House debates

Thursday, 29 October 2020


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Consideration in Detail

1:04 pm

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Today Labor moved amendments to ensure greater support for those Australians who have been left behind by this government in its economic response to the recession. It is very disappointing that the government has voted against these very reasonable and responsible increases for support. These amendments are modest and provide the government with the flexibility it needs to deliver the appropriate support for those Australians in these times.

The Prime Minister says 'we are all in this together', but our pensioners, both aged and DSP, and carers have been left behind. He says we're all in this together, but 1.6 million Australians on unemployment support—including over 300,000 Australians aged over 55, who experience the greatest difficulty in finding work—have been left uncertain as to what kind of support will be available to them beyond Christmas. If we're all in this together, why are almost one million Australians on unemployment benefits being excluded from the wage hire subsidy. If we're all in this together, the government should put its money where its rhetoric is and support these amendments moved by Labor.

During these difficult and uncertain times, pensioners and carers have experienced increased costs in ensuring they remain safe and healthy. Yesterday, the Minister for Families and Social Services insisted to Senate estimates that healthcare costs have not increased. Well, let me say that I have been contacted—many people on this side have been—by many people who have said otherwise, with disability pensioners and carers very much a part of that. They do not need be lectured by this government about the very real challenges they are facing.

Unlike the government, Labor acknowledge that older Australians, people with disability and carers have experienced increased costs as a result of coronavirus. In June, we saw the release of a survey for People with Disability Australia, which found that nine in 10 people with disability experienced increased expenses due to the ongoing pandemic; 31 per cent reported increased spending on health care; and one in five reported increased spending on sanitising and hygiene products. Some have contacted me about the additional costs of having to get food delivered, especially during the height of the pandemic. Pensioners have been facing rising health, dental, energy and grocery bills for years. Average GP out-of-pocket costs alone have gone up 11 per cent under this government. Cruelly, the government froze the pension in September, which impacted on 2.5 million age pensioners. Labor's amendments will create an obligation on the minister to better support pensioners, including age pension, disability support pension and carer payer recipients.

This Christmas is going to be a very anxious and uncertain one for Australians on unemployment support. On 31 December, the coronavirus supplement is scheduled to come to an end. There are 1.6 million Australians on unemployment support, and yesterday we learnt through Senate estimates that that figure will rise to 1.8 million by the end of the year. Cruelly, this government is going to make them wait, excruciatingly, until a matter of weeks out from Christmas before they know what level of support will be available to them. It will simply leave many households without the ability to plan their budgets, which have become very strict and tight for rent, for food, for gas and for electricity, as the member for Sydney just said. It will be at a time when all Australians simply want to be able to spend quality time with loved ones, after what has been a tough year for so many. Many Australians on unemployment support are wondering why the government has extended JobKeeper to the end of March, but plans to finish JobSeeker at the end of December.

This amendment simply rectifies that inequity. In the midst of this recession, and in the budget, the government has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver lasting structural change. We urge the government—we absolutely urge the government—to grasp this opportunity and support this amendment. It is reasonable, it is fair and no-one can possibly disagree with it. I move the amendment circulated in my name:

(1) Schedule 1, page 31 (after line 4), at the end of the Schedule, add:

Part 5—Consideration of further additional economic support payments and a permanent increase to jobseeker payments

Social Security Act 1991

37 After Part 1.3B of Chapter 1


Part 1.3C—Additional economic support payments to address inequities arising out of coronavirus pandemic

38X Minister must consider what additional payments may be required

As soon as practicable after this section commences, the Minister must consider whether to do any or all of the following:

(a) extend the COVID-19 supplement until 28 March 2021 at the amount of $250 per fortnight, in line with extensions to jobkeeper payments;

(b) better support recipients of the age pension, disability support pension and carer payment who are facing increased costs to protect their health in the face of the coronavirus pandemic;

(c) announce a permanent increase to the base rate of jobseeker payments.

1:09 pm

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment moved by the member for Barton. I do so as it is a practical initiative to make a difference to the lives of people who are doing it tough. There are many amendments, and sometimes in this place we move amendments just to make a point, to show a difference of values. This isn't one of those. This is the only way that you can get a real change in the income support for people, whether they be age pensioners, disability support pensioners, carers or, indeed, people who are on Newstart.

