Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Economic Recovery Package (JobMaker Hiring Credit) Amendment Bill 2020; Consideration of Senate Message
In supporting the motion moved by the minister I'd simply indicate, for the convenience of the House, that if this is carried and we're then dealing with a motion on the House's reaction to the message then we will have a number of speakers. But, given the resolution that's just been unanimously carried, we'll make sure this debate is put to the vote before 10 o'clock, when the House is suspended.
Last night Labor, along with many of the crossbench, voted to support amendments to the Economic Recovery Package (JobMaker Hiring Credit) Amendment Bill 2020. The fact is that there are currently 937,000 people unemployed in this country and more than 1½ million who are underemployed. Since the beginning of the pandemic, about 200,000 people have simply given up looking for work. So we supported the bill last night. It's important to recognise that this bill will see payments not commence until February, so the government has time to really think these issues through. They need to think it through because they've got some measures wrong. Unless the government supports the amendments, particularly about displaced workers, then what we could see is someone over the age of 35—they happen to be 37 or they happen to be 40—displaced, sacked from their work, replaced by a labour hire company or replaced by a younger person because the company will have an incentive to do that because they will get a financial incentive of either $200 or $100.
We put forward practical amendments on this legislation, as we have done consistently on all of the measures that have been put forward through this parliament. We have voted for every package and we voted for this last night. But I say to the government: if this legislation is seriously about additional employment rather than about replacing existing workers, they have to support this amendment. If they are at all fair dinkum about additional work, they have to support this amendment. This amendment was supported—I've got to say, it's not always that you have Labor, the Greens political party, One Nation, South Australian Independent Rex Patrick and others all voting in the one direction. When you've got the Greens party and One Nation voting together, it might give you pause for thought. The fact is that Labor will not tolerate a circumstance whereby workers who are aged over 35 get done over as a result of legislation passed by this parliament.
What we know about recessions past is that when recessions occur we quite often see older workers displaced, never to work again. We've seen that too many times in the past. It's totally unacceptable that we have legislation presented that would allow that to happen because of the recession. But this is something different; this is about this government, this parliament, providing an incentive to sack older workers and have them replaced. Surely that's unacceptable. The Senate agreed to this amendment, so it should be the case that the government just think about it.
How many times have we seen this government have to move amendments to its own legislation, including on legislation related to the response to the pandemic and the recession, because it got the detail wrong? Well, they've got the detail wrong. I don't believe that the minister here at the table thinks that it's fair that a 37-year-old should get the sack and be replaced by someone younger because there's an incentive in the legislation to do so. If they say it just can't happen, then they should just accept the amendment—that's the point here—if they are at all fair dinkum.
The legislation is called JobMaker. (Extension of time granted)
It is supposed to be about creating new jobs. Labor is for new jobs. What we're not for is sacking older workers. It's as simple as that. I say to the minister and to the government: this isn't a political issue; this is about job security. Without Labor's amendments that we are supporting here along with the crossbenches, the legislation will take away the livelihoods of Australians who are fortunate to have jobs during this recession. It is a threat. It is a threat to working families. Job security is absolutely critical yet this legislation creates job insecurity.
We know that many older workers are precisely the people who are supporting children and teenagers to go through school. The average age of a first-time mother has now reached above the age of 30. So when we are talking about the people impacted by this legislation we are talking about working families who are doing it tough—and that's why we should fix this.
The government's draft rules are out for consultation until 27 November. Payments from the scheme don't flow until February next year, so they have time to fix it. We're not holding anything up here. What we're doing is trying to fix it in the interests of working families. The government should support these amendments, just as the Senate did overwhelmingly last night.
These amendments must be supported because they will stop people getting sacked and they will stop people losing hours of work. The Greens moved these amendments together with Labor and they were supported by a majority of the Senate. We had to do it, because the government bowled up a very thin bill that contained absolutely no protections for workers in this country. That's because the government fundamentally doesn't understand how government intervention can create jobs. The government should be using their purse strings to directly invest in job-creating, nation-building projects in this country. But they're not. Their mentality is 'we'll write blank cheques for big corporations and hope that some of it trickles down'. The Greens know that that doesn't work.
When the government comes along and says, 'Nonetheless, we are going to insist on our plan to just give billions of dollars to corporations and hope for the best,' then we are entitled to say, 'Where are the protections to ensure that this just doesn't make insecure work even worse?' The government's bill, unamended, would allow an employer to sack someone who's got a decent wage and decent hours of work and then put on two people at the minimum wage in low-hours jobs. That is not good for anyone. It is not good for the people who get sacked, it is not good for the people who might have their hours of work reduced and it is not good for the young people who will then be thrown into a world of insecure work.
