House debates

Wednesday, 17 March 2021


Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021; Second Reading

9:58 am

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

If it suits the House I will state the question in the form that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question. I call the honourable member for Perth in continuation.

Photo of Patrick GormanPatrick Gorman (Perth, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Western Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

This bill does not lift people out of poverty; it simply makes them less poor. Proper poverty elimination must be one of the most important things that we do in this place, for Australians at home and for those who live in poverty abroad. We are a rich, successful multicultural country, but we do leave too many people behind.

When we look at the government, we see that they don't have a plan for the many layered challenge of lifting people out of poverty. This is the government that froze the Medicare rebate. This is the government that has no plan to grow the stock of social housing. This is the government that killed the Gonski reforms, which we know were key to lifting people out of intergenerational poverty. They starved our universities of JobKeeper. And, from what we've seen so far, it looks like the aged-care royal commission will go the same way as the banking royal commission. They hate investing in public services and have done nothing to lower the cost of public transport, despite having been in office for more than seven years. And, in the middle of a pandemic, when I asked the government if they could guarantee that the Morley Centrelink in my electorate would stay open—the Centrelink that thousands and thousands of people go to to access and apply for JobSeeker—I couldn't even get that guarantee.

There is no doubt that we do need a more comprehensive review of how we deal with poverty elimination in this country. Yesterday the member for Canberra said that we need to do a more comprehensive review, rather than just throwing a few dollars around, and I think that is definitely the way to go. I say to the 1.95 million Australians who rely on these payments: Labor is on your side. Reducing poverty will be made a priority in every budget of an Albanese Labor government. We are still in the middle of a pandemic, and we don't know what happens next. Of course, the government must keep all options on the table, including ongoing COVID supplements, to deal with what is thrown at our economy in the weeks and months ahead.

We also need to recognise that it's not only the amount that we give people that is important but also their ability to access these funds. That means quality Centrelink services, secure jobs for the people who work at Centrelink and proper resources so that the call centre waiting times don't blow out, as we've experienced in the last 12 months. We need to make sure that the physical shopfronts for Centrelink continue to be there, because that is the preferred method of interaction with government services for many, many people. We also need to acknowledge that, while we might be providing a very small increase for those on JobSeeker, this government has overseen some huge increases in the cost of living. We know the devastating impact of the government's failure on energy policy and energy prices. We've seen increases in childcare fees. There was a 5.6 per cent increase in childcare fees last year, and the fees are projected to increase 4.1 per cent for each of the next four years. In fact, since it was elected in 2013, this government's record is a 35.6 per cent increase in childcare fees. We know that they froze the Medicare rebate. This government also has a unique ability to refuse to accept when it gets it wrong, as we saw with the embarrassing robodebt saga, which this government pretended didn't exist.

I will end my remarks by referring to one of the many pieces of correspondence I've received from constituents in the Perth electorate, urging this place to do more when it comes to JobSeeker. I won't name the constituent. She writes: 'I'm a sole parent without another adult to help support and raise my amazing child. JobSeeker puts us in poverty, not just me but my child. Poverty is exhausting. Nobody wants to be on JobSeeker. Do you know how stressful it is being so broke, let alone managing life?' I think the reality is that, for many of us in this place, we are fortunate to not know how stressful that is, but that doesn't in any way absolve us of the responsibility to do a lot more to lift our fellow Australians out of poverty.

10:03 am

Photo of James StevensJames Stevens (Sturt, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the second reading of this bill, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021. Perhaps it's important to reflect on the context of what we're doing here. I'm lucky enough to have been involved in international business in previous careers. In fact, one of the roles I had involved doing business in the United States. It was quite an eye-opening experience for me to recognise how different other nations around the world are in the way they support the most vulnerable in their societies. There are lots of great things about the United States, but one thing I don't think they get right is the lack of an appropriate and proper safety net. I remember employing a number of people over there and experiencing things that are totally foreign concepts to us in Australia. An example is the importance, to someone who's applying for a job, of health insurance being provided by their employer, as part of the employment contract—for a lot of people, that's more important than the salary they receive, because, of course, they don't have the universal healthcare system that we are lucky enough to have in this country. In the United States, support for unemployed people is also very limited. It would surprise a lot of people in Australia to realise that there are many other parts of the world where unemployment benefits, if they do exist, are, in many cases, provided in a very time-limited way. In some jurisdictions of the United States, you might be eligible for six weeks of unemployment benefits in total.

In this country, of course, we have a very different approach. We recognise the need for a safety net. We want to live in a country and an economy where we encourage people to participate in the workforce, to have a go, to try to get ahead. We want to be a country where success is rewarded and hard work is rewarded. But it is, of course, vitally important that there is a safety net, because we want to live in a society where no-one can completely fall through the cracks and not have the support that is beholden of human dignity for every person that's lucky enough to call themselves a citizen of this great country. I think it's important to start by acknowledging that the system we have—not just the system supporting unemployed Australians, which this legislation is relevant to, but the universal healthcare system that we have, the universal pension system that we have, et cetera—and the support that we provide as a government, this federal government, but also at state levels, gives us the society that we want. We are paying taxes to support the less fortunate and those that need government support at times and sometimes permanently. That's the sort of society that we want to live in.

When we think about the last 12 months in this country—people often talk about Australia as the lucky country. I don't dispute that we're a lucky country, but I always believe in the saying, 'You make your own luck.' We might be a lucky country, but it's because, as a country, we do so many things very well. The last 12 months have shown how well we have been able to respond to the dual challenges of a global pandemic from a health point of view and from an economic point of view. I won't get into the health response; it's not relevant to this legislation. But certainly the economic response and the social welfare response is relevant to this legislation, and I think it's worth recapping how we came to be where we are today in debating this piece of legislation.

It's well known that about a year ago to the day, the most significant elements of or likelihood of the threat of this coronavirus were becoming evident, and we had to make decisions about closing our borders. Pretty soon, within what felt like days at the time, we weren't just closing international borders but effectively having to shut down many elements of our economy to ensure that we got the health risk of this rapidly spreading global pandemic under control on this beautiful island continent of ours. Closing the international border was a significant decision—one that in hindsight seems obvious, but at the time it was something extremely significant. It was the first time we had ever done it. We're lucky enough to be an island continent, of course, but nonetheless it was a significant decision for a government to take, knowing the economic impact that would be brought about by closing that border, whilst still allowing any Australian or permanent resident who was overseas to return home, and that's still happening up to 12 months later.

As we had to take further measures to shield the population, as we had to shut down so many parts of our economy, and as so many states, in their slightly different ways, went into lockdown for different periods of time, this, of course, provoked an enormous economic risk. Some of it was foreseeable at the time, and some risks eventuated but other risks thankfully did not eventuate. Nonetheless, as a government, it was vitally important that we took significant measures to make sure the government was stepping in to support some fundamentals of our economy.

