Thursday, 29 October 2020
Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise in support of the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020. I recognise that the proposed additional economic support payments are necessary to support those on Centrelink payments such as the disability support pension and the age pension. As the member for the oldest electorate in South Australia, I am sure many of the constituents in Mayo who currently receive these payments will welcome these additional funds. I'm also supportive of the proposed retrospective changes to the youth allowance independent paid work concession. That will support young people who continue to work towards financial independence. This change acknowledges the impact that COVID-19 had on the employment status of many young people in our communities and ensures they're not penalised for an economic crisis that was by no means their fault.
A revision of the paid parental leave work test period is also welcomed as this measure openly acknowledges the impact COVID-19 has had on a parent's ability to remain employed during one of the toughest economic downturns in Australia's history. Providing working parents with more lenient requirements to access their payment has the potential to support many more parents to remain home with their newborns instead of being forced to return to work early so they can continue to pay their bills.
I am, however, disappointed to see that there is no mention of the fortnightly $250 corona supplement continuing past 31 December. If you have a look at the Centrelink website, it says, 'From 1 January 2021 your payment will change to the normal JobSeeker rate.' Just to inform the House exactly what that normal JobSeeker rate is, if you are single and you don't have children, it is $565.70 a fortnight. That's not a week; that's a fortnight. It works out to be $282.85 a week. If you are single and have dependent children, it's $612 a fortnight—so just over $300 a week.
It's worth noting that this supplement not only supports the 1.56 million people currently receiving JobKeeper and youth allowance payments across Australia; the additional supplement has also provided much-needed financial assistance to parents receiving the parenting payment, students receiving Austudy and ABSTUDY living allowance and farmers receiving the farm household allowance. Nearly two million Australians are having to remain vigilant, struggling to plan for their future or even budget for Christmas, and they do not know if their fortnightly $250 coronavirus supplement—that extra $125 a week—will continue past the end of this year.
This legislation provided the government with an opportunity to put millions of people's minds at rest and to provide them with certainty, acknowledging that this year has been one of the toughest yet. We are all aware that the cost of living has increased since COVID hit, and the additional coronavirus supplement has been necessary to ensure individuals and families are able to meet those increased expenses. For years now I have called on the government to raise the rate of Newstart, now named JobSeeker, as most recipients were living below the poverty line prior to the introduction of the coronavirus supplement. These additional funds have provided a much-needed reprieve for individuals and families who were previously struggling with rent, school fees and other essential items. Unlike many Newstart recipients, most of us in this place have never needed to make the choice between purchasing meals from the supermarket or paying rent to ensure that we have a roof over our head. We mustn't forget that that coronavirus supplement actually helps all of our local businesses, because it gives people who are on Centrelink that extra money and then they spend it locally. They are not spending it on overseas holidays. They are spending it in our local IGA. They are spending it in our local grocery stores.
So, in closing, I do support this legislation. I would urge the government to provide some certainty to people who are on Centrelink and currently receiving that coronavirus supplement, particularly people who are on JobSeeker, formerly known as Newstart, because no Australian can live on just over $250 a week. It really just is impossible.
A lot of big figures have been thrown around in the last few months—billions of dollars of support and a trillion-dollar debt—but it is grave news indeed, and I want to let all of our fellow Australians who are listening this morning know, that as of yesterday we found out that there will be 1.8 million Australians on unemployment payments by Christmas. Under this coalition federal government, we've seen a situation whereby an extraordinary number of Australians will be unemployed and needing that social support. We have seen the new Department of Social Services' figures come out of Senate estimates that show the number of people on unemployment payments will increase by many hundreds of thousands and will indeed surge to about 1.8 million by December. My colleague Senator Katy Gallagher, the shadow minister for finance, confirmed this in a question to a DSS official in Senate estimates. At estimates, it was also confirmed that the number of people forced to get by on unemployment benefits will be higher in 2024 than it was before the recession. That is no nowhere near a snapback in terms of getting Australians back into jobs—and this is what we feared.
The member for Barton and shadow minister for social services said: 'These revised figures show this job crisis is getting worse and the government's planned Christmas JobSeeker cut will hurt 1.8 million Australians. Unemployment is painful and unfair. Hundreds of thousands of Australians will bear the impact of this recession for years to come. The Prime Minister needs to show compassion by announcing a permanent increase to the JobSeeker payment.' I wholeheartedly agree with the member for Barton. The budget was a missed opportunity to permanently increase JobSeeker. With up to 160,000 Australians expected to lose their jobs and 1.6 million Australians on JobSeeker, the government missed a massive opportunity to deliver certainty for Australians doing it tough by delivering a permanent increase to JobSeeker in the budget. With more jobseekers for each job vacancy, there are simply not enough jobs for everyone who needs one. Unlike what the Prime Minister is fond of saying, it is not a case of 'if you're good at your job you'll get a job'; there simply aren't enough jobs. To not be able to see that is, unfortunately, a dereliction of duty and a failure of leadership.
