Wednesday, 28 October 2020
Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020. I move the amendment circulated in my name:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:
(1) notes that:
(a) since the start of the recession, the number of people relying on unemployment payments has doubled;
(b) many pensioners—including those on the Age Pension, Disability Support Pension and Carer Payment—have faced increased costs during the pandemic; and
(c) the Minister has the power under the Social Security Act to extend the Coronavirus Supplement; and
(2) calls on the Government to:
(a) extend the $250 per fortnight Coronavirus Supplement until March, in line with Jobkeeper;
(b) better support pensioners—including Age Pension, Disability Support Pension and Carer Payment recipients—facing increased costs in protecting their health because of the coronavirus pandemic; and
(c) announce a permanent increase to the base rate of the Jobseeker Payment".
I'd like to read the amendment into the Hansard because it is extremely important to this side of the House. I have moved that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: 'whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House (1) notes that, (a) since the start of the recession, the number of people relying on unemployment payments has doubled, (b) many pensioners—including those on the age pension, disability support pension and carer payment—have faced increased costs during the pandemic, and (c) the minister has the power under the Social Security Act to extend the coronavirus supplement; and (2) calls on the government to (a) extend the $250 per fortnight coronavirus supplement until March, in line with JobKeeper, (b) better support pensioners—including age pension, disability support pension and carer payment recipients—facing increased costs in protecting their health because of the coronavirus pandemic, and (c) announce a permanent increase to the base rate of the Jobseeker payment'. That is the amendment circulated in my name.
I'd like to also point out to the House that there are 18 Labor people speaking on this bill, and also someone from the crossbench—compared to four from the government—because this is something that we consider to be absolutely important and it is consistent with what Labor have been saying for months and months, particularly about a permanent increase to the base rate of JobSeeker. I advise the House that in estimates this morning the government refused once again to agree that there needs to be a permanent rate of JobSeeker, and they are busily backpedalling on that right now.
This bill seeks to implement a number of coronavirus support measures from the budget—measures which Labor has called for for many, many months. Labor has long called for greater support for pensioners, who were left behind by this government when it enacted its cruel and disrespectful pension freeze just a few weeks ago. For months, Labor has called on the government to adjust the work test to ensure parents who are impacted by the coronavirus recession who lost hours of work or lost work would not miss out on paid parental leave. At the height of the pandemic, we asked the government to adjust means-testing for youth allowance so students would not fall through the cracks.
The supports for families who lose a child to stillbirth before the child's first birthday will be welcomed by many of my colleagues in this place who have been brave and tireless advocates in that regard. Losing a child is a devastating and heartbreaking experience, and we commend the government for finally coming around to enacting these important supports, but I do once again put on the record that it is something Labor has advocated for a very long time.
Nevertheless, the government's budget has left too many Australians behind. There is no certainty for the 1.6 million Australians on JobSeeker as to what support will be available after 31 December. There still has been no announcement about that. There is absolutely no reason why the government couldn't have addressed that issue in the budget statement just a couple of weeks ago. There was a deafening silence about this group of people. We are talking about 1.6 million people, the most vulnerable people in our community, who still don't know what their future holds after 31 December. We'll have to wait, obviously, to find out about that. It is certainly not addressing a permanent increase to the JobSeeker payment, which everyone agrees with, including a number of people on that side of the House and the former Prime Minister of Australia John Howard.
Almost one million Australians on JobSeeker are ineligible for the government's wage hire subsidy, and those who receive the pension, disability support pension or carer payment continue to face increasing costs in protecting their health because of the coronavirus pandemic. There has been much media commentary on this: additional costs for masks, additional costs for doctors' appointments, additional costs with psychiatrists' appointments and additional costs in just trying to keep safe. Many people, particularly those people on the age pension and the disability support pension, face compromised immune systems and many other issues that make them more vulnerable to coronavirus. I'm sure all my colleagues would agree with this question: what happens to people who are carers, who are making sure they're keeping their loved ones safe, many of them without any recognition for it? Those who receive these pensions—the disability support pension or the carer payment—should not have to face increasing costs. Our amendment calls for them to be compensated and reimbursed for those costs.
Pensioners have been facing rising health, dental, energy and grocery bills for years. Average GP out-of-pocket costs alone have gone up $11 under this government. Labor will be moving detailed amendments to better support Australians who are unemployed or who have endured extra costs because of the coronavirus pandemic. I read Labor's second reading amendment into the Hansard, but let me expand on it. Extending the coronavirus supplement is absolutely fundamental. Our amendment will create an obligation on the minister to extend the $250 per fortnight coronavirus supplement until March, in line with JobKeeper. It makes absolutely no sense to Labor that those on JobSeeker should not have the same respect shown to them and the same certainty as those people who have to rely on JobKeeper. It is $250 a fortnight but, once again, the people who are on JobSeeker, the 1.6 million people I spoke about earlier, have absolutely no certainty as to their future after 31 December. It must be terrifying for those people, who are just making ends meet as it is, and sometimes not actually doing that. Many of these people have absolutely no reserves to fall back on.
I'm just incredulous that the government, in particular the Treasurer and the Minister for Families and Social Services, have not recognised or taken up the responsibility they should feel for giving 1.6 million Australians some sort of certainty. How can we, as a society, hold our heads up if there is not that certainty for the most vulnerable? We're not talking about people who are sitting on the lounge and collecting money, as the government has briefed the media. We're talking about single mums. We're talking about women in their 50s and 60s who are renting. We are talking about people who are really struggling and know where every single cent goes. They are not bludgers. They are not sitting back and allowing the state to look after their affairs. They desperately want work and the least that we can owe them, the least that we can give them, is some sort of certainty after Christmas. That does not exist now. As I said, we are having estimates at the moment and there is a refusal to commit to anything. There is a refusal to actually say, 'This is what we're considering.' The idea that these people have to wait for the next statement for the Treasurer in the mid-year budget update is just outrageous. And who knows if there will be any certainty given in that? Who knows if it's not just an extension of temporary money?
There is no argument that people cannot live on $40 a day, yet that is the prospect that 1.6 million Australians have come 31 December. So Labor will be moving detailed amendments to better support Australians who are unemployed or who have endured extra costs because of coronavirus. Our members will create an obligation on the minister, as I said, to extend the $250 per fortnight coronavirus supplement until March, in line with JobKeeper. The coronavirus supplement is scheduled to end in December. With 1.6 million Australians currently on JobSeeker and a further 160,000 Australians expected to lose their jobs between now and the end of the year—it's not their fault, but that is the projection—now is not the time to be withdrawing support from Australians who are finding it extremely difficult to keep their heads above water. We should be recognising that. We should be acknowledging that and we should also be acknowledging that, for those people who will lose their jobs between now and Christmas, it is not because they want to be unemployed; it is because of the circumstances that the world finds itself in.
It is going to be an anxious and uncertain Christmas for so many people who are on JobSeeker, and it's cruel of the government not to give some clarity. You cannot tell me that there isn't some sort of understanding of what the government is planning to do. I just don't believe that. And the fact that there is a denial by this government to put some clarity around that issue is, as I said, cruel. It makes people anxious and it is unreasonable. It is completely unreasonable to make people wait until mid-December before there is a decision announced on the JobSeeker payment. Until then, Australians on JobSeeker won't be able to plan their finances around major expenses such as rent, gas, electricity bills and—actually—food and medical care. As I said, many of these people are young. Many of these people are single parents, and there are children involved. There are children involved who are relegated to poverty, relegated to the stresses that their parents must be feeling, because this government refuses to provide any certainty. I just don't understand that cruelty. I don't understand why the government can't clarify things and why they haven't taken the opportunity to do that. As I said, you cannot tell me that there isn't some sort of plan. The answer that the Prime Minister gave in question time yesterday told us very clearly that there is a plan, but he refuses to say what it is.
Labor's amendments will create an obligation on the minister to better support pensioners, including age pensioners, people on the disability support pension and carer payment recipients. Unlike the government, Labor acknowledges that older Australians, people with a disability and carers have experienced increased costs as a result of coronavirus, but surely it is not beyond the government's imagination or capacity to look at this as a real issue, to acknowledge it as a real issue and to make sure that people on those pensions are not out of pocket because of those additional costs. Please don't give me the argument that there are payments coming their way. Two lots of $250 does not make up for the additional expenses experienced by the groups of people I am talking about. In particular, they have seen increased costs in protecting their health during this pandemic. The terrifying prospect that these people face every day is that if they contract the coronavirus the outcomes will be dreadful for them because of their compromised immune systems, their age or their disability, and because the carers in particular are coming into contact with people in these groups.
So there is capacity for the minister, with the powers that she has been given, to create an obligation on the minister to better support these people. Labor acknowledges that older Australians, people with a disability, and carers have experienced increased costs. Cruelly, the government froze the pension in September. Those receiving an age pension, a disability support pension or a carer payment were affected by the fact that the government refused to think about indexation. In fact, according to the Prime Minister, he didn't realise it, which of course is not conceivable.
Labor's amendments will require the minister to announce a permanent increase to the base rate of JobSeeker payment. JobSeeker is scheduled to return to its old base rate at the end of December. It is clear to everyone that it can't go back. The Prime Minister's comments in question time yesterday acknowledged that. 'This will be a little comfort to people on JobSeeker,' was his answer. People on JobSeeker deserve to know what level of support will be available to them beyond 31 December. To make them endure an anxious wait is cruel, unreasonable and also unnecessary. Household budgeting for food, rent and bills is something these people spend a lot of time doing every week. The government could provide certainty by delivering a permanent increase to JobSeeker, which Labor has consistently advocated for. Some members of the government are also calling for that payment to be permanently increased. At least they're being honest. Since the rate of JobSeeker was temporarily boosted, Australians on JobSeeker and their children have been lifted out of hardship, and they've had more to spend on local and small businesses. They've been able to buy food, pay bills and meet their rent. In the wake of this pandemic, the budget was an opportunity to deliver lasting structural change for vulnerable Australians, while boosting local businesses and local jobs, but that economic as well as social opportunity was missed.
Labor is concerned about the Morrison government's plan to return JobSeeker to its old base rate of $40 a day in December with 160,000 Australians expected to lose their job and 1.6 million Australians on JobSeeker at the moment. We know that the government continues to try to demonise those who have lost their jobs. It's just despicable. Implying somehow that these people are unemployed because of choice is just wrong. There is still a plan before the parliament to drug test welfare recipients. It has been foreshadowing a national rollout of the cashless debit card. With more jobseekers than job vacancies, there are simply not enough jobs for everyone who needs one. It's even more difficult to find a job in our regions—the result of the government's failure to deliver jobs programs for our regions. Australians are finding this a very anxious time, with an uncertain Christmas. There are many Australians who will be wondering what level of support will be available to them after December. Many are worried about how they will afford essentials, cover rent or pay the bills, let alone buy Christmas presents for the children.
We know that there are many people in our nation on unemployment payments who are spending those payments at local businesses, which, of course, is an economic measure. Social security payments play a vital role in sustaining local jobs, especially in times like these and especially in some communities. Australians on social security will have less to spend in those small businesses. And small businesses will have less to spend on wages and jobs. How many jobs will be lost when JobKeeper is cut in December? Labor has sought this information from the government, but the government either doesn't know or doesn't want to know.
The budget left behind Australians on JobSeeker aged over 35—almost one million Australians—by excluding them from the wage hire subsidy, and older Australians represent the largest cohort on JobSeeker. They also have the most difficulty finding work because of structural barriers and age discrimination. The government needs to permanently increase the base rate of JobSeeker payment. Women and young people have been disproportionately impacted by the unemployment crisis brought on by the pandemic.
The government was caught out on Labor on the pension freeze for 2.5 million pensioners, and that's the only reason why they acted on it. Labor fought the government's disrespectful and cruel pension freeze. The reality is that pensioners plan for their twice-yearly indexation, one in March and the other in September. The government was caught out on their pension freeze in August. The freeze took effect in September. They made pensioners wait for the October budget before announcing any kind of relief. The government has a long track record in cutting and attempting to cut the pension. They still haven't adjusted deeming rates, which remain significantly higher than interest rates. Pensioners won't forget the government's record on cutting the pension. They will not forget the fact that deeming rates are still not equitable.
The Liberals and Nationals are obsessed with cutting the pension, attempting to cut the pension in every budget, every year. That has been well documented by me and others. We know that in 2014 they tried to cut the pension indexation. In the same budget, that horror budget, they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions. In their same horror budget, they axed the $900 senior supplement for self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth seniors health card. In that same budget they tried to reset deeming rate thresholds, a cut that would have seen half a million part-pensioners made worse off. In 2015 they did a deal with the Greens to cut the pension to around 370 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year. In 2016 they tried to cut the pension to around 190 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks. In 2016 they tried to cut the pension to over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement. The government's own figures show this would have left over 563,000 Australians currently receiving this allowance much worse off. Over 10 years in excess of 1.5 million pensioners would have been worse off. They spent many years trying to get the pension age to be 70. Pensioners have paid their taxes and contributed their entire lives. They deserve our respect and the respect of this government.
