The vocation of politics is meant to be one of service to the common good. However, when Brian Lawrence, chairman of the Australian Catholic Council for Employment Relations, appeared before the Senate Community Affairs Committee hearing into the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Family Payments Structural reform and participation Measures) Bill 2015 on 19 November it may have seemed to onlookers that this principle had either disappeared from the minds of those he was about to address or had, perhaps, already been done away with.
We can, of course, only speculate as to what has been going through the minds of those in the Government who have engineered the legislation and those in the Opposition who have signalled that they will support at least some of its key measures, but we can do little better than quote Mr Lawrence’s evidence to the committee in conveying its debilitating impact.
In essence the bill would effect significant, deleterious changes to what most Australian families would know as Family Tax Benefit Part A and Family Tax Benefit Part B, which the legislation proposes to cut by close to $5 billion within three years of its enactment. What this amounted to, Mr Lawrence told the Senate Committee, was that the proposed cuts would hit about 2½ million Australian families with children.
“All families with children would suffer substantial cuts in their incomes,” he said. “All children would be worse off, save for those who are less than 12 months’ old,” he told the committee. Furthermore, the cuts which are planned to begin on 1 July 2016 and be fully implemented within two years would “… inflict an unjust burden on all families, but particularly those families who rely on a single income and have children in secondary schools”. In relation to Family Tax Benefit Part A, over the first three years of the operation of the new scheme, all two-children families would lose $2081 in government support. But the losses in Family Tax Benefit A are only the start.
“Much more damage would be done to the living standards of single income families through major changes to the eligibility for Family Tax Benefit, Part B and the payments made under it,” he pointed out. “Family Tax Benefit Part B is payable to the primary carer of children. In couple parent families it is usually the mother, but sometimes the father, who is entitled to the payment. A sole parent is also entitled to the payment if he or she is the primary carer of the children. Special provisions are made for grandparents who are the primary carers of their grandchildren.”
It seems that what both the Government and the Opposition do not want the public to know – but what Mr Lawrence was perfectly willing to say out loud – was that the Bill proposes that from 1 July, 2016, single breadwinner couple families would no longer be eligible for Family Tax Benefit, Part B at the end of the year in which their youngest child turns 13. “This would amount to a further loss of $60.20 per week and means that the loss would usually occur from the end of the first or second year of secondary school. The loss of this payment would cost the family $13,924 over five years of secondary schooling.” This loss is in addition to the loss of $2081 over three years, mentioned earlier.
There was once a general acceptance that the family unit is the fundamental social structure essential for the stability and progress of society – and that the job of governments of any colour is to do what they can to underpin social stability and the family.
We have no doubt Mr Lawrence’s maths is perfectly up to the job at hand.
But what is just as clear is that in both philosophical and economic terms neither the Government, nor the Opposition, which has already signalled that it will back the Government with regard to couples with children over 13 years, believes in this principle any longer.
At a time when families have increasingly tectonic financial and social pressures being placed upon their shoulders, it is nothing short of dismaying that politicians can even consider abandoning the family unit in such ways.