Culture

A Liberal MP And A CEO Got Schooled By Someone On Minimum Wage On ‘Q&A’ Last Night

"To rich people, it's a Coke and a milkshake. To me, it changes my children's lives."

One of the reasons people keep tuning in to Q&A every week, even when Christopher Pyne is on, is because there’s always a slim prospect of the clichés and partisan talking points giving way to something honest and real. Some of the show’s best episodes have come when someone in the room — and it’s more likely to be an audience member than a panellist — offers a moment of vulnerability and real perspective for which the usual serving of political point-scoring has no answer.

So it was last night. Given the entire episode was given over to dissecting the latest federal budget, there was a risk of the whole thing getting bogged down in indecipherable detail and obscure points of conflict between the various party representatives on the panel that would leave everyone else out. It took a question from an audience member, Duncan Storrar, to bring the focus back to the fundamental question: how the budget would affect people’s lives, especially the vulnerable.

“I’ve got a disability and a low education, that means I’ve spent my whole life working for minimum wage. You’re gonna lift the tax-free threshold for rich people,” Storrar said. “If you lift my tax-free threshold, that changes my life. That means that I get to say to my little girls: ‘Daddy’s not broke this weekend. We can go to the pictures’. Rich people don’t even notice their tax-free threshold lift. Why don’t I get it? Why do they get it?”

Fielding the question was Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer, one of the budget’s main architects. She’s made the government’s proposed cuts to company tax a centrepiece of the Liberal election campaign, arguing that lowering the small business tax rate will stimulate job growth. That’s a pretty contested proposition — Treasury modelling and arecently-released study from the Australia Institute suggest the economic boost of a company tax cut would be negligible — but it was the line O’Dwyer was trying to sell last night.

Against Storrar’s pointed and eloquent questions, though, O’Dwyer’s message quickly fell flat. Australian Council of Social Service CEO Cassandra Goldie pointed out that the government was cutting funding to disability support pensions at the same time it was giving a tax break to people earning over $80,000 a year, leaving O’Dwyer to defend the priorities outlined in the budget as being “all about balance”. Storrar wasn’t satisfied with that answer, and addressed O’Dwyer directly. 

“To rich people, it’s a Coke and a milkshake or whatever. To me, it changes my children’s lives,” Storrar said. “It means my children have $7,000 more money every year to live on. Low-income earners lose more money because every penny we pay in tax, that’s money we don’t have to spend at the bottom end. People who make $80,000 a year, dunno who they are…well, they don’t notice it, love. We notice it.”

Dwyer’s response was to talk about “growing the pie”, which didn’t seem to receive a very enthusiastic reception from the person she was addressing.

If O’Dwyer fared badly at Storrar’s hands, chief executive of Australian Industry Group Innes Willox managed to do even worse. Willox, a former chief of staff to Alexander Downer, chose to go after Storrar and his claims of struggling on the minimum wage, and very quickly found himself arrayed against the rest of the room.

“Duncan, I’ll be harsh in my message,” Willox started ominously. “If you’re on the minimum wage with a family, you would not pay much tax, if any at all. Would you?”

To which Storrar calmly responded: “I pay tax every time I go to the supermarket. Every time I hop in my car.”

Having held both a senior Liberal MP and a CEO to account for promoting unfair and inequitable policies, Storrar quickly became something of an honorary panellist, with people calling for him to be given more airtime.

As the seven-week election campaign rolls on, there’s always a danger of losing sight of what’s important: which parties and policies will help people who are struggling, and which will kick them while they’re down. Thanks to Duncan, it’s something at the front of everyone’s minds, at least for now.