This bill is adjusting how someone qualifies for paid parental leave. To be eligible a person must satisfy a work test. The existing work test requires a person to have worked 10 out of 13 months prior to the birth or adoption of a child and at least 330 hours in that 10-month period. During the pandemic the concern was that families would miss out on PPL because of job losses or having their hours reduced, making them ineligible for PPL, leaving them up to $15,000 worse off. Labor called for the government to temporarily suspend the work test in April so families would not miss out. I even wrote to the minister for social services. And in June we moved amendments in the Senate for the work test to be suspended but the Morrison government voted it down. Families need certainty about their access to paid parental leave during these challenging times.
This bill will also temporarily amend circumstances in which a person may be regarded as independent for youth allowance. In May Labor called on the government to provide case-by-case exemptions to youth allowance parental incomes tests. We were concerned that tertiary students would miss out on youth allowance and would be unable to afford to continue their studies. These are not ordinary times. What we don't want to see is students discounting tertiary studies because they can't afford it. It is disappointing that government has taken so long to act on these issues. It's been too long an anxious period for students.
In conclusion, Labor support the measures outlined in this bill, measures that Labor has been advocating for from the very outset of the pandemic. It is just seven weeks until Christmas and people relying on the coronavirus supplement need certainty, not cruel cuts and not a deafening silence, which is what we are hearing at this point in time. That is why Labor is moving amendments to extend the coronavirus supplement until March, in line with JobKeeper—not an unreasonable ask. I know that there are many people on that side of the House that also believe it is not unreasonable. At least in line with JobKeeper and require the government to announce a permanent increase to the JobSeeker payment. This is something that we have been advocating for for a very long time. The government has an opportunity to fix these things. These amendments are serious amendments. They are amendments to provide certainty, to provide comfort, to those 1.6 million people on JobSeeker. It's doing something that the government is going to have to do anyhow, kicking and screaming, to increase the permanent rate of JobSeeker. This is not the end of this discussion so don't think it is. This issue will continue. It will continue because it is in the interest of the economy, 1.6 million Australians, 2.5 million Australians on the age pension, over 700,000 Australian on the disability support pension and many, many thousands of people on the carer payment. Those people have provided an enormous amount to this country. In some cases aged pensioners have provided a lifetime of commitment, a lifetime of service, a lifetime of paying taxes. Surely we as a parliament can remember that and we as a parliament can do the right thing by those people. That is what my amendments are seeking to do: the right thing. It is as simple as that: the right thing.
I am very pleased to speak today in the House to support the amendments contained in the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020 as they will better support those relying on Australia's safety net and receiving government support payments during this COVID-19 recession.
This year we have seen challenges that this country has simply never faced before. Hardworking young people and families have seen their workplaces shut down through no fault of their own. As a nation, we have worked tirelessly to reduce the case numbers of COVID-19 so that we can open our economy as quickly as possible and get workers back into jobs and to create new ones, but we cannot underestimate the scale of this challenge. The world economy has contracted by four per cent, compared to less than one per cent during the GFC. It's why this government has provided over $300 billion in financial support to Australian families already. It is why the 2020 budget was delivered a few weeks ago. It's focused on our economic recovery plan to get people back into jobs and to create new ones.
This government has combined this record financial support for business and to enable job creation with an enhanced safety net to get Australians to the other side of the crisis. Now Labor can, as the previous Labor speaker did, claim credit for our work as much as they like, but Australians know that it was this government who had their back during the crisis and that it's this government that still has their back during the crisis.
In relation to Labor's amendment that was just recently moved to increase the rate of JobSeeker past December: while the Prime Minister dealt with this yesterday in the House in a very clear way, we have provided financial assistance to Australians to get them to the other side of the COVID-19 recession throughout the last couple of months and these are not set-and-forget policies. The Prime Minister made it very clear that this pandemic moves fast. We have all seen this. We have all seen the circumstances change quickly. Those kinds of decisions about whether the JobSeeker payment is extended will be made prior to Christmas so that, if extra legislation is required in the House, there is time to do that as well. But these kinds of decisions are made by the government in a considered way. We see Labor trying to do the same thing that they did during the GFC, and that was to run off and spend money as quickly as possible without thought and consideration that it's due. That's simply all that we ask.
This pandemic moves fast, there's a lot of financial support going to Australians and they need it. So let's give this issue the consideration and due care that it requires. It's no disrespect to those who are receiving JobSeeker payments. We know that they are doing it tough, but this is taxpayers' money and the pandemic moves quickly. So let's make sure that, unlike Labor, who are simply keen to get as much cash out the door as possible, the support that we are providing Australians is fit for purpose for the stage of the pandemic and the stage of the COVID-19 recession that we are currently in.
I turn now to the substantive amendments in this bill. In the first few months of the crisis, many young people receiving youth allowance or Abstudy payments faced reduce work hours and were forced to rely obvious their parents' income to support themselves. Youth allowance and Abstudy require recipients to demonstrate independence by working a minimum of 30 hours per week for at least 18 months. It is estimated that 4,000 young people would have lost their payments as a result of not meeting this criteria during the six-month period between 25 March and 24 September. At a time where families are facing the pressures of this COVID-19 recession, the last thing that we need is for them to carry the further burden of covering lost youth allowance payments for their kids when their kids have lost those working opportunities through no fault of their own. By introducing the amendment proposed in this substantive bill, young people receiving youth allowance or Abstudy payments, or looking to apply for these payments in the future, will be automatically recognised as having worked 30 hours per week during the 6-month COVID-19 period, regardless of how many hours they actually ended up working during this time.
The Morrison government understands that this COVID-19 pandemic has put hardworking Australians in tough situations. It's our job, as government, to have their backs and to give them a hand up to get back on their feet. During the height of this pandemic the government introduced the economic support payments to cushion the blow of reduced work hours and to boost spending to get our economy moving.
Older Australians and those at-risk in the community have faced, in particular, increased costs of living to protect their health during this pandemic. The initial support payments were instrumental in ensuring that those more at risk of catching COVID-19 could pay for services, such as home food delivery and home maintenance services. I'm sure every MP on both sides of the chamber, throughout the COVID-19 recession and the COVID-19 period, have stories like this to tell about older residents in their electorates who they've phoned up or spoken to, who had some nervousness, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, about going out to shops, but still required that important care, food services and medications so instead availed themselves of delivery services. Many MPs, I know I certainly did, helped facilitate this for older Australians living in their electorates. These payments were instrumental in helping them do that. It helped them, if they so choose, to reduce their contact with others to protect their health and avail themselves of the extra costs required to have these services delivered.
The further amendment contained in this bill will provide those receiving pensions, carer payments and DVA payments and senior health card holders with additional $250 support payments in November 2020 and February 2021. This will further support around five million Australians leading up to the Christmas period. It forms part of the government's economic road to recovery. As I said, the practical impact of that is allowing, particularly older Australians and at-risk Australians, to be able to avail themselves despite the extra costs of getting the services that they need delivered to their homes.
The Morrison government's plan for economic recovery is, of course, about creating jobs and getting people back into work. They were succinctly outlined by the Treasurer when he delivered the recent 2020 budget. With the restrictions on international travel due to this pandemic, our agricultural industry in particular has seen a decline in applications for seasonal work during the upcoming harvest season. To support this industry and to help young people who are on youth allowance and Abstudy to complete their required work hours, the government has introduced a temporary incentive by this bill to encourage young Australians to undertake agricultural work. The new criteria will give young people who engage in agricultural work the opportunity to demonstrate their financial independence faster than they would otherwise have been able to. A person who earns $15,000 through employment in the agricultural industry between 30 November 2020 and 31 December 2021 will be considered as independent in this new criteria.
Throughout this pandemic Australians have been reliant on our domestic capability, and we must continue to support our incredibly important agricultural industry, just as they have supported us this year. There are some very, very passionate advocates on this side of the chamber for Australia's agricultural industry, but we all know that supporting them and supporting our farmers is vital, particularly at this time. By introducing this incentive we will get young people into work and farmers will see a greater workforce for the upcoming harvest season.
The final amendments contained in this bill will directly support parents and families in the Ryan electorate, and I am very proud of the government for that. In normal circumstances, reduced work hours would see around 12,800 individuals lose their eligibility for paid parental leave and dad and partner pay. The changes to this in an amendment contained in the substantive bill will temporarily extend the paid parental leave work test period from 13 months prior to the birth of a child—or adoption, for that matter—to 20 months for parents who have had their employment impacted by COVID-19. This will give parents the ability to reach the required 330 hours of work that they need to satisfy in the eligibility test for these payments over a period of 20 months rather than 13 months. This government, the Morrison government, is dedicated to ensuring that families are not penalised because of the impact of COVID-19. We are working to ensure that parents are supported to take the time off they need when welcoming a new baby or addition to the family.
The last amendment contained in this bill is far and away, in my opinion, the most important of all and relates to an issue that I have spoken about a number of times in this place in just the last year and a half since the election. Each year it is estimated that 850 families are affected by stillbirth and 40 families experience the death of an infant. I cannot even begin to imagine the profound pain that parents experience with the loss of a child through stillbirth and infant death. It is truly an unthinkable tragedy. Parents affected by such a tragedy must be supported with these bereavement payments so they can take time off to grieve and process the loss with their loved ones.
From 1 January 2021, the measures contained in this bill will remove the discrepancy in the rates of the stillborn baby payment for first and then subsequent stillborn children and align the stillborn baby payment with the rates payable to families that experience an infant death. This will be achieved by establishing one rate for the stillborn baby payment equivalent to the current highest rate plus an amount equivalent to the maximum family tax benefit part A bereavement payment. Additionally, a top-up amount will be paid to families with children who receive the low rate of the newborn supplement and then who experience the death of the newborn before their first birthday.
For parents who experience this kind of loss, there is no money in the world that can numb the pain. That is for sure. But I hope that this change in payment that the Morrison government is putting through allows those families to take more time together to grieve and process such a terrible loss. There should never have been these kinds of discrepancies in the payments in the first place for stillbirths and early infant loss, and I really want to commend Minister Ruston for taking this step to address it and to address it properly.
The families in these circumstances deserve every bit of support that we as a parliament can provide and I will keep fighting for them, as I'm sure other members in this place will, to get even more support. On that point, I really commend the amendments contained in this bill to the House. I know that they will assist young people. I know that they will assist families in the Ryan electorate. I know they will assist older Australians, industry and all of us, all Australians, on the road to recovery out of the COVID-19 recession.
I rise in support of the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020 as drafted, as far as it goes, and note at the outset that Labor has called for many of these measures for months. The government's self-congratulatory prattle needs to be put in context. Many of these things could, and should, have been done months ago. But it's better late than never. This bill gives pensioners a few crumbs off Prime Minister Scott Morrison's table. It's two $250 payments. The government is racking up $1 trillion of Liberal debt, hurtling towards $1.7 trillion, and that is what pensioners get—$250. The urgency to get this through to the Senate is because that first $250 payment crumb is on 27 November. This is the government that froze the age pension. It is hoping with this $250 that people will forget over seven years of Liberal attacks on the age pension. It wouldn't be a Liberal government, we've come to think, if there wasn't another cut tried on the pension and attacks on age pensioners. This payment is of course for disability support pensioners and carers—$250 of hush money, in effect.
The second aspect of the bill, which we do support, is some concessions for people trying to prove their independence for youth allowance and Abstudy in the Morrison recession. And there is also—this is an interesting measure—a temporary incentive for young people in agriculture to prove their independence for the purposes of youth allowance. If they earn $15,000 over 13 months, the government will take that as evidence of independence. Frankly, I'm sceptical about whether this will work. The government has tried these incentives many times before—and, every single time, they announce one thing but under-deliver. The previous incentives to get young people and people on Newstart to go to the bush and engage in rural work have never achieved their targets. So I will be interested if the minister—whichever muppet they serve up to sum up the bill—could answer the question and inform the House how many young people they project or expect will be accessing this benefit. How many people do they think are going to be incentivised over the next year to go bush and do agricultural work?
The fourth change, which we welcome, allows parents to access paid parental leave where employment has been impacted by coronavirus. Again, this is stuff that Labor has called for for months—entirely common sense. Frankly it is administrivia which, I would bet my bottom dollar, the department served up to the ministers months ago, but it has taken them this long to actually get around to bringing it to the parliament—so constipated is the government's policy process while they are busy making announcements but never actually delivering.
The fifth measure, which we strongly support and have been calling for for a long time now, is the changes to stillborn baby payments and infant death payments. The bill defines a stillborn child and makes much fairer arrangements for families who lose a child through stillbirth or whose child dies before their first birthday. Currently, and quite unbelievably—I wasn't aware of this until I actually delved into this bill—if a family lose a child to stillbirth, they get a higher rate for the first stillborn child and then lower rates thereafter. I suspect that most people in this place would have direct or indirect personal experience of people in their family and circle of friends who have gone through the pain and trauma of this. One of the saddest funerals I have attended, a couple of years ago, was for someone who was very close to me who had lost a baby to stillbirth a week before the baby was due. It took them 12 months before they could get to the point emotionally where they could gather the family and friends and have that shared grieving. I can't imagine the pain. To lose a child is every parent's greatest fear, and it is something that I know members of this House have gone through.
