Wednesday, 2 December 2020
Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020; Consideration in Detail
I move opposition amendment (1):
(1) Schedule 1, page 3 (before line 5), before item 1, insert:
1A After Part 1.3B of Chapter 1
Part 1.3C—Additional economic support payments to address inequities arising out of coronavirus pandemic
38X Minister must consider what additional payments may be required
As soon as practicable after this section commences, the Minister must consider whether to do any or all of the following:
(a) extend the COVID-19 supplement until 28 March 2021 at the amount of $250 per fortnight, in line with extensions to jobkeeper payments;
(b) better support recipients of the age pension, disability support pension and carer payment who are facing increased costs to protect their health in the face of the coronavirus pandemic;
(c) announce a permanent increase to the base rate of jobseeker payments.
This amendment will do three things: stop the government's planned cuts to the coronavirus supplement at Christmas; require the government to help pensioners, including those on the DSP and carer payment, with the extra costs of the pandemic; and require the government to announce a permanent increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker Payment. We have had this debate in Australia for a long time. Now is the time for a permanent increase to unemployment support. It should be done, and this year it has been shown that it can be done. Why won't the government do the right thing? The reasons for a permanent increase are so compelling and so simple, and there are many on that side that agree with it.
Poverty is a real issue. It's a trap that prevents people from getting work, particularly older people. Because of poverty they can't get the right clothes. It takes the car off the road and it impacts on children and their education. Poverty doesn't allow for the cost of renting somewhere safe or leaving family violence. We should not have poverty in a country like Australia; I'm sure everyone in this place would agree with that statement. But it will take more than words.
The Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia said earlier today that, for the vast bulk of people who want a job right now, there aren't jobs available. There are some but the available jobs are dwarfed by the number of people who really want them. The people on unemployment payments spend pretty much everything they get. They simply have to. This is good for local businesses and jobs, especially in retail. The timing of the latest coronavirus supplement reduction from $250 per fortnight to $150 per fortnight gives this away. Christmas and the new year are difficult and expensive times for families. Support should not be cut and certainly not right at the time when families are already under the greatest pressure.
This is a reasonable and modest amendment. It gives the government the flexibility they need to set a rate and structure payments, taking into account expert advice, the budget position and the labour market. This is not a test; it is a genuine attempt to encourage and support a reasonable and timely increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker payment. I really hope the government considers it.
I move opposition amendment (2):
(2) Schedule 1, Division 2, page 3 (line 12) to page 5 (line 25), omit the Division.
This amendment will remove the government's drop-dead date of 31 March 2021 for the rate of unemployment payments to return to the old Newstart rate. Going back to $40 a day is something that so many people have told me is striking fear into their hearts. They are already planning for it, already shuffling bills, already working out where to go when they can no longer afford the flat they have been sharing for the last six months because the coronavirus supplement has helped them afford stable housing and already working out what medical and dental appointments to skip and what school, sport and other activities they will have to tell their kids they simply can't participate in.
Currently, the government has the power under the Social Security Act to keep paying the coronavirus supplement as long as there is the impact of the pandemic. Families will be carrying the economic scars of this recession for years. The Department of Social Services expects the number of people relying on unemployment support to remain elevated across the entire forward estimates and for some time to come. In this context, I simply cannot understand why the government is so keen to take away this power, which can only be used to help people by continuing the coronavirus supplement. Of course no-one can force the minister's hand, and the existence of this power does not guarantee that the government won't stick to their current policy of cutting unemployment payments all the way back down to the old Newstart rate in March. But at least this amendment would still keep that option available to the government, and there is no reason for the government to oppose these changes. I have written to the minister. I have spoken with the minister and asked her to seriously consider this.
In March this year the government thought it was a good idea for this power to last until the impact of the pandemic had faded, but now they want to repeal it early. Nothing has changed except perhaps that hearts have hardened. There is nothing that anyone but the government can do to increase payments—that is the reality of the parliament. Only the government can move bills to make amendments that increase expenditure, and the government, by definition, has the numbers in this place.
There are so many opposite who have acknowledged that the old base rate of Newstart is too low, including the member for New England; the member for Cowper, who said that going back to $40 a day was cruel and unusual punishment; Senator Canavan in the other place; Senator Dean Smith; the member for Monash; and the member for Fisher. I ask those opposite a simple question: if you know that this needs to change, why won't you support this amendment, which will at least hold open a glimmer of hope that the rate of unemployment payments won't go all the way back down to $40 a day in March? This section doesn't need to be in this bill. If it were removed, the beneficial elements of what is proposed here, like the extension of the more generous partner income test, would still be able to go ahead.
