House debates

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Matters of Public Importance

Morrison Government: Vulnerable Australians

3:14 pm

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

I have received a letter from the honourable member for Maribyrnong proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:

The government's failure to provide for Australia's most vulnerable.

I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

Photo of Bill ShortenBill Shorten (Maribyrnong, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme) Share this | | Hansard source

To Australians who are listening to parliament, Labor has nominated as a matter of public importance today a discussion, an overdue discussion, about the Morrison government's failure to provide for Australia's most vulnerable. Rarely has there been a time in this nation's history where we've had a greater need for a strong and generous safety net to help Australians when they're doing it tough. Yet Australia's vulnerable are the Morrison government's forgotten people.

Things were hard for a lot of Australians before the COVID-19 pandemic. There were more than three million of our fellow Australians living in poverty—that is, having less than $457 per week as an individual to live on. That is one in eight Australians. There were 774,000 kids, those under 15, living under this definition of poverty, this reality of poverty. That is one in six Australian children. I know it's not considered polite in some circles to talk about it, but there's been a polarising effect of wealth in this nation for the last 20 years. Earnings have risen three times faster for the top 10 per cent of income earners than the bottom 10 per cent of income earners. We praise the idea of aspiration in Australia, but I think Australians would be disturbed to discover that social mobility is a far more realistic prospect in many European nations than it is in what we call the Lucky Country. If you are a child in Australia today, your parents' income is more likely to determine your income as an adult than it has for a very long time.

COVID-19, though, has made things worse. This doesn't take away from the generous increases to JobKeeper and the increases to JobSeeker, but it should be noted that COVID-19 has had unequal effects across Australia. If you have a big bundle of shares, the prices are going okay. If you are lucky enough to own your own house or more than one house, your property values are generally on the up. But the real rate for unemployment and underemployment is far closer to 20 per cent. When the pandemic hit, if you earned more than $1,600 a week, three in every five of you were able to do telework, but, if you earned less than $800 a week, only one in five could do telework. So the shutdowns have been tough for poorer people in this country. They have been tough not just for individuals without assets or wealth who are income-dependent but for small businesses. These phonies in the government say they are the friends of small business. But they are not if you're a partnership, not if you're a sole trader, not if you're a trust running a travel agency. Their loss carry-back mechanism only looks after registered companies.

The coalition government is limping along in its eighth year, slightly surprised that it's here. But, although its leaders may change, the fundamental neglect of Australians needing a fair go has been a consistent element. 'Neglect' may be putting it kindly. I actually think that contempt is the attitude of this government towards those quiet Australians who are in need of a little assistance, a little mercy. What else could it be but contempt when you put the member for Fadden in charge of the NDIS? His advice today in question time, as waiting lists increase for people visiting Centrelink, is: 'Buy a computer; use the internet.' Not everyone gets $40,000 of internet costs paid per year. How do you spend that? I acknowledge that my opposite number is interested in techno-digi stuff. But the rest of it—I'd call him a time server in this portfolio, but that's not really fair, is it? He thinks he's slumming it in this portfolio and he can't wait till he's elevated somewhere else.

NDIS and government services—these are caring portfolios. They exist in an area where the social contract has meaning for millions of Australians. The failure to serve the public, to honour the social contract, results in real tragedy. These portfolios should be about a world-class safety net. There is nothing wrong with being the best in the world at looking after the least well-off in our country—providing a safety net for veterans, a safety net for those who can't find work, a safety net for people who genuinely, because there are just not enough jobs out there, need this safety net. A safety net is a path to independence.

But, time and time again, the government—the Morrison government, the Turnbull government, the Abbott government—have treated these portfolios as a quarry, as an ATM to plunder, to serve their other forms of economic incompetence. Has there ever been an Australian cabinet that presents so differently to the Australian public than their real selves? They are the vanilla men from central casting. As my friend the member for Sydney has pointed out, they beat up on arts students, even though they've all got arts degrees, and of course, on disability, in the NDIS—taking $4.6 billion from people with profound and severe disability. This has real-world consequences. There have been terrible deaths by neglect of NDIS participants in lonely homes: Ann-Marie Smith; David Harris. And they've been caught out on these issues.

People with disability have to go to lawyers to access their NDIS packages. In Australia, you should not need a lawyer to access the safety net. But the figures don't lie. NDIS appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal have spiked at more than 700 per cent since 2016. I wonder if they ever look in the mirror and wonder whether they've got the balance right? No. As with any good culture war, beloved of the conservatives, they unleash legal warfare on Australia's most vulnerable. In the last financial year, this government spent $29 million to oppose participants' appeals to get NDIS funding—to get a wheelchair, an occupational therapist, ramps in their house. The stories are heartbreaking. Even worse, they're true.