The measures are fine, as far as they go, but I want to turn now to the second reading amendments moved by the member for Barton—which, in effect, go to what the bill does not do. As is often the case with this government when it comes to the vulnerable in Australia, it is not about the little crumbs that they throw at people, the little tweaks that they make, the administrative tidy-ups that they call policy and reform; it's about what they don't put in their legislation but should. The fact is that the hangover from the Morrison recession, however long it lasts, is going to be longer, harder, deeper and harsher than it should be because of the government's tardiness in introducing a wage subsidy and the fact that they are still making active choices to exclude hundreds of thousands of Australians from support that they need—casual workers, people in universities, people working in the arts and entertainment sector. And now, unbelievably, it seems that they are still proceeding with their nasty, ill-timed cuts. With the conditions we're seeing now, you couldn't think of a worse time to make cuts to the support that people are relying on.
Probably the worst thing about this budget in my view, given the people I represent in what is socio-economically the most disadvantaged council area in the whole of metropolitan Melbourne—people who rely on government to get by, people who need some support to get back on their feet through whatever their life circumstances have come to—is that this budget bakes in a cut to Newstart, or unemployment benefits, or whatever you call it now with your marketing spin. You thought you'd rename the program!
If you say 'job' a lot then everyone might think you have a jobs plan, might they not! I know—what a cunning plan, Baldrick! We're going to rename Newstart 'JobSeeker'! Then we'll call the wage subsidy 'JobKeeper'! Then we'll call our $3 billion of cuts to TAFE 'JobTrainer'! They may as well call their wage subsidy 'JobFaker', may they not? We learned at Senate estimates that it's not going to be 450,000 jobs, like the Prime Minister and Treasurer told us yesterday. The Treasury's over there telling the public it will be 45,000 jobs. They should call that one 'JobFaker'. We'll get on to 'MateKeeper' later, won't we—your rorts with Australia Post and stacking the AAT? That's a topic for another time.
The government are running around with their little talking points, saying: 'The recession's over. As the Reserve Bank governor has said, it might be over. We might be slipping back into positive growth, so it's all over; it's all better.' Try telling that to the 1.6 million Australians relying on JobSeeker. I don't think the government has any idea of the abject terror that people trying to survive on JobSeeker have of what's coming down the pipe from this government's budget—a cut back to $40 a day. They tell us—maybe give us a little hint—that maybe they're not going to do that. Tell us what you are going to do.
As the member for Barton so rightly said, 'People deserve the dignity of some degree of certainty.' People who are unemployed budget. They actually count their pennies, to use that old phrase. They know where every single dollar is going—every single dollar. All we're asking for is certainty—to tell people who are surviving on JobSeeker what your plans are and tell them what they're in for. Reassure them they won't be returning to $40 a day. Is that really too much to ask? That's what our second reading amendment does. It says that it puts a positive obligation on the minister to 'announce a permanent increase to the base rate' of JobSeeker and to 'extend the coronavirus supplement' until at least March. The minister has that power. She doesn't need our help here. She doesn't need our advice. She could get an instrument and sign it already. The parliament has already, as part of emergency measures, given the Minister for Families and Social Services the power to extend the coronavirus supplement. But she won't do it.
This bill is a missed opportunity to increase JobSeeker. There are 1.6 million Australians relying on JobSeeker, and the bill should have given them certainty and a permanent increase. How we treat the most vulnerable is a measure of what kind of society we really are, and they deserve certainty. By not giving people that certainty, they face an uncertain and anxious Christmas. The most effective stimulus, as all economists keep telling us, is not tax cuts. It's boosts in the payments in the pockets of the most vulnerable and poorest in society, because they spend every dollar. By not giving certainty and by baking in this cut to $40 a day, that will mean less to spend on local and small businesses in the coming months.
I'd be interested, when the minister muppet turns up with the summing-up dot-points speech to read out, in how many jobs will be lost when JobSeeker is cut. That would be good for parliament to know. What would the economic modelling say when JobSeeker is cut back to $40 a day—or whatever number the Prime Minister's got in his bottom drawer in store for people? How many jobs are going to be lost when that money is taken out of the economy?
We could also talk—as the second reading amendment touches on—about the one million jobseekers. These are the one million people of the 1.6 million people in the Morrison recession languishing on JobSeeker. We could talk about how the budget has abandoned unemployed Australians over 35 who are ineligible for their wage subsidy. Older Australians are the largest single cohort of those 1.6 million Australians on JobSeeker. That older cohort face structural barriers—age discrimination, as the evidence shows—and enormous difficulties in getting back into the workforce, and the government is not making them eligible for their wage subsidies. They're forgetting about them. So I do touch on the second reading amendment that Labor is urging the government to accept. They are to 'extend the $250 per fortnight coronavirus supplement until March, in line with JobKeeper'; to provide better support—not just the crumbs-off-the-table hush money which the Prime Minister announced belatedly in the budget—to age pensioners, disability support pensioners and carer payment recipients, who, as the member for Barton outlined, are 'facing increased costs in protecting their health because of the coronavirus pandemic'; and to 'announce a permanent increase to the base rate' of JobSeeker.
Before closing, I'll make a few remarks about pensioners. The government were caught out with their freeze to the pension. I don't know how they could have thought pensioners wouldn't notice that the government were freezing their pension. Pensioners know about the small increases in March and September; they are baked into their financial planning. The government thought they could just get away with it: 'We'll freeze the pension. That's okay, isn't it? Why would anyone worry about that?' It was only because of the pressure that Labor put on the government—through the media, with stakeholders and with so many thousands of community members—that they acted on it. We fought this government's disrespectful and cruel pension freeze.
Of course, the government has a long track record of cutting, or attempting to cut, the pension. This context is important when considering our second reading amendment, which calls on the government to do more for pensioners, because with the government in its eighth year—after seven years of this government—the record of cuts is astounding.
They still haven't adjusted the deeming rates. They made a little gesture that way a few months ago, but the deeming rates still haven't been adjusted. They're higher than the typical saving rates that pensioners can get. The upper deeming rate is 2.25 per cent and the lower deeming rate is 0.25 per cent. Goodness only knows where pensioners with a little bit of cash in the bank are supposed to get 2.25 per cent—ask anyone in the real world. Maybe the investment banker mates they appoint to the Australia Post board and ASIC or stack their government appointments with through their 'MateKeeper' program could advise pensioners on where to get 2.25 per cent. They might get a Cartier watch for their trouble! You never know; it could be their lucky day.
The government's record of pension cuts should never be forgotten. The Liberals and Nationals, at every budget, have been obsessed with cutting the pension. In 2014 they tried to cut pension indexation, which in 10 years would have meant pensioners being forced to live on $80 a week less. It's lucky we stopped that one. They cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions in 2014. They axed, in 2014, the $900 seniors supplement to self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth seniors health card. Continuing the theme in that horror budget, they had a crack at resetting the deeming rate thresholds, a cut that would have seen half a million part pensioners worse off. Then there was the shoddy, shameful deal with the Greens political party, who still haven't lived that one down amongst pensioners—they remember it. They cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by fiddling the pension assets test. Hundreds of thousands of people were kicked off the part pension completely. Then they broke their promise. I remember that. That went well, didn't it? They said, 'You'll keep the healthcare card,' and they broke that promise. It took them a year or two before they finally backed down and said: 'That wasn't such a good idea. Maybe we should have kept that promise. People were a little bit mad.' In 2016 they tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit pensioners' overseas travel to six weeks. The government's own figures show that this would have left 563,000 Australians currently receiving a pension or allowance worse off. Over 10 years, in excess of 1.5 million pensioners would have been worse off.
Of course, they spent five long years—this was the current Prime Minister's policy; he sold it as the social services minister and then sold it as the Treasurer—trying to increase the age pension age to 70. There was no empathy and no understanding of what that would do to people, like so many in my electorate, who had engaged in heavy manual labour, whose bodies were wrecked from a lifetime of hard work. They weren't going to treat them with dignity. He only backed down after they rolled Malcolm Turnbull. Remember Malcolm? Whatever happened to him? This guy, his best friend, had his back. They only backed down after they realised they were hurtling towards an election and had to cauterise every wound.
This government's record on the pension is shameful. I commend the second reading amendment to the House.
The COVID crisis has impacted the lives of everyone, not just here in Australia but right around the world. It has, tragically, taken lives, crushed businesses and resulted in many job losses. In the wake of Victoria now getting its second wave under control, we as a nation are building back. Businesses are reopening, jobs are returning, and there's real hope for not only my electorate of Higgins but indeed all of Australia. From the Reserve Bank there have been welcome comments that a revival is in the air, the recession may be over, and we've had growth in the September quarter.
The Morrison government has had the back of Australians during the COVID lockdowns by preparing our hospitals, deploying ADF support and financially backing us in the form of JobKeeper and JobSeeker. The government had our back then and it has the back of every Australian as we build back our economy and our future. My electorate of Higgins has been affected by two lockdowns and the many local restrictions, but we are resilient and we are wanting to find a new COVID normal.
Through this bill, we intend to provide even more support to those within our economy who may be struggling with the new COVID normal. This bill has a diverse range of measures because our country is diverse. The Morrison government is not taking a single-handed approach to the recovery of our economy. We understand our COVID recovery is complicated and needs a nuanced response. That is why we are responding to the complexity of the COVID recovery with this bill, which responds to the needs of Australians in their time of need. This bill aims to help some of our most vulnerable citizens. It will help those who are suffering through no fault of their own, those who battle with finding themselves in completely unexpected circumstances. 2020 has been an extraordinary year because of the COVID pandemic, which is changing the very fabric of society—not just here, but all around the world—and we've had to make changes to keep ourselves, our families and our communities safe. This bill will help veterans and those on social security. It will help the young. It will help those who are grieving for the loss of a child.
The first of these new measures is to provide two further economic support payments of $250 to around five million social security and veterans payment recipients and concession card holders in the lead-up to Christmas. Christmas is a time of hope and happiness, a time for family and sharing, a time for gift-giving and cooking up a storm. I'd like to reflect on the buoyancy of Victorians, as they are so excited in this lead-up to Christmas that the lockdowns are lifted. You cannot understand how exciting this is, particularly for Melburnians. The payment will help make Christmas just that bit brighter for those who've suffered a really difficult and long winter, a winter that has been particularly difficult through the long and hard COVID lockdown in my home town of Melbourne. Not only will this $250 payment help those in need have a better Christmas; it has the multiplier effect of helping our local businesses and thus our overall economy in the lead-up to Christmas. My electorate of Higgins has many small, medium and family-sized businesses, and they know that they will all benefit from this additional support payment coming through our local economy.
We aren't just stopping there. Many young Australians have been very adversely affected by the COVID pandemic. We know that, when there's a recession, the young are those that are hardest hit. This bill will temporarily amend the circumstances in which a person may be regarded as independent for youth allowance purposes. This has been designed to assist young people to qualify for youth allowance who would have qualified if they had not lost or been unable to attain employment because of the economic effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Morrison government has already announced and implemented many support measures to support our struggling young Australians, including JobKeeper, JobSeeker and the JobMaker hiring credit. This last initiative brings huge hope to our young as they look to their future. We are also creating a temporary pathway for young people who are seeking to qualify as independent for the purposes of youth allowance. This will encourage young people to undertake seasonal agricultural work. This will jointly help alleviate concerns regarding workforce availability for the upcoming harvest season, terribly important in my home state of Victoria.
I'd like to turn to a part of this bill which seeks to introduce a revised paid parental leave work-test limit for a limited time to enable people to access to parental leave pay, and dad and partner pay, who do not meet the current work-test provisions because their employment has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. I'd also like to turn to another part of this bill and to talk about stillbirth and infant death leave. While it's been a year mostly consumed by COVID-19, the Morrison government has not allowed other important matters and the need for amendments in legislation to go ignored. Indeed, taking care of our most vulnerable remains a priority and this includes those affected by stillbirth or infant death. As not only a paediatrician, but a mother of four children the thought of losing one is unimaginable. As I said in my first speech, words like 'widow' and 'orphan' describe our losses but there is no word in the English language to describe the loss of a child. However, this is sadly the reality for too many Australians.
Interestingly, last week I represented the Minister for Health, Mr Greg Hunt, for the launch of the UNICEF and World Health Organization global reduction in stillbirth goals. I was proud to represent Australia and to discuss the road map of the Australian government National Stillbirth Action and Implementation Plan, which is being developed in close consultation with stakeholders. I asked the question of those on this Zoom call, of several hundred people from around the world, whether they had a word for the loss of a child in their language and no-one was able to provide that. It's interesting that that was seen around the world.
