Raising people’s voices in Parliament

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Senator Ricky Muir says it is time people living in poverty were given a real voice in Parliament, raised above those of think tanks and party lines. Amid Senate reforms set to diminish the likelihood of people from ‘micro parties’ being elected, he urges people to  use their vote carefully if they want their voices heard in Parliament.

I can’t speak on behalf of anybody else, but as a politician, nothing grinds my gears more than  hearing another politician speak about poverty from a party perspective. Why? Because a party platform is essentially a ‘cheat sheet’ for those elected under the banner of the party they  represent, to speak about an issue without any independent thought or experience. As a matter of fact, we have seen in recent years the ‘talking points’ for certain issues being leaked to the media or facing outwards in politicians’ hands, just as a savvy journalist snaps the money shot. Even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been busted with talking notes in his hand; it would seem that even he is a good boy and says what he is told to say.

As a Senator representing a ‘minor party’ – the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party – I generally don’t have these types of resources, and to be honest, even if I did I would struggle to accept them.

Whenever there is a Bill being presented to the Senate that may need  crossbench support, my office fires into gear and we start reaching out to as many stakeholders as we can. We manage the emails and see what sort of correspondence we are receiving about the issue, I do my best to get a broad understanding of why the Bill is being presented, who it is going to affect, how it is going to affect them and what I can potentially do to make it better.

Most importantly, if I can relate to a Bill on a personal level, it helps me understand the perspective that many constituents may be trying to articulate.

When the government is speaking about low incomes, unemployment, social services in general or poverty, can I relate? Yes. I have personal experience to draw on.

Looking at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research presented by Melbourne University in March 2012, which was a period of my life where I was earning the most I had ever earnt prior to entering Parliament, the poverty line in Australia for a couple with four children, which was my family status at the time (now we are a couple with five), was set at $1137.75 per week.

In March 2012, I was bringing home approximately $1100 per week, earned by permanently working afternoon shift, doing saw changes during my lunch break and after hours, and working for a few hours on Saturdays to earn penalty rates. In doing all this I was still classified as the “working poor”, as in, employed but living below the poverty line.

Without the penalty rates and extra work, my wage would have been significantly under the poverty line for my family status, keeping in mind that this example was at the wealthiest point of my working life before Parliament. So, yes, I can relate to people in lower socioeconomic backgrounds when the government has them in its sights.

Now I am a Senator who can relate to issues like proposed GP co-payments, a six-month waiting period for the dole, fuel indexation, cuts to family tax benefits and increases in GST, in a way that is connected to those most affected. I certainly don’t need any written notes from a department, or faceless party hacks, to tell me what to say or how to say it.

However, it seems the government is unhappy with reality being represented in Parliament and has used every opportunity to call the current Senate “obstructionist” when the crossbench stands up and represents those who are struggling the most to make ends meet. So much so, that it has now passed changes to the way Senators are elected, which will make it very hard, to near impossible, for representatives of minor parties or independents to be elected in the future. There is a dark reality that this will potentially make it a great deal easier for a government to push through its ideology and agendas unchecked by Parliament.

Whether you are a supporter of myself or not, does this sound like an ideal situation?

In October 2015, ACOSS released a report estimating that 2.5 million Australians were living below the internationally accepted poverty line.

What can be done to reduce this? That is the million dollar question.

I feel there are many steps that could be taken to reduce the  pressure of people living on low-to-medium incomes. The answers from certain political persuasions always seem to
be around earning more. But why do we need to earn more? It is to keep up with the rising cost of living, plain and simple. You can’t expect someone to earn more when there is already high unemployment and only so many positions available.

As my own example of my previous employment in 2012 highlighted, I was already working a full-time job and doing all the extra hours I could. To get above the poverty line I needed more,  so what then? Quit a secure job in hope of finding something else that may pay more? I don’t think so. If we could all just step into a higher paying job don’t you think we would have by now? If that was as easy to do as some politicians seem to portray there would be no poverty!

Reducing the cost of living is another answer we seem to hear from the major parties, and it is a good point. This is definitely part of what we need to do, but how?

There may be more jobs available, but the employees may well be working for less, while the cost of living remains the same and continues to rise. This would only create a greater income disparity across Australia.

There are many ideas I have heard within the community that need to be discussed. I am not a big fan of listening to the view of left- or right-leaning think tanks, as they often lean toward the ideological view of certain parties. I believe the real answers are out there; they will come from the people doing the hard yards, the people who actually live below the poverty line. Those who are living in poverty but desperately need and want to do so much better. Those with real world experience, not pre-written notes from bureaucrats and advisors. The answer is not hiding  within those wealthy enough to stroll the halls of Parliament House pushing their agenda. If the answer was there, poverty would have been resolved by now. It is time to ask the people who are affected and to give the people of this country a say.

As an elected representative in the Australian Parliament, I believe my role is to represent the will of the people, knowing naturally that this can be easier said than done, as everybody thinks differently. But surely by now, with poverty and unemployment on the rise, it is clear that the previous thinking has had its time.

There is a certain humbling feeling when the government changes the electoral system citing your name as the reason why, even though this disregards the fact that one in four voters at the 2013 election were looking for alternatives to the two-party system. It shows that the  government is threatened by people standing up to be heard.

The people of Australia have the biggest power card in their hand – a ballot paper on an election day. If you want things to stay the way they are, keep voting for the major parties,
including the Greens and the Nationals. If you want to have representatives that actually give a darn about you and want to see your situation change, pay attention at election time and take the time to consider your candidates well.

To ensure your vote counts and does not get ‘exhausted’ in the upcoming election, ensure that you mark no less than six boxes above the line, but preferably all of them, putting your least favourite last. Alternatively, you now only have to mark a minimum of 12 (but all if you wish) boxes below the line, and you can choose yourself each candidate in an order you prefer, keeping in mind that the candidates in the parties you would least prefer, should be at the very end of your list.

There is much more that I believe needs to be discussed in relation to the power to end poverty, and indeed what power people living in poverty have, and I would like to continue to contribute to this debate in this forum over time.

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