Wednesday, 8 April 2020
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
That these bills be now read a second time.
Today is one of the most important days in this history of the Australian parliament. Today is the day that this bill saves millions of Australian jobs. Today is the day that the people's house delivers for the Australian people.
This is the ultimate Team Australia moment. At a time when the country needs it most, the Prime Minister has provided the strong, the stable and the decisive leadership that this nation needs. I would like to thank him for his friendship and support, together with the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Industrial Relations for their support in the preparation of the legislation that is before the House today.
Our actions today will keep families together, businesses in business and preserve the productive capacity of the economy. This is vital as we prepare to meet the challenges of today and position ourselves for the recovery tomorrow.
The coronavirus sees Australia fighting a war on two fronts.
We face a health crisis and economic crisis simultaneously.
But no matter how great the task ahead, all Australians need to know that their government has their back.
Our priority all along has been to prepare and resource our health system for the challenges that lie ahead. I want to acknowledge the extraordinary work of the Minister for Health.
At the same time, we have taken unprecedented steps to cushion the severe economic impact for Australians from the coronavirus and build a bridge to the recovery phase.
Our actions have always been guided by our principles. The measures we have implemented have been temporary, targeted, proportionate and scalable to the challenges we face. Our measures have also been designed to leverage our existing tax and transfer systems to ensure that we can get the support to the millions of Australians that need it in the most efficient and effective way possible.
Our actions to date have seen a doubling of the safety net with a new $550 per fortnight coronavirus supplement. We have also allowed Australians in financial stress as a result of the coronavirus to access more of their own money in superannuation on a tax free basis—permitting them to access $10,000 this financial year and a further $10,000 next financial year.
For hundreds of thousands of small businesses who are employing millions of Australians that are doing it tough, we will provide cash payments of up to $100,000. These payments will also support thousands of not-for-profit organisations.
We have also guaranteed new small business loans of up to $250,000 to help them bounce back stronger on the other side.
At the same time we have provided a regulatory shield for what are otherwise profitable and viable businesses that find themselves under severe financial pressure as a result of the coronavirus. By providing more flexibility in our insolvency and bankruptcy laws, we can keep these businesses alive and help them to trade through this period.
And today, we go further. Much further.
This bill introduces a $130 billion JobKeeper package to keep businesses in business and Australians in a job. This is the single biggest rescue package that our nation has ever seen.
It is anticipated that over the next six months the JobKeeper payment will support the jobs and livelihoods of around six million Australians, many of whom will need this critical economic lifeline. I'm pleased to note to the House that, despite these major spending pressures, Standard & Poor's has reaffirmed today Australia's AAA credit rating.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures and this new $1,500 a fortnight payment will provide job security at a time when it is needed most.
This is a level of support like this country has never, ever seen before.
The $1,500 flat payment is the equivalent of about 70 per cent of the median wage and represents about 100 per cent of the median wage in some of the most heavily affected sectors, such as retail, hospitality and tourism.
It will be available to full-time and part-time workers, sole traders and, in the case of casuals, to those who have been with their employer for 12 months or more and importantly will apply to the many Australians working in the not-for-profit sector.
Combined with the government's previous actions, this totals $320 billion or 16.4 per cent of GDP in economic support to Australian businesses, households and individuals affected by the coronavirus to get them through to the other side and to put Australia in the best position possible to bounce back stronger than ever.
Fair Work Act amendments
This schedule will allow for the effective operation of the JobKeeper scheme within the national industrial relations system. It will quickly provide the certainty that employers using the JobKeeper payment need by temporarily varying working arrangements where necessary to keep people employed. At the same time it will offer employees strong protections from employers misusing the provisions and certainty as to their entitlements under the JobKeeper scheme.
These measures are time limited to the COVID-19 crisis and are only accessible to businesses participating in the JobKeeper scheme that need this flexibility right now.
In order to manage a downturn in business caused by the coronavirus, this schedule allows an employer to stand down an employee by directing them to work fewer days or reduced hours if the employee cannot be usefully employed because of the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the business. It also allows an employer, where the employer reasonably believes it is necessary to maintain the employment of their employee, to direct an employee to work from a different location, such as the employee's home, or undertake different duties than usual, but only where the direction is safe to do so and reasonably within the scope of the business's operations. It further allows an employer to request that an employee agree to change their days or time of work or use some of their annual leave, provided it does not result in the employee having a balance of less than two weeks annual leave.
This schedule includes strong protections for employees to ensure that they are treated fairly in any direction by an employer. The schedule applies only to employers and employees who are eligible for the JobKeeper payment. Any direction issued by an employer under this schedule must be reasonable; the employer must consult with the employee about it, and it must be put it in writing. An employee can dispute a direction made by an employer, and the Fair Work Commission will be able to settle any such disputes, including by arbitration. Serious penalties will apply to employers who misuse the provisions.
The J ob K eeper p ayment
The government will provide financial support to businesses, not-for-profits and sole traders affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
Under this framework, the government will deliver a wage subsidy to those employers significantly impacted by the coronavirus outbreak to continue paying their employees. The JobKeeper payment will support employers to maintain their connection to their employees, helping them to reactivate their operations quickly—without having to rehire staff—when the crisis is over.
Eligibility for the JobKeeper payment will be set out in the rules made by the Treasurer. The JobKeeper payment will be payable to an eligible employer who chooses to participate in the scheme, for a maximum of 26 weeks in respect of each employee that is on their books on 1 March 2020 and is retained or continues to be engaged by that employer. The program commences on 30 March 2020, the day of its announcement. Eligible businesses can begin distributing the JobKeeper payment immediately and will be reimbursed from the first week of May.
This schedule will also help new parents who have been stood down during the coronavirus pandemic to retain their eligibility for the government's Paid Parental Leave scheme by allowing the JobKeeper payment to qualify as work for the purposes of the Paid Parental Leave work test.
This change will provide increased certainty and security for expectant families through this difficult time.
To assist Services Australia to assess claims for social security payments, the bill allows temporary modifications to part 5 of the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999to enable the ATO to share information with Services Australia in relation to payments, such as the JobKeeper payment, made as part of the Coronavirus Economic Response Package.
Technical amendments to the g uarantee of l ending a ct
We are making a minor amendment to the Guarantee of Lending to Small and Medium Enterprises (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Act 2020.
The amendment will ensure that smaller lenders that are non-authorised deposit-taking institutions are eligible for the government's Coronavirus Small and Medium Enterprises Guarantee Scheme. This reflects the government's original policy intent to enable a wide range of lenders to be eligible for this scheme.
Amendments to support the childcare sector
The government will assist families who are already struggling with the financial impact of the coronavirus by updating the calculation method used at childcare subsidy balancing for individuals who have changed their relationship status during the financial year.
We will ensure that this cohort of families' childcare subsidy entitlements more closely reflect their income capacity as it changes throughout the year. This change will take effect at reconciliation from July 2020 onwards.
This measure will ensure funding of the Community Child Care Fund Special Circumstances Grant Opportunity program and the additional childcare subsidy through special appropriations. It gives the government flexibility to respond quickly to community need in the event of unforeseen events such as the recent bushfires, drought and coronavirus.
Modification of information and other requirements
The government is responding to challenges posed by social-distancing measures and restrictions on movement and gathering, which were introduced to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
We will provide a temporary mechanism to alter arrangements for meeting information and documentary requirements under Commonwealth legislation, including requirements to give information in writing and produce, witness and sign documents.
In recognition of the importance of continued business transactions and government service delivery during the coronavirus pandemic, this schedule provides that a responsible minister may determine that provisions are varied or do not apply or that another provision specified in the determination applies, for a specified time period. The mechanism is temporary and will be repealed at 31 December 2020. Any determination made under the mechanism will also cease to operate at this time.
Additional support for v eterans
We will ensure that payments and assistance for veterans and their dependants can be amended in line with future changes to payments and assistance for equivalent social security recipients.
The coronavirus supplement will be extended to veterans or their dependants who receive payments on the same basis as those Department of Social Services payment recipients who receive the coronavirus supplement.
The schedule will include a provision for the Minister for Veterans' Affairs to make a legislative instrument under which payments of the coronavirus supplement could be paid to a person receiving a payment or a benefit under the veterans' law for the same period as payments of the coronavirus supplement are payable under the Social Security Act 1991 (the SSA).
For both of the provisions under which the Minister for Veterans' Affairs may make a legislative instrument, the minister must be satisfied that the determination was made in response to circumstances relating to the coronavirus pandemic, and the social services minister is to be consulted before the determination is made.
Information s haring
This legislation will ensure that the government is equipped to respond to this unprecedented challenge with the best available information. Under this schedule, the ATO will be temporarily allowed to disclose relevant de-identified data to the Treasury for the purpose of policy development or analysis in relation to the coronavirus, including any programs introduced in response to the economic impacts of the coronavirus.
Treasury is currently able to access de-identified information from the ATO for the purpose of designing or amending a tax law, estimating or analysing taxation revenue, and estimating the cost of policy proposals.
In conclusion, I would like to thank my fellow Treasury ministers: the Assistant Treasurer, the member for Deakin; Senator Hume; and Senator Seselja. I would also like to acknowledge the hard work of the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Finance and, in particular, acknowledge the secretary of Treasury, Dr Steven Kennedy, and one of his deputies, Jenny Wilkinson, who've worked extraordinarily hard on this package of measures. I would also like to acknowledge the constructive role played to date by the opposition, which will hopefully smooth the passage of this legislation through the parliament.
Full details of these measures are contained in the explanatory memorandum. This package of legislation also includes Appropriation Bill (No. 5) 2019-2020 and Appropriation Bill (No. 6) 2019-2020. The details of these bills are set out in their accompanying explanatory memoranda.
This package of bills provides a $130 billion wage subsidy unlike those that have been announced by other countries.
Our scheme is different to that of the United Kingdom, New Zealand or Canada. It's an Australian scheme for Australian conditions.
It goes without saying that this unprecedented level of support reflects the unprecedented moment that we find ourselves in.
This legislation is the means by which we will get Australians to the other side of the crisis.
I end where I started. Today is one of the most important days in the history of the Australian parliament. Today is the day that these bills will deliver $130 billion of support to Australian workers, saving millions of jobs. And today is the day the people's house delivers for the Australian people.
I commend these bills to the House.
I begin by acknowledging the work of the Treasurer, including his time away from Amy and the kids, the work of his team and his office and, of course, the work of the Commonwealth Treasury under the leadership of Steven Kennedy and Jenny Wilkinson. We acknowledge the human part of the work that we are all going through, but, in many ways, especially those associated with putting together this very important package.
Our nation calls on this parliament to do whatever is necessary to help secure the health of our people, secure their jobs and living standards and secure the future. These are not discrete tasks; they are inseparable. There is no use playing this one or that one against one another. In times this serious, we reach deep into our history, seeking solace and lessons from the past, including from wartime. This is different, of course, to war. We're talking about saving lives and saving jobs, not sinking ships, but there are useful parallels. Eighty years ago, when John Curtin was leader of the Labor opposition, he told men and women assembled in Perth:
Whatever has been done; whatever must be done; and all that we can hope to do in the future, are predicated by the stern realities of the war in which we are engaged.
Not since those dark days has our country lived under a shadow like it does now. Not since those times have all that we do, all that we hope for and all of the nations whose friendship we value and count on been so imperilled as it is today by the stern realities of a consuming global menace. Not since those days when the old chamber down the hill met with blackout blinds drawn over the windows has our parliament and the nation it serves faced a graver threat. Now, like then, every facet of Australian life is being tested. The quality of our health system, the foundations of our economy, the strength of our democracy and the ties that bind us together are being challenged in ways that we couldn't have imagined when this parliament met for the first time this year in February.
The most pressing health imperatives are obvious: slow the spread, bolster our health system and save lives. I welcome, as the member for McMahon and others have welcomed, the recent encouraging signs, but we don't have to look far afield to see the grim warnings against complacency. None of us imagine that we're through the very worst of it yet. If it took the suspension of our footy codes and the emptying-out of our workplaces to bring home the severity of the coronavirus as a health emergency, it was the sight of Centrelink queues that seemed to stretch all the way back to the Great Depression that alerted our nation to the diabolical economic consequences of this pandemic. Tens of thousands of Australians who'd been instructed to stay home and to keep their distance were driven by desperation into lines that wound down the street and around the block.
The immediate economic priority is triage. The wage subsidies in these bills, which are all about maintaining the link between employers and workers, are important in that regard, along with additional support deployed fast enough and in sufficient quantities to prevent business closures, to protect jobs, to support the vulnerable and to prevent a bad quarter or two becoming a lost year or two, or worse.
My colleagues and I do understand that livelihoods are on the line. That's why we've supported all three packages proposed by those opposite, the measures announced in between, the decisive action taken by the Reserve Bank and the leeway agreed by the other banks, all of it adding up to hundreds of billions of dollars in direct support or loans, to triage the economy and to try and save as many jobs as possible.
Our overwhelming priority has been to get more support to more people more urgently. An economic crisis of this scale, moving at this speed, does not allow for half measures or for stuffing around. That's why we do support the wage subsidies and the other spending contained in the bills we've debated here today. There was never any chance that we would stand in the way of a wage subsidy that we campaigned for in the first place.
