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; Consideration in Detail
In accordance with the resolution agreed to earlier, the bills will be taken as a whole. The resolution also provided for any government amendments to the bills that have been circulated to be treated as if they had been moved together, any opposition amendments to the bills that have been circulated to be treated as if they had been moved together, and any amendments that have been circulated by non-aligned members to be treated as if they had been moved together by the member proposing them. Copies of the amendments have been circulated and have been placed on the table. The question now is that the bills be agreed to.
Opposition's circulated amendment to the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020
(1) Clause 7, page 4 (after line 29), at the end of clause, add:
(3) Before making rules for the purposes of subsection (1) that provide for a payment or scheme to assist businesses to cover the costs of wages of their employees, the Treasurer must consider the following:
(a) the need to support essential workers and services in key sectors and regions;
(b) the need for all casual employees to access support;
(c) the consequences for employees who may be required to run down leave entitlements;
(d) the needs of charities that may experience a decline in donations but not in GST turnover;
(e) the recognition of the status of universities and schools that are ACNC-registered charities;
(f) the needs of registered NDIS providers and the disability workforce;
(g) the needs of active business participants;
(h) the need to support temporary visa holders who are unable to return home;
(i) the needs of local government employees.
I understand that, given the resolution, I don't need to say that I move the amendment. It's automatically taken as moved. The opposition is putting forward one amendment to the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020. The way this bill has been structured is that all the power of eligibility lies outside of the parliament, and what we're effectively doing is giving the Treasurer extraordinary powers to be able to devise the scheme. This amendment accepts that that's the way that it's been structured, but the fact that it's been structured that way prevents us from going line by line and moving amendments to change the principles of eligibility. So what this amendment does to the sections of the bill that give the Treasurer the power to establish the rules is put in demands about what he must consider. That would put in place the demand that he consider the need for all casuals to access support so that we don't have this ridiculous situation where the person who is working for pocket money gets $1,500 a fortnight and the person who's working for their livelihood gets told they're ineligible.
It would also deal with the consequences for employees who may be in a situation where they are required to run down leave entitlements. Just think of how this works. At the moment, the way it's designed, an employer has an employee running down their annual leave, and that annual leave is already credited against the balance sheet of the employer. The employer is able to receive the wage subsidy and still run down the annual leave at the full rate, which means that what the taxpayer's funding is not the worker. It's not actually a job subsidy; we're funding the balance sheet of the employer. There are some measures that have been brought to this parliament that have been upfront and that, it has been said, were being brought forward for the specific purpose of supporting business during that time, and we have backed those measures in, but we should not have a situation where something that is meant to be a wage subsidy is allowed to be rorted as a payment to the employer, not to the employee. That's what's allowed to happen during periods of leave, and it's not what this is about. If the amount is going to be forwarded to the employer during a period of leave, the employee should only be losing their entitlement to the extent that the employer is paying for them to lose their entitlement. And that may well mean that people would be able to take their leave over a much longer period of time, which would make a real difference to workers during this period.
The needs of charities that may experience a decline in donations but not in GST turnover; the recognition of the current status of ACNC registered universities and schools; the needs of NDIS providers and the disability workforce; the needs of active business participants; the need to support temporary visa holders who are unable to return home; and the needs of local government employees—these issues should be front of mind. At the moment, they don't get a look-in. The principle of this bill is that we want to keep people's relationship with their employer. It is better for them now. It will keep some businesses running that would otherwise fall over. And, at the end of this period, it will make a massive difference as to how the economy can recover. There is no economic reason for rejecting any of these principles. The only reason for rejecting these principles is a stubbornness because they weren't part of the original announcement and, therefore, the government won't shift.
A number of these measures, including the one I referred to with respect to leave, would be cost-neutral for the government but make a massive difference to people's income during this time. And there are other issues—for example, whether employers choose to not put forward all their employees. That is a risk at the moment in the way the government is intending to design this, which will create a situation where employers can try to get agreement from workers, for actions that are meant to be voluntary, by threatening not to put them forward for the JobKeeper payment.
This is an issue which can be resolved by the Treasurer, and I want to refer to that while I'm on my feet. We've all presumed that the employers who are eligible will apply and they will then put forward the names of all their employees who are eligible. The rules that were submitted yesterday don't guarantee that. The Treasurer can fix this and should fix this. Think about this: the government was aware of the risk of people being forced to take leave for double the time and at half the pay. The government has made some efforts to try and make that voluntary and to make sure that it will be voluntary. I commend the government for those discussions.