It is particularly difficult in our regions, where the job market is worse than in the cities. In the major cities you have the benefit of large populations. As businesses and the economy open up, there will be employment. It will still be difficult for some cohorts, but there will be employment. In the regions we want to see more support. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an understanding of the correlation between cutting JobSeeker and the effect on small businesses. ACOSS have published a report that talks about the massive benefit to the economy of this indirect stimulus. As I've been saying for months now, as far as the Territory is concerned, the people that I represent from Darwin and Palmerston, the business owners as well as the employees—in particular, the unemployed; and those numbers continue to rise—it is exactly the wrong time to be cutting back on this indirect stimulus to our economy.
The fact that the government doesn't even know how many jobs will be lost when unemployment payments are cut at Christmas time is a concern. We cannot close our minds and our hearts to the suffering of those who are doing it tough. Also, it is going to be a massive benefit to businesses in our economy if we do this in a sensible way. What we need to be doing is giving a permanent increase to JobSeeker so that those who are unemployed, some for the first time in their lives, have some certainty going into Christmas. I certainly hope that is the case.
( As we get closer to Christmas, Australians of all persuasions are relying on the coronavirus supplement for certainty. They need some form of certainty and support from the government, not a cruel cut. That's why Labor's seeking to amend this bill, the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020, to ensure that the coronavirus supplement is extended until March next year, in line with JobKeeper, and to require the government to announce a permanent increase in the JobSeeker payment.
Many organisations have come out in support of a permanent increase in JobSeeker. Quite simply, you can't live off the old rate of JobSeeker, which roughly equated to about $40 a day. If you speak to someone that has had to try and survive on this measly payment, you find that it basically means that they find it extremely difficult to actually look for work, because most of their time is devoted to making ends meet and looking after family members, particularly if they're single parents. So it's the worst time for the government to be cutting support for people who've lost their jobs, whilst unemployment is still going up.
The Department of Social Services has told Senate estimates that the number of people on unemployment payments will surge to 1.8 million by December, an increase of 300,000 over previous projections. It was also confirmed that the number of people forced to get by on unemployment benefits will be higher in 2024 than it was before the recession, with DSS projecting the average number to be 1.3 million in 2021, a million in 2022 and 900,000 in 2023-24. We know that the increase in unemployment comes as the Morrison government's been caught out inflating jobs figures associated with budget measures by nearly one million jobs. The Prime Minister's big promise on jobs, the so-called JobMaker, hasn't even lasted until the end of budget month. We know from the Treasury department that, out of the claimed 450,000 places, the hiring credit is only expected to support and create 45,000 new jobs. Out of the claimed 130,000 jobs from its technology road map, none are included in the budget. And, out of the claimed 80,000 direct and 300,000 indirect jobs from its manufacturing announcement, none are included in the budget.
It's the deepest and most damaging recession in almost a century, and the Australian people deserve a government that creates jobs, not just headlines. This government has form when it comes to big announcements and all of the associated fanfare, but, 12 months after a program's been announced, we find out it hasn't delivered one job. There are a litany of programs across previous budgets delivered by this government where that is the case. They're all about the spin, all about the announcement, nothing about the follow-up.
The recent Anglicare Australian Jobs Availability Snapshot shows just how bleak the employment prospects are for many jobseekers, particularly with the government's underwhelming response to this recession. The report reveals more than 100 jobseekers are competing for every low skilled job vacancy across the nation. Many of the jobseekers in the jobs snapshot are older Australians, yet the government's Restart program, which it touts as its signature policy for the over-50s, has been an utter failure in getting older people back to work. Not only is it unsubscribed; 40 per cent of the workers under this program were out of work within three months.
If the Morrison government were serious about driving down the unemployment rate and kickstarting the recovery, it would not be excluding almost a million Australians over the age of 35 on unemployment payments from the new multibillion dollar Wage Subsidy Scheme. These Australians are rapidly approaching the JobSeeker Christmas cliff, with no certainty about the future of their support payments and how they'll find themselves competing with a subsidised younger workforce.
The Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the Labor Party, Anthony Albanese, has announced that a Labor government will train thousands of workers, and our next generation of tradies will come through our jobs and skills guarantee. We will build and manufacture in Australia through our National Rail Manufacturing Plan. We will cut childcare fees and put more money into the pockets of working families. We've called on the government to do more, right now, to create work for thousands of tradies in almost every suburb and town across the country by investing in projects that fast-track urgent repairs to social housing. I visited several social housing tenants in properties in the electorate that I represent, and many of those properties are in dire need of repair, and urgently. This is a program via which the government could provide support for tradies in every suburb and every town across the country. It could make sure they have the opportunity to work to provide much-needed upgrades to public assets—public infrastructure that provides people with a roof over their head and helps deal with problems in our society such as homelessness and couch surfing.
