This afternoon, on International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, we have an opportunity in this place to come together to make a statement that we accept there are people in Australia who are not sharing as they ought in the general welfare and wonder of the economy that is operating in our country at the moment. I hope that through this discussion, short as it is, we will be able to agree on some simple statements and come together with movement forward rather than degenerating into some kind of debate about whose policies are bigger . It would be really useful if we could just extract from the statement that is before us that there are people in Australia who are living in poverty and there is a need for urgent action. That does not say that action is not currently being taken. I am sure there will be a litany of things brought forward about things that are being done through various systems in Australia to address poverty-and we applaud that. We think that what we can gain from this afternoon is actually just accepting that perhaps we can listen to each other and, more importantly, listen to those people who are living the experience to look at how we can improve what we are doing.
Some of us have been privileged to attend a range of Senate inquiries over the last few years. I have only been here a few years, but already through the community affairs process I have been part of an inquiry on poverty in Australia. I think we should remember the title of that inquiry report: A hand up not a hand out. It was not a demand for greater welfare. Whilst it took months and months to get a government response and there were significant differences about figures that were being used and about motivations, I thought we had agreed as participants that there were people in Australia who needed assistance.
I will just quote from a couple of the people who came before us. There were over 500 submissions to that inquiry from people who are living the experience in Australia. This came from St Vincent de Paul-and no group has more knowledge of what is going on in our communities than they do. One of the witnesses said:
I want to stress in relation to this delegation that we are not policy experts but we are experts on the lived experience-the lived experience of these people who have suffered the pain and heartache of poverty in the city of Sydney.
In that case it was in the city of Sydney. That experience came across throughout the country. It did not matter whether we were meeting in the Northern Territory, in Sydney, in Queensland, in Western Australia or wherever-the people who were working most closely in the community were telling us of their lives and the lives of the people they were serving. It is our job-the job of everyone in this chamber-to listen to those voices, to see what we can learn and not to judge. One of the major messages is that it is not our job to judge. It is our job to look at reality, to look at experience and to see how we can best build the opportunity that Senator Mason was talking about, because there is a great deal of common ground here. I just think sometimes we forget it-we are so busy hearing our own voices that we forget that perhaps there is something we can do to pull this together.
Out of that Senate inquiry, there were a wide range of recommendations, most of which did not actually come forward in a way that people could agree about. But one was the overwhelming interest of people across the country in working together to find a solution. I think we can still hold on to that. On a day like today, we can actually take those steps forward. We can say that, yes, we can do things better. It does not matter how many statistics are rolled off about whether the percentage increase over the last 10 years has been greater than that of the 10 years before and how in every person's pocket there are X more dollars. We can argue about that until we are all very old. But there is the reality of the experience that came before us not just in that Senate inquiry but in the one we did on mental health, the one we did on child support and the one we did on people in institutional care. What they had in common was that there are people who are not sharing in the wealth of this country.
That is the challenge for us, because that is fact. It does not matter how many graphs or statistics you put forward; the people themselves are suffering. They are telling us that their kids are not able to go on school excursions because they cannot afford the extra time. Parents cannot look their kids in the face and explain to them why they cannot get the same activities or entertainments that the other kids can get. That is fact. We have people who do not have enough food at home on a weekly basis. They cannot get nutrition because they cannot afford it. We had the horror stories of people who turned the lights off in their home and did not use electricity because they could not afford the utilities bill.
These are not just horror stories. They are not coming out of some movie or some claim for extraordinary support. They are the reallife stories of people who are living, the same as we are, in our community at the moment. They are experiencing poverty. Other speakers this afternoon have talked about the activities in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Everyone in this place has had personal experience of working with people from those communities and understanding the special plight that is facing people in remote locations without health care, without education opportunities and also without that spark, about which we talk here sometimes, of hope. The message for us-and I think the challenge for us-is how we turn rhetoric, the policies and the pages of statistics into a message of hope and how we remove ourselves from the political rhetoric, from saying, 'Our policies are much better than their policies because ...' and come back to the hub of the matter, which is how we make the policies work and how we ensure that the people in our communities share the advantages that most of us have as a matter of course.
When we do that, we have responded to the challenge that has been put before us by this motion and, as I know speakers have talked about, by the youth representations in this place today and at other times. I think there is an expectation by many young people in our community that we do our job and that we respond to those challenges, because they are not caught up in the rhetoric of political promises. What they see is the need in the community. While we are focusing here today on Australia, and I think that is an important thing, on this international day we also look across our international community. It is not a debate between welfare and work. What we are saying is that a caring, economically sound government acknowledges its responsibility to citizens who need support. There will always be a need for some welfare system. There needs to be encouragement towards effective education and employment. That is a given. But, if you ask questions about the current government's policy, they immediately take that as an attack and then throw across the chamber that people on this side-allegedly 'the Left'-do not understand, are drowning in an outdated methodology and are focusing exclusively on welfare.
That is just not true. It is running away from the truth; it is running away from the real-life experiences of the people who want to tell us their stories. But one day they will stop telling us their stories because they are tired of telling us about how it is and not being listened to and not being understood. Rather than being part of the solution, once again they will be dismissed, marginalised and labelled as somehow having failed because they have not been able to share the successes that other people have. We must move beyond that. We have the opportunity to do that. We have the opportunity this afternoon as a parliament to come together and say, 'There is poverty in our community; there is an urgent need to do something about it, and we will.' That does not seem to me to be such a big ask. We can do that. We can then go into the political discussions about how we actually implement that, but surely we can agree that the data indicates that there are people who are suffering poverty in this country. Their stories tell us that they are suffering poverty in this country. The amazing work of the various agencies which support our community tells us that they are working with this. I applaud Senator Minchin this afternoon talking about the greater philanthropy that is happening in this country. But the greater philanthropy is responding to a need that we should also work towards a solution for. We can do it. It is a bit of a challenge to move beyond the political argy-bargy, but I think we have a job to do and we can achieve that.
17 October, 2006