Most employers will deal with this in the right way. But under the rules at the moment, in the way the Treasurer has put them forward, on the face of it—and we've had these rules for less than a day—it will be possible for an employer to say to their workforce: 'I haven't decided which of you I'm going to put forward for the wage subsidy. Before I make that decision, who's willing to take their leave—double the time and at half the pay?' They wait till that question is answered and then choose which employees get put forward for the job subsidy. By doing it for an extended period of time, the rort that I described earlier doubles the period during which the money is going to the employer rather than to the employee.
Most employers will deal with this appropriately. Most will. But, in every case in industrial relations, we always have to set the boundaries to make sure that we have protected Australia from bad actors. At the moment, in the current design, this doesn't. It can be fixed, and for most workers it won't need to be fixed. But it is a relatively easy fix that matches what the government says it is trying to do. I appreciate that some of this is because of the rush with time, and it all goes to the reason why parliament should be sitting more often: that there will be outcomes we have not anticipated. But this is one that won't require the Treasurer to come back to the parliament if he chooses to change the rules. This amendment will demand that these issues be considered as these rules, as they are referred to in the act, are put in place.
Finally, I want to refer to conversations that have been happening with the Attorney-General. The draft of the changes to the Fair Work Act that we were provided with last night had some areas that were of significant concern. What's happened overnight is that there have been a number of further changes which have fixed some of those concerns. There is a final issue which had not been fixed, and I want to report to the House that I am satisfied about it because a particular undertaking has been given in conversations with the Attorney-General. The challenge is this: we want people to agree with their employer during this period for as much flexibility as possible so that things that would normally not happen can happen during this period so that businesses survive and people keep their jobs; it's a level of flexibility we want. There are some employment conditions where employees, once they have done something, lose the right to object to it in the future. So the fact that these rules are only temporary won't change the fact that there will have been a point in the past at which they agreed to it. We need to make sure that no employee is punished in the future for flexibility now, and that hasn't been covered in the amendments. The Attorney-General has given an undertaking that, when he puts together the form for employers to be able to use these provisions, they will have to give an undertaking that it won't be to the detriment of the employee in the future. I do believe that that covers it off.
To the extent that we've been able to deal with all the issues in front of us in an extraordinarily brief period of time, I think we have got to a good point. This amendment would put extra demands on the government in addition to what they are wanting now. But I have to say that, if we believe in the economic case for this change—and we all do—leaving so many workers behind is in no-one's interest. I commend the amendment.
I thank the member for his contribution on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020 and related bills. We don't agree, and won't be agreeing, to these amendments.
In relation to the member's first comments on the structure of the scheme: yes, the scheme is structured, of course, to provide a wage guarantee and to support the six million Australians who we believe are ultimately going to access the JobKeeper payments. But, importantly, it is also there to ensure that the businesses which employ them are there in six months time in order to continue to employ them. I think that looking at that structure answers some of the questions and some of the points that the member has made, particularly in relation to leave entitlements. It's a vexed and complex issue, but I think the work that has been done by the responsible minister in particular in negotiating a number of these arrangements addresses the primary concerns. But, at the same time, it's in the framework in recognition that, ultimately, in addition to supporting the employees we're also supporting the liabilities, at times, of employers to make sure that they're there in however long it takes to get through this crisis—that they are there on the other side to continue to employ them.
In relation to casuals, which the member raised: the Prime Minister made it very clear—and I think put it very well in question time—that the jobseeker scheme builds upon the earlier tranches of economic support that the government provided, most notably the jobseeker payment. Jobseeker payment recognised that there would be those who, through no fault of their own, lost their job. That's why, through the coronavirus supplement of an additional $550 a fortnight, that additional support is available to them.
The JobKeeper payment, as the Treasurer has described, is a uniquely Australian designed scheme within the broad framework of a wage subsidy. No-one was talking about this extending all the way to casuals a few weeks ago. We made it very clear that we wanted this to be as expansive as possible: a six-month payment at 70 per cent of median wages that extends to part-time and long-term casuals—and we've drawn on definitions that are well understood within industrial relations law with respect to the definition of casuals. So the JobKeeper scheme appropriately recognises that. That is wide in its remit and, for those employees or former employees who can't access JobKeeper, this just builds upon the increased safety net that this government has provided through the jobseeker payment.
In relation to charities and not-for-profits, which were mentioned by the member for Watson: again, the government has recognised the enormous contribution that charities and not-for-profits play in our country, and the some one million employees who work in that sector. We're very keen to extend this to charities and to not-for-profits. I would note that there are provisions in the bill which ensure for entities which are deductible gift recipients that donations are taken into account for the purposes of the turnover test, to make sure that those entities which rely heavily on donations are able to get access to the JobKeeper scheme for their employees because of what we expect is going to be the inevitable drop-off in donations to those types of entities.
