Wednesday, 8 April 2020
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Treasurer. Can the Treasurer confirm that, under the government's legislation, he will have the power to extend the JobKeeper wage subsidy to casuals employed for less than a year, local government workers, university staff and teachers, temporary workers, disability workers, arts and entertainment workers, and workers employed by charities that have experienced a drop in donations alone?
I can confirm there is a power in the legislation for the minister to make changes to the system, but I can also confirm to the chamber, to the House, that national cabinet agreed that local government is the responsibility of state governments. In terms of casuals, as the Prime Minister has already told the House, casuals who've been with their employer for 12 months or more are eligible for the JobKeeper payment.
This is a $130 billion program. This is a very substantial program—indeed, a program like none other. It's different to the United Kingdom's program. It's different to New Zealand's program. It's different to Canada's program. It's an Australian solution to an Australian challenge. Under this program. some six million Australian workers will be eligible and will benefit. That's the expectation. Part-time workers, full-time workers, casuals, sole traders and the not-for-profit sector will all benefit from this very significant wage subsidy. It will help this country and the millions of Australian employees who use this program to get to the other side of the coronavirus crisis.
My question is to the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations. Will the Attorney update the House on how the Morrison government is protecting Australians by making important but temporary changes to our industrial relations system to ensure millions of Australians have access to the $130 billion JobKeeper scheme?
I thank the member for Forde for his question. As the member points out, the changes are temporary but they are also substantial, critical and very important. The changes that are being made to the Fair Work Act are being made to make certain that it is possible for the $1,500 JobKeeper payments to be made and to maximise the effect of the $1,500 JobKeeper payments, of which, of course, there will be $130 billion worth. They're changes that will only apply to employees and employers who are eligible for and receive the payment and they will only apply for the six months that the system remains in effect. These are absolutely necessary, given the nature of section 45 of the Fair Work Act and the construction of awards and enterprise agreements, to make sure that the $1,500 payments, when they are applied without further wages, are actually able to be applied. Without these changes, that would not be possible. The changes that go to issues such as employees' duties and location will also have the effect of maximising the effectiveness of the $1,500 payments. Again, they are temporary, so these changes will cease to operate in September 2020.
I want to thank the ACTU and employer organisations for helping with the design features of some of the matters that are being addressed in the Fair Work Act. The central change is what is called in the act a 'JobKeeper-enabling stand down' direction. That will facilitate an employer reducing, by direction, the number of hours that an employee would work according to this very important test: where the employee cannot be usefully employed because of changes to their business attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic or government initiatives to slow the transmission of the virus. The ultimate safeguard here is that the Fair Work Commission will be able to determine that very well known test of whether an employee cannot be usefully employed because of changes to the relevant business. The Fair Work Commission will adjudicate as to whether or not that test has been met. That critical change makes the system work.
Also critical is the fact that, as all members will be aware, the employer must pay the greater of the $1,500 JobKeeper payment or the lawful amount owing to the employee in accordance with their normal hourly rate, including applicable penalties and overtime. The changes in flexibility around things like duties and location could mean, for instance, that, where a cafe owner is now only able to serve coffees and is not serving food anymore, they can work with the chef and direct the chef, subject to the safeguards of the Fair Work Commission, to take coffees to customers, even though that's not what the chef usually did. Something like that can keep a business afloat. I just note, finally, that the Business Council of Australia noted that those flexibilities about duties and locations won't apply to people who aren't in the system, but there is still the ability to change the awards, and that is a process that's been cooperative and should be ongoing.
My question is to the Prime Minister. Why will the government allow business to double dip by receiving the JobKeeper wage subsidy at the same time that they are running down their employees' annual leave at the full rate as though the subsidy was not being paid?
As the member for Watson, I suspect, knows, no person under these arrangements who takes leave would take leave otherwise than by agreement with their employer. So it would be by agreement between the employer and the employee if they took leave, and that would enable that employee to get the full value of their leave, paid at their actual wage rate for that entire time, and that would enable the employer to support them in doing that through this arrangement. That is good news for the employee, it's good news for the employer and it enables both of them to work together on an agreement that they consider to be in the best interests of both of them. That's what we're asking Australians to do: to work together to find the right outcome with the supports and arrangements we've put in place. It's no different to what we're asking, through the national cabinet and state legislation, landlords and tenants to do. These are not usual times and they will require unusual arrangements, but what we're providing for here is these unusual arrangements by agreement, and in these cases it would be by agreement between the employers and the employees.