If our amendments don't pass this House, we won't be holding the bill up in the Senate. This reflects the responsible, supportive, bipartisan approach that we have taken at every single step of this crisis and its response. But bipartisanship doesn't mean parliamentary groupthink or empty acquiescence. Being constructive doesn't mean keeping quiet. And acting responsibly doesn't mean meekly following instructions. That might be the Labor Party the government wants, but it's not the opposition that the nation needs. We owe the Australian people not just our industry but our judgement. We have a responsibility as the party of working people to stand up for all of the wage earners of Australia, permanent and casual. We have a duty, as the architects of the Fair Work Act, to protect the rights and conditions of every worker. And, as the party who ensured that the Australian economy, alone in the developed world, actually grew during the last global recession, we have the ability to genuinely make the proposals before the parliament better for all Australians. Already we've demonstrated the value that a thoughtful and constructive opposition can deliver: by calling for these wage subsidies in the first place but also by being ahead of the game and calling for increased unemployment benefits; fixing the income test for partners; extending mutual obligation; supporting students; relief from evictions, assistance for childcare costs and services; more reliance on telehealth; support for charities; expanding access to broadband; expanding the Community Visitor Scheme; supporting the aviation sector and more.
The core of the legislation we are considering here was first proposed in Australia by the Labor Party and by the labour movement, drawing on experience overseas. For more than a week the government said it was impractical and unworkable, and that they wouldn't be going down this path—a week wasted on politics as usual, shooting down an idea because of where it came from and who proposed it. That kind of thinking is frustrating and corrosive at the best of times, but at times of crisis it is downright destructive. So, naturally, we welcome the government's change of heart on wage subsidies. It is not just a victory for the labour movement; it is a victory for all of those who send us here to represent their interests.
We will vote for these bills to establish the JobKeeper payment and to legislate the other necessary spending, but in doing so I urge government not to waste another week, or even another day, on reflex negativity, on Pavlovian politics as usual, rejecting our improvements before we even propose them here. Take this break in the ritual hostilities of this place to consider the substance of what we are offering. Find a way to factor in, respond to and listen to the genuine concerns that we raise on behalf of the people we champion: the casual employees who haven't been employed by one entity on a regular and systemic basis during the last 12 months—the casual teachers, the casual builders and others; charities that see a decline in donations but not GST turnover or tied government funding; disability businesses and the NDIS that won't be able to access the JobKeeper payment; childcare employers, who are facing a sharp decline in funding, and their workers; local government employees; temporary migrants; and partnerships with two genuinely active participants. Take on board our concerns in relation to employers being subsidised to run down existing leave entitlements.
We also need to recognise that this legislation gives the Treasurer extraordinary and broad powers to include those who aren't currently included in the scheme. That means that any worker who is excluded, in our view unfairly, from a JobKeeper payment—the council worker, or the casual teacher or the construction worker—and any otherwise-viable business or organisation that is struggling but not able to access the payment is in that position for one reason: because the Treasurer has not yet signed off on it. The only thing standing between a jobseeker payment for more than a million Australians is the Treasurer's signature.
The intentions of these bills and many of the aspects of these bills are very welcome and very important steps worthy of our support, but they can be much better. Our efforts today will help many Australians—but perhaps not enough of them—deal with the devastating economic impacts of this diabolical health crisis, a crisis which has overthrown so many old certainties; a crisis which has redefined in weeks our understanding of the way we work, from where we work and our reliance on digital infrastructure and digital literacy. It has put up there in lights the human cost of casualisation, our reliance on sick leave and the fragility of insecure and precarious work. It has shown how important Australian manufacturing always has been, and how reckless and foolish it is to undermine our capacity to be a country which makes things. Above all, it's forced us to give real thought to what is truly essential, and, in that, I hope sincerely there are some things that this crisis changes forever.
From now on I believe every Australian will recognise how deeply fortunate we are to have such brilliant, brave and caring people running our healthcare system, just as every Australian family grappling with homeschooling now understands what an extraordinary job our teachers and educators do. I know I do. In the same way, let this crisis mark the moment where the perception of child care in this country changes forever—not a luxury, not childminding, but an essential part of the education system and an essential service for working parents as well.
Let this crisis change forever the way our country respects, values and pays our cleaners, the people who stack shelves in the supermarket, and the truck drivers and delivery drivers bringing food and supplies—all the Australians who, whilst so many of us are sheltering at home or working from home, are keeping the wheels of the nation turning. Never again let it be said that our country can't afford to pay these Australians a decent wage or their penalty rates, and let this crisis be the moment we end the cruel fiction that anyone who needs government support is a bludger looking for a handout.
This legislation is really important. It commits, as the Treasurer rightly says, an extraordinary amount of money, and it is right and proper and appropriate that the spending of that money is scrutinised carefully by the parliamentary committee that we're setting up this week. It is also important to note that Standard & Poors today have put the Australian budget and Australian government on negative watch, which reflects some of the massive spending which is being authorised by this parliament. We always need to be sure that, in the spending we authorise here, we're getting bang for our buck, that it's going to the right places and that it's implemented properly and responsibly—and the committees will help us do that.
Equally important is how these necessary interventions are phased out. The PM speaks of a snapback. Once again, I think he's looking for a way to differentiate what he's doing now from what Labor did just over a decade ago in the GFC. We can't risk the Prime Minister's snapback stopping the recovery in its tracks. We cannot assume, as he seems to, that these problems in our economy will miraculously disappear in six months time. Yes, this support should be temporary, but it needs to be withdrawn carefully and intelligently, not driven by an arbitrary political or ideological deadline.
What we learned during the GFC is that the business of stabilisation and recovery of an economy is a very delicate undertaking. It's not only a technical policy issue but also one of confidence. The technical issue is that stimulus only supports growth as it climbs to a peak. The second you are past the peak stimulus or peak dollars out the door, every dollar after that, even if it's much more than you'd normally spend, is actually detracting from growth. So the stimulus must come off more slowly than the growth in new private spending, because it offsets it dollar for dollar in terms of economic growth. If you withdraw stimulus as fast as the new money flows in, growth will be zero. If you withdraw it faster, growth will be negative, and more negative growth in the so-called recovery after a major recession would be a major mistake and a major human tragedy. This isn't the time for scorched-earth ideology and certainly not the ideology that burnt the global economy to the ground in the lead-up to the GFC yet somehow was the only thing to survive it.
In the GFC, Australia had two major waves of stimulus for precisely this reason. The first was the immediate sugar hit of the cash payments in October 2008, essential to sustain activity but not in itself sustainable. It's why we had the second wave in February 2009, and that was the protein, the main nation-building investment in schools, housing and infrastructure, to underpin current and also future economic growth. It was still temporary spending, but it spread stimulus over a slightly longer period so we got through the danger period of weak private growth and were only withdrawing our stimulus once we were largely out of the woods.
Those opposite criticised the second stimulus. They voted against it. They have been criticising it for 12 years, until a couple of weeks ago. I say this in all sincerity: I genuinely hope that this was cynicism rather than stupidity. I'm hoping that they understood then and especially that they understand now what that second wave was for, even though they chose the low road of negativity and simplistic slogans to score political points, because, if they genuinely still believe that second stimulus wasn't necessary then, this economy is in more trouble now. To date, the government have shown—and we welcome it—that they've learned the first lesson: to respond with fiscal policy including payments to households. But those opposite need to learn the second lesson as well. This economy will need protein too—the nourishment of long-term investment and demand, greater productivity and new jobs, and cheaper and cleaner energy—as we try and emerge from this crisis. It's not too early to start thinking about what that future looks like.
In our contributions today and in the speeches by the Prime Minister, the Labor leader and the Treasurer this morning, we've all acknowledged in one way or another that we're all in this together. But acknowledging that is more than a matter of saying we're all at risk from coronavirus or that we all have a responsibility to follow the rules. We are and we do, but 'we're all in this together' is also about what happens next. It's about the Australia we want to live in when life is normal again. So many Australians are working around the clock to deal with the immediate threats, and we applaud them for their selfless courage and commitment. The rest of us should be thinking about what this crisis is teaching us, what the world will look like after the virus is gone and what it all means for Australia in the years ahead. The challenges eating away at our economy before the virus will be there after the hospitals empty. Before anyone had heard of COVID-19, we saw slowing quarterly growth, well-below-average annual growth, stagnant wages and declining living standards. We can't let that be a feature of the post-pandemic economy as it was pre pandemic.
We've known three decades of continuous economic growth, engineered by Hawke and Keating and preserved by what Australians achieved together under Rudd and Swan, but that record in itself guarantees us nothing. As we confront over a million unemployed Australians, walk past the doors of hundreds of thousands of shuttered businesses and tally towards a trillion dollars in public debt, we can't fall back on the comfort of the familiar. We can't imagine that a retreat into what has worked in the past will necessarily be near enough or good enough for the future. We need to be brave enough to recognise things can't be exactly as they were before. We need new thinking and cooperation and new solutions.
We draw inspiration for that from our history. I began today by quoting John Curtin on the stern realities of the Second World War. Of course, the country we live in and the crisis we are facing are fundamentally different today, as I said, but Curtin and Chifley had the foresight while the war was still raging to imagine Australia after the war, and they had the vision to focus on employment. Curtin spoke of victory in war, victory in peace and a country which becomes 'a mighty fellowship in which the happiness of each will be assured by the effort of all'. When he established the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, it was just before Christmas in 1942. Chifley was made the minister at the start of 1943. Most of Europe was still occupied by the Nazis, and Japanese bombs were still falling. The war may have been turning in Australia's favour, but two more years of courage and the sacrifice of many more young people would be required before victory.
Last week I gave Kim Beazley a call to talk about this period of our history. He talked about Curtin and Chifley and described them as 'men of total picture', because they knew that, if Australia were to prosper after the war, it needed to rewrite the social contract during the war, and, to be meaningful, full employment needed to be at the core of it. They understood the duty government owed to citizens whose sacrifice had kept their nation free—the responsibility Australia had to prove worthy of its people's courage.
We now need to muster again and modernise that spirit. We need to focus on jobs and wages and living standards. We need to deal with the most pressing aspects of this crisis and at the same time contemplate Australia after the virus. We need to recognise that this will be a generational challenge and that progress may take many years. We need to focus on prosperity, opportunity, sustainability, security, democracy and diplomacy, and national identity and we need to measure ourselves against those pillars of progress. We can deal with this crisis decisively, urgently and intelligently. We can reimagine the Australian economy, not just revive it. We can renew our society, not just resuscitate it. We can do more than rebuild and recover; we can create the best version of a new Australia and work towards it with the same sort of quality of planning and generosity of spirit that Chifley deployed, to such long-lasting and nation-changing effect.
Again, like the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the Labor leader, I have no doubt that our country and our people will come through this crisis, and that, with planning and courage and forethought, we will emerge stronger for the trial—stronger, fairer and with a richer understanding of what is truly essential, with a larger sense of the true measure of our country's greatness and with a deeper faith in one another and what we can achieve together. If we want to live up to that challenge of building a better Australia, then we can begin by making these bills before the House better as well. That's why I move the amendment circulated in my name. I move:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give these bills a second reading, the House:
(1) notes that this legislation gives the Treasurer extraordinary powers to include those not currently eligible for the JobKeeper Payment; and
(2) calls on the Treasurer to use his power under this legislation to ensure more jobs are protected and that struggling, otherwise viable businesses and organisations are able to access the JobKeeper Payment".
Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Labor Party of course supports this very necessary legislation, as the member for Rankin has very well pointed out. This is necessary legislation to keep as many Australians as possible in their jobs. Whether they are actually fulfilling that job on a day-to-day basis or fulfilling it in a very different way or not able to fulfil it, we need as many Australians as possible to maintain their connection with their employer. We need to provide every support to those who have lost their job and every support to those whom we can keep in a job.
The Prime Minister outlined the objectives of any government action. This is an objective which we agree with: to keep people in work and to keep businesses open. That needs to be the test. Does this legislation keep people in work? Does it keep businesses open? We believe it does, and we believe it fulfils the objectives we set out when we called on the government to introduce a job subsidy. This is a radical policy for radical times. We do not make the call lightly. Job subsidies are necessary to keep as many businesses open and as people employed as possible. So the message to the community from this House, as one, must be clear: 'We are with you, we have your back. We will support you through this time. We will do whatever it takes to keep you in work.' That is a message from this House, as one, today. As the member for Rankin, the shadow Treasurer, rightly said, we thank the government for taking on board our feedback. We don't think this legislation is perfect. We've made it very clear—this amendment I am seconding makes it clear—that it could be much better. But we will not let that stand in the way of our support.
Just as our message to the people of Australia is that we are with you, my message to the people of McMahon is that we will do and I will do whatever it takes. Whether you live in Fairfield, Minchinbury, St Clair, Greystanes, Smithfield, Kemps Creek or Horsley Park, people are doing it tough, people are losing their jobs. This parliament should be here for you and I am here for you. We are doing business differently; we are doing more over the phone and by email and by Skype. But, if you need help, your member of parliament is there for you. I'm there for the people of McMahon. That message must be clear.
As I said in the last sitting, the best economic response is actually the best health response. I'm seeing this talked about around the country more and more, and I see some people are arguing that we should be lifting the restrictions—that it's all okay now. Now, of course everybody wants to see the restrictions lifted as soon as they sensibly can be; that is a given. But let us not make the mistake of lifting the restrictions too soon. I don't accept—we have never accepted—that somehow this is a trade-off between a good health outcome and a good economic outcome, because the best way to get through this crisis as quickly as possible is to have the best health policy as quickly as possible. That's why we called for more to be done. That's why we called for clearer action. That's why we made suggestions to improve the health policy response.
I've seen some other commentary on this. Some people are suggesting the Labor Party should be silent—that the Labor Party shouldn't have a role to play. I fundamentally disagree with that. We have backed every piece of government legislation we have been asked to back, including these bills today. We've backed every government health initiative. We've agreed to every request the government has made of us. But at this time, more than ever, scrutiny is important. At this time, more than ever, we need every Australian working together, and that includes the Labor Party—the opposition—making suggestions about what could be done better. We've seen that take place with telehealth, with mental health. We've seen the government adjust its health response.
