Bob Day, the Family First senator from South Australia, has delivered his maiden speech to the Senate.
Day, 62, is a former Liberal Party member and candidate. He joined Family First after failing to win Liberal pre-selection for Mayo in 2008. He contested the Senate for Family First in 2010 and again in 2013 when he was successful
After polling just 3.76% of the primary vote, Day won his seat through a series of preference deals with minor parties and independents. His term began on July 1 and will expire on June 30, 2020.
Day is a builder and a former president of the Housing Industry Association. Since taking office, he has agreed to work with Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm. The two men share a philosophy that favours free markets and economic liberalism. However, unlike Leyonhjelm, Day is a social conservative.
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Hansard transcript of Senator Bob Day’s maiden speech.
The PRESIDENT (17:00): Order! Before I call Senator Day, I remind honourable senators that this is his first speech; therefore, I ask that the usual courtesies be extended to him.
Senator DAY (South Australia) (17:00): ‘Every family, a job and a house.’ If every family had a job and owned a house, the benefits to this nation would be great indeed. Australia would be transformed. So why doesn’t every family have a job and own their own home? There are a number of reasons, but in the main it is barriers to entry. As a senator, I have been elected to do two things: (1) represent the great state of South Australia and (2) implement the policies that my party and I have been expressing for many years—namely, removing the barriers that prevent people from getting a job and owning their own home.
When it comes to jobs and houses, Australia is not a free country. Let me begin with barriers to getting a job. For the low-skilled, poorly educated or socially disadvantaged, or for those who lack connections or even self-confidence, the barriers to entry to getting a job are serious indeed. When I started in the housing industry 40 years ago, every tradesman had an apprentice. Apprentice wages were very low, as apprentices were treated very much like students and received the equivalent of a student allowance—like every other student in the country. Young people who were not particularly suited to or interested in academic study attended technical schools and then did an apprenticeship. Since then, we have made employing apprentices such a nightmare that few tradespeople are willing to take them on, yet there are thousands of unemployed young people who would love to learn a trade and get a start in the workforce. Whilst ‘education, education, education’ has become society’s mantra, forcing young people to stay on to year 12 when they are clearly not enjoying it is both foolish and wrong. It condemns them to a life of misery.
I spent many years working on building sites. I came across many young lads not enjoying school, causing trouble at home and getting in trouble with the police, who then started working on a building site. I can tell you that by Friday night they were too tired to be hooning around in cars, setting fire to brush fences and spraying graffiti at all hours of the night. I know hundreds of tradesmen—carpenters, bricklayers, tilers—who left school at 15 and have gone on to lead very happy and successful lives. These same early school leavers now all have cars and boats and two or three investment properties—and they send their kids to private schools. They are also members of the local Country Fire Service or surf-lifesaving club and they coach local football or netball teams. They are good citizens, yet they received very little in the way of formal education. As the old saying goes, it is not what you are good at at school that matters but what you are good at in life.
I note the Newstart allowance at the moment is worth about $240 a week and the minimum wage is about $640 a week. Between $240 and $640 there is a no-go zone where anyone who offers or accepts anything in between is breaking the law. In fact it is even worse than that because we do not permit anyone to work for any amount between nought and $640. We praise people who work for no money—working up to 40 hours a week in op shops and nursing homes and for the RSPCA—but we do not allow them to work for more than zero until you reach $640. If you are allowed to work for nothing, surely you should be allowed to work for something. It is absurd.
Australia has been groaning under this yoke for a century. In circumstances like this, sometimes the only way to achieve a breakthrough is to consider a break-with. So when I decided to run for office to go and do something about this, a well-known Adelaide businessman—no names, just initials: Roger Drake—said to me: ‘Bob, you will not get in. Politics is designed to keep people like you out.’ But given the clear emergency that now exists with respect to youth unemployment, in particular tragically high levels of youth unemployment and underemployment in my home state—over 40 per cent in some areas—the time has surely come to allow young people who want to to opt out of the workplace regulation system and allow them to work at rates of pay and under terms and conditions which they consider are best for them.
Of course there is outrage when I say these things. I hear, ‘They might be exploited.’ But where is the outrage when these same young people end up on drugs, get involved in crime, suffer poor health, become pregnant, get recruited into bikie gangs or even commit suicide? No, there is only outrage when they want to take a job that suits them but does not suit the government. What percentage of employers exploit young people anyway? Is it one per cent, five per cent, 10 per cent? So we stop the other 90 per cent from hiring people because of some who might behave badly. Trucks career out of control and kill people. Do we take all trucks off the road? Of course not. Athletes cheat and take drugs and fix matches. Do we ban sport? Of course not. Society cannot function if you apply that principle. And, yet, we apply it to people wanting to get a job.