So we have an expansive scheme and it addresses a number of the points that the member for Watson has raised, and for those reasons we don't support his amendments.
I rise to speak on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020 and related bills. On behalf of the Greens, I support these amendments that are being moved by the opposition, because they go some way towards picking up some of the people who have been left behind in the government's package. Chief amongst those, and who we have been campaigning for, are casual workers. I hope the opposition might reconsider its earlier position and support some of the amendments which the Greens will move in the Senate in an attempt also to close some of the holes and fill some of the gaps that have been left in this scheme. Certainly, when that happened last time we were able to get somewhere with the government. I would hope that when it comes to looking after workers that we can potentially go even further in the Senate than some of these amendments, and make sure that people aren't left behind.
I have two questions for the minister, relating to some of the things that the minister just said and who is going to be covered by these schemes. One is with respect to groups of employees who aren't casuals but who work on repeated short-term contracts. I'm thinking particularly of people who work in the arts. There would be people who work on productions—on shows like the Melbourne Comedy Festival, which has just been cancelled—whose income will be patchy over the course of a year. They will perhaps move from production to production, from gig to gig and work for a period. It might be for a few weeks or a few months at a time. They will save up an income and then wait until they get the next job, and then go on to that. They will often do that as employees. They may not do it as casual employees—I'm not talking about casuals. It may be that they do it on a contract basis, or they do it as full-time employees on a fixed-time contract or they do it as part-time employees.
I understand the point about casuals, and I disagree with it—and we'll pursue those amendments separately. But, putting aside whether people are casuals or not, my question to the minister is that if someone has a proven history of earning income to keep themselves afloat, and they do it on a job-by-job basis—for example, in the arts industry—is it the case that if they happened to be working on, say, a production or on a contract at 1 March then they're entitled to jobseeker payment, but if for whatever reason their contract finished two days earlier then they're not now going to be entitled to jobseeker payment? And, if that's right—and we're talking about people who have been employees, as opposed to sole traders, and putting aside casuals versus noncasuals—would the minister consider an extension of the scheme to cover those people who have a proven history of earning incomes above the jobseeker level?
I would ask the minister to consider making those people entitled to the JobKeeper payment—let them register as a sole trader or however we need to to minimise the changes that need to be made to the scheme. If someone has a proven history of income earning, albeit in a patchy way, will the minister undertake to look at making the scheme available to those people, even if they weren't employed on 1 March, or if, for whatever reason, their employer determines that they're not going to pick up the scheme on 1 March?
For people who work on and off throughout the course of the year and get a decent income, but find themselves, for whatever reason, ineligible for the current JobKeeper payment, will you consider making them eligible for JobKeeper if they can demonstrate a proven history of earning income through work? That's the first question that I have for the minister.
The second question relates to the breadth of the rules and the powers that can be made under the payments and benefits bill. Can the minister confirm to the House that the power and the rules that will be made cannot be used to take away an existing entitlement or benefit that someone may have under some other act or some other scheme? In other words, if someone has an entitlement, whether it's under an industrial award, or it's a social security payment or the right to get some kind of housing payment—whatever it is, if someone has an existing right to access a benefit can the minister confirm that the payments and benefits bill does not authorise the making of rules to take away those benefits and entitlements? And, if that's not the case, can the minister say so, but give an undertaking that they won't be used in that way?
In relation to long-term casuals, and as I described earlier in my remarks to the member for Watson, where possible we have sought to draw on an existing understanding of those terms within our industrial relations framework. With respect to casuals, we refer to them as 'long-term', 'regular' and 'systematic', so if they've got a systematic, long-term and ongoing relationship with that employer and therefore for the purposes of our industrial relations system they are considered a casual employee of that employer—and have been for longer than 12 months, as of 1 March—then, yes, of course they will be entitled to the JobKeeper payment.
I know the member for Melbourne explicitly carved out from his question the point around sole traders. As I'm sure he understands, particularly in the arts and entertainment industry so many of the individuals involved are in that contract relationship as sole traders or, effectively, as self-employed individuals. The government has been very keen to make sure that sole traders—people who, at the end of the day, only get paid when they work—are also included in this JobKeeper scheme. Again, we've drawn on the well-understood term within our industrial relations framework of an 'ongoing and systematic relationship' between an employee and an employer for the purposes of that casual test. Again, to go to the specifics of the arts and entertainment industry, of course those independent contractors, sole traders and self-employed individuals would also qualify.