One of those fundamentals was, of course, protecting consumption and keeping confidence in the economy. A big part of that was the JobKeeper program. Another big part of that was the JobSeeker coronavirus supplement—the $550-a-fortnight payment which initially we announced would go for a six-month period of time, from about late March to late September. The government made further enhancements to that spectacularly enormous announcement of social welfare by extending it from September to December, and then from December to March, with the step-down payments. Now, of course, we're in the middle of March, and in a few weeks time that temporary payment will cease. So the government has, through this legislation, made the decision that we are going to put in place a permanent increase to the JobSeeker payment. I'm strongly in support of what the government is doing here—both the payment amount and the mutual obligation changes that are coming into place as part of it. This is a very significant, permanent increase in JobSeeker. It's a 9.6 per cent increase in the JobSeeker rate, and it's going to cost the budget $9 billion over the forward estimates. That's a very, very significant increase—a permanent increase—to unemployment benefits in this country. We haven't seen an increase like this since the late 1980s.

We all hope that the cost of this will come down. We hope, of course, that unemployment will fall, and we hope that as few Australians as possible need to access these payments. But it's important for those who do need to access these payments that they're receiving this increase. A lot of people in the last 12 months have gone onto the JobSeeker payment for the first time in their lives. I know, as a member of parliament, that, in those first few weeks after those significant government decisions at a federal and state level were taken around closing borders and around economic shutdowns, my office was contacted by so many people—I'm sure all members had the same experience—who had never had to access, in some cases, any form of government support, except, perhaps, Medicare et cetera, in their lives. They didn't have customer reference numbers at Centrelink. They didn't even really know or understand what the process would be for registering and accessing government support. It was a real eye-opening experience for me as a new member of parliament, having been elected less than 12 months earlier, to have that volume of people, for the first time in their lives, seeking out their federal member of parliament and seeking their support in accessing government support.

A lot of those people thought that they would never need to access that support in their lives—whether it was JobSeeker or whether it was JobKeeper. All sorts of other support mechanisms have been put in place: small business loans et cetera, dealing with landlords around rental holidays and all the rest. No-one could have foreseen the enormous amount of government support and response that was going to be required and the enormous number of people who were going to be seeking that.

The number of people on JobSeeker and the temporary supplementary payment that was part of that initially went up quite significantly but, thankfully, it has now come back down quite significantly. Unemployment figures will come out tomorrow. Last month's figures were, again, very encouraging, with unemployment returning to pre-pandemic levels. I mean, any unemployment is not a good thing, but the unemployment rate that we've got, at 6.4 per cent, compared to the economic challenges in other parts of the world, is truly quite remarkable. And it's great to see that, geographically, that is fairly consistent across the states and territories.

There are some industries that are still very significantly impacted: particularly, of course, tourism—particularly international tourism—the airline industry et cetera. I welcome other announcements that we have been making as a government to support those industries. But we hope that the number of people on JobSeeker will continue to reduce as we continue to grow our economy and come out of the worst impacts, economically, of dealing with the health response to the coronavirus. The vaccination program will, of course, be one of the largest parts of that.

I'm proud to be part of a government that is putting in place a permanent increase to the JobSeeker allowance for those who need support as they are looking for work. It's really important that there's a balance here. It's really important that we have a safety net, but it's equally important that anyone who is on JobSeeker wants to get off JobSeeker as soon as possible. You get off JobSeeker by getting a job. I know that, in this debate, people raise and talk about the challenges of living on JobSeeker, and I completely agree that it would not be easy to live on the JobSeeker payment. It would not be comfortable. When people say, 'Could you live on it?' I say, 'Certainly not to anywhere near the comfort and standard that I, of course, do at the moment.' And the point there is that we want people to have an incentive to get into the workforce. We don't want people wanting to be on JobSeeker. We want it to be a support structure in place.

The increase of 9.6 per cent is the largest increase since the late 1980s. But, equally, we're also increasing the mutual obligations components of JobSeeker. That's important too because, as I say, the objective of JobSeeker is to help as many people get off JobSeeker as quickly as possible, and the mutual obligation provisions, as part of receiving JobSeeker, are very important as part of giving people a pathway from JobSeeker back into the workforce. That's critically important for the productivity of our economy; it's critically important for supporting the budget. We don't want long-term unemployment in this country; we want everyone to have the dignity of being able to have a job. We recognise that people need to be supported when they do fall on tough times and are unemployed. That's why this increase is going to contribute significantly to supporting people on their pathway back into the workforce.

I'd like to commend Minister Ruston for the work that she's done on this. She is a good friend of mine, a fellow South Australian. She's had an enormous number of spectacular challenges in the social services portfolio over the last 12 months, and she's risen to the occasion remarkably. I'm so very proud to call her a friend. I'm very proud to support this initiative that she's brought through the cabinet and into the parliament, and I commend the bill to the House.

10:15 am

Photo of Joanne RyanJoanne Ryan (Lalor, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We're in the House today debating legislation, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021, that would see an increase in the JobSeeker allowance for Australians, on the eve of a cut to the COVID supplement of the JobSeeker allowance due on the 31st.

It brings home absolutely this government's complete lack of understanding about what is happening in the suburbs and the country towns around our country. My Labor colleagues and I won't stand in the way of this piece of legislation. We are not the government. The government controls the Treasury, and we will support this increase at this stage. But my disappointment in the government couldn't be more profound. We're in the middle of a pandemic. Yes, we're all hopeful that 2021 is going to be a much better year and that the impact of the pandemic will reduce quite quickly from here. That is the hope, but it is not guaranteed, and, as a Victorian, I completely understand that there are no guarantees with this pandemic. The government are here saying that they're going to be generous and they're going to increase JobSeeker and that pretty much those around the country should be applauding them for this action, while, at the same time, they're going to cut the COVID supplement. So, in fact, in real terms, families in my electorate and people in my electorate who are reliant on this allowance will face a real cut from this government.

We're cooperating with the government today to ensure that this increase can be legislated in this sitting week of parliament, in the short time that we're together before the budget. On this side of the House, we're keeping our comments as brief as possible, so I'm going to cut to the chase. My problem with the government's attitude in this today is that they want to talk about disincentives, they want to talk about compliance and they want to talk about JobSeeker being an allowance to help people find work, but what they're bringing into the parliament is a very narrow view of the structures around these things. And there are a couple of things that the government need to know.

