House debates

Tuesday, 1 December 2020


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020; Second Reading

5:19 pm

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

I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020 and I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes the Government's plans to cut coronavirus support for businesses and individuals; and

(2) calls on the Government to permanently increase the base rate of the JobSeeker Payment".

I'd also like to indicate that Labor is planning to move detailed amendments to this bill with the aim of doing a number of things. We aim to stop the government from cutting payments to around two million people at Christmas, including people on unemployment support, students and apprentices and single parents. We also aim to require the minister to urgently consider a permanent increase to the base rate of JobSeeker Payment, because the only way unemployment support can be increased is if the government decides to do it. It simply cannot be done from the other side of this chamber because it involves expenditure. We also want to reverse the government's unfair reinstatement of the liquid assets waiting period and require the minister to urgently consider extending the beneficial changes that have been made to the income test, how much a person can earn before losing their payment and the eligibility rule for sole traders, among other things. I hope the government will support these amendments.

In relation to the bill itself, the effect of this bill will be to return unemployment support to the old base rate of Newstart on 31 March 2021 by earning the minister's power to make regulations extending the coronavirus supplement. Of course, the government could choose not to use that power and cut payments at any time, as they have done twice already, but the complete and total removal of this power gives a clear indication of the government's plan to take unemployment all the way back to the old Newstart rate in March, hence our amendments. One point eight million Australians are projected to be on unemployment support by the end of the year, and around two million Australians will be impacted by the government's scheduled cut to the coronavirus supplement next March. This includes people who have lost their job as well as single parents and students. The base rate of unemployment support is too low. Unemployment support can provide a barrier to hardship and poverty. Unemployment support is spent on local businesses, sustaining and creating local jobs. Returning unemployment support to the old base rate places millions of Australians at risk of hardship and jeopardises local jobs.

The government temporarily boosted JobSeeker at the outset of a pandemic, when the number of Australians requiring support doubled overnight. We all saw those lines at Centrelink. The number of Australians requiring support is expected to increase to 1.8 million by the end of this year. How does the government expect it can cut support? The bill strikes out the minister's existing ability to pay the coronavirus supplement indefinitely and replaces it with a time limited power that stops on 31 March 2021. This bill is a missed opportunity to lift people out of poverty, support the economy and protect local jobs. Labor calls on the government to deliver a permanent increase to the base rate of unemployment support and calls on the government to ensure continued beneficial support for people impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and recession.

There are many beneficial elements to this bill, including continuing the coronavirus supplement for the youth allowance, student and apprentice recipients after December as well as the increased income-free areas, taper rates and partner income test that have been introduced as part of the pandemic. But it does include a cut in JobSeeker in March, for a return to the old base rate of Newstart. The government introduced a coronavirus supplement because the number of Australians requiring unemployment support virtually doubled overnight at the outset of the pandemic. Labor welcomed this supplement. Labor had consistently called for an increase to unemployment support long before the pandemic, because it is simply too low and is inadequate to protect Australians from hardship and enable them to live with dignity.

The coronavirus supplement is paid to most people through regulation-making powers the minister has under the Social Security Act 1991. This means the government can extend the coronavirus supplement and set the rate in three-monthly intervals, so long as the impact of the pandemic persists. Of course, the government can choose not to use this power and cut support back to the old Newstart rate. Already, the government has cut support twice—once in September and they have announced another cut around Christmas time. The government has taken the coronavirus supplement from $550 a fortnight to $250 a fortnight and will make it $150 per fortnight from Christmas time. The impact of the pandemic will clearly persist for many years, with the Department of Social Services expecting the number of people to be relying on unemployment support to still be elevated in four years time.

This bill will repeal the minister's power to indefinitely extend the coronavirus supplementation on 1 April 2021. Labor's amendment aims to stop this occurring. Earlier this year, Labor negotiated with the government for a separate power to be included in the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Act 2020 to enable the minister to make other changes to the social security system to help people impacted by the pandemic. This power, and the regulations made under it, end on 31 December 2020. This bill proposes to extend this power, but only to 31 March 2021. Labor supports this extension, but we also think this power needs to persist for longer, so the government can continue to flexibly respond to the ongoing economic challenges as they arise from the pandemic.

Because of this power, which Labor advocated for, the government has been able to introduce more generous partner income testing for JobSeeker payment, which Labor negotiated. It tapers at 27c in the dollar and cuts out at a partner income at $80,200 per year. This power has enabled the government to make changes to the JobSeeker and youth allowance personal income tests. It provides an income-free area of $300 per fortnight, up from $106 per fortnight prior to the pandemic, and that was a good thing. It has enabled the government to expand the eligibility criteria to the JobSeeker and youth allowance (other). It now includes sole traders and the self-employed, permanent employees who have been stood down and people self-isolating because they or someone they are caring for has been affected by the pandemic. The power has enabled the government to waive the ordinary waiting period for one week and the seasonal work preclusion period and the newly arrived residents waiting period. The government has been enabled to extend the time people can maintain eligibility for payment and keep concession cards and to make many other beneficial changes relating to the pension mobility allowance and self-declaration for couple assessments.

This current bill removes the minister's ability to make regulations that waive the liquid assets waiting period and the assets period. Labor does not support this, and our detailed amendments will seek to reverse it. The government should not have reinstated the liquid assets waiting period in September, and I have been very vocal about this. They should drop their cruel plan to make people wait 26 weeks to got unemployment support if they have modest savings. This is a false economy. It means people are forced to run down their last dollar, and it makes it is more likely that they will face hardships such as struggling to pay the mortgage or having to take a car off the road. It also means people are more likely to need to rely on other services such as food banks and emergency relief.

Labor is concerned about the Morrison government's plan to return JobSeeker to the old base rate of $40 per day on 31 March. By the end of the year, 1.8 million Australians are expected to be on unemployment support. The number of Australians on unemployment support is not expected to return to prepandemic levels for four years, as I have already stated. With more jobseekers than each job vacancy, there are simply not enough jobs for everyone who needs one. It is even more difficult to find a job in our regions, the result of the government's failure to deliver a jobs program for our regions.

Australians who are struggling to find work are struggling to find more hours, and they face an anxious new year. Many Australians will be wondering what level of support will be available to them after 31 March 2021. Many are worried about how they will afford essentials, cover rent and pay bills. Unemployment support should provide a barrier to hardship and poverty and enable vulnerable Australians to live with dignity. Cutting it will see many Australians placed at risk of falling into poverty.

Australians receiving unemployment support spend at local and small businesses. We know that for a fact. They play a vital role in helping to create local jobs, especially at times like these. When JobSeeker is cut in December and March, Australians on social security will have less to spend on local and small businesses. Anyone can see that. Local and small business will have less to spend on wages and on jobs in turn. How many jobs will be jeopardised or placed at risk when the government cuts JobSeeker in December and March? Many leading economists have articulated this in just the last few days.

The government continues to demonise the millions of Australians who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. The government continues to demonise the millions of Australians who for some reason or other find themselves on social security. The government continues to cynically insinuate that Australians who have lost their jobs have chosen to do so. It is cynical, cruel and wrong. It continues its ideological obsession with the cashless debit card, which it has failed to demonstrate actually works. It continues to pursue drug testing of welfare recipients, yet it has no plan for jobs. The government continues to gloss over the grim reality facing too many Australians at the moment. As I said, 1.8 million of them will require unemployment support by the end of the year. And many Australians are not receiving the hours they want or need to survive. Many Australians are anxious about job security.

I want to briefly take a moment to reflect on the testimony to the Senate committee that led an inquiry into this bill last week—in particular the testimony from economist professors Jeff Borland and Peter Whiteford. They said the temporary boost to unemployment support has not created a disincentive to work. Professor Whiteford told the committee: 'While there are always some employers who say applicants are refusing jobs, the reality was that the average number of applicants per job could be as high as 20.' I have heard just recently of friends of mine who have advertised for jobs where there have been hundreds of applications. Professor Borland told the committee that it was difficult to see how, with unemployment support below the minimum wage, it could present a disincentive for people to work. Professor Borland conducted a study which looked into the time taken to fill vacancies and the flow of workers into jobs. He went on to say that, if the rate of unemployment support presented a disincentive to work, we would have seen an appreciable effect on the entry to employment, but this has not been the case. Professor Borland summed up his work as follows:

That research has a couple of main findings. One is that you could have a substantial increase in JobSeeker without adversely affecting incentives to take up paid work. Secondly, with the COVID-19 supplement to JobSeeker, we have had, in 2020, an experiment, if you like, on what the effect on incentives to find work would be of a higher rate of JobSeeker, and my evaluation of the evidence is that there is no evidence that the higher level of JobSeeker during 2020, with the COVID-19 supplement, has had any appreciable effect on incentives to take up paid work for the people who are receiving JobSeeker.