In the depths of this crisis, when the country needs a jobs plan, when the private sector is withdrawing investment and support for projects, when the country needs the support of government to fix some of the social issues we have, this government is sadly lacking. We have another grab bag of announcements and spin without any follow up-through policy that provides real support for jobs for people in this country.
Decisions taken by the coalition mean that this recession will be deeper and longer than it has to be; that it will push more workers into the unemployment queues and jeopardise Australia's recovery. That, unfortunately, will be the hallmark of this government and a great shame for generations to come.
I'm pleased to be able to stand up in this place and support this legislation but also, most importantly, to support the amendment moved by the member for Barton, the shadow minister. I'm referring now to the amendment which in substance wants us to look at the bill, understand the implications for people who are unemployed, and know that before Christmas we'll have 1.8 million people who will require income support because they're unemployed. We need to extend the $250 per fortnight coronavirus supplement at least until March, in line with JobKeeper. Most importantly, as the shadow minister has said, we need to create an obligation on the minister to announce a permanent increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker payment.
I've heard most of the contributions to this debate, and they've been very eloquent, ranging across the issues and the impact upon those people on income support who require additional income support in this nation, as the previous speaker just said. But we in this place need to understand what it means to live in a rural or remote part of this country, where there is a small area labour market with virtually no jobs to speak of and where you are dependent—absolutely, totally—on income support from the government. We need to understand that the additional income people have received as a result of the supplement to JobSeeker has meant that in many remote communities people have food on the table. In remote communities, many people live well below the poverty line, and to have the additional income into communities has meant, among other things, a substantial increase in the amount of food—good food—being sold by shops. Food sales at a major store in Maningrida, which is on the north-east Arnhem Land coast and has a population of around 3½ thousand people, increased by 50 per cent. Other retailers in remote communities saw food purchases increase by as much as 200 per cent.
There's a message here. There were some disruptive elements in relation to the additional income in some quarters, but most importantly, if you actually want to close the gap, you've got to make sure that people are healthy, and for people to be healthy they've got to have a decent amount of nutrition and a proper diet. To have that, they need to be able to purchase it, or catch it, but most probably go to a store, lay the money on the counter and purchase items which are nutritious. Where you've got a population which is comparatively young—in fact, extremely young by comparison to the general population—it's really important, as I'm sure members would appreciate, to ensure that young children in particular are well nourished.
Closing the gap means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but to me it's very simple. It means giving people a healthy start in life to make sure they can live in a healthy and safe household, have the nutrition they require, get access to a good education and then to training and job opportunities thereafter and, importantly, live in save and secure housing. Of course, that doesn't happen for most people in the remote communities of this country. Housing is overcrowded, unemployment is chronic and income support prior to the COVID supplementary payment was not nearly enough for people to survive properly. We know that in parts of northern Australia, in one area in particular—I can talk about Arnhem Land—around a third of the people who should be eligible to be on income support through the CDP are not getting income support. They've been alienated by the system. What that means is that they rely on the support of their families not only for income but, most importantly, as I've just described, for food. So the supplement has been very important in ensuring that these people have access to decent food.
I have some understanding of it, but it is really difficult for those who have not visited these communities or who do not know how these communities work to understand why it is important, so absolutely important, to increase the JobSeeker payment. It's just absurd to be contemplating going back to $40 a day—how could that possibly be? Yet that's where we're heading. What we need to contemplate, and I've mentioned this in this chamber before, is the absurdity of the current Community Development Program. It needs to be replaced by something which is more workable and which is not a welfare scheme but a work scheme, such as the old CDEP, the Community Development Employment Program, about which I've spoken often, which is part-time work for part-time pay based on 15 hours of work a week.
We in this place have an obligation—I don't think we understand or appreciate how big that obligation is—to look after the most disadvantaged people in this country, the most disenfranchised people in this country, the people who are most on the margins in this country. We need to be able to fix it. We could fix it if we had a mind to fix it, but this government clearly does not have a mind to. There is a sense of frustration that exists in remote parts of this country because of the poor outcomes being accepted by this government. Instead of changing policy direction and understanding the importance of community based decision-making and community based control, they want to impose things. This sense of frustration is something which bedevils many people in this community.