They need to know the growing number of people over 55 that are currently on JobSeeker. They need to know that, before the pandemic struck, I was talking to people over 55 in my electorate who had lost their work and who were looking seriously at this being their income going forward until retirement age. The government need to understand those growing numbers. They need to understand that over a million people are currently unemployed. They need also to understand that, when someone gets their JobSeeker number, they are sent to a jobactive, so they need to balance what we're spending on this jobactive program. The jobactive program is supposedly there to ensure people find a pathway to work and to support people while they're looking for work. But the government are also bringing in new compliance measures that include a hotline to dob in somebody who didn't show up for an interview, when we're spending billions of dollars on a system that's supposedly already set up to do those things. They need some clarity around jobactive. They need some clarity around the billions of dollars we're spending there as to whether it's a compliance regime—and, therefore, is actually a cost that should be attached for compliance—or whether it's there to support people, because at the moment, in my electorate, what they'll hear from the community is that it is failing miserably, and we are spending billions of dollars on it.

On the weekend, I attended a Tradeswomen Australia function. They're running a pilot in my electorate where 70 women will be assisted and put through a program to get them to look at the trades as an option, and to support them in entering an apprenticeship in trades. This is a place where the government might want to make a commitment to spending some money—rather than leaving this important work to the philanthropic centre—and it could have been a part of what they're announcing today. I also want them to hear this statistic: as we stand here today ,40 per cent of people in Australia under 35 have never had a permanent full-time job. I want them to understand that, because when they talk about a jobseeker being above the poverty line or that being dignified is a disincentive to work, they've got a job to do. We have people working in this country who are not being paid the minimum wage. While that's occurring, of course it's creating this notion of a disincentive. If 40 per cent of people under 35 have never had a full-time permanent job, then that insecurity is growing that disincentive, and you can't use one argument and then balance it against the other. So the government has work to do. The government has work to do in job creation, and I don't mean their JobMaker program. I don't mean a program that's going to see one person thrown out of a job, potentially, for somebody else to be put into it. I mean job creation.

This government doesn't have a plan for job creation in the electorate of Lalor in the outer western suburbs of Melbourne. They do not want to bring in an increase that would support the people in my electorate who, during the pandemic, have joined the numbers of the unemployed. This government needs to think very clearly about people who are working for less than the minimum wage when they see this prism. They need to address the housing crisis across this country, they need to address homelessness, they need to get an understanding of what it's like to live in poverty and they need to take action. They need to commit themselves to creating a society where all can live with dignity—those working, those looking for work and those unable to work.

10:22 am

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

I rise today to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021, for it goes to the fundamentals of our party values. I'm a proud member of the Morrison government who was there for Australians when they needed support the most. The coronavirus pandemic was unexpected and it was devastating. It needed decisive action, and that's exactly what we were able to deliver. We were able to cushion the blow to households and businesses to protect lives and livelihoods by putting in place measures quickly and without hesitation. We were able to do this as we had both the economic management skill and the budget position to do so. Imagine for a minute what would have happened if we'd been faced with this pandemic under a Labor government with their $387 billion of new taxes. I shudder to think.

We know that there is more to do, but our comeback is on. Confidence is building, jobs are coming back and our economy is mending. Our country is mending. Last month, a NAB business survey showed that business confidence was at its highest in 11 years. For the first time since records began, GDP growth is above three per cent in two consecutive quarters. Our Australian economy has outperformed all other major advanced economies across the world. We are one of nine nations to hold our AAA credit rating. We are the gold standard. The most encouraging figures to all Australians are job figures. Ninety-three per cent of jobs lost during COVID have come back, and we're continuing to build on this. Fifty thousand new jobs were created in December of last year alone. Our JobMaker program is creating jobs of the future and backing apprentices. Our HomeBuilder program has seen building companies hire more staff to keep up with demand as more and more new families are given the opportunity to own their own home.

Last week, along with the Treasurer, we visited Wallum Nurseries in Gumdale. Wallum Nurseries is a great example of a business that was able to take advantage of the many measures we put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. They kept all their staff by utilising JobKeeper, and now they have successfully transitioned off the JobKeeper program and they've hired new staff—even two new apprentices under the wage subsidy scheme. They've also used the cashflow boost and instant asset write-off to purchase a tractor, a ute, a shade structure and a fridge. The owner told the Treasurer and I: 'We couldn't have done any of this without JobKeeper. Josh and the government told us to spend to keep the economy going, and that's exactly what we did.'

On this side of the House, our key focus is on job creation and it's a goal that we are steadfastly focused on. Nothing will deter us from this task, for the best welfare anyone can have is a job.

Let's remember that JobSeeker is not designed to be a long-term solution. It is there as a safety net to get people back into work. It is not a wage replacement. It is a helping hand when that help is needed most. But we need to find a balance and a balance that is fair and will be sustainable in the future. We must support those people who are unemployed and actively looking for work and the taxpayers who fund their support. We must be there to make sure that our generations now and in the future are supported if they fall but that they do not unfairly burden generations in the future with unreasonable debt, hampering future opportunities, and we must not remove the incentive for them to get back into work. That is what I believe Australians want most, for a job is not a pay cheque; it's a purpose, it's an opportunity and it's certainty.

That's why, as a permanent reform, we are increasing the income-free area to $150 per fortnight, because we want to be always encouraging out-of-work Australians to re-engage with the job market. The bill will permanently increase the income-free areas to $150 per fortnight for the JobSeeker payment and youth allowance payment from 1 April 2021, allowing people to keep more of what they earn as they go about the task of reconnecting to the labour market. We have taken into account the need for a modest rise in those payments, along with the positive change in our economy that it is reflecting.

When those opposite throw their jibes and jabs our way, they fail to discuss that these measures that we put in place were emergency measures to get us through the toughest time and out the other side. While we might not be fully out on the other side, we are going ahead in leaps and bounds and we are proud of that. We're backing our comeback and we're backing the Australians who are making it happen.

10:28 am

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to be able to speak in this debate on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021, but I have to say I'm not too pleased with the outcome of this bill. Whilst we on this side of the parliament will be supporting the legislation because we accept the proposition that any increase to the base rate of these income payments is welcome and important, it is an absolutely lousy amount. And we need to comprehend how lousy it really is.

I listened to the member for Sturt, and my ears pricked up when I heard him say a few things around safety nets and getting off JobSeeker by getting a job. He admitted that living on this would not be too comfortable. So he's accepted the fact that living on an extra $3.57 a day on top of the $40 is not too comfortable and he probably couldn't live on it. 'But it's an incentive to get into work,' he said.

Let's be clear. I note the member for Sturt said, 'Look, we increased this payment by 9.6 per cent,' and said this was the first increase since 1994. Well, that's an indictment of all of us—all of us. I've sat in this parliament since 1994, and we haven't seen an increase in this payment. I'm disgusted. And now we know people are living in dire poverty as a direct result. We have a responsibility in this place to look after the interests of all Australians and to understand what poverty really means.

