Tuesday, 22 June 2021
COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021. In Melbourne and Victoria, we're just exiting the Morrison lockdown. This one was the Morrison lockdown because, after the virus escaped from hotel quarantine in South Australia—and, of course, the Prime Minister and the federal government are responsible for the national quarantine standards—it came and hit Victoria and hit a population that was largely unvaccinated. In Australia, we haven't seen the kind of speed that we've seen in the United States. After they started with Donald Trump, who was in charge of dealing with COVID for the first few months, Joe Biden, in about four months, managed to get 50 per cent of the adult population vaccinated. Yet, in Australia, our Prime Minister has had trouble cracking five.
When the virus hit in Melbourne, in a community that had already been through so much and had done our fair share to prevent the explosion of a third wave across this country, we assumed that the Prime Minister, especially given his contribution towards the lockdown occurring, might have been in a position to support people when they went, yet again, without money during a very, very difficult time. But what we found was nothing, no plan at all. Even though the government factored into their budget a week-long lockdown happening every year, they had no plan to look after people who are doing it tough. The problem is that this government doesn't quite understand it. We've had members of the government say, 'Well, a week's not long to go without an income.' What people in the government don't understand is that, especially having come out of a previous lockdown where so many people had depleted their savings and were just getting by hand to mouth, many businesses and workers in Victoria were just getting back on their feet when this Morrison lockdown hit.
In Melbourne in particular we are very heavily reliant on the visitor economy. That has been brought to its knees, not just because of previous lockdowns but because social-distancing restrictions mean that things like going to the comedy festival in the same numbers or getting people together to go to a pub or a restaurant are in many places still subject to social-distancing restrictions. We were at the point where so many people, especially casual and insecure workers, many of whom work in the exact industries that were hardest hit by COVID, were just starting to look forward to some version of normal again. With the rise of casual and insecure work that we've seen—again, especially in many of those industries like hospitality, entertainment and the creative sectors—so many people are really just living day to day or week to week. So, when all of a sudden people were told go into lockdown for a week, a lot of people did not have spare money or savings to get them through that period of time. When people find out not only week by week but sometimes day by day, or sometimes on the very day, whether they're going to have any work that particular day, a week is a very long time to unexpectedly have to go without money.
So we pushed and pushed and pushed the government, saying: 'You've had some role in causing this lockdown and making people go without money yet again, and putting some businesses who were just starting to stand up back on their knees. The least you could do is continue the kind of JobKeeper support and the level of JobSeeker support that was there when the first lockdowns happened.' Lifting JobSeeker to $1,100 was recognition that, in Australia, that's what people need to not be in poverty. They need $1,100 a fortnight; that was the Prime Minister's and the government's admission. If they needed it then, they need it now when they're in lockdown. We need to reinstate or have some form of JobKeeper. If we are going to have lockdowns and people going without work on a regular basis we've got to keep people connected to their workplace. For businesses in Melbourne that are just getting back on their feet, after everything they've been through with the previous lockdowns, it is especially crucial to make sure that those businesses don't become disconnected from their workers and don't fall over yet again.
So we pushed and pushed and pushed and, finally, the government said, 'We're going to give you something.' But there was massive disappointment throughout Melbourne and Victoria when we found out in what contempt the government hold people and the pittance they were asking many people to get by on, in lockdowns that they now, on their own admission, say are going to be regular occurrences. For someone who works close to 20 hours a week, $325 a week is less than the minimum wage. The average rent on a one-bedroom place in the Melbourne CBD is $330. So people are going without their income, and all of a sudden they're being given something that's below the poverty line, that's below the minimum wage had they stayed in their job, and won't even cover a week's rent. That's critical because this lockdown happened at a time when a lot of the protections from previous lockdowns, like the protection against eviction, weren't there anymore. We lost the ability to have those supports, so the need for some kind of financial support was absolutely critical.
Think about it from the perspective of a casual worker in Melbourne. They found out that they were going to get $325. It wasn't even $325 for all the time that they were out of work, because they missed it for the first week—and, under this bill, they're going to keep missing it for the first week and then get $325 to maybe get them through the second week. But, of course, because this bill is linked to the definition of 'hotspot' as determined by the chief health officer, even though lockdowns and restrictions may continue, people stop getting their money when the chief health officer says the definition has changed. So what does that mean for a casual worker? It means that for the first week that they've lost their income they'll get no money. For the second week they'll get potentially less than the minimum wage, depending on how many hours of work they were working. For the third week, once it ceases to be a hotspot, though they might not get their shifts back because there will still be social distancing in place, they will get no money. So some workers may have had to make this $325 last three weeks, during the course of this recent lockdown. If this is meant to be the system that is going to support all of Australia going forward, then I say to the rest of the country, as a Melburnian: look out, because if we have to go back into lockdown, which the federal government is banking on happening as a regular occurrence, we are going to be in strife.
The bill gives some minimal support. But, as is the way with this government, every time they give with one hand they take away with the other. This bill also says that, if people have got some savings—what they call liquid assets—above $10,000, they are not entitled to any payment at all.
So, if you'd been saving for your first home and then you'd found yourself without any income through no fault of your own, the federal government would say, 'Dip into your home loan savings, and do it indefinitely. Do it until it runs down, because that's the way that you're going to have to look after yourself.' As we know, because so many lost out on support the first time around—casual workers were excluded, university workers were excluded—many people drew on their super. They took money out of their super during previous lockdowns to try to get them through. So what the government is now saying is, 'If you're saving for a house or you took money out of your super and you've got some money sitting in a bank account, well, we're going to punish you again for doing that and you can't get any payment.' If someone drew down from savings or from super and put it into their savings to try to get through the last lockdown, they will get punished for doing something that the government encouraged them to do. They're not going to be able to get access to this payment.
This bill needs to be fixed. This bill needs to be fixed to address those issues, to ensure that people don't fall through the cracks and to ensure that people aren't left in poverty during these lockdowns that the government is now baking into its budget. There is one other thing that should happen, though. If we had a social security system in this country that gave people enough to live on, we might not have to be in this situation where the government has to write cheques each time there's a lockdown. If everyone at a minimum were eligible for that $1,100-a-fortnight payment, which the government by its own admission has said is what you need in Australia to live above the poverty line, then there might be less need for these kinds of special purpose payments. If the minimum wage were higher and casual work and contracting out didn't leave people working an hour here, an hour there, struggling to make ends meet, then we might not have the need for these kinds of payments to be drawn on quite so much. The government needs to look at this and not just say, 'What is the least we can do?' The government needs to look at what has happened as a sign of a huge problem of growing inequality in Australian society and work out how to fix it.
One of the things in Melbourne was that people swung into action in response to this. The Salvos went around inner-city Melbourne delivering food to casual workers, knowing that under the government's payment conditions they were going to be locked out of getting any money for a week and, as I said, some of them were going to have to make $325 last for three weeks. I applaud the Sikhs, the Salvos, all those other groups that stepped up and all the businesses in Melbourne that offered free food and free support for people during the lockdown, because they knew that people would otherwise fall through the cracks. I applaud all those community groups and businesses for stepping up, but they shouldn't have to. The government should ensure that no-one falls through the cracks. If they predict that these kinds of lockdowns will keep continuing, then they've got to lift JobSeeker, got to ensure that people get a decent wage, got to outlaw insecure work, because that is the way to make sure that, in Australia, a wealthy country like ours, no-one falls through the cracks.