A robodebt action is due to hit court on Monday: 400,000 people who were illegally served letters of demand by their government and paid, and another 70,000 people who haven't paid but received these illegal letters. The bill for this illegality by this government will top out at $1 billion, and all we get is a smirk from the other side. It is not good enough—not good enough at all. Then of course there are the Centrelink queues. Only the member for Fadden could be surprised that Centrelink demand would go up during a pandemic. This constant sense of amazement by this government at how the world works is frustrating, because it denies the millions of people who deserve support the support they should actually be getting.

It's a serious issue, and the question really is: is looking after the vulnerable in Australia just pity politics? Is it just looking after people who don't really deserve a generous safety net? Or does it actually matter? This government is patting itself on the back today for extending JobSeeker by three months at the higher rate. The problem is, though, that people won't stop breathing after 31 March next year. I think there are lessons from this pandemic that all of us need to adopt—and Labor also needs to take this advice, as well as the coalition. When we treat the most vulnerable as important, the benefits go to all of us in this country. I think it's time to recognise that fairness is an economic growth plan. It's time to recognise that a fair go for the disadvantaged is an economic growth plan. It's time for government to take new responsibilities and make new investments, required to give every Australian a fighting chance. It's time to stop looking the other way. It's time to see that an injury to any is an injury to all. It's time to recognise that, where there is long-term, persistent, stubborn unfairness in any postcode, that applies to all postcodes.

A great country is a caring country. No country can be great if it does not take the concern of the least well-off to be a most important proposition. Every citizen in our country has value and meaning. Every child deserves an education. Every person deserves the opportunity to learn. Every person deserves to find fulfilling, meaningful work. The lesson of the coronavirus is not to leave the most disadvantaged behind. They've been too invisible for too long. There is a deficit of effort in the Morrison government to look after the most disadvantaged. People are disillusioned, disempowered and disengaged. We have no time to waste. Newstart should not go back to what it was. Sole parents' funding should be properly restored. The youth allowance is too low. The housing market is too hard. Casualised work is too insecure. The loss of dreams and the loss of hope is a price too high to pay. (Time expired)

3:25 pm

Photo of Ben MortonBen Morton (Tangney, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Maribyrnong! What a coincidence! What an audition! On the day of the resignation of the member for Hunter from shadow cabinet, we have the member for Maribyrnong leading the MPI, and never before have I seen those opposite look so intently, as they weigh their important decisions in their mind. But the old class war is back. That's what we have seen from the member for Maribyrnong—missing completely the facts and the commitment of the Morrison government to make sure that Australians don't become vulnerable as a result of the pandemic and to make sure that we provide support to those people who are vulnerable in our community.

One of the government's first responses to the economic impact of COVID-19 was in relation to JobSeeker. The $550 per fortnight coronavirus supplement expanded, as did the access criteria, and we waived waiting periods for the period of six months from March through to September. We extended the supplements for three months to 31 December at a rate of $250 per fortnight, while introducing a boosted income-free area of $300 per fortnight to encourage jobseekers to take up work where available. We're focused on providing the temporary and fine-tuned, elevated levels of support in response to the ongoing impact of this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Only today, the Prime Minister announced that JobSeeker will be extended to 30 March 2021 at a rate of $150 per fortnight, extending the income-free area, because we want to encourage Australians who are out of work to dip their toes into the job market. The expanded eligibility criteria will cover sole traders, people who are self-employed, those who have been stood down but remain connected to their workplace, people who are in isolation and those who have to care for somebody in isolation. We're focused on striking the right balance between temporary, enhanced support and incentives to work as the Australian economy reopens. Meanwhile, our $101 billion JobKeeper program has kept Australians at the risk of unemployment connected to their jobs, and we have extended it to 28 March 2021. The JobMaker hiring credit, currently before this parliament, will help young people access job opportunities as the economy recovers. It will be available to employers for each new job they create over the next 12 months for which they hire an eligible young person aged 16 to 35 years old.

COVID-19 had a severe toll on many vulnerable people. It had a severe toll on the mental health of those who are vulnerable in our society. The Australian government was one of the first governments internationally to recognise the impact of this pandemic on their citizens' mental health, and we responded. The Australian government is continuing to take action to support Australians whose mental health and wellbeing is being affected by COVID-19 by providing $315.9 million to support a doubling of Medicare-funded psychological services, expanding access to services for young people, older Australians and particularly those Victorians who were hit the hardest because of the decisions and failures of the Victorian government.

Earlier this year, we announced that the government's digital mental health portal, Head to Health, would be a single source of authoritative information and guidance on how to maintain good mental health. A national communications campaign, delivered in conjunction with the National Mental Health Commission, was devised to provide information about maintaining mental health wellbeing, raising awareness of the signs of when you or your loved one needs additional assistance and where to find important further information, support and care. Ten million dollars was earmarked to create a dedicated coronavirus wellbeing support line delivered by Beyond Blue. Of course, younger Australians studying this year were affected by coronavirus and the pandemic, and so $6.75 million was provided to deliver the headspace digital work and study service, an e-headspace.