Yet the government continues to contradict the evidence of the experts by perpetrating a myth about the rate of JobSeeker. In fact, this government has made an art of contradicting evidence in many fields. The Senate inquiry also heard evidence about the disproportionate impact that the government's scheduled March JobSeeker cut will have on Australians in their mid-50s and 60. This is really important.

We heard from the Council on the Ageing, who told a Senate committee that Australians over 55 experienced the greatest difficulty re-entering the workforce and were unlikely to find another job. COTA spoke of age discrimination facing Australians over the age of 55 in the workplace and the jobs market. COTA warn that a return of unemployment payments to the old base rate of Newstart could see Australians in their 50s and 60s driven further into poverty. In the past 18 years, the proportion of people on unemployment payments who are over 55 has gone from 8.8 per cent to 26.6 per cent. It has more than trebled. There are currently more than 307,000 people over 55 on unemployment support, and they are having the most trouble getting off the payment. Last month, almost one million Australians were excluded from the government's job hiring wage subsidy.

The Senate committee also heard from the Australian Retailers Association, who warned that scheduled cuts to unemployment support would jeopardise thousands of retail jobs. The ARA told the committee that an estimated 58 per cent of unemployment support payments were spent in retail. In light of this, the ARA said the full COVID-19 supplement represented $8.5 billion per year to the Australian retail sector—the equivalent of 130,000 retail jobs. The ARA told the committee that, with one in 10 Australian employees working in retail, the sector was the bellwether of the Australian economy. It described the boosted JobSeeker rate as the quiet achiever of the pandemic. The ARA said that members reported a reduction in spending on essentials after unemployment support was reduced in September. It called for a permanent increase to unemployment support, as this would provide certainty for social security recipients and the broader economy. The ARA's chief executive, Paul Zahra, told the inquiry:

… certainty drives confidence , and confidence drives spending.

He said that, without certainty, there will be no spending. He warned that the lack of certainty beyond March could affect Christmas spending. Small businesses and retail businesses are asking this government how many jobs will be lost when unemployment support returns to the old base rate. A permanent increase to JobSeeker will not only provide a barrier to hardship but also sustain local businesses and jobs.

Finally, I want to say that Labor is very concerned about the resumption of the current liquid assets waiting period. With almost 1.8 million Australians expected to require unemployment support by the end of the year, it really is unrealistic and inconceivable that the government would want to resume this waiting period. It is bloody-minded. We are also calling on the government to withdraw its cruel and unnecessary plan to double this waiting period to 26 weeks, or six months. The Morrison government wants people to eat through their savings, their only financial buffer against hardship, before they can access support. Australians who have lost work or lost hours should not be forced into hardship or poverty before they can access help.

This bill is a missed opportunity for the government to deliver permanent increases to unemployment payments. It absolutely lays bare the government's plans for unemployment payments and other payments to go back to the pre-pandemic rate on 31 March 2021. That is why Labor will move amendments. We are calling on the government to stop its Christmas cut to unemployment payments and to announce a permanent increase.

It seems everyone except this Prime Minister understands that returning to the old Newstart rate isn't good for individuals, isn't good for jobs and is certainly not good for the economy. The RBA, the BCA and the Retailers Association, as well as community groups and economists, support an increase to the base rate of unemployment payments. Even many on the government's side support it, including the member for New England and the member for Cowper, who recently said the idea of going back to $40 a day was 'fairly cruel and unusual punishment'. An increase would be good for local jobs and local economies, particularly in regional areas. Regional representatives in this chamber should take great note of that. It would lift people out of poverty. The old rate was so low that it was preventing people from being able to afford the basics and look for work. That is the reality.

I have moved a second reading amendment and, as I said, other amendments are being circulated in my name. I really urge the government to take note of what's being proposed here and to realise that a permanent increase to Newstart is what's absolutely needed. Labor negotiated in good faith that the minister, through regulation, would have power after 31 March to adjust the rates of the coronavirus supplement. The explanations I've been given for that being removed certainly are not credible.

I think that people right across this chamber in their heart of hearts know the base rate of Newstart is too low. The idea and the message that is being sent to those people on Newstart now is, 'This is your lot in life, and you will be returned to making decisions between paying the rent, getting the kids school shoes, getting medicine and having a meal.' That's the cold, hard reality. It is hard to think what poverty looks like for many people in this country, but let me assure you that it is real for tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of people. I ask people, in looking at these amendments, to think about the long-term effects that this poverty has on the children of those homes. The effects will be with them for life, and the idea that somehow or other you can just pull your socks up, strap your shoes on and get on with life is not the reality for many people living in this country. We in this place, elected representatives, have a duty to those people. We have a duty to care, and we have the capacity to make their lives ones of dignity. I urge people to consider that in considering the amendments to this bill.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Chris BowenChris Bowen (McMahon, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Barton has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the words proposed to be omitted stand as part of the question.

5:45 pm

Photo of Katie AllenKatie Allen (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020, or JobSeeker transition package, because I believe this bill needs to be passed now for the good of Australians who are dealing with a very severe crisis, as 2020 has been a year like no other—there's been both a health and an economic crisis like no other.

When the global COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia, the Morrison government acted decisively by boosting our health response and putting in place hundreds of billions of dollars of direct economic support measures to cushion the blow. We understood the crises we faced, and we understood the requirement for a swift, targeted, temporary and proportionate response to a state of emergency that has effectively spread around the globe.

In April, we understood the economic shock that lay ahead. Not everybody did. In fact, the Prime Minister was very clear that this was not going to be a two-week crisis—this was going to last for many months. I'm pleased to say that, other than in the unfortunate Victorian outbreak, we have weathered the storm admirably, and we are now at the point where Australia will be reunited by Christmas, with the last closed border today to be announced to be lifted by Western Australia. My constituents in Higgins are celebrating—that's for sure. So many can't wait to return to their families in Perth, families that they haven't seen all year.

It's also important to recognise that we have done very well with regard to our economic stimulus package and that 650,000 jobs have been returned in the past five months, with 80 per cent of those who've lost their jobs or had their hours reduced to zero back at work. It's important to recognise this because this is an economy that's in transition.

We also know that, even though there are enormously encouraging signs of revival, some are still struggling, whether someone's lost their job or their business through no fault of their own or they are struggling with mental health issues that the stress and uncertainty of COVID has exacted. That is why the Morrison government will extend our extra temporary COVID support for a further three months through the social security system for those Australians seeking work as economic confidence and momentum builds. This, coupled with far lower than expected unemployment rates and higher than hoped for consumer sentiment, means Australia is the envy of the world despite the fact we've had to deal with COVID.

The bill we are debating today will ensure that both existing and new jobseekers will be paid the coronavirus supplement at a rate of $150 per fortnight from 1 January 2021 through to 31 March 2021 on top of their base rate of payment and other supplements they are already eligible to receive. The extension of these supportive measures is estimated to cost an additional $3.2 billion. Jobseekers will continue to be able to earn up to $300 per fortnight without their social security payments being reduced. As the country is safely reopening and business is starting to return to full steam, we need to connect those seeking work with available jobs.

The Morrison government is committed to supporting individuals, families and the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing this additional financial support to people who lose their jobs or have reduced income. And I repeat: this government understands and recognises that these extra economic stresses have occurred to people through no fault of their own.

Through this bill we are extending temporary enhanced financial support through this supplement and other temporary eligibility, because we understand the economy is in transition. To date our temporary measures have been successful. We understand the challenging conditions people are facing. The government continues to actively monitor economic conditions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and is responding by continuing assistance for individuals and families. The government has now committed unprecedented fiscal and economic support. This is actually unbelievable, and I think in February no-one would have believed that we would be in the situation we are in now both in terms of the government stretching to provide unprecedented economic support and what has happened around the globe. No-one could see this coming, and Australians should feel very proud of the response that we have had as a government, with the support of the Australian people.

Every Australian should have confidence in the Morrison government to deliver for them and their families in the way that is needed in this time of crisis. We are offering support now and into the future but we are not short-sighted; we are also planning our recovery on the other side of this virus. But to get there we must pass this bill, to ensure that those who need it most are supported through these difficult times.

5:51 pm

Photo of Libby CokerLibby Coker (Corangamite, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the shadow minister for families and social services, who continues to tirelessly lobby the Morrison government for better outcomes for our pensioners, our parents, our young people and Australian families. She is a force to be reckoned with, but even so the government continues to leave too many people out and too many people behind. While there are elements of this bill that will be beneficial, it is a huge missed opportunity to deliver certainty for Australians who are doing it tough. In particular, it undermines far too many Australians—the 160,000 Australians who are expected to lose their jobs by the end of the year and the 1.8 million Australians who will be reliant on unemployment support by Christmas. In such a time of economic crisis, with so many losing their jobs, shouldn't the Morrison government do what is right and fair and increase the unemployment payment rate to more than $40 a day? This government should not make the unemployed wait 26 weeks before they can access support.