When I was listening to the member for Sturt I was reflecting on my own electorate, which has large numbers of Aboriginal people who are unemployed, on CDP, living in really remote places where there are just no jobs. Yet we now have the government saying that they're going to change the mutual obligation requirements and provide a hotline to report people who don't turn up to accept a job offer—well, I'm not sure that there are going to be too many job offers in remote communities in the area I look after—and there will be a return to the precoronavirus number of monthly job applications, 20. What 20? Where are these 20 jobs going to appear from? It's just bizarre. Then there are the intensive job preparation activities after six months of unemployment payments. We accept mutual obligation on this side of the chamber, but mutual obligation means 'mutual'. It includes an obligation for us in this parliament and the government to do a lot more than we're doing.

It is more than just an issue about poverty; it's a public health issue. Let me go to the reasons why. The Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation has given me some data about the impact of income supplements over the COVID period, what it's meant for people in remote parts of the Northern Territory where the ALPA stores operate and how their sales figures have changed as a result of the COVID supplement. Remember, this is an issue about health. I'm saying it's about public health. During May and April of 2020, the extra social security increased nourishment in the ALPA communities. Access to the chiller and freezer produce went up by 49 per cent, fruit and vegetables by 36 per cent, groceries by 12 per cent, meat by 60 per cent and prepared foods by 12 per cent. This is a public health issue. Now we're saying to those people: 'We're going take this money, which you're using to purchase extra nutrition for your families, off you. That's coming away, and we'll give you a lousy $3.57 extra a day.' We've got to do better than this. We're condemning people to poverty. We're condemning people to poor health outcomes. We are, really. Think about this: how can we expect kids to go to school with a full belly if there's no food in the house? The member for Sturt said he might find this difficult to live on. It's impossible to live on.

As I say, I reluctantly, in a way, support this legislation, but only because even this minuscule amount will make some difference. But it is clearly not enough, and more needs to be done by all of us in this place.

10:34 am

Photo of Fiona MartinFiona Martin (Reid, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The first priority of every member in this place should be to those who sent us here. It's our solemn duty to support them in realising their aspirations. It was around this time one year ago that COVID took the world by storm and the future seemed uncertain. 'Will I have a job tomorrow? Can I pay my electricity bills? Can I feed my kids?' These were the questions which faced many. This government stepped in to answer these calls, and the answer was yes. In response to the economic crisis, the Morrison government committed unprecedented support to save lives, cushion the blow and help Australians remain in jobs. The coronavirus supplement provided extra support for those on JobSeeker. This was in addition to JobKeeper, wage subsidies and support for small businesses, which kept the economy moving. We must recognise that we were only able to be in this position because of the Morrison government's strong economic position before COVID. Maintaining our AAA credit rating has meant that the Australian government has been able to provide this economic lifeline.

Many other highly advanced liberal democracies around the world have not been so successful in either managing the health crisis or providing the level of economic support that we have. However, we know the objective must be to keep getting people back to work, and 90 per cent of the 1.3 million Australians who either lost their jobs or saw their working hours reduced to zero are now back at work. We know that there is no money tree. A fiscally responsible government cannot keep spending such large amounts forever. With that, as the coronavirus supplement comes to an end, the government is implementing a permanent increase to JobSeeker—1.95 million Australians currently accessing working-age payments will see a permanent $50-per-fortnight increase in the rate of payment. This is the single biggest year-on-year increase to the rate of unemployment benefits since 1986—an increase of 9.7 per cent. In addition, we are also permanently increasing the amount of money jobseekers can earn before they lose a cent of payment, to $150 per fortnight. We are also temporarily extending the waiver of the ordinary one-week waiting period for certain payments for a further three months, to 30 June 2021, and we will be temporarily extending the expanded eligibility criteria for the JobSeeker payment and youth allowance for those required to self-isolate on the basis of directions from health authorities or care for others as a result of COVID-19, until 30 June 2021. This is a $9 billion spend across the forwards, which equates to about a 10 per cent increase on the government's typical annual spend on JobSeeker, and it is the largest-ever budget measure for working-age payments.

With the commencement of the vaccination program, Australia is confidently moving into the next phase of how we fight this pandemic and battle to secure the livelihoods and lives of Australians. As we come to the next chapter, the government believes it is important that we show faith once again in our social safety net. At the beginning of the pandemic, we put in place a series of emergency measures designed to protect Australian lives and livelihoods. The coronavirus supplement, which was our first initiative, helped ensure that we strengthened the safety net upon which Australians would rely. At this time, we said it had to be targeted, scalable and time-limited, and we have lived up to our word. As the impact of the pandemic continued, we extended but scaled back the supplement. Now that our vaccine rollout is underway, it is time to move from short-term emergency measures to long-term arrangements that people can rely on should they find themselves out of work. But it is important to note that JobSeeker is a hand up, not a handout. It is not a wage subsidy but an incentive to work. The pandemic caused a once-in-a-lifetime disruption to the labour market, and our comprehensive welfare system was able to provide emergency support to Australians who found themselves unemployed. During the pandemic we have stood with all Australians, side by side. These new payment arrangements continue to make good on our commitment to supporting Australians as they look for work.

10:40 am

Photo of Matt KeoghMatt Keogh (Burt, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

The average rent in Perth is $393 a week. The average weekly grocery bill is $130. I'd go on about the cost of other basic expenses, but we've already hit negative territory when it comes to somebody who is relying on JobSeeker. This is the reality for so many individuals who will still be reliant on this payment at the end of March.

Should the legislation before us pass, we will see the JobSeeker payment climb to $615 a fortnight, or $44 a day. The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021 will increase the base rate for working-age payments by $50 a fortnight from the end of March. While a rise is certainly welcome, in practice, for so many people who are relying on that benefit payment, it will be a pay cut. In practical terms, people who are relying on social security will face a $100-a-fortnight cut to their household budgets. This is because the coronavirus supplement, which is currently $150 a fortnight, will come to an end at the same time. Labor, of course, will not stand in the way of an increase, even if it is a pitiful one, and we won't play cruel political games, giving jobseekers hope of a greater increase, as much as we would like to see that, when the reality is that only the government can increase expenditure and set unemployment payments at a higher rate.

Good social policy is good economic policy and vice versa. They are two sides of the same coin. This government fails to understand that, when you give people more money, there is a significant social and economic benefit that comes with it, not just for the recipients and their families but for the whole community. To be clear on who we're talking about, these are people who will only be receiving the equivalent of 41.2 per cent of the minimum wage, when it was 50 per cent in 1996. They will be receiving only a 70 per cent equivalent of where the poverty line is. Better living standards, health standards, job prospects: the list of the benefits goes on. Research shows that more income for those who receive the least is spent in local economies and improves the quality of life for everyone in those communities, not just the recipients of the payments. As we have seen in our communities through the COVID-19 pandemic, while life hasn't been easy, the greater rate of government support payments has improved outcomes in every facet of life—health, education, crime, and the economic flows into local businesses and across the community. In order to change the budget and this payment in any significant way, though, you have to change the government. So, until then, we will agree to this increase in payment but continue to advocate for it to increase further.