As has been widely reported, the Treasurer and the Prime Minister are open to suggestions from the crossbench on where savings might be made to get the budget back into surplus. Well, here is a silver bullet, Prime Minister: the government could reduce its welfare budget, reduce its $5 billion job placement program, reduce a dozen social ills—all costing millions of dollars—and, at the same time, start collecting income tax if it would simply allow those young people who want to to opt out of the workplace regulation system. There are literally thousands of jobs in rural and regional Australia where young people, in particular, who are living at home rent-free, with no commuting costs and a low cost of living, would be able to get local jobs which suit them.
Just yesterday, I had a young Y20 delegate to the G20 Youth Summit in my office seeking my support for, and I quote, ‘Ensuring young people have flexibility in negotiating workplace agreements.’ Young people are telling me this is what they want. Let me be clear about one thing: I am not advocating a return to Work Choices. I was a vehement opponent of Work Choices. In fact, I visited this place on a number of occasions, meeting with ministers—they know who they are because they are still here—and imploring them not to proceed along the Work Choices path. I said: ‘Leave Peter Reith’s 1996 Workplace Relations Act alone and simply allow those who want to to opt out. Those who wish to stay in the workplace regulation system could do so. But those who did not want all that stuff could opt out.’
A lot of employers and a lot of employees were very comfortable with Peter Reith’s Workplace Relations Act because it told them what to do. But there were some employees who did not want to be bound by it all; hence, my proposal to allow them to opt out. Well, here I am nine years on saying the same thing. As history shows, those ministers did not listen to my advice last time, and we went from a 600-page Workplace Relations Act to a 2,000-page disaster called Work Choices. Now we have its successor, the Fair Work Act, comprising 3,000 pages of rules and regulations, which is all fine for those who want them. But what about those who do not want them? I have no problem whatsoever if people want to work within the regulated system with its awards, minimum wages, unfair dismissals, joining of unions and so on—no problem, whatsoever. Just don’t make it compulsory. People do things for their reasons, not ours.
Let me now move on to barriers to home ownership. For more than 100 years, the average Australian family was able to buy its first home on one wage. Young couples got a start in the housing market and worked up from there. The median house price was around three times the median income, allowing young homebuyers easy entry into the housing market. The median house price is now more than nine times what it was for 100 years between 1900 and 2000. At nine times median household income, a family will fork out approximately $600,000 more on mortgage payments than they would have had house prices remained at three times median income. That is $600,000 that they are not able to spend on other things—clothes, cars, furniture, appliances, travel, movies, restaurants, the theatre, their children’s education, charities and so on. The economic consequences of this change have been devastating. The capital structure of our economy has been distorted to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. And for those on middle and low incomes, the prospect of ever becoming homeowners has now all but vanished. Housing starts have plummeted, and so have all the jobs associated with it—civil construction, housing construction, transport, appliances, whitegoods, soft furnishing, and the list goes on. That is not to mention the billions of dollars in lost GST revenue to the states.
The single most important factor affecting housing affordability has been land. In no other area of the economy has the interference of government been so pronounced, so unsuccessful in its implementation and so catastrophic in its effect. The deliberate policy to limit urban growth—that is, limiting the supply of land on the urban fringes of our cities by introducing urban growth boundaries and, at the same time, promoting urban densification—has been a disaster socially, economically and environmentally. And it was all designed for one purpose: to make money. It had nothing to do with the environment, the cost of infrastructure, public transport or any other reason put forward.
Land developers, in cahoots with state government land management agencies, have made billions of dollars and, at the same time, ruined the home ownership prospects of a whole generation of young Australians. If there is one commodity Australia is not short of, it is land. Yet, to buy a block of land on which to build their first home, young couples are forced to camp out overnight by rent-seeking land developers and their state government cronies for the privilege of paying an exorbitant amount of money for a measly one-tenth of an acre of former farmland—land that developers and state governments between them managed to convert from $10,000 a hectare to $1 million a hectare. It leaves all other forms of price gouging in its wake. When challenged about this and asked, ‘Why are you letting this happen?’, a senior state government politician admitted, ‘We need the money.’ It is why politicians are so easily captured and conned by the constant procession of rent-seeking crony capitalists whose job it is is to enrich one group of Australians—themselves—at the expense of another: first homebuyers. Rent seekers are the scourge of business and politics. They tarnish the political process, distort the market and, in the case of land development, distort the entire economy.
The second barrier is the proliferation of federal, state and local government planning and building controls, which add cost, confusion and delay. Let me give you one example. A few years ago I bought a block of land on a very busy main road in one of Australia’s capital cities. I submitted plans to the local shire council to build 12 semidetached home units on the land and, as the zoning allowed for such a development, I did not expect any problems. That was, of course, until I came up against the shire council town planner, who said he would recommend the development for approval subject to the provision of noise attenuation devices across the front of the property. ‘Noise attenuation’ is a fancy name for soundproofing.
