House debates

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Matters of Public Importance

COVID-19: Employment

3:27 pm

Photo of Keith PittKeith Pitt (Hinkler, National Party, Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia) Share this | Hansard source

Can I say to the shadow minister, I'll start with what we agree on. What we agree on is that this is going to be a long-term challenge. There is no doubt about that. But the government is very conscious of just how extraordinary this situation is from a health perspective and of course in terms of the economic shock, which all Australians recognised and many have felt directly.

We have acted in a determined manner. We have acted quickly, and we are doing our best to not only be decisive but work towards a recovery. We've put forward a staged plan on how that should happen. On the economic front, this is quite straightforward. In a three-week period we announced three separate support packages, each complementary and each building on each other. Combined, they're the largest fiscal response in Australia's history. It's quite extraordinary what has had to be done, but it was necessary.

I acknowledge a number of the points made by the shadow minister, but, in life, if you wait for perfect, you'll wait forever. We have had to make some extraordinary decisions in a very short period of time. We could have, quite simply, waited for a year and got the response almost bang on perfect, but the reality was that we needed to act. The Australian people needed us to act, and act we did. It has been the largest and fastest injection of economic support our nation has ever seen. We are in extraordinary and exceptional circumstances.

Economic measures fall into three categories. It's support for households, support for business and employment, and support for the financial system. There is a level of uncertainty out there, and I know that you know, Mr Deputy Speaker O'Brien, just how difficult it is for the people in your electorate, as it is for mine, who find themselves in a situation that some weeks or months ago they would never have dreamt would occur to them. We are there to support them in what they want to do, and what they want to do is to be back at work. They want our economy on the move. They want opportunity to be returned, and we're doing everything we can to ensure that happens in a staged way, given the health situation that the country—and many other nations—finds itself in.

We have effectively doubled the unemployment benefit—doubled it!—with the introduction of the temporary $550 coronavirus supplement for jobseekers. We have waived the waiting period, we have adjusted mutual obligation requirements and we have expanded the partner income test. We're doing everything we possibly can to provide support for Australians in their time of need, and their time of need is now. There is no doubt about that.

We've announced two $750 cash payments, with the first payment, totalling $5.2 billion, going out from 31 March to more than seven million income support recipients, including pensioners, carers, veterans, those receiving family tax benefits and Commonwealth Seniors Health Card holders. We have worked with the banks and the prudential regulator, and we're trying to ensure that householders can get as much temporary relief from loan repayments as possible.

I note that the member for Rankin is in the room. I would say to the member for Rankin, as I say to others, that if you come from small business you get how this works. These are very difficult circumstances—you must rely on your line of credit, you must rely what cash you have in the bank and you must rely on the opportunities provided, particularly by the federal and state governments. Quite simply, we want every single business we can possibly manage to get through the current crisis, because it is they who will draw our economy forward, it is they who will provide jobs and it is they who will provide opportunities. And the best thing we can do for all businesses across this country is to provide confidence, and that is exactly what we're trying to do with the $130 billion JobKeeper program.

It provides a fortnightly payment of $1,500 to part-time and full-time employees, long-term casuals, sole traders and those working in the not-for-profit sector. Just how important is that? I'll give some examples from my local electorate. Bundaberg Travel Centre: clearly, someone involved in tourism, and we know that the tourism sector has found itself in an incredibly difficult situation, where it has lost international tourism. The people in my electorate, and I'm sure in your electorate, Mr Deputy Speaker O'Brien, know exactly how important this sector is. Without the JobKeeper payment they simply cannot maintain their employees.

Red Shed Seafood—Tony and Marguerite Mills—is retail and wholesale seafood. Some of the best in our country and in the world come from our electorates, Mr Deputy Speaker—from the regions on the east coast of Queensland. Most of them have found themselves overstocked. Their freezers are full, and I have reports of trawlers in rivers burning diesel simply to keep their freezers running. So while I'm on my feet and have the opportunity: if you want good Australian seafood get online, order it and have it delivered. Get it down to your house—take the opportunity; it'll never be cheaper than it is now. There is plenty of it, and each and every one of you should take that opportunity.

