Tuesday, 2 February 2021
Matters of Public Importance
I have received a letter from the honourable the Deputy Leader of the Opposition proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The Government's failure to deliver a proper jobs plan for the Australian people.
I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
Yesterday at the National Press Club the Prime Minister gave himself one giant pat on the back. He's doing a great job; all you need to do is just go and ask him. There were no new announcements and no grand plans for the future, but the stats and the graphs were an exercise in self-congratulation of epic proportions.
Here we are in the eighth year of this government. The Prime Minister and his government are looking quite comfortable as they are entrenched on that side of the parliament. They are luxuriating in the blue carpets and strolling the grounds of Kirribilli and the Lodge, but there is a certain detachment from the Australian people. It is hard to imagine a speech that is more divorced from the reality of the Australian experience than that which we heard yesterday. On this day there are two million Australians who are looking for work—Australians who are unemployed or who are underemployed. To be sure, COVID-19 has dealt a very significant blow. There were businesses, particularly small businesses, that had a line struck through their business model literally overnight. We should never forget that this was a government which, at the outset, had absolutely no intention of putting a wage subsidy in place—no plan whatsoever for having a connection between those businesses and their employees. JobKeeper has been a game changer, but it came about because of the advocacy of Labor. It's what we said and what we did that meant it happened.
Here we are in February 2021, and JobKeeper is due to end next month, in just eight weeks. If you have a business that has no chance of having the circumstances which existed before COVID-19 being put back in place, that is a devastating time line looming on the horizon. If you are a travel agent or if you are operating in the tourism industry and are reliant on international tourists or if you are in some way connected with aviation, you're not through this. There's no prospect of those businesses being back in place. Just a couple of weeks ago I went to Degraves Street in Melbourne, that iconic strip in the heart of the city, which is famed for its restaurants and its coffee shops. Normally it's a part of the world which is teeming with people, but they're not there right now, and all those businesses are doing it tough. The simple fact is this: if JobKeeper is removed before those businesses are in a position to operate properly then we are going to see them go bust, and, with that, we will see the loss of thousands of jobs.
But even before COVID-19 struck, this was a government which had an appalling record when it came to jobs and employment. Throughout the entirety of the tenure of Scott Morrison as the Prime Minister of this country, there have been more than a million people who have been underemployed.
In my electorate alone since 2013, we've seen Ford stop making cars and we've seen Alcoa stop producing aluminium at its smelter at Point Henry. I'm not here saying that every job can be saved, but you can certainly have a go. And that's not what this government has ever been about. In fact, this is a government that went and dared the car industry to leave our shores, and that's exactly what they did, in decisions from Toyota and Holden. At that moment, we lost significant industrial capability, because at that moment we lost the most complex manufacturing that we were doing in this country. Rather than climbing the technological ladder, we fell down it.
What happened at that moment was that well-paid secure jobs were also lost. I know lots of people who worked at Alcoa and Ford. Some of those people have not got a job since, but, of those who have, none of them have got the kind of well-paid, secure job that they used to have when they worked at Alcoa or Ford. When you have a job of that kind and you lose it and it is replaced by a part-time, casual job where you're being paid half as much, that is not a transaction which is like-for-like. And this is where the stats don't tell the story. This is a government which loves those statistics, but they are not telling the story of the human experience in communities across our country.
But there is one group of jobs that those opposite will protect and defend with the intensity and focus of a feeding shark, and that is their own. You only need to look at the sports rorts program in the lead-up to the last election. In a desperate moment, that's what they put in place—a $100 million scheme, where most of the decisions that were made went against the recommendation of the effective independent umpire, Sport Australia. Instead, what we had was a colour-coded spreadsheet being directed from the office of the Prime Minister himself, based on the marginality of the seat in which the particular sports club was located. For hundreds of sports clubs, thousands of hours were put in by volunteers to produce those applications, which never stood a chance because of the place in which those sporting clubs were located. If the votes inside those sporting clubs weren't going to help protect this man's job, then he was not going to give a damn.
When you look at those who used to serve in this government, like the former finance minister going for a job in the OECD, no expense is spared. The Air Force? A private plane to fly all over the world? Do whatever you want, whatever it takes, to get that job. But they're not focused on the jobs of the Australian people, because, in the last eight years, this government has become very, very focused on itself and has forgotten all about the Australian people and their interests and their jobs.
Well, between now and the next election, you're going to see a strong contrast in terms of what's put forward by Labor, because we care about the interests and the jobs of the Australian people. We are on their side.
