Speeches

Governor General's Address in Reply

October 23, 2019

It is indeed an honour and a privilege to have been re-elected to serve as the member for Shortland for a second time. I am only the fourth person to serve in this role in the seat's 70-year history, so I am particularly aware of the special responsibility I have to the people I represent. I sincerely thank my constituents for placing their trust in me for the next three years. It has indeed been a privilege to represent them in the national parliament for the past three years, and I am excited by the opportunity to continue to be their voice. This is my third term in the House, having served my first term in the 44th Parliament as the member for Charlton. I am as aware today of the awesome responsibility I have as the representative of the people in my electorate as I was on the first day I spoke in this place in 2013.

I want to begin with some words of thanks, most importantly to my wife and children for their unwavering love and constant support for me in my job. Each of us in the House is aware of the huge burden our representation has on our families. My family is everything to me, and I want them to be the first of my acknowledgements. I also want to acknowledge the rank-and-file members of the Labor Party who again gave me their confidence to be our party's candidate in Shortland, I thank them and all the many supporters and volunteers who assisted in assuring that Shortland returned a Labor member of parliament. Finally, I thank my dedicated staff for their coordination of the campaign and their ongoing support of me and our constituents.

I'm also honoured that my Labor colleagues have supported me to be a shadow minister, and I thank my friend the Leader of the Opposition for giving me the chance to serve as the shadow minister for international development and the Pacific, shadow minister assisting for climate change and shadow minister assisting for defence. These three policy areas are enormously challenging and inextricably linked. Fighting climate change is an issue of international and intergenerational equity, and our closest neighbours in the Pacific deserve our support and leadership. With shadow foreign minister Penny Wong, I am working to advance our agenda to engage with other nations in the Pacific as part of our efforts to foster and preserve peace, prosperity, stability and security in the region—efforts that are fundamental to Australia's own national security.

Australia has a deep interest in contributing to global poverty alleviation, but coalition governments have abandoned our commitment to aid funding and slashed our International Development Assistance Program budget by an incredible $11.8 billion in the six years they have been in power.

 

This is a source of international embarrassment for Australia and, indeed, is at odds with the generous spirit of Australian people.

Despite advocating the Pacific step up as a signature foreign policy, the government continues to demonstrate that this step up is cynical window-dressing, as it merely funnels $500 million of existing aid funds to the Pacific, which has resulted in the withdrawal of aid funding from other parts of the world. For example, Pakistan has been denuded of Australian aid funding. Given that Pakistan is at the heart of the struggle against Islamic extremism, this is a very short-sighted and counterproductive move.

Despite the so-called Pacific step up, the Prime Minister has let down our Pacific neighbours by failing to act on climate change, which they have identified as the most important issue they face and one that threatens their very existence. Australia signed up to the Boe declaration last year, when we acknowledged and agreed that climate change was the No. 1 existential threat to the entire Pacific region, including Australia. Mr Morrison had the opportunity to commit to real action on climate change at the Pacific Island leaders forum in August, but he let the Pacific down and he let Australia down when he watered down the Pacific Island leaders communique on climate change, removing the word 'crisis' and replacing it with 'reality'. Yes, climate change is certainly a reality for people in low-lying Pacific islands, but it is also a crisis, a crisis for which this government has no plan. We saw the Prime Minister's arrogant attitude to the people of the Pacific, repeated in the words of his deputy not long after. In a leaked video, the Deputy Prime Minister said the Pacific Islands would survive climate change because their workers could come to Australia to pick our fruit. It was a disgraceful comment, and the ramifications of that remark were felt widely across the Pacific, further damaging our reputation and credibility with our important neighbours. In fact, I was talking to a key stakeholder group, and one particular individual had just come back from Fiji. His taxi driver on the way to the airport actually raised the Deputy Prime Minister's remarks with him directly. This is permeating all through the Pacific.