Charities and other community organisations have stood up during this pandemic and the government has been there to support them. $200 million was provided to support charities doing great work in the community, such as emergency and food relief, as the demand for their services surged.

Sadly, the COVID pandemic has seen the rise of domestic violence in our community, and so our $150 million domestic violence response package is expanding perpetrator interventions, providing case management for survivors through court processes, producing tech-enabled support services and increasing safe accommodation capacity. The states and territories have now received a $130 million allocation, through a September instalment payment, to help family and domestic violence support services across Australia.

Carers, disability support pensioners and age pension recipients have been supported by this government during this pandemic as well. Eligible recipients, including recipients of DSP, carer payment, carer allowance and age pension, have received two economic support payments of $750. The first payment was automatically paid by Services Australia, who have done an amazing job in supporting Australians in their time of need. Payments were made from 31 March and went into the same bank account as their payment. The second economic support payment of $750 was paid to eligible recipients from 13 July 2020. These payments were designed to support confidence and domestic demand in the economy, and it would support those vulnerable Australians when they needed the support the most. Pensioners will also benefit from two additional economic support payments of $250 that were announced by the Treasurer in the 2020-21 budget. The first will be paid from December 2020, and the second from March 2021. We are focused on supporting Australians through this difficult time.

Nothing is more important than the health and wellbeing of Australians, and this government has the track record to show that we are focused on preventing Australians from becoming vulnerable and ensuring that we have supports in place for those that are. Now, as we focus on coming out of this pandemic, the Australian government has secured an additional 50 million doses, through two new advance purchase agreements, taking our total to over 134 million doses, if proven safe and effective. We are focused on vaccines to ensure that we can protect Australians, all Australians, vulnerable and otherwise. Access to these vaccines will be subject to clinical trial outcomes on the safety and effectiveness of each candidate, and approved by the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration. Agreements strengthen Australia's position to provide access to safe and effective vaccines as soon as available for those that wish to vaccinate against COVID-19. We've invested more than $3.3 billion across five separate agreements with local and international pharmaceutical companies. We're contributing significantly to vaccine development both in Australia and around the world, investing $96 million into COVID related vaccines, therapeutics and further preparedness. When they become available, these vaccines will protect Australia's most vulnerable. On 19 August 2020, the Prime Minister announced that COVID-19 vaccines will be available, free, to every Australian.

This government, the Morrison government, has stood up when we've needed to do so, whether it be in health; whether it be the leadership of Greg Hunt as the Minister for Health; whether it be the Treasurer; whether it be the Minister for Families and Social Services and the support that we're giving through the automatic stabilisers in our economy to provide support to those vulnerable Australians. We've seen the opposition, again, talking down Australia, again, talking down Australians. We've seen what I can only describe as an audition from the member for Maribyrnong today. Those behind him were watching very intently in relation to his performance—some perhaps moved, some perhaps inspired, some perhaps weighing up decisions that they may or may not have to make over the coming weeks—including the member for Dobell. We are confronted by an opposition that is always willing to play the class war, as the member for Maribyrnong has done and has failed to do so previously, while we remain a government that is focused on the wellbeing of Australians. We remain a government that is focused on supporting Australians at the times when they need it and we will continue to do so.

3:35 pm

Photo of Emma McBrideEmma McBride (Dobell, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Mental Health) Share this | | Hansard source

This year has been tough. Australians have faced the 'black summer' bushfires, floods and of course the virus. It is often said we're all in this together, when we're not. This virus has exposed the fault lines in society, and the most vulnerable Australians are falling through the cracks. The government has failed Australians most at risk, struggling before the virus and not helped by the government's patchy response. This year, more than any in recent times, Australians have relied on mental health support to support them through. Since March, Beyond Blue has seen an increase in demand for counselling services of between 30 and 40 per cent, peaking at the height of the pandemic in May. ReachOut saw a 48 per cent increase to its youth, parents and school services between March and May. More than 184,000 people accessed additional support, with most seeking COVID-19 specific support.

Before coming to this place, I worked as a pharmacist and, for much of that time, in acute adult mental health in-patient units where each day I saw firsthand the circumstances of people's lives—the mental health crisis, the emergency that led to an acute adult in-patient admission. Where you are born, live and grow up in Australia matters. The government has the opportunity, as we emerge from this crisis, to address the underlying inequalities in Australia which mean that those most at risk are carrying the burden of this crisis. They have the opportunity to boost employment, to create safer housing, to make sure that everyone has a fair shot at education and, most importantly, to make sure that everyone has health care when they need it.

I worked in teams, stretched with growing demand and scarce resources, where people were discharged to the circumstances that made them sick. We need to, in Australia, not have this narrowcast view of provision of services that fail to look at the underlying cause. I look across to the member opposite me, who grew up in the same home town as me. He understands this and he knows this. We cannot continue to send people back to the circumstances that made them sick; nor can we leave older Australians and those who love them at risk and vulnerable.