The national stillbirth action plan, which is expected to be publicly released later this year, will ensure efforts to reduce stillbirth and support bereaved families are strategically planned and delivered. The national stillbirth action plan includes priority and action areas, goals and implementation tasks, including reducing disparities in stillbirth rates between population groups. Importantly, this includes groups at increased risk of stillbirth in Australia and this includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, some migrant and refugee groups and women living in rural and remote communities. The plan includes actions focusing on culturally safe haven health services, addressing language barriers, health literacy and providing culturally appropriate bereavement care and support.
As a medical professional in my former life, I heard of a case of a woman from a refugee background who had no English. She presented to a hospital in Melbourne heavily pregnant. She was put under general anaesthetic, unable to communicate in an emergency setting, and woke up losing a child and having had a hysterectomy. It's difficult to imagine how a woman like this has had to face such incredible tragedy in the face of not having any English whatsoever. I welcome Minister Tudge's recent announcement of uncapping English lesson placements, because I think that ensuring that women and families, and men, coming to this country have the ability to access English lessons is incredibly important for their own health, welfare and wellbeing and for the social cohesion of our country.
I presented to the UNICEF, World Health Organization global audience examples of activities that the Australian government is currently funding to reduce stillbirth amongst high-risk groups. These include translation of the Safer Baby Bundle stillbirth resources into 23 languages, a really welcome initiative; co-designing stillbirth prevention resources for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; webinars and resources targeted at rural and remote clinicians and families; and developing a stillbirth education program, using bicultural workers, for migrant and refugee women.
I would like to take note and congratulate Professor Vicky Flenady of the stillbirth centre of research excellence for her amazing work and the centre's amazing work in raising awareness of stillbirth in Australia, and the excellent work that they are doing to not only promote Australia's work in this area internationally but to ensure that women in Australia get the best possible care. These activities complement our other Australian government initiatives that aim to improve maternal and infant health. Reducing disparities remain a key focus as Australia continues its focus post COVID to prevent stillbirth. While this is our goal unfortunately the reality in Australia is that one in every 135 pregnancies results in stillbirth. These events are tragic. They are tragic to the parents, they are tragic to their families and, indeed, they are tragic to the wider community, and that is why this bill is so important.
This bill will improve assistance for families affected by stillbirth and infant death in respect of payments for newborn children, by increasing the maximum amount that eligible families are able to access after a stillbirth and up until the first birthday equivalent. This one-off payment of $3,006 will be provided to the family as a support payment. The last thing any Australian should have to face during such a traumatic time in their lives is additional stress caused by financial burden. The payments can be used in any way to support the family. Some families need time off work to grieve. Some will seek mental health support. Some need the time to organise funerals. I welcome Minister Ruston's excellent work in this area.
This bill will also remove discrepancies within the payment system with respect to multiple instances of stillbirth or infant death within the same family. For families who've tried multiple times to start their dream of a family that has ended tragically in multiple stillbirths, this will be welcomed. This, within itself, is heartbreaking. Many of us in this chamber will know of someone with this struggle or possibly have faced it ourselves. That is why it's so important to pass this bill. By passing this bill today, it will help ensure these payments are made available to those heartbroken families on 1 January 2021 and into the future. 2020 has been a tough year for Australians. This bill will help ensure that no-one is left behind in our economic recovery. It will help ensure that those in need can have a good Christmas, that our young Australians can have a go and that parents are supported, in particular with financial support, in some of the most testing times anyone can face.
By passing this bill, we will help those in need to have a better start in 2021. I'm sure we can all agree across the chamber that Australia looks forward to a better year in 2021 than we've seen in 2020. We are a strong and resilient country. We're a resourceful country, with resourceful citizens, and I'm proud to say that we've worked together to face the COVID crisis. I look forward to a buoyant 2021 ahead.
I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020, and in support of the second reading amendment moved by my friend the shadow minister and the member for Barton. Before I turn to the substance of the bill, I'd like to acknowledge the contribution of the member for Higgins and in particular her affecting and informed remarks in terms of her former profession, going to the question of stillbirth, which is obviously one of the issues that is the subject of this bill. While I also share her hopes for 2021, I can't say that I share her entire assessment of the legislation that is before the House, but I wanted to acknowledge what a moving and important contribution she just made on that aspect of the bill. This is something that affects too many Australians, and I'm so glad that we've seen bipartisan action to give recognition to something that has been too little talked about in this building, while very often talked about around kitchen tables across this country. That that has been rectified and appropriately recognised is something that I think all of us in this place should be proud of, and I acknowledge her contribution in that regard.
Of course, the bill is designed to provide very significant support to pensioners and seniors during the pandemic, support which pensioners and seniors in my electorate in Scullin both need and, most definitely, deserve. But this bill, much like the Morrison government's 2020 budget across the board, is really defined by one characteristic: missed opportunity. We have before us a missed opportunity for pensioners, a missed opportunity for unemployed Australians, a missed opportunity for elderly Australians in aged care and a missed opportunity to make Australia a better place—a place where no-one is held back and no-one is left behind. As we start to imagine what our country might look like beyond COVID, we simply can't afford not to seize this critical moment, not just to recover but to build a stronger society. In thinking about that, I'm thinking about the member for Barton, the shadow minister, and what a difference it would make to that aspiration if she were the minister, if she could bring her passion, her experience, her dedication and her deep sense of justice to the challenge that is before our nation now. The budget delivered a couple of weeks ago was a missed opportunity for Australians who've lost their job as a result of this Morrison recession, a missed opportunity because it failed to deliver much-needed certainty to people who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. It was undoubtedly a good thing that the government increased the rate of JobSeeker for six months through the coronavirus supplement. I know that the emergency service providers in my own area of Melbourne saw the difference it made. I think of organisations like Whittlesea Community Connections and the Whittlesea Food Collective, which they helped establish, and of the stories of clients they weren't seeing, of families who, for the first time in quite some time, were able to feed themselves and start to improve their lives. What a difference that made.
But this bill doesn't provide certainty. That's why I'm so pleased to support the amendment moved by the member for Barton, which will create an obligation on the minister to extend the $250 per fortnight coronavirus supplement until the end of March, in line with JobKeeper. An extension of that extra $250 is essential for so many Australians as we near the festive season. People need certainty and stability at this time of great disruption, and people frankly deserve the dignity that this would secure. Labor's amendment, to extend the $250 supplement, will help provide some much-needed certainty, because the truth is 160,000 Australians are expected to lose their jobs before Christmas and the number of people on JobKeeper is expected to reach 1.6 million. These Australians doing it tough deserve our support. They deserve the best shot at bouncing back from this recession. But in order for that to happen they need the certainty and security that the old Newstart rate of $40 a day won't grant them. We know that $40 a day will condemn people to poverty, to misery and to personal risk, too, as the pandemic has so awfully revealed in so many stories. This is what's at stake. Do we want to plunge more than a million Australians below the poverty line or do we want to be a generous nation, a nation that invests in our people, that's confident in them and their capacities if given the chance, if given the support? Do we want to be a nation that makes sure that if people lose their job they aren't held back by inadequate unemployment benefit and everything that that entails? We know that with more jobseekers then there are job vacancies there are simply not enough jobs for everyone who needs one. We know that this shortage of jobs is particularly acute because of the pandemic and for particular parts of the economy and particular regions of our country.
I want to speak very briefly about someone in my electorate, Shannon, although that's not her real name, from Epping. Shannon has been on JobSeeker since late last year, so she's seen the difference that the extra support from the coronavirus supplement has made. She says, 'Looking for work takes a lot of time, money and emotional energy. You actually need a reasonable amount of money to pay the bills, to pay for transport to go to job interviews and to pay for the internet to look for job vacancies.' She says, 'Just because you're out of work it doesn't mean the bills stop needing to be paid.' So please, Prime Minister; please, Treasurer; please, Minister for Families and Social Services: if you're not going to listen to me, listen to Shannon and do justice to Shannon and the hundreds of thousands of people in her circumstances, people who've been given an opportunity to make their lives with dignity and to look for work with confidence and who are seeing that slip away.
This bill will also temporarily amend the circumstances in which a person may be regarded as independent for youth allowance. In May, the Leader of the Labor Party called on the government to provide case-by-case exemptions to the youth allowance parental income test. Labor was concerned that tertiary students would be missing out on youth allowance and would be unable to afford to continue their studies. These are not ordinary times, and we don't want to see students discontinuing tertiary studies because they can't afford to support themselves or their families can't afford to support them. It is disappointing that the government has taken this long to act on this issue. May was a long time ago, as those of us from Melbourne perhaps feel particularly acutely right now, and it's been a long and anxious period for students, for those directly affected in particular.
I want to give a shout-out to the young people in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. I know that this year has been tough, and I know that so much of the burden of this pandemic has fallen on young people—something else properly acknowledged by the member for Higgins. From remote learning to endless Zoom meetings, from cancelled shifts at work to big nights out with your mates that simply couldn't happen and the 18ths, 21sts, graduations and all the other rites of passage that simply couldn't happen this year, it has been a difficult year. I want to acknowledge the sacrifices that young people in particular have made to keep all of us safe.
Let's be clear: it was this Prime Minister, when he was the Minister for Social Services, who cut the pension to 330,000 pensioners, including kicking nearly 100,000 of them off the pension entirely. It was this Prime Minister who sought repeatedly to increase the pension age to 70. So pensioners are under no illusion that this Prime Minister and this Liberal government couldn't care less about them.
Let's go through the list of shame. In 2014 they tried to cut pension indexation, a cut that would have meant pensioners would be forced to live on 80 bucks a week less within 10 years. Also in that year there was $1 billion cut from pensioner concessions, support designed carefully to help pensioners meet the cost of living. Again in 2014, the government axed the $900 seniors supplement for self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth seniors health card. Again in that year, that infamous year, they tried to reset deeming rate thresholds, a cut that would have seen half a million part-pensioners made worse off. The next year we saw a deal with the Greens by this government—
That was a shameful decision late at night in this parliament to cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the pension assets test. The following year we saw attempts to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks, something of enormous concern to the multicultural communities that I represent and I know, Deputy Speaker Claydon, to the communities that you represent as well. Again in 2016, they tried to cut the pension for over 1.5 million Australians through scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners.
Pensioners will always be better off under Labor. The pensioners that I'm proud to represent know this. I want to say this to them: I can't wait to be able to spend time with you again as our city safely opens up and to hear directly from you about your concerns. I know that older Australians, particularly older Australians from migrant backgrounds, are the ones who've found it most difficult to remain connected to political life through the pandemic. I know how important those meetings are both as ways through which you receive information but much more importantly as ways when you can give me and my state colleagues guidance about the things that matter to you. On these issues, I've heard your concerns loud and clear and so has the entire federal Labor Party.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the plight of so many elderly pensioners in aged care during the pandemic. In Scullin, the outbreak at Epping Gardens has taken the lives of 38 people and infected more than 120 residents, along with many staff members. This was a tragedy and my heart goes out to the families and loved once personally affected by it. It's a tragedy that will leave a lasting scar on the communities of Melbourne's north for many years to come. Let me just say this: it is a disgrace that the Morrison government has still not acted fully on the interim recommendations of the royal commission. It's an absolute disgrace that does not do justice to those people.
I want to speak very briefly on the changes in this bill affecting paid parental leave. The bill is adjusting how someone qualifies for PPL. To be eligible, someone must satisfy the work test, and the existing work test requires a person to have worked 10 of the 13 months prior to the birth or adoption of a child and at least 330 hours in that 10-month period. The concern has been that during the pandemic families would miss out on PPL because of job losses or having their hours reduced, making them ineligible and leaving them perhaps $15,000 worse off. So Labor called for the government to temporarily suspend the work test as early as April this year so that families wouldn't miss out. In June, we moved amendments in the Senate for the work test to be suspended. But, again, the Morrison government voted this down.
I've talked a lot about certainty—that is, the certainty Australians deserve to get through this crisis and to rebuild. That applies here. Families need certainty about their capacity to access paid parental leave during these challenging times. It is disappointing, to say the very least, that it has taken the government this long to make this adjustment. It's worth noting that next year marks ten years since the Rudd-Gillard Labor government introduced Australia's first paid parental leave scheme under Jenny Macklin, the former member for Jagajaga. It's a scheme that has been a major policy success story. It's something that deserves to be recognised. It has transformed lives and helped boost workforce participation—one of those three Ps that will drive our economy forward in the recovery.
In conclusion, Labor supports the measures outlined in the bill. They're measures that Labor has been advocating for from the beginning of the pandemic earlier this year—a time that feels much, much longer ago. But now it's just eight weeks until Christmas. Around one million Australians, relying on the coronavirus supplement, need certainty, not an unfair cut. That is why we are moving this vital amendment to extend the supplement until March, in line with JobKeeper, and require the government to announce a permanent, just increase in the JobSeeker payment. I hope government members are listening to their communities and their conscience and will support that amendment.
It's always a pleasure to rise in this House and speak about various pieces of legislation where we're looking to resolve issues and make life better for Australians. In the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen all aspects of our society impacted by this one-in-100-year sledgehammer event. Both the social and economic consequences of the pandemic have been severe and, to use the word we've all heard regularly over this past year, unprecedented.