The government has also undermined the Pacific labour scheme, which was designed to bring Pacific workers to Australia to help fill worker shortages here as well as provide an economic and skills boost to Pacific countries, when at the same time it was loosening the controls around the backpacker visa. Instead of attracting 2,000 workers in its first year, the Pacific labour scheme attracted only 200, meaning $8 million worth of wages that would have been repatriated to Pacific nations was not paid. That happened because the foreign minister was clearly rolled in cabinet by the Nationals, who were trying to loosen the backpacker visa to introduce an agriculture visa by the back door. This undermines the Pacific labour scheme and is having a really negative impact in the region.

Just this month, the Morrison government has shown its mean spirit towards some of the world's poorest with its disappointingly modest contribution to the Sixth Replenishment Conference for The Global Fund to Fight Tuberculosis, AIDS and Malaria. While Australia pledged $242 million, that fell well short of the 15 to 20 per cent increase from other developed countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and France. It should be noted that the government has so far contributed only half of the $220 million it pledged to The Global Fund 2017 to 2019 round. We'll be keeping a close eye on that.

In the area of defence, it is a pleasure to return to a policy area I'm familiar with, having worked as a principal policy adviser to the former member for Charlton, Greg Combet, when he was Minister for Defence Personnel, Materiel and Science in the Rudd-Gillard Labor governments. During that time I had the honour of contributing to Labor's defence industry policy, the establishment of the projects-of-concern process and the Mortimer procurement reforms, which were the most substantial reforms to defence procurement in a generation. Yet under this government with its revolving door of defence ministers we have seen more than a dozen critical Australian Defence Force capability acquisition projects running years behind schedule. These schedule blowouts across multibillion dollar projects could have a real impact on the ground for Defence Force personnel. The delays have been worsening this year, which indicates that the government is failing to manage defence capability acquisition projects effectively. In the three months from December 2018 the government allowed six defence projects, worth more than $6 billion, to be delayed for nearly a cumulative 10 years. That is a 10-year delay in only three months of project administration. In total, 14 major defence capability acquisition projects worth nearly $15 billion are running late by a cumulative total of 310 months, or 25 years. The revolving door of defence ministers under this Liberal government is clearly contributing to project blowouts.

In the six years since the Liberals came to office, defence ministers have conducted only three project-of-concern summits, despite defence policy stating that a ministerial summit should be held every six months.

 

In fact, in news coming out of the Defence annual report, only this week, we've seen a $570 million blowout in Defence's sustainment budget in only one year, and it's clearly related to the fact that project delays are leading to the ADF being forced to run existing equipment longer and harder than they planned for. We also saw a $3.7 billion typo in the Defence budget, where they had part of the Future Submarine project in the wrong column. That's a very significant typo and yet again reinforces the fact that this government simply cannot be trusted to administer such an important portfolio as Defence. In parliament last month the Minister for Defence Industry, Melissa Price, said:

As the Minister for Defence Industry, my priorities are clear: defence capability is built on time, on budget and on spec.

She is clearly failing the test set by herself.

On the issue of climate change, I continue to work with the shadow minister, the member for Hindmarsh, in this important policy area, and this week I seconded his private member's motion calling on this government to declare a climate emergency. This is not empty tokenism or alarmist politics, as those on the other side might suggest. Climate change is a significant threat to our economy, our natural environment, our farming communities and our national security. Australia's emissions have been rising every year under this government and are projected to continue to rise. Australia must take serious action to meet our commitments under the Paris treaty, and yet all this government is interested in is fudging the numbers, using dodgy accounting tricks with our Kyoto carryover credits to make it appear we are actually doing something. Well, the Australian people know better. The hundreds of thousands who marched—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 11:16 to 11:24

 

Mr CONROY:  As I was saying, climate change is a significant threat to our economy, our natural environment, our farming communities and our national security. Australia's emissions have been rising every year under this government and are projected to continue to rise. Australia must take serious action to meet our commitments under the Paris treaty, yet all this government is interested in is fudging the numbers. The Australian people know better. The hundreds of thousands who have marched and signed petitions know better. But this government maintains this inadequate target—a target that, despite its inadequacy, they still won't reach. Combating climate change is one of the great challenges of our time, but it's also one of the most important, and I will continue to call on the Morrison government to take stronger action on climate change.