I lost my dad to younger onset dementia and, through the crisis, people have spoken to me about their family members living with dementia, about the isolation, about the loneliness, about them not being able to understand why people can't visit them or why they're not having visitors. We know that health measures matter and that provisions put in place were well intended. We also know that it has left many people vulnerable and at risk. Before COVID, the royal commission had laid bare the neglect in some aged-care homes, and the impact of COVID has struck those most vulnerable. There are 102,000 older Australians waiting for home-care packages. The 23,000 additional home-care packages, though welcome, are simply not enough. For the past two years there have been consistently more than 100,000 older Australians on the waitlist, many of them waiting for level 4 packages, most of those living with dementia.

The government needs to understand the urgency to act, whether it is for young people living with major mental health problems or for people living with dementia in their homes. During COVID, support has fallen away, and carers have stepped up. When the government fails to act, they have no other choice. Through COVID-19, unpaid carers of children with disability, frail elderly parents and partners of those with chronic health problems have taken on more responsibility than they can bear and more than they should have to. The value of informal care in Australia is estimated to be at $78 billion yet, at the same time, the government's financial support for carers is only a small fraction of this amount. The budget did not do near enough; carers will only receive an extra $500 over six months, less than $20 a week, which is not enough to meet the extra costs they've faced as a result of the pandemic. It is no surprise then that many carers feel overlooked and left behind by this government, like my friend Bev, as she cares for her husband, Steve.

It is clear that there is a growing gap in our society, that health care is not universal, that not everyone has a fair shot at education and that not everyone lives in a safe home. As we emerge from this virus, the government has a chance and a responsibility. It is incumbent on them that we come out of this crisis a fairer, more equitable country. Those who have the least, the poor of this country, should not be shouldering the burden of this pandemic. It is not fair and it is not right, and we are risking the lives of vulnerable Australians and those who care for them through the government's response to this crisis. Australians deserve better.

3:40 pm

Photo of Luke HowarthLuke Howarth (Petrie, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to thank the member for Maribyrnong for enabling me to have this opportunity to speak about how the Morrison government is delivering for vulnerable Australians. As the federal member for Petrie and the Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services, I'm exceptionally proud of the strong safety net that the Morrison government has delivered and its historic decisions and continuing support for the nation's most vulnerable Australians. As the federal member for Petrie, I value all Australians and everyone in my electorate. No matter where they sit and no matter what their occupation or their upbringing is, they all have an important part to play.

We understand that Australians at this time need work. They want to get back to where they were before the crisis. We also understand the importance of a strong and enhanced safety net to help those doing it tough during this time. In my own electorate of Petrie, 11,039 individuals have received the coronavirus supplement, expanding eligibility to give access to more people in vulnerable circumstances. This has really helped people like Ethan, a young man in my electorate who fell on tough times and was homeless and sleeping in his car. With supports in place and having been introduced to a local businessman, Michael Kennedy from Kennedy's Timbers, Ethan is now able to work full time, and not only is he working full time but he's got himself a unit and now he's training others on the job. What a remarkable effort! There are hundreds more people—perhaps even more—like Ethan who just in the last few months have been able to make this change as well.

We are making available targeted and enhanced support, with extension of the coronavirus supplement until 31 March 2021. JobSeeker, Commonwealth rent assistance and emergency relief payments have been rolled out through the states right around the country—a strong safety net to help those who are most vulnerable as we emerge through and from this crisis. Thanks to JobKeeper, there are 4,500 workplaces in Petrie who have remained connected to their employees. That's workplaces, not individuals—people like MBRIT, the tourism arm of the Moreton Bay Regional Council, who said to me that without JobKeeper they would have folded and their staff would have been laid off.

We continue to work in partnership with state governments, who have primary responsibility to deliver social housing and homelessness supports as well. In 2021 alone, the Morrison government will invest more than $7½ billion to support Australians in need of housing assistance. This is an increase of over $1 billion on last year. Having a roof over your head is important for all Australians, but having a home is most important. It's more than just four walls; it's about privacy, security and safe and secure access to housing. I've heard firsthand in my role as assistant minister about the supports made available to Australians during this time. Over 8,000 people were provided with accommodation that was safe, where they could self-isolate and recover after presenting symptoms over the last few months. Four billion dollars has been spent on new or expedited policy interventions at key points of the housing systems of the states and territories, and this government has assisted more than 1.7 million Australians in the private rental market through Commonwealth rent assistance, which is $5½ billion a year. During the early stages of COVID, the Morrison government was instrumental in delivering the rental moratorium to protect Australia's most vulnerable renters.