With humility and with respect, we are going to go to small business and seek to amplify their voice as that group which has been on the frontline of the COVID crisis, knowing that, as we do, the sorts of initiatives that they're really relying on at the moment—things like loss carry-back and instant asset write-off—are ideas and concepts which found their origins in the work of Labor, from this side of the House, from the wonderful work of the member for Gorton when Labor was last in office. So when small businesses go to the election when it next comes and look for a reason to vote, the first place they will see is Labor. And we will be doing everything we can to put forward a plan for how we are going to build and rebuild industry and manufacturing in this country, in a First World context, knowing that the only way you can do that and make a profit is for us to be making product at the highest value level.
That means climbing the technological ladder, and that means placing science at the centre of our national discussion in a way that has not been done before, and certainly in a way that is not done by this government. This is a government which enables antivaxxers and conspiracy theorists. This is a government which is cutting science jobs from the CSIRO; that's its science policy. Ours is going to be very, very different indeed. Most importantly, we understand the importance of turning science into jobs. Under this government, Australia stands as one of the worst commercialisers of public research in the OECD. The ability of this government to translate our basic research into jobs in this country has been singularly hopeless. So that is going to be different, and we will have plans in respect of that.
We will have plans in respect of small business and its place within our economy. Unlike this government—which has been focused on itself, which has been focused on its own jobs, which has been focused on the jobs of its friends and its mates and those who used to serve within it—we will be different. We are going to be focused on the Australian people. We will be focused on their interests. We will be focused on their employment and their opportunities in the future, and we are going to do everything we can between now and the next election to advocate for their jobs, because we are on their side.
That was a very polite contribution from the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, I have to say. I'll go to his opening remarks about strolling in the grounds of the parliament. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker O'Brien, I can tell you exactly where we've been strolling in recent weeks. It's been in places like Cloncurry, the Cannington Mine, and Gladstone and Northern Oil. We've been to Humpty Doo and Darwin; we've been talking to the people of Townsville and right across the north. While I have the opportunity, I'll give a shout-out to Humpty Doo Barramundi again. What a great Australian success story! It's a small business that's driving more jobs with support from the NAIF, which includes a second loan to put on more people, more Australians, in the north. I think that's a wonderful story that we should all reflect on and be thankful for—that we still have those Australians out there having a crack, employing more people and continuing to grow.
But I'd say to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition: regional areas are actually desperate for people. The employers I speak to cannot find enough staff. Right now we have any number of businesses that would normally be open seven days a week but, instead, are open four, or that would normally be open five days a week but, instead, are open three. This is because, quite simply, they cannot get enough staff to be operational for that entire period. So, if you're out there and you're looking for work, I can say there's a great opportunity in the regions. There's an opportunity right now. Whether you're in the member for Barker's area, whether you're with the member for Grey or whether you're even with the member for Petrie—just north of Brisbane—there is an opportunity for you. You can buy a house, you can have a backyard, you can have two dogs and a cat and a couple of bicycles, you can have a horse if you want or two cows—whatever it is that floats your boat, there is an opportunity for you in regional Australia right now. Mr Deputy Speaker, as you know, people are taking up that opportunity. They are building new homes. They are shifting to the regions. They are taking up that chance, that opportunity and that choice to be in a life which suits them in a post-COVID environment.
JobKeeper was always intended to be a temporary support measure. If we want to talk about the support for small business, if we want to talk about manufacturing, there are a lot more people from small business on this side of the House than there are on the opposite side. There are individuals on our side who've been out; they've taken the risk; they've borrowed the money; they've employed Australians; they know what it is, every second week, to wake up and wonder how they'll pay wages. They know what risks you have to take and what work you have to do to be successful, and I congratulate them all. And when it comes to manufacturing I'm very pleased that those opposite are interested in manufacturing. I genuinely am. I think there is a real opportunity for our country right now. This is a watershed point for our country to drive manufacturing back onshore. But the fundamentals of business will always remain the same, and the fundamentals are very straightforward. You need a competitive gas price. You need a competitive electricity price. You need available staff with the right skills. You need to ensure you're not bogged down in red and green tape that makes it even more expensive for you to try and get your business up and operational. I've spoken to any number of Australia's big manufacturers, who are all keen to look at expansion opportunities and many of whom will shift into the regions and open up those new opportunities for regional people. I think that is a positive outcome from what has been a very difficult year.
So we do have a plan for Australia's economic recovery. There is the $74 billion JobMaker plan. I'm sure you've heard of it, Mr Deputy Speaker O'Brien. It is a plan for Australia, it is a plan for Australian jobs and it is succeeding. I will come to the actual statistics shortly. If in doubt, go with the facts! As the core of our plan, we will support a stronger economy, we will drive a faster recovery, we will invest in skills and higher education, we will prove the ease of doing business and we will support the manufacturing and energy sectors, which are so critical to Australia's future success.