Living in poverty or getting by on very little is incredibly tough. I often reach out, visiting members of my community. I go out doorknocking, but let me tell you that it's incredibly difficult to doorknock when some people don't even have a front door. That is the reality for some of the people in my community and, indeed, across the country. Australia is a wealthy nation. We call ourselves the lucky country. There should be absolutely no excuse for allowing people to live anywhere near poverty, let alone the situation that many people find themselves in and will find themselves in again when, in real terms, the rate of JobSeeker is reduced. However, those on the other side of the House like to throw around terms like 'dole bludgers' and 'laziness' and say that this is stopping people from going to work. Let me tell you, members of the government: nobody aspires to poverty. The sheer reality is that, as we recover from the COVID pandemic, there are not enough jobs in Australia for everyone who needs one. The statistics don't lie. There are almost double the number of people relying on unemployment benefits today than there were at the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest figures from February show that there are 192,000 job vacancies, while there are 1.35 million people relying on unemployment benefits. That's seven unemployed people for every job out there. In Western Australia, it's 6.7 people for every job available in Western Australia, and that number doubles in some other jurisdictions around the country. That's not even taking into consideration the number of people who will be joining those jobless queues when the JobKeeper payment comes to an end in just 11 days time. Treasury's own figures suggest that 100,000 people will lose their jobs when the JobKeeper payment comes to an end on 28 March. Other economists say that the number of people who will become unemployed when JobKeeper comes to an end is more likely to be around 250,000. That means an additional 250,000 people will be relying on a payment of just $614 a fortnight. That is a significant drop from the current rate of JobKeeper of $1,000 per fortnight—all while COVID still rages, and businesses across the country are still suffering.

The transition from the COVID payments to the new normal under this government will be incredibly difficult for Australian families around the country. They'll need to go back to juggling, going without meals, having sleepless nights, feeling stress, not being able to provide what their kids need to go to school. Businesses will now have fewer customers as JobSeeker recipients will no longer be able to afford their goods and services.

In this parliament, Labor have stood up for those on social security and we will continue to do so, but you can't change the nation unless you change the government. A Labor government will approach issues of equity, poverty and social security very differently from this government. We will have compassion. We will balance our approach to ensure that health, jobs and education are proportionate to these payment rates. But, until we're in government, I'm sorry to say that we can only talk about what we would like to see happen, rather than take the real action that is required of government. This legislation is not remotely good enough, but, unfortunately, it is still better than nothing.

So I will make this commitment to my community now: I won't stop fighting for a better deal for you; I won't stop fighting for a fairer deal for you. I've seen the benefit of these higher payments during COVID, and the difference they've made to the communities of Armadale and Gosnells and in the surrounding areas—not only to the standard of living for these individuals but also to our local economies, to the small businesses, to our social support system and to our healthcare system. It turns out that you can go a long way towards solving poverty by throwing more money at it; you just have to do it the right way. Investing in social support measures goes beyond cash payments to individuals. It's about investing in education and training, job creation here in Australia, a healthcare system, mental health supports and good, solid, secure and available housing. But a higher rate of JobSeeker is needed, too, because, as I said, good social policy is good economic policy. Our entire community benefits if we get this right.

10:47 am

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

I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021 with much disappointment. This bill was yet another opportunity for the Morrison government to put the people of Australia first, but they've failed to do so. At a time when millions of Australians are still standing in the unemployment queue, when people are doing it tough and are out of work due to this pandemic, this government has chosen to throw them a few meagre crumbs to undermine their efforts to secure stable, rewarding work and leaving many feeling isolated and unsupported. There are now 60 Australians for every entry-level job in Australia—a startling statistic. And no-one aspires to be unemployed, to live in poverty. It is stressful, it is a struggle, it can be demeaning and it makes people feel powerless.

So, in these unprecedented times, it is staggering that the Morrison government has chosen not to substantially increase the permanent rate of JobSeeker but to instead propose a pitiful increase of only $3.57 a day. This meagre sum will not help lift people out of poverty. It will continue to be a huge barrier to securing work, it will continue to drag back the economy as we recover from the pandemic and it will entrench the cycle of poverty for millions of Australians. But, while there is much to dislike about this bill, it will put just a little more into the pockets of people who need it the most. So Labor will not oppose this bill, but we will continue to push for better, for so much better, from this government, and I will continue to push for so much better for the people in my region of Corangamite.

Members opposite have said that this increase in the unemployment payment is the first since 1994. This is true, and it is an indictment on us all in this place. We must all do more to support people, to lift people out of poverty and to provide an avenue for rewarding, stable work. In the end, at the next election, this will be the litmus test. Do Australians want more of the same—more punitive, short-sighted legislation that does not help people or our economy; a government that treats with contempt people who have lost jobs through no fault of their own; a government that encourages Australians to dob in other Australians via a hotline; a government that will hound people out of work instead of encouraging them into work? It's hard for these people to get ahead when they can't even get a go.

The Morrison government that has given us robodebt and sports rorts now proposes to raise the rate by a miserable $50 a fortnight. The changes will begin on 1 April, next month, when the coronavirus supplement ends. The supplement has now dwindled to $150 a fortnight. In practical terms, those on working age payments will lose $100 a fortnight from 1 April. To add injury to this insultingly low increase, the government is also supercharging the hostility around qualifying for payments, urging people, as I've said, to ring the hotline and report people who do not accept a job offer, regardless of what that job is, the rate of pay or the conditions of work. The government will also require each recipient to complete 20 job applications every fortnight, while intensifying job preparation activities after six months of receiving an unemployment benefit.

It should be noted that Labor supports mutual obligation. It was Labor that first introduced it. But the obligations should be mutual, shared, two-way. The person receiving the payment is expected to diligently seek work that reflects their skills, abilities and potential. The government is expected to support the jobseeker and to be fair and reasonable in its expectations. Of course, both the jobseeker and the government should want the same end result: securing decent, stable work for the unemployed person. But the requirements under this bill do the opposite of this. They are punitive and counterproductive. They will serve to punish the unemployed, they will waste time for businesses and jobseekers, and they will create barriers to employment. But, as I've said, the increase in this bill, while miserable and woefully inadequate, is better than nothing, because $50 a fortnight is better than zero dollars a fortnight. I say again that it will not put an end to the huge suffering and instability that is being experienced by so many living in poverty, including more than one million children.