We know that family and domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women and children, and vulnerable women and children are often displaced and family life is disrupted greatly as a result of violence, abuse and coercion. Thousands more women and children will have access to safe and secure accommodation, thanks to the $60 million in programs through Safe Places that I recently announced in South Australia with Minister Ruston. Places like Coast2Bay in Fairfax. I was with the member up there recently, and I was just talking to the member for Macquarie about Wentworth Community Housing in her own electorate.

Housing investment, as a whole, through the First Home Loan Deposit Scheme, as well as the First Home Super Saver Scheme, has helped to add stock, which will help people in need. Our investments in NHFIC, health, aged care, the NDIS, mental health and carers have played a big role in helping those most vulnerable.

3:45 pm

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This debate could go on for days if we talked about all the issues where people are being left behind. Vulnerable people are being left behind by a government that is truly out of touch and does not care. Each and every day we are confronted in our electorates by people who are suffering because of the failure of this government to deliver and the failure of this government to actually care for people who need our help. If we judge society by the way it treats its most vulnerable then this government fails on every single level.

We just have to look at the understanding of things that we talk about such as government services—when we talk about what's happening in relation to Centrelink. The government is working to close Centrelink face-to-face services in the middle of the biggest recession in our lifetimes: the Morrison recession, on top of the COVID pandemic, when people are out of work. People are being stood down and have lost their jobs. They're struggling to put food on the table and struggling to pay their bills. And what's the government doing? It's shutting face-to-face services. You have to sit there and ask, 'Why would you do that?' Honestly!

We know how much the government really cares about this and how much they support it: the minister couldn't even come to the table. Minister Robert, who has failed at everything that he has put his hand to, could not even come to the table and debate a motion on his own portfolio. We only have to look at what's happening with the NDIS. The government likes to come into this place, mislead the Australian people and say, 'Oh, we fully fund the NDIS.' No, they haven't. In fact, what they've been doing consistently in their seven years is cutting and slashing support for the NDIS. You shouldn't need a lawyer to access NDIS support. It's a government service; it's what we should be doing to help people who are vulnerable. But when the government keeps squeezing the support from the NDIS, all we see are more and more people who are suffering.

The NDIS is a national service; it's something that we know is so important for people who need the help. The pattern of behaviour by this government and its neglect of the NDIS is a national shame. It's been slashed, mismanaged and diminished to such an extent that all that's left is a bureaucratic nightmare for the people who it's meant to serve. Reports lead to quotes which lead to more reports which lead to more quotes. In my very own electorate, a constituent came to my office in February because of ongoing issues which, by November, are still not resolved. You'd think that a bloke who spent thousands and thousands of taxpayer dollars on internet could respond to emails and letters. But, no, he fails to do so. This poor lady needed her home modified just to move around her house—a basic human right; to live with dignity and independence. But in reality she's been strung along by the endless feast of NDIS mismanagement.

Some of the issues she's facing in dealing with the NDIS are repeated requests for information on different solutions and more quotes on different options. Each request for OT services eats into her funding and each request for a report, or a quote or an alternative adds to delays in getting solutions implemented. Each delay adds to the stress, anxiety and depression that many of these participants and their families are already struggling to deal with. I cannot emphasise enough that in many cases the NDIS only seems to make matters worse, not better. I know the stress that is put on my staff as we try to deal with this, day in and day out, in trying to help people living with disability and their families. And this government sits there on its hands and does nothing to support them. We're not all in this together: this government fails every vulnerable Australian there is.

Look at things such as robodebt or, as we like to call it, 'Robert-debt', because Stuart Robert is the one who created this mess, day in and day out.

Opposition Member:

An opposition member interjecting—He's a mess!

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

He's an absolute mess! It wrought destruction on many people in our communities.

Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member will withdraw that last statement. It was a personal reflection upon—

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll happily withdraw, if you want to go that way. Robodebt has been proven to be illegal. I know that people on that side might want to support the minister, but at the end of the day this was a scheme that the minister knew was illegal and that he continued to deal with. He is like the Irish Midas—everything he touches, he fails with. Now he's got assistance and support in putting this together from the embattled Attorney-General, who is the first law officer in this land, who was the one who actually didn't even bother checking to see if it was legal under the Social Security Act. In fact, the government ignored over 70 AAT decisions spelling out the illegality at the heart of the scheme, and the minister paused the debt recovery not before many thousands of Australians had lost their lives. (Time expired)

3:50 pm

Photo of Julian SimmondsJulian Simmonds (Ryan, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that many Australians have found themselves in situations that they never imagined—families needing government support for the first time in their lives. As the Prime Minister and the Treasurer outlined earlier today in question time and as they and we as a government have consistently outlined, when Australians were at their most vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic, this government had their back. We were there for them. Indeed, we doubled the level of support during the worst part of this crisis, and we continue, as a government, to provide that support that Australians need to get through the COVID-19 pandemic and recession. Today the Treasurer announced that we will extend the coronavirus supplement, at an extra cost of $3.2 billion. That's an extra $3.2 billion in support for Australian families on top of the hundreds of billions in support that have already been delivered by the government during the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of the extension of the $150 coronavirus supplement for the further three months.

