Tuesday, 1 December 2020
Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020; Second Reading
This bill effectively returns the unemployment payments to the old Newstart rate after the 31 March 2021 by removing the minister's power to make a regulation to pay the coronavirus supplement after this time, and we all know that the Australians that are struggling the most under this government are those that are receiving what was the old Newstart but now, of course, is JobSeeker. There have been numerous calls from organisations and former prime ministers for this government to consider permanently increasing the rate of JobSeeker, because, to be frank, Australians simply cannot live on it. It's counterintuitive because it is resulting in people who are receiving JobSeeker having to live on the breadline week to week to make ends meet and being unable to afford transport, to afford the necessary clothing or to afford to put a resume together to actually find employment and get back into the workforce. So I support the amendment that has been moved by the member for Barton requiring the minister to consider not cutting the coronavirus supplement in December and to consider a permanent increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker Payment.
The bill is basically a missed opportunity by the government to deliver a permanent increase to a group of Australians who are struggling the most: those receiving unemployment benefits. It lays bare this government has plans for unemployment and other payments to go back to their pre-pandemic levels on 31 March 2021, and that is why Labor has moved this amendment. The amendment is aimed at getting the Morrison government to ensure that they don't cut the coronavirus supplement at Christmas, that they deliver a permanent increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker Payment, keep ongoing powers to keep paying the coronavirus supplement after 31 March 2021 and keep ongoing powers to make other beneficial changes to taper rates, income tests and eligibility criteria after 31 March 2020.
There are many beneficial elements of this bill, including continuing the coronavirus supplement for youth allowance recipients after December, as well as the increased income-free areas, the taper rates and the partner income tests that were introduced as part of the pandemic arrangements. But this bill makes it plain that the Morrison government intends that JobSeeker will revert to pre-pandemic levels, which are simply unsustainable for those who have to live on them.
We're calling on the government to stop its cruel Christmas cut to unemployment payments and to announce a permanent increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker payment. Taking payments back to pre-pandemic levels will hurt around two million Australians. They include people who have lost their jobs, as well as single parents and students. We all know that millions of families are still carrying the real scars of the economic impact of this pandemic, and that impact will clearly persist for many, many years, with the Department of Social Services expecting the number of people relying upon unemployment support to still be elevated in four years time.
Just how many jobs will be lost when JobSeeker is cut in December? Labor sought this information from the government, but the government either doesn't know or doesn't want to know. The budget left Australians on JobSeeker who are aged over 35—almost a million Australians—out of the budget and ineligible for its wages subsidy. I've had numerous representations from constituents who are in this situation. People who are in their late 50s and early 60s who have worked in occupations for a long period of time are saying, 'How am I going to get another job? How will I get back into the workforce? Why isn't this government supporting me in my endeavours to ensure that I can continue to work?' There was nothing in the budget for older workers in Australia—a missed opportunity to boost the economic performance of a group that needs it the most. Older Australians represent the largest cohort on JobSeeker. They also have the most difficulty finding work because of structural barriers and age discrimination. Over the last 18 years, the proportion of people on unemployment payments who are over 55 has gone from 8.6 per cent to 22½ per cent. It has more than trebled. There are currently over 307,000 people over 55 on unemployment support, and they have the most trouble getting off that payment.
Not only is a permanent increase in the base rate needed; the minister should also have the flexibility to continue extending the coronavirus supplement for as long as the impact of the pandemic persists. Earlier this year, Labor negotiated with the government for a separate power to be included in the coronavirus economic response package which would enable the minister to make other changes to social security to help people impacted by the pandemic. This power, and the regulations made under it, sunset on 31 December this year. This bill proposes to extend this power but only until 31 March 2021. Labor support this extension, but we think that this power needs to persist for longer so the government can continue beneficial arrangements for as long as the impacts of the pandemic persist. Let's face it, it's most likely that the economic impacts of the pandemic are going to be felt well beyond the end of March next year. One only needs to look at the aviation sector and related industries to understand that we won't have made a full recovery by that time.
Because of this power which Labor insisted on, the government has been able to introduce more generous partner income tests for JobSeeker payments, a tapering at 27c in the dollar and cutting out the partner income of $80,000 per year—another change which Labor insisted on. It enabled changes to be made to the JobSeeker and youth allowance personal income tests which provide an income-free area of $300 per fortnight, compared to the pre-pandemic income area of $106 per fortnight—something we are advised around 15,000 people are benefiting from. It also enabled changes to be made to JobSeeker and Youth Allowance eligibility criteria so that sole traders; the self-employed; permanent employees who have been stood down; and people who are self-isolating because they, or someone they are caring for, have been affected by this pandemic continue to be eligible for the payment. We managed to negotiate waiving the ordinary waiting period of one week, the seasonal preclusion period and the newly arrived resident's waiting period. We also managed to negotiate extending the time that people can maintain eligibility for payment, to keep concession cards and make other beneficial changes relating to pension portability, mobility allowance and self-declaration for couple assessments.
This bill removes the minister's ability to make regulations that waive the liquid assets waiting period and the assets period. The government should not have reinstated the liquid assets waiting period in September and they should drop their cruel plan to make people wait 26 weeks to get unemployment support if they have modest savings. That is a false economy. It means that people are forced to run down their last dollar and it makes it more likely that they'll face hardship like struggling to pay the mortgage or taking their car off the road. It also means that people are more likely to need to rely on other services like food banks and emergency relief. OzHarvest operates one of those emergency relief shops in our electorate and I can tell you that the line out the door, waiting for them to open each morning, has been growing and growing and growing during this pandemic. That is because many Australians, unfortunately, are suffering.
