Wednesday, 24 March 2021
Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2020-2021, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2020-2021; Second Reading
I want to focus on a few remarks today about the current economic trends and forecasts that our nation is dealing with and some of broader political impacts of the government's decisions. Whilst we know that the government has no plan to tackle the jobs crisis, no plan to help struggling families and no plan to save small family owned businesses who are crying out for help, our country is facing a cliff in a week when JobKeeper will end.
We know that many companies were given JobKeeper subsidies when they didn't need it: $10 billion to $20 billion may have gone to businesses whose profits actually rose during the pandemic. Let's just think about that for a moment. JobKeeper's there to support the hard-working businesses that suffered as a result of the COVID pandemic. It was put into place, supported by this side of parliament, after the Morrison government initially refused to offer support, by working constructively with members of parliament. It was a unification period in our nation's history, when we were able to look at income support for businesses who needed it.
But what were the consequences of that? When asked 'Will it be targeted?' the government said yes. When asked 'Will it go to the people who need it' the government said yes. But what has been revealed—I think it is shameful—is that around $10 billion to $20 billion may have gone to businesses whose profit actually rose during the pandemic. And to make it worse, it has now been revealed that this money was used to pay for executive bonuses.
I have no problems with companies making their own decisions. I have no problems with companies rewarding shareholders. I believe in free enterprise. But to have taxpayer assisted government schemes where bonuses are awarded, at the expense of businesses, does not sit right with me or the majority of Australians.
Meanwhile, when we see businesses being left behind, we only need to look at my home state of Queensland, where a matter of weeks ago I stood with the leader of the Labor Party, Anthony Albanese, as he launched Labor's pandemic recovery jobs taskforce. We met with industry groups and leaders from marine technology and marine production companies. They were struggling to stay afloat. As a result of international border closures by the Morrison government, which we supported, the tourism industry in Cairns, of which 70 per cent relies on dollars from overseas, has almost collapsed. They have been crying out since February for a targeted relief policy for their industry, and, quite frankly, the government has ignored them.
Closer to home, in my electorate of Oxley, in the south-western suburbs of Brisbane and Ipswich that I proudly represent, there are currently over 5,000 JobKeeper recipients, and I've spoken to many of them and I've spoken about them in this chamber. One I'll highlight again was the owner of a Cineplex, an independent cinema, Sam Catalano. Cineplex is a wonderful family-owned business. One of their businesses is at Redbank, at the Redbank Plaza shopping centre where people will go and have a great night out. He's a great business owner. And that business is looking at a cliff due to JobKeeper ending. Cinema owners across Australia, who've lost around 70 per cent of their revenue, also have been crying out for help, and the government has ignored them as well. I met with Sam and some of his staff and they explained to me the impacts of JobKeeper coming to an end. He said to me that he will not be able to keep all of his employees. That means those employees will then move to other forms of income support, relying on the taxpayer. They'll lose their jobs. It's that simple. In Queensland alone, there'll be around 50,000 people in the same boat. As I said, many of them are from the tourism sector and the entertainment industry—industries that have suffered blow after blow since the pandemic began.
The people I've spoken to own small and family businesses. My family owned a family business, a small business. My father and my uncle were in businesses for many, many years, so I have a small business background. I grew up in a butcher's family, understanding how difficult it is, week to week, month to month. Some weeks were good; some weeks were bad. Depending on whether we got the crumbed chops or the rump steak, we could determine whether it was a good week or a bad week. If it was sausages, we really knew that the shop was struggling that week. My mother had an indicator in the chest freezer about what the cost of living was in our family.
So I know what it's like, and I understand that small business is the backbone of our economy. Small business provides the engine room of our economy. When small business does well, the economy does well. As someone who is a proud supporter of small business, I know what it's like for those families that are worried about what happens next week or next month—or, indeed, whether they'll be there at the new financial year. A lot of people have done everything right. They have cut back; they have really pushed their budgets to the bottom line. And now they are finding themselves, in my opinion, being punished by the Morrison government.
We are on a trajectory to a net debt of $950 billion that this country owes. That's almost a trillion dollars worth of debt. We've heard a lot of lectures on debt in the time I've been following politics, over the last 20 years. I even go back to the John Hewson days, when he had a debt truck driving around talking about Labor's $40-odd billion worth of debt. Now we're up to a trillion dollars worth of debt, and we don't have a proper plan to manage that debt. We don't have a proper plan to reduce that debt. And, as a result of that debt, we have one million people unemployed and growing—one million people unemployed—and businesses, as a result of the government's decision to end JobKeeper, fearful that they won't survive. So those are the challenges facing our country.