Every day I talk to residents in Corangamite who are facing increasing costs to protect their health because of the coronavirus pandemic. Every day I talk to pensioners in my electorate who are facing rising costs in energy and grocery bills. And every day I talk to residents in Corangamite who are dumbstruck that the Morrison government doesn't seem to care about them. In particular I've heard from many childcare workers, workers in the university and arts sector and many casual workers across my electorate who have been left out in the cold by this Morrison government. The government talk about consumer confidence on the radio, harp on about jobs on the telly and then come into this House and propose legislation that, apart from hurting many people, will decimate the economy.

At the start of the pandemic the government introduced the coronavirus supplement, a $550 fortnightly payment to those who were receiving unemployment support as well as to single parents and students. Labor supported this additional payment. Currently the coronavirus supplement is mostly paid to people through regulation-making powers that the minister has under the Social Security Act 1991. But while the impact of the pandemic will persist for many years this bill will end the government's authority to extend the coronavirus supplement. This is unnecessary and cruel. JobSeeker needs to be increased.

The KPMG chief economist, Brendan Rynne, recently said that the current payment of $40 a day is making it harder for the unemployed to find work due to the cost of travelling for interviews. The evidence of the benefits of increasing the unemployment payment is clear. Since the rate of JobSeeker was temporarily boosted, Australians on JobSeeker have been lifted out of hardship and poverty and have had more to spend at local businesses. They've been able to put food on the table to pay bills and to meet their rent.

In the wake of this pandemic, the budget was an opportunity for the government to deliver lasting structural change for vulnerable Australians while boosting business and jobs. The government has missed that opportunity, and here's why: they don't understand how employment works. When you apply for a job either you get the job or someone else gets the job. That's how it works in each individual case. So it's tempting to think that's how it works across the entire system; it's not. When more people are employed across the whole economy, they create more wealth, then they spend more money and then there is more demand for workers. Somebody else then gets a job indirectly, helping everyone else get or keep a job. The more jobs there are, the more jobs there will be, because jobs make jobs. This is fantastic news when things are going well, but it's really bad news when things are going poorly. When things are going poorly, unemployment makes more unemployment. When people lose their jobs, they spend less, then there is less demand for goods and services and then there is less demand for workers.

Because jobs make jobs and unemployment makes unemployment, the unemployment level goes up a lot faster than it goes down. When this country went into the recession in the 1980s, it took about two years for unemployment to rise above five per cent. Then it took almost 6½ years for it to come back down again. That's about three times slower on the way back to economic health. When this country went into recession in the 1990s, it took two years for unemployment to rise about 5½ per cent. Then it took over 7½ years for it to come back down again. That's three times slower on the way back to economic health. Unemployment arrives fast and leaves slow, so this is why the first thing to do in an economic crisis is protect jobs and this is why the first thing to do during an economic recovery is stimulate jobs. It's not rocket science, but it is essential.

The wealth of literally millions of Australians is at stake, and this is the exact moment when government should intervene and provide support to families during a time of hardship and crisis. This is just what Labor did, suggesting to the government the need for supports to keep people and the economy going. Thankfully, the government listened. But, with a number of branded and marketed supplements and schemes—including JobSeeker, HomeBuilder, the cash flow boost for businesses and employees, JobKeeper and apprenticeship support for small businesses—at the same time the Prime Minister made comments about a job being the best form of welfare. But where has all his keeping, seeking and building left us? Importantly, where has it left those who are unemployed or at risk of unemployment? In the budget the Morrison government released two months ago, they planned for unemployment to be worse next year than it was through the worst of the pandemic. That is their plan. Their plan is to withdraw support before the economy has recovered. A return to a pre-COVID unemployment payment of $40 per day will leave many people at risk of homelessness. It will leave many living below the poverty line.

On 6 October this government printed in black and white its intention to keep unemployment well above five per cent for the next four years. They plan for about one million Australians to be unemployed this year, next year and the year after that. That is their plan, and it is one of the worst economic plans any Australian government has ever stitched together. So what should the plan be? The plan should be for less pain and the plan should be for less unemployment. That's what the plan should be. It sounds expensive, but independent experts, including the Grattan Institute, estimate that if we invested about another $100 billion then we would return Australia to full employment by the end of 2022. This is worthy of serious consideration.

There is no shortage of ways the government can invest in this country—social housing, an energy grid that works, education, health, waste and recycling and, of course, child care. Strong investment would lead to less net debt, not more. Increasing the base rate of JobSeeker, as called for by every business and peak body worth their salt, including ACOSS, Brotherhood of St Laurence and even the Business Council of Australia and former Prime Minister John Howard, would be a good place to start. But this is not in the government's plan. The plan is for more unemployment and, I'm guessing, a few marketing campaigns along the way.

Catastrophic unemployment strategies aren't the only thing this government has lost its way on. The government was caught trying to freeze the pension—busted with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar, except that cookie jar is filled with the livelihoods, independence and self-determination of 2.5 million pensioners. But this government doesn't care about that. This government thought it could sneak a freeze past the Australian people. The Morrison government thought it could sneak in a budget save, but the reality is that pensioners plan their lives around biannual indexation. Luckily, the shadow minister for social services led the charge to call out this sneak attack, naming it for what it is: a catastrophic proposal. The government has had a long track record of cutting or attempting to cut the pension, but the member for Barton will not stand for it and neither will the Labor Party.

There was a time when the Liberal Party was branded a party of strong economic management, but economic orthodoxy has long since been chased from the Liberal Party by populism welding a pitchfork. They don't believe in economic mobility. They don't believe in people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. This bill will damage the livelihoods of working families. It will mean fewer jobs, not more, and more hardship, and it will undermine the economy for decades to come.

My question for this House is: what does the Liberal Party believe in anymore? I know what Labor believes in. We believe in a permanent increase to the base rate of the former Newstart to more than $40 a day.

6:01 pm

Photo of Andrew LamingAndrew Laming (Bowman, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I speak strongly in favour of the government's conduct with the coronavirus supplement. I have to confess, I've travelled a fair few corners of my electorate and I've never met a Centrelink and Newstart income replacement recipient not happy with the coronavirus supplement. I challenge the other side of the chamber, in all their confected outrage, to find a single jobseeker not satisfied with the coalition government. I'm happy to meet that person and learn.

This is a nation that has overwhelmingly voted with their feet to say that the work we did in those early weeks, in February and March of this year—many members of parliament, certainly on this side, stood in Centrelink queues and talked to worried recipients. There were 600,000 or 700,000 Australians who found themselves, a number of them for the first time, seeking the support of the Australian welfare system. It fared so incredibly well, in no small part, due to the incredible work of staff in Centrelink offices around the country, who were exemplary. When we look back on that March period, everything was very uncertain. Once uncertainty has been stripped away, in a nation that dealt so wonderfully with COVID, we can look back at the welfare system and be truly grateful.

It's interesting that the so-called architects of the welfare system, on the other side of the chamber, often denigrate the system and call it '$40 a day'. They know damn well there's not a single Australian in this country on $40 a day. When you don't read the Centrelink documentation and you just take some headline number and ignore the supplementary payments you can come up with a fancy number, but there's not a single Australian receiving that payment. It's curious also because that's exactly the amount Australians were getting when Labor were in government. But I didn't hear the '$40 a day' echoing in these chambers from 2007 to 2013.

I think most Australians—certainly any taxpayers who talk to Labor members of parliament—would respect the fact that we tailor the Centrelink arrangements, and sometimes that requires tapering. Tapering is all about providing assistance based on need. You've seen JobKeeper, highly responsive for 700,000 Australians, probably halving the number of people who otherwise would have been completely in penury. We know that number of Australians, around 700,000, have come back into work or boosted their hours as a result of a recovery, predominantly, in household consumption and customer and business confidence. That's all coming back, and that's great news.

You'd expect, therefore, to have a tapering in government assistance. You'd expect there to be pathways back provided through income support for Australians to train—to be able to do online training at a time when face-to-face work wasn't always possible. We paused Work for the Dole projects and individual placements for a time. You'd expect a government to do that, and you'd expect a government to plan into the uncertainties of next year, when some of the restrictions and bottlenecks will be forced upon us by people in overseas countries, where people can neither travel nor confidently work, attempting to come back to Australia. I've mentioned in this chamber before how there's almost a tin ear on the other side to the idea of skilled visas—the 10,000 overseas workers who come here to keep the wheels turning in situations where we can't find Australian workers. That's also of great concern, because that number increases every month. These are overseas workers, working particularly in mining and agriculture as well as services in the major cities. Those overseas workers aren't there, and we're hoping that is a further stimulus to get Australians back to work.