Now, our JobMaker plan is working. How do we know that? The unemployment rate decreased to 6.6 per cent in December 2020, with employment increasing by 50,000 persons and the participation rate going to a record high of 66.2 per cent. Those are the numbers. And 71 per cent of that increase in employment was full-time jobs—35,700—while the remaining 29 per cent were part time. The underemployment rate fell to 8½ per cent in December, down from 9.4 per cent in November, and is now at its lowest level since December 2019. Those statistics are a statement of fact. Since May, 784,000 jobs have been created, recovering 90 per cent of the 872,000 jobs that were lost between March and May. That is very positive news for those Australians who are out there doing it tough, who have been supported by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has ensured that they have every opportunity to be successful. We have a $1 billion JobTrainer program which is providing an additional 340,700 training places to help school leavers and jobseekers access short and long courses. We will continue not only to keep Australians safe but to provide opportunities for them to develop more skills, to have higher paid jobs, to develop their own sets of skills, to pay their own way, and that, I think, is the great Australian dream: to be successful, to be self-sufficient, to be able to make your own opportunities and to make your own choices.
I will come to my own portfolio briefly in the remaining time, the resources sector—what an absolute success story. I welcome the new shadow minister to the portfolio—it's a shame that there are issues with Western Australia in terms of attendance—and I thank the former shadow minister for his brief contribution. Once again, the resources sector is leading the way for Australia. The sector has been the shining light of our economy. They have dealt with the pandemic, they have put in place mechanisms to keep their staff safe and operational and, as a result, they have been an absolute success story. We know it has been going well, but even I didn't know it was going this well. Last week the ABS noted that the number of people employed in mining jumped by 22,000, or nearly 10 per cent, in the three months to November last year, providing jobs for 264,000 Australians. Mr Deputy Speaker, would you believe that 25 per cent of that additional employment came from coalmining? It came from the coal sector, Australia's success story in resources for decades. That's also a 23 per cent increase over the year and it is the greatest number of Australians employed in the sector since 2012.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I know it's out of order, but we should be putting our hands together for the resources sector. They have helped this country through this very difficult period. They have increased the number of Australians who have a job, and they are well-paid jobs, they are good jobs and they are jobs that will continue into the future. Those statistics are without the over one million Australians who are indirectly employed by the industry. So we will have a resources led recovery, we will have a gas led recovery and we will have a jobs led recovery. This government will ensure that that is absolutely the case. The resources sector is continuing to do what it has done for decades: drive the Australian economy, provide the common wealth for the common people, provide opportunities for our kids to be employed and trained to have successful jobs into the future—and long may it continue. In fact, the value of Australian coal exports in December increased by an impressive 26 per cent from November and was worth $3.7 billion to the Australian economy.
So, regardless of all the noise and the things that we've read from some of those media outlets about how difficult it has been—and certainly there have been some trading challenges—the reality is, quite simply, that the coal sector and the resources sector have continued to go from strength to strength, continued to grow and continued to provide opportunity. Coal sales to Vietnam and India were stronger, reaffirming the competitiveness of Australian coal. We have a high-quality product, we are in the right position to deliver it, we can do it at a cost-competitive price into those markets, and there is demand.
Exports were valued at a phenomenal $272.5 billion in the 12 months to December, which was a significant increase on the previous quarter. That is due to the hard work of the men and women, in their high-vis jackets and suits and shirts and pants and their steel-capped boots, who did what was necessary to help deliver jobs and a stronger economy for this country. We should be absolutely thankful not only for the fact that they exist but for the fact that they are willing to do what is a very tough and difficult job.
Whilst we'll always hear plenty of noise from those opposite about what they may or may not intend to do, it is the coalition that is delivering. It is the coalition that has put the commitment on the table. We are delivering in spades. The facts and data stack up. Everything that we are seeing is indicating that there are green shoots and strength in the economy. There is confidence from business, confidence from the Australian people and confidence from investors. It is confidence that matters, because confidence puts you out there to take risks, and those risks result in more jobs for the Australian people. Our JobMaker Plan will continue to deliver.
It would be great if those opposite could take their heads out of the sand and get into the regions, where things are really happening. The people of my electorate remain hopeful that out of the dark days of bushfires and the fear of the pandemic might come jobs and prosperity. These experiences have rewritten our lives, and what we need to learn has to count. Otherwise, we fail those people who've lost their lives, who've had their homes destroyed and whose businesses have had to close.
We have the chance to re-imagine Australia and provide a vision for our country that unites and inspires. As I travel through my electorate, people talk to me about the need for more secure, locally based jobs that have the potential to care for community and country. The people of Eden-Monaro see what needs to be done and are tired of waiting for the government to act.
