2015 has been a whirlwind year marked by highs and lows on a journey to making a caring and sustainable Australia we can all be proud of.
By Senator Rachel Siewert
2014-2015 has been a whirlwind year marked by highs and lows on a journey to making a caring and sustainable Australia we can all be proud of. The end of the financial year was punctuated by celebrating ten years of being in the Senate. It was with elation I celebrated with members, friends, volunteers, former and present MPs, staffers and family at Perth Town Hall. It was great to reflect back on the collective work we have done over the last decade, the things we have achieved and consider our plans for the future - there is so much more to do.
Things weren't so great on the other side of the political fence. The Federal Government has spent much of this year attempting to claw back support after the last year's budget was so resoundingly rejected by the community. I don't think many (including Coalition MPs) will forget just how badly the Australian public received a budget that sought to shred our social security system. Much of this year has been spent by the Government half-heartedly attempting to water down harsh measures or take a more insidious approach to harsh budget cuts.
Under my portfolios of Families and Community Services blows to our most vulnerable remain. The Government is still set on making people under 25 wait for income support for four weeks, this is on top of the current one week wait. There has also been a huge emphasis on compliance and fraud whilst doing next to nothing to genuinely increase employment. You might have seen that Scott Morrison had hired a 'welfare cop' to chase down 'bludgers', meanwhile 26 million calls went unanswered over at Centrelink in the last year. We learnt more than ever that the narrative of vilifying struggling Australians would override any logic. The Government's worldview is clear - those who are in need of help should be met with distrust.
The healthy welfare card is going full steam ahead, with the first trial set to roll out in Ceduna, South Australia. The card will restrict access to cash for those on income support other than aged pensioners – 80% of someone's income support forcibly quarantined to a card will make life remarkably harder for this already struggling group. I will continue to call for the Government to abandon this punitive and draconian measure. I will also call on Labor not to support the healthy welfare card; whilst I am writing this the measure has been introduced in the House of Representatives. Speculation suggests Labor may support this measure, which is hugely disappointing. I have urged them to vote down the measure. We supported the changes to the Aged Pension threshold and assets test, reversing the Howard Government changes and enabling more people on lower and modest incomes to access the pension as part of this process we negotiated with the Government to ensure a retirement income review as part of the Tax White Paper; this should help us ensure all older Australians are able to have a dignified retirement.
I continued to be part of the Joint Parliament Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition, with the Committee tabling its final report on the last day of the June sitting. It is clear from the submissions and evidence the Committee received that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples want substantive change which addresses the race clauses and includes racial discrimination. We should not support any proposals that don't have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's support.
I must say I was very disappointed with the Prime Minister's response to the Aboriginal leaders' request for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's specific conventions. I'm glad that he has overturned his decision but I think it is an indication of his lack of understanding of the issues involved.
It has also been disappointing to see the PM recently stymy any move towards marriage equality by denying coalition MPs a free vote whilst insisting on a plebiscite or referendum. This would be especially hurtful to my constituents who attended the recent marriage equality rally in Perth, which stands as the biggest in Australian history. Both issues are picking up momentum and I hope that thanks to the work of long-term campaigners we will see results in Australia in the near future.
This year Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have faced significant barriers with the fractured rollout of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy as well as the WA State Government threat of remote community closures. Alongside the community we ran a strong campaign opposing the community closures and I initiated an inquiry into the rollout of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. A public hearing has already occurred in Canberra (with more to be announced I hope) and the Committee plans to report in November. Hopefully this will provide some answers for Aboriginal run organisations that have been adversely impacted.
At the beginning of the year Australian consumers were faced with a contamination scare that received media attention and threw our broken quarantine processes into the limelight. Nanna's Berries imported from China were contaminating Australian's with Hepatitis A; subsequently the process to keep our imported products safe was called into question. It became clear the Department of Agriculture has its hands tied when it came to ramping up consignment checks for products that continue to come in once a potential contamination has been identified. Since the scare, increased checks on imported berries have been applied but more must be done to strengthen the response to potentially contaminated products entering the country. We will continue to pursue this.
This year the Government has been undertaking its so called review of the Bioregional Marine Park system which was effectively suspended when they came into Government and rejected the marine parks' management plans. This process is supposed to report by the end of the year (has been extended), we will continue to campaign until this world leading marine park system is restored.
Looking ahead, my staff, interns, volunteers and I are revving up for the election year and pushing out on the issues we all care about more than ever. I am more motivated than ever to run for re-election next year so I can continue the work I am so passionate about