This government is single-minded about getting Australians back to work. We're not over in the corner quibbling about whether it's $40 a day or not; we're actually doing everything we can to open up those pathways back to work. It's not easy to do it. Every job that's created is predominantly the result of an Australian thinking about how they can add more people to their workforce in their small business. They're real people, not just poring over spreadsheets but thinking practically about whether they dip into their own pockets and create another employment opportunity. It's not an easy process or an easy time to be doing it. We say to those Australians, 'Thank you so much for making those jobs possible where, probably, those opportunities may not have existed.' You'd understand an employer basically saying: 'Well, we'll write off the rest of the year; we'll cruise through to Christmas and think about employment next year.' But they're not doing that. They were doing it in September, October and November. They were doing it while states were shut down. They're doing it while people can't fly back into this nation. Employers around the country are the unsung heroes of COVID. That is because, when we dropped everything in March, the pathway back—and some on the other side have recognised it—is always harder, slower and more painful: skills wane, confidence falls and women, in particular, elect not to go back to work because it's all too difficult at the moment, conditions aren't right for them and the opportunities aren't there. So we need to be mindful that many young workers, utterly reliant on wanting to get into the workforce, never had that chance.

These are the great tragedies of COVID, but they're also opportunities for the government. The coronavirus supplement was done in an extremely short period of time. I want to emphasise just how hard it was for Commonwealth departments to basically redesign the payment system in such a short period of time. This is something that we should be supporting, and this legislation today is something about which the other side just need to be humble and honest enough to admit that it worked.

While we may be tapering, Australians intrinsically understand that in the new year we have to allow for that tapering and the tapering plays an important role. The tapering is a tiny signal that we're getting back to work next year. That's not to say that there's going to be a job for every person who seeks one, but remember that, since March of this year, final household consumption has returned to almost where it was, confidence at most levels is back to where it was pre COVID and the cost of living in Australia has not significantly changed. I'm not for one moment going to say it's easy to live on government payments, but it's not so fundamentally different that we have to be supplementing those payment systems in income replacement forever and a day.

It's opportunistic right now to do it if you're in the Labor Party, because there's not much else to talk about, is there? There's not much else to talk about when you're over there except playing on those fairly valid concerns about how things are going to work next year. A lot of people are very nervous about next year, but it doesn't stop the government from recognising the huge move back into the workforce and that, increasingly, it's going to be possible in every corner of this nation to do just that.

It's important to taper JobKeeper at the same time. The Australian Taxation Office has remarkably granular data through Single Touch Payroll for amounts of turnover. They can see how much GST is being paid. They can see the sectors that are recovering and the ones that are not. JobKeeper is agile enough to look after those who were in work back on 1 March. JobSeeker looks after everyone else, and it's done it impressively. My personal view is that we need to continue to watch the progress of the economy because Australia is just one cyclist in the global peloton of economies. We want to make sure we stay at the front. We stay at the front by looking after international education, our greatest service export. We stay at the front by making sure we get skilled visas in as soon as it's safe to do so and by making sure we have hotel quarantine that actually serves the needs of the nation on an industrial scale. We are living in an era of a global pandemic. For goodness's sake, you have to figure out a way to hand out food and dunny roll to people in a hotel room without infecting the workers that do it. That's not a hard challenge, but it's too much for 'Disaster Dan'. He let the disease out and it got into Queensland. Of all the public policy challenges we have seen in our time, delivering food and Uber Eats and dunny roll to people in a hotel room should not be the zenith. This should not be so incredibly complicated that we need to cap the hotel quarantine process and be the only nation in the world too timid, too gutless and too fearful to allow citizens to return. We really can do better than that.

As I return back to the context of this debate, the coronavirus supplement did its job and it did it marvellously. We can't yet predict where things are heading in 2021, but, by goodness, this final calendar quarter has looked really encouraging. I say to the government: we'll be watching carefully. There will be further tapers, and I support those tapers. I've personally made the case that if we were to taper, we could make the gap in the taper effectively an employment subsidy for jobseekers. If the coronavirus supplement were to fall by $50 a week in the future, that $50 a week could accumulate in the form of an income bank for jobseekers, so if they were to be employed, there is a wage subsidy available for the employer. What that does is actually move those who have been waiting for work the longest to the top of the queue. It's a proxy for the urgency of getting these people back to the workforce.

I want to finish with a little-known observation from the OECD; they do some interesting work. What they looked at across the developed world was the number of hours at the minimum wage that an individual has to work to escape poverty. They looked at a few family configurations and they looked at singles as well. What they found is that in Australia, just eight hours of employment a week is required for a single to escape the poverty line—which is a percentage of the median adult income—and around 15 hours for a family to do so. Just 15 hours of work a week to escape the poverty line. That may seem rather simplistic, but it was the lowest in the world. Australia has the greatest incentive to find a way to more evenly spread the pool of workable hours among our population, and we have the greatest likelihood of being able to achieve that. Despite some of the highest barriers to employment in the world and the highest minimum wage in the world, we know that if we can get people even some employment, they don't need many hours to escape poverty. This is our nation's great opportunity. If we were to save just some of that tapered payment in the form of an income bank for a jobseeker, that makes that jobseeker—potentially stream B or C—the most employable person in the shortlist. If we can assist those people, many of whom have no other employment in the household, then we can liberate that household from perennial welfare and intergenerational welfare. It is something to think about.

The tapers will continue, and I'll support the government in doing it. To be honest, if that team over there were in government, we'd be supporting them in tapering too; we wouldn't be taking cheap shots. We're in COVID and we should appreciate that one day COVID will end, and so too will the supplements.

6:12 pm

Photo of Peta MurphyPeta Murphy (Dunkley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm going to start by attempting to use the chamber as it's meant to be used, as a debating chamber. Unfortunately the member for Bowman has left, but I want to respond to some of the comments that he made in his stream of consciousness, including a challenge, as I understood it, to Labor members of the parliament to find a jobseeker unhappy with the COVID supplement. It's a strange challenge because of course we accept that people who are on JobSeeker are happy that there is a COVID supplement for two reasons. One is that people who were on JobSeeker—or Newstart, as it was previously known—before COVID now have enough money to live something more like a life of dignity above the poverty line. Of course they're happy about the COVID supplement. The second point is that those people who were employed before COVID hit but who lost their jobs—some of whom have never been on unemployment benefits in their lives—are happy that there is a COVID supplement because they're getting a rate of unemployment benefit that allows them to live a life of dignity above the poverty line. No-one on this side of the chamber is saying that the COVID supplement hasn't been successful, or that some of the measures that the government have put in place during this time haven't been successful. We argued for them. We negotiated them. We got them extended to people who had initially been left out by this government. The member for Bowman should know that, given he's been in this parliament during this year.

He also asked if we'd ever spoken to a taxpayer. I speak to taxpayers in my electorate all the time, and I'll tell you who I'm speaking to: people in my electorate who have been taxpayers their entire life and, because of the global pandemic, have found their family business has been smashed or have lost their job. I speak to people like Mark from my electorate, who is in a wheelchair and who after many years of unemployment found a job that he loved and was good at. He held it for 18 months and earned 40 per cent of the household's income. He was retrenched at the start of COVID and can't find another job. He's petrified that at the age of 56 he will never be employed again. He doesn't want to go on the disability support pension. He doesn't want to have to go on JobSeeker, be it at $40 a day or with the COVID supplement. He wants to work, but he doesn't qualify for the wage subsidy that the government introduced in the budget, and the Restart wage subsidy, which the Treasurer has tried to say is looking after older workers, has been an unmitigated failure, as we found out through estimates. Mark wants to work. He is an example of the people I am talking to. I am talking to people in my electorate of Dunkley who are feeling desperately the impact of the fact that in January of this year we had 4,572 people who were receiving Newstart and 459 young people on youth allowance and in October of this year we have 10,277 people on JobSeeker, what was Newstart—more than double. We've got 1,085 young people on youth allowance—more than double. They're the people I'm talking to. I can tell the member for Bowman and this chamber that the people I am talking to cannot believe that, if they cannot find a job in a jobs market where there are at least seven applicants for every available job, they are facing the prospect of the JobSeeker allowance reverting in March of next year to the base rate of $40 a day.