We are entirely focused on Australia's economic recovery, and we are recovering. This is good news for Australians. It is something that Labor members should be heralding, as we are. The fact is that consumer confidence is up for the 10th week in a row. This is a good sign. This is a good sign for the COVID-free Christmas that we have in front of us. The fact that we are recovering is the reason these emergency measures that were put in place to support Australians at the peak of the crisis are being tapered. Australians want to get back to work, and they will. We will make sure that there are opportunities for them to get back to work. In this year's budget, the Morrison government's economic recovery plan showed again that we are focusing on that most important of objectives: creating jobs. This is the best thing that we can do to support Australians during the COVID-19 recession. It is intriguing that, once again, on one hand Labor seek to attack the government for the work that we are doing on the road to recovery. They attack our plan to taper some support measures so as not to provide an impediment for Australians looking to return to the workforce. On the other hand, we've got the senior Labor leadership saying that these payments need to be tapered. Yet, when they are tapered, they attack. They are simply incapable of holding a consistent position.

This MPI is about the importance of this House providing for the most vulnerable in our community, and the most vulnerable of all in our community are our children. I would like to take this opportunity to speak about an issue that I'm passionate about, and that is the Morrison government's efforts and commitment to keep Australian families and, particularly, Australia's kids safe online. Unfortunately, children are facing a horrid threat every day in the form of child sexual exploitation, and the most vile humans are using the cover of darkness and the cover of COVID to increase their levels of online predatory activity. I want to take this opportunity to really commend the Minister for Home Affairs for what he has done and what the government is doing to keep children safe from these truly heinous predators and to keep our kids safe online. The government has opened the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation, known as ACCCE. It's a purpose-built facility that brings together resources from government and Commonwealth agencies, law enforcement, non-government organisations and other partners in a centralised hub to prevent and disrupt the online sexual exploitation of children.

Recently I was able to visit the ACCCE in Brisbane, my home town, and speak to the remarkable staff doing their work there. All members in this House should take the time to pause and just consider what is involved in identifying these threats and what these officers go through to identify the threats: the images that they have to view, the online conversations that they have to pick up and be a part of—it is truly disgusting. And these individuals are driven, on our behalf, by the important goal of shutting down this behaviour, catching these predators and removing children from harm.

This is just one of the many ways that this government is supporting the most vulnerable in our community, along with all the support payments that we have provided during COVID-19. Australians know that this government has had their interests at heart throughout the COVID-19 recession, and Australians know that this government has the backs of all Australians, including the most vulnerable.

3:55 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with great pleasure that I rise to speak on this matter of public importance today, outlining the way-too-many ways in which this government has failed vulnerable Australians. It is a long list indeed, and my Labor colleagues before me mapped out a few of those.

But I want to start with the unmitigated failure of this government to in fact do anything about the national scourge of domestic and family violence in Australia. It is unforgivable—unforgivable. This government had full knowledge of the spiralling increase in domestic violence throughout COVID-19. It knew the way that those prolonged lockdowns, for some families, actually caused not only increased levels of violence for women who were already in violent relationships and their children, but also a phenomenal increase in new incidents of family violence in Australia. The government had that knowledge and those reports at hand. It knew the number of brutal murders that continue to occur in Australia—at least one each week. Despite all of that, there was not a single dollar, not a single bit of new funding, in this budget for women and children fleeing family and domestic violence.

An opposition member: Shame!

It is a shame. It is utterly shameful. Likewise, it is shameful that this government oversaw robodebt. We are about to have a court case in relation to robodebt; I believe it is coming up—perhaps tomorrow. Yet this government saw fit to allow a shocking sort of sneaky algorithm to actually go against vulnerable citizens in this nation. It was a shocking, harsh algorithm that really attacked people with disabilities and their carers, the partners of veterans and people working in the casual and gig economies—people with often insecure income. This was a painful and shameful algorithmic act of political cruelty—that's what that was—and this government is being called out for it. And may the court run its process, because we know that—despite all the promises that this government made to remedy that robodebt—the government has still failed to deliver on its promise to refund victims of the scheme, knowing that there are at least 3,000 dead people's estates that are still owed robodebt refunds. How you lie in bed at night with that knowledge is beyond me. This government knew for a very long time that robodebt was not just a heartless algorithmic weapon of political cruelty; it was, indeed, illegal. It was illegal, and yet it continued in its course.