The forestry industry in the South West Slopes supports one in every two jobs and creates $2 billion in economic activity every year, but the Black Summer fires took out 40 per cent of Hind Timber's plantation pine supply. By the middle of this year, 157 jobs will be lost in the Snowy Valleys—140 of which are in Tumbarumba—if the supply shortfall isn't filled. The business has found timber from further afield. With some transport assistance, this timber could be redirected from overseas and processed locally—a commonsense approach which is still waiting for government support.
While I'm talking about the South West Slopes, last week I visited the community of Talbingo and met with the residents there. We talked about bushfire recovery and the lost jobs that have been ripped out of the region and centralised in Sydney. The land managers who used to manage our bushfire risk are gone, along with the local knowledge and pay packets that went with them.
Nearly two years ago, this government announced a $4 billion emergency response and mitigation fund, and not a single dollar has been spent. Anxiety was through the roof as we headed into this fire season. Communities from the mountains to the sea wanted to see women and men in our environment managing our landscape, and we saw none of it. While rain might have reduced the immediate risk, the jobs in caring for our community are desperately needed in regional communities. While businesses in Eden-Monaro haven't been dealing with bushfires this summer, they've been dealing with equally devastating border closures. Business owners have been in tears describing the trauma of losing summer trade for a second year in a row because this government failed to lead in the national cabinet on definitions for hotspots and triggers for border closures. In some of our areas, tourism, hospitality and retail businesses generate 70 to 80 per cent of their yearly earnings during the six-week summer holiday period. We fear for the jobs and livelihoods that depend on those small businesses. Since the devastating border closures on New Year's Eve, I've met with business chambers in the Bega Valley, Tumut and Jindabyne. Small-business owners in Eden-Monaro need help. They need help in the form of travel vouchers, to entice visitation back to our communities and tax incentives or concessions for those hardest hit. And mental health support for our business owners is desperately needed.
Finally, news last week that Telstra will be closing its overseas call centres and bringing those jobs back to Australia presents another opportunity for jobs in the region. I urge those decision-makers to support regions like Eden-Monaro by establishing call centres in fire affected communities like mine or setting targets for people to work from home in our regional communities.
More than two million Australians are looking for work in this country right now, but this government is failing to see the opportunities that are right in front of us. Instead, we have a $1 trillion debt and no answers from this government to the questions screaming at us from our future. Only Labor will provide the vision for our future. My electorate knows it, because I am on their side.
Happy new year to you, Mr Deputy Speaker O'Brien, and a happy new year to all parliamentarians. The Morrison government want it to be a happy new year for all Australians too. We want to see all Australians in work and doing well throughout 2021. The government have invested over $260 billion in combined health and economic support to help Australia through the crisis—to keep Australians safe, to keep businesses open and to keep workers in employment. Our plan is to act decisively in the interests of all Australians, to keep them in jobs and to get more Australians into jobs as the economy recovers from COVID-19.
The Morrison government gives thanks to all 25 million Australians for we are nearly unmatched around the world in our comeback. Australia is certainly a wonderful place to live. As the Prime Minister was saying this morning in the party room, you wouldn't want to be anywhere other than Australia at the moment. Ninety per cent of the jobs that were lost are already back, with 748,500 jobs being returned to the economy over the last seven months. The unemployment rate fell from 7½ per cent in July last year to 6.6 per cent in December. Consumer and business confidence is recovering, and this will be further supported by the vaccine rollout, which the Morrison government is funding through Medicare.
At the same time, the Morrison government's JobKeeper payment, supporting apprentices and trainees wages, kept over 3.8 million Australians in work and a further 117,000 Australians in training. In my own electorate of Petrie, Pilpel, a local restaurant, kept its doors open, thanks to JobKeeper and other support from the Australian government. That restaurant gave back at Christmas. It held a dinner for hundreds of community members, including the homeless, to help give a little Christmas cheer.
Specsavers told me that they would have had to lose staff, but instead they kept their doors open. Tradies are busy at the moment. The Morrison government's HomeBuilder is supporting record new home sales. Also, of course, due to the lack of travel, people are investing locally and in their own homes.
We are in a good position in Australia, but there certainly is more to do. Every member and senator in this place can play their part. The Australian government is focused on the Australian people. That's why we're here. That's what drives us. That's what we will continue to focus on throughout 2021.
The government's $74 billion JobMaker is a key element of the government's economic recovery plan and will support economic activity and higher employment. In assisting Minister Cash in her portfolio, this includes boosting apprenticeship commitments to give more people the skills they need to get back to work and delivering the JobTrainer fund in partnership with states and territories for 340,000 additional training places that are free—funded by the Australian government—or low fee to give jobseekers and school leavers skills. Youth employment has increased by 240,000, almost a quarter of a million, since May, but there is more to do.
