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
I move the amendment that has been circulated in my name to the question in relation to the coronavirus economic response package legislation that is before the House:
That the following words be added after paragraph (4):
"(5) calls on the Government to recognise that the Australian arts and entertainment sector needs a specific, tailored, fiscal response package to ensure its ongoing viability, given the structure of the JobKeeper payment has been designed in a way that leaves many workers in the sector ineligible".
First of all: today is a really important and good day for Australians. When this parliament last sat, we argued—I argued from here and Brendan O'Connor asked a question from here—that there should be a wage subsidy, and at that point the government was saying no. The fact that they have now said yes is a good thing, and it will change the lives of millions of Australians.
The reason we argued for a wage subsidy is really simple, and it's this: if the only option for people to get support is through the payment system, through Centrelink, then a whole lot of businesses that otherwise might have been able to keep their relationship with their employees during this period will simply have to let their workers go. The outcome of that means that it's harder for everybody during this time, that people lose their relationship with their workplace during this time and that the recovery is much tougher to get off the ground when we're on the other side of this crisis. The fact that the government has come forward with a wage subsidy is a good thing. That's why we called for it, and we welcome it, and that's why we will be making sure that this legislation goes through today.
When it works at its best, it will work like this: there will be businesses that are legally allowed to remain open but have had a hit to their revenue. Because of this, there will be people who can keep turning up, maybe from home, maybe working in a different way. However they work, they will be able to keep working because their wages have been subsidised during this time. For other people it will be a payment during stand-downs. There will be a range of different outcomes. At its best, that's what it will be doing, and that means businesses will survive that otherwise wouldn't have and that workers keep their relationships with their employer when they otherwise would have been lost.
It's because of those best-case scenarios that the other day the Minister for Industrial Relations, rather melodramatically, described this as the 'Dunkirk moment'. The challenge in that analogy is that they are still leaving more than a million casuals on the beach. That's why we welcome everybody who gets rescued by this package. But it can be fixed; it can be improved, and the government should improve it.
There are a few challenges with the design. First of all, for everyone who is able to apply for this—it's the employer that applies, but then the employer, under the current mechanism, is not obliged to put forward all their eligible workers. This can't be fixed through amendment. It can be fixed through a decision of the Treasurer. I just say to the government: we will end up with stories of this being abused if we don't fix it. With all the negotiations that we want to happen at a workplace, the dynamic is very different if the employer can say, 'Unless you agree to X I'm not even going to put your name forward for the wage subsidy.' At the moment, even though this payment is being made by the taxpayer for the benefit of the employee, the gatekeeper on whether or not they get it, even if it's an eligible business, is from the employer. They can pick and choose which of their eligible employees they will put forward for it. It's a simple change in design that can be done by the Treasurer through the rules. The government has budgeted, as we understand it, that all eligible employees working for eligible businesses will have their names put forward—so it's been budgeted for—but there will be, in a limited number of cases, abuses that occur if this is not fixed.
The other issue that needs to be fixed—and there are a few—is the major one that has been referred to by the Leader of the Opposition in the second reading amendment he has moved. It's that we should not be leaving behind more than a million casuals. The Attorney-General, the Minister for Industrial Relations, is right when he says, 'You've got to draw the line somewhere,' but have a think about where the line is currently drawn. The line is currently drawn where, at the same workplace—presume it's a fast-food place—the person who's been there 10 months and is working, say, a Tuesday-through-to-Sunday shift, and they're supporting their livelihood with that job, is ineligible. But the 16-year-old who's doing a one-day-a-week shift for pocket money is not only eligible but they're about to get 10 times what they earn.
The government's made a decision, for simplicity of rollout, that some people will get much more than what they earn. We're not amending to try to change that. That's a decision the government's made. But, having made that, to then exclude people whose job is their entire livelihood and the business is more dependent on them than it is on people who make it into the scheme is something that needs to be fixed. I cannot find a national interest argument that says if you work for an eligible employer and your job is your livelihood you should fall through the cracks because you haven't been there for 12 months.
Let's not forget, there are a whole lot of people who have been regarded as casuals for years but, because the nature of their casual engagement is across a number of employers, they won't be eligible. There's the relief teacher working in the nongovernment sector who goes from school to school as a relief teacher. Because it's a different employer each time, even if that person's been a relief teacher for five years they're ineligible because they haven't had 12 months at one school. Similarly, if you're someone who works as a casual in the construction industry and goes from site to site, and you're rarely at the one site for 12 months, you're ineligible. We want people to keep their relationship with their employer. This needs to be fixed.
Anyone who works for local government, at the moment, is ineligible. There are people who work in local government institutions that have been shut down because of decisions from what's known as the national cabinet. They are finding themselves stood down and yet are completely ineligible. Similarly, I do have to put the case that has been put of people who work for the government. We have casuals who work for Border Force. This government has stood up and referred to them time after time, and to the uniform they wear. If their jobs have been as casuals at the airport, they are now being told that Centrelink is their only option. Surely, the government has an interest in maintaining its relationship with them after the extent to which it has lent on them and their reputation with arguments that the government has wanted to advance?
With respect to the sections of this legislation that deal with the Fair Work Act, let me just say quickly that the amendment is not perfect. There are still conversations going on with the minister. The latest version that we received this morning is better than where we were at last night, but there are still issues that can be dealt with, and there will be constructive conversations going forward on that.
I should say some people have been surprised and have said how extraordinary it is that the government's been dealing with the ACTU this time. The extraordinary thing is that usually they don't. That's the extraordinary thing. How we've got to this point—and it has taken a global pandemic before the government has said that, in the development of legislation, they should engage with both employer organisations and employee organisations—is breathtaking. The negotiations the government has conducted with the ACTU this time should always be conducted in the normal course of events. I would encourage the government to see the unions for what they are, which is representatives of the employees. If they want to talk about percentage of membership, find a peak employer body that has a better percentage representation of the people they speak for than the unions have of working Australians. In terms of representation, the unions are the best voice there will ever be, which is why so many people right now, at a time of crisis, are joining their unions.
I want to finally refer to the arts and entertainment sector, which is the subject of the second reading amendment that I've moved. While some people want to think of this sector as celebrities, they are workers. They are workers who are almost entirely ineligible for the scheme that is before us right now because their work, by and large, goes to forward contracts, and they have forward contracts set up for the rest of the year, all of which have been cancelled because of decisions of government. The scheme that's being put forward now leaves every single one of them ineligible for this assistance. We have been saying from day one, ever since the rule came in restricting gatherings of more than 500 people, that this sector was the first to be shut down and will be one of the last to get back on its feet. This can be fixed with the stroke of a pen by the Treasurer under the powers that he has been given today.
When we had tough times in the bushfires, we turned to this sector and asked them to work for free. Now they're facing tough times and we're leaving them out of the scheme. It's not just the artists; it's the workers, the ushers, the people who work behind a bar, the road crew who set up gigs, the tradies who make the place work. This entire sector falls short in what is before the parliament today, and the government cannot waste a day longer before these workers are shown the respect that they deserve.