But let's not forget also the shocking treatment of a whole lot of people who have not had the benefit of any support whatsoever from this government throughout the global pandemic. Let's not forget the students and the universities of Australia that have been left hanging out to dry—and very deliberately so. This government has had at least three occasions where it could have voted to include universities in the recovery process; it chose not to. Let's not forget those more than one million casual employees in Australia who were left with nothing and left out to dry. This is a shameful government with a shameful record. (Time expired)

4:00 pm

Photo of Pat ConaghanPat Conaghan (Cowper, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The one-in-100-year coronavirus pandemic has hit our young people and our vulnerable people very hard. A lot of young people living in my electorate of Cowper have lost their jobs or lost hours working in the hospitality and the tourism sectors. Community members who are vulnerable—whether it be through disability, mental health challenges, family breakdowns or violence—have been through a period of heightened turmoil as well during the pandemic.

This is why I've actually been very proud of our government's economic recovery plan for our nation and the hard work of our Prime Minister and ministers to repair our economy and to help our community recover from the pandemic. I've been particularly pleased with the coronavirus supplement, paid at the higher rate of $550 a fortnight, now $250, and, of course, the announcement of the extension at the rate of $150 per week to the end of March next year. Anyone on a range of different income support payments—including a partner allowance, widow allowance, sickness allowance, youth allowance, Abstudy, Austudy and the farm household allowance—has been eligible for the coronavirus supplement. I know this supplement has made an improvement in the lives of vulnerable and young people living in my electorate, bringing the average recipient's income up to $815 per fortnight. It's been at a significant cost, by our government, of $14 billion.

I referred to that announcement by the Minister for Families and Social Services on the extension of the coronavirus supplement. This is an additional $3.2 billion of taxpayers' money. In addition, it extends incentives to work, with the boosted income-free threshold of $300 per fortnight for jobseekers. We believe it's important to strike the right balance between temporary support and incentives to work.

In addressing this MPI today, it's important we also address domestic violence. Our government's commitment to the prevention of domestic violence and the protection of its victims has been unwavering, as evidenced in the government's investment in the Fourth Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022. I was pleased to have the Minister for Women, Senator Marise Payne, come to my electorate of Cowper in January of this year to hold a roundtable with many dedicated support organisations and women's support groups. On the table for discussion were the impact of the bushfires on domestic violence, how trauma and economic stress impact families and contribute to family violence, and the importance of the supports and the support networks for the victims of family violence. Little did we know, at the time, how important that roundtable would be for reinforcing our support networks for communities for the impact of COVID-19.

In March this year, our government announced $150 million in support for Australians experiencing domestic violence and family violence through COVID-19. This fund has boosted the programs under the national plan, including counselling support for families affected by or at risk of violence, assistance and support for men in building healthy relationships, and support for women and children experiencing violence to stay in their homes, when it is safe and they choose to do so. Additionally, in this year's budget we saw around 700 new safe places for women and children escaping domestic violence across the country. The Morrison-McCormack government will invest a further $60 million in the Safe Places initiative for new and expanded emergency accommodation, transforming buildings and homes into accessible and suitable accommodation for women and children fleeing domestic violence.

The once-in-100-years coronavirus pandemic has hit our young people and vulnerable people hard. It is a tragedy, as is the economic recession we are now experiencing as a result. But because this government was in a good fiscal position before the crisis hit we have been able to support our youth and vulnerable Australians with billions of dollars in investment and support.

4:05 pm

Photo of Peter KhalilPeter Khalil (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A government has a responsibility and a duty of care to the most vulnerable in a society. It's a sign of a civilised country. In government we should have a heart; we should have a soul. Governments should have enough heart that they don't just callously throw people on the rubbish heap because they are not strong enough or rich enough. Wealth is not a sign of worth.

You will hear those opposite say individuals should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But what if they don't have boots? What is a sign of true strength? Is it that we as a society, as a government, as a parliament should look after people less fortunate than ourselves, the disadvantaged and vulnerable in society, no matter where they come from or their age, ethnicity, gender, voting preference or ideological stance? A good government doesn't govern for just a select few; it doesn't just rule. A good government governs for every Australian. Yet we have seen, time and time again, this government making decisions based on ideology. In all of their decisions, prior to and during the pandemic, they have managed to leave out of the packages they have put forward the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society. And those who have become more vulnerable because of the pandemic have also been left out. These people, through no fault of their own, are socially and economically disadvantaged.

Instead of offering a helping hand to those who have fallen through the cracks created by COVID-19—and those cracks are now so big they are chasms—this government has wilfully ignored these people. Instead of providing adequate support for the unemployed, they sought to cut payments at every turn. Instead of owning up to their mistakes when mistakes have been made, they've washed their hands of responsibility and looked away. They have looked the other way when it comes to the needs of millions of Australians who work in aged care, casual workers, those looking for work who are older than 35, the thousands of Aussies stranded overseas, the 4.4 million Australians who live with a disability and their carers, and temporary migrants.

