House debates

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Bills

Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020, Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus (Measures No. 2) Bill 2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 5) 2019-2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 6) 2019-2020; Consideration in Detail

3:49 pm

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

I understand that, given the resolution, I don't need to say that I move the amendment. It's automatically taken as moved. The opposition is putting forward one amendment to the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020. The way this bill has been structured is that all the power of eligibility lies outside of the parliament, and what we're effectively doing is giving the Treasurer extraordinary powers to be able to devise the scheme. This amendment accepts that that's the way that it's been structured, but the fact that it's been structured that way prevents us from going line by line and moving amendments to change the principles of eligibility. So what this amendment does to the sections of the bill that give the Treasurer the power to establish the rules is put in demands about what he must consider. That would put in place the demand that he consider the need for all casuals to access support so that we don't have this ridiculous situation where the person who is working for pocket money gets $1,500 a fortnight and the person who's working for their livelihood gets told they're ineligible.

It would also deal with the consequences for employees who may be in a situation where they are required to run down leave entitlements. Just think of how this works. At the moment, the way it's designed, an employer has an employee running down their annual leave, and that annual leave is already credited against the balance sheet of the employer. The employer is able to receive the wage subsidy and still run down the annual leave at the full rate, which means that what the taxpayer's funding is not the worker. It's not actually a job subsidy; we're funding the balance sheet of the employer. There are some measures that have been brought to this parliament that have been upfront and that, it has been said, were being brought forward for the specific purpose of supporting business during that time, and we have backed those measures in, but we should not have a situation where something that is meant to be a wage subsidy is allowed to be rorted as a payment to the employer, not to the employee. That's what's allowed to happen during periods of leave, and it's not what this is about. If the amount is going to be forwarded to the employer during a period of leave, the employee should only be losing their entitlement to the extent that the employer is paying for them to lose their entitlement. And that may well mean that people would be able to take their leave over a much longer period of time, which would make a real difference to workers during this period.

The needs of charities that may experience a decline in donations but not in GST turnover; the recognition of the current status of ACNC registered universities and schools; the needs of NDIS providers and the disability workforce; the needs of active business participants; the need to support temporary visa holders who are unable to return home; and the needs of local government employees—these issues should be front of mind. At the moment, they don't get a look-in. The principle of this bill is that we want to keep people's relationship with their employer. It is better for them now. It will keep some businesses running that would otherwise fall over. And, at the end of this period, it will make a massive difference as to how the economy can recover. There is no economic reason for rejecting any of these principles. The only reason for rejecting these principles is a stubbornness because they weren't part of the original announcement and, therefore, the government won't shift.

A number of these measures, including the one I referred to with respect to leave, would be cost-neutral for the government but make a massive difference to people's income during this time. And there are other issues—for example, whether employers choose to not put forward all their employees. That is a risk at the moment in the way the government is intending to design this, which will create a situation where employers can try to get agreement from workers, for actions that are meant to be voluntary, by threatening not to put them forward for the JobKeeper payment.

This is an issue which can be resolved by the Treasurer, and I want to refer to that while I'm on my feet. We've all presumed that the employers who are eligible will apply and they will then put forward the names of all their employees who are eligible. The rules that were submitted yesterday don't guarantee that. The Treasurer can fix this and should fix this. Think about this: the government was aware of the risk of people being forced to take leave for double the time and at half the pay. The government has made some efforts to try and make that voluntary and to make sure that it will be voluntary. I commend the government for those discussions.

Most employers will deal with this in the right way. But under the rules at the moment, in the way the Treasurer has put them forward, on the face of it—and we've had these rules for less than a day—it will be possible for an employer to say to their workforce: 'I haven't decided which of you I'm going to put forward for the wage subsidy. Before I make that decision, who's willing to take their leave—double the time and at half the pay?' They wait till that question is answered and then choose which employees get put forward for the job subsidy. By doing it for an extended period of time, the rort that I described earlier doubles the period during which the money is going to the employer rather than to the employee.

Most employers will deal with this appropriately. Most will. But, in every case in industrial relations, we always have to set the boundaries to make sure that we have protected Australia from bad actors. At the moment, in the current design, this doesn't. It can be fixed, and for most workers it won't need to be fixed. But it is a relatively easy fix that matches what the government says it is trying to do. I appreciate that some of this is because of the rush with time, and it all goes to the reason why parliament should be sitting more often: that there will be outcomes we have not anticipated. But this is one that won't require the Treasurer to come back to the parliament if he chooses to change the rules. This amendment will demand that these issues be considered as these rules, as they are referred to in the act, are put in place.

Finally, I want to refer to conversations that have been happening with the Attorney-General. The draft of the changes to the Fair Work Act that we were provided with last night had some areas that were of significant concern. What's happened overnight is that there have been a number of further changes which have fixed some of those concerns. There is a final issue which had not been fixed, and I want to report to the House that I am satisfied about it because a particular undertaking has been given in conversations with the Attorney-General. The challenge is this: we want people to agree with their employer during this period for as much flexibility as possible so that things that would normally not happen can happen during this period so that businesses survive and people keep their jobs; it's a level of flexibility we want. There are some employment conditions where employees, once they have done something, lose the right to object to it in the future. So the fact that these rules are only temporary won't change the fact that there will have been a point in the past at which they agreed to it. We need to make sure that no employee is punished in the future for flexibility now, and that hasn't been covered in the amendments. The Attorney-General has given an undertaking that, when he puts together the form for employers to be able to use these provisions, they will have to give an undertaking that it won't be to the detriment of the employee in the future. I do believe that that covers it off.

To the extent that we've been able to deal with all the issues in front of us in an extraordinarily brief period of time, I think we have got to a good point. This amendment would put extra demands on the government in addition to what they are wanting now. But I have to say that, if we believe in the economic case for this change—and we all do—leaving so many workers behind is in no-one's interest. I commend the amendment.

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