House debates

Wednesday, 8 April 2020


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; Second Reading

12:03 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | Hansard source

I also rise to support the bills that will bring into effect a national wage subsidy to support millions of Australians and their families through this crisis. It comes after sustained calls from the trade union movement, from the Labor Party as well as from economists and businesses across the country. Whilst it's not quite the wage subsidy Labor would have introduced, we do welcome this action. This is a victory for the broad labour movement. Although it did come too late to prevent the massive queues we saw at Centrelink right around the country, in the main it will help millions of Australians through this incredibly difficult period.

Labor's priority is to protect workers, families and businesses through this crisis. We have sought to work with the government constructively and play that role where we can. But while this wage subsidy package will support many millions of Australians, it does leave some of our most vulnerable in our community without support. It is disappointing that where clear flaws in these bills have been identified, the government appears unwilling to move. Given the scale and the pace of this crisis, it is not possible to get everything right the first time. It's why the parliament needs to sit and scrutinise legislation.

But a wage subsidy has to capture as many workers as possible to support families through the months ahead and ensure that our economy can quickly scale up when the crisis is over. I urge the government to include the million casual workers and the million migrant workers currently excluded as well as the thousands of university staff, our council workers and employees of many charities that are already excluded under this bill. When you look at the issue of council workers, it seems completely egregious that a worker who works, for example, in the Ballarat aquatic centre that is run by our local council, a swimming instructor who would be eligible otherwise under this scheme does not get this JobKeeper payment, whereas someone at the private swimming academy just down the road does. It seems egregious to me that, despite doing the same job, the same work, one working for a local council swimming pool is not eligible and yet one working for a private business is eligible.

There are also businesses that will also miss out because they don't quite meet the turnover requirements. They may have seasonal businesses, particularly those in the tourism sector. In Daylesford, for example, in my electorate, the winter months that we're heading into now are when they expect to get their highest income. Many of those will miss out.

The government says that these Australian workers will be eligible for support through the unemployment system but the very point of a wage subsidy is that it is both financial support and it's that connection with work between the employer and the employee that is continued. Putting casual workers, and many of them are women, into the unemployment system reduces their independence and is subject to a household income test. In too many circumstances, families that were reliant on two incomes will have to live off one income for the current months. With increased pressure in our homes at this time, the government is actively deciding to disempower some workers and reduce their financial independence.

The government also says that over a million migrant workers should return home, that they are not eligible for jobseeker or JobKeeper payments. How are they to return home when international aviation has all but ground to a halt? Migrant workers perform invaluable work, particularly in agriculture across my community and right across the community, and they deserve some assistance. The government's support for the many is welcome, but it must not let millions of families miss out. The Prime Minister says our response is uniquely Australian. I say that what is uniquely Australian is that we leave no-one behind in a crisis.

Speaking of the fair go, wage subsidies should be targeted at supporting workers through this crisis, not at propping up the balance sheets of businesses that force workers to take leave entitlements. This is a direct balance sheet subsidy from the Australian taxpayer to these companies. Worse still, some employers are utilising this loophole while forcing their workers to take accrued leave. Quite simply, if a worker wants to cash out their leave whilst stood down that is their choice, and they should be able to do so, but the wage subsidy should not be used by the employer to pay out those leave entitlements.

The wage subsidy will help our aviation sector keep people crucially connected with that sector, but it is not going to be the saviour of this sector. We know that, even after standing workers down, grounding aircraft and cutting back on other areas, our airlines face significant fixed costs to ensure that they can safely scale up once the crisis is gone. Further, our entire aviation sector is likely to feel the effects of this crisis much longer than other sectors of the economy. No-one can predict when domestic aviation will return to what it was. No-one can predict when international borders and international aviation will be back to what they were previously—we just can't. These circumstances necessitate an urgent plan from the federal government to save the current structure of our aviation industry.

The current structure of two major full-service airlines supported by partner budget carriers and a strong network of smaller regional airlines has served the travelling public and our economy well for many years. It was supported by the aviation white paper that Labor undertook when we were last in office. This structure is critical for hundreds of thousands of jobs, promotes competition and ensures services regularly reach all Australians. It is critical to our national freight task. Such a plan for aviation should be situated alongside similar strategies for other essential and strategic industries impacted by this crisis. It should draw, as I said, on the work of the aviation white paper.

We've seen in aviation and across the broader economy that the pace of this crisis is such that it is impossible for government to get everything right the first time. Within days of the first aviation package, the airlines highlighted that allocating funding to refunding fees and charges incurred when flying was of limited benefit if they were not in the air due to travel restrictions. The government needs to make clear whether it is possible to recalibrate this funding in more useful and different ways. The $100 million cash injection into around a dozen regional airlines is, of course, welcome and indicates the government is prepared to cushion the businesses through this crisis, regardless of how individual companies entered the period or whether they have foreign ownership or not.

Labor believes that the government must be flexible and be open to financially supporting our large aviation companies, including by extending or guaranteeing lines of credit or by taking an equity stake in the industry. Such interventions will ensure that when the industry bounces back—and it will—government can recoup on its investment. Despite claiming that it's continuing to work with the major airlines, the government's commentary through the media in the past few days has been less than helpful and only serves to undermine bipartisan efforts to protect the aviation sector as much as possible. Comments such as those, particularly, ruling out support for Virgin, claiming a major airline can fail; that the government is prepared to let that happen; and that it can be replaced quickly by a new entrant do not serve Australians well. I cannot put it any more bluntly: the government must extend a lifeline to Virgin if we are going to continue to see the current aviation structure survive this crisis. It must do that. If it does not then it is taking an active decision to see one of the major airlines in this country fail, and that will have significant consequences for hundreds of workers in the aviation sector and across our economy to come.

In supporting this bill, I want particularly to thank the workers throughout the transport and logistics sector, who are getting people home and who are transporting our food, our medical supplies and other essentials across the country. They are our truck drivers; our crews on ships; our pilots, airline crews and those people who see that airports continue to function; and our freight companies. We are relying on you like never, ever before and we thank you.

In closing, I also want to say a very big thank you to everyone in my community of Ballarat for pulling together in this testing time. If you need assistance please don't hesitate to reach out either to my office or to people in the community. It's important that we all look after each other through this crisis. We can get through it, but we need to do so with respect, with kindness and with care.


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