It's easy for people on the other side of the chamber to take cheap shots at us on the Labor side because we are standing up for people who need help. It's easy for the member for Bowman to call us opportunistic because, right now, at the time of almost the greatest need in Australia in a century, with a recession and a global pandemic, we are standing up and saying that this is the opportunity to increase allowances for people so that they can live above the poverty line, so that they can live a life of dignity and so that they can feed their family, pay their rent, afford to get on public transport to go and apply for a job or go to a job interview, put petrol in their car or go and buy a second-hand suit so they can go to a job interview. This debate shouldn't be ideological, because it's about people. It shouldn't be ideological, because we know that many of the groups that previously have said, 'Don't increase the rate of unemployment benefits, because it's a disincentive to work,' are now joining with the groups looking at it from the social welfare side and saying, 'Increase it so that people can live lives of dignity,' and saying to this government that the base rate of unemployment payments is not good enough. Yet this piece of legislation gets rid of the COVID supplement that the member for Bowman was rightly praising because it has worked. Apparently that is a reason to get rid of it in March next year, when no-one thinks we will be out of this recession. The RBA, the Business Council of Australia, the Retailers Association, community groups and economists across the spectrum support an increase in the base rate of unemployment payments. Yet we have before us a piece of legislation that in some respects holds unemployed people hostage because it allows COVID supplements and other improvements to the social security system that this government has brought in during the year, which are positives, at the same time as saying, 'Unemployed people will lose the COVID supplement and go back to $40 a day.' If you vote against the legislation, some people will miss out. If you vote for the legislation, other people will miss out. What a government! What a government to do that to the people who are most vulnerable in their time of need! Those are the people it should be representing. So don't accuse us of playing politics. Don't accuse us of being opportunistic. This government wrote the book on those things!

Last week, I held the second Dunkley community question time, where I asked members of my community to email me, Facebook me or otherwise contact me with the questions that they would like asked in the parliament if only they could get them asked. Deb from Seaford would like to know: why does the government not consider that people on JobSeeker over 64 who are not likely to find consistent work again after being made redundant need support? Deb has said: 'It's quite demoralising to be in this position at this time of life. There was support for under-35s in the budget, but more thought and care should be invested in looking out for the over-60s who've been made redundant and face greater challenges in finding employment again.' Deb is absolutely right. I've spoken about this in this parliament before and I will continue to speak about it until this government looks at employment programs for workers over the age of 50 that actually help them get back into employment. We know, if you lose your job when you're over the age of 50, it is nigh on impossible to find another one, and it is harder for women than for men. But this year's budget did nothing to help that, and this piece of legislation will do nothing to help that.

Marilyn wrote to me and said she would like to know: how do we get politicians to be accountable for their policies that do harm to the public? Well, if anyone has been following the absolute scandal of robodebt—unlawful debt notices being issued to the most vulnerable in our society and the government having to make a $1.2 billion payout to avoid going to trial and being exposed for exactly how culpable they are—they will know it's pretty hard at the moment to keep government politicians accountable for their policies that do harm to the public. Marilyn also wanted to know: how do we get JobSeeker raised to a livable level? Vote Labor, Marilyn, because it's not going to happen in a permanent way under this government when you listen to the contributions that are made on the other side of the chamber, when you hear someone describing cutting unemployment benefits back to $40 a day as 'tapering'. It's not going to happen under this government—having a proper increase to the base rate of unemployment benefits so that people can afford to look for a job. Vote Labor.

One in five people in Dunkley are on a pension—disability support pensioners; age pensioners; and carers, people who are spending their lives working to look after their friends and their family who can't care for themselves—and they have been abandoned by this government. I have had constituents say to me that the government's $250 payment before Christmas and another $250 payment after Christmas for aged-care pensioners feel like a slap in the face. It's almost an insult. Don't they know what electricity costs? Don't they know how hard it is to pay your rent or your mortgage when you're on a pension? Don't they know how much private health insurance is and how much food costs? It would seem that they don't. The member for Bowman invited us to talk to our constituents. I invite him to talk to his constituents. Perhaps he'll give another speech next time when he does.

A number of my Labor colleagues will talk about the evidence that has been presented to the Senate inquiry into this legislation and others that debunks the idea that increasing the base rate of unemployment benefits from $40 a day is somehow or another a disincentive to work. It's really important, so I'm going to talk about it as well. Professor Borland told that Senate committee:

Even before COVID, I would have thought, as many others have expressed, that there were strong arguments for making a permanent increase in the Newstart, now JobSeeker, payment.

…   …   …

… what COVID has done is give us a stronger evidentiary base for thinking that you could make that permanent increase without having significant adverse effects on the incentives to find work.

The research he has done has made a couple of main findings. They are:

One is that you could have a substantial increase in JobSeeker without adversely affecting incentives to take up paid work. Secondly, with the COVID-19 supplement to JobSeeker, we have had, in 2020, an experiment, if you like, on what the effect on incentives to find work would be of a higher rate of JobSeeker, and my evaluation of the evidence is that there is no evidence that the higher level of JobSeeker during 2020, with the COVID-19 supplement, has had any appreciable effect on incentives to take up paid work for the people who are receiving JobSeeker.

The Australian Retailers Association, which it's fair to say is not known as a leftie socialist organisation, said to the committee:

Social security recipients spend an estimated 58 per cent of their payments on retail goods or services at supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies … merchandise stores and … small businesses.

…   …   …

… the scheduled end of the JobSeeker payment will take the equivalent of $8½ billion per year from the retail sector. The equivalent of 130,000 Australian retail jobs are also on the line if we return the rate of the JobSeeker payment to its old base rate.

Next time any member of the Morrison government talks about their focus on jobs and their focus on the economy, you should remember that evidence—$8½ billion per year from the retail sector and the equivalent of 130,000 Australian retail jobs on the line. It's good for people and it's good for the economy. Raise the base rate of the unemployment benefit.

I'd like to finish my contribution by saying something on behalf of and to the amazing public servants who have worked at Centrelink for many years. They have written to me. A constituent has said, 'We all feel that we are also owed an apology.' Staff spoke up in the first instance about robodebt. They didn't believe it was right and they were told that it was going to happen and that, if they didn't like it, they should leave and find other employment. When I say 'first instance', I mean under this government, not the 1994 fairytale that the minister talked about in question time. Centrelink staff have dealt with anger, desperation, despair and frustration. They know why—because they were forced to implement decisions that weren't right and weren't accurate. They deserve an apology. I can't give them an apology on behalf of this government, but I can say, 'Thank you. We appreciate you.' (Time expired)

6:27 pm

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

I rise to make a contribution to this debate across the chamber on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020. I'd like to talk about some evidence the member for Dunkley was asking for. She said that those on the other side of the chamber stand up for people who need help. I, on this side of the chamber, say that we are the ones who are delivering that help to all Australians. The Morrison government has not left any Australian behind. There are very many measures, including JobSeeker. I see that my argument is compelling enough for the member for Dunkley to sit down and listen.

Ms Murphy interjecting

I'll take that interjection asking for evidence of what the Morrison government is delivering for Australians when it comes to the coronavirus supplement. Let me go right back to the very beginning when the coronavirus hit and talk about the emergency relief providers that the federal government already funds. One in my electorate that I love talking about is the St John's Crisis Centre, who do such a great job. When coronavirus hit, I worked very closely with the Minister for Social Services, Senator Ruston, to make sure that those emergency relief providers had the necessary extra funding to help. There was $200 million delivered across the country to those providers that were already in place—because, of course, state governments were a bit slow to come forward in Queensland with support for St John's Crisis Centre and for those people in Surfers Paradise who needed extra help, can I say. So we, the federal government, stepped up, with $200 million immediately on the table, delivered to emergency relief providers around the country, to help.

Soon after that, the coronavirus supplement was introduced by the federal government, $550 extra per fortnight for those people on JobSeeker. I have had some fantastic stories in my office of people who have actually saved the coronavirus supplement.

Ms Murphy interjecting

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The member for Dunkley was heard in silence and she'll afford the same opportunity to other speakers.

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

They've come into my office and told stories about how they've managed to save part of their coronavirus supplement, on top of their JobSeeker payment, to put towards a deposit on a rental property. That is a great Australian story: given an opportunity out of this crisis, some Australians have been able to remain where they were before the coronavirus hit, save their supplement, put a payment down on a bond for a rental property and share with some of their friends. I think that's a fantastic outcome for Australians.

I will move on to some of the other things that the federal government has delivered. I'll talk about Moncrieff, because, obviously, I know the numbers in Moncrieff. When this pandemic hit, we had 5,900 people on JobSeeker. In the course of the following months, the unemployment numbers went up to 15,000 people in Moncrieff on JobSeeker. I can tell you that those people who live in Mermaid Beach or in Surfers Paradise who lost their jobs—one in six jobs on the Gold Coast is hospitality and tourism driven; it's one in 13 across the country but one in six on the Gold Coast—and were able to receive that coronavirus supplement are very grateful for that.

We've heard from the Treasurer, and I've seen with my own two eyes—particularly today, with the Queensland border reopening—that the economy is able to bounce back very quickly. The coronavirus supplement was designed to cushion the blow for Australians and to help them pay their bills during this difficult time—to help those Australians, those extra 10,000 in my electorate who went onto JobSeeker, pay their bills and to help them see their way forward. That coronavirus supplement has been absolutely celebrated on the Gold Coast—along with JobKeeper, can I say, because JobKeeper on the Gold Coast is what's been keeping the doors open. It's been keeping businesses in business and it's been keeping locals in jobs.