Staff at Hervey Bay Neighbourhood Centre provide local community services, whether for homelessness, with youth or in other community services. They're taking the option of the JobKeeper payment program to keep their employees out there, helping people in their time of need. I think that is absolutely critical. Tanya and the team are doing a great job.

What are other people saying? There is ACOSS—those great supporters of the coalition; they're always very much on our side! On 30 March Cassandra Goldie, the CEO of the Australian Council of Social Services, said:

We are particularly pleased to see the decision to extend the subsidy widely to all employers, including community sector and not for profit organisations that experience a sharp drop in revenue, …

Jennifer Westacott of the Business Council of Australia said on 31 March:

I think this is one of these country saving moments.

I'll go back to my answer from before: this is the green-and-gold tracksuit time. This is the time to get the crest on your chest and to support our nation in its time of need. We also have additional comments from the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry:

Today’s announcement demonstrates that Prime Minister Morrison and Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg are listening and acting to keep business in business and people in jobs.

Business in business and people in jobs. That has to be our focus. Sarah Davies from Philanthropy Australia said: 'Thank you, Josh Frydenberg, Zed Seselja and Scott Morrison. More support for job seekers, pensioners and the economically vulnerable. Great leadership today.'

These are some of the leaders in our community. We've heard from them and we know what it does for opportunities in our local businesses—particularly our small businesses. We know that the payment is 70 per cent of the median wage and that it's allowing people to maintain a base standard of living and to survive through this period of time—to get to the point where they can recover. It has been critical in terms of the activity of the government. There are now more than 835,000 businesses employing more than 5.5 million workers who are formally enrolled in the program—5½ million

I know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you and others, and many in this chamber, have been horrified by the sight of people lined up at Centrelink in long queues in terrible circumstances—in difficult circumstances. We need to provide support for them, and we will continue to do that. There are over 450,000 small- and medium-sized businesses which have received over $8 billion under our cashflow boost program, and we have introduced a separate 50 per cent wage subsidy for 117,000 apprentices, helping to keep the local apprentice baker and hairdresser in work. As a former apprentice, I say, 'Hear, hear!' to that, but we need to do more. One of the great needs in our nation, moving forward, is to improve the level of skills and the availability of skilled workers in this country because, quite simply, we'll need them. Quite frankly, we will need them. We will need to work our way out of the current pandemic situation, for that's the only option we have. There is no magic bullet—there quite simply isn't. We'll need Australians to work hard and to improve their skills to have opportunities in jobs and to provide more projects and move ourselves forward.

Other measures include a $500 million loan facility to support exporters recapturing their market share, and the $1 billion COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Fund, with over $500 million already committed. We've had more than 80 regulatory changes and we're looking to plan and work our way out of the current restrictions. We have a clear plan, we have a clear framework and we are working with the states—whether that is through the national cabinet or otherwise—to try to move our economy forward.

There is a great risk, and everyone in this place knows what that risk is. It is that we have further breakouts of the pandemic—that we have a second wave. We're doing everything we can in terms of the health response to make sure we are prepared and that we can act quickly—that we can test extensively and provide the opportunity to shut down those breakouts when they occur. Quite frankly, they will occur. There is no doubt that they will occur in the future. But, as I said earlier, never, ever underestimate the ability of the Australian people to adapt. If we set the framework for them to be successful then they will make their decisions and the changes necessary for their businesses to move forward and to get themselves back to work.

A great example is the local barber in Bundaberg, who has been closed for some weeks. He has a very small facility. He has one chair and a couple of people inside. I went past last week and there were three guys sitting out the front. They were appropriately distanced. They were sitting in the sun. They had two inside and one in the chair. He has overcome, he has adapted and he has found a way. Many Australian businesses will do that because that is in their nature. It is the Australian way to deliver in times of toughness. They are resilient and they will continue to be so. We will continue to support them.

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