The Morrison government has provided a never-before-seen investment in supporting the vast majority of Australian society, whether it's additional supplements to the JobSeeker payment, JobKeeper to keep employees linked to their employers or supplementary payments to seniors or other social security recipients as well as a variety of supports to the business community. We have sought to support as many citizens as possible through what has been, and continues to be, tough and worrying times.
The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020 delivers further support, as outlined in the 2020-21 budget, for those who are receiving some social security payments. Let me outline for the House some of the measures in this bill. The bill provides additional assistance through two further economic support payments of $250 to certain recipients and card holders in the lead-up to Christmas and in the new year as part of the government's response to COVID-19. From 1 January 2021 amendments are also made so that the 6-month period between 25 March and 24 September 2020 will automatically be recognised as contributing to existing workforce independence criteria for youth allowance. The same concession will also be available for Abstudy recipients.
The bill also creates temporary incentives in the income support system to encourage young Australians to undertake seasonal agricultural work. The new criteria will recognise a person who earns at least $15,000 through employment in the agricultural industry between 30 November 2020 and 21 December 2021 as independent for the purposes of youth allowance.
I know from discussions with many of my regional and rural colleagues that that measure in particular is of critical importance, given the workforce shortages in those areas, due to the closure of our international borders. The bill will also introduce a revised paid parental leave work test for a limited period of time to enable people who do not meet the current work test provisions because their employment has been affected by COVID-19 to access parental leave pay and dad and partner pay. The bill also makes amendments to align the maximum amount that eligible families are able to access after a stillbirth or the child's death shortly after birth. These amendments remove discrepancies within the payment system in respect of multiple instances of stillbirth or infant death with the same family. This bill also makes some technical amendments to the child support laws to allow for alternative figures to be used in place of the male total average weekly earnings trend figure and the average weekly earnings trend figure for the purposes of the child support assessment calculations.
These measures are on top of the government already investing almost $200 billion in a wide range of supports during the COVID pandemic. This unprecedented level of investment, both direct and indirect, amounts to around $7,700 per Australian. This doesn't include the around $15 billion worth of measures by state and territory governments but clearly demonstrates that the Commonwealth government is definitely doing the heavy lifting in this crisis, as it should be. I do note with interest that several weeks ago the Reserve Bank of Australia did call on the state governments to lift their game and spend more to assist the economy with recovering and provide the jobs necessary for that recovery.
It's important to note that we've only been able to provide this level of support due to the careful budgetary management of the coalition government over the past seven years. The measures in this bill will have a direct impact on a significant number of people in my electorate, in particular for youth allowance recipients. The Parliamentary Library outlined that in my electorate of Forde I have had one of the largest increases in Youth Allowance recipients between December 2019 to May 2020: an increase of some 103 per cent. So it's important that this House support this bill in a timely manner so that the people who are receiving income support can benefit from the announced measures. The Commonwealth government's message to these people is that we have your back and we won't let you fall between the cracks. It is a vitally important message that I want all recipients of income support in Ford to hear loud and clear: we are here for you.
As I said, with the other measures we've already undertaken in terms of JobKeeper, JobSeeker, now JobMaker and the apprenticeship supports, and the job commencement bonus, there are a range of measures as a total package that we are looking at to provide support for our economy as we move forward. We recognise that we have a long way to go in this crisis, but one of the things that can help alleviate the impacts of this crisis is to ensure that our borders are open—and it was very pleasing to see the decision of the Victorian government yesterday to get their economy back up and operating. We need all of Australia working together at Commonwealth, state and local government levels together with the private sector to get our economy operating again, get people back in jobs and deliver the services that this country desperately needs and, more importantly, the jobs and the infrastructure that allows our economy to be built, stable and resilient for the long term.
I know the Australian people have the resilience, the ingenuity and the capacity to achieve this, and this bill, along with many other measures that we're making as a government, all go towards achieving that very purpose. I commend this bill to the House.
[by video link] I am speaking on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020 today because it's critical that Australians who are struggling right now as a result of this pandemic get the extra support they need, especially those in my electorate of Jagajaga, who are only just coming out of stage 4 restrictions this week. I support this bill, and the timing is important; however, this bill does not go par enough. That's why I support the amendments moved by the shadow minister to extend the $250-per-fortnight coronavirus supplement until March in line with JobKeeper to better support pensioners—those on the aged pension, the disability support pension and the carer payment—and to permanently increase the base rate of the JobSeeker payment. There is a pretty special feeling in Melbourne this morning as we emerge from stage 4 restrictions. I certainly had a big smile on my face as I strolled up the street for my morning coffee and saw the chairs and tables back out in front of the cafes and the shops opening their doors. I even had to face some traffic, because I drove into the office this morning. So things are looking up for us.
But it would be ridiculous to pretend we're about to experience some sort of miraculous snapback and that people are not going to need support to navigate our COVID-normal landscape. We know, from previous recessions, that employment numbers take a long time to recover. We know, from looking at the current numbers, that it's not just people in Melbourne who are suffering job losses. The economy is weak not just in Victoria but right around Australia. The latest job numbers released so jobs were lost in every single state and territory. We've got a million people unemployed, and another 160,000 people will join the unemployment queues between now and Christmas. Pushing these people into poverty makes absolutely no sense. It's only seven weeks till Christmas, and people relying on the coronavirus supplement need certainty not a cruel cut.
We are well past the stage where this government should be legislating a permanent increase in the base rate of the JobSeeker payment. Even before this crisis, we knew that the level of this payment was leaving people in unacceptable poverty—people having to make decisions about which meals they could afford to eat in a day or cutting back on meals for themselves so they could afford to feed their children; people couch surfing or moving between precarious forms of accommodation because they couldn't afford rent or mortgages. And we know that older women and single parents have disproportionately been affected by this—people making unacceptable decisions because it's not possible to live on $40 a day. And we've seen stories of people who, since the increase in the payment, have done things they haven't done in years—gone to sleep without adding up the bills one final time; got a haircut or a new pair of shoes; felt equipped to actually begin the search for work, even within our current precarious employment environment.
Pushing people back into poverty will do nothing to grow employment in our community. It will do nothing to support the small businesses who are reopening in our community. When most people who are relying on the JobSeeker payment don't have the money to go to the shops, to grab an extra coffee or to buy the school supplies that they need, that will hurt our small businesses. It's time for the government to do the right thing and permanently increase the base rate of the JobSeeker payment. We don't need a Christmas cut, we need a permanent increase.
The budget left Australians on JobSeeker aged under 35—almost one million Australians—out of the budget and ineligible for the government's wage hire subsidies. Again, we know that older Australians represent the largest cohort on JobSeeker. These are the people who also face the most difficult challenge in finding work because of the structural barriers in front of them and age discrimination in our workforce. Just yesterday, I was contacted by a distraught member of my community who lives in Diamond Creek. She was made redundant this year as a result of the pandemic. She is now on the JobSeeker payment and she is struggling to cover her mortgage payments. She is acutely aware of how discriminatory the government's JobMaker program is. She told me: 'People of my age group have simply been left out to dry and thrown in the trash. Why would an employer, in the very limited job market, employ me over a person under 30 years of age whereby the government will financially assist the wages of a younger person?' She has really summed up the flaw in the Morrison government's support here. She also forwarded me an advertisement for a job she had applied for. The job criteria stipulated: 'Preferably you are under 30 years old and receiving one of these three forms of welfare in the last 12 months—JobSeeker, youth allowance or the parenting payment—so that the JobMaker grant is eligible.' So here's a woman desperate to work and doing what she can to apply for jobs. She is being left out of being able to apply for these jobs because of the discriminatory way this government has put together its JobMaker program. All the while, she won't know what payment she'll be receiving beyond Christmas this year because this government refuses to put in place a permanent increase in the rate of JobSeeker. It's unacceptable.
This is the reality facing thousands of middle-aged Australians who currently find themselves out of work and looking for jobs in a highly competitive market. The odds really are stacked against them. The Morrison government is just making it even harder for them to be considered for a new role. In Jagajaga at the moment there are almost 7,000 people relying on the JobSeeker payment. This is an increase of 4,130 people in our community who have been relying on unemployment payments since the start of this pandemic. These are people whose lives have changed drastically in the last few months, and the JobSeeker payment is what they are using to keep their families going, to pay their bills, to pay their health care, to make sure every day they can get up and keep going. At the same time as they are struggling to readjust their circumstances during a pandemic, this government is ignoring their need for certainty. These members of our community deserve to know what support they will receive and how they will pay their bills after Christmas. It is needlessly cruel of the Prime Minister and his social security minister to refuse to provide them with this certainty. These people need a permanent increase to the JobSeeker rate.
Labor's amendments to this bill will also create a requirement for the government to do more to support age pensioners, disability pensioners and carers. These people have experienced increased costs during this pandemic. I know I have been contacted by many who feel they have been left out in the Morrison government's response. They deserve security, and there is capacity for the minister to better support these people. Of course, we know the government often forgets about pensioners. The government were caught out by Labor on the pension freeze for 2.5 billion pensions, and that's the only reason they acted on it. Labor fought this disrespectful and cruel freeze. The reality is that pensioners planned their twice-yearly indexation, one on 20 March and the other on 20 September. The government was first caught out on their pension freeze in August. The freeze took effect in September, and yet the government made pensioners wait for the October budget before announcing any kind of relief. The government have had a long track record of cutting or attempting to cut the pension. And I note they still haven't adjusted deeming rates, which remain significantly higher than interest rates. This is punishing pensioners. We absolutely need to do more for pensioners—for age pensioners, disability pensioners and people relying on carers payments.
This bill is adjusting how some families qualify for paid parental leave. To be eligible, a person must satisfy the work test, and the existing work test requires a person to have worked 10 of the 13 months prior to the birth or adoption of a child and at least 330 hours in that 10-month period. I have been contacted by families who are concerned about how this work test would operate in the pandemic and how it may actually cut them out of a payment that they were expecting when they first got pregnant and thought about how they were going to support their child financially. Sitting here as someone who is expecting a child in two months, I feel very fortunate that I'm not worrying about how I will support her or him financially. But I am really aware that there is a lot going on in those months before a child is born. So these people really deserve certainty. Again, it's a shame that it's taken the government so long to act on this, when Labor called for the government to temporarily suspend the work test as early as April this year so that families would know that they wouldn't miss out, so they would have that time to plan and not add this financial stress to all the other stresses and lists that are in your mind as you plan a birth. Families do need certainty about their access to paid parental leave during these challenging times, and it's disappointing it has taken the government this long to make this adjustment. It really has been an excruciating wait for so many families.
This bill also temporarily amends the circumstances in which a person may be regarded as independent for youth allowance. In May Labor called on the government to provide case-by-case amendments to the youth allowance parental income test. That was in May, and we're only just getting around to it now. That's because we were concerned that tertiary students would miss out on youth allowance and would be unable to afford to continue their studies. I have heard this concern from a number of young people in my community—young people who are facing such disruption in their lives, who have gone to uni, who have gone online for learning, who have lost their casual jobs, who are in such a different position to where they expected to be at the start of this year. Many of them did not expect that they would be forced by financial circumstances to go back and live with their parents. They are really distressed about the economic situation they find themselves in. They are concerned about how they are going to be able to complete their studies. They are concerned about being a burden on their families.
These are not ordinary times, and what we don't want to see is students deciding that they need to drop out of study because they can't afford it, because we haven't made this change. Again, it is disappointing that the government has taken so long to act on this issue and has created a long and needlessly anxious period for our students. Currently in my community there are 466 young people relying on youth allowance. I want to make sure they are supported to get a good education, that they don't feel like their finances are going to drop them out, and so this is a very important change.
Throughout this pandemic, Labor has been supportive of measures that support people who need it most in our community. What we have at the moment is the need for certainty. People in our community on JobSeeker need certainty. They are doing it tough. They are the people who face the worries that many of us are fortunate not to have to think about, and there are too many of them at this time. These people do not deserve to return to a rate of $40 a day. They need certainty from the government. I know we had one answer from the Prime Minister yesterday in question time about what might be happening and another answer today in estimates from the relevant minister, but, as the shadow minister said in her speech about this bill, it's incomprehensible that the government hasn't already been thinking about what it might do with the JobSeeker payment beyond Christmas. That's only seven weeks away.
If the government is already thinking about it, if these plans are being put in place, be honest with the Australian people about the level of support you are going to give them beyond Christmas. People need to plan their lives. People need to know where they'll be living, how they'll be paying their rent, how they'll be supporting their kids to go to school next year. These are major life decisions. They don't get made with two weeks notice. It's up to the government now to do what it needs to do to support these people on a permanent basis and provide a permanent increase to the JobSeeker rate.