This protection does no more than what the Prime Minister said on radio was already prohibited by the bill. So if the government agrees with what the Prime Minister has been saying publicly—namely, that you can't sack someone or reduce their hours of work to take advantage of this credit—then they should support this amendment that the Greens moved in the Senate. It is really, really simple.
The Greens tried to fix the bill in the Senate in a number of other ways. We tried to stop money being given over to corporations that engage in wage theft; unfortunately, that wasn't successful. We tried to stop billions of dollars being given to corporations that are profitable and paying dividends, because the Greens believe that public money shouldn't be going to companies that are already profitable to part-pay some of their wages bill. What is the case for that? If a company is paying dividends, why should the public be asked to then assist in paying its wages bill? We weren't successful on that. But we were successful, as the Leader of the Opposition has said, in getting a whole range of people from across the political spectrum to support a really straightforward amendment to enshrine a really basic protection in this bill. Let's just be really clear about the amendment that we're voting on and what it does: it says that an employer cannot cut an existing employee's hours of work and it cannot sack someone who's already got a job in order to put someone on to take advantage of this credit.
That should be completely unobjectionable. What is astounding is that the government didn't even bother to get up and speak to explain why the amendments were wrong. The government cannot find any fault with these amendments. It is going to rely on the brute force of numbers to try to stare the Senate down. I say to the government: we've got a lot of concerns with this bill because in many respects it is just corporate welfare dressed up as job creation, but, when you have a majority of the Senate across the political spectrum standing united to say the path to job creation is not to sack other workers first so you can take advantage of a government subsidy, the government should listen. If the government here can't even be bothered to offer one speech in defence of its unamended bill, then it should accept the amendment. The Greens were very proud to move this amendment to enshrine some minimal protection in what was an otherwise weak bill, but the fact that it has been supported across the political spectrum should send a very clear message to the government.
If the government can't even be bothered to get up and defend its unamended bill, then it should accept this amendment. It should here, today, allow this amendment to be incorporated into the bill to enshrine at least some minimal protection to people who may, as a result of the government's negligence, stand to lose their jobs.
We need to see safeguards for existing workers in this country. We don't expect the government to come to that view very quickly—it's not in their DNA to think about security of employment in this country—but we have brought this to the attention of the government in the debate that happened last night in the Senate to ensure that we safeguard existing employees in order that they are not displaced, potentially dismissed or, indeed, have their hours reduced by rogue employers who might seek to game the system. Most employers would seek to do the right thing with a wage subsidy program, but there will always be those employers that will seek to use this improperly, and therefore it is absolutely critical that we have safeguards in place in order to protect those workers currently working.
We are currently faced with the worst recession since the Great Depression. We have soaring unemployment, we have workers lining up in unemployment queues around this country and we have a government initiating a scheme that does not protect existing workers. We say to them that they must accept this amendment because, without this amendment, those workers currently employed cannot be assured, going into Christmas, that they'll have a job. It's as simple as that. We say to the government, as the Labor leader has said, that we support the initiatives. We're not big fans of this initiative because it is too small. It will provide support for workers, but we say the scale of it will not provide enough opportunities for workers. But nonetheless we support it because, if enacted properly, there will be additional jobs in the labour market. There will be workers unemployed now who will find themselves in employment before Christmas and beyond. Whilst the scale of it is too small to deal with this deep recession, we say to the government we support it as we have supported other initiatives by this government.
But what we cannot understand is why, when the government has a decision to make to either side with employees currently working or side with rogue employers who might want to game the system, they choose to side with those employers who would seek to game the system and treat their own workforce shabbily. Why would any government in their right mind, who want to add additional jobs to the labour market, support the capacity for employers to sack workers and replace them with other workers that are subsidised? Why would Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister of this country, allow a scheme to be used in such a manner that workers, who are heading into Christmas, might find themselves sacked or have their hours reduced because they have not safeguarded them in using this scheme? Frankly, it beggars belief that the government would allow a scheme to be set up to displace workers that are currently employed.
