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

12:48 pm

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Industry) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the coronavirus economic response package bills but also to move the amendment circulated in my name, which goes to the question of whether businesses should be able to ask employees to use all of their annual leave before receiving any of the JobKeeper supplement or wage subsidy. I'll speak further on that, but first I extend my condolences to those that have been tragically affected by COVID-19, particularly those who have family members who have died and those who are very ill. I pay tribute, as others have done, to the frontline staff, health workers, essential service workers, retail staff, truck drivers, factory workers, farmers and teachers, and so many public servants. Too often they are maligned, but they are really there when it counts. They should be acknowledged and they are acknowledged today, as we deal with this very significant challenge. The world has changed, at least temporarily; we don't know for how long. The phrases 'social distancing', 'self-isolation', 'iso-life', 'flattening the curve'—these are new phases that have become part of our lexicon because of these extraordinary challenges we confront. Let's hope we will see our way through that as soon as possible.

I rise today, the opposition rises today, to support these bills. The Labor leader has foreshadowed that we will make constructive amendments to improve deficiencies that are clearly evident in these bills. There are deficiencies that go to the lack of coverage of employees but also to the exposure of businesses because of that lack of coverage. There are deficiencies, as I have already indicated, insofar as allowing for annual leave to be wound down without the JobKeeper money being provided directly and immediately to those workers. There are deficiencies because local government employees are not covered, even though we know hundreds are being stood down around the country. We should look at that and fix it. I also think we should be talking to state governments that have very strict rate caps on councils. If we can't fix it this way then state governments need to be looking at what they can do. There are deficiencies in terms of over a million temporary migrant workers in this country that are not able to access social services of any sort and cannot receive any supplement through the JobKeeper approach—so no jobseeker, no JobKeeper and no other form of welfare. We're going to have a million people exposed and that is going to be a massive social problem. It is intrinsically unfair, and something else has to be done in that regard. There are other issues too, such as large companies which, though they may not have a revenue fall of 50 per cent, may have revenue fall of 30 per cent. We may see thousands of workers from one company be laid off and not covered by the JobKeeper supplement.

While there are deficiencies, we do support the package. Despite those deficiencies, it's a good package for those who are going to be the beneficiaries, and it is a very significant change to what the government was saying only 15 days ago in this place. Fifteen days ago, in this place, I stood at the dispatch box and asked the Prime Minister why we weren't going down the path of wage subsidies. I alluded to the 80 per cent subsidy in the UK, and, on behalf of the opposition, asked him why we weren't taking that approach, which so many other countries were taking. The Prime Minister said that was not the advice he received, and he was happy with the advice he received. And then, of course, they proceeded to close the parliament—until August. So we know that this package of bills was not even contemplated by the government 15 days ago; otherwise, they wouldn't have closed the parliament for five months.

To the credit of the government, they have listened to Labor, to the unions, to employers, to peak employer bodies and to economists, and they have now come up with this package. And I welcome it, as do all Labor members. We welcome the package, despite its deficiencies, because it is absolutely critical for employees who would have been lining up in the unemployment queues. Frankly, I think that is what really hit home for the government. They left here two weeks ago today with the view that we were not going to have a wage subsidy. They went back to their electorates and saw thousands of people lining up around the block of every Centrelink office in the nation, and they realised the fundamental error of their thinking with respect to the support they needed to provide to businesses and employees. It was demonstrably clear, if it wasn't already clear when we saw those very long lines of Australians lining up for unemployment benefits for the very first time. And there were forecasts that we would have seen unemployment rise to more than 20 per cent in this country if something had not been done. The idea that we would just double the unemployment benefit and say everyone could be on welfare was always deficient, and it seemed to be contradictory to the view of the government generally that work is the best form of welfare. They didn't think that two weeks ago, but I'm glad they realised that was wrong. I welcome the fact that they have changed their position, but it should be noted for the record that that was the case.

As many other speakers have said today in this debate, this is a good package, but there are people who miss out. I mentioned the fact that casuals will miss out. We believe there are just over one million casual workers who will not receive this support. That is absolutely devastating. People might be called a casual in a workplace, but they have a permanent family. They have long-term mortgage payments to make. They have major challenges, no different from anyone who is classified as a permanent employee. As the Labor leader said, there is no difference in the circumstances of those two workers; it is just about how you happen to be classified. If you are lucky enough for your employer to deem you to be permanent part-time, you are going to be covered by this. There is such a grey area between casual and permanent part-time. It is almost at the whim of the employer to suggest to the tax commissioner that you are eligible for the JobKeeper payment because you are a permanent part-time worker, or, with the same set of facts, that you are not covered because you are casual. That will be no clarity or delineation between those two classes of workers; it will come down to the subjective view of each employer. The government says it has to go down this path for clarity. But there is no clarity because there is a very grey area between those who are deemed to be permanent part-time and those who are deemed to be casual. The fact that we have gone down this path means we are going to expose already low paid workers who are precariously employed. They are already precariously connected to the labour market and they are now going to be disconnected from the labour market. That is a dreadful shame. They would be in receipt of the jobseeker payments, which as we know are quite generous—and we applaud the government for that approach—but the government may as well have kept them eligible for JobKeeper payments, which would have kept them connected to the labour market, particularly when we are looking to recover.

The second victims of this exclusion are the businesses themselves that happen to be in a sector where most workers are casual. By not providing that assistance to the workers indirectly, through their employers, the employers also suffer because they now will not have a payment for the wages they are obliged to pay under law unless they stand down those workers. So businesses miss out when casual workers miss out, and that is a dreadful shame too. I think the government should rethink its position.

This is an important package and we support it. As foreshadowed, we will continue to support the government and provide constructive advice. We hope they are sensible and listen to our advice. We want to make sure we do not leave people behind. At the moment, there are too many that will be left behind. But it is a good step forward, and we obviously want to continue to work with the government in this very significant time and on this very difficult challenge. I move:

That the following words be added after paragraph (6):

"(7) calls on the Government to ensure that the JobKeeper wage subsidy is only used by employers to pay their employees’ wages and not to subsidise their company’s balance sheet, noting that there should be no provision for business to force employees to use their annual leave entitlements and pay for that leave with the JobKeeper wage subsidy".


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