HON PETER COLLIER (North Metropolitan — Leader of the Opposition) [10.10 am] — without notice: I move —
That this house acknowledges that many Western Australians are worse off since the election of the McGowan government as a direct result of its policies.
Comments and speeches from various members
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [11.08 am]: I rise to speak on this motion, because it is really important and beholden on this chamber to recognise that many Western Australians are doing it extremely tough. We do them an enormous disservice if we do not acknowledge that. One of the key findings in the Western Australian Council of Social Service’s report “Cost of Living 2018” was that for WACOSS-model households and those on fixed incomes, the increase in utilities and transport expenses has effectively wiped out any gains made by the softening of the rental market. For unemployed singles, it means that they have sunk further below the poverty line. I am talking about Western Australians who cannot meet a basic standard of living, let alone plan for the future. If they have any unexpected expenses, like whitegoods or ambulance fees—something that I have spoken about in this chamber previously—or even if they have other essential expenses such as training costs to better their employment chances, even if that training is half-price, it is simply not possible. That is the reality for people living in this state. The modelling assumes that people are able to find appropriate housing, but we also know that the lack of availability in regional areas means that that is not always the case. We also know that although the cost of housing in the Kimberley, in particular, has reduced, it is still far greater than it is in Perth.
One key issue in the Western Australian Council of Social Service statistics is the rise in the cost of utilities. I am talking about an 11 per cent increase in 2017–18, a seven per cent increase in 2018–19, and now, a 1.75 per cent increase for 2019–20. That has resulted in an unbelievable increase in the number of disconnections due to unpaid bills. This is happening when people already cannot meet a basic standard of living. Their day-to-day needs for shelter and food simply must come first, which means that, unbelievably in this day and age, electricity is not seen as an essential service. Thousands of people are being disconnected and the uptake of hardship programs is increasing. Over half of customers who enter the hardship program for electricity in WA have a debt of less than $500, and over 80 per cent of people who enter the hardship program for gas have a debt of less than $500. I read this as people who are running so close to the bone in WA that even a much smaller bill these days is proving impossible to pay without seriously impacting their day-to-day survival.
I note that the qualification rules for the hardship utility grant scheme has been identified as one of the reasons for the increase in instalment plans and enrolment in hardship programs. I also note that our rate of disconnection of residential electricity customers between 2016 to 2018 was higher than it was in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria, and that 2017–18 was the fifth year in a row in which we had a higher proportion of disconnections of residential gas customers than there were in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria—grim news indeed, members.
I have been contacted on multiple occasions by people shocked to discover that they have been disconnected because their electricity retailer did not confirm contact with them prior to cutting off their power. I have also received letters in response to my inquiries on constituents’ behalf that effectively state that an email was sent and a voicemail was left, and then people’s supply was simply cut off. It is clear that electricity suppliers do not feel an overwhelming obligation to make genuine contact with people prior to cutting them off from this essential service. The nature of the cut-off means that even if people pay immediately, they will have to wait 48 hours before their electricity is reconnected. If someone happens to be unfortunate enough to have their electricity supply disconnected on a Friday, their electricity sometimes, unfortunately, will not be reconnected until about the next Tuesday. If people in the situations that I outlined earlier lose a freezer of food, the financial impost can be absolutely devastating.
What we do know is that there has been genuine wage stagnation and that growth in real wages across Australia has slowed to almost zero since mid-2013. That is despite substantial jumps in pay rates in Victoria. WA’s annual wage growth is the weakest in Australia. Although the Reserve Bank has now recommended a 3.5 per cent minimum wage rise each year to enable households to service their long-term debts and to participate fully in the economy, we have seen in the meantime enterprise bargaining agreement pay rise rates slip significantly. I have to point out that the government’s current wages policy is 100 per cent part of the problem.
I am aware that the government has pinned its hopes on resolving some of these cost-of-living and wage growth issues by creating more jobs. I am happy, obviously, to advocate for more jobs, with the understanding that without a commitment from industry and government, that will not necessarily lead to the pay rises that are so clearly needed, and that it also will not address the needs of our most vulnerable members within the community, including those on fixed incomes. That is why the Greens continue to advocate, along with the community sector, for a significant increase in Newstart. That is absolutely essential and would seem to be an obvious easy win if we want to look at growth within the economy.
One of the things the government keeps committing to is the expansion of the LNG industry. I think there has been a very generous reading of the number of jobs that are created in the oil and gas industry. I note that The Australia Institute estimates a significantly lower number of potential jobs than the figures the government keeps putting forward—that is before we even start to talk about the healthcare and other social costs associated with the climate harm of those projects. I am eternally disappointed with the lack of opportunities the government undertakes to expand alternative industries.
I want to say very briefly, because I know others want to speak, that people are doing it really tough, and the most vulnerable people within our community, particularly those on low, fixed incomes are doing it the toughest. A lot of them are simply finding it next to impossible to meet even the most basic standard of living. That is unacceptable in a country as wealthy as Australia. I think the focus on balancing the budget, as it has been applied, has impacted on services and supports for the very people who need them most—that is, the people on fixed and low incomes who are suffering the most. We need more jobs, but that will not help people on disability or age pensions or who are unemployed. I think there is a lack of focus on how to actually assist them. We have to recognise that there are people within the Western Australian community who are absolutely struggling.
Comments and speeches from various members
Motion lapsed, pursuant to standing orders.