I move Labor amendment (3):
(3) Schedule 1, items 39 to 41, page 7 (lines 10 to 15), omit the items.
This amendment proposes to permanently strike out the minister's ability to exempt people from the liquid assets waiting period. This amendment will remove this part of the bill so that exemptions can still be made. Labor has consistently opposed the reintroduction of the liquid assets waiting period in the midst of a pandemic. The government should not have reinstated the 13-week liquid assets waiting period in September. Most Australians are shocked to find out that, with as little as $5,000 in the bank, people have to wait to receive unemployment support. It's very noisy in here.
The Prime Minister should drop his cruel plan to make people wait 26 weeks to get unemployment support if they have modest savings. This false economy means people are forced to run down to their last dollar and makes it more likely they will face hardship, like struggling to pay their mortgage or keeping a car on the road. It also means people are more likely to need to rely on other services like food banks and emergency relief. If people have no buffer at all, it means they can't meet medical bills, they can't keep up with the mortgage while they look for work and they can't afford to move. This has a huge impact on relationships and on mental health. That is what this parliament should really be focused on—people, and helping them get through the tough times before the pandemic does finally subside. It should not be our role to make matters worse when people are already facing a dark hour.
Labor has called on the government to continue the liquid assets waiting period suspension. I hope those opposite will have the courage and the sense to support this amendment, which will allow people who have built up a modest buffer to keep some control and some dignity when they face unemployment.
I move amendment (4) circulated in my name:
(4) Schedule 1, item 44, page 10 (after line 21), after section 1262, insert:
1262A Minister must immediately consider required modifications
As soon as practicable after this section commences, the Minister must consider whether the period for which a determination can be in force under section 1263 should be extended to allow determinations to be made for as long as the impacts from COVID-19 continue to exist.
Example: This could allow for the continuation, after 31 March 2021, of the extended partner income test, $300 income free areas and eligibility rules for people who are self-employed or sole traders.
This amendment would require the minister to consider extending beneficial changes like the increased partner income test beyond 31 March 2021. Earlier in the year, at the beginning of the pandemic, Labor negotiated a general regulation-making power with the government so that additional assistance could be given to people who need it during the pandemic, and it's lucky we did, because it has been used to pay students and apprentices the coronavirus supplement. It's been used to double the partner income test to around $80,000 to help households where one income earner has lost a job; this is around 100,000 households. It has been used to increase the amount a person can earn each fortnight before their payment starts tapering out from $106 to $300. It has been used to make it easier for sole traders and self-employed people to access support. Just like the increased payments themselves, these changes will need to continue long after March. There are millions of households who will be hurting for years to come. We realise that this is a broad power, and this amendment requests that the government come back to parliament with primary legislation to make it a reality.
In relation to this bill overall, so the coronavirus supplement can continue to be paid, Labor wants to strike out the part that will take payments all the way back to the old Newstart rate. In relation to this bill, we want the government to extend other beneficial changes beyond March 2021, but we know that, even if the government have the continuing power to pay the coronavirus supplement, they will do so only if they want to.
I will make two final points. With that in mind, we will not stand in the way of this bill, because we do not want students, the self-employed and those benefiting from the partner income test to be worse off after December. That is a very important reason. Ultimately, the government should just do the right thing and announce a permanent increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker payment. It would put so many people's minds at ease, and it would save jobs.
Throughout what has been a very difficult 2020, those of us on this side of the chamber have not allowed the perfect to be the enemy of the good. We have been prepared to be constructive. We have put forward ideas to improve legislation in areas like JobKeeper and wage subsidies. We advanced it, even when those opposite in leadership positions were saying that was a bad idea. The shadow minister has just indicated that we will not stand in the way of this legislation, consistent with that. But we have put forward constructive amendments. I say to the government: come to the table in the spirit in which the opposition has put that forward. It is one thing to be the 'no-alition' when you were in opposition and say no to everything, as you did during the global financial crisis. It's another thing now, when you are the government and you have the responsibility to look after people during this crisis, to say no to constructive suggestions which have been put forward.
