30 July 2019


Early this afternoon a number of us senators had the pleasure of asking ministers across the bench about the state of our economy and also about the word that the government continues to refuse to use, which is wages—and I know Senator Watt also made mention of it a couple of times in his points of order.

I want to set the record straight about wages in Australia. Wages growth nationally had been at or below 2.5 per cent for almost the last five years. Real median household incomes have declined by almost $500 in the latest year, according to the HILDA Survey released today. The percentage of the population living in relative poverty has increased to 10.4 per cent and more than one million Australians are underemployed. On top of that, we have over 700,000 Australians who are underemployed and youth unemployment is at a staggering 12 per cent. To top all that off, penalty rates continue to be cut under this government’s watch.

As a former union official at the SDA, I know that the cuts to penalty rates have had a major impact on many retail workers, especially those in the hospitality sector, which I know a number of other senators in this place had also previously represented. Those costs may not be a lot for many people in this place, but I know that it does matter to many of those members and retail workers where they’ve lost between $2,000 to $6,000 every year. Some will argue that that is good. It is good for business, because it will allow employers to employ more people. But recent research from the University of Wollongong shows the complete opposite. In fact, the number of shifts that have been offered under the recent cuts to penalty rates has not produced any extra jobs. In fact, earlier this year the council of small business chief executive, Peter Strong, described the cuts to penalty rates as a waste of time. He stated that, ‘Not one single job will be created.’

Some will also argue that the world is changing and that it’s becoming increasingly normal to work on Sundays. But surely the argument in favour of a robust and competitive environment, and providing compensation to workers, is something that must be reflected, especially when you are doing irregular hours outside of the normal Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five workplace.

Regardless of what will be argued, and no doubt there will be others who will argue against this, for those who do work on Sundays and rely on those penalty rates, they cannot survive. They definitely do need the lost wages that they were earning before the 2017 Fair Work Commission decision.

To top it all off, we’ve also had the Reserve Bank of Australia recently come out and say, ‘Our economy is weak.’ Wages are stagnant and consumption growth is weak, and this has resulted in sluggish growth in the economy under the coalition’s watch. To quote the central bank, ‘Wages growth has remained at record lows and the GDP growth has been well below trend over the year to the March quarter.’ This is one of the other reasons the RBA has given: growth in household disposable income has remained low, and this has contributed to low growth in consumption, which was also well below average.

So, the Reserve Bank of Australia is also stating the obvious: wages are low, the economy is slow, yet the government, on the other side, seems to think there are no issues on how things are tracking. The RBA has also remarked that the growth in business investment was ‘weaker than expected’ and that the retail and transportation sectors had experienced well-below conditions. The government has vacated the field when it comes to fixing this mess—and it’s made the mess, thanks to the policies set by the now Prime Minister and former Treasurer.

On top of stagnant wages growth, our unemployment level is also not looking too crash hot. Earlier this month, figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that both unemployment and underemployment remain too high. Economic growth is slowing, and serious structural issues in the labour market continue under this government, with an increase in insecure work, soaring unemployment and growing levels of youth employment to top it off.