It is not just jobseekers being mistreated by this government. I've heard from many workers in child care, universities and the arts sector and casual workers across my electorate who have been left out in the cold by the Morrison government. This government talks about consumer confidence on the radio, it harps on about jobs on the telly, and then it comes into the House and proposes this legislation. It's 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, but childcare workers were taken off payments only months after the scheme started, and university and arts workers and millions of casuals never saw any payment support. This lack of support not only leaves workers feeling overlooked and unsupported; it shrinks the economy when we need to stimulate it. It beggars belief.

Every day I talk to residents in Corangamite who are facing increased 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. Every day I talk to people in Corangamite who are out of work and dumbstruck that the Morrison government doesn't seem to care about them. There are 7,805 people in my electorate who are about to come off JobKeeper at the end of this month. Many, many of them will need to spend time on JobSeeker, and, if this bill is successful, we can be sure they will spend much, much more time unemployed than they need to.

In the wake of this pandemic, the Morrison government had an opportunity to deliver lasting structural change for vulnerable Australians while boosting business and jobs. This bill fails to do this. It is time for a change of government. It is time for a government that cares, that has vision and that has a plan for all Australians. I commit to my community that I will continue the fight to ensure that we get into government and we make the change that's required for all Australians.

10:55 am

Photo of Peter KhalilPeter Khalil (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This social services legislation amendment bill 2021 is named, in parenthesis, 'strengthening income support'—'strengthening' income support. Let's think about what this government thinks this word 'strengthening' actually means. They've tied it to a miserly $3.57 per day increase. That's what they mean by 'strengthening'. So it's gone from $40 a day with some silver coin, a bit of spare change, up to $44.34 a day for a person on JobSeeker looking for a job. That's the 'strengthening'. They might want to check their dictionary or their thesaurus when they are trying to name amendments to bills, because that is barely enough for anyone to survive on—$3.57 per day.

People have told me time and time again that on the current $40-odd a day they often skip meals and can't afford fresh food. Let's say you're at Woolies. What can you get on your shopping trip with the extra change the government has so generously given you? Well, you can get 1½ florets of broccoli. You can get one punnet of fresh strawberries—actually, you probably couldn't, because strawberries are pretty expensive. You can get four lemons—which is probably what this bill is: a lemon. You can get one punnet of cherry tomatoes. That will see you through the day. You can get a bag of salad mix. You don't get all of these things; you get to pick one. You can't have all of them.

Or maybe you just forget about the fresh food section, as I know so many people are forced to do, and go to another aisle. In the rest of the supermarket, what does your $3.57 extra get you? You could choose to blow the whole thing on two litres of milk—of Woolies brand milk, to be specific. Oh, sorry, hold on. That's $3.59, so you'd actually be 2c over your budget if you tried to buy two litres of milk. You can scale it down to one litre for $2.39. With the $1.20 that you've got left after you've bought your milk, maybe you can get a can of tuna for $1.15, or a can of beans or a cup of two-minute noodles or a can of Heinz tomato soup—but you'd be very lucky to get that one, because that's on special at the moment for $1.10; usually it's a lot steeper than that.

In all seriousness, these are the choices, the actual choices, that 1.3 million people in our community who are on JobSeeker are making. They will be making that choice with their miserly $3.57 increase—the 'strengthening' increase this government has so generously proposed. These are the choices that people who have been on the old Newstart know all too well; they're all too familiar with making those choices every day.

These are the choices that await the around 100,000 Australians, according to Treasury's own estimates, who may lose their jobs when the government cuts out JobKeeper payments on 28 March and they are forced to turn to JobSeeker and the very generous increase being proposed. Locally, in my electorate of Wills, the government ending JobKeeper will affect 2,898 of the people that I represent who operate businesses. It will actually affect 11,996 workers in my electorate.

Those of us on this side, I and all of my colleagues in Labor, want a substantive increase to JobSeeker. We've been calling for this. I've been calling for this substantive increase for years—since I got elected to this place—an increase that means that people can live in dignity while they're on their job search, not in poverty. Clearly, $3.57, even though you might label it 'strengthening' is nowhere near that. It goes nowhere near enough. It doesn't go far enough. However, we will pass this bill. We'll pass it now because we don't want to delay even this miserly increase reaching people that actually need it, because it's better than zero. We're pragmatic, and we're realistic. That's why we'll do the right thing. But we'll be very clear that Labor, as a party of government, will do the work as an opposition ahead of the next election to come up with a plan for the right increase, a substantive increase, and support an investment in jobs for these 1.5 million Australians.

Others in this place will play their political games with the usual empty political stunts, like the Greens political party, who will no doubt put up amendments to the bill with increases that can never pass because only the government can pass money bills—we know that. But it won't stop them and others, potentially, from moving such amendments, even though they have no chance of success in this place or in the Senate and will actually, potentially, delay even this minor increase—which you have so generously decided to bequeath upon these Australians! But, playing politics with people's livelihoods is not good enough.

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! When the honourable member says 'you', he is actually referring to the chair.

Photo of Peter KhalilPeter Khalil (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My apologies. I refer to the government so generously bequeathing $3.57! In contrast, Labor and I are committed to a substantive increase if we win government. That's why we won't play political games right now. We're the only political party that can form government and deliver the increase that will change lives for the better.

This is a complex issue. We don't doubt that. Many people have been focused on the rate itself—rightly so, because it has been too low for too long. But it's also much more than the dollar rate itself; it's about getting the balance right throughout the whole framing of this, about making sure that people can live in dignity, not in poverty, and making sure that there are jobs out there for people to actually apply for, because, right now—there's what?—one job for every 13 or 14 unemployed Australians. Some of the minor parties will tell you the rate should be $80 a day, but it's not as simple as that. That would mean that people, mostly women, would have the perverse incentive or disincentive to leave their part-time work, because mostly women have part-time and casual work, in favour of JobSeeker. So, some of these other plans, these political stunts that we might see in the coming days, would actually incentivise women to leave the workforce. So, it is also about the type of work that's out there for women in society and the issues around part-time work and the casualisation of the labour force.

Some of these minor parties won't really care about this. They'll talk about the rate as a dollar figure, but they won't tell you about the consequences, because they don't have to worry about the consequences—minor parties don't form government. Nothing that they put forward will ever become a reality, because, after all, they're not a party of government. But, unlike the minor parties, who have no regard for the consequences, or the government, which is actually ideologically bound to the consequences of its own bill, we actually will do the work necessary to take this issue seriously in all of its entirety to look at the rate, to look at the issues that people face in the workforce, to invest in job creation and to deal with the broader issues that are facing what is almost 1.5 million Australians today.

A future Labor government will actually look out for them in the best possible way. We won't delay this bill, even though this $3.57 is miserly and pathetic. We'll make sure that it gets to them. But we, as a responsible opposition, will also do the work necessary to look out for them in the economic recovery that this nation faces going forward.

