Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee Bill 2023

16 November 2023

I'm proud today to be speaking on the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee Bill 2023 to establish a permanent role for the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee as a statutory body. The government is committed to boosting economic inclusion and tackling disadvantage, and this bill will permanently establish a role for this. It will ensure that there is an ongoing mechanism for the provision of independent expert advice to government on matters relating to economic inclusion and disadvantage. This is an issue that is really close to my heart and, honestly, is central to why I am in this place.

Governments have an incredibly important and critical role in delivering the policies, services and foundations that enable Australians to live the happiest, healthiest and most fulfilling lives that they can—the policies that ensure that no matter where you were born and what your parents' income, you have the best shot at life here—and in creating the safety net that is there for all of us when life events happen that mean we need that support. It's what makes us a relatively egalitarian society. This is something that I think most Australians deeply value. Governments do this best when they look at the evidence and focus on assessing the need in the community and how to respond to that using the evidence. This is what the EIAC is about.

I am pleased that the EIAC will be established to look at this and give advice before each budget each year and that its membership will include a diverse range of individuals representing the views of people impacted by the work of the committee, along with relevant experts. Before the last budget we saw the interim committee report and make some really important recommendations about what is needed to ensure economic inclusion in this country. There's a long history of this. As I said, this is close to my heart because my first job was working at NATSEM, the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, an organisation that is all about modelling the impacts of policies on households and modelling poverty and inequality. I had the great privilege to work with the inaugural director Professor Ann Harding, who, very sadly, passed away earlier this year. Her work—and I've talked about this in this chamber before—was very much about putting that evidence around poverty and disadvantage and how best to address it at the centre of public discussion and at the centre of policy development. NATSEM was instrumental in that for many years.

At a recent memorial event for Ann I had the great pleasure to meet Brian Howe, one of Labor's greatest reforming ministers, including as the social security minister. He talked in his remarks there about the importance of governments focusing on poverty and the importance of focusing on that evidence. It was an incredibly inspiring speech, particularly coming from someone who has played such a role. Brian was there because he was also instrumental as the minister at the time in establishing NATSEM and seeing a role for the important provision of data and independent advice to governments and community on these issues.

In 1986, as the minister, he also instigated the Cass social security review, which led to substantive restructuring of the social security system and the inclusion of some really important payments and changes, including the introduction of a family allowance supplement and important changes to unemployment benefits, the guaranteed indexation of benefits to the cost of living, the ongoing monitoring and evaluation of programs, and the removal of gender based eligibility for payments. Those were some really important changes. He has continued his contribution in this area over many, many years.

Most importantly, Brian Howe was the minister in the Hawke government when Prime Minister Bob Hawke said that by 1990 no Australian child should live in poverty. While that statement is often ridiculed, less attention is paid to the measures that he introduced. There were a range of changes to child support, to family payments and to the social security system that meant that child poverty was immediately reduced by a third. By 1994, poverty rates for the children of jobless couples had reduced by about 80 per cent, and by 50 per cent for the children of jobless single parents. The social security system is an incredibly powerful tool that governments have to address poverty. We have also seen that in 2009 in response to the Harmer review, when the Gillard Labor government, under the social services minister, Jenny Macklin, who I am so proud to have worked for as the shadow social services minister after that, delivered the biggest increase to the age pension in its history and lifted a million pensioners out of poverty. These things can have a huge impact.

The interim EIAC committee made some recommendations around the JobSeeker payment. They recommended that it should have a substantial increase, and in the findings of their report they talked about it being 90 per cent of the age pension. I'm about to run out of time, but I do want to talk a bit about the history of that payment and about this discussion around evidence and poverty in our community that has been going on for over 20 years. If we go back to March 1994, the Keating government increased the Newstart payment by $2.95 a week above the rate of inflation. For a long time after that, it was not increased. That would be the last time that Newstart was raised in real terms. Following that, in 1997, the Howard government made the decision to tie the indexation of the payment to inflation—unlike the pension, which is tied to wages. This effectively froze the payment. This is what began to lead to JobSeeker being so incredibly low. It has structurally lost its connection with the cost of living and living standards—unlike the pension, which is indexed to wages if they are increasing more than the cost of living.

In 2002, the Senate held another major inquiry into poverty and disadvantage. It had a huge impact on the community in response and then a continued impact on the community conversation that was happening around poverty and disadvantage and the government's role in addressing it. This was the 2002 inquiry into poverty and financial hardship. Around that time, Anti-Poverty Week was established, which had its 20th anniversary last year. We also saw the Make Poverty History campaign. This was, of course, an international campaign with a focus on addressing absolute poverty around the globe. Here in Australia, it had a key focus on the unemployment benefit and the need to increase that as well. This saw a huge coalition of community groups, faith based groups, advocates and people in the community, and, discussing this with people, they say that there was a real change in the discussion.