I want to take this opportunity to update the House on issues about which my constituents come to me for assistance. Unfortunately, many of them have not changed over the past six years I've been a representative at this place. At the top of the list are Centrelink, telephone scams, the NDIS and aged care. Unfortunately, one of the main complaints I still continue to receive from constituents relates to Centrelink and particularly to waiting times—both waiting endlessly on hold on the phone to speak to someone and also waiting for applications to be processed. It's no wonder the government has changed the title of the minister responsible for Centrelink from Minister for Human Services to Minister for Government Services; the people I represent who rely on Centrelink certainly wouldn't identify humanity as being an objective they'd use to describe their experiences with Centrelink.

This is not a criticism of the professional, hardworking staff who are employed at Centrelink. My criticism is aimed directly at the government for slashing and burning this vital public service. One of my constituents waited over 180 days for her application for the pension to be processed. This should be taken in the context of the average application taking 49 days to be approved, which in itself is absolutely appalling.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 11:26 to 11:34

 

Mr CONROY:  As I was discussing, one of my constituents had their pension application take over six months, which is over three times as long as it should take. This is, of course, not surprising from a Prime Minister who has told senior Australians who have worked all their lives, paid their taxes and played by the rules that they should not rely on the age pension because it is a welfare entitlement. What disgusting contempt from the man who holds the highest office in the land.

Judy, who had to wait the 180 days for her pension, had to stop working because of illness when she was 60. While she was waiting for the pension to be processed she had to use nearly all of her bank savings. Judy said, 'It shouldn't be this hard for people who are honest and have worked all their lives,' and I agree with her.

It is not just elderly Australians that this government treats with such contempt. Another constituent waited over 200 days to have his youth allowance application processed. He applied in January this year and the application wasn't processed until August—well into semester 2 of the university year.

The government has also shown its disregard for people on Newstart, who are also left waiting and are forced to use their meagre savings before they can access the payment.

Despite a chorus of calls from many segments of our society, including ironically former Prime Minister Howard, and the member for New England, the government will not raise the Newstart allowance, despite it being a lowly $40 a day. I am yet to hear anyone credibly say that they can survive on $40 a day, let alone equip themselves with everything needed to find work.

Another major issue in my office is telephone scams. More than one in five people I represent are over the age of 65. This age group is particularly vulnerable to scams and are harassed the most by them. There are tangible ways the government could be acting on this increasing problem, yet they continue to drag their heels on what is a daily nuisance for many of my constituents. I note that the communications minister has very recently issued a formal directive to the Australian Communications and Media Authority that from April next year all telecommunications companies must use a two-factor authentication process when transferring mobile phone numbers from one provider to another, and that is a welcome decision. But considering Telstra, Optus and Vodafone already use this authentication process, this directive is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed to combat telephone scams in this country.

Around the world governments are trying out different systems and technologies to stop the scammers. In United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand tackling scammers is a priority. But in Australia we are still waiting for a report from ACMA as part of the scant technology project it has led since 2017. This report must be delivered two years after it was initiated and must lay out a plan to deliver real protections and noticeable improvements for the elderly and vulnerable people who are being harassed in their homes every day.

The NDIS is another issue on which my office is regularly asked for help. I'm proud to be a representative of the Hunter and Central Coast regions. The Hunter was one of the trial sites for the NDIS, so my constituents who participated in the NDIS trial have been involved in the system for six years now. Feedback I too often receive is that one of the fundamental flaws of the scheme is that it relies too much on the advocacy skills of a participant or their family to navigate the system and address issues when they arise. This should not be the case. The NDIS is helping some of the most vulnerable Australians and participants should not have to rely on family and friends, or the office of their member of parliament, when they face a hurdle with their plan. The scheme should be much more streamlined and user-friendly. It is shameful that the government has underspent on the NDIS to the tune of $1.6 billion and then tried to hide behind the excuse that the scheme is demand-driven. They are stomping down on the demand through their cuts and mismanagement.