The government has missed a huge opportunity to deliver certainty for Australians doing it tough by delivering that permanent increase to JobSeeker in this bill. With more than seven jobseekers for each job vacancy, there are simply not enough jobs for everyone that needs one, and that is going to persist for some time. Both the Reserve Bank and the Treasury estimate that the tail-on effects in unemployment are going to be here for some period of time after we find—if we do find—a vaccine for this pandemic. It's even more difficult to find a job in our regions, the result of this government's failure to deliver the jobs programs that are needed for rural and regional Australia. In rural and regional areas, many families are really, really struggling at the moment. Australians on social security will have less to spend on local and small businesses, and those small businesses will have less to spend on wages and jobs. It all runs through the economy.
Australians are doing it tough and face an anxious and uncertain Christmas. Through this missed opportunity with this bill, this government will extend that anxiety, that worry and that uncertainty by not dealing with a principle issue for government in Australia which is responsible for increases in the rate of poverty in Australia over recent times: the low and unsustainable rate of the JobSeeker payment. This is a huge missed opportunity for the government to extend that payment and to ensure that it is fair and sustainable into the future. It's not just Labor that's been calling for this change to occur. Former prime ministers, including former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, have said that the rate of JobSeeker is unsustainable. St Vincent de Paul, ACOSS and many of the church and welfare organisations have said that the rate of JobSeeker is unsustainable. Members of the government, like the member for New England and others, have said that they couldn't live off the rate of JobSeeker at the moment and the government should increase it on a permanent basis. It's unsustainable to ask Australians to live below the poverty line and try to find employment at the same time. It simply doesn't work. If you have a family and you are struggling to feed them and clothe them, you simply don't have the resources, the time and the commitment to be able to look for work.
What this government is doing is counterintuitive. It is ensuring that people spend prolonged periods of time in unemployment queues, because they simply cannot get the support that they deserve from this government to be able to get out into the workforce and try to find employment. That is why Labor is moving this amendment, and that is why Labor is calling on the government to do the right thing and permanently increase the rate of JobSeeker.
The robodebt scheme was announced with great fanfare by the Prime Minister in 2015, when he was social services minister. Members of this government—including the current Attorney-General and the current Minister for Government Services—boasted about robodebt as a hallmark of their economic brilliance, as they gloated about all the money they were pulling in from all those poor people who they claimed had been overpaid by the Department of Social Services. But this government's self-congratulatory boasting about robodebt ended very abruptly, in November 2019, when legal action forced them to finally admit that the scheme was illegal. The government then faced a class action from hundreds of thousands of victims of robodebt, and, of course, the government fearfully surrendered before the hearings commenced and, more to the point, before any of its ministers, or the senior ministers responsible for the scheme, could be called to explain themselves and their blatantly unlawful scheme under oath.
Instead of putting its money where its mouth was, the Morrison government put taxpayers' money where its mouth was. We may never know just what this scheme has cost taxpayers, but rather than raising the over $2 billion the government claimed when the scheme began, it has instead been a massive financial liability, with the government agreeing to pay back all the money the scheme raised over the years it operated, plus interest, compensation and legal costs. We still haven't found out what it cost taxpayers for the Morrison government to run this brutal, failed scheme for more than four years, including what was paid out to consultants and to the third-party debt collectors who were part of it too.
But the financial cost of robodebt, as appalling as it is, pales next to the toll of human suffering that this government callously inflicted on the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Australians who received unlawful robodebt debt notices. How can we assess the stress and misery experienced by those hundreds of thousands of Australians who received a debt notice or were hunted by debt collectors? And we may never know how many vulnerable people were pushed over the edge by those notices and took their own lives. What is unforgivable is that this government was advised on multiple occasions that the robodebt scheme they had devised and let loose on vulnerable Australians was unlawful, and yet they continued with it until court action forced them to admit that their scheme was not only cruel but also illegal.
When asked about the robodebt scheme this week in parliament, this government again refused to take responsibility for the monster that it made and for the harm that it caused. No; it again fell back on the same marketing spin and slippery falsehoods that are the hallmark of the Morrison government. On Saturday, Peter van Onselen described the robodebt disaster as:
without doubt the worst example of maladministration and callous indifference to vulnerable Australians since the Coalition took office in 2013.
That's quite a hurdle to clear, because this government has quite a record when it comes to maladministration and callous indifference to vulnerable Australians. For example, Australians will not forget this Prime Minister and his ministers slithering around trying to avoid responsibility for the 685 deaths of people in aged-care homes, despite manifest failings making up more than two-thirds of the total death toll from this terrible disease. Australians will not forget this Prime Minister refusing last year to meet with retired emergency services chiefs who were desperately trying to warn him about the coming fire season and of the urgent need for more resources and preparation for our nation to be ready. No; this Prime Minister refused to meet with them. And when Australia started burning, the Prime Minister thought the best approach was to jet off to a secret holiday in Hawaii.
Reasonable minds may differ about what was the very worst example of maladministration and callous indifference to vulnerable Australians the Morrison government is responsible for, but I think the vast majority of Australians would agree that this Prime Minister has set a new low in failing to take responsibility for his government and his ministers' failings, and failing to hold himself and his ministers to any standard whatsoever.