So the role of the Labor Party is to avoid politics for politics' sake. It's to avoid opposition for opposition's sake. But it is not to be struck dumb. It is to provide constructive suggestions and feedback, and to provide a constructive policy addition—not an alternative. We normally provide an alternative. In this environment, we don't provide an alternative; we provide complementary action. We suggest how what has already been done can be built upon. That is the role of a constructive opposition. And it is also the role of the opposition to provide support to the government in keeping the current restrictions in place. We called for them earlier. We called for stronger action. But we also provide our support to the government to keep them in place.
I've mentioned that I have seen some commentary that the restrictions should be lifted. I saw a businessperson in the Financial Review yesterday argue that the restrictions should be lifted, and I must say I was shocked to read his comments. I'm not going to name him, but I was shocked to read his comments. He was named in the newspaper; I'm not going to give him the benefit of giving his name. He was reported as saying:
"I wonder how many of the global deaths that will be attributed to COVID-19 would have occurred within the next year or two anyway? It’s time for our political leaders to take a reality pill before it’s too late," …
He was saying that these deaths would've occurred anyway, and therefore it's time to reduce the restrictions. I have not heard a more tone deaf, or insensitive or, frankly, wrong contribution in this entire debate. It is just utterly wrong.
So my main message today is: we support this legislation. We think it could be better. The Prime Minister said in his remarks—and they were fine remarks—'We're all in this together, and we'll get through this if we all work together.' Well, there are a million Australians who, frankly, are not in this as much as they should be with our support: a million casuals—a million people who have been left out by the government's legislation. We think they should be in. The amendment that I'm seconding reflects the fact that they should be in. All our contributions, I hazard a guess, will say that they should be in. That is our view. That is our constructive advice. And we call on the government to listen to that today.
But if they don't listen today, we also note—and it's a good thing that the Treasurer is at the table—that the Treasurer has the power and the Treasurer has the authority, a rather remarkable authority, but one he should have, to expand the available support, the jobseeker support. And we say to him: 'If you don't want to do it today, if you don't want to do it in parliament, if you don't want to change the legislation, please take it away with you. Please do it in the future. Please do it tomorrow, or next week if that's what you want to do. Expand the jobseeker support to reflect casuals, for Australia.' That would be the best economic policy. It would be the best social policy. It would be the best health policy. It would be the best policy for our country, to expand the support to those casuals who've got unavoidable expenses. They deserve to have that support.
The government says this is a health crisis and it's an economic crisis. But really they're the same crisis. Really it's the same phenomenon that we're dealing with. We need to avoid avoidable deaths, and today we pay tribute and our condolences to the 50 Australians who have so far lost their lives. We note, and we extend our support to, those 6,000 Australians who have, or have had, COVID-19 during this crisis. And there will be more to come.
While we welcome any encouraging signs—and there are some—we have a long, long way to go. We need to ensure that we're testing for community transmission. We're doing that more and more. We need to ensure that we're providing every support to our intensive care units, who will still come under great pressure and who will still have much to do. We need to be—and I acknowledge the efforts of the Minister for Health—doing everything we can to ensure personal protective equipment is provided to healthcare workers. This is the No. 1 issue that gets raised with me. I reflect the challenges that the minister has and I acknowledge the international supply chain issues and the challenges that they're facing. We simply say this: we've had our first healthcare worker diagnosed with COVID-19. Too many healthcare workers overseas have died in treating people with COVID-19. It must be our national objective that no Australian healthcare worker dies. Therefore, we must have every effort in place to have personal protective equipment for all healthcare workers as appropriate.
Again, I'm not critical of the minister's efforts. The government, I know, has steps in place. But, simply, it's important for every healthcare worker to know that our objective is that no healthcare worker dies in Australia treating COVID-19. They are doing their best. They are doing their bit. I was shocked to learn from the nurses and midwives association and the Health Services Union that healthcare workers are being abused on public transport, in some instances for apparently bringing the virus onto public transport. These are our heroes. They deserve our applause, yes, but they deserve more than that. They deserve our support. They deserve the personal protective equipment that they need to do their job. They are the front line, and they need to know that we, in this House, support their efforts every step of the way.
Again, we've made constructive suggestions, some of which have been taken up: about free car parking, so that they don't have to take public transport, and about accommodation, so that they don't have to worry about taking the virus home to their families—I think three states have now taken up that suggestion, which we welcome very much. Labor and Liberal states, equally, have taken up that suggestion.
We say we're all in this together. We are all in this together. We need to make sure that that is a reality, not just rhetoric. Our amendments bring all Australians into this together. We support the legislation. We think it should be better. But we will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We will pass this legislation, just as we've given our support to every health initiative the government has proposed, because that is the right thing to do, and, under the member for Grayndler's leadership, we will continue to do the right thing at every turn during this crisis.
I move, as an amendment to the amendment moved by the member or Rankin:
That the following words be added after paragraph (2):
"(3) notes that casual workers deserve to be treated with the same respect as every other worker who faces losing their job because of this pandemic; and
(4) calls on the Government to provide the JobKeeper payment to the 1.1 million casual workers who have worked for their employer for less than a year".
Labor is taking a constructive approach. When the government has made the right decisions, we have supported them. But bipartisanship isn't the same as unilateralism. Just as we have to keep our minds and our hearts open, we owe it to our fellow Australians to keep our eyes open as well. Where we have seen gaps, we've offered constructive suggestions. We're looking for outcomes, not arguments. It is what the Australian people expect of us. They were tired of conflict long before this pandemic. This is a time of great anxiety for Australians. We owe it to them to rise to the occasion, to provide reassurance and to light the path ahead. The last thing we want to do is look back and say we could have done more and should have done more.
It is good that the government has taken up our suggestions on issues like evictions, telehealth, financial help for students and a range of other issues. We are also pleased that the government accepted our suggestion to help thousands of working people by increasing from $48,000 to $79,000 the wage their partner could earn before their COVID-19 assistance payments cut out. We welcome the government's $750 a week wage subsidy, which it rejected when Labor first raised the idea. This is definitely a case of 'better late than never'.
This is a national crisis and, above all, we want the government to get the policy settings right. Our nation simply cannot afford the alternative. In a crisis of this scale, it is 'all hands on deck'. This is not the time for 'politics as usual'. It is pleasing that the government recognise that and have been taking actions that are counter to their longstanding rhetoric. But we have to get this right. Labor remains concerned that about 1.1 million casual workers will miss out on wage subsidies simply because they have worked for their current employer for less than a year. They are among our most vulnerable workers. In the modern workforce, many workers defined as casual who have been stood down have expectations and financial commitments based upon that regular work and income.
This morning, at a press conference in the upstairs area where we are now gathering and practising social distancing, I asked whether the cameraman filming that press conference was a casual. Most people working in those sorts of jobs are; they call them 'stringers'. In this case, he was operating a camera for all of the networks and broadcasting out live. It's the case wherever you go. That doesn't mean that they don't have a job; it's that the nature of the job means that they are defined as casual. But they are in precisely the same circumstances as someone who is a permanent worker for a single company. They have mortgages and rent to pay. They have families to look after. They have bills to pay. They deserve respect.
It is the labour market change that has caused so many people to be defined as casual. There may well be a debate arising out of this crisis—and certainly we will be advocating one—about security of work. This crisis has been a real reminder about people doing essentially the same tasks but having different conditions imposed upon them. It's not that long ago that the government minister was saying that people who are casuals 'have savings because they get extra wages'. To make a statement like that shows how out of touch the government was just weeks ago. It's pleasing that the government has been hit by reality on a range of issues, but this remains one where they need to actually get it; they need to go and talk to people who are in those circumstances. And they don't have to go outside this building to do it; they can do it in this building. They can talk to people who we work with every day whose job is defined as casual and who are deserving of support. They face the same financial struggle as everyone else. They should be supported to keep their jobs and connections to employers when this crisis is over. We want to talk to the government in good faith about how we can broaden this assistance, because the casualisation of the workforce means that many Australians who want full-time work can't get it. They are forced into casual work, and they shouldn't be penalised for it.
This bill extends the JobKeeper payment to casuals who have been employed with their employer, as at 1 March 2020, on a regular or systemic basis for a period of over 12 months. This means that more than one million casual workers will not be eligible for the JobKeeper payment because they have been with their current employer for less than a year. Missing out are casuals in important professions—sectors such as teaching, health, disability and the allied industries. There are casuals from our regions who are ineligible for the JobKeeper program, including those regions most affected by COVID-19 due to its impact on the tourism, fishing and agricultural sectors. I'm very familiar with the tourism sector, having been the shadow minister for a number of years. It is dominated by people who are defined as casuals. These are people who have been hit by the bushfire crisis and COVID-19, and now the government is cutting loose and treating them as somehow less worthy of support than others who are working in similar professions or similar hours but are just defined differently. It's not fair, and that is not the Australian way.
Those who miss out predominantly will be women. There are more women, as a percentage of the workforce, defined as casual. It's the nature of those professions as well. There are also older workers needing to supplement their pension incomes and younger workers just commencing their working careers. My son is a casual worker. That's what you do at that period of time. You do that in your life, working your way through school or university or TAFE.
But there are other concerns with the measure. By restricting the JobKeeper payment to casuals who have been with the employer for over 12 months, we may be guilty of reducing the dynamism of the labour market. We want to be building an economy where workers are mobile and able to better seek out the most dynamic firms and opportunities; we want firms that, despite COVID-19, are encountering labour supply shortages to be able to confidently attract workers; and we want firms to continue to seek out the best available labour to ensure they are at their productive frontier. Dynamic firms and dynamic labour are something that both Treasury and the RBA have pointed out as missing. Prior to COVID-19 we knew that Australia was at a low productivity ebb. We had already seen two quarters of productivity going backwards. Essentially, we were in a productivity recession prior to the bushfires and prior to COVID-19. We can't afford to go back even further.
So, as important as providing wage subsidies is to getting through COVID-19, we need to ensure that measures taken today do not throw sand in the cogs of the recovery by placing artificial restrictions on labour mobility. The limits on the JobKeeper payment going to casuals who have been with an employer for under 12 months is not good for business. It means that firms would be disadvantaged by employing labour that has only just become available, such as recent graduates, school leavers or, indeed, recently retired older workers. It means that good firms that have recruited wisely and undertaken the necessary training and probationary period for the worker are penalised if this has all been completed in a period of less than 12 months. For these firms, their connection to the employee is not time based. It is developed through the careful process of searching for the employee, taking them on, training them and having a probation period. Labor's opposition to the 12-month limit is not only about equity; it is about efficiency. We want to ensure that firms that have invested in their workers get to nominate them for JobKeeper. We want workers who have moved between employers for better opportunities and to have their skills uplifted are not penalised for doing so.
Labor also urges the government to provide better support for casual staff in schools, TAFE and universities, all of which have been affected. Hundreds of thousands of school and university staff will not be eligible for this JobKeeper payment. Teachers have been here for us during this crisis, and the government should be there for them.
This is all consistent with the approach being taken in other areas, an approach designed to maintain connections between employers and their employees. That's the fundamental thing that we're trying to do here, which is the consensus across this parliament. If we get it right, it means that our recovery will be faster when this is over, and I urge the government to adopt the approach that we are advocating. We don't do so in any partisan way. We do so in the spirit of bipartisanship, trying to advocate improvements to the scheme that has just been moved by the Treasurer. If they do so, their legislation will be stronger for it and our economy will be stronger for it, as well as individuals being stronger for it.
Thank you. The original question was that these bills now be read a second time. To this the honourable member for Rankin moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The Leader of the Opposition has now moved an amendment to the amendment, adding words. The question now is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Grayndler to the amendment moved by the honourable member for Rankin be agreed to.
These are unprecedented times. Those of us who serve in this place have a vague knowledge that one day we may be called on to make decisions such as these, but that doesn't make the moment feel any the less grave. I thought that the days of total mobilisation of our population on the scale that we saw during the Second World War were something for the history books, but coronavirus is the greatest threat the world has faced since the war, and it requires a total war response.
Over 1.4 million people have contracted coronavirus worldwide, and over 82,000 people, including almost 50 Australians, have died. Of 5,956 Australians who have contracted coronavirus, 2,547 have recovered and 294 are in hospital, including 92 in intensive care and 36 on respirators. Over 310,000 Australians have been tested for coronavirus, one of the highest rates of testing in the world.
The coronavirus is not just a health issue, though its potential to test the health system is unprecedented, and I want to thank the frontline health workers in our hospitals, clinics and pharmacies for all they do. I particularly want to acknowledge the work of the Minister for Health and the Chief Medical Officer in meeting this challenge.
The coronavirus will change our country in ways we haven't yet fully understood or imagined. Coronavirus is already challenging the way we live, the way we work, the way we commute or don't commute, the way we consume, the way we educate our children, the way we gather in community and the way we relate to each other. I particularly want to acknowledge the churches and the not-for-profit service providers that are helping our communities get through with a great sense of cheerfulness.
I particularly want to acknowledge the schools and make a special note of the year 12s, many of whom will feel that they are missing out on a year they were so looking forward to: the culmination of their education, the chance to lead and the bittersweet experience of doing things for the last time. I want to say to those students: hard as it is to believe right now, there are opportunities in this that you have never thought of. You have the chance to be creative and lead in ways no-one else before you will have done. In the years ahead, you will tell stories of this time, and you'll see how it strengthened and shaped you. In fact, I hope we all will.
The way we live now, despite all its challenges, is a return to home and hearth and to place, suburb and community. The privations of the present make us grateful for the things that we have: our family, the beauty of our neighbourhood, and the acts of kindness of our neighbours and people doing essential work in our local shops and government services, making our lives easier. But we cannot ignore the darker side of what coronavirus is doing to our society. The challenge of COVID-19 is putting a great strain on the mental health of many Australians, and they understandably but wrongly question their sense of self-worth. Can I say to Australians who are struggling: you matter, your lives matter, we will all get through this together and prevail just as earlier generations of Australians have prevailed.