These are very many measures that the federal government has delivered, and I don't know why those on the other side keep interjecting and disagreeing with the government's coronavirus supplement.

Opposition members interjecting

Those on the other side have been asking for an increase to JobSeeker for some time, and this is exactly what the Morrison government did in response to the coronavirus pandemic. It increased the payment to $550 per fortnight and then stepped it down to $250 as the economy and jobs started to bounce back. Now, through to March, it's going down again, to $150, as more and more jobs return. That's right: $150 for an extra three months, so actually it was extended to support those Australians back into work. The nation, next year, needs to stand up and go back to work wherever possible. This is very important for our economic recovery. The jobs have already started to come back. Those on the other side and those on the crossbench know that these jobs have started to come back, so it is right and it is appropriate that the federal government step down the coronavirus supplement for jobseekers. We really have to understand that the country will come back from this and that the economy will bounce back. The coronavirus supplement is something that was designed for Australians to help them look for work, to help them during this period, along with all the other measures that the federal government has delivered, including around $500 billion across the economy, in various areas, to support Australians through this pandemic.

I will say once again to those opposite that the coronavirus supplement was there for Australians who needed it most and who continue to need it, and that is why it has been extended through to March. JobKeeper too has been extended through to March. So, over the next four or so months, we will see more and more jobs come back into the economy. We have seen jobs all over the economy come back, and we are seeing Australians going back into work. So I'll say to those opposite: the coronavirus supplement has done the job and is doing the job. It is delivering for Australians and is making sure that no Australians, especially those in my electorate of Moncrieff and on the Gold Coast, are being left behind. We are the government that is delivering. We are not the government that supports Australians—we don't just support them—

Ms Murphy interjecting

No, we don't, Member for Dunkley. We don't just support them; we act. We deliver for Australians, and we do not leave any Australians behind.

6:35 pm

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That's a classic example of jumping to your feet without notes because what we just heard from the member for Moncrieff was that the government doesn't support people in this country. They act, apparently. She might live in alternative universe, but there are one million Australians who are unemployed—

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Member for Moncrieff, on a point of order?

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

What the member is saying is not what I said.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No, that's not a point of order. The member for Oxley shall continue.

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Learn the rules! The member for Moncrieff is trying to con the people of Australia and this chamber that unemployed people have never had it so good and that unemployed people in this country are a burden on the taxpayer. We've heard all of this before. We've heard the demonising. We had the former Treasurer sitting in the gallery today, the famous former failed Treasurer of this country. Who can forget the 'lifter and leaner' comments of the former Treasurer in describing people on unemployment benefits as he was chomping on a cigar as he cut benefits in this country?

I'm proud to rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020, and I strongly support the second reading amendments moved by the shadow minister for human services, the Hon. Linda Burney. I pay tribute to the member for Barton who has been listening to the community and listening to those Australians who are without a voice who are demanding that this government end their cruel and unnecessary cuts to benefits for those people who are the most vulnerable in this country. Tonight, we have the choice to do something to support those in need or to cut those people's support services at Christmas time. We have the choice to stop the government from cutting payments to around two million people at Christmas time, including people on unemployment support, students and apprentices and single parents. I want to raise my voice tonight on behalf of the people of Oxley, whom I represent proudly in this chamber, to say that the government has got this wrong. We should not be cutting benefits at this time.

I want to say to the member for Moncrieff that there are one million Australians unemployed. There are people in this country who, during the worst recession in our nation's history, need support and assistance. It's not good enough to be in the alternative universe and say: 'All of the bad times are behind us; look to the future. The jobs will magically come down from heaven.' That's not the real world. I don't know what kind of world the member for Moncrieff is living in, but she needs to come into my community and actually start talking to welfare groups and to the agencies that are delivering emergency relief. She needs to talk to St Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army and the Smith Family. Whatever ivory tower she is in on the Gold Coast, she needs to get out into the real world and start listening. There are increases of 200 to 300 per cent for emergency relief support services, and there is a crisis in accommodation in emergency relief housing that is exploding in this country. That this government needs to be congratulated or patted on the back while they are cutting support benefits for those most in need is something I never thought I would hear in this parliament.

Tonight the Labor Party is requiring the minister to urgently consider a permanent increase to the base rate of JobSeeker payment because the only way unemployment support can be increased is if the government decides to do it. Who can remember the coalition members of parliament famously saying that they could live on Newstart? Well, my question to members of the government tonight is: can anyone in this chamber honestly put up their hand and say they could live on Newstart? I don't think believe they could in all good conscience. I know that they can't. It beggars belief that the government wants some kind of recognition for all of the cuts and all of the cruelty they are delivering, particularly at Christmas time.

I know that the government is completely aware, but repeatedly chooses to ignore, that we have one million people who are unemployed in this country. We know it is forecast that around an extra 160,000 people will be thrown to the unemployment queues as a result of this government's performance. The effect of the bill will be to return employment support to the old base rate of Newstart from 31 March 2021 by ending the minister's power to make regulations extending the coronavirus supplement. Currently the minister has the power under the Social Security Act 1991 to continue paying the coronavirus supplement in three-month intervals, subject to being satisfied that it is necessary to deal with the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus. Under this power the minister can set the rate of the coronavirus supplement. What we're dealing with tonight is a bill to repeal this ongoing power and prevent the minister from extending the coronavirus supplement post 31 March.

Earlier this month I was proud that Labor moved amendments to the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020, calling on the government to deliver a permanent increase, to better support pensioners in the pandemic and to not reduce the rate of the coronavirus supplement from $250 to $150 from January 2021. I know that amount of money is not a big deal to the member for Moncrieff. That doesn't seem to be an amount of money she's interested in. I talk to the welfare agencies in my electorate—St Alban's church, Inala Salvation Army, Inala St Vincent de Paul and the many church organisations—and they are exploding with requests for support as people are thrown onto the scrap heap by the government and they know that that reduction will have a huge impact.

Tonight I want to unpack what that means for my community. My electorate has the largest amount of payday lenders of any electorate in Australia. That's not a proud statistic in any way, shape or form. Under this government, the amount of vulnerable Australians who are being ripped off by the loan sharks in this country is appalling. Five years ago, this government was delivered a report under then minister Kelly O'Dwyer, to deal with small amount credit contracting, and 21 recommendations came forward. The government promised to implement two key recommendations. The then small business minister who had carriage for the legislation, the Hon. Michael McCormack, delivered a draft explanatory memorandum and it was promised to be enacted. Five years later, we are still waiting for that reform.

One of the first things I did when I was elected was second a private member's bill to deliver the government's legislation word for word. Yesterday, the member for Clark and the member for Mayo delivered that legislation in this place. Why is this important? How does this relate to this bill tonight?

It's because the reduction in the supplement that the government—the Christmas grinches—are intent on delivering and will continue to push through in the rest of this year will mean that more and more of the people who still need that support will need finance, and I know from speaking to financial counsellors in my community that they are fearful that people will turn to loan sharks. When the dryer or the fridge breaks down—or the car or the school laptop needs to be repaired—instead of paying $450 for a dryer or $700 for a fridge, they will be hit with $3,000 to $4,000 worth of interest payments.

It does not have to be that way. If this supplement could continue—if this government were not so mean-spirited that it is ripping out support for the community and for those who can least afford it—people would not be turning to these debt vultures. That is before we even get to the government's proposed plans to make it easier for the debt vultures, the loan sharks and the banks to lend money. The Consumer Action Law Centre, consumer rights advocate groups and all responsible lending organisations have decried what the government is planning to do. You can see that this Christmas the government is planning a toxic environment, going into the New Year, and it's only going to get worse as we head towards March.

I want to make this crystal clear if I can. Today is 1 December. That means that, in 30 days, it's the end of 2020, the end of what we thought would be a remarkable year that has brought absolute gloom and severe anxiety to so many Australians, many of whom, this Christmas, will hit the poverty line. What will that look like for families at Christmas—for presents under the tree or meals where families gather? For some, it means being reunited after nearly a year of living interstate, and we know how hard the separation has been for families. I'm just proud that the Queensland government, led by Anastacia Palaszczuk, had a strong response to the health crisis, making sure that our borders were kept safe and that Queenslanders were kept safe. I know that's not something those opposite were proud of. They were all decrying the borders staying closed. They campaigned, over and over again, for the borders to come down, but Queensland rejected that reckless and dangerous economic and health action, which the members of the Queensland LNP were promising Queenslanders.

This government has been talking a lot about support, but, when the pedal hits the metal, what we've seen is a reduction, and what that is going to mean, I fear, is an increase in hardship, leading to an increase in poverty. The jobs that the member for Moncrieff is promising are not magically appearing. There needs to be a long-term economic plan to deliver those jobs in this country. They are not going to be delivered in eight to 10 weeks, by 31 March. We're talking about four years until we get to pre-pandemic employment rates. This is not the right time to be cutting support. This is not the right time. And it is not fair to Australians to see a former finance minister using a private jet, paid for by the taxpayer, travelling the globe, trying to get himself a cushy job, when this government is so lousy and rotten that it's cutting the coronavirus supplement.