11:05 am

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

Today I rise to not block this bill. I don't support it. It doesn't go far enough, and it's typical of this government that, when it comes to people in need, they fail to deliver. But here, on our side of the House, the Labor benches are not going to get in the way of something when it's better than nothing, and this legislation, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021, represents the first real increase in unemployment payments since 1994. So, even though we know it doesn't go far enough, we have to accept, like chewing broken glass, that an increase is better than no increase. But it's important to be aware that the government would not have done this without pressure from the community and from Labor. That's because helping out those in need is not something that's normal for this government. They have to be dragged kicking and screaming to extend a hand to those who don't have a net worth of a couple of million bucks.

The bill permanently increases the base rate of working-age social security payments by $50 a fortnight, $3.57 a day. This will increase the base rate of JobSeeker payments from $565 a fortnight to $615 a fortnight, and it'll benefit some 1.9 million people, including 1.2 million on JobKeeper, 322,000 on youth allowance and 350,000 on parenting payments. In practical terms, though, people relying on social security still face a $100-per-fortnight cut to their household budgets. That's because the coronavirus supplement, currently at $150 a fortnight, will come to an end at the same time.

Already the state governments have had to jump in and fill a gap. Just yesterday, the Victorian Labor government announced a $620 million Jobs Victoria scheme with more than 450 advocates to help people find jobs. This is the key issue. No-one actually strives to be poor. No-one strives to be living on or below the poverty line. The jobs are not there for people. This is the real issue. People can't get jobs, and this government has sat on its hands during this pandemic and done absolutely nothing to increase job rates.

The only thing that they've done is establish the dob-in hotline, for employers to dob in people who haven't agreed to a job. The difference between what we do and what they do has never been starker. Labor helps employees find work. The coalition punishes those who can't. Where is the hotline from this government to help people who've been systematically underpaid? These people don't have a hotline, because the government know where they get their votes from, and it's not from people who are looking for work. If you can't be counted on to support the coalition, they don't care about you.

The Victorian government is right to be concerned about the end of JobKeeper. In McEwen, unemployment and youth allowance support has doubled since the start of the pandemic. But I've also heard concerning calls from members of the travel agency sector. One constituent who runs a travel agency business has implored me to get the Treasurer and the Prime Minister to support the travel agency sector. We tried, but, as usual, they ignored. She was concerned that this sector would be the last to return to pre-pandemic levels because of the effect of border closures. Unless the support is extended, she will have to close her business.

Too often, discussions about social security do not put affected people front and centre. Living in poverty or getting by on very little is very tough. It's a full-time job being poor: trying to negotiate payment plans, hunting down the cheapest options on things, dealing with inadequate and slow public transport, and coming up with reasons, explanations and excuses for why you can't come along and participate. That's to say nothing of the stress that it causes or the worry that comes from knowing that your bills are due and you don't have money to pay them. It's hard to have a go when you can't get a go.

Labor has long been calling for an increase to the rate of unemployment payments, as have many others, including the Governor of the Reserve Bank, the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Retail Association, academics, experts and the Council of Small Business, just to name a few. There are simply not enough jobs in Australia for everyone who needs one. There are seven people on unemployment payments for every one job vacancy, and that doesn't even begin to count those Australians who are underemployed—underemployment is the great scourge of this society—who aren't receiving payments. In Victoria there are 45,000 vacancies and 338,000 people receiving unemployment payments. That's 7.4 people on unemployment payments for each job vacancy. How is a dob-in hotline going to change those numbers?

This is a government that has a shameful track record on pension and social security payments. With the help of the Greens and the crossbench, they have been able to cut over $12 billion from the pension and social security. This has included cutting the pension for 370,000 people by changing the asset test, completely cutting the schoolkids bonus, cutting pensioner concessions and freezing family tax benefit rates. Labor opposed these cuts. Labor has also been able to block another $12 billion in cuts to the pension and social security. We have blocked this government's cruel attempts to make people under the age of 30 wait six months for unemployment payments. Imagine that—having to wait six months in a pandemic, through no fault of your own. Because of the inability of this government to actually lead, you lose your job and then you're forced to wait six months to get payments. They cut the family tax benefits. They wanted to increase the pension age to 70, but Labor stood in the way. They cut paid parental leave and called mothers 'double dippers', and they scrapped the energy supplement for new applicants.

In this place, Labor has stood up for people in need of social security, and we will continue to do so. Australians now know that an Albanese Labor government will be on their side. As I said at the start, I'm not happy about this, but I'm not going to block this bill, because people are in need. What would be nice is if the government actually put people first.

11:11 am

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Like my colleagues on this side of the House who have spoken before me, I reiterate the fact that the Labor Party will of course not stand in the way of this very modest increase to the JobSeeker payment, but at no point throughout this debate should anyone be under the illusion that this work is complete. At no point should we be under the illusion that this job is done and that this rate is sufficient for Australians to live on. It's not. It's not enough. Even with the extended amount, it is not enough. A rate of $40 a day means Australians are living in poverty, and a rate of less than $44 a day is going to mean Australians are still living in poverty. On this side of the House we have a choice to either support this bill, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021, or not. The government have made it clear that they're not interested in negotiations, and, therefore, this is the rate that we have to choose from. Of course we support raising the amount, even to this very insufficient level, but that doesn't mean that we are comfortable with where it's at right now.

For all of the Australians who are currently receiving the JobSeeker payment, what this is going to mean, week to week, is that they will actually have less money once this supposed increase comes in. At the moment, with the coronavirus supplement, they're getting $150 a fortnight on top of the JobSeeker payment. But the removal of the coronavirus supplement, even with the $50 permanent increase to the JobSeeker payment, will effectively mean a cut of $100 per fortnight. What we also know is that there aren't enough jobs for the number of job applicants in this country. People are applying for jobs because they have to, not because they have a legitimate and realistic chance of getting one.

The most important point that I would like to make is that we are still in this pandemic. When the Treasurer and the Prime Minister stood up in April last year and announced the increase to JobSeeker and created the JobKeeper payment, it was all in recognition that the pandemic was altering the way in which our economy was working. Well, the pandemic is still doing that. We are still in a pandemic. Only this morning, the Prime Minister was making announcements about how we are helping our Papua New Guinean family to deal with one of the worst outbreaks that we have seen in this entire pandemic. It is not over. Speak to any Queensland health professional and they will tell you that the crisis is still looming on our doorstep. Yet this bill makes the assumption that it's all done, it's all over and it's all in the past. I really hope that we will not face another lockdown, anywhere in this country. But if we do, this bill will mean that Australians will be living below the poverty line during that lockdown.