Three essential principles have been advanced by the shadow minister here. One of them is to call for a permanent increase in the unemployment rate—what we used to call Newstart and now call JobSeeker. If those opposite have acknowledged that $40 a day is not enough to live on and, indeed, they doubled the payments in an act that resulted in more money flowing around the economy—which resulted in improving people's lives and, literally, for some people, meant the difference between having three meals a day and what they used to have to do—then surely we are in a position to provide certainty to those people. Those opposite often speak, quite rightly, about the mental health impact of this crisis. There's no question that that is real. There's no question that there's a genuineness about the need to act on those issues.
The idea, as you are saying to people, that in March that rate will go to $40 a day is having an impact. It's having an impact right now. We have one more week of sitting before we adjourn for the Christmas period. To say to those people, as they head into Christmas, 'We are going to put you back into poverty; we are going to go to a rate which, when confronted with the reality, we recognised was not on,' is not good enough. We have given the government the space, as well, by not advocating a particular figure. That was designed very explicitly—we say that upfront, and we've got some criticism because of it—to give you the space to make a change that makes a difference to people's lives and that we would hopefully be in a position to back in.
For you to vote against that amendment is an outrage, but it's not the worst thing that you're doing here today. To reintroduce the liquid assets waiting period, during a period in which unemployment is going up and during a period in which we know, as government support from the economy is withdrawn, you're relying upon increased expenditure and confidence in the economy, is bad economic policy and also has a bad social policy impact. Reintroducing the liquid assets waiting period now is having a particularly draconian impact in two areas, and you need to think about this. Firstly, to those people who, encouraged by this government, drew down their super because they needed liquid assets—in a way that will not only hurt future governments' fiscal positions but will hurt people's retirement incomes—you're now going to say that they need to spend all that money before you will give them eligibility, by reintroducing the liquid assets waiting period. It's quite extraordinary. You're effectively doing this, and be clear about this: person A, who did not withdraw $10,000 from their super, will be eligible for support payments, but person B, who did withdraw $10,000 from their super, will miss out. That is what you are doing here. Think about it. Think about it and act.
(Extension of time granted)
The second area is in redundancy payments. A range of people have lost their jobs. We all know that. Don't come in here and say, 'That's bad but, by the way, what we're going to do here is reintroduce the liquid assets waiting period so that those people who've lost their jobs and have a redundancy payment will then miss out as well.' It's just extraordinary you would not support these amendments that are put forward in faith. There's nothing radical about the propositions put forward by the shadow minister, my colleague, the member for Barton. These are sensible amendments to improve your legislation—your legislation that we are not threatening to hold up, your legislation that will be improved. By the way, you can like other things and take the credit for it. It's a bit like wage subsidies and JobKeeper. I'll give you the big hint.
The third area of amendments—and think about this that you're voting against with your amendment here—is that we are moving an amendment to retain the ministerial power of the Treasurer of Australia to be able to adjust the coronavirus supplement. Think about that. We are trying to give the Treasurer the power—while the coronavirus supplement is in, it will remain Josh Frydenberg, unless he's pushed aside in the reshuffle that's coming—to adjust the supplement if you have got it wrong, if you shouldn't decrease the supplement come next March.
These are sensible amendments. They're practical amendments. They'll make a difference to people's lives. But they'll also improve the economic outlook by increasing the funds that are flowing around the economy. That is the whole point of economic stimulus when you have a recession: you increase the money that flows around the economy, and you increase it at the lower end because people spend it and don't save it. What you are doing in opposing this is sheer arrogance, and you should reconsider your position.
We will be pursuing these amendments in the Senate as well. If you want to save face, and not come up with some common sense here, then for goodness sake—so many of the things that we have advanced during this difficult year of 2020 have been adopted by the government. When they have we've welcomed them, like JobKeeper. We've welcomed wage subsidies. We've welcomed the increased support for mental health. We've welcomed a range of the initiatives that have been done. But they just say, 'No, we've got this all right. We're geniuses. We know what's going on. We don't need any help.' That's what parliament's for, to improve legislation. That's why we have a process of consideration in detail.
Had the opposition acted like the coalition acted in opposition during the GFC, I might have thought, 'Oh, well, it's an either/or proposition.' Instead, we have the childish position of those opposite not being prepared to engage in serious policies and suggestions that are put forward here. I would just say to you: have a bit of common sense and think about what we're putting forward here, by the member for Barton, in good faith. We'll continue to vote for our amendments that have been put forward, but we'll vote for the legislation. I think this parliament, in some cases this year, has acted with a great deal of maturity and we've got better outcomes because of it. But this is not a fine moment, when you have an amendment before you now to give your Treasurer more power to adjust payments, if you vote against this. That is just sheer arrogance, hubris and bloody-mindedness. (Time expired)