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Change politics

By Natasha Stott Despoja - posted Wednesday, 15 August 2001

Three years ago I addressed the National Press Club on the topic ‘The Future for Young Australians’. Over the past three years, I have become increasingly convinced that creating a future for young Australians requires not just a change in policies, but a fundamental change in politics.

Significant events have occurred in the past three years: the independence of East Timor and our peacekeeping role; the fallout from the battle on the waterfront; hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians crossed bridges for Reconciliation; and of course the ‘greatest Olympic games ever’.

Some things, however, have stayed the same. As The Australian newspaper’s political editor Dennis Shanahan, pointed out last weekend, "We are confronted with the prospect of a third election in just eight years being fought on tax".


For too long, taxation has dominated political debate in Australia, while there has been relatively little discussion about where we - as a nation - should spend those funds for the greatest rewards. Well, I believe Australians want more than that from their elected representatives. I think they want honesty. I think they want a vision of where Australia could be in 20, or even 30 years time, not just after the next election. I know they want more funds for education and health.

This election should be about the triple bottom line: the economy, the community and our environment. It should not be about who has the biggest tax cut.

The Australian Democrats pledge to change politics. We pledge that we will not support any increase in the rate of the Goods and Services Tax. We will not support tax cuts to the rich while the poorest are neglected. We will not support tax cuts unless necessary improvements are first made in education, health and environmental protection.

The Democrats have always looked out for the most disadvantaged Australians. Welfare reform will be a key part of our election platform. In the coming months, the Democrats will be releasing a number of policies focusing on aged care, disabilities, veterans and other Australians to whom we owe a special obligation.

I am announcing one of the key commitments the Democrats are taking to the election and beyond. One million Australians live significantly below the poverty line. There are unemployed people, students and other young people who are struggling to live on Government allowances that are 20% to 40% below the poverty line.

The Democrats want to start pulling people out of poverty by raising welfare allowances including the Youth Allowance, Austudy and Newstart, to the level of the aged pension. The initiative would also include sickness allowance, widow allowance, partner allowance and mature age allowance. The base payment rate would be the single pension rate, indexed to movements in male total average weekly earnings. (MTAWE).


A single unemployed adult presently receives $21 a week less to live on than a single pensioner. An adult student receives $52.90 a week less. The McClure Welfare Reform Report recommended that there be a common base payment for all eligible persons. Regrettably, the Government ignored this recommendation. Real welfare reform would have raised these payments to above the poverty line.

This initiative would mean a much needed increase in income for one million Australians. It would cost an extra $1.5 billion per year, but a phased implementation could be achieved for $300 million per year, with greater expenditures in subsequent years covered by the same economic growth that John Howard wants to turn into tax cuts.

We should not be considering tax cuts for those on higher incomes until we have addressed the issue of welfare recipients living in poverty. Last month, Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott said: "We can't abolish poverty because poverty, in part, is a function of individual behaviour". Well it is also, in part, a function of the Government’s failing to give people enough money to live on. We are talking about people who are in poverty before they even start making choices about where to spend their money. Let us at least start them at an income they can live on.

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This is an edited extract of an address to the National Press Club, Canberra, on 8 August 2001. Click here for the full transcript.

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About the Author

Senator Natasha Stott Despoja was the Australian Democrats spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Attorney-Generals, Science & Biotechnology, Higher Education and the Status of Women (including Work & Family). She is a former Senator for South Australia.

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