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; Second Reading

12:58 pm

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education and Training) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That the following words be added after paragraph (7):

"(8) calls on the Government to provide much more support for staff in schools, TAFEs, and universities affected by this crisis, noting that:

(a) hundreds of thousands of school and university staff, including casual workers, are facing job losses, but will not be eligible for this JobKeeper payment; and

(b) the Government should be saving jobs and making sure Australia has a strong and sustainable education and training sector on the other side of this crisis".

Labor of course welcomes this legislation and the introduction of wage subsidies for Australian workers. We argued for them before the government's announcement and we will support them now that they are before the parliament. With so many businesses shutting their doors, with so many others losing turnover and with so many Australian jobs on the line, people need this financial support and they need it now. From the start, Labor promised to be constructive and practical in our response to this crisis. It's a pledge that we take very seriously. We know that people are worried about how they'll pay the rent or how they will pay the mortgage, about keeping their families safe and secure. We hope that these payments can give Australians some peace of mind at this extraordinarily difficult time.

As I said, we would never oppose for the sake of opposition, but we won't stop fighting for people who are missing out because of the way these payments are structured. It's what happened when we campaigned for the inclusion of people on youth allowance, Austudy and Abstudy in the coronavirus supplement payment, an amendment that we successfully negotiated with the government. That's our job, and I really believe this sort of constructive holding the government to account means a better outcome in the long term.

As it stands, the legislation that we're voting on today does have some significant holes in it. In my shadow portfolio of education, Labor is urging the government to provide better support for casuals in schools, in TAFE and in universities affected by this crisis. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of jobs—teachers, of course, and academic staff, but also administrative staff, library staff, catering staff, ground staff, cleaners. All of them have families; all of them are worried about their jobs. The majority of these people will not be eligible for JobKeeper payment either because they don't meet the requirement of being employed on a regular basis for more than 12 months or because few schools or universities meet the threshold of a 30 per cent fall in revenue that's required to qualify.

On Sunday the Treasurer announced that all registered charities would be eligible for JobKeeper payment at a lower threshold of turnover decline of 15 per cent. Of course, at that time the universities and non-government schools were very excited to hear that. It really felt like a lifeline to these two desperate sectors, but within a day the government walked back this decision by excluding non-government schools and universities, even though most are registered as charities.

Leaving schools and universities to fend for themselves is a big mistake, and we're already seeing the consequences of it. Many schools have begun to stand down their casual employees. More than 300 teachers on the New South Wales Central Coast were told this week that no shifts were available for the foreseeable future. One school in regional Queensland has stood down more than a hundred staff. Many of these teachers and school support workers have contacted my office asking for help because they are desperate. One woman told me how, after a 10-year teaching career, she'd had a break to go on maternity leave and had recently returned to teaching as a casual. Now that her work has dried up she doesn't know how she's going to support her family, now with a young child. This teacher said she feels as though she's been treated as a sacrificial lamb for her country and feels deeply undervalued as a professional.

These are the same people that kept teaching our kids, kept standing at the front of the classroom, as the coronavirus was spreading. They were there for us, and we should be there for them. It's no good calling teachers heroes one week and then turning our backs on them the next week, as this legislation does. If the government doesn't believe the JobKeeper payment is appropriate for schools, then it should explain why, and the Prime Minister should tell Australian casual teachers what he will do to support them instead.

It's true that state and territory governments have an important role to play here too, and I note that the ACT government have supported their casual staff. But, to solve this problem nationally and to give casual staff the security they deserve, the government does need to sit down with the employees of the non-government school sector. It also needs to sit down with TAFE employees around Australia and have that same conversation. There are thousands of livelihoods on the line in TAFE as well. We are absolutely open to another solution if the government has one. Labor are approaching this with an open mind and we will support any sensible plan that fixes this anomaly.

I also want to update the House on the extremely worrying situation facing our universities at the moment. Higher education in Australia is under immense financial pressure. For years our universities have relied on international student fees to help fund their other operations—our world-leading research and teaching. The COVID-19 pandemic and the global travel restrictions that followed have led to a crisis in funding for universities, with income from international students plummeting in recent months. Universities are worried about both international student and domestic student numbers and worried that they will continue to fall in the second semester. There are now very genuine fears that, without government assistance, some universities may collapse. Of course, that would be an absolute catastrophe. If we don't act now, if we drag our feet and allow universities to fail, we'll see vital research cut, thousands of jobs lost and students potentially left hanging in the middle of degrees.

Higher education is our third-biggest export industry. It is the source of 260,000 full-time-equivalent jobs. It contributes more than $41 billion to our national economy every year, and universities are the cornerstone of many regional communities and a provider of 14,000 jobs in our regions. The University of New England, based in Armidale, employs more than a thousand staff. Think about the University of Tasmania's Launceston or Burnie campuses that employ hundreds. We've got campuses in Geelong, Bathurst, Rockhampton, Wagga Wagga and Townsville. Think of all the regional cities across Australia and, if you cut a few hundred jobs from those regional communities, what the broader impact is.

Universities are absolutely critical to us dealing with this urgent health crisis and they're going to be just as critical to our recovery in the years to come. Not only do universities employ the researchers who develop new treatments and cures; they educate our doctors, our nurses and our health experts. Across Australia universities are lending a hand to help in the fight to find a vaccine and new treatment for COVID-19. The University of New South Wales is just one example. They've established a rapid research fund to address the diagnostic, therapeutic and containment challenges of COVID-19 as well as the long-term social and economic impacts. Other universities are working with the health system to fast-track final year students in medicine and nursing to get them quickly into our hospitals to assist with these efforts.

Universities tell us that access to JobKeeper payments on the same terms as other not-for-profits would be a huge help. If the government doesn't believe the JobKeeper payment is the appropriate one for universities, then it has to explain why and come to the table with a practical solution to help universities instead.

We need to think about students who are falling through the gaps of the support system, particularly international students. I know that universities are doing their best to help these people, including by hoping to establish a hardship fund, and the government has to work with them on that too. It is not ethical to allow these people to become destitute and it's not safe to push people into taking work that they would otherwise not do, because of sickness, because they've got no other way of supporting themselves. Whether on schools or universities, all the government have done so far is tell us what they can't do. We need a practical solution telling us what the government can do for these sectors.

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