It's a real shame that this budget reveals once again that the government has no intention of delivering.