One of the religious leaders in my community at Galston Uniting Church is taking the time to ask all of his parishioners, 'Is there anything you need?' and doing it quietly, because many people who really need help at this time are people who are proud and people who are perhaps too proud to ask for help at other times. That's why the government's mental health package, with more support for the Beyond Blue's coronavirus hotline as well as funding for Lifeline and Kids Helpline are vital, as is the important extra funding we're giving to keep people safe from domestic violence.
I think I will never forget seeing the Centrelink queue at Hornsby in recent weeks, stretching more than a block and a half, with many Australians who had good jobs, who would never in their lives have imagined themselves standing in a Centrelink queue, Australians for whom their very identity is tied up in the work they do when that work is no longer available. That is why I applaud the government's jobseeker package and the coronavirus supplement for those who have lost their job.
The coronavirus is an unprecedented economic challenge, and that challenge calls for an unprecedented response. I didn't come to this place to increase the size of government nor did I come here to see more Australians come to depend on Centrelink. We've been making decisions over recent weeks to spend $320 billion, of which today's bills represent $130 billion, because we have pressed the pause button on business and industry. If we ever needed a reminder that the true engine room of our economy and society isn't government but small and medium business community groups and not-for-profits, these past few weeks have been that reminder. Normally our job is to get out of their way and let them do their work, but at the moment we are having to get in their way and it isn't easy to get used to. Nonetheless, we're right to do this.
I want to congratulate the Treasurer and Prime Minister for the ingenious concept at the heart of this bill, the JobKeeper payment. Anyone who has ever employed people knows how hard it is to find and retain good people. And anyone who has ever done a job they love knows the great privilege they feel in working for an organisation that values them. In times of crisis, people are just pleased to have jobs and workers to keep their businesses going.
This bill maintains the relationship between employer and employee by having the government make payments to business and not-for-profits affected by a downturn as a result of coronavirus, to support those organisations in keeping those employees and making it easier for those businesses to snap back on the other side. This payment of $1,500 per fortnight per eligible employee has been warmly welcomed as a lifesaver across my electorate and around the country.
Finally, I want to say a thank you to the people of Berowra. It is easy to forget how good people can be. I want to acknowledge the people in my electorate and across Australia who are inspiring us every day with their acts of selflessness and resolve. For this, I say thank you.
I also rise to support the bills that will bring into effect a national wage subsidy to support millions of Australians and their families through this crisis. It comes after sustained calls from the trade union movement, from the Labor Party as well as from economists and businesses across the country. Whilst it's not quite the wage subsidy Labor would have introduced, we do welcome this action. This is a victory for the broad labour movement. Although it did come too late to prevent the massive queues we saw at Centrelink right around the country, in the main it will help millions of Australians through this incredibly difficult period.
Labor's priority is to protect workers, families and businesses through this crisis. We have sought to work with the government constructively and play that role where we can. But while this wage subsidy package will support many millions of Australians, it does leave some of our most vulnerable in our community without support. It is disappointing that where clear flaws in these bills have been identified, the government appears unwilling to move. Given the scale and the pace of this crisis, it is not possible to get everything right the first time. It's why the parliament needs to sit and scrutinise legislation.
But a wage subsidy has to capture as many workers as possible to support families through the months ahead and ensure that our economy can quickly scale up when the crisis is over. I urge the government to include the million casual workers and the million migrant workers currently excluded as well as the thousands of university staff, our council workers and employees of many charities that are already excluded under this bill. When you look at the issue of council workers, it seems completely egregious that a worker who works, for example, in the Ballarat aquatic centre that is run by our local council, a swimming instructor who would be eligible otherwise under this scheme does not get this JobKeeper payment, whereas someone at the private swimming academy just down the road does. It seems egregious to me that, despite doing the same job, the same work, one working for a local council swimming pool is not eligible and yet one working for a private business is eligible.
There are also businesses that will also miss out because they don't quite meet the turnover requirements. They may have seasonal businesses, particularly those in the tourism sector. In Daylesford, for example, in my electorate, the winter months that we're heading into now are when they expect to get their highest income. Many of those will miss out.
The government says that these Australian workers will be eligible for support through the unemployment system but the very point of a wage subsidy is that it is both financial support and it's that connection with work between the employer and the employee that is continued. Putting casual workers, and many of them are women, into the unemployment system reduces their independence and is subject to a household income test. In too many circumstances, families that were reliant on two incomes will have to live off one income for the current months. With increased pressure in our homes at this time, the government is actively deciding to disempower some workers and reduce their financial independence.
The government also says that over a million migrant workers should return home, that they are not eligible for jobseeker or JobKeeper payments. How are they to return home when international aviation has all but ground to a halt? Migrant workers perform invaluable work, particularly in agriculture across my community and right across the community, and they deserve some assistance. The government's support for the many is welcome, but it must not let millions of families miss out. The Prime Minister says our response is uniquely Australian. I say that what is uniquely Australian is that we leave no-one behind in a crisis.
Speaking of the fair go, wage subsidies should be targeted at supporting workers through this crisis, not at propping up the balance sheets of businesses that force workers to take leave entitlements. This is a direct balance sheet subsidy from the Australian taxpayer to these companies. Worse still, some employers are utilising this loophole while forcing their workers to take accrued leave. Quite simply, if a worker wants to cash out their leave whilst stood down that is their choice, and they should be able to do so, but the wage subsidy should not be used by the employer to pay out those leave entitlements.
The wage subsidy will help our aviation sector keep people crucially connected with that sector, but it is not going to be the saviour of this sector. We know that, even after standing workers down, grounding aircraft and cutting back on other areas, our airlines face significant fixed costs to ensure that they can safely scale up once the crisis is gone. Further, our entire aviation sector is likely to feel the effects of this crisis much longer than other sectors of the economy. No-one can predict when domestic aviation will return to what it was. No-one can predict when international borders and international aviation will be back to what they were previously—we just can't. These circumstances necessitate an urgent plan from the federal government to save the current structure of our aviation industry.
The current structure of two major full-service airlines supported by partner budget carriers and a strong network of smaller regional airlines has served the travelling public and our economy well for many years. It was supported by the aviation white paper that Labor undertook when we were last in office. This structure is critical for hundreds of thousands of jobs, promotes competition and ensures services regularly reach all Australians. It is critical to our national freight task. Such a plan for aviation should be situated alongside similar strategies for other essential and strategic industries impacted by this crisis. It should draw, as I said, on the work of the aviation white paper.
We've seen in aviation and across the broader economy that the pace of this crisis is such that it is impossible for government to get everything right the first time. Within days of the first aviation package, the airlines highlighted that allocating funding to refunding fees and charges incurred when flying was of limited benefit if they were not in the air due to travel restrictions. The government needs to make clear whether it is possible to recalibrate this funding in more useful and different ways. The $100 million cash injection into around a dozen regional airlines is, of course, welcome and indicates the government is prepared to cushion the businesses through this crisis, regardless of how individual companies entered the period or whether they have foreign ownership or not.
Labor believes that the government must be flexible and be open to financially supporting our large aviation companies, including by extending or guaranteeing lines of credit or by taking an equity stake in the industry. Such interventions will ensure that when the industry bounces back—and it will—government can recoup on its investment. Despite claiming that it's continuing to work with the major airlines, the government's commentary through the media in the past few days has been less than helpful and only serves to undermine bipartisan efforts to protect the aviation sector as much as possible. Comments such as those, particularly, ruling out support for Virgin, claiming a major airline can fail; that the government is prepared to let that happen; and that it can be replaced quickly by a new entrant do not serve Australians well. I cannot put it any more bluntly: the government must extend a lifeline to Virgin if we are going to continue to see the current aviation structure survive this crisis. It must do that. If it does not then it is taking an active decision to see one of the major airlines in this country fail, and that will have significant consequences for hundreds of workers in the aviation sector and across our economy to come.
In supporting this bill, I want particularly to thank the workers throughout the transport and logistics sector, who are getting people home and who are transporting our food, our medical supplies and other essentials across the country. They are our truck drivers; our crews on ships; our pilots, airline crews and those people who see that airports continue to function; and our freight companies. We are relying on you like never, ever before and we thank you.
In closing, I also want to say a very big thank you to everyone in my community of Ballarat for pulling together in this testing time. If you need assistance please don't hesitate to reach out either to my office or to people in the community. It's important that we all look after each other through this crisis. We can get through it, but we need to do so with respect, with kindness and with care.
I move the amendment that has been circulated in my name to the question in relation to the coronavirus economic response package legislation that is before the House:
That the following words be added after paragraph (4):
"(5) calls on the Government to recognise that the Australian arts and entertainment sector needs a specific, tailored, fiscal response package to ensure its ongoing viability, given the structure of the JobKeeper payment has been designed in a way that leaves many workers in the sector ineligible".
First of all: today is a really important and good day for Australians. When this parliament last sat, we argued—I argued from here and Brendan O'Connor asked a question from here—that there should be a wage subsidy, and at that point the government was saying no. The fact that they have now said yes is a good thing, and it will change the lives of millions of Australians.
The reason we argued for a wage subsidy is really simple, and it's this: if the only option for people to get support is through the payment system, through Centrelink, then a whole lot of businesses that otherwise might have been able to keep their relationship with their employees during this period will simply have to let their workers go. The outcome of that means that it's harder for everybody during this time, that people lose their relationship with their workplace during this time and that the recovery is much tougher to get off the ground when we're on the other side of this crisis. The fact that the government has come forward with a wage subsidy is a good thing. That's why we called for it, and we welcome it, and that's why we will be making sure that this legislation goes through today.
When it works at its best, it will work like this: there will be businesses that are legally allowed to remain open but have had a hit to their revenue. Because of this, there will be people who can keep turning up, maybe from home, maybe working in a different way. However they work, they will be able to keep working because their wages have been subsidised during this time. For other people it will be a payment during stand-downs. There will be a range of different outcomes. At its best, that's what it will be doing, and that means businesses will survive that otherwise wouldn't have and that workers keep their relationships with their employer when they otherwise would have been lost.
It's because of those best-case scenarios that the other day the Minister for Industrial Relations, rather melodramatically, described this as the 'Dunkirk moment'. The challenge in that analogy is that they are still leaving more than a million casuals on the beach. That's why we welcome everybody who gets rescued by this package. But it can be fixed; it can be improved, and the government should improve it.
There are a few challenges with the design. First of all, for everyone who is able to apply for this—it's the employer that applies, but then the employer, under the current mechanism, is not obliged to put forward all their eligible workers. This can't be fixed through amendment. It can be fixed through a decision of the Treasurer. I just say to the government: we will end up with stories of this being abused if we don't fix it. With all the negotiations that we want to happen at a workplace, the dynamic is very different if the employer can say, 'Unless you agree to X I'm not even going to put your name forward for the wage subsidy.' At the moment, even though this payment is being made by the taxpayer for the benefit of the employee, the gatekeeper on whether or not they get it, even if it's an eligible business, is from the employer. They can pick and choose which of their eligible employees they will put forward for it. It's a simple change in design that can be done by the Treasurer through the rules. The government has budgeted, as we understand it, that all eligible employees working for eligible businesses will have their names put forward—so it's been budgeted for—but there will be, in a limited number of cases, abuses that occur if this is not fixed.
The other issue that needs to be fixed—and there are a few—is the major one that has been referred to by the Leader of the Opposition in the second reading amendment he has moved. It's that we should not be leaving behind more than a million casuals. The Attorney-General, the Minister for Industrial Relations, is right when he says, 'You've got to draw the line somewhere,' but have a think about where the line is currently drawn. The line is currently drawn where, at the same workplace—presume it's a fast-food place—the person who's been there 10 months and is working, say, a Tuesday-through-to-Sunday shift, and they're supporting their livelihood with that job, is ineligible. But the 16-year-old who's doing a one-day-a-week shift for pocket money is not only eligible but they're about to get 10 times what they earn.
The government's made a decision, for simplicity of rollout, that some people will get much more than what they earn. We're not amending to try to change that. That's a decision the government's made. But, having made that, to then exclude people whose job is their entire livelihood and the business is more dependent on them than it is on people who make it into the scheme is something that needs to be fixed. I cannot find a national interest argument that says if you work for an eligible employer and your job is your livelihood you should fall through the cracks because you haven't been there for 12 months.
Let's not forget, there are a whole lot of people who have been regarded as casuals for years but, because the nature of their casual engagement is across a number of employers, they won't be eligible. There's the relief teacher working in the nongovernment sector who goes from school to school as a relief teacher. Because it's a different employer each time, even if that person's been a relief teacher for five years they're ineligible because they haven't had 12 months at one school. Similarly, if you're someone who works as a casual in the construction industry and goes from site to site, and you're rarely at the one site for 12 months, you're ineligible. We want people to keep their relationship with their employer. This needs to be fixed.
Anyone who works for local government, at the moment, is ineligible. There are people who work in local government institutions that have been shut down because of decisions from what's known as the national cabinet. They are finding themselves stood down and yet are completely ineligible. Similarly, I do have to put the case that has been put of people who work for the government. We have casuals who work for Border Force. This government has stood up and referred to them time after time, and to the uniform they wear. If their jobs have been as casuals at the airport, they are now being told that Centrelink is their only option. Surely, the government has an interest in maintaining its relationship with them after the extent to which it has lent on them and their reputation with arguments that the government has wanted to advance?
With respect to the sections of this legislation that deal with the Fair Work Act, let me just say quickly that the amendment is not perfect. There are still conversations going on with the minister. The latest version that we received this morning is better than where we were at last night, but there are still issues that can be dealt with, and there will be constructive conversations going forward on that.
