Ending Poverty in Australia (Antipoverty Commission) Bill 2023

07 September 2023

Acting Deputy President Smith, thank you for taking the chair early so I could make my contribution—I'm not sure, but you might be regretting it now! But it is appreciated by me.

I also rise to speak on Senator Rice's Ending Poverty in Australia (Antipoverty Commission) Bill 2023. At the outset, I will make it clear, as Senator Ayres has done before me, that the government does not intend to support this bill. But that should in no way be taken as an indication of a lack of recognition of the problem that exists for us. We know that poverty is pervasive in Australia and we know that it is devastating. I'm sure that there isn't a single person who sits in this chamber who doesn't think poverty is an issue and who doesn't want to see things done to address it. It's hurting families in my state of South Australia, and it affects families in our remote and regional areas significantly more than those in our metro areas. It's affecting Indigenous Australians, it affects the most vulnerable groups and it can be pervasive, intergenerational, multifaceted and complex. It is impacting children and families, and leaving kids in my state starting school developmentally behind the mark.

What doesn't help these challenges or help the picture of poverty in Australia is the idea that the challenges before us can be fixed with quick fixes or simple ideas, committees and commissions. We need complex policy responses to meet complex challenges. Tackling poverty is never going to be a simple fix; it's never going to be solved by motions or debates in this chamber. And, unfortunately, despite what I recognise as the good intent behind this bill, it won't be solved by the proposals it puts forward—proposals which duplicate existing and established government practices and the work underway in the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee. That's why we're not supporting it.

I don't think it's reasonable to come to this debate with the assumption that we're not supporting it because, for some reason, people on this side of the chamber—or, indeed, my colleagues on the other side of the chamber—don't care about the issues before us. You show you care and you show your respect for dealing with these issues by acknowledging the multifaceted nature of them and by acknowledging the complexity. It's very easy to think that a single word or a three-word slogan can fix the challenges before us, but that doesn't help anyone. It doesn't help anyone if we ignore the complexity. It doesn't help anyone if we ignore the intergenerational nature of some of these challenges. And it certainly doesn't help anyone if we pretend that the federal government can fix everything here. The challenges before us don't affect just one layer of government. They affect every layer of government—local government, state government and federal government.

Equally important is that the challenges are about community and the responsibility of communities to address the challenges before us. You don't fix intergenerational challenges—family upon family, year after year—easily. That requires sustained effort. These are issues which go not just to one area, not just to one lever of federal government policy, but to our health system, our education system and law and order and justice. They go to local government. They go to community engagement. They go to church groups. This is how we solve these problems. Pretending they're simple, pretending they're easy or pretending there is one policy measure you can do which will eradicate these challenges is actually not fair to the people living with them, because the challenges are complex.

The bill before us seeks to establish a new commission. We know that it duplicates the work already underway of the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee. This bill was introduced after the announcement of the committee, which exists alongside the committee that I am deputy chair of, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee—I acknowledge the Senator Rice's work on it—which is looking into the extent and nature of poverty in Australia. That inquiry was referred to our committee a year ago. To date we've held eight public hearings across the country, and we are set to have more. We have received over 250 submissions, and over this year we have taken evidence from experts, from advocates and from people with lived experience of poverty from the length and breadth of Australia. Witnesses have shared their expertise and their lived experience to inform our work and our recommendations to date, including on income support payments. I note that we saw an increase in income support come through the budget. It was not what everyone would like to have seen, sure, but we saw that come through.

Our work as a committee continues. I will take the opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed to the process, who has provided evidence so far, particularly those who have taken the time to share their personal stories with us. It can take a lot out of you to come and present in a public way your private challenges. To present and share your story in a public way to senators behind a table, with broadcasting and Hansard and all of that, is a very difficult thing to do. I thank those people who have shared their stories and informed our work.

What has been absolutely clear from our inquiry to date is that poverty is multifaceted. Its causes are multifaceted. It is complex, and the solutions that are needed to address it must acknowledge this complexity. They must be multifaceted too, because you don't fix poverty with one policy. You don't fix poverty from one layer of government. You don't fix poverty without buy-in from a community who says this isn't acceptable in my neighbourhood, in my church, at my school. You don't fix it without the community rising up to that, supported by federal government, state government and local government flexing their levers to make a difference as well.

Pretending that you can fix poverty in one way, overnight, and then it's gone helps no-one. It doesn't help children in my state. It doesn't help the more than a quarter of children in my state get who school developmentally behind. What helps them is a change to our early education system. What helps them is access to a good vaccination program. What helps them is the assistance provided to their parents to do the simple things in early learning, such as counting fingers and toes and singing songs. What helps them when they've got parents for whom English is a struggle is programs like HIPPY, which support those parents to engage with their children and with their homework. Those are the sorts of things which affect the developmental delays we see far overrepresented in families in poverty. You can't fix this problem without solutions which look at the complexity, which look at the things that are underpinning issues like intergenerational disadvantage and actually take the effort to fix them.