It is shameful that they have not fully staffed the National Disability Insurance Agency. By their own actions this month the Liberals finally admitted the rigid staffing cap they imposed on the NDIA in 2014 has been hurting people living with disability and depriving them of much needed goods and services. While Labor welcomes the lifting of the cap by 800 employees to 4,000, this is still a long way short. The NDIA originally estimated that staffing levels would be 10,595 by 2018-19, more than double what has actually been achieved. To add insult to injury, the bill to the taxpayers for consultants and contractors has ballooned from $70 million in 2016 to $430 million in 2018.

All MPs know that people seeking help under the NDIS wait too long for their plan, too long for reviews and too long to access support. They find the agency and the online portal very difficult to negotiate. They find it hard to understand why their plans are cut and impossible to find a person to talk to. Once again, it should not be this hard. The government should fully fund the scheme, fully staff the agency and deliver people the support they have been promised and the supports they need.

Sadly, when the mission of the NDIS moved covertly from choice and control of the participant to what is deemed reasonable and necessary by the planner, a fundamental change occurred in the NDIS that has been very detrimental. The NDIS as a contract is about who we are as a people. Australians are fundamentally decent and generous and believe that people living with disability should live their best lives. It is not good enough that they struggle as they do.

 

Another issue that is raised frequently by my constituents is access to aged care—in particular, home care packages. Some of the stories of neglect and abuse in residential aged care emerging from the royal commission are truly shocking. It's just as alarming to realise that 120,000 older Australians are waiting for care at home—some up to two years—and that 16,000 have very sadly died while waiting for these home care packages. I have written to the royal commissioners asking them to hold a hearing in the Hunter, which would service the large population base of Newcastle, the Hunter Valley, Lake Macquarie and Port Stephens and allow relatively easy access for those on the Central Coast and Mid North Coast, all of which have large aged and retirement populations.

Our older Australians deserve quality care. They must be treated with dignity, and the concerns of their families and loved ones must be taken seriously. It seems older Australians are the unfortunate target of many of this government's failings. Those who have managed to put away some meagre savings for retirement are punished by a government which refuses to lower the Centrelink deeming rate, even as the Reserve Bank cuts and cuts interest rates and then cuts them again.

Finally, I want to talk about the economy, because it is also an issue that my constituents raise with me. Economic growth is at its slowest since the global financial crisis, wages are stagnant, almost two million Australians are looking for work or for more work, productivity is going backwards and living standards are going backwards. Collapsing confidence and weak growth are the economic consequences of a government with no plan. This government could raise Newstart, because we know that recipients of Newstart would inject money into the economy. This government could bring forward infrastructure spending, as suggested by the Reserve Bank, by Labor and by many other voices in the community. Unfortunately, in contrast, in five budgets the Morrison government have underspent on infrastructure by more than $5 billion. They talk up the infrastructure plan, but it's off in the never-never.

In conclusion, Australians are doing it tough, and this government has no plan. It will not even acknowledge there is a problem nor even debate it in the House. It has no plan to deal with low wages and rising prices. The cost of essentials is skyrocketing. Electricity prices are increasing. The cost of child care has become unaffordable under the Liberals. Australians are worried about the economy, but Scott Morrison and the Liberals are pretending there is no problem. Labor will continue to hold the government to account on important matters like the economy and their failure on climate change. The people of Australia expect no less from Labor and the people of Shortland expect no less from me as their representative.

I finish where I began—to acknowledge that I'm honoured and privileged to be the fourth representative of the people of Shortland following in the footsteps of Charlie Griffiths, Peter Morris and Jill Hall and in the footsteps of Greg Combet in Charlton. It is an honour and privilege that I'm forever grateful for, and I recommit myself to the service of the people of Shortland, Lake Macquarie and the Central Coast.

You can view my speech here

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