I should say some people have been surprised and have said how extraordinary it is that the government's been dealing with the ACTU this time. The extraordinary thing is that usually they don't. That's the extraordinary thing. How we've got to this point—and it has taken a global pandemic before the government has said that, in the development of legislation, they should engage with both employer organisations and employee organisations—is breathtaking. The negotiations the government has conducted with the ACTU this time should always be conducted in the normal course of events. I would encourage the government to see the unions for what they are, which is representatives of the employees. If they want to talk about percentage of membership, find a peak employer body that has a better percentage representation of the people they speak for than the unions have of working Australians. In terms of representation, the unions are the best voice there will ever be, which is why so many people right now, at a time of crisis, are joining their unions.
I want to finally refer to the arts and entertainment sector, which is the subject of the second reading amendment that I've moved. While some people want to think of this sector as celebrities, they are workers. They are workers who are almost entirely ineligible for the scheme that is before us right now because their work, by and large, goes to forward contracts, and they have forward contracts set up for the rest of the year, all of which have been cancelled because of decisions of government. The scheme that's being put forward now leaves every single one of them ineligible for this assistance. We have been saying from day one, ever since the rule came in restricting gatherings of more than 500 people, that this sector was the first to be shut down and will be one of the last to get back on its feet. This can be fixed with the stroke of a pen by the Treasurer under the powers that he has been given today.
When we had tough times in the bushfires, we turned to this sector and asked them to work for free. Now they're facing tough times and we're leaving them out of the scheme. It's not just the artists; it's the workers, the ushers, the people who work behind a bar, the road crew who set up gigs, the tradies who make the place work. This entire sector falls short in what is before the parliament today, and the government cannot waste a day longer before these workers are shown the respect that they deserve.
I rise in this place on a day that will be remembered for generations to come. Today, if passed, the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill will provide support for six million Australian workers affected by the pandemic that is currently sweeping the world. It will provide an economic bridge to the other side of this health crisis for thousands of businesses and it will enable us to recover more quickly when this crisis passes, which it will. It will pass, and we will recover.
We in this place have the enormous privilege of making critical decisions on behalf of all Australians. The decisions that we make in this House together and in the other place affect the lives of millions of Australians each and every day, and today is one of those very critical days, for saving lives and for saving livelihoods. Tackling coronavirus has meant tackling a war on two fronts. We must ensure that every Australian is kept safe from the potentially devastating effects of the coronavirus. We have put in place public health measures to protect our vulnerable, our elderly, our immunocompromised. We've put in place public health measures to protect all Australians.
Prior to being a parliamentarian, I was a population health researcher involved in preventing health epidemics over years. By contrast, the Prime Minister, and, with him, the premiers and state and territory leaders, through the national cabinet, are leading this country through the most profound public health changes ever enacted—not over years, nor months, but over days. The Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, ably supported by the Chief Health Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, has enacted public health changes that might have taken 10 years at another time but have been rolled out in just two weeks. The speed and efficiency of our public health response is breathtaking. More than that, we've prepared the healthcare system for the worst, should that happen. PPE—personal protective equipment: we have 30 million sets here and 500 million are on their way. ICU capacity has been doubled and will be swiftly increased from 2,200 to 7,500. Telehealth: more than 2½ million visits have already been undertaken, helping keep both doctors and patients safe from coronavirus.
At this point in time, it seems we are beating the virus, and the curve is flattening, but we can't be complacent. We must continue to carve our own curve while facing this threat head on. We are not Italy, we are not the UK and we are not the US. But, if we had not taken the steps we have as Australians, we may well have been on those same trajectories. That is why, coming into Easter, it is so important that people stay home. We've had to make sacrifices—all of us—some more than others. People have already lost their lives. People have lost their jobs. People have lost their businesses. People have had to defer weddings and funerals. But staying safe, healthy and well means working together and remaining at home over Easter.
Whilst the health of Australians is the government's first priority, following close on its heels is the economic prosperity of our nation. That is why we are here today: to ensure no Australians are left behind; to make sure that small businesses that fuel Australia's economy and that Australia's economy is built on are still here when the crisis is over; to ensure that no worker is left behind as a result of this extraordinarily difficult choice made by the national cabinet to close businesses where we gather—cafes, cinemas, restaurants, pubs. So much of our daily life is changed. So much of our interactions as a society have changed.
That is why the JobKeeper wage subsidy is so important. We are helping Aussies keep Aussies in jobs so we can weather the storm together. Through the JobKeeper payment, Australian small and medium businesses will be able to keep their employees in their job while earning an income. By maintaining connection with their employees, businesses will be able to get back to work sooner once this crisis has passed.
In conclusion, the decision we make on this day is one of the most important decisions that we will ever make collectively. That is because the decision to support the JobSeeker payment will amount to $130 billion. It's the largest economic support plan this country has ever seen. I thank those opposite for their support of the government and the bipartisan way they have worked with the Prime Minister and cabinet through this time. I commend this bill to the House.
I rise to speak in support of the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020 and related bills. I also move the amendment that has been circulated in my name:
That the following words be added after paragraph (5):
"(6) calls on the Government to extend the JobKeeper payment to any working visa holder that is currently in Australia and unable to return to their country of origin".
We were in this place just 16 days ago, and it is as if time has compressed, because that feels like a lifetime ago in terms of the spread of this virus around the world, in terms of the way in which we are now living our lives, in terms of the decisions that have been made by governments around this country and around the world. As we meet here today, there are 1,200,000 confirmed cases of the virus around the world. The death toll is approaching 73,000. In the United States alone, 333,000 people are infected with this disease, and the death toll approaches 10,000. By the end of March we had seen the death toll exceed the number of lives lost on September 11. Of those near 10,000 who've lost their lives in the United States, 1,207 of them died yesterday. The speed of this virus and what it is doing around the world is truly stunning.
Here in Australia, we have 5,956 cases confirmed. Our death toll is currently at 45. We are not immune from what is being experienced around the world, but the social-distancing measures that have been put in place are making an enormous difference. They represent a huge sacrifice that is being made by Australians across our nation. There are sacrifices in respect of being unable to visit their loved ones in nursing homes, which, by and large, have shut their doors. I think about all of those who are working in nursing homes around Australia, looking after the people who we care about the most. Babies are being born without their grandparents and their extended families turning up to hospital to welcome them into this extraordinary world. People, heartbreakingly, are being restricted from attending funerals and saying farewell to those who they love. At a moment in time when the rhythm of life in Australia would be punctuated by the opening chapters of various football codes around the country and netball seasons, they all stand in abeyance. Our kids are at home, working out how they're going to continue their learning through Skype over the computer, through the internet. That is a challenge for all of us. All of these sacrifices represent a magnificent effort on the part of all Australians. Because of what they are doing, the number of new cases in Australia is declining. There is a long way to go, but there is promising news in the official reports, and that is a testament to the sacrifice of every Australian around this country, and I want to thank them today.
I particularly want to thank those who work in the health sector: health workers, nurses, doctors, cleaners, support staff and everyone who keeps the lights on in hospitals around our country. Sadly, in the last 24 hours we've seen the first of those health workers confirmed to have caught this disease—a doctor in Liverpool and a nurse in Brisbane—and it highlights the fact that every health worker is putting their own health on the line by going to work every day to maintain our health. That is an act of enormous bravery. The thanks we saw given to health workers in Britain last Thursday, and the expressions of support that we've seen for health workers around the world, we echo here today for our own health workers who are acting in a completely selfless way to keep every Australian safe. We should remember that nine per cent of the cases of this disease that have been recorded in Italy are people who worked in the health sector. In China, 3,300 health workers have been infected with this disease, including Dr Li Wenliang, who was the first person to alert the world to the deadly nature of the COVID-19 virus.
With the enormous health crisis has come a literal economic earthquake which is being felt around the world and around our country. There are so many Australians who face an uncertain future and who are doing it really tough. When we were last here we put forward a very important package which provided relief to many Australians. At that time, Labor made clear we were concerned about the absence of an employee subsidy as part of that package. At the time, the Prime Minister was opposed to an employee subsidy. He said:
… one of the weaknesses of the system that you're advocating for is that it has to build an entirely new payment system for that to be achieved, which is never done quickly and is never done well.
I am so glad that the Prime Minister has done a U-turn in his thinking. It is a difficult thing in this business to admit when a wrong has occurred. But, in the package that is being put forward today, with the JobKeeper payments, that is what has occurred. We acknowledge what the government has done in accepting this, because the long queues that we saw outside Centrelink offices after the last time we met speaks to how important it is that we maintain the relationship between employers and their workforce, which cannot be done unless an employee subsidy is put in place. That's why the package of bills that are being put forward today is so important, and we are so pleased that the government has changed its tune in this regard. But it is not perfect, and we as an opposition will continue to advocate for improvements in this package.
One of the areas which remain a concern is the failure of this package to address casuals who have been in their place of employment for less than 12 months. There are almost a million people in our workforce who fit within that category. Right now, about a quarter of our workforce is casualised. That represents a really significant increase in the casualisation rate in Australia over the last few decades, and places Australia amongst the countries in the OECD with the highest levels of casualisation. It means that risk within our workplaces is shifted to, in many cases, the most vulnerable and people who earn the least. There's something about that which is deeply unfair, and that unfairness is given expression in the package which we are considering today. That is why Labor is moving an amendment to include casuals who have not been in a place of employment for more than 12 months, so they can receive the benefit of the JobKeeper payments. It is really important that their relationship with their employers is also maintained.
Another group of workers who are left out by this package are those who are temporary working visa holders in this country. There are a million of those as well. Now, we have a large population of temporary work visa holders in Australia—our Pacific neighbours working in the Seasonal Worker Program, backpackers, international students, temporary protection visa holders, some skilled visa holders and people on bridging visas. Many of these people will lose their jobs; many already have. It is very important that they are protected at this time as well.
We agree with the government that people who are here on temporary work visas who are able to return home should do so. But the state of international travel and the way in which countries have isolated themselves means that, for a lot of these people, that will be an impossibility. So long as this population remains in Australia, they need to be supported, which is why we have put forward the amendments that we have today.
Finally, I want to say that this is a package which requires an enormous amount of prudence. Almost 10 per cent of GDP—perhaps more than 10 per cent of GDP—is being spent in the three relief packages which have been put forward by the government. This is not done lightly. We will see our country now head into a trillion dollars of debt. Public money needs to be spent prudently. It's one thing to talk about having a brand of strong fiscal management, and another to give expression to those words by actions in this place. It's why we believe that there should be parliamentary scrutiny of this package of bills and what is going on in terms of the relief packages, and more parliamentary scrutiny would be better. But, in the absence of that, Labor has pursued the appointment of a Senate select committee, which will be chaired by Senator Katy Gallagher, and that will do really important work in making sure that there is prudent oversight of these packages.
These bills are critically important to enabling our country to move through this crisis. But they speak to the collective spirit of Australians which is characterising our nation right now and is burning so brightly, and it is to the credit of every Australian. It is that collective spirit that I know will be the guiding light which sees our nation prevail in this unprecedented crisis.
As the Prime Minister has often said in the difficult weeks we have recently faced, everyone who currently has a job is an essential worker. Everyone who can continue to work, whether that's from their usual workplace or from their home, is an essential worker because they are the people who are keeping our economy going. They are the people who are providing the services other Australians need in these most difficult of times, and they are doing so despite the very great health and economic challenges our nation faces.
Today we will debate and we will pass these historic bills, the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments And Benefits) Bill 2020 and related bills, so that the Morrison government can support the businesses and the employees who have had their lives and their livelihoods so severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Today we will pass our $130 billion JobKeeper economic package—the largest in our nation's history—to enable eligible businesses to pay eligible employees $1,500 a fortnight so that those businesses and their employees can make it through this unprecedented health and economic crisis. Today we will take another step to ensure our nation survives these most difficult of times that are as bad and unpredictable as any war or previous pandemic.
On behalf of my community, I want to thank the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, the health minister, other ministers, their staff and departmental officials for all they are doing to support the Australian people. I also want to thank all of my fellow members of parliament and their staff, including my own, for the wonderful support they are providing to the many people who have contacted us in various states of worry and distress. The relief and gratitude expressed to me by my local businesses and their staff in response to the JobKeeper package have been incredibly moving. I've had business owners tell me they cried every day the week before the announcement because of the fear and worry they had for their business and for their staff, who they had stood down, but that following the announcement of the JobKeeper package they were filled with hope and with the knowledge that they and their staff could now come through this together. So many businesses have re-employed their staff as quickly as they could, and employees have quickly returned to work.
I know this is a terribly difficult time for so many Australians, especially for businesses who have been instructed to close. I know it is so very hard for businesses and employees who have lost so much income and will continue to do so. But the results we are seeing so far in Australia, in terms of containing the spread of this deadly virus that has no cure and that has already taken too many lives, here and more particularly abroad, show that the difficult decisions we have made as a government and that the states and territories have made with us are having the effect that we wanted and needed for the safety of all Australians.
For the very serious sacrifices that Australians are making every single day, and that those in my local community are making every single day, I say thank you. Thank you to our businesses and employees who have so courageously coped with the trauma of sudden closures, loss of customers, loss of income and loss of employment. Thank you to our healthcare workers—in hospitals and doctor's surgeries, in frontline health service delivery and, of course, in aged care—for the care they are giving to those whose lives are in danger; by doing so, they are risking their own lives. Thank you to our retail workers, our supermarket staff, our farmers and our food and goods manufacturers for providing essential products. Thank you to our school principals and their staff for continuing to teach our students when so many others around them have been working from home. Thank you to everyone who has contacted my office to express their support and concern for those most at risk, for their friends and neighbours, for the Prime Minister, for ministers, for me and for my staff. Thank you to everyone who is supporting our local businesses by shopping online or ordering takeaway to keep those businesses going.