What the amendment moved by the member for Barton does, given the constraints that are there on money bills in this parliament and how you can move amendments that would have a fiscal impact, is say that the minister must consider what additional payments may be required by extending the COVID-19 supplement until 28 March 2021 at the amount of $250 a fortnight, in line with extensions to JobKeeper payments. Then it lists the potential recipients of this support: age pensioners, disability support pensioners and people who receive carer payment. Those measures are practical ones, because we know that if you are on one of those payments then you are currently subject to additional costs just to get by from day to day. You have to have in your budget, in your fortnightly payment—and I grew up in a household with a mother; our only income was the invalid pension every fortnight. My mum would go to Grace Bros and would have everything budgeted down to literally the last cent as a way of getting by.

I've got to say that, when I was growing up, this wonderful hand sanitiser that has made a difference to people's lives wasn't something that was in the budget. I suspect it wasn't in age pensioners' budgets, but they have to get it because we know that elderly people are particularly susceptible to this virus. So this is put forward by the member for Barton in good faith. Because we're not able to instruct the Treasurer on what to do on a money bill, it's asking him to give consideration to it. For the life of me, I can't understand why this government doesn't embrace the amendment and just give it support.

The second element, of course, is the issue of JobSeeker. I've been asked as leader of the Labor Party what I think the amount should be. One of the things that I have done is try to give the government space to move, not to put it in a position of having argy-bargy and playing politics with it but to say that we all know that $40 a day is not enough to survive on. They acknowledged that when they brought in the JobSeeker payments that effectively doubled the rate of Newstart allowance. I haven't said that it should remain at double the amount. That's not our position, and I wouldn't expect it to be the government's position. But we are saying to give people certainty and provide for an increase. The idea that you're going to announce in December what money people will have at the end of December, during Christmas and during that period—there are families that will be thinking now about whether they can afford to take their kids to the beach holiday that they might get to go on once a year for a week or so. There will be families who will be making that decision. We wouldn't ask any of us to be put in a position whereby we don't know at the beginning of December what income we are going to have at the end of December. We wouldn't ask people to be in that position, and the government shouldn't be putting people in that position either. We need a permanent increase to the base rate of JobSeeker payments. I commend the amendment to the House.

1:15 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to voice my support for this amendment. This amendment is critical. If we allow people to go back to the original Newstart rate, the original JobSeeker rate, we are indeed condemning people to poverty and hunger in this nation. I just had a quick look on at rentals in my electorate. The cheapest two-bedroom unit available is $280 a week. If on 1 January we allow people to go back to the original Jobseeker rate, that's $282.85 a week. We just can't do that in Australia. We just shouldn't do that in Australia. And food has gone up immeasurably during the COVID crisis. Where you used to be able to perhaps spend $100 on food, people are spending at least $120 or $130 for that same shopping basket.

The $240-a-week coronavirus supplement is critical for individuals who are on JobSeeker and it's critical for families who are on a range of payments, but it's also really critical for small businesses in our electorates. If we want money in the economy, this is a very easy way to ensure that the whole payment goes directly into the hands of small businesses in our communities. People aren't spending their money on overseas holidays. They aren't spending their money on frivolous items. They are buying food. They are shopping locally, at the greengrocer, the butcher and the supermarket. I think that this amendment is incredibly important.

I meet too many pensioners and disability support pensioners in my electorate who are struggling. I would urge the government to look at the pension. When I have a pensioner that comes to me and they have broken dentures—their dentures are held together with superglue and they have ulcers in their mouth—there is something seriously wrong in this nation. We must ensure that older Australians are cared for better than is currently happening. I really urge the government to consider this amendment earnestly and to support the amendment in this place.

1:17 pm

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I will support this amendment and I applaud the opposition for moving it. Could I suggest that this country needs a different approach to government pensions and payments. Rather than talking about the age pension, the disability support pension and unemployment benefits, I think we need to start talking about a living income, and our starting point needs to be: how much does someone need to live with dignity in this country? It clearly needs to be above the poverty line. There's no logical reason why someone who's unemployed, who may well be younger, with a family, should be getting paid less than someone on the age pension or the disability support pension. I think that all people who are relying on the government for income support should be paid a comparable amount and it should be above the poverty line.