The Morrison government is delivering the JobMaker hiring credit, helping to accelerate growth in employment by giving businesses incentives to take on younger employees. Young jobseekers will not be at risk of becoming long-term unemployed and reliant on welfare. We are investing $4 billion to support young people into work through the JobMaker hiring credit. The JobMaker hiring credit will support around 450,000 young people to move into employment.
The Labor Party, those opposite, should explain to young Australians why they have opposed every youth employment measure that the Australian government has introduced. It's disappointing that, in the first question time of 2021, the Labor Party started question time with a lie in relation to industrial relations. Here in the Morrison government we want to get people back to work. That's why the fair work amendment bill, the industrial relations changes, that the Morrison government has planned will simplify the Fair Work Act. This, I believe, can help reduce underemployment and casualisation, which those opposite always talk about. At the moment, the act encourages casualisation as opposed to permanent part time. The JobMaker hiring credit, as I spoke about before, will continue to help people. The recovery will not look the same in all communities for all Australians. Every MP and senator has a role to play. (Time expired)
Today, the first day back in parliament for 2021, was important because it was an opportunity for the government to tell us what their future plans are for creating jobs. We've had the health crisis of 2020, and today was the day to define the kind of Australia that we want. Part of that is what the jobs of the future will be and how we will get people back into employment, especially those two million people in this country who today find themselves without a job, or the ones who are underemployed and want to work more but cannot find that extra work. So this year there will be a clear choice for Australians, a clear choice between a government that cares more about protecting its own jobs and the Prime Minister's job or one that wants to ensure Australians have a fulfilling and reliable future of work.
This government is all about slogans and marketing, instead of believing in actions. When you think about the future of the government and their actions, you just need to look at their record, what they've done since they have been in government. We've seen a decline in manufacturing. People have lost their jobs; industries have gone out of business; particular products that we made here in Australia, with Australian workers, have just disappeared. You don't have to look too far. Just look at South Australia, my own home state, where we had an automobile industry, GMH, that created hundreds and hundreds of jobs. It put food on the table for thousands of people over the years. We don't have that industry anymore. Why don't we have that industry anymore? Because those opposite didn't give two hoots about it. We saw the automobile industry and GMH goaded out of Australia. The Treasurer of the time, Mr Hockey, made that absolutely disgraceful speech in this place. Two days later, GMH announced that they were leaving Australia. We know for every assembly-line job that exists another 30-odd jobs are created. In fact, the car industry has been subsidised by governments all around the world because they know that it economically benefits the nation. The government turned its back on the car industry. It's turned its back on manufacturing. It is also losing those highly skilled, experienced workers we once had. Many are still unemployed today regardless of what programs the government put in place.
The government announces a lot, but the outcomes speak for themselves. For example, the government announced that it would decide in 2019 the long-term location for the full-cycle docking of the Collins class submarines. Well, it's 2021 and we're still waiting. There are close to 900 people employed at the Australian Submarine Corporation in Osborne in South Australia. They are 900 people who spent Christmas and the holiday period very uncertain about how long they will have jobs. We have an aged-care system which is broken and has left our oldest Australians exposed to the coronavirus. The home-care waiting list just gets longer and longer. We saw the debacle, and we're still seeing it, of the COVID-safe app. There was great fanfare, great marketing, great advertising on TV, but how effective has it been? I believe there have been only 17 cases confirmed by the app, although it cost the Australian taxpayer $70 million, including advertising and marketing for those opposite to prop up their own jobs.
The government has announced 22 failed energy policies whilst they've been in for the last eight years, and instead of creating jobs in renewables for the future they've created nothing but uncertainty for businesses that want to invest in renewables. What does that do? It leaves players out of the market, and energy prices have skyrocketed, up to 20 per cent in some cases. They've gone up in the last eight years since this government has been in power. This government and the Prime Minister talk about jobs, but there are two million Australians who are looking for work in the country right now, not to mention the number of people, as I said earlier, who are underemployed, and wages growth is at the lowest it's ever been in the history of this nation. In fact, they're going backwards under this government, instead of the other way. This is the government's track record, with wages going backwards. And what did they have to offer just before we left parliament? An industrial relations bill that's going to cut wages. It's going to cut wages, because it's in their DNA. (Time expired)
The temerity of the Australian Labor Party and their members of parliament to come in here and debate a false premise, namely the government's failure to deliver a proper jobs plan for the people of Australia, to be honest, doesn't know any boundary. That a party that left the parliament in late November, early December last year fighting each other over one person's job, namely the Leader of the Opposition's, and who spent all of Christmas, New Year and that time in January continuing those fights has the temerity to come in here and accuse us—that is, the government and the Prime Minister, who are getting on with the job of protecting Australians and their livelihoods—just beggars belief.