Thank you to everyone who is making sacrifices for the safety of others. Thank you to those who are staying home, to those who are practising social distancing when they leave the house, to those undergoing self-isolation in hotel rooms in other cities before they can return home and to those voluntarily self-isolating after travelling from interstate, as I have been doing for the last 14 days, since we last sat in parliament, and as I will be doing for the next 14 days, when I return home to my electorate of Boothby. And thank you to all those who will stay home this Easter, instead of going to their favourite holiday spots, so they can limit the spread of this deadly virus. There are so many small ways we can do our part. We will all need to do our small part and our big part once we pass through the worst of this pandemic to get our economy back on track, and that is the foundation these bills provide today.
I rise to speak on the coronavirus economic response package bills but also to move the amendment circulated in my name, which goes to the question of whether businesses should be able to ask employees to use all of their annual leave before receiving any of the JobKeeper supplement or wage subsidy. I'll speak further on that, but first I extend my condolences to those that have been tragically affected by COVID-19, particularly those who have family members who have died and those who are very ill. I pay tribute, as others have done, to the frontline staff, health workers, essential service workers, retail staff, truck drivers, factory workers, farmers and teachers, and so many public servants. Too often they are maligned, but they are really there when it counts. They should be acknowledged and they are acknowledged today, as we deal with this very significant challenge. The world has changed, at least temporarily; we don't know for how long. The phrases 'social distancing', 'self-isolation', 'iso-life', 'flattening the curve'—these are new phases that have become part of our lexicon because of these extraordinary challenges we confront. Let's hope we will see our way through that as soon as possible.
I rise today, the opposition rises today, to support these bills. The Labor leader has foreshadowed that we will make constructive amendments to improve deficiencies that are clearly evident in these bills. There are deficiencies that go to the lack of coverage of employees but also to the exposure of businesses because of that lack of coverage. There are deficiencies, as I have already indicated, insofar as allowing for annual leave to be wound down without the JobKeeper money being provided directly and immediately to those workers. There are deficiencies because local government employees are not covered, even though we know hundreds are being stood down around the country. We should look at that and fix it. I also think we should be talking to state governments that have very strict rate caps on councils. If we can't fix it this way then state governments need to be looking at what they can do. There are deficiencies in terms of over a million temporary migrant workers in this country that are not able to access social services of any sort and cannot receive any supplement through the JobKeeper approach—so no jobseeker, no JobKeeper and no other form of welfare. We're going to have a million people exposed and that is going to be a massive social problem. It is intrinsically unfair, and something else has to be done in that regard. There are other issues too, such as large companies which, though they may not have a revenue fall of 50 per cent, may have revenue fall of 30 per cent. We may see thousands of workers from one company be laid off and not covered by the JobKeeper supplement.
While there are deficiencies, we do support the package. Despite those deficiencies, it's a good package for those who are going to be the beneficiaries, and it is a very significant change to what the government was saying only 15 days ago in this place. Fifteen days ago, in this place, I stood at the dispatch box and asked the Prime Minister why we weren't going down the path of wage subsidies. I alluded to the 80 per cent subsidy in the UK, and, on behalf of the opposition, asked him why we weren't taking that approach, which so many other countries were taking. The Prime Minister said that was not the advice he received, and he was happy with the advice he received. And then, of course, they proceeded to close the parliament—until August. So we know that this package of bills was not even contemplated by the government 15 days ago; otherwise, they wouldn't have closed the parliament for five months.
To the credit of the government, they have listened to Labor, to the unions, to employers, to peak employer bodies and to economists, and they have now come up with this package. And I welcome it, as do all Labor members. We welcome the package, despite its deficiencies, because it is absolutely critical for employees who would have been lining up in the unemployment queues. Frankly, I think that is what really hit home for the government. They left here two weeks ago today with the view that we were not going to have a wage subsidy. They went back to their electorates and saw thousands of people lining up around the block of every Centrelink office in the nation, and they realised the fundamental error of their thinking with respect to the support they needed to provide to businesses and employees. It was demonstrably clear, if it wasn't already clear when we saw those very long lines of Australians lining up for unemployment benefits for the very first time. And there were forecasts that we would have seen unemployment rise to more than 20 per cent in this country if something had not been done. The idea that we would just double the unemployment benefit and say everyone could be on welfare was always deficient, and it seemed to be contradictory to the view of the government generally that work is the best form of welfare. They didn't think that two weeks ago, but I'm glad they realised that was wrong. I welcome the fact that they have changed their position, but it should be noted for the record that that was the case.
As many other speakers have said today in this debate, this is a good package, but there are people who miss out. I mentioned the fact that casuals will miss out. We believe there are just over one million casual workers who will not receive this support. That is absolutely devastating. People might be called a casual in a workplace, but they have a permanent family. They have long-term mortgage payments to make. They have major challenges, no different from anyone who is classified as a permanent employee. As the Labor leader said, there is no difference in the circumstances of those two workers; it is just about how you happen to be classified. If you are lucky enough for your employer to deem you to be permanent part-time, you are going to be covered by this. There is such a grey area between casual and permanent part-time. It is almost at the whim of the employer to suggest to the tax commissioner that you are eligible for the JobKeeper payment because you are a permanent part-time worker, or, with the same set of facts, that you are not covered because you are casual. That will be no clarity or delineation between those two classes of workers; it will come down to the subjective view of each employer. The government says it has to go down this path for clarity. But there is no clarity because there is a very grey area between those who are deemed to be permanent part-time and those who are deemed to be casual. The fact that we have gone down this path means we are going to expose already low paid workers who are precariously employed. They are already precariously connected to the labour market and they are now going to be disconnected from the labour market. That is a dreadful shame. They would be in receipt of the jobseeker payments, which as we know are quite generous—and we applaud the government for that approach—but the government may as well have kept them eligible for JobKeeper payments, which would have kept them connected to the labour market, particularly when we are looking to recover.
The second victims of this exclusion are the businesses themselves that happen to be in a sector where most workers are casual. By not providing that assistance to the workers indirectly, through their employers, the employers also suffer because they now will not have a payment for the wages they are obliged to pay under law unless they stand down those workers. So businesses miss out when casual workers miss out, and that is a dreadful shame too. I think the government should rethink its position.
This is an important package and we support it. As foreshadowed, we will continue to support the government and provide constructive advice. We hope they are sensible and listen to our advice. We want to make sure we do not leave people behind. At the moment, there are too many that will be left behind. But it is a good step forward, and we obviously want to continue to work with the government in this very significant time and on this very difficult challenge. I move:
That the following words be added after paragraph (6):
"(7) calls on the Government to ensure that the JobKeeper wage subsidy is only used by employers to pay their employees’ wages and not to subsidise their company’s balance sheet, noting that there should be no provision for business to force employees to use their annual leave entitlements and pay for that leave with the JobKeeper wage subsidy".
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.
That the following words be added after paragraph (8):
"(9) calls on the Government to extend the 15 per cent reduction in turnover threshold to all National Disability Insurance Scheme and Disability Employment Services providers, and deliver a retention and support package for the disability sector workforce".
This amendment calls on the government to extend the 15 per cent reduction and turnover threshold to all National Disability Insurance Scheme and Disability Employment Services providers, and deliver a retention and support package for the disability sector workforce.
I say let us leave no-one behind in this crisis. I say let us learn from this crisis. In this terrible time for Australia, there are many vulnerable Australians doing it tough. I hear this in the disability portfolio, from disability workers without access to basic protective equipment: gloves, masks and sanitisers. I hear it from people with disabilities, some of them in group homes, and their loved ones. They fear perhaps they could be infected or indeed, more gravely, they fear that the workers who look after them may not be able to attend them in their homes. I hear it from the disability providers, many of whom were struggling to make ends meet before the coronavirus hit.
I say there is a strong national interest in keeping as many disability businesses afloat in this country as we humanly can. There is an acute national public interest in making sure that our 13,000-plus disability service providers do not collapse before the onslaught of this virus. There is an acute national interest in maintaining 350,000 disability care workers in this country in employment where they deliver irreplaceable essential services.
Under the new proposed law from the government, businesses that experience a fall of 30 per cent or more in their turnover will be eligible for the JobKeeper payment. Fittingly, and in recognition of the public service they provide, the bar is lower for charities. To be eligible they need a fall in turnover of 15 per cent. What this means in the disability sector is that those organisations that are registered charities, which are providing excellent services to vulnerable people and their families, have a fighting chance to get the support they need to keep doing their vital work; but disability businesses providing identical services to vulnerable people will have to meet a higher bar and will be likely excluded from the government support they need through JobKeeper. This will mean, in real terms, threefold consequences: already struggling disability providers go to the wall; their employees, these frontline heroes, will lose their jobs and join the unemployment queue; and, worst of all, there is the effect on people with disability, who rely on these services, who risk abandonment. It is not too dramatic to fear the stranding of some of our most vulnerable Australians in terrible situations in their own homes around our nation.
This virus does not distinguish or discriminate between disability charities and disability services, and nor should we. It will cut a swathe through all members of the disability family, people with disability, their carers and, of course, disability services. It is why we say that all in the disability sector should be afforded the lower 15 per cent turnover test to be eligible for JobKeeper relief. Disability workers need help too. They need retention schemes similar to those for aged-care workers that have already been pledged; consistent training for new workers; funding for coronavirus-specific training; specialist training for workers in coronavirus infected NDIS participants; emotional and psychological support for these workers; and sector capacity building to coordinate the sharing of staff amongst providers across regional areas.
There are many who are vulnerable in the face of this pandemic, and there are many have opted to make themselves vulnerable for the greater good. I speak, of course, of our amazing frontline healthcare workers. I speak of our carers and aged-care staff working with people, disability staff, doctors, nurses, cleaners and orderlies at hospitals, and security. I speak of the people at the check-out, the frontline staff manning the safety net at Centrelink. I speak of the journalists turning up to provide the information that Australians are hungry for. These are just a few of the altruistic vocational Australians turning up to work for the rest of Australia. They're not just turning up for a pay cheque; they are risking sickness or worse, yet they are turning up to help their fellow Australians in need.
There are many people who cannot go to work because this virus has already taken away their immediate livelihoods. And in relation to these millions of Australians, this safety net, worthy as it is, does not go far enough. Let us leave no Australian worker behind. I don't want people falling through the cracks—the forgotten who should not be forgotten, the neglected who should not be neglected. Let us leave no Australian behind.
Let us not leave behind the arts and entertainment workers, the freelancers, the contractors, the people behind the screen who entertain us during this period of the virus, the entertainment industry. Let us not leave behind the travelling show industry—10,000 employees, a billion dollars in turnover, and 700 to 800 families who supply entertainment for people, right across from the Ekka, the Royal Show and the Easter Show through to the country shows from Rockhampton to Lakes Entrance.
Let us not leave behind people like Ben Hughes, a construction worker from the United Kingdom, living in Hoppers Crossing. He's worked here for five years, has paid his taxes and is expecting, with his Australian fiancee, Rachel, a baby in the next six days.
Let us not leave behind the aviation workforce at Virgin and Tiger—8,000 people. Virgin does not operate in a free market, and we should not pretend to wash our hands of the responsibility to provide support.
Let us not leave behind the renters and the landlords, residential and commercial. Let us not leave behind the carers on healthcare cards not currently eligible for support. Let us not leave behind young people under 22 like Shanie Turner of Airport West, displaced by Jetstar, living a long way from her family, with no support available. Vulnerable workers with diabetes, asthma or immune deficiencies should not be left behind because of a lack of income support if they have to self-isolate.
Let us not leave behind 1.1 million casuals. I will not forget about you. Labor will not forget about you. The government should not forget about you. Let us leave no-one behind in this crisis. Let us learn from it.
There was the panic buying at the start of the crisis. It was sad to see the internet pictures of the elderly standing bewildered in front of empty supermarket shelves. It was disheartening to see so many of our fellow Australians queueing for the first time at Centrelink in pictures redolent of the Great Depression.
When this crisis passes, we need to learn from it. We need to bring manufacturing back to this country. Our manufacturing industry is as important as our Army, Navy and Air Force. We need it back. We never again should see a situation where valuable medical supplies that Australians require are being shipped overseas because of global market considerations and insufficient considerations of Australia's sovereign capacity. Never again should Australian interests be sold out on the economic theories of a global supply chain which sees Australia at the end and an afterthought if someone else needs what we need. We need pharmaceuticals, ventilators and the like, and they should be within our control and within our borders. We need to ensure that our Australian flagged ships carry our supplies to the world and we retain sovereign capacity in many parts of our economy.
We need to ensure that we learn the lessons of this crisis when this crisis passes. There's a thing that we don't often say in this country, and that is that we do things better here when we put our mind to it. We do things better in Australia. We punch above our weight in the whole world, and therefore we need to do better.
Finally, we are now endorsing the expenditure of $214 billion of taxpayer money which will be spent in the next six months. Whilst the intentions are good, mistakes will be made. We say that some of what is happening does not go far enough, but there'll be other points where the poorly and rushed calibrated system may see expensive mistakes made. This parliament needs to scrutinise that expenditure. The Prime Minister correctly said we are facing a conflict which is comparable to the great challenges of Australian history—war and depression. This parliament and this nation did not bend the knee to those crises by not having the parliament sit during those situations, and we conquered those situations. We will conquer this situation, this coronavirus—of that you can be certain. If not exactly when, be sure that we will. But this parliament should not bend the knee to the virus by not sitting to scrutinise the important debates of our democracy.