What we've sought to do from the beginning is to work constructively with the government in the face of a global pandemic and the worst recession we've had since the Great Depression. That's what we've sought to do. In fact, in March this year, eight months ago, we said to the government: why would you not want to consider a wage subsidy? To which the Prime Minister said at the time: 'We do not need a wage subsidy.' Well, it was only two weeks later—having closed the parliament for nearly six months—that we reconvened the parliament and the government introduced the suggestion that was proffered by Labor to have a wage subsidy. And, if we hadn't done that and if they hadn't taken up that suggestion at that time, millions of Australian workers would have lost their jobs. I know they like to take credit, if you listen to the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, but eight months ago, when we put a suggestion about a wage subsidy in good faith to the government, to the Prime Minister and to the Treasurer, they dismissed it.
We are now putting another suggestion to the government and to the Prime Minister, and it is this: you've got a very modest scheme, but it will provide extra jobs for people, and we applaud that; it's too small in its scale to respond to the problems we have, but we still support it in principle and in practice because it will lead to jobs for young people, people aged 35 and under. We support that. But do not allow loopholes to exist that allow rogue employers to displace or sack their workers. Why would you want to have a scheme that doesn't serve its own purpose—which is to add to the labour market and to increase employment by companies and businesses across the country?
The only conclusion we can draw if the government do not support this amendment is that they have absolutely no regard for employment security in this country.
The amendment that we are fighting for today is about one thing and one thing only: whether or not the government's legislation will encourage employers to sack their workers. That's all that we're on about today. It's about whether or not people will have the opportunity to sack their workers in order to qualify for the government's hiring credit.
At a time when there are already a million unemployed in this country, with another 160,000 people expected to join the unemployment queues; at a time when the labour market wasn't real flash even before COVID-19 showed up; at a time when we're in the deepest, most damaging recession for almost a century; and at a time when we are in the teeth of a full-blown jobs crisis, the government's priority here is to oppose a sensible amendment that is all about whether or not employers can sack their workers to qualify for this hiring credit. If they think that it should be easier for employers to sack their workers during this recession, they should come to that dispatch box and just say so. They should have the courage to say that that's what they're all about.
We've had concerns about this hiring credit all along. We've said that we are prepared to support it but we're worried about the 928,000 unemployed Australians over 35 years old who've been deliberately excluded. We've been worried about the capacity for employers to sack workers. We've been worried about the fact that they announced this would be 450,000 additional jobs but we know from Treasury and estimates it's more like 45,000 additional jobs. We want to help those opposite get this right. They've got form when it comes to getting some of these labour market programs wrong. Restart for over 50s has been a diabolical failure from go to whoa. We want to help them get it right. The government have the time to get this right; the payments do not even flow until February. They'll pretend that whatever we do here and in the Senate is somehow preventing money from getting out in the community. That is absolute rubbish. The payments don't flow until February in any case. They've got the time to get it right. They've got an opportunity here to do something, for once, to stand up for Australian workers.
I'll be brief in my remarks to make sure that we have the division commence before 10 o'clock. What's in front of us now is a scheme that both sides of politics voted for in the House of Representatives. So, when we hear those opposite saying—as I can predict they will in a minute—that somehow this is about whether or not the program happens: in the House of Reps, both sides have already voted for the program to occur. In the Senate, after these amendments went through, both sides of politics, including the government, voted for the bill in its amended form—so the government's already voted for the bill, including these amendments, in the Senate. They've already done that. Today, the only question in front of us is whether or not the amendments should be part of the bill. That is the only question in front of us, and it will be the only question in front of the Senate as well.
And what do those amendments mean? Here's what they mean for workers—and who are these workers? A lot of them are people with families. They're all people who've been ineligible for JobKeeper. If you're a worker, maybe in your late 30s, early 40s, and you've made it all the way through the pandemic without a wage subsidy—you've turned up for work during the pandemic without any additional support from the government—now the government is changing the rules so that other workers will be cheaper than you. All we're saying is those workers shouldn't have their hours cut or lose their jobs as a result. And the government are wanting to argue, 'No, you need to keep that flexibility in the act.' This has a real impact on working families, on older workers, as we head into Christmas.
The government right now is making a deliberate decision to keep a loophole in the act to take away job security as we head into Christmas. The government is making a deliberate decision by how they are about to vote to make sure that, as we head into Christmas, workers who have had no support during this pandemic and have simply turned up for work every day are going to be allowed to face either losing their job altogether or having their hours cut, because other workers are cheaper. If you believe that loophole should be there, if you believe that job security should be lost, then vote with the government when the bells ring. But if you believe that those workers who have made it all the way through this pandemic should not have their job security put at risk, then you need to vote no.