The NDIS, a vital service that Labor created, has been gutted by this Liberal government over the past seven years; it's no longer fit for purpose. And the NDIS commission that was set up to investigate its compliance and investigative capacity has stopped short on many occasions, issuing only two infringement notices in the last two years. This is despite receiving 8,000 complaints. On many of them, no further action has been taken. This year it was revealed that 1,200 Australians with disability had died over the past three years while waiting to be funded by the scheme. The minister responsible denied these cold hard facts; he looked the other way.

When it comes to JobSeeker, again and again we've called for this government to support people who are doing it tough. We've called on this government to maintain the JobSeeker coronavirus supplement of $250 per fortnight. We've called on the government to permanently raise the rate of JobSeeker/Newstart. There will be 1.8 million Australians relying on unemployment benefits this Christmas season—one million more than last year—and 11,000 of those people are in my electorate of Wills. That's why we voted to support the increase in the rate. No-one is surprised that the government refused—blocked that amendment. Today the government announced they are cutting the supplement in December. Cutting, cutting, cutting—they are cutting another $100 a fortnight. The impacts of the virus are far from over. People looking for work don't need cuts. People struggling to support their families on JobSeeker don't need cuts.

Let me talk about pre the pandemic and the obscenity of those opposite, squeezing money out of the most vulnerable in society with their travesty of a robodebt policy. That was obscene. They made a choice to go after the most disadvantaged people in society to pad up their so-called surplus at the time. Thousands of Australians who are suffering, who are disadvantaged and who are vulnerable were given false debts by those opposite, by their robodebt scheme—the travesty that it was.

Australians need a government that will support them during the tough times. Labor has a plan to get people back to work and to create jobs in manufacturing, in renewable energy, in affordable child care, in restoring public housing. We have a vision for a fairer Australia. (Time expired)

4:11 pm

Photo of Angie BellAngie Bell (Moncrieff, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We have Australians' backs. This is a government that is standing behind every Australian at this time. I simply cannot stand on this side of the chamber and accept what those opposite, including the member for Maribyrnong, are saying about the Morrison government's response to the coronavirus pandemic, especially for those in our communities who need extra support at this time. During the worst health and economic crisis in living memory, they simply cannot and will not acknowledge the outstanding work of the Minister for Families and Social Services, Senator Ruston, and the Minister for Government Services, my Gold Coast colleague the member for Fadden.

Australians are reasonable people. Australians understand that the coronavirus supplement is a temporary and scalable measure that must be stepped down over time. They get it. The Leader of the Opposition himself has agreed to that point, as we heard earlier today in question time. Today we heard the announcement of an extension of the coronavirus supplement to help Australians, for those who need it the most—an extra $3.2 billion in measures to support them while they need it. Our government is walking hand in hand with Australians to assist them during and coming out of this time of crisis.

Let's talk about the facts—not the untruths from the other side—when it comes to the Morrison government's support for Australians who need extra support. From 1 January through to the end of March 2021, the coronavirus supplement will have a new rate of $150 per fortnight. That's an extension of an extra three months to assist the economy to bounce back and for more jobs to become available for jobseekers, an extra three months of support so there will be more jobs on the market so that more Australians can get back to work and get the country going again in the new year. It is very important for our economic recovery. Over $15.5 billion in critical assistance has already been paid through the coronavirus supplement. Public servants did a great job ramping up the activities of Services Australia, under Minister Robert, to respond to an incredible increase in demand. By the end of October, Services Australia had delivered over $8.9 billion in economic support payments. That is an enormous amount of money, an enormous amount of support, that's gone back into the economy to help vulnerable Australians.

The government has always recognised the importance of not only the amount of support provided to those in need but the speed at which we have been able to deliver it. That speed is particularly important to those Australians who need it fast, who need extra help. The capacity of myGov has been upgraded to support 300,000 concurrent users—that's 300,000 people online at the same time getting extra benefits through online platforms. They don't need to go to the Centrelink office anymore. Jobseekers can earn up to $300 per fortnight from their job without losing a cent of their payment. That helps households, it helps those out of work and it helps individuals. When it comes to the NDIS, it has already delivered more than $666 million in advance payments to more than 5,000 NDIS providers to ensure that Australians with a need are supported.

The question must be asked: why does the member for Maribyrnong come into this place and spread fear and misinformation? Is he very out of touch? Is he unable to comprehend the reality? Far more likely is that the reality doesn't suit him or his ambition. The member for Maribyrnong hasn't listened to the people of Australia. His divisiveness was rejected by Australians at the last election. His disregard for the evidence of these matters shows that he just hasn't learned to listen to Australians. They don't like being treated like fools, and Australians do not like divisive politics. The member for Maribyrnong has to understand, realise and acknowledge the great work that the Morrison government has undertaken to deliver for all Australians during this very difficult time, this coronavirus pandemic, once in a hundred years. I'm very proud to stand here, as a member of the Morrison government, and tell those opposite exactly what we've been doing to help Australians and not to divide them.

Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The discussion has concluded.