House debates

Monday, 23 March 2020


Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020, Guarantee of Lending to Small and Medium Enterprises (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Australian Business Growth Fund (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Assistance for Severely Affected Regions (Special Appropriation) (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Structured Finance Support (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Appropriation (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill (No. 1) 2019-2020, Appropriation (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill (No. 2) 2019-2020, Boosting Cash Flow for Employers (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020; Second Reading

12:10 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Arts) Share this | Hansard source

I'd start by moving an amendment to the second reading amendment that was moved by the member for Rankin. I move:

That the following words be added:

''(6) there is no conditionality on assistance measures to business to keep workers employed; and

(7) calls on the Government to legislate for a mechanism that provides sufficient incentive for employers to keep employees in work''

A few weeks ago we were talking about the need to make sure that casuals self-isolated. We knew there was a risk at that exact point, prior to the government providing the enhanced Newstart payment, that a very large number of people in insecure work were going to be faced with the decision to either protect the health of their fellow workers, if they were told to self-isolate, or hide their symptoms because they needed to make sure they could pay the bills. We've been making the case for that for weeks. We called for parliament to sit last week.

In that time countless casuals have faced the choice and an unknown number of them went to work anyway. It's not just casuals. It's gig workers. It's people with insecure work. It's freelancers. It's sole traders who are in a situation of having to choose between the health of their fellow workers and making sure that they could pay the bills. This is why the opposition has been saying we need to move quickly, because today we're making a decision about the Newstart payment where we would have had a better public health situation had that decision been made in this parliament a week or two weeks ago. And in the gap we don't know the impact that it's had on the spread of this virus, but we know it was one of the factors that was determined early, that was pointed out early, to which there was a fix and we have waited until today for that to occur.

Today, given the spread, we are now in a situation where we are facing something much graver than whether or not people get two weeks leave. We are now in a circumstance where we are watching people on a mass scale lose their jobs and we are facing a very different period of unemployment to how unemployment has previously hit Australia during periods of downturn.

Normally you've got a broad economic downturn and you can try to keep people in jobs. But if the company is not going to make it, it's not going to make it. Here we have a downturn caused by deliberate conscious decisions of government. Now we don't argue with those decisions. We argue that some of them should have been made earlier, but the fact that those decisions have been made is not something we object to. But that has meant that businesses are now folding not because they weren't viable but because there's been a government decision that they must close their doors, and more of those decisions are coming. That means, instead of the normal situation of saying, 'Okay, more people are going to be on unemployment benefits and we'll try to stimulate,' this is a situation where, at the end of this, we want people to return to the same job with the same employer in the same business and, during this period, to have been able to stay in their own home. That's what we're wanting to do. If people simply move from work to welfare, they won't be in a situation where they've retained the relationship with their employer, and a whole lot of people won't be in a situation where they've been able to maintain the payment of those bills.

If you look at what the government has designed, they keep explaining it by saying that, because it's based on withholding tax, they have linked assistance to business to whether or not they are employing people, but that's not how they've designed it. The way it has been designed is that a business gets paid this quarter based on their payroll last quarter. If you have two businesses with the same withholding tax but one of them sacks all its workforce this quarter and the other keeps all of its workforce on, they get the same payment. That's not a way of keeping people in work. Yes, we acknowledge that businesses need the support right now, and we welcome that, but let's not pretend that that's a policy that will keep people in work. If a business has been told that they have to close their doors because of social isolation—and we are all getting calls from these businesses right now working on what on earth they're going to do—if they've no money coming in and they're told, 'The government will provide a small percentage subsidy of their workforce', a 20 per cent subsidy doesn't do the trick. Why do we say a 20 per cent subsidy? This is the other bit of messaging that the government uses—which, I've got to say, is great messaging but doesn't help with understanding—'They will now provide back 100 per cent of the withholding tax.' But what does 100 per cent mean for a payroll? If you're a high-wage earner, that's probably still only 40 per cent of your overall income. For the median wage, it's only 20 per cent of the income. Places like the United Kingdom right now are saying to employers, 'We will provide an 80 per cent wage subsidy so that workers stay with you and so that you can keep them on even in your most difficult hours', while Australia is saying, 'We'll provide a 20 per cent subsidy for people on the median wage, and, in fact we'll pay it based on who you used to employ, not on who you employ now.'

The government may come back and fix this in a few weeks time, but every day we are seeing livelihoods destroyed. The Prime Minister has settled on a mantra of 'We're not going to panic', but we're not saying panic; we're just saying act. The businesses that have been told to shut down are not going to wait a few weeks before they make a decision as to whether or not they keep on their workforce. The Centrelink queues today around Australia show that.

The other part of this, to try to keep people on at this time, is what the government's doing with respect to compulsory superannuation. They're encouraging people to sell at the bottom of the market, knowing full well that those individuals, who are the ultimate in-distress sellers, are being forced into that situation because not enough other support is forthcoming from the government. They're in a situation where their retirement will be permanently damaged by decisions made today.

I've heard those opposite talk about sending the bill to future generations. There is no greater example of sending the bill to future generations than encouraging people to take out their super at a time when they're distressed, when they're at the bottom of the market. That's before you get to the knock-on impacts it has on investment across industry.

I also, in the time remaining, want to say a little bit about my portfolio with respect to the arts. The arts and entertainment industries feed into the hospitality industry and, combined, are worth about $50 billion to the Australian economy. These are people who work gig to gig. They work event to event. They work festival to festival. In the course of one half-hour media conference, they watched their next six months of income disappear—that is, half a year's income gone in a half-hour media conference. They need a focused package and the government does not yet have one. When times are tough, we turn to them. And, I'll tell you, at the bushfire concerts that were held, the artists were all asked to perform for free, and they did. Pretty much a whole series of people working that day were still paid. We all just accept that we have to pay the technical people and we have to pay the security people, but let's ask the artists to work for free. We ask them to and they do. They stand up when we need them. Right now, they are relying on us to stand up for them, and we don't yet have a package that does that.

In a letter that I received, someone raised with me this very simple situation: she has a dependent son, she has $1,000 to her name, she has no work for the next six months and the rent where she's living is $560 a week. Do the maths and try to work out how that individual is going to now get by. We need something specific for this sector. And we need to focus on the mental health issues for that sector and the entire country. I am yet to hear a large mental health package coming out of this, at least for the arts sector. Please, if something happens, don't go past the organisation Support Act. Work with organisations that workers are used to dealing with and that are tailored. The mental health challenges of the mass unemployment that we are now facing are extraordinary.

Finally—this leads into the whole story—we've heard the shadow Treasurer say many times that we entered this crisis with less resilience than we should have because of softness in the economy. The arts sector entered this crisis with less resilience than it should have had because of years of cuts. Our aged-care system has entered this with a lack of resilience; that's why we're having a royal commission. The high levels of casualisation, gig workers, insecure workers and people who have no entitlement to leave mean we are entering this with less resilience than we should have. And the habit that has developed in this government of rejecting facts that are demonstrably true is without a doubt part of the story of Australians not taking this as seriously when we need them to. We have entered this with less resilience than we should have. We now need the government to come forward with something stronger than what we have right now, because, if this is it, then the Australian economy and Australian lives are about to go through a period that nobody should wish for, and for many of them there are many aspects of it that we can avoid.


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