That the following words be added after paragraph (9):
"(10) calls on the Government to:
(a) recognise the importance of local government;
(b) acknowledge that the closure of council facilities has resulted in significant revenue loss and workers being stood down;
(c) acknowledge that, without support, up to 45,000 local government workers could lose their jobs; and
(d) work together with state governments to address these important issues".
Life's very different at the moment, for all of us, for everyone. In some respects, it's very strange. For a lot of people it's really hard. You just have to look at those lines of people snaking out of every Centrelink office around the country to realise that. Hundreds of thousands of people over the last few weeks have lost their jobs, and a lot of other people are working from home. Then there are the people who can't work from home—the doctors, the nurses, the ambulance officers, the cleaners, the kitchen hands. Everyone who works in our hospitals—they're the real heroes in all of this. While we're staying at home, they're out there saving lives.
There are lots of parents doing crash courses in school education as well, and there are lots of people who can't see their family, the people that they love, at least not face to face: grandparents locked away in isolation. Mums and dads are spending a lot more time than they usually do with their kids.
But not everyone. A mate of mine lives in the United States. His mum lives just around the corner from where I live. She's got cancer. It's terminal. She's been told that she's only got another couple of months to live, and he's been told he may not be able to come back to see her again—at least not in the flesh. He might not even be able to get to her funeral. He called me the other day and asked, if he couldn't go, if I'd stand there in his place and be one of those five people allowed to attend. That's just one example of what this virus has done to the world that we live in.
We support this legislation; it's good legislation—it's what we've been calling for for weeks. All those people standing in queues out of every Centrelink office around the country perhaps may not have had to be there if we had passed legislation like this last time we were here, two weeks ago. I think the government gets that. I think a lot of members went back to their electorates two weeks ago and saw those queues—they saw the anxiety and the worry on people's faces as they stood outside Centrelink offices around the country—and realised that something needed to be done differently here. So I thank the government for their change of heart. I thank them for bringing this legislation before the parliament. It's going to help a lot of people.
There are some people, though, who it won't help. There are more than a million people who are casuals and who miss out under this legislation. There are also a lot of council workers—the people who work in our councils—who don't get the benefit of this legislation. It's important that I point out that thousands of council workers who have lost their jobs in the last few weeks. In Geelong, 700 council workers were stood down last week. In the Prime Minister's own electorate, in the Sutherland Shire, 260 council workers were recently stood down. According to the Australian Local Government Association, as many as 45,000 council workers could lose their jobs over the course of the next few weeks. Why? Because councils run things like swimming pools, libraries and community centres, and some run regional airports, all of which have either had to shut down or are doing a lot less. As a result, their budgets are haemorrhaging.
A council like Blacktown council in Western Sydney, which is one of the biggest councils in Australia and which I spoke to yesterday, is losing $1.7 million every week because they've had to shut things down—just like the private sector has had to shut down. But, unlike the private sector, they're not getting any help. If you're a swimming pool instructor working at a private pool you get help out of this legislation, but if you're a swimming pool instructor at a public pool you don't.
The government has written to councils all across the country, asking them to identify shovel-ready road projects which could be part of the recovery after the worst of the virus has come and gone. They have asked for that list by today. I recognise that the minister for local government is in the chamber here. He is doing good work here, and I thank him for the work he's doing. This is a good initiative; it makes sense to identify the projects that local governments can do which can be part of the recovery phase. Local governments can not only build roads but they can help rebuild communities after the worst of this virus has passed, and help us to get life a little bit back to normal. But that's the recovery phase; we are now in the survival phase, and councils need help. Otherwise, we risk seeing more people who are currently working for councils lining up outside the front of Centrelink.
Think about this: rates notices are about to go out to people all across the country at the moment, and a lot of people are going to walk to the letterbox, open it up, pull out the rates notice and think, 'How the hell am I going to pay this?' And a lot of other councils are going to think, 'What are we going to do if we don't get that revenue to help to keep things going: to mow the lawns, collect the garbage and do all that work?'—work that we expect them to do. The United Kingdom has introduced a subsidy like this, and it applies to local government staff. They have also done what we did after the bushfires, and that is to provide funds to local councils to help keep them going and to do the essential stuff.
But this bill doesn't do that; the Prime Minister has said that it's a job for the state governments. I think it's a job for all of us. If councils can't collect the garbage as often as they do or if our local parks start to look like national parks, then a lot of angry people are going to be ringing us and asking what we're doing to help. It's something that we can all do, working together, and that's why I've moved this motion in the House today, calling on the federal government and the state governments to work together to help to fix this—to keep local government going and to keep local government workers from losing their jobs.
That the following words be added after paragraph (10):
"(11) notes that a number of major charities will be unable to access the JobKeeper program, and will have to shed staff and cease programs as a result".
When parliament met 16 days ago, Britain, New Zealand, Ireland and Sweden were among the countries that had implemented significant wage subsidies to save jobs. Labor said at the time that Australia should do the same, and we're very pleased that, as a result of significant pressure from Labor, the business community and the union movement, the government has announced a $130 billion wage subsidy scheme.
This reflects Labor's fundamental view. Like it says on the tin, we're Labor; we believe in the dignity and the purpose that comes with the job. We believe that it is important to minimise the unemployment tragedy that flows from the coronavirus crisis. One private sector forecaster estimated that without this package unemployment would have gone to 17 per cent and that with it, it will peak at nine per cent. An eight per cent reduction in unemployment is worth the significant debt that the government will accrue as a result of this package. Total support will now be more in the order of 10 per cent of GDP than the three per cent of GDP it was beforehand.
But there are gaps remaining. There are a million casuals and two million temporary migrants. There are university workers and the 45,000 council workers that the member for Blaxland just referred to. And there are 1.3 million workers in the charities sector. Charities are facing a perfect storm right now. They've seen a collapse in their donations, and that's unlikely to get better. Leading right through to Christmas, it's likely that donations will be down. Philanthropic foundations are giving less because their share market returns are lower. Yet we need charities more than ever before. Charities are helping out on the front line: on domestic violence and substance abuse; suicide prevention and mental wellbeing; assisting the homeless; and helping out in Indigenous communities. Charitable medical research institutes are hunting for a cure and treatments for coronavirus, and many charities are still engaged in bushfire and drought relief. I commend the Treasurer and Senator Seselja for their engagement with the charity sector and with me over improvements to this legislation.
The announcement on Sunday that charities would face a 15 per cent threshold rather than a 30 per cent threshold is welcome, and some charities that did not qualify for the JobKeeper payment before will now qualify for it. But many charities have told me that unless tied grants are excluded from the calculation of income they will be excluded. They have said that, unlike businesses, they can't simply move money around. They've said that it's ironic that if they were receiving grants to do bushfire and drought relief—or, indeed, to help with the coronavirus crisis—that that should disqualify them. They've seen op-shop revenue and early childhood revenue fall by 80 to 90 per cent. If that were all they did, they'd qualify. But, because they have diversified operations in many cases, charities such as Oxfam, Anglicare, Uniting Care, Fred Hollows, Samaritans, St Vincent de Paul, Wesley Mission Queensland and many of our medical research institutes fear that they won't qualify for the JobKeeper payment. That includes Uniting Care Australia, which engages 50,000 staff and 30,000 volunteers. It includes Anglicare, which has 20,000 staff and 9,000 volunteers. Each of these charities supports over one million Australians annually.
To a specific example: Uniting NSW.ACT are a not-for-profit running 56 services for 4,598 young children, with 850 employees. They won't qualify, because they haven't seen a reduction in revenue of 15 per cent or more. That's just because of the relative size of the early learning service compared to Uniting NSW.ACT's other services. They have projected that their early learning services will make a $2.7 million loss every quarter, and they don't see how they can keep their centres open.
In the Prime Minister's own electorate of Cook, Uniting early learning has three services that will be ineligible for the JobKeeper payment. They operate services in thin markets like Orange, Grafton and Murwillumbah that might have to close. They point out that they can't run their early learning services on 50 per cent funding and that if they closed them then that would take away early childhood services from frontline healthcare workers.
Wesley Mission Queensland says that they might need to close childcare centres in Chermside, The Gap and Toowong, which provide support for healthcare workers. They've said that their suicide prevention program and their national Auslan interpreting service are under threat.
St Vincent de Paul Canberra/Goulburn has distributed millions of dollars in financial grants to bushfire impacted households across south-east New South Wales. The grants have to be used for their stated purpose. They can't be used to offset losses, and St Vincent de Paul fear that they will be unable to access the JobKeeper payment.
The Australian Council of Social Service conducted a survey of members on Monday and found that many of them are anticipating that they might have to shed staff. That survey found that 37 per cent of anticipated job losses would occur in organisations whose overall revenue loss would be less than 15 per cent. That would involve cuts to youth mental health and youth disability support services, disability services, domestic and family violence services, and aged-care services.
Finally, there are the medical research institutes. The Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes has warned that, because about half the money comes from government grants and can only be expended on medical research programs, the collapse in philanthropic donations might mean that many of their members won't be able to access the JobKeeper payment. That includes the Burnet Institute, the Garvan Institute, the Kirby Institute, the Menzies Institute, the George Institute for Global Health and the Doherty Institute, which did the modelling on coronavirus that was released yesterday. It is simply unimaginable that we would exclude medical research institutes from the JobKeeper package. I urge the government to do to right thing.
Before I start, I convey on behalf of the Greens our thoughts to the member for Cooper, my parliamentary neighbour, and to her family in this very, very difficult time.
This novel coronavirus is transforming the world and our country before our very eyes, and it's exposing a lot about how we have structured our societies, what is important when it really matters and also what can be discarded. But if the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one thing it is that it is not just that we're all in this together and that if we want to get through this we all have to get through it together; it's shown us that by valuing the things that we have in common and things that governments have attacked for the last 30 years we are able to pull through in times of crisis. It is with a touch of irony that we are retreating as individuals, isolating ourselves in our own homes, to advance the needs of society. The neoliberal truism from Margaret Thatcher that there's no such thing as society couldn't be further from the truth right now.
We're all making our own little sacrifices to stop the devastating impact of this pandemic, but some of us have to make much bigger sacrifices than others. For many those sacrifices can't be avoided. If you have a relative, a partner or housemate with health vulnerabilities, your social sacrifices will be greater than others. For those who through no fault of their own have lost their jobs or who have had their businesses shut down those sacrifices are severe. To the nursing and medical staff risking everything to leave their homes and care for others, the retail workers stacking the shelves, the couriers delivering our essential goods to market and the cleaners keeping our hospitals sanitised and safe: thank you so much for putting yourselves at risk.
Some sacrifices cannot be avoided, but others can, and that is where government comes in: to look after people. It must be the first priority of government to make sure that no-one is left behind. What is getting us through this crisis are all the things, as I said before, that have been attacked for the last 30 years: a strong public healthcare system, government deciding to look out for each other and putting life above a surplus and understanding that if we pull through together and look after everyone then we are all better off.
In many respects I think the government has made some significant steps that I never expected this government would make, but it is clear that in other respects they have had to be dragged there. There was advocacy from the Greens and community groups that means in some states we now have eviction bans for renters. This was because of Greens amendments that passed New South Wales and Tasmanian parliaments.
We finally saw the rates for people on government income support—students and the unemployed—lifted. Not-for-profit sectors were brought in to be supported, not just for-profit businesses—something we pushed hard for—and women at risk of domestic violence in this time of heightened stress, loss of income and isolation are being supported. When I became leader, I talked about the need for free child care but I didn't expect we would be seeing it so soon. Most of the legislation for this support was delivered in this building a few weeks ago, but at that time the Greens were saying loudly and clearly that we also need to guarantee people's wages to keep them employed and not overwhelm Centrelink offices that have been starved of resources and funding for the last decade. We moved an amendment here last time to achieve that. The government said no at the time but now we are back debating that very legislation that the Greens called for. But still our job is not done because even now the government is arbitrarily sorting people by who it will look after and who it will leave behind in the wake of this COVID disaster—renters, one million casual workers who worked for less than 12 months, people on the disability support pension and those who are carers, residents working here on temporary visas, international students, the arts and entertainment sector. Why has the government drawn a line to sort people into deserving and undeserving of help? It makes no sense why some groups need to be looked after and others don't.
What a lot of the groups being left behind have in common is that they are young people. Again, it is young people the government is doing over. From encouraging our climate to collapse to lifetime debts for education, from unaffordable housing to an unfolding extinction crisis, the government doesn't seem to care about young people having the same safety net that previous generations enjoyed. And now the looming recession is going to hit young Australians hard. I am not just talking about forced isolation or a delayed career or being forced to move back home with parents. Young people are wearing the social pain because they are the ones occupying the jobs in industries that have been shut down—hospitality, retail, tourism, the arts and entertainment industries—but they are being intentionally dismissed by this government. Half a million of the million casual workers the government is abandoning from the JobKeeper scheme are under the age of 24. Let me say this again: half a million young people under 24 are purposely being excluded from help by this government. Many will be forced to default on their rent, borrow money from friends or have to navigate our unemployment system. The Greens will move an amendment to scrap the 12-month working requirement and provide young people with jobs support and peace of mind. We need a wage guarantee and a jobs guarantee for everyone. The government's policy misses the mark on so many levels, and these young people and casual workers are being excluded purely as a budget savings measure. The sectors where casuals have been employed in high numbers for less than 12 months include retail, hospitality, tourism, accommodation and education—the exact sectors hit hardest by the forced shutdowns. There are one million casual employees the government is turning its back on and these are real people living real lives, people like Shannon from Adelaide, who returned to work six months ago after having had a baby. She is casually employed but doesn't qualify for the JobKeeper payment. Her words to the Prime Minister are short and sharp. She said, 'I am one of the one million people left behind in the JobKeeper package. I have been out of work since early March and I have a young family to support.' There is Scott, who recently moved to Sydney in order to complete his training as a boilermaker. He was employed as a casual and now he is out of work. His direct plea to the Prime Minister is: 'No income makes it hard to find a place to rent, and without a place to rent it is pretty hard to find a job. It is going to take me months to save up the bond for somewhere.