It's all very well for the member for Moncrieff to say, 'Some people have done well; they've saved the money. They're just rolling around in it, they've got so much money.' I've never met someone on the pension who said, 'Gee, Milton, I've got too much money; I don't know what to do with it.' Get real. What planet are these people living on, Mr Deputy Speaker Zimmerman? I know from speaking to pensioners in my electorate that they watch every penny. They have to. They have some of the highest electricity prices, thanks to this government. The member for Moncrieff just shakes her head and says, 'So what?' I say those pensioners should be able to turn on the air conditioner; they should be able to afford that. But, when the government are cutting supplements and cutting support, that means it's harder and harder, particularly for seniors, to make ends meet.

As if this year had not been bad enough—the heartache, the pain, the economic trauma that people have been through, the concern and anxiety that, as we know, is through the roof—we now see this government wanting to cut the base rate, meaning people will not have enough to live on. So, once again, we've had the evidence presented to the Senate inquiry and tabled in the parliament. We know that the evidence was crystal clear that now is not the right time to be cutting payments. We know that this is not a smart economic decision to withdraw money out of the local economy. That means less money for the cafes and less money for people to go out and spend. They are really going to be facing a grim Christmas thanks to this government.

So I will be strongly supporting the second reading amendment tonight. I want this parliament to make it very clear that now is not the right time to be reducing support and throwing people on the scrap heap. I will continue to speak out and to make sure that my community is heard, because this government has an appalling record when it comes to listening to those in need. I'm delighted and proud that this side of the parliament will always stick up for those who need it most.

6:50 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

In a wealthy country like Australia, no-one should be living in poverty while they're looking for a job, and that is especially the case in the middle of a recession, while we have one million people unemployed and many more underemployed and getting by on crappy jobs, with an hour or two of work a week here or there that doesn't allow them to pay the bills. We have an unemployment and underemployment jobs crisis in this country and, so long as that is the case and the government refuses to guarantee a job to everyone who wants one, we should be making sure that no-one lives in poverty. We know that before the pandemic hit hundreds of thousands of people in this country were living in poverty while trying to look for jobs that just weren't there, and they were living on $40 a day. You can't live on $40 a day, which is why, even before the pandemic hit, everyone from the Greens to business groups and economists was saying, 'We've got to lift the rate so that people aren't living in poverty.'

Then, when the pandemic came along, all of a sudden the government was about to be exposed, because a huge chunk of people in this country who had never thought they would find themselves without a job were all of a sudden about to find out just how tough the government had made it for people who don't have work. So the government introduced the coronavirus supplement, a move that we applauded because, all of a sudden, people in this country who were doing it tough had the ability to live above the poverty line. As one person was quoted during the Senate inquiry into this bill as having told Anglicare Australia:

This payment has been like lighting a dark room full of promise and wonder, only to turn the light out because the committee has the power to do so. Please ask the committee to leave the light on for us all.

That's what the person said, because, for this brief period when the government was forced to admit that Newstart or JobSeeker is not enough to survive on, people across this country were all of a sudden able to lead something like a normal life. Being on $40 a day isn't living; it's just barely surviving. You spend all your time just trying to survive and get by, and that actually makes it harder to get into work, because you don't have the money to go and get your hair cut or buy the clothes that you need or do the bit of training that might help you get that next job. You are forced to just spend every day working out how you are going to stretch that $40 a day to survive and feed yourself and ensure that you've got a roof over your head. So for this brief period, as that person told Anglicare Australia, it was like lighting a dark room full of promise and wonder, because all of a sudden so many people who had been living in poverty were now lifted out of poverty.

The fundamental point that the government had to acknowledge, and did acknowledge when they lifted the coronavirus supplement, was that Newstart or JobSeeker was never enough to live on before. The thing is that the cost of living didn't all of a sudden double during the COVID pandemic and it's not all of a sudden going to halve as we start to get the pandemic under control. The costs of keeping a roof over your head and feeding yourself and your family are going to stay. In fact, they're going to increase as the cost of living goes up. But, instead of acknowledging that, the government is actively choosing to plunge people into poverty, and that is what they are doing by cutting the supplement.

We've got to be crystal clear about this: the government could choose to keep people out of poverty, but it is choosing not to do so. And, as we head towards Christmas, the government is plunging an additional 330,000 people into poverty. That will mean the government will have forced a total of 1.16 million people below the poverty line by the end of this year. Just reflect on this for a moment. At a time when the government has managed in its budget to have $99 billion a year in handouts to the big corporations and to the ultrawealthy and at a time when the government has managed to legislate tax cuts of thousands and thousands of dollars a year to the top end of the income spectrum, it is choosing to force 1.16 million people into poverty.

About 2½ million adults and more than 1.1 million children will experience cuts to their income support payment just after Christmas time. And so, as we get towards the end of this hellish year and as we go towards the summer break and people want to spend time with their families and their friends, the Prime Minister's rhetoric of, 'We're all in this together,' suddenly disappears. People are going to be plunged into poverty. It's going to happen at the end of this year, and it's going to get worse at the start of next year.

The government says, 'It's alright, because we're recovering from the pandemic.' Can I tell you what? In Melbourne, so much of the Melbourne economy is based on bringing people together and gathering them in small places. It's what the hospitality economy is built on, but, critically, it's what the entertainment sector is built on with things like the comedy festival, the food and wine festival and, of course, performing arts and live music. It is all based on getting lots of people together. No matter what happens more broadly, social-distancing restrictions of some form or another are almost certainly going to continue for some period of time, if not indefinitely. In other words, the business model that so many people have relied on has been decimated and is going to continue to be in many places. As a result, across the country, you have 12 people for every single job vacancy. There are 12 people for every job that's there. So this rhetoric of, 'Just go and find a job; it's okay—we're all bouncing back,' is just not borne out by the facts, and it is going to be harder in many places, like Melbourne, for industries to get back on their feet and get back to where they were, if they are ever going to be able to do it at all.

What the government could do instead is say, 'As we come out of this pandemic, we are not going to give $99 billion a year as subsidies to big corporations and the ultrawealthy and we are not going to give tax cuts to millionaires,' which Liberal and Labor supported. They could say, 'Instead we are going to put the money into making sure that everyone in this country lives above the poverty line.' That's what the government could be doing. For all their rhetoric about jobs, what they could be doing is offering people a job guarantee. The government could be using this opportunity, this crisis, to invest in a green recovery that will tackle the climate crisis, the inequality crisis and the economic crisis all at once, investing to get us not just to 100 per cent renewable energy but to even more so that we can start exporting our renewable energy to other countries and expanding rather than cutting our education, aged-care and health sectors, all the while building half a million new public housing homes over the next 10 to 15 years that would create 40,000 jobs and 4,000 apprenticeships. With the government invested in nation-building, planet-saving projects, we could turn around and guarantee a job for everyone who wants one.

What is this government doing? Instead of guaranteeing a job and lifting people out of poverty, they're giving billions of dollars to big corporations in handouts and to the ultrawealthy in tax cuts. And, as a result, inequality in this country is going to grow. And do you know what? The fact is that cutting these payments is actually going to prolong the recovery, because people who are without a job and who are on low incomes spend most of the money that they receive on essentials. It's not being squirrelled away into wealth portfolios or shares or going on a yacht. It's going on basic essentials, because you need to do that to survive. So, the money that people on low incomes get, gets turned around as they spend it straightaway on food, on housing, on the essentials of life. That is what small businesses—retail, clothing—and housing and all of those sectors rely on. They rely on that money being there to go out the door again, because that's how you buy things.

It's no wonder that lining up to criticise the government's moves are not just people like myself and the Greens, who are concerned about making sure that no-one lives in poverty in a wealthy country like ours, but you've also got, at the other end of the spectrum, consultants like Deloitte, lining up with many other economists, making the point that removing the supplement altogether by Christmas—admittedly it is going a bit later, but not much—would cost the economy $31 billion in reduced spending and the equivalent of 145,000 full-time jobs over two years. So it's not just unfair, it's bad economics to cut the coronavirus supplement.

What is crystal clear is that the government does not understand what it is like to live on $40 a day, because if anyone had any basic understanding of it you would not be bringing legislation before parliament and putting figures in the budget that say, 'We're going to go back to $40 a day next year.' That's what the government is doing. The government is saying to people as they head into Christmas, 'Get ready to live with significant insecurity for a long time, because pretty soon it's going to go back to $40 a day.' And they're saying that to people who are looking for work when there are 12 people looking for every one job and the jobs just aren't there.