I finally want to complete my contribution by saying I don't think there's any comprehension at all by most people in this place around what small area labour markets actually look like, what it is to understand how discrete they might be in various parts of this country and how the relationship between these small area labour markets and the broader labour market is so distant. There is a lot to be done in this space. The most important things that can be done in the first instance are as the member for Barton, the shadow minister, has described: provide an obligation on this minister to announce a permanent increase in the base rate of the JobSeeker payment. When they do that, when they are contemplating what that might look like, look at the special needs of those Australians who live in rural, regional and remote places in this country, but most particularly the most disadvantaged of all, Aboriginal people who live in remote communities in the Northern Territory and elsewhere in northern Australia.
I want to thank the member for Lingiari for an excellent argument for looking after people in remote communities much better than we do and supporting them much better than we do. I want to thank the member for Barton for this amendment and all of her terrific work on behalf of unemployed Australians. She is a wonderful person to have on your side.
This amendment, proposed by the member for Barton, would extend the coronavirus supplement to March, in line with the JobKeeker payment, and it would legislate for a permanent increase to the base rate of JobSeeker. I'm pretty sure we all agree in here that it's impossible to ask people to live on $40 a day again. I don't think there's anyone in this chamber who imagines that they could live on $40 a day and yet we are asking a million people to contemplate returning to living on $40 a day.
The case for the change proposed by the member for Barton is simple: it is not possible to live on $40 a day. The previous rate of Newstart is too low for people to live a dignified and healthy life. Of course, if someone can work they should work. If there is a job available and the person has the ability to do it of course they should do that work. But the simple reality at the moment is that we are in a recession. We have 13 people for every job vacancy. For entry-level jobs the competition is even harder. There are 106 people competing for every entry-level job in Australia. That tells you that despite the very best efforts of hundreds of thousands of people to look for work we will continue to see people locked out of the labour market. The government's own estimates are that 160,000 more people will be unemployed by Christmas and what are we saying to those people? That they can look forward to life on $40 a day. On $40 a day it's pretty hard to afford the rent, eat a decent healthy diet, buy a train fare to the job interviews that you're trying to do, maybe find a clean shirt to wear to that interview. All of these things become out of reach and work together to keep people locked out of the labour market.
I've had contact from many people in my own electorate saying that they are fearful. What keeps them awake at night is the fear of returning to life on $40 a day. The temporary increase has meant that they're finally eating a healthy diet, that they're able to put good food on the table for their kids, that they're able to buy the school shoes that they have been putting off buying for ages. A Glebe resident recently called my office worried sick about returning to that $40 a day. The same is true of people on disability support pensions, sole parents, age pensioners who are struggling with very low interest rates from banks.
We have too many Australians who are living below the poverty line, and the sad thing, the tragic thing—I'd say the immoral thing—about this is that the government is prepared to rack up well over a trillion dollars of debt. They're prepared to spend that borrowed money on subsidising Clive Palmer's private jet so he can fly around Queensland, campaigning. They're prepared to spend borrowed money subsidising Clive Palmer's private jet, but they're not prepared to reassure people who are sick, unemployed, looking after kids on their own, too old to work, or disabled that they've got their backs. They're prepared to spend money on JobKeeper payments for a company that pays an executive a bonus—not a salary, a bonus—of $2½ million, but they're not prepared to reassure poor, old, sick, isolated people that they've got their backs at a time like this—the worst recession that we've had since after the Second World War. They are not prepared to make sure that the most vulnerable Australians can live without the fear of poverty, but they are prepared to spend $30 million on a block of land worth less than $3 million. They are prepared to allow Australia Post executives to spend $20,000 on watches, but they're not prepared to make sure that the poorest people can put food on the table.
I will just finish with this. There is a moral reason to do this. Australia is a country that does not have to choose poverty for its most vulnerable people. There is a moral reason to do this. But there's also a really good economic reason to do this. We know that people on low or limited incomes, if they get an extra 10 bucks in their pocket, will spend it—putting food on the table for their kids, buying shoes, paying the rent, making sure the electricity bill is paid. They will reinvest that money in the community, creating jobs for other Australians. We know that confidence in our economy was low before COVID-19 hit. We can supercharge aggregate demand in our economy by making sure the people on the lowest incomes have a bit more in their pocket to spend each week. That little bit extra in their pocket to spend creates work for other Australians. This is an investment in economic growth, as well as being the right thing to do morally.
This bill makes technical and administrative amendments to support service delivery and will update Social Services portfolio legislation to remove obsolete provisions and correct errors. The bill will amend portfolio secrecy provisions to require the Department of Social Services and Services Australia to comply with notices issued by royal commissions where the notices require the production of information protected by those secrecy provisions. The bill will update some offence provisions in the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 so that it is clear that the offences apply in circumstances where a claim is processed by an automated system within Services Australia.
Lastly, the bill makes minor technical and administrative amendments to social security law and other social services portfolio legislation and related minor consequential amendments to other legislation. The amendments remove obsolete provisions, correct errors, update legislation and improve the operation of legislation to support service delivery. I commend this bill to the House.