I tried to point out to him that there were thousands of kilometres of main roads across the country with many hundreds of thousands of dwellings along them and that it seemed to work in most places without sound attenuation. In any event, I told him that the project was actually geared towards older people, many of whom prefer the noise of traffic and pedestrians. They say they feel safer on a main road than in some quiet backstreet or cul-de-sac. But he was having none of it. He wanted his noise attenuation devices. Naturally, I tried commercial arguments on him, saying that people who did not like noise would not buy them and that the market would sort it out. But, for reasons known only to town planners but obscure to common sense, he rejected all my pleas and I had an acoustic engineer design a front fence to assist with noise attenuation. No sooner had I finished the job than the royal society for the deaf bought the units—all 12 of them. The point in telling that story is not just to mention the addition of unnecessary cost to say that there is no greater insult to the integrity of a human being than for the state to presume that it knows what is best for you.
There used to be a newspaper advertisement with the headline, ‘If you do nothing else, make sure you own your home by the time you retire.’ There is no better hedge against poverty in one’s later years than to be in one’s own home. If people are not then the implications for us here in this place will be enormous, as an increasing ratio of retirees to those in the workforce will mean that future pensions will never be enough to meet either mortgage costs or rent. So who is going to pick up the tab? The state governments who took the retirees’ money when they were starting out? I doubt it. It all comes back to the entry point—getting a job, buying a house, starting a business or even starting a political party. This is where the incumbents put aside their differences and unite to keep out new entrants.
I know companies do not like new entrants coming along and undercutting them, especially when the new entrant does not have all the overheads that they have. But that is the basis of a dynamic and prosperous economy. We should reject their pleas. How much longer are we going to keep locking people out of employment and housing? I have spent the last 30 years helping the jobless and homeless, and I can tell you that the situation is getting worse. We all have jobs and houses; why can’t they have them? Removing the barriers to jobs and houses would not only transform the lives of thousands of Australians; it would transform the economy.
I had a briefing with Treasury officials just a few days ago and was presented with a bleak outlook on the Australian economy, showing rising unemployment and an activity gap in investment following the resources boom. I asked, ‘What about housing construction? Would that fill the activity gap?’ The Treasury official replied, ‘Yes, it would’. So there you have it—jobs and houses. Even Treasury agrees with me!
I am a conservative. Family First is a conservative party. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, ‘Only progressives become old-fashioned; conservatives are always in fashion.’ Conservatives acknowledge the achievements of previous generations. They are realists. They see what works and what does not work. And what works are free markets, property rights, the law of contract, sound economics, strong families and strong values. They know the facts of life are on their side. Yes, they have tried many times to bury conservatism, but the body keeps coming back to life after every outbreak of instability to outlive all the pallbearers.
I am also a committed federalist. To quote Sir Samuel Griffith, the first Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia:
“We must not lose sight of the essential condition that Australia is to be a federation of States, not a single government of Australia. The separate States are to continue as autonomous bodies, surrendering only so much of their power as is necessary to the establishment of a central government to do for them collectively what they cannot do individually for themselves.”
In other words, the states are equal to the Commonwealth and equal to each other. For someone from Adelaide, who well remembers Bob Hawke’s famous line, ‘We’re all Australians, whether we’re from Melbourne or Sydney,’ this was music to my ears. As we keep being reminded, the Commonwealth government does not have the money to do all the things it wants to do. As the High Court has recently demonstrated, it also does not have the power it thinks or pretends it has. The Commonwealth has to start giving up some of its power and control.
As many here would know, the infant Australian settlement was based on five key ‘protective supports’—two economic, two social and one of imperial benevolence of the mother country. The two social supports were the White Australia policy and state paternalism. The two economic supports were tariff protection and compulsory workplace regulation. These two went hand in hand. Imperial benevolence, the White Australia policy, state paternalism and tariff protection have all gone. There is only one left—compulsory workplace regulation. After 114 years, it is time people were given the freedom to opt out.
If, at the end of my term in parliament, everyone who wants a job has one, everyone who wants to own a home can do so, and my home state is stronger and more independent than it is now, then my time in this place will end well.
In conclusion, I would like to thank all those who made it possible for me to be standing here today: my wife, Bronte, and my family; my long-standing personal assistant, Joy; my business partner, John; my political mentors Bert Kelly and Ray Evans; my Family First state colleagues past and present—Andrew Evans, Dennis Hood and Rob Brokenshire; our candidates, volunteers and staff. Thank you all so much.