Those opposite in this debate this afternoon have been fond of saying, 'We're on your side.' I warn the people of Australia: Be very cautious of any member of parliament who professes to be on your side. Rather than listen to their words, look at their actions. And, while you're doing that, look at the government's actions on this issue over the course of the pandemic. Of course, we stepped into the breach when it was needed and established JobKeeper. While we were dealing with that, we moved onto JobMaker and the hiring credits that were necessitated to facilitate that. I'll get to the statistics on where we are in relation to the national unemployment rate in a minute. There are also apprentice and trainee incentives. Of course, almost on cue, because he must have known I was looking to speak to this issue, Minister Sukkar enters the chamber and I mention the fabulously successful HomeBuilder program.
If those opposite want to come here and say there's no plan for jobs post-pandemic, I challenge you to go and find a tradie in this country and say, 'The Morrison government has no plan for your jobs going forward.' I think almost every tradesman in this country will say to you: 'Rubbish. We know the good work that HomeBuilder has done. We know that we've got more work than we can fly a rocket ship over and we know that that's going long into the future.' Don't stop at the plumber, the electrician, the concreter, the tiler, the surveyor. Come to my community and let's go to a timber mill where that timber is sawn into structural timber that goes into frames. Talk to those timber workers. The old Labor Party would have done that once upon a time, but unfortunately the disconnect between the Labor Party and those that work in those facilities is now at its highest.
I said earlier I'd talk about unemployment statistics and where we're at. Those opposite, indeed, all Australians, indeed, everyone on this globe, understand the scale and scope of the pandemic—a one-in-a-century event that we've been dealing with. I think it's important that Australians understand that the unemployment rate in December fell to 8.5 per cent. How does that compare, pray tell, to December 2019? As I said, it was 8.5 per cent in December 2020. Well, in December 2019 it was 8.2 per cent, so before the pandemic we had an unemployment rate at 8.2 per cent. After everything this nation has been through over the last 12 months—nay, everything the world has been through over the last 12 months—the plans and the programs that have been implemented by our government have meant that we have recovered to the point of being 0.3 per cent above the rate of unemployment that existed prior to the pandemic taking hold.
Those opposite can come in here and try to create fake fights with the coalition; they can try to put a message out of this place to Australian workers and the Australian citizenry that the coalition government, led the Prime Minister Morrison, has not done a good job. But they know that this has been a very difficult period and they know that this ship has been steered particularly well. And you lose credibility by coming in and making these arguments. Work with us to make sure we can recover even better and be best positioned in the world. Don't come in here and have fake fights in the interests of the Leader of the Opposition.
From day one it's been clear that this government has no real plan for Australians jobs. They were dragged kicking and screaming by Labor before they announced a wages subsidy, their so-called JobKeeper. We suggested it, and we were thrilled when they finally agreed. They took their time, but they did finally agree. But now, when it is so incredibly clear that, at least for some industries, JobKeeper will be needed for longer than their arbitrary end date next month, they are still refusing to do what is needed to protect local jobs.
My electorate on the New South Wales South Coast is heavily dependent on tourism. We have all you could want in a holiday destination: beaches, mountains, beautiful people, beautiful food. But the tourism sector is hurting like never before. International tourism is off the table for who knows how long. The domestic tourism market is there, but, with border closures and new hotspots creating high levels of uncertainty, it is putting the viability of many local tourism operators at risk. So what's the government's plan? It's clear. They don't have one. There has been talk—there have been little rumbles and little hints, but rumbles and hints aren't going to keep tourism businesses across my electorate in business.
For months and months I have been raising the concerns, the alarm, of local travel agents in my electorate. I have called on the government over and over again to provide targeted support to that industry. Without the international tourism market, many travel agents simply won't survive. They struggled for so long while being completely ignored by the Prime Minister. Travel agents breathed a sigh of relief when the government finally announced a seemingly tailored package late last year. But, like so many things the Morrison government does, this was yet another failed delivery. I want to share some of the thoughts of local travel agents in my electorate about this package so that you can see the reality. Several agents told me they won't qualify. While the money should have helped to cover the hundreds of hours they have spent, unpaid, helping their clients since this all began, they will get nothing. So, without JobKeeper, they won't survive. Soon after the assistance program was announced, one agent from Nowra said: 'To say that our industry is disappointed is a massive understatement. In the proposal presented by AFTA, my office would have received a grant of $40,000. This would have assisted me to keep trading and my two remaining staff members employed until October 2021. The grant has been butchered by the powers that be, and my office will now only receive $11,000, which will not even pay one month's wages once JobKeeper ends in March.' Another agent said: 'The turnover model is a nightmare for those of us in retail travel. Austrade continued, even though they were fully aware of this grave flaw, and consequently they have signed a death warrant for many in our industry.' These sentiments were echoed by agents up and down the coast—a failure for real people, real businesses and real jobs. But it isn't just travel agents.