I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill and the amendment moved by the member for Barton. The bill, as others have said, will introduce budget measures, including two further one-off economic support payments of $250 each. These payments will be made to recipients of the age pension, disability support pension, carer payment, carer allowance and others, with the first payment being received from 30 November and the second from 1 March 2021. These payments are to those who received the first two one-off economic support payments of $750 each. While these payments are welcome, the budget doesn't do enough, especially for the most vulnerable. It doesn't go far enough for carers, for example, who will only receive an extra $500 over six months. That's less than $20 a week, which is not enough to meet the extra cost they have faced as a result of the pandemic.
It's no surprise, then, that many carers are feeling overlooked and left behind by this government. This is why Labor will seek to create an obligation on the minister to take actions that will have the effect of extending the supplement until March, in line with JobKeeper. The minister has the power under the Social Security Act to continue extending to supplement in three-month periods for as long as the economic impacts of the pandemic remain. People are relying on the coronavirus supplement, and they need certainty. They don't need a cut, certainly not now.
In May Carers Australia, in conjunction with Deloitte, released the report The value of informal care in 2020. The report findings estimate there are almost 2.8 million informal carers in Australia. This year these carers are estimated to provide 2.2 billion hours of care to family and friends. This represents an increase of over five per cent since 2018. Of this figure, 906,000 are primary carers and many of them—70 per cent, in fact—are women. Most hours of informal care are provided by primary carers. These individuals are estimated to spend an average of 35 hours per week providing care, and a quarter of them spend more than 60 hours a week caring for somebody else.
While carers are doing it because they love their friend or family member, it takes its toll and it's a significant burden on carers, forcing many to either reduce their hours of work or withdraw from work altogether. It is estimated that the employment rate for primary carers is less than 25 per cent in comparison to the wider population, and, according to the recent report, the total cost to replace all informal care in 2020 would be $78 billion. The estimated earnings lost by primary and non-primary carers combined was $15 billion, and there's a significant gap, about 18 per cent, in the employment rates between primary carers and other Australians.
Carers sacrifice a lot to look after their loved ones, and the onset of the pandemic has added significantly to the responsibilities that carers face every day, as formal support has fallen away and costs have risen. The Caring Fairly Coalition's 'Caring during coronavirus' survey highlighted the impact of the virus on the carer community. It will be no surprise to hear that 60 per cent of carers reported losing 'some or all of the support services for the person they care for', and four in five said that, as a result of this, their mental health had deteriorated since COVID-19. Nine out of 10 carers have experienced increased stress in their role as a carer, and close to half reported losing some or all of their regular income. The most vulnerable people—and those caring for them, who are often living with conditions or disability and need support themselves—have been overlooked by this government.
A recent survey by Mental Health Carers Australia on the impacts of COVID-19 on families and carers of NDIS participants living with psychosocial disability found that the provision of NDIS supports for participants, carers and families had 'dropped significantly' during COVID-19. Many, about six out of 10, said that the lockdown had impacted NDIS supports that they received, and a similar number said that they had not been in contact with their NDIS provider regarding their plan during this time. The survey found that families and carers had 'stepped into the breach left by providers', and it was, as I mentioned earlier, having a detrimental impact on their mental health and their wellbeing. Carers were concerned about their family's mental health, and they were particularly concerned about their own emotional and mental health and wellbeing. Half of carers said that their caring roles had increased significantly, to beyond what they could cope with, despite their resilience. Unsurprisingly, most carers were aged over 50, and nearly all respondents to the survey were women. For many, the day-to-day expenses had increased by over a half, and most of the carers, as we know, are retired or working part time because of their caring responsibilities.
The last finding of the survey was particularly concerning. We know carers are an at-risk group. As I said, they're caring for people who have a disability or are frail aged or have a complex and chronic health problem. But also, many people might not realise, the carer themselves often is experiencing those same hardships or difficulties. Whilst being so at risk and more vulnerable to COVID, they are also more likely to be struggling financially than other Australians.
The 2020 National Carers Survey report confirmed the strain that our carers are being put under. Most of the carers who responded were experiencing 'high or very high psychological distress', and many felt 'highly socially isolated'. Caring in itself is isolating; a lot of support and friends fall away, but this has been heightened during the pandemic. Many of the carers said that they 'never get time out from their caring responsibilities'—never, not at all. Less than half have enough time to keep on top of their other responsibilities, the day-to-day responsibilities that we all have to deal with. Many of them have found it really difficult to get information and to organise services to support the person that they care for.
This is why we're moving an amendment to extend these supplements for the most vulnerable people, people like carers who have gone above and beyond throughout the pandemic and who are facing the very real human, social and economic impacts of the virus. The other thing that they've had to deal with and that they're getting really disillusioned by and overcome by is having to deal with government agencies—whether it's aged care, the NDIA or Services Australia, agencies that should be on their side and should be supporting them—and having to deal with multiple agencies, particularly when they have very little time because of their caring responsibilities. It's not just the participant—the aged person or the person with disability—that's impacted; it's their carer and it's their families and friends as well.
I want to talk today about Christine. Christine is someone I know well. She's a carer for her 40-year-old son, Matt, who has quadriplegia. Matt applied for supported disability accommodation in September 2019, and it was approved in January, much to the family's relief. His mum had peace of mind with the SDA, the supported disability accommodation, because of what might happen to Matt without it, should she, in her words, 'fall off the perch'? Christine was forced to follow up repeatedly until Matt's supported living package was approved last September, and they were told it would arrive within 48 hours. The funding never came through. They never got it. So Christine was really worried about the supported living package. There was just silence from the NDIA. When, finally, the NDIA contacted Christine, she was told her son would be moved to a concierge model. I'm not sure if people are familiar with this model. It's more like the former group-home type of model, with a much lower ratio of support worker to participant. So Matt was told, just when he was about to move in, that he'd share one support worker with nine other residents. The support worker would be downstairs and would divide their care time between all of the residents over the course of the day. That just isn't safe, and, for Matt, it's just not suitable for his higher and complex needs. He was absolutely devastated. After hearing the news, he thought about throwing his bus pass into the lake and, as he said, 'Catching a one-way ride into the city,' because he was sick of being a burden to his own family. Carers like Matt's mum, Christine, have gone above and beyond for the people they care for, and it's no surprise that they're feeling that the government hasn't provided enough support for them during the pandemic.
The budget also missed an opportunity to permanently increase JobSeeker. With 160,000 more Australians expected to lose their jobs by Christmas and 1.6 million Australians on JobSeeker, the government missed a significant opportunity in the middle of a crisis to deliver certainty for some of the most vulnerable and at-risk people in our community, people doing it really tough—people in regional communities like mine, outside the big cities. The government could permanently increase JobSeeker. In communities like mine, at the peak of the pandemic there were 36 jobseekers for every vacancy. It's down to 17 now, but it's still higher than the national average. There are not enough jobs, particularly in regional areas or for someone who's trying to make a start. Australians who are recipients of these benefits really need much better support. That would then provide direct stimulus into local economies, really kick-starting them. What's going to happen when JobSeeker is cut? We've tried to find more information from the government, but either they don't know or they just don't want other people to know.
The other people who have really been left behind are older Australians. In my community, one in five people are aged over 65. It's a really popular place for older people to live, but the budget's left Australians on JobSeeker aged over 35—almost 1 million Australians—out and ineligible for its higher wage subsidy. Older Australians represent the largest group of people on JobSeeker, and they also experience some of the most difficulty finding work, because of structural barriers or age discrimination or other problems that they face when trying to re-enter the workforce or continue in their career.
There are working people who are older, but there are also those who are receiving the pension. The government was caught out on the pension freeze, and that impacted 2.5 million older people. That's the only reason they acted—because they were caught out. It's cruel, at this time in the middle of a global pandemic, to have older people feeling more vulnerable financially. There is a known link between financial insecurity and mental health problems, and we know the consequences of that, the very real human consequences of financial insecurity. The reality is that pensioners plan for the twice-yearly indexation on 20 March and 20 September. It's something that they take that into account when they're planning their year ahead. The government was caught out in August and the freeze took effect in September, and pensioners had to wait until this month before knowing there would be any kind of relief. It's just part of this long track record. How can you rack up over a trillion dollars in debt and leave the most vulnerable people out, whether it's carers or people living with disability or older people—people who deserve dignity, people who deserve to be treated with respect and people who need certainty now more than ever?
The government still hasn't adjusted the deeming rates, which remain significantly higher than interest rates.
I now want to turn to paid parental leave. As I mentioned before, my community is a popular place for older people to live but it's also a really popular place for young families. It's more affordable, it's outside the big city and it has room for families to grow. But at the moment there's a lot of uncertainty over rising costs, and people need much more certainty. We know that to be eligible for paid parental leave a person must satisfy the work test. The existing work test requires a person to have worked 10 of the 13 months prior to the birth or adoption of a child and at least 330 hours in that 10-month period. We were really concerned that, during the pandemic, families would miss out on PPL because of job losses or cuts to their hours making them ineligible. That could leave them up to $15,000 worse off, and it is money families can ill afford to lose, particularly right now when there is so much uncertainty—when we don't know what's going to happen next week, let alone by Christmas. We moved amendments in the Senate for the work test to be suspended, but the government voted them down. Families need certainty and security, and they need to know that they can access their PPL, particularly during these really challenging and difficult times. It's disappointing that the government has taken so long to make this adjustment. It's been a really long wait for many people.
The other group the government has either overlooked or doesn't care about is young people. In May, Labor called on the government to provide case-by-case exemptions to the youth allowance parental income test. I know many members have had calls from parents—and I have as well—who've been impacted by this. People are really concerned that higher education students will miss out on youth allowance or be unable to continue studying. Study is always important, but especially right now, in regional communities with a really tough job market, young people need the chance to get the skills to start a career and have some certainty. These are not ordinary times. We don't want to see students forced to drop out because they can't afford to stick it out.
In my community currently there are over 2,800 people accessing youth allowance, and they need proper support from this government. They need to know that the government cares, that they matter, and that the government is going to do something about it. It's disappointing that the government has taken so long to act on this and other issues and provide proper support to vulnerable Australians in the middle of a crisis.
I am pleased to rise today to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020. I echo the words of the member for Barton in calling for substantive and important amendments to better support Australians who are unemployed or facing extra costs because of the impact of coronavirus. This is the right thing to do. Labor is moving amendments to this bill to create an obligation on the minister to extend the $250 per fortnight coronavirus supplement until March, in line with JobKeeper, and to create an obligation on the minister to better support pensioners—including age pension, disability support pension and carer payment recipients—who are facing increasing costs in protecting their health because of the coronavirus pandemic. Labor is also proposing important amendments to create an obligation on the minister to announce a permanent increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker payment above the $40 a day it is currently set at—that is, the $40 a day that those currently on JobSeeker can expect to return to living on come December because this government is unwilling to make a commitment to the more than 1½ million unemployed people in this country.
The government are willing to put Australia into $1 trillion of debt but not willing to help the most vulnerable people, whose welfare payments are set to go, once again, below the poverty line after this Christmas. They say they'll look at this later in the year and make considered decisions, but the Liberals and Nationals were all too happy to make the ill-considered decision to extend the $715 million airline support package to the owners of luxury jets. The Liberal-National government will not commit to increasing the JobSeeker payment to help Australian families live above the poverty line after Christmas, but they are all too willing to send tens of thousands of dollars to help out Crown casinos, Clive Palmer's Mineralogy, Leppington Pastoral Company and other members of Australia's business and financial elite—maybe some that a few members of this place hitch a ride across the country with from time to time. There's nothing for JobKeeper and nothing for jobseekers, but roll on the gravy train for good old 'MateKeeper'.
The legislation we are debating today implements measures outlined in 2021 budget, and they'll have an immediately positive impact on those affected by it as soon as next month. That's why we support the passage of this bill through the House. It implements two further one-off economic support payments of $250 each to recipients or holders of the age pension, disability support pension, carer payment, carer allowance, double orphan pension, family tax benefit, pensioner concession card, Commonwealth seniors health card and certain veterans payments and cards. These two payments are due to be made in November this year and March next year. These payments are being made out to the same group of Australians who received the first two one-off economic support payments of $750 each. Make no mistake: this money is needed, and it's needed now.
The group of Australians that this bill supports are among the most vulnerable in the country, and, with only a matter of weeks until Christmas, people are relying on these supplements, and they need this certainty and hope into the new year. Those on JobSeeker deserve clarity in the lead-up to what will be a very uncertain Christmas for many of us after a very challenging year. We must be clear: today the 1.6 million people on JobSeeker can only expect to go back to surviving on $40 a day come mid-December. This is the prospect for unemployed Australians today in the midst of a global pandemic as they approach Christmas. This is why Labor is moving an amendment to extend the coronavirus supplement until March in line with JobKeeper and requesting that the government announce a permanent increase in the JobSeeker payment.