Poverty is complex. Our committee will continue its work, continue to hear from submitters and witnesses. We will hear, as we have so far, that the cause of poverty is not the same in every family, not the same in every city and not the same for every group. Indeed, it is not only people on income support payments who are living in poverty. We will hear, I am sure, about the terrible cost-of-living pressures that are amplifying these problems for families. That is why our government, in looking at cost-of-living relief in our budget, have tried to do things which don't add to that inflationary pressure. That is a genuine concern we, as the Labor Party, hold. We are absolutely committed to addressing disadvantage. It is the thing which drives so many of us and has driven so many of us in the work in our lives. We are committed to doing that.

The people who suffer most from a high-inflation environment are those with little to spend—those living in poverty. You can't contribute to an inflationary environment and think you're helping people either. These are complex things which need to be carefully balanced. They exist alongside policy work which is happening across portfolios—in the Health space and in the Education space, including in early education. It is work like reducing the cost of medicines in a way which is not inflationary because you're addressing the cost at the pharmacist where you get your medicines. It is work on the cost of early learning, because we know that, particularly for children in disadvantage, the opportunity to access an early learning service and be exposed to a highly qualified, skilled educator, who will show love and care and go through the developmental milestones, is the sort of thing that breaks the cycle of disadvantage.

Early learning provides the opportunity for children to be exposed to the experts and to the support they need when they're in a family which has experienced intergenerational trauma. I spend a lot of time in a community in South Australia called Murray Bridge. It's an absolutely beautiful town with an incredibly strong community, but it's got some really big challenges, too, when it comes to intergenerational disadvantage and intergenerational trauma. In that town the solutions needed require buy-in and engagement from all levels of government and they certainly require the engagement of the community, because you cannot break these cycles with simple measures. You cannot break these cycles with single commissions or reports and you cannot break these cycles with slogans either. You only break these cycles by breaking down the complexity.

We see this right across Australia, in particular in remote communities, where that remoteness can be a source of or a contributor to poverty. The solutions needed in those communities to address this issue are also different. Where poverty is compounded by a lack of access to technology or access to the NBN, those communities will need different things to the families and individuals in our metro and urban areas who are experiencing poverty. The simplification of this issue does not help. It does not assist.

Through our committee's work we will continue to look at that complexity, we will continue to look at the multifaceted nature of poverty and, indeed, we'll continue to look at things like measuring poverty. Again, we need to take into account complexity, because if you oversimplify your definition of a problem then you limit yourself to a simplified solution, and that will not always work. It might help some people but it will leave a lot of people behind.

This work will continue, and it will exist in conjunction with the government's work establishing the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee. I look forward to the contribution that the committee continues to make to the policy debate and engagement in this country. It's good to have more voices in this space, it's good to have more work done in this space and it's good to bring in expertise, just as it's good to bring in lived experience. It's also good to bring in a breadth of practitioners working across a range of policy portfolio areas, across layers of government, across our community and across academia. We're not going to solve the problems before us, intergenerational poverty in particular, unless we bring those voices in.

I don't at all discount Senator Rice's intent and genuine concern for people doing it tough. I know that because I sit on a committee with Senator Rice and I know it is genuine. But our commitment to this issue should not be discounted, either. I think that is very unfair and very unreasonable. And I think it is unreasonable to do it to the vast majority of people in this chamber, who I do think care about these issues. We may differ in our view on how we address them. We may differ in our view of the complexity versus the simplicity of the problems and the solutions. I believe the proposals put forward in this bill duplicate a process already under way by government. They duplicate resources, and I don't think that's helpful to any of the people that this is trying to help. What is helpful is stepping past—

Senator Rice interjecting—

Senator Rice, I can take interjections, but I think I have been pretty reasonable in how I have come to this debate. What helps here is looking at the complexity of the issues put before us, looking at the way we can address those complexities in a sincere and meaningful way, looking at the way we can work together and coordinate and cooperate not just within this building but also within other layers of government. Across Australia, there is genuine concern and commitment to ending poverty, to breaking intergenerational cycles of disadvantage, and to making sure that when our children start school they don't experience those developmental delays but that they start school on an even playing field, regardless of the postcode they are growing up in, what their parents do, the language skills of their parents or the work profile of their parents. These are the sorts of things we need to do. It starts in the early years, it continues through the work you do with families and it continues in our communities. It continues, of course, at different levels of government, but pretending this is about one level of government and one policy, and you fix intergenerational poverty and developmental delays and make it perfect is a falsehood which fails the very people I genuinely believe you're trying to help.