Another forgotten industry that has been begging for help is independent cinemas. Independent cinemas have seen huge drops in audience numbers. They have had to deal with prolonged closures and capacity restrictions. And, with the US in the state it is in, there is a huge lack of major blockbusters, which they rely on. In 2020, independent cinemas saw a 70 per cent reduction at the box office. They are struggling and many may not survive. Independent cinemas are so dismayed by the government's complete refusal to help them that next week they are launching a week of action. Why should it come to that? One of the independent cinemas in Batemans Bay said in December, 'Without further support through the COVID-19 crisis, my business is at risk of financial collapse. That will rob Batemans Bay and surrounding areas of its affordable and well-loved cinema, and leave our staff without jobs.' That sums it up perfectly. But the government are not listening. They don't have a plan.
There are 1.6 million Australians relying on JobKeeper, but, from next month, they will lose that critical lifeline. This pandemic is far from over, and, despite the government's attempts to paint a positive picture, a huge number of businesses and jobs are in dire circumstances. We need an extension of JobKeeper for those who need it. The government needs to start listening.
It is important to speak on the Morrison government's plan to create jobs, to get Aussie businesses firing and to drive our national economic recovery. First, though, let's look at where we were this time last year. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to forget how little we all knew about COVID-19 at that time. As case numbers rose, it seemed that every day brought new theories, forecasts and speculations. Misinformation, fear and panic were abundant. Between March, when Australia recorded its 100th case, and May, 872,000 jobs were lost as restrictions took their toll and business confidence fell sharply. Amidst this uncertainty, the Morrison government acted decisively. Our emergency response, including JobKeeper and an increased JobSeeker rate, softened the blow, supporting Australians through the darkest days of the pandemic. The success of this response has been widely acknowledged, with the Reserve Bank reporting in November last year that a further 700,000 Australians would have lost their jobs if not for JobKeeper and our triple A credit rating being retained.
But we knew then that the work wasn't over, as we know now that it's not over. Cushioning the blow of the virus was necessary, but it was nowhere near sufficient. The people of Australia expect us, and we intend, to deliver a strong and sustained economic recovery which will help drive the unemployment rate down as fast as possible. That's where our JobMaker plan comes in, supporting aggregate demand and more jobs in the near term, while also starting to deliver the flexible and dynamic economy that we need to unlock Australia's longer term growth potential. Core policies that fall within this framework include lowering taxes, putting more money back in the pockets of Australians; creating an estimated 100,000 jobs by the end of the 2021-22 financial year; investing an additional $14 billion in new and accelerated infrastructure projects over the next four years; supporting an extra 340,000 free or low-fee training places for school leavers and jobseekers; and, with the $4 billion JobMaker hiring credit, providing businesses with an incentive to employ younger Australians, a group disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
On top of this, specific targeted packages have been prepared for industries particularly affected by COVID-19. For example, Australia's arts industry will be backed by a new $250 million package to help restart our creative economy and get the entertainment, arts and screen sectors back to work. These are examples, but even a quick glance at the raft of policy measures put forward by the Morrison government reveals a clearly defined set of objectives for our JobMaker plan, supporting a stronger economy, driving a faster recovery in employment, investing in skills and higher education, improving the ease of doing business and supporting the manufacturing and energy sectors. This isn't reading between the lines. It's plain to see it's what makes the opposition's suggestion that there is no plan for jobs simply laughable; it's just incorrect. But those opposite know this is just more political spin and more Labor lies cooked up by the marketers and focus groups. Australians deserve better.
We've all been tested in ways we never imagined a year ago. The pandemic has exposed the huge economic difficulties we now face as we look towards recovery. Across the nation, more than two million people are either out of work or underemployed—that is, they want to work more hours. The 1.6 million Australians still relying on JobKeeper as a lifeline are looking at next month with dread as the government cuts off that support. So my message to those opposite is: you need to keep supporting COVID-exposed industries, employees and businesses. You need to support small businesses and their employees—keep them connected. They need certainty, not all these whispers and suggestions. But those opposite, the Morrison government, still can't tell us what will happen to them. Businesses need to plan ahead and employees need to plan ahead, and they're not seeing any certainty.
It's been the worst recession in 100 years and that's why getting people who are unemployed back to work and keeping those who are employed connected to their workplaces is so important. Success will lie in a visionary policy, but we've seen nothing of that from those opposite, no follow through as per usual. What is their vision? They should be investing in jobs. Instead, they're sacking workers and defunding organisations that support people at work in our community.