With 160,000 Australians expected to lose their jobs soon and around 1.6 million Australians on JobSeeker, the government has missed a huge opportunity to deliver hope and certainty to those Australians who were really doing it tough by delivering a permanent increase to JobSeeker in the budget. The budget was only delivered a few weeks ago. It's the budget that no-one is talking about anymore and the budget that delivered Australia $1 trillion in debt, which is $1,000 billion in debt, but no plan to increase JobSeeker payments beyond December. Merry Christmas. Honestly, what a bunch of wasters those opposite can be—paying $30 million for a $3 million block of land, publicly funding Cartier watches, blowouts in the NBN, handouts for owners of private luxury jets and $10 million on an Australia logo they've since discarded. It is staggering. They're $1 trillion in debt, and they can't properly commit to the support of Australia's most vulnerable people—those that cannot get jobs because the jobs simply aren't there.
Speaking of jobs, I'd like to touch on a large group of Australians that this Liberal government has somehow missed when putting together their budget on what they call jobs. I'm talking, of course, about those Australians on JobSeeker aged over 35. These people—almost 1 million Australians—were left hung out to dry in this budget. They're the largest cohort on JobSeeker, and yet they are ineligible for the government's wage hire subsidy. It's disgraceful, and it makes no sense. It's another group of Australians—one million of us—left behind by this government.
There is another group of older Australians that this government has left behind. Let's not forget the dismal record of the Liberals and Nationals in regard to Australian pensioners. This Liberal government was caught red-handed by Labor on the pension freeze that they've permitted for almost 2.5 million pensions, and, really, it's only because they were caught out that they have acted on it. The reality is that pensioners plan for their twice-yearly indexation—one on 20 March and one on 20 September. The government was first caught out on their pension freeze in August. The freeze took effect in September, and they made pensioners wait until the October budget a few weeks ago before announcing any kind of relief at all. My office in Rockingham received countless calls and emails from pensioners left bewildered at such an unkind and uncaring act by this government wrought upon the pensioners of this country.
The Liberal government have a long track record of cutting or attempting to cut the pension, and Labor has an equally long track record of defending Australia's pensioners at every turn. I want everyone to be very clear about how the Liberal-National government have treated Australian pensioners. In 2014, they tried to cut the pension indexation—a cut that would have meant pensioners would be forced to live on $80 less a week within 10 years. In the same year they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions, support designed to help pensioners with the cost of living. They axed the $900 seniors supplement to self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth seniors health card. They also tried to reset deeming rate thresholds, a cut that would have seen half a million part-pensioners worse off. In 2015, they did a deal with the Greens—can you believe it?—to cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the pension asset test. In 2016, the government tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks. In that same year, they tried to cut the pension for over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. The government's own figures show this would have left over 563,000 Australians who are currently receiving a pension or allowances much worse off. Over 10 years, on their own figures in excess of 1.5 million pensioners would have been worse off under the government's plans.
The Liberals and Nationals spent five years trying to increase the pension age to 70. Pensioners have paid their taxes and contributed their entire lives to this nation. They deserve our respect, and the simple fact is they are not getting it from this government and they never have. I will always defend the pensioners of Brand from the thoughtless attacks of this Liberal and National government, and I will always fight to ensure pensioners and senior citizens are treated fairly.
Despite significant concern and sustained advocacy from pensioners, the government still hasn't adjusted deeming rates, which remain significantly higher than interest rates. They are used to determine how much pensioners earn from their secured financial assets, typically savings, for the purposes of determining their eligibility under the income test for the pension. The upper deeming rate is 2.25 per cent and the lower deeming rate is 0.25 per cent. With a cash rate nearing zero, it's difficult to see how pensioners could reasonably earn 2.25 per cent on their savings in these times. So we see pensioners are being short-changed by the government's unreasonable and unrealistic pension deeming rates.
This bill is welcome, but the process is symptomatic of the Liberals' approach to government, only moving on an issue when they're literally dragged to the table, maintaining a status quo approach when it's clearly not benefiting as many people as it should, only acting on a problem when they've been caught out making a mistake and then sometimes not even acting to address the problem. We can see that if we look at sports rorts, the crisis in aged care and the revelations of 'watchgate' earlier in the week. It's always the announcement, never the delivery, pointing the finger and taking a hands-off approach, telling Australians that, when it's too hard, it's someone else's problem. That, in my opinion, is small-minded and unacceptable.
As my friend and colleague the member for Rankin observed recently, imagine the tragedy if Australia and Australians endured this remarkable and painful time and failed to learn anything from it, if we do nothing different after than we did before. But here we are with a government continually adopting bandaid solutions to issues which need far more than that. This Liberal and National government has missed the boat on the chance to deliver meaningful reform. This government's short-term approach has delivered $1 trillion in debt and no plan to create the jobs Australians need, and we know the jobless rate won't go back to pre-crisis levels for more than four years.
So what happens in the meantime? Well, don't ask your federal government, because they clearly have no idea. If the government did have an idea or a notion of doing the right thing, there wouldn't be a need for Labor to move an amendment to this bill and call on the government to extend the coronavirus supplement until March. We wouldn't need to ask for the government to announce a permanent increase in the JobSeeker payment. But they haven't got a clue and they don't really care. So, while we support this bill, we must require this amendment to help the people this government are all too willing to leave behind. It is the right thing to do.
I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020. It is one of the first bills that this House is looking at following the budget that we saw delivered just a few weeks ago. Usually after a budget in this place we are inundated with bills that do things and change things. Usually we go to our meetings, when we go through the bills, and we have a pile of them and it takes us hours. It has been quite different this time, in spite of all the talk by the government about unprecedented times and the COVID recession and with all of the chest beating and flag waving about how wonderfully they're managing it. But we've actually seen very little so far.
This bill does some really important things, some very small important things, and we absolutely support it, because it will provide some assistance. But, in many ways, this is the kind of bill that you see when the departments are cleaning up things that they didn't notice. This is, in many ways, like the tax law amendment bills that we see when small changes are made that fix up small things the government missed or were slightly wrong about in previous legislation. It's almost administrative in its approach, and that's not what we need at this point.
What we have at the moment is 1.6 million unemployed Australians. We have many, many more on JobKeeper, because they're holding their job at the moment with a wage subsidy from the government. We have incredibly tough times coming down the road, as we see more people join the unemployment queue—not less, but more—by the government's own figures. And yet what we have here is a small collection of measures that essentially have been called for by the opposition and people that represent and work with people who are on Centrelink-style benefits, sometimes for months. Through much of this crisis these very issues have been pointed out.
Finally, we see a bill for them. It's late and with very small measures—although some are important for the people who will receive these small benefits from them. There are essentially four measures in this. The first one is for the pensioners who were well and truly left behind when the government enacted it's really rather cruel pension freeze. Pensioners had been looking forward to their indexation on 20 March and 20 September for a long time—I think last time there wasn't an increase was way back in the 1930s—but there wasn't one in September. That's in spite of the fact that pensioners have had increased costs in their lives—for example, because they can't necessarily catch a bus and are getting their groceries delivered. There are all sorts of costs associated with keeping themselves safe in their homes through this pandemic, and yet they had a pension freeze on 20 September. The government knew about it from August and yet only now are we seeing any kind of compensation from the government, which is two $250 extra payments between now and the end of March. That's something. We're going to pass it—absolutely. We're going to support it. It's better than nothing, but, really, this government has an appalling record on pensions.
This government really has quite an appalling record on pensions. I just want to work through that. They've been obsessed with cutting the pension since they were first elected. In the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, almost every year in every budget there was another attempt to cut the pension. In 2014, they tried to cut pension indexation. That cut would have meant pensioners would have been forced to live on about $80 a week less in about 10 years. In the same budget, they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions. Those of us who were in this House will remember the state governments temporarily stepping in to assist pensioners who lost a whole range of concessions at that time. Those states, of course, stepped out again, so pensioners are worse off now because of those cuts.
In 2014 they also axed the $900 seniors supplement to self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth seniors health card. In 2014, they also tried to reset the deeming rate thresholds that would have seen half a million part pensioners made worse off. Then, in 2015, in giving up on making the cuts to full pensioners, they moved to part pensioners in a real way and did a deal with the Greens to cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the pension assets tests. In 2016, they tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks. In my community I have people that have come to Australia from all over the world. They'll have six weeks to go back and visit extended family. In many cases six weeks after they have saved up so that when they retire they can make their last trip back to Greece. They tend to go for a year. They might go for longer. They've saved up for years to make that trip and suddenly they find out that if they go their pension will be cut.
Then in 2016 they tried to cut the pension for over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. The government's own figures show this would have left 563,000 Australians who are receiving a pension or allowance worse off. And over 10 years in excess of 1.5 million pensioners would be worse off. And, of course, they've spent five years trying to increase the retirement age to 70. This is a government with an extraordinary history of doing the wrong thing by pensioners. We are seeing in the House again today how long it has taken them to address this cruel freeze, which they knew about in August.
As I said, there are four aspects to this. The first one is the pensions adjusting for that cruel freeze. The second one—it's quite extraordinary that the government missed this for so long—is an adjustment to the work test to ensure parents who were impacted by the coronavirus recession who lost hours of work will not miss out on paid parental leave. In order to qualify for paid parental leave you have to work a certain number of hours. Those on JobKeeper were already covered, but those who lost their jobs through this unprecedented COVID-19 recession—as the government calls it—through no fault of their own would not be qualifying for paid parental leave, which is quite extraordinary. People, including the opposition, have been calling for months to fix that and finally they have. At the height of the pandemic the opposition was calling on the government to adjust the means testing for youth allowance so students wouldn't fall through the cracks, the third one is they're finally making that adjustment. The fourth one is adjusting support for families who lose a child to stillbirth or before their first birthday and, again, we really welcome those changes. They should have been there a long time ago but finally they are there.
Again, four elements: the pensions, paid parental leave for people who've lost their jobs, youth allowance adjustments so that students wouldn't fall through the cracks because of what's been going on in this recession and support for families who lose a child to stillbirth or before their first birthday. Again, we will support all of those things.
I want to talk about some of these areas in more depth. The first one I want to talk about is the thing the government has clearly and totally missed on this, which is the opportunity to permanently increase JobSeeker. In my electorate of Parramatta there are 12,053 people relying on JobSeeker or youth allowance. Before the pandemic that was 4,900 so it's a 245 per cent increase in people on JobSeeker. For all the government's talk about how if you make JobSeeker too high people won't apply for work, for all of that sort of stick approach, it's as if they don't understand what has happened in this economy. They don't understand what has happened to these 12,053 people, and because they don't understand they've left those people believing that the JobSeeker payment would be cut to $40 a day at the end of this year. That's where we are at the moment. That's what is in the budget. It's back to the old dole or Newstart—whatever you called it in the past. It's back to $40 a day.
I find it hard to understand why a government would look at the Australian people, and look at these 12,053 people in my electorate, who've lost the jobs because of COVID and see the worst aspects of them and see people who might continue to not work because JobSeeker is too high. I can tell you that many of these people that I talk to have been working all their lives. They have got mortgages. They pay rent. They've got long-term leases. They've got car payments to make. They've got kids in school—sometimes kids in private school. They have got child care to pay. They're not going to hang around in the unemployment queue, even with JobSeeker as it is now, if they can get back into paid work. That's what they want to do. Reducing JobSeeker down to $40 a day has the opposite effect to inspiring or stimulating people to go back to work. The lack of certainty at this point is a disaster. Lack of certainty for people on JobSeeker, who don't know at this stage what the rate will be after 31 December, is even more destructive than uncertainty for business, because the two are related. Let's consider what happens if, at the moment, you don't know what your rate of JobSeeker will be after 31 December.
Say there are two people and one partner has lost their job. They don't know whether they can afford to keep paying the mortgage. They don't know whether they will be able to or not after 31 December, because they don't know what the rate will be. They don't think they can keep the childcare spot open any longer. They can't afford to pay for a childcare spot if they're not working. They know that, if they give up the childcare spot and then get a job, they won't be able to get the spot back again. They don't know if they have to go and live with their parents. If they go and live with their parents, their children will be in a different school zone and they will have to drive them to school, but they've got car payments and they don't know if they'll be able to make them.
So, just for a moment, can I ask the government to look at the people in my electorate that are on JobSeeker, and at that 245 per cent increase in particular, with many who were already on JobSeeker. Look at them as people who are trying to get their lives in order and do the right things for themselves, their families and the rest of us, and consider what it is they need to manage what, for many of them, is the worst crisis they have ever encountered, an unexpected crisis. They didn't expect this. They thought they had secure jobs and they made arrangements with their lives based on that assumption, and COVID, like a giant freight train, came and knocked everything they thought away. Look at those people and see the good people that I see. Look at those people and see people who want to do the right thing, who want to go back to work and do what they need to do.
It is crazy for a government to set its regulations and its rules for the worst characteristics of a small number of people and, in doing so, make it harder for the great majority of great people. And it makes no sense anyway, because rule breakers break rules. It doesn't matter what rules you introduce; the rule breakers are still going to break them. So can we have an approach to governing which is actually about people trying to do the right thing? That would be much more sensible.