Sadly, this week we have seen a government mired in sleaze, sex and cover-up—that would be my way of describing this week. I don't think it has been a good role model for people wanting to enter politics. We've seen the Prime Minister under pressure. We've seen him having to apologise for, I guess, making things up—that would be the only way I could say it. Yesterday he had to issue a midnight apology for making things up at live press conferences. Whilst all these issues are swirling around, in my electorate of Oxley the 13,000 businesses that I represent are looking for economic leadership in this country.
On top of that we have, as we come out of the COVID pandemic, the twin issues of a health crisis and an economic crisis still facing our nation. The promise of the government's slogans and media announcements was that four million Australians would be vaccinated by the end of March. When the residents and businesses I speak to hear the Prime Minister of the day, during an economic crisis and a health crisis, claim that four million people will be vaccinated by the end of March, they believe it. They take the Prime Minister at his word, because it is a privilege to lead this country. Even the experts realise we're not sure when the vaccine rollout will occur. We were told everyone would be vaccinated by October, but then the slippery, tricky language came in and we were told, 'That's not really what we meant; we meant something else.' But, despite the COVID-19 vaccine promise being broken, there is one promise that the government is keeping—that is, to end JobKeeper. I wish, amid their announcements about the vaccine and their other announcements, that they would break their commitment and actually talk about a plan to deal with the businesses that are going to suffer as a result of JobKeeper being on the chopping block.
We know that this government isn't on the side of Australians. It is setting them up to fail. I've spoken time and time again in the parliament about the debt crisis and the small-business crisis that people talk to me about. I know that in my home state people are looking at the debt crisis they're facing in their own lives because of the rising cost of living, job insecurity and flatlining wages. As at December last year, people in my home state had an average of $4,038 unpaid on their credit cards at the end of each month—well above the national average of $3,000. The decisions that happen in this parliament and the decisions the government makes have real impacts on the way families manage their budget and how much pressure they're under to make payments and make sure the rent is paid on time. The unstable job market plus the impending end of JobKeeper is giving some people no choice but to live with a bank account that's in the red, putting them at risk of being preyed upon by loan sharks.
This is something I have spoken about before. I am glad the member for Whitlam is in the Chamber. I know he shares, as do the member for Werriwa and the member for Parramatta, my deep concern and fear about the government not standing up to the loan sharks in this country. We on this side of the Chamber are united about doing something to protect vulnerable Australians. We hear the stories all the time, every member of parliament. If you do a street corner meeting or visit a shopping centre, you'll hear from people who are fearful about losing their job, who want more hours or who know someone who has just lost their job. Someone from Westlake, a mental health worker, recently told me that some payday lenders were charging borrowers more than 407 per cent interest per annum on payday loans. Just last month I spoke about this issue to the Consumer Action Law Centre, who told me that this isn't as bad as it's going to get. Think about what debt situations people are in, Mr Deputy Speaker. When JobKeeper ends, in a matter of one week, these figures are expected to significantly increase.
So, whilst there are issues surrounding scandals within the government, in my time today I'd simply say: focus on the people, not on yourselves; focus on the people and the small businesses who are worried about what will happen as a result of government decisions that aren't in their interest. They are decisions that aren't in the interests of millions of Australians who are looking over that cliff, who are worried and living from pay cheque to pay cheque. The cost of living—the cost of child care, the cost of education, all of those things—is spiralling out of control. They are looking for a government that is on their side. That's why I'm so proud to stand as part of Anthony Albanese's Labor team that has laid out a framework and has laid out economic policies and social policies to deliver essential support to people, not only in my community but also right across Australia. Child care is an important issue in my electorate and I know it's an issue close to the heart of the shadow minister for child care, Amanda Rishworth, and the leader, who have constantly, since the budget last year, campaigned on this.
In a matter of months, the budget will be delivered in this country. I once again call on the government to listen to what is happening to the sector. During the pandemic, we saw the sector heavily punished by this government. The first workers punished and taken off JobKeeper were childcare workers. There's still no explanation as to why that decision was taken. I come back to my earlier remarks. All of the decisions that the Morrison government has taken have a huge impact on working families. While there are internal challenges that the government faces, scandals of its own making, I simply say today: please listen to what your decisions are doing to the community. Think about those actions and make sure that the economic conditions in this country don't keep hurting working Australians.