Just look at what is happening in my electorate, in Darwin, with the NT Working Women's Centre. The Working Women's Centre helped vulnerable women manage issues like pay, working conditions, superannuation, discrimination, harassment, unfair dismissal, bullying, and workplace health and safety. For almost 30 years they've been doing terrific work supporting Territory women, in particular women living with a disability; women living in regional and remote areas; women experiencing violence; women with mental illness; young and mature-age women; and, of course, First Nations Territorians. The centre says that in April last year the top concerns for their clients were COVID-related issues, employment and pay. Workplace bullying and harassment were also major problems. It's clear that women, especially vulnerable women, need the support of the Working Women's Centre, which is locally based with local staff who have a deep understanding of the nuances and complications of working in a place like the Northern Territory. But, instead of supporting the Working Women's Centre, in December the government advised the centre it had failed to secure new funding and that current funding would run out on New Year's Eve. Well, happy new year to Territory women, with the defunding of the NT Working Women's Centre and the telling a group of dedicated Territory workers with very short notice that they would be entering 2021 unemployed at a time when unemployment rates were already so high. It's totally irresponsible. It's a rotten Christmas present. Giving funding to an interstate body with no NT presence for those jobs is also unfair. But, unfortunately, it's typical of those opposite.
Territory women in employment will suffer as a result of the loss of their local advocates. Labor knows that women are vitally important to the health and growth of our society and economy. Working women are important to our nation. When women are taken care of and do well in the workplace, the flow-on effects are felt at every level in our society. It's not just for the economy; it's for the wellbeing of our society and our families.
The NT government has stepped up and managed to find a bit of funding for the short term, but that will run out shortly. So I'm calling on those opposite, the government, to reinstate the funding for the Working Women's Centre so they can keep doing their incredibly valuable and important work for working women in the Northern Territory.
This MPI has a rather hollow ring to it when you hear about what's been happening in coastal New South Wales. It's reflecting the figures that the Treasurer spoke about today: job numbers up in every state, job ad numbers up in every state and consumer confidence coming back. Business confidence is certainly coming back too, although I do acknowledge there are some sectors of the economy that are still incredibly challenged by the effects of COVID on international travel and tourism. Otherwise, it is really all going exceptionally well and better than we expected in coastal New South Wales.
In the beautiful Lyne electorate, there was hardly a spot you could put a caravan or a family who wanted a holiday up and down the Mid North Coast. Caravan parks, holiday villages and beaches were packed. Accommodation in the rental holiday areas from the Hunter River to Hawks Nest was booming over the Christmas and new year period; I've never seen Hawks Nest as busy. Through Forster and Tuncurry, there was exactly the same phenomenon. Up into the Hastings and the Manning, there were people everywhere. That is because of the plans that have been rolled out since the COVID pandemic started. Anyone on the other side must have been blind and deaf or refused to listen.
We've had so many plans. First of all, there's the JobKeeper and the JobSeeker support and increasing cash flow by tax refunds. Most recently we have had HomeBuilder kick the already growing residential housing market out into the stratosphere. To put things in perspective, there was a subdivision of 32 blocks in my own home town of Wauchope. It went on release, and do you know how long it took the real estate people to sell it? It was all gone in one hour. People are voting with their feet. They are leaving the metro and they are seeking a better life in the regions. That's what our party stands for. We want people to decentralise, and many businesses have worked out the same. Industrial lots were going very quickly too, because people realise they can move their business. They have cheaper business and land costs, and, if they've got a successful internet business, they can sell their product back into the bigger markets.
We've also had plans to support apprenticeships, which are up by 110,000. We had apprentice subsidy schemes before the pandemic, but the latest scheme brought in 110,000 new apprentices. That is exceptional. We've heard the amazing figures from the resources sector. I have two coalmines in my electorate, plus half the people in the Hunter region of my electorate work in mining and mining related industries as well agriculture. The dairy industry has recovered from the drought in most areas, and, also, Norco is paying 77c a litre. That is a big improvement in prices. So we have had huge grain crops to the west, and in our part of the world things are looking up. There have been exceptional prices for beef cattle and, depending on who the processor is, exceptional prices for milk, which is a welcome benefit.
The building industry is where it's really going gangbusters, the tradesmen all tell me, whether you're in Forster Tuncurry at the McDonald Jones sites, or in Wauchope or in Taree. In Taree, the Figtrees on the Manning project is kicking off. It's a $495 million master plan site. Bushland Health Group is delivering the $8½ million grant that we got. The project is underway. In the arts sector we've got Netflix and other prominent Hollywood movie producers making movies on the North Coast. I was there for the late Doug Anthony's funeral, and around the Byron Bay district it's full of moviemakers because of our arts plan: $270 million to get moviemaking and all the employment that runs off these big movies going in Australia.
We have had a plan. The facts are there. Employment is rising rapidly. Ninety per cent of the jobs have come back. We've just got the international and the health plan sorted and we'll get travel going again. Make sure you have a holiday in regional Australia.