Ms LE (Fowler) (15:13): ‘Is there going to be another interest rate rise?’ ‘How much will my mortgage go up by?’ ‘Why are grocery prices so expensive?’ ‘I can’t afford to pay my electricity bills.’ ‘I’m never going to pay off my HECS debt, not with the 7.1 per cent indexation.’ The cost of living is very real in Western Sydney suburbs; in particular, in my electorate of Fowler. You’ve just heard some of the questions and comments that I have received from my constituents, who are currently suffering from the cost-of-living crisis in different aspects of their lives.

On 13 March 2024, I had the privilege of holding Bring Your Bill Day, which gave constituents the opportunity to bring their bills and connect with government agencies and providers that could assist them with the pressure of their bills. The event was scheduled for 4 pm, and at 3 pm people were already lining up and waiting eagerly to get through the door. Over 2½ hours, more than 100 people rushed in with the hopes of getting any support for their bills. The stallholders were overwhelmed by the number of people who required help. Energy and Water Ombudsman New South Wales—or EWON for short—reportedly engaged with 50 people on the day, and the running theme was that the majority of participants had high overdue balances on their electricity bills. Specifically, they were on the verge of disconnection as they were unable to afford to pay their bills. In some cases, EWON and had arranged for payment plans for the constituents, and sought waiver of pending disconnection on the spot. Most were given the option of hardship programs as a form of relief.

These constituents walked in very distressed and frustrated by their circumstances, and walked out with smiles of relief. Why is the government not looking at policies to help the cost of living that actually targets people who are struggling? Yes, I hear the government spruik their stage 3 tax cuts as the solution to addressing the cost of living, but is this addressing the root causes? It’s not just working Australians who are struggling with their bills. A local constituent who owns a cafe in Weatherill Park shared that his electricity bill with AGL was usually around $7,316 but is currently $11,000. For a business that already has numerous expenses to worry about, a $3,684 bill increase is a big slap in the face and, understandably, is causing him stress to continue operating.

The Australian Energy Regulator released a quarterly retail report for October-December 2023 which revealed that the average hardship debt for electricity is $1,690. This is despite wholesale electricity prices dropping, largely driven by more renewable energy being in the system. Why isn’t the decrease being passed on to households? While there have been talks about electricity costs going down further in the next few months, my constituents have been telling me a different story. While industry is quick to pass price increases onto the consumer if costs go up, we’re giving people this elusive dream that somehow electricity costs will eventually go down. I can tell you: they’re not.

Back to my ‘Bring Your Bill Day’ event. While it was a focus on helping constituents relieve the stress of bills, we had constituents come in with their children asking if we were heading out free food. That, for me, was heartbreaking. My electorate office often had to referred people to food relief services. Our local schools have also advised that they have seen an unprecedented need to provide welfare support to families who require access to food relief services and energy relief programs. Students going to school should not have to feel stressed about the basic needs of food. While I can appreciate that this is within the hands of state governments, we as the federal government must take action to alleviate the stresses of the cost-of-living crisis. Can the government implement policies to drive down the cost of food?

As the voice for one of the most disadvantaged electorates in Western Sydney, Fowler, I can tell the government firsthand that the struggle is very real in my community. Our Bring Your Bill Day highlighted how badly our community is struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. Our average wage is one of the lowest in the country, but the cost of staying afloat is not parallel to our reality. Paying your bills may seem like an easy task for many in this House; however, I ask the government to step into the shoes of families earning minimum wage and spreading the money thin across basic needs, and see how tough they are doing. We must focus on delivering policies that go to the core of the cost-of-living crisis so that people are not working to their deaths to try to pay their bills, businesses are not shutting down because operations are not feasible, and children are not going to school hungry as their families cannot keep up with the rising grocery costs.