It is not just young workers but carers too. Neesa from Busselton is a single mother caring for her son with autism. She has just lost her job, and this is her message: 'My landlord has ignored all contact. I have pleaded with him to reduce my rent for the time being. Our medical bills have gone up as have our grocery bills. I'm scared about how to feed my son and keep a roof over our heads. I feel unseen and overlooked by the current government.'
In my electorate, Ali in the Docklands receives the disability support pension, another group that is left behind by this package. He is immunocompromised and can no longer take public transport. His story for the Prime Minister is: 'Two weekly appointments used to cost me $9 in myki fares but last week it cost me over $120 in taxis. Because of this, I haven't been able to pay my utility bills or even buy groceries for this upcoming week.' And then there are the 565,000 international students, who the government has confirmed it won't lift a finger for. We welcomed these students into our country, we accepted the fees they are paying to our universities and we took the money from the leases they signed. Now they have lost their jobs, and in their time of need we are abandoning them.
Temporary visa holders are in a similar position. Few temporary visa holders have the financial capacity to simply leave, as the government is suggesting. For them, this is a sentence to poverty and hunger with serious public health implications. How can we ask people to self-isolate without income and, in some cases, without a home?
Finally, the largest group being left to languish are renters. The government are bending over backwards to secure the rights of landlords and property owners. They are working hard to find a pathway for commercial arrangements to continue, even when commercial land value right now is reduced to zero. But what about a roof over someone's head? What about the human right to housing? The government, it seems, couldn't care less. The issue keeps slipping off the national cabinet agenda. We heard a proud announcement today how far advanced the cabinet is on a code for commercial tenants but still nothing for residents. People are being evicted right now, people are being threatened with eviction right now and it keeps going in the too-hard basket. Unless the government acts and acts in the next couple of days, this will reach crisis proportion. This must be a matter of priority to ensure that there is a national eviction ban and that there are rental holidays for those who need them.
There are so many others who are going to be left behind, but the bills we are passing today give extraordinary power to the Treasurer to create payment schemes. We say amend the legislation in the Senate to look after the people being left behind. But if you are not prepared to do that then amend your schemes after we leave this place to make sure those people are not being left behind.
Despite the promise of everyone getting a chance to speak here, we are running out of time for other members of the crossbench to have their say, which is typical of how the government has worked throughout the whole process. I will say one final thing: we are about to adjourn this parliament within a day or so and then not come back until August. That means that the key ministers about to spend huge sums of money, unprecedented amounts of money, will have next to no oversight from their parliamentary counterparts. We support legislation going through to ensure that money can be used to keep people safe, keep people in jobs and keep businesses going but it must come with some oversight. What we need is a joint House committee where members of this place and senators can call ministers to account over the coming months and ask them to explain how they are spending money so that we can put to them that there are people being left behind. If we just suspend this place and have a Senate committee that, while it is a powerful Senate committee, won't have the capacity to call House ministers because they can simply refuse to appear, then we are entering a realm of unaccountability. Democracy should not be put into isolation during this crisis; we need more democracy, not less. The Greens will be pursuing amendments in the Senate to ensure that, in this crisis, no-one is left behind and to make sure that government keeps being held to account so that we can include those groups that the government is forgetting.
The original question was that these bills be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Rankin moved an amendment that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. Subsequent amendments have been moved by honourable members. The honourable member for Fenner has now moved a further amendment. The question now is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Fenner be agreed to.
I rise to speak to the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020, the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus (Measures No. 2) Bill 2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 5) 2019-2020 and Appropriation Bill (No. 6) 2019-2020. I thank the government on behalf of Warringah for its prompt responses to this crisis today. While the measures outlined in these bills are far reaching and welcome, legislation prepared in haste has gaps and some key groups will miss out on receiving support. I've already written to the Treasurer and the Prime Minister outlining the many concerns that people in Warringah have.
The issue with JobKeeper is that many miss out or are inadequately supported, such as casual employees, pay-as-you-go contractors and temporary visa holders. These groups are all proudly included by the government in reports of employment figures, so they should now, in their time of need, be included in the government's response. In relation to casuals, to require a consistent relationship with an employer for over 12 months disqualifies many casual employees who have been working routinely for a range of employers over many years. This does not reflect the modern workforce. For those ineligible for JobKeeper, the government says they are caught and supported by the jobseeker payment. However, this gives rise to inequity between single- and dual-income families—an inequity that I fear will impact women the most as, whilst JobKeeper does not impose a partner income test, the jobseeker payment does. Whilst I appreciate that the income threshold has been raised, over 55 per cent of families in my electorate are dual-income families, and many of these will be left in the cold to cope with substantially reduced family incomes. This may have dire mental health and domestic violence consequences. The position needs to be addressed in relation to pay-as-you-go contractors. It is inadequate today. Many in the arts, entertainment and fitness industries work through pay-as-you-go contractor relationships from project to project. They cannot turn to a previous employer for JobKeeper, and many will not be eligible for the jobseeker payment. I urge the government to consider a special package for the arts and entertainment industries. We should ask ourselves: where would we all be in this period of home isolation without the arts and entertainment industries?
There is no assistance for many visa holders and other vulnerable groups in our community in the measures today. Asylum seekers do not have another place to go. They are here because they have fled for their safety. They are in our community and require assistance. There are many in our community who applied for permanent residency before 1 March 2020. They have lived, they have worked and they have paid taxes in Australia for many years, and they too should be eligible. Many childcare centres, restaurants and others in the service industries rely on foreign workers to support their trade. If we want those industries to recover and those businesses to reopen, we must also support their workforces. I urge the government to extend its measures to these groups.
In addition, the government should provide greater clarity for startup businesses that have been in existence for less than a year and on the mechanisms through which non-profits will qualify. Many non-profits diversify their business model and will not be eligible for JobKeeper due to the requirement of a 15 per cent reduction overall of the whole business, yet essential services to our communities will be lost and many will lose employment.
In relation to self-funded retirees, this crisis has shaken many individuals who have carefully planned for their futures. I have received many representations from self-funded retirees who have been decimated by losses in income. These individuals have worked hard throughout their lives, they've contributed to Australia's wealth and they've pragmatically saved for their retirement. They have not previously been a burden on the welfare system. Many self-funded retirees are impacted by the government's call for landlords to set aside or reduce commercial and residential rents. I urge the government to consider a time limited access to a support payment like the coronavirus supplement afforded to jobseekers. This should only be assessed if an individual can show 30 per cent or more decline in income from property and where that income is below a certain threshold.
The rental situation is dire. I've received many very concerning reports of unscrupulous behaviour in relation to tenants and also in relation to landlords. Large companies that continue to operate at profit are using the crisis to stop paying rent to small self-funded retirees. Large profiteering landlords are refusing to negotiate on ongoing commercial leases of businesses forced to close. Unless help is provided, many businesses will simply not be there when we get through this crisis to reopen and they will not be in a position to sign up to the JobKeeper package and keep their employees. I appreciate the work done to develop the amended code of conduct for commercial tenancy, but more oversight and assistance in this area are urgently needed. The childcare package released this week, whilst well intentioned, has caused many negative consequences for childcare centres operated by local councils, family daycare providers and many in the sector. Many childcare providers in Warringah were still operating at high capacity at the time of the announcement and then saw their income cut to one-third of what it was as a result of the government's announcement. They are now facing closure.
With unprecedented expenditure and discretion given to decision-makers, we must have appropriate parliamentary oversight and scrutiny. There needs to be flexibility and discretion to provide for the very many and varied scenarios, but there also needs to be accountability. Whilst the Senate select committee that has been announced is better than nothing, it will not provide the appropriate and timely scrutiny and collaborative input to Australia's response to the crisis that we should see.
Whilst the bills presented today provide certainty for some Australians, there are many who will continue to fall through the cracks. I am concerned for the mental health and wellbeing of these individuals in particular and will continue to advocate for amendments to the legislation to capture their situation. There remain many areas of concern in Australia's response to this crisis, especially the repatriation of Australians still stranded overseas. I again urge the government to adopt a more collaborative approach in developing its responses, especially in relation to the make-up of the coordination committee. It is essential that this committee include independent expertise from all sectors and regions to ensure our response and economic rebuild is as strong and as future focused as it can be. I feel strongly for our youth, who will need to carry much of the burden of recovery for Australia, and especially for the class of 2020.
Thank you again to all our frontline workers: the public transport operators, the health workers, the lifeguards, rangers, police, and school teachers. Thank you for keeping Australia going and safe. And to all Australians, especially everyone in Warringah: please stay home and stay safe.
I rise to support the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020. I've always seen my role as an Independent as one of being a constructive critic, congratulating the government on good work where it is done or calling for more where it is needed. I see my job as being to help the government succeed, because the people of Indi and Australia need the government to succeed in this crisis. But in turn it's important not to succumb to the temptation to silence, to wave through whatever the government proposes with no questions asked. That's why last week I wrote to the Prime Minister outlining 11 specific and practical recommendations to help enhance the local economic and health response to this twin crisis. I am pleased that the government has picked up on a number of those recommendations, including supporting our regional newspapers, which are so important outside metropolitan areas. That spirit of practical and constructive criticism and of wanting the government to succeed is what I bring to the legislation before us today.
When I rose to speak about the previous coronavirus economic response package I noted that it did not go far enough in supporting businesses to retain their staff. The package before us now with the JobKeeper payment as its centrepiece is a giant leap forward. This legislation should go down as a marker of what this parliament can achieve when all voices are listened to—businesses, unions, government, opposition and crossbench. Since the JobKeeper payment was announced I've been inundated by constituents saying, 'Yes, this is what we need.' However, I've also heard equally from many people telling me where it falls short. It has been widely pointed out the JobKeeper payment doesn't go far enough to support casuals who have been employed for less than 12 months. In Indi, 20 per cent of workers are casuals; many of these people will miss out on this payment. Many of the people who will miss out are the lifeblood of the hospitality and tourism sector—chefs, cleaners, waiting staff and cellar door workers—some are artists, musicians, film makers and event planners. The last time I spoke in this place I called on the government to support these people. I do that again today.
The second part of the government's latest economic response is the early childhood education and care relief package, and I welcome the government's committing to providing free child care to all Australian parents. High-quality child care and early childhood education accessible to all is one of the most important inputs for long-term educational outcomes and wellbeing, and it's crucial that these stay open for essential workers at this time. However, I have some real concerns about the design of this package and what it means for the viability of childcare providers, especially in rural and regional Australia, where in-home care, family day care and local-council run services are common.
The system was announced last Thursday and came into effect on Monday. I understand that haste was required, but with that haste came considerable confusion. Since the announcement, I have been flooded by extremely concerned providers from across the sector in Indi. Many childcare centres in my electorate hadn't been severely affected by the coronavirus—some still had 100 per cent attendance—yet this announcement throws their finances into disarray, with fears their revenue will halve and their staff will be forced onto JobKeeper. Many local governments run childcare centres. The rural city of Wangaratta and Alpine and Murrindindi shires have all contacted me, alarmed at the change. They report that the policy change will have an immediate negative impact on their capacity to maintain services, unintended consequences of a policy intended to keep childcare centres open. Further, councils aren't eligible for the JobKeeper payment.
The new policy does have provision for providers to be given additional funding if they can demonstrate exceptional circumstances, but applications for that funding don't open until tomorrow and so far the government has published no advice as to what qualifies for exceptional circumstances, who will receive additional funding and how much they will receive. As a constructive critic, I am laying out these concerns because I want the government's package to succeed and I fear it will not.
The government must immediately remedy the fears of small providers, and it could do so by offering two simple guarantees. Firstly, guarantee that all childcare providers will be eligible for the JobKeeper payment and, secondly, guarantee that through the exceptional circumstances funding no provider will be worse off than they were prior to the onset of the crisis. If the government could provide these two guarantees they would plug these holes in the policy and achieve the objectives which we are all seeking.
Finally, governance: the issues of the childcare package underscore important questions about the governance of our coronavirus response. Yes, we need the government to move fast, but moving fast in an environment where parliament is adjourned till 11 August needs a robust mechanism to ask questions and to scrutinise. The government cannot be expected to have all the answers to every issue in Australia, but unless they invite diverse voices into the room when they're making and scrutinising these decisions they're setting themselves an impossible challenge. We need to establish a mechanism for this parliament to scrutinise the measures. We need this because it's the best way to ensure the government can succeed, and we all want the government to succeed. That's why, along with my crossbench colleagues, I drafted two motions for two joint select committees to look into the government's health response and into their economic response. These were supported by the entire crossbench and 10 Senate crossbenchers. The crossbench offered them in good faith. The Labor Party and the government have instead decided that a Senate select committee be established to perform the critical role of scrutinising the government's pandemic response. However, I believe this proposal is insufficient for the task at hand.
Joint committees provide a way for all parliamentarians to assist in enhancing our response. The Senate select committee is a lesser outcome for three reasons. Firstly, only a joint committee is able to compel ministers to both houses. Secondly, in this difficult time we should draw on the expertise of all our parliamentarians, of members of the House on all sides with deep experience in both health and economic policy representing all the diversity of our electorates. Thirdly, and most importantly, creating joint committees of both houses supported by the government, opposition and crossbench would have been a powerful act of unity and leadership to build trust in the government's response.
The greatest disservice any parliamentarian could do right now would be to sit silently and fail to offer information to the government that could help them respond to the crisis, so I will continue to play my part, as all Australians have been called on to play theirs, and constructively work to achieve the best possible outcomes for all of us in this time of health and economic crises.