There are also a few interesting things in this legislation for young people. Young people are doing it tough. They perhaps are being hit harder than any other group in our society at the moment. Youth unemployment in the Parramatta region is now 15.7 per cent. It is incredibly difficult for people in the Parramatta region. That's not counting all the international students that aren't included in the figures because they're not receiving JobSeeker, and all the skilled migrants that aren't included in the figures. So there are many, many more than that. The government is making changes that we've called for and that many advocates for young people have called for, in that the concessions to the paid work test for people seeking to demonstrate independence for youth allowance and Abstudy purposes are going to be changed. This is quite complex language and, when you read it, you think, 'Huh?' But I will read it: 'The six-month period between 25 March 2020 and 24 September 2020 will be automatically recognised as contributing 30 hours per week towards the independence through work test, regardless of the hours worked. The independence through work test requires a person under 22 to work an average of 30 hours a week for 18 months out of a two-year period in order to be considered independent. In line with changes to the general independence through work test, young people from regional and remote areas applying for youth allowance under the concessional workforce independence criteria will be taken to have met the required criteria between 25 March and 24 September 2020. A person claiming youth allowance as a student will be deemed independent if they earn $15,000 through employment in the agricultural industry between 30 November this year and 31 December 2021.'
That is really quite complex, particularly for a young person who has just been getting by studying. They have done their paperwork and they think things are fine. My question for this government is always: How are you letting people know? Where's the big fanfare announcement for this? How are you telling young people that there are options for them which will make them more independent and help them out? How are you telling them? I can tell you, you're not. You really need to do better.
I'm pleased to rise today to speak on this very important bill. The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020 has the opportunity to further support our community as we deal with the economic challenges of this year. I support many of the measures in this bill today and I know they will make a significant difference to people in my electorate who are struggling. Many people have told me the difference the first two economic support payments made to them, and I also know from my many months of visiting many hundreds of local businesses that it made a difference to our local economy too. When people have enough money to get by, when they aren't rationing their food to pay their bills, they might go to their local butcher, baker or small grocer rather than try to save at the biggest stores. They might spend money on fresh vegetables for once—what a treat. They can spend where they couldn't before, and that helps local businesses.
I am also pleased to see concessions to the paid work test for young people to demonstrate independence for youth allowance and Abstudy purposes. Young people in my electorate have had their income and their ability to work even more crushed than many of their peers around the country. When we lost the summer trade during the bushfires this year, it hit young people particularly hard. They weren't able to work in their local cafe or at the local pub, because there were no customers. No customers means no shifts. When many rely on this income to get them through the year, that can be particularly tough. Another aspect of this bill that I find particularly encouraging are temporary incentives to encourage young people to undertake seasonal agricultural work during the upcoming harvest season. A student claiming youth allowance can be deemed independent if they earn $15,000 through employment in the agricultural industry between 30 November this year at 31 December next year.
My electorate on the NSW South Coast is famous for our food and wine—our locally grown produce. Without the usual influx of international backpackers, who are renowned for spending a harvest or two working on local farms, many farmers were feeling concerned about how they would get through this year. I know that many of our local farmers will be grateful for this small incentive to encourage more young people onto their farms. I do worry a little bit, though, as this bill doesn't address some of the structural issues that prevent local young people from working on these farms: issues like public transport, for one. But it is still a positive move nonetheless.
I also welcome the changes to paid parental leave and particularly the changes to improve payments for parents with a stillborn child. The loss of a child—any child at any point—is heartbreaking and difficult to fathom, and I am pleased to see additional support being provided to parents during what is already a very difficult time for them. Labor has been calling for these changes for some time and we welcome them now.
While there are many measures that I welcome in this bill, as I have just outlined, I also want to reflect on what this bill does not do. I am disappointed to say once again that this bill represents another missed opportunity by the government to fix some of the errors so far in responding to the pandemic. Once again our pensioners are being left behind, forgotten by this government, who time and time again have cut their payments and turned their back on them. These are pensioners that are facing increasing health costs as a result of the pandemic, who have lost super, who have lost savings. They are pensioners who have struggled to get by and who feel like they have been left behind by this government. This is hurting real people in my electorate.
Peter, from Tuross Head, wrote to me only this month. Peter said:
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has seen us all scrambling to survive. My problem is in regard to the people the government have missed – self-funded retirees.
Before you think ah yes the rich people of Australia, let me give you an example. I belong to this cohort.
I retired at age 60 after 40 years of full time work. For the past five years I have lived below the poverty line.
My superannuated pension is barely sufficient, given I pay rent that entails approximately 60 per cent of my income.
While I'm sure there are many permutations out there in the real world, I feel I've been punished for retiring early, even after 40 years of work.
That is Peter's story.
It is heartbreaking to hear, but Peter is not alone. Geoff, from Meringo, was receiving a part-pension. During the bushfires he and his wife were evacuated four times. They lost power for days, had their water supply compromised and lost the contents of their fridge and freezer. So in February they applied for the $1,000 disaster support payment. Geoff was promptly kicked off the pension, along with all his concessions, for doing so. I was able to help Geoff resolve this issue and reinstate his pension, but in the meantime he missed out on his concessions for his car registration, prescriptions and rates, costing him much more than $1,000. What a cruel and heartless thing to go through—first the bushfires and then having to fight to get help and keep his pension.
Many people have told me they feel the government discriminates against self-funded retirees and those receiving part pensions. Take the deeming rates, for example. Deeming rates are used to determine how much pensioners earn from their secured financial assets—typically their savings—to determine their eligibility for the pension. The upper deeming rate is 2.25 per cent. With the cash rate nearing zero per cent, it is really difficult to see how pensioners could reasonably be earning 2.25 per cent on their savings. This is simply unreasonable and unrealistic of the government, and it is hurting pensioners in our community. The government's record on helping pensioners is not exactly rosy. Since being elected in 2013 they have tried to cut pension indexation, which would have forced pensioners to live on $80 a week less within 10 years. They cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions, axed the $900 senior supplement to self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth seniors healthcare card, tried to reset deeming rate thresholds that would have seen half a million part-pensioners made worse off, cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 by changing the pension asset test and tried to cut the pension for over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. The government have made attack after attack after attack. There is no real help for pensioners in this bill, there was no real help in the budget and there has been no real help to deal with the pandemic. The economic support payments are welcome, but the simple truth is that they aren't enough.
Another lost opportunity in this bill is the opportunity to permanently increase JobSeeker. There is no argument about this anymore; we know it is true. Forty dollars a day is not enough to live on. Forty dollars a day forces people in our local communities to live below the poverty line. In my electorate of Gilmore there are more than 10,000 people receiving JobSeeker and youth allowance. That's more than 4,000 additional recipients since December last year. The Prime Minister has said, 'If you are good at your job then you will get a job,' but the reality is that there are not enough jobs for everyone. That is a fact. In regional areas it is even more true. It doesn't matter how good you are at your job, when you're competing with hundreds of applicants and there aren't enough jobs to go around people will be left behind. Linda, from Sanctuary Point, says,
I currently am on Newstart (JobSeeker) and have been for three years after sustaining an injury. Centrelink say that although I have lower limb disablement, I can do 15 hours work, therefore I cannot receive a disability pension. It is very difficult to find appropriate employment, therefore once I have paid weekly rent of $270, I am left with $50 which covers minimal food, and bills, just forget it, it's not that I don't want to pay them, there is no money left from my Newstart. Of course Newstart desperately needs to be increased.
Julie, from St Georges Basin, had some powerful words on this issue when she wrote to me back in May. I thank Julie for sharing with me her story of how she came to be on Newstart, now JobSeeker. After she spent a hard life struggling to raise her children and get by as a single parent, her life took a turn, and she had to ask for help. I want to share Julie's story in her own words, because it is so powerful. Julie says:
I feel the stigma and the shame around being unemployed is the fault of the government. Government do not want to have to pay people to do nothing and that is understandable. However, there are only a small percentage of people on benefits that want to be on benefits. I am not here to speak on their behalf. I am here to speak on behalf of the unfortunate cases, the battlers, the struggling students, the traumatised and suffering, the aging and the disempowered. This group are the majority that have been affected by the crippling Newstart system.
The increase has absolutely helped many through the pandemic and has helped many put and keep a roof over their heads, pay bills and eat more regularly. My cholesterol has increased from eating starchy foods because they were cheap but lately, I have been able to buy more fresh fruit and vegetables. At my age and needing to go on unemployment benefits has been one of the most depressing stages of my life, and I have had a few. The operation that led to me being on welfare was traumatic and depressing enough. The constant fear that I will not be able to provide for myself is affecting my physical and mental health. The recent fires and now the virus have affected us all. The feeling of hopelessness hangs over my head. Returning Newstart to the original $40 a day I feel will have many thinking what is there to live for? If only to struggle to survive and be isolated more?
That was what Julie had to say—a woman who has spent her life contributing to our economy but now has breast cancer. She is scared and she feels abandoned by our government. This is the human face, the reality of the government's dogged pursuit of $40 a day. It's not quite the picture many people have, I am sure.
We are suffering through our first recession in 30 years. The number of people in situations like Julie's is only set to increase, and the Morrison government wants to force them to live on $40 a day. It just isn't good enough. Local people deserve better. When people aren't living on the poverty line, they can help keep our shops open; they can do more than barely scrape by so they contribute more to our economy. If our shops are open, guess what—there are more jobs. Who would have thought! Supporting people when they're doing it tough actually helps people out of doing it tough. It contributes to our economy. It creates jobs. It creates opportunity. It's benefit, benefit, benefit—just what we need during a recession. So why is the government stubbornly refusing to do it?
There was ample opportunity in the budget for the government to create jobs in my electorate. We could have improved the Princes Highway, built the Mogo Adventure Trail Hub, the Kiama Arts Precinct and the much needed Eurobodalla Regional Integrated Emergency Services Precinct, and invested in social housing projects, like the one at Bomaderry, and local hospitals, in Milton and the Shoalhaven and the new Eurobodalla Hospital. All of these projects would have created new jobs and stimulated our regional economy. So why didn't the government invest in them when it had the chance? Regional areas have been left behind by a Liberal government that doesn't seem to care.
It is for these reasons that I wholeheartedly support Labor's amendment to this bill. Local people on JobSeeker deserve the same certainty as people on JobKeeper. At the very least—and it really is the very least—those on JobSeeker should be able to continue receiving the coronavirus supplement until March, just like JobKeeper. We owe people like Julie that much. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change things for the most vulnerable in our community. It is simply tragic that the Morrison government is wasting it—wasting the opportunity to help pensioners, to pull people out of poverty and to create regional jobs on the South Coast. What a waste. We can do better. I call on the government to listen to stories like these, take a good look around and decide to seize this opportunity for real change before it's too late.
Today Labor is trying to use this parliament to put an obligation on the minister to better support pensioners. We are moving an amendment to the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020 to put an obligation on the minister to support the millions of people around Australia who rely on a pension to be able to survive. In Dunkley, almost one in five people in our community is on the age pension, the disability support pension or the carers pension. Close to 25,000 people rely on that pension. I am proud to be standing here today to support the amendment moved by the shadow minister to make this government do more to help those people as we go through one of the worst economic crises this government has seen a century and a global pandemic.
I've had local pensioners contact me to say they don't know how they're going to pay the electricity bill, they don't know how they're going to put petrol in their car, they can't keep their private health insurance and they don't know how they're going to put the next meal on their table. We are a rich country. We are a country that is supposedly built on 'the fair go', which to me and my community means concepts of support and equality, particularly for people who can't always, as the Prime Minister would say, have a go. The Prime Minister likes to say that, if you have a go, you get a go. There are so many in our community who have had a go over and over and over again and are now on an age pension—which isn't allowing them to have a go, let alone live in anything above poverty. There are other people in our community who, through no fault of their own, have a disability or an ailment which means they don't have the capacity to have a go in the same way somebody born into opportunity, wealth and structural advantage has. Those people need support; they deserve our support. That's what our country is about. There are people in my community who are carers, who dedicate their lives and their time to caring for other people—people who are sick, people who have a disability, people who are foster children. They are giving them a better start in life. Those people are having a go but, under this government, they're not getting a go—and more needs to be done.
I've had pensioners say to me that the $250 supplement before Christmas feels to them like an insult. Their pension indexation has been frozen, their meagre savings are going nowhere, the cost of living has risen—and this government hasn't done what it needs to do to help those people get through the crisis that we are going through. To the 25,000 residents of my electorate who rely on the age pension, the disability pension and the carers pension: I've heard you. I've heard your phone calls, your visits and your comments on Facebook. I've heard your cries for just a bit more help to be able to live in dignity. My colleagues and I are urging the government today to hear that too and do more for Australian pensioners.
Labor's amendments today, if they find the support of the House, will also require the minister to announce a permanent increase in the base rate of the JobSeeker payment. There are more people in this country than ever who don't have a job—not because they don't want one, not because they haven't worked hard to get the education and skills required to get one, not because they haven't spent most of their lives running their own small business and always looked after themselves, but because of circumstances outside of their control. Those people face the prospect of having to live on $40 a day in a broken job market where there aren't enough jobs—even when there are jobs, they are often for only a few hours a week—