I support the idea of maintaining the COVID-19 supplement, but I think we should go further. In fact, subparagraph (b) actually goes to that point. Everyone needs a fairer go at the moment. You can't live with dignity and pay market rent on the age pension, you can't live with dignity and pay market rent if you're on the disability support pension, and you certainly can't live with dignity and go about your life, maybe bring up a family, if you're unemployed and getting anything less than a similar amount of money. I encourage the government to start looking at pensions and payments in that light and to turn its mind to the whole idea of a living income that all people who need income support in this country receive and benefit from. I think that's a much better approach.

If the government won't do that then—for heaven's sake—at least make sure that people who are unemployed get a fair deal, and not only that they get a fair deal eventually but that they have some certainty between now and then. I think it's quite cruel for the government to be saying, 'Well, yes, we do have an intention for unemployment benefits to be above $40 a day after 31 December.' That doesn't give enough comfort to someone who is two months out from that. They don't know whether they are going to get $41, $42, $60 or $80 a day. They don't know. They are planning now. I think it is not intentional cruelty by the government, but it is cruelty nonetheless that people just don't know what the future holds. I think we have got a good enough sense of the economic situation now and what it will be over the next couple of months that the government can give more certainty.

It would a very big thing for the government to do—to actually come in and support this amendment. I believe the opposition have moved it in good faith. It would give great comfort to people who are bearing down on 31 December and the prospect of a big cut in their household income. It would give some comfort to people on the age pension and the disability pension. As the Leader of the Opposition so beautifully put, when he was a child, his mum didn't have to worry about buying hand sanitiser. Well, someone who is on a pension these days does have to buy hand sanitiser and all sorts of other things, and the rate of bulk-billing has gone down in real terms. So I will support the amendment, I encourage the government to support the amendment and I applaud the opposition for moving it.

1:21 pm

Photo of Zali SteggallZali Steggall (Warringah, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Barton for moving this amendment to the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020, and I echo some of the sentiments that have been made in this place. I do believe this is an amendment moved in good faith. We as parliamentarians do have a duty to offer as much security or reassurance to those more vulnerable in our society as we possibly can. This has been an incredible year. 2020 has been incredibly challenging for so many people in the population. These support payments and measures—and I have congratulated the government on having done JobKeeper and JobSeeker—have made such a difference for those more vulnerable and for people who have found themselves without employment.

But we need to be very focused. Those on JobSeeker are incredibly vulnerable. We can't have a situation of going back to the previous rate. During the 2019 election, I supported the Raise the Rate campaign. It was supported by many in this place. I feel that it is really an obstinate reluctance to acknowledge the inevitable to not give security and some reassurance to those who desperately need to hear it by extending JobSeeker and the supplement and having a permanent recognition of where that rate needs to be so people can meaningfully bridge the gap between employment opportunities.

If we want people to go from having lost their employment to new employment, they need to be in a position where they actually can get themselves on transport to job interviews. They need to be able to be dressed for job interviews. They need to have a home to live in before going to job interviews. You can't have a situation where they are pushed into such levels of desperation and of not being able to make ends meet that they have no ability to get to job interviews and find employment. That has to be the ideal and the goal that we have in this place—assisting people in our community needing to find employment.

We have to be very real about the people we are talking about. It's often misrepresented, I would say. We used to have, I believe, under Prime Minister Howard, a whole campaign around 'dole bludgers'. This is not at all what we are talking about. It is insulting to those people. We know women over 55 have the highest rate of homelessness. They are the people in our population who have the highest rate of needing to rely on support—JobSeeker or Newstart, as it was—to get from one situation of employment to the next. Unfortunately, that period is not just a matter of a couple of months. It is sadly a longer period than that. They need to have support that is actually liveable in the meantime. If not, what we are doing and what we are condoning is pushing people into poverty and homelessness, and that is surely not the Australia that we all want to stand for.

So I thank the member for this amendment. I urge the government to hear it. You have taken the right steps during this pandemic. It is time to give some reassurance to those who are desperate to know how they are going to make ends meet. Please consider extending the additional economic support payments in relation to the JobSeeker and coronavirus payments. As is indicated in this amendment, those vulnerable people need our support. I urge the government to do this. It is the right thing to do. Put political games aside and focus on the more-vulnerable.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendment be disagreed to.

1:31 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

We now need to move to 90-second statements, because we've passed 1.30.