What's the answer? The answer is a permanent increase to this sub-poverty-line payment that we force people who are looking for work to live on. And, in the middle of a recession, as we are battling and hopefully getting a pandemic under control, that is when we need to give people support. I make the point again: the cost of living is not going to halve from the height of the pandemic to now, but the payments that people get will if the government has its way. That's why the Greens are pushing to keep the full rate of the coronavirus supplement and effectively make it permanent so that $1,100 a fortnight is the figure that people who are looking for jobs can live on. And let's do it at the same time as we invest in those planet-saving, nation-building projects that allow us to offer a guaranteed job to everyone who wants one so that we get back to full employment in this country—not the trickle-down definition of five per cent unemployment, but two per cent where everyone who wants a job is able to get one, where there's a job for everyone in this country who wants one and where, if you find yourself without one, then you live above the poverty line.

We can do that, and we can fund free education, and we can get dental into Medicare, and we can build those half-a-million new public housing homes so that everyone's got a roof over their head, if we have the guts to stand up to the big corporations and say: 'It's time you paid your fair share of tax. We are going to cease giving you handouts.' As I said, this budget has $99 billion a year in those kinds of handouts, so the money is there. The choice is whether we want to keep giving money to big corporations or whether we want to give it to everyone in this society so that no-one in a wealthy country like ours lives in poverty. That's what the Greens will be pushing for, to retain the rate at $1,100 a fortnight. No-one should be living in poverty, especially in the middle of a recession.

7:04 pm

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

Over the course of this year, my office, along with the offices of many other members in this place, has been inundated with calls from people who have been hit with unemployment in the midst of this pandemic. Nothing separates Labor, Liberal and the Nationals more than when we talk about the most vulnerable people in our communities in this nation. In Labor, we stand up for the most vulnerable people. Today's bill is just further evidence that the Liberal-Nationals would prefer to stand on them. We are all lucky to be here. We've got secure jobs. We have secure salaries. For many people in my electorate, buckling under the weight of mortgages which haven't gotten smaller, wage increases which have been deferred and families that still need to be fed, they rightly expect that the government should be there for them. It makes sense. If you're paying your taxes, if you're obeying the law, if you're earning a salary and you're a good citizen and something happens that's outside your control, our society should collectively step in and give you a hand. That's what makes this country great: we have a safety net. The people in this country know that if a one-in-a-100-year fire or flood or pandemic lands on your communal doorstep, you should have the confidence that the government will be there for you.

We see the bushfire victims from last year are still suffering because this government hasn't actually delivered anything more than an announcement to them. The government should be supporting people—people like mums and dads in McEwen—for as long as necessary for them to get back on their feet again and start working again. This pandemic also has been a body blow for the small businesses in our electorate. They've struggled to make ends meet, despite the government support that has been coming their way.

What's particularly worrying is that the government has not committed to support them beyond the 31 March deadline. The effects of this pandemic aren't going anywhere, but with this deep Morrison recession the economic effects of this pandemic will be felt for a long time to come. As the government delivers a trillion dollars in debt, the recession will be deeper and longer than necessary, because of the decisions made by this government. The Department of Social Services expects the number of people on unemployment support to still be elevated in four years time. Another 160,000 Australians will be added to the jobless queues by Christmas. We must remember this government was dragged kicking and screaming to the coronavirus supplement. They fought tooth and nail not to support people during this pandemic. It's already fallen from $550 a fortnight to $250 a fortnight. By 1 January the government intends to reduce that by a further $100, down to $150 a fortnight. Instead of a plan to get Australians back into work, the Prime Minister is leaving people behind to go it alone.

As we saw recently in Victoria, the state of a COVID outbreak can change so rapidly. It's important that governments maintain flexibility and agility to respond to outbreaks. Yet, what this bill does is seek to prevent the minister from extending the supplement beyond March 2021. Because of this, payment rates will go back to pre-pandemic levels. Too many people in McEwen know that these levels were already too low. Newstart is widely regarded as an unsustainable supplement. It isn't good for individuals, and nor is it good for our economy. Even members of the government benches support an increased payment. The members for New England and Cowper said going back to $40 a day was a 'cruel and unusual punishment'. So the challenge for those members and any member over there that may have a conscience is: will you vote against this heartless bill? I doubt it. But, in any case, it is cruel for the government to roll back these provisions.

On a large scale, this decision will impact around two million people, including those on JobSeeker payments, youth allowance, parenting payment, Austudy, widow allowance and the farm household allowance. These people aren't the proverbial 'dole bludgers' that the government likes to label. They're not corporate big-wigs taking millions in bonuses and dividends during a pandemic. They are nurses, they are students, they are grandparents and they are jobseekers. This government has shone that they do not care about supporting people who need it the most. What else can explain the budget, which abjectly failed to support older workers and women, or when they missed the opportunity to subsidise child care for the millions of families who were struggling to balance home and work in this new COVID world?

As I said, my office has heard from countless people struggling with unemployment. In recent correspondence, a constituent told me how she lost her job in the midst of the COVID downturn in March. She said: 'I'm sick of hearing that I just need to get a job from Mr Frydenberg and Mr Morrison. I'm aware I need a job. Actually, I'd like a job. The fact that I don't have a job is driving me further into depression. I know that there are jobs out there, but there are far too many of us applying. I'm sick of feeling like a leech, but I feel that's how Mr Morrison and Mr Frydenberg see people like me. It's not a good feeling. We are living below the poverty line.'

This is a heartbreaking story, and it captures the sentiment felt by so many in our communities. It is a story of hurt, loss and struggle in the face of a largely uncaring government. It is also a story which is supported by the facts of the situation. For every single job vacancy, there are more than seven job applicants. Evidence provided to Senate committees indicates that 1.8 million people will be relying on unemployment payments at Christmas, more than twice the number before the pandemic. How many more jobs are going to be lost when JobSeeker is cut in December? We've been asking that. Labor has been seeking this information from the government, but the government fail to provide it. You've got to ask why. It's either because they don't know or they don't care. So the opportunity for government members talking on this bill is to say which one it is.

We have pushed this government to do more and more during the COVID situation. We have been supportive of many of the measures taken, including the coronavirus omnibus bill. Although we're not going to oppose this legislation, we will continue to work constructively, as we have, to make this better. Labor will be moving amendments aimed at getting the government not to cut the coronavirus supplement at Christmas, but we should get the government to say, 'How about we deliver a permanent increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker payment and retain the ongoing powers to keep paying the coronavirus supplement after 31 March 2021?' This is one of those unique situations where the opposition is actually calling on the minister to have more power to help Australians who need it. We want the minister to have flexibility in assessing how dire the situation is for jobseekers and to judge the level of supplement based on that situation. Setting 31 March as the arbitrary date from which the supplement will no longer be available is lazy economic management and cruel politics. Even though the government have never pretended to be compassionate or understanding to those who are doing it tough, they always claim to be good on the economy. But the facts 'bear otherwise', to quote Minister Robert.

We hear all the time, don't we, about how great the Liberals are at economic management and how mature they are when it comes to dealing with your money. Well, that is just another piece of hollow theatre rhetoric from the marketing man masquerading as a prime minister. If they had the slightest bit of economic intelligence, they would listen to the countless economists who say that withdrawing such a substantial amount of government spending will leave an enormous hole in economic activity and an enormous hole in the incomes of businesses and households. Unemployment will skyrocket because these businesses—small businesses—will be unable to keep staff without some medium-term support from the government. In turn, Australians on social security will have less to spend at our local and small businesses. It really does point to shambolic economic management that the government actually thinks that the effects of this pandemic will just stop—finish—being felt 12 months after the world came to a standstill. If the government truly did care about the economy, it would make sure these supplements were extended for as long as the financial hurt was being felt in the community. That would be a win-win situation. It would be good for our economy, and good for our constituents who are struggling to make ends meet.

The bottom line is this: the bill will cut unemployment payments back down to the old Newstart rate from 31 March 2021. If we do not allow this bill passage, the old rate will come into effect at the end of December. The government is holding to ransom Australians in need. Labor will not back down from supporting those who need our help the most. We don't want to see that happen to small businesses and families at a time when they should be enjoying a well-earned rest at the end of what can only be described as the toughest year that I can recall. Nevertheless, we urge the government: search in your conscience, support our amendment on this bill. The amendment will allow the minister flexibility in determining the coronavirus supplement after March 2021. It will help counteract the awful social and economic impacts of the COVID pandemic, which have been exacerbated by the Morrison recession. I genuinely hope that there are members opposite who are smart enough and intelligent enough and compassionate enough to stand there and put politics aside and start helping the people who need their help the most. As I said at the start, we're doing alright: we've got secure jobs, secure employment and secure wages. But there are millions of people in this nation who don't have that luxury, and it is incumbent on us to be the ones to stand up and do the right things for people, and it is incumbent on the Labor Party to continue to stand up for vulnerable people at a time when we can see the government standing on them.

Debate adjourned.