House debates

Monday, 22 February 2021


COVID-19, Workplace Relations

7:50 pm

Photo of Mark ButlerMark Butler (Hindmarsh, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives) Share this | | Hansard source

As we approach March 2021, we look forward to a brighter and more optimistic economic and social future than seemed possible as this pandemic was ramping up to its early stages almost 12 months ago. The first vaccinations in Australia have commenced and, of course, in other countries they've been rolling out now for well over a month. COVID-19 is being labelled a once-in-a-century pandemic, and we all certainly hope that that is the case.

The pandemic was a shock that reverberated around the world, causing severe strain to the economic wellbeing and social fabric of countries across the globe. The responses to the pandemic worldwide were varied to say the least. The Lowy Institute recently evaluated the worldwide response to the pandemic. Australia rated a very creditable eighth in the world. Our near neighbours New Zealand came on top. Australia had the fortunate benefit of seeing what slow action—or in some countries no action—looked like. Death and economic devastation ravaged European and North and South American countries. As a nation we moved fast. Lockdowns, social distancing and improved hygiene measures were implemented swiftly. To the credit of the Australian population, we embraced those measures with little or no complaint, putting trust in our state and federal leaders and, importantly, public health experts to do the right thing for the community as a whole.

Stimulus packages commenced in March 2020 and were refined, updated and added to through March and April. The packages included two lump sum payments, the introduction of JobKeeper and a $550-per-fortnight supplement to what is known as JobSeeker. My own electorate of Hindmarsh had some 5,500 recipients of JobKeeper, the wage subsidy program. In February 2020, before COVID, Hindmarsh had 5,800 JobSeeker recipients. By June of that same year, that number had grown to an alarming 11,000, with a further 1,090 receiving youth allowance. In December 2020, the numbers remained disturbingly higher than pre COVID, with almost 10,000 receiving JobSeeker and 995 receiving youth allowance. JobKeeper is slated to end on 28 March, in just a few weeks, with the JobSeeker supplement, which is being wound down already, to cease altogether on 31 March. I have very grave concerns for the vulnerable constituents in my electorate who will be severely impacted by the proposed cessation of both of these payments.

The Morrison Liberal government is, unfortunately, not on the side of working families. Under a Morrison government, wages will be cut, JobKeeper support will be axed and childcare costs will stay far too high. The first vaccines have only just begun to puncture the arms of our frontline healthcare workers today, yet this government is all too ready to puncture the rate of JobSeeker. It's simply too early to be reducing the rate of the COVID supplement, which is helping families keep their heads above water. The Prime Minister needs to stop leaving working families behind. Australians need a government that will commit to permanently increasing unemployment benefits. They need a government that is on their side.

The Labor Party is committed to ensuring that the COVID recovery is focused on jobs. To that end, a Labor government will legislate job security as a key objective of the Fair Work Act to help fight the ongoing uncertainty that comes with systemic casual work. Some of this particular job insecurity is of very recent origin, with the advent particularly of the gig economy. The response by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Industrial Relation to the plight of gig economy workers who are earning so much less than the minimum wage, with no leave entitlements and no protections for workplace health and safety, should be condemned.

Earlier this month, workers in Gouger Street in my city of Adelaide rallied against wage theft, which has become a recurring theme for young workers. These workers need a strong Labor government to have their back. To those workers who have been underpaid, have felt insecure about their job security or have felt like they have been left behind by their government, I say: Labor is on your side. Labor wants an Australia that supports local jobs with fair pay and decent conditions. Under Labor, no-one will be held back and no-one will be left behind.