Earlier in the pandemic, when this rate was increased, I spoke to many people. I spent a lot of time in the many public housing towers in Macnamara, speaking to the many amazing people who live there. For many of them, the increased supplement was a life-changing experience that not only meant that they were no longer scrimping and saving every last penny; it also meant that they could do things like buy a bit of meat for their dinner, for the first time in years.

We need to make a decision in this place about what sort of living standards we want Australians to live under.

One of my final points is this: to live on less than $44 a day means that the amount of housing available to you in the private rental market in Australia is extremely limited. Less than one per cent of the private rental market is available to Australians who are on the JobSeeker payment—less than one per cent. During the pandemic, at the very top rate of JobSeeker, when the coronavirus payment doubled the JobSeeker rate, that went up to about 11 per cent of the private rental market. That meant that more and more Australians were able to access the private rental market and live with a bit of dignity. They could live in a rental property and stand on their own two feet. This bill is going to mean that, again, fewer and fewer Australians are going to have access to stable, secure housing.

So we, on this side of the House, say: of course we're not going to stand in the way of this bill—but under no circumstances are we admitting that the job is complete; under no circumstances are we accepting that this is enough for Australians and that the work here is done. It is not a source of pride that this is the largest increase since the 1980s. It's a reminder that the work is still yet to be done and that, in Australia, our fellow Australians deserve to live with dignity and deserve not to live in poverty. Unfortunately, this bill is going to mean that too many will be living without dignity and still below the poverty line.

11:17 am

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

I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021. This government is cutting the support for people who are doing it tough as we deal with the pandemic. This government is plunging people back into poverty—including hundreds of thousands of children around this country—and they are doing it deliberately, because this government punches down. No-one should be living in poverty in a wealthy country like ours. Instead, in a world where there are 12 people looking for every job that's available—12 people who don't have enough work or don't have a job at all—and where there are 60 people on unemployment payments for every entry-level job advertised, this government is saying, 'It's your fault, and we're going to make you live in poverty.'

Everyone understood, before the pandemic, that $40 a day, which was the level of JobSeeker then, was not enough to live on. Everyone understood that. And the government was forced to admit that, when the worst of the pandemic hit, because they increased JobSeeker—they doubled it. Now the government is saying, 'No, $40 a day is not enough to live on, but we reckon $44 is.' That's the level that this government is plunging people back down to.

We are here to debate a bill where the government is giving people a pitiful $3.57-a-day increase when they are struggling and living below the poverty line already. It speaks volumes about the approach of all governments that this is the first real permanent increase that we've seen in the JobSeeker payment since 1994. But, instead of being able to celebrate this moment, we are angry. We are angry at the government's decision to entrench poverty at the same time as it hands out billions of dollars in tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires. Make no mistake: this is a choice that the government is making. The government is choosing to make people live in poverty, at the same time as it gives $100 billion a year in handouts to big corporations and the very wealthy.

When the JobSeeker payment was doubled last year, we made huge progress in tackling poverty in this country. The government were forced to admit that you could not live on the previous rate of Newstart or JobSeeker, so they lifted it to what they thought was appropriate, and it took it above the poverty line. All of a sudden, it was something that people could live on. People spoke of the transformational impact that this had on their lives. They were able to go to the dentist, buy fresh fruit and vegetables, get their car serviced, buy a family computer and afford essential medication—things that many of us in this place take for granted but that you couldn't do on $40 a day. We heard from people who could finally afford essentials like prescription glasses, a fridge, warm jumpers and school supplies for their children. There were enormous benefits at the community level as well when the rate of JobSeeker payment was increased. The number of people skipping meals dropped by over half, to 33 per cent, while the number of people struggling with medical costs dropped similarly, by over 40 per cent.

The poverty rate for households whose main source of income is allowances dropped to 26 per cent following the introduction of the coronavirus supplement. But researchers estimate that the poverty rate for these households will skyrocket back up to 85 per cent after this bill is passed. Before the pandemic, we had people having to skip essentials—medication, food and, in many instances, a roof over their head—because the rate of JobSeeker was so low. During the pandemic, we had a window into what it is like for these people to be able to live a normal life. All of a sudden, they were able to buy things like food and other essentials such as prescription glasses. But now the government is plunging them back into poverty.

That's why I move:

That the following words be added after "education services":

"; and

(d) increase the Jobseeker Payment to above the poverty line."

In a wealthy country like ours, where there are two million people who either don't have a job or don't have enough hours of work, and where there are 12 people either without a job or without enough work for every job that's available, and where there are 60 people on unemployment benefits for every one entry-level job that is available, no-one should be living in poverty. We should be able to keep people above the poverty line while they look for work and especially while this country recovers from the pandemic and we rebuild.

The jobs that the government says that people need to get just aren't there. They're just not there at the moment. That's especially the case in places like my electorate of Melbourne, where so many of the industries that employ people—like hospitality, events and tourism—are still not able to get back on their feet, because we're still dealing with a pandemic and they're subject to social-distancing restrictions. The government just does not seem to get that we are still dealing with the virus and with the economic consequences of it, and the jobs have not bounced back.

Of course, even before the pandemic hit, life was pretty tough for people, especially young people, in this country. Before the pandemic, about one in three young people in this country either didn't have a job or didn't have enough hours of work. That's not because they weren't taking up a massive surplus of jobs that was available. The jobs just aren't there. But what is the government doing? The government is punishing people for not finding jobs that aren't there. That's what this government is doing. The government is saying, 'Even though we've got enough money to give $100 billion in handouts to big corporations, even though we think that billionaires deserve a tax cut and will rip $300-odd billion out of the budget with the Labor Party's help to make sure that we can't fund schools and hospitals as well as we would like, despite all of that largesse that's available for big corporations and billionaires, I'm sorry, we can't lift you out of poverty in the middle of a pandemic.'

It is incredibly cruel, and that's why I'm moving the amendment to increase the JobSeeker payment to above the poverty line. We can do it. We did it during the worst of the pandemic, and we can do it now as we recover from the pandemic and into the future. What the government don't understand is that, when you are living on so low an amount as the $44 a day that they are proposing, you not only go without many of the essentials, you not only have to skip meals, you not only have to have those difficult conversations with your kids about why they can't go on excursions or do the things that other kids are doing; it's actually a barrier to finding work, because it means you don't have the money to go on that extra training course, you don't have the money to go and buy some nice new clothes, you don't have the money to get a haircut. Being on $44 a day means you spend all your time just struggling to survive. It's not a living; it is just barely surviving.

Then, to make matters worse, the government comes along and says, 'We're going to introduce a hotline, a "DobSeeker" hotline, where you're going to be able to dob people in.' As you're struggling just to survive and as you're looking for jobs that aren't there, you now have the added weight hanging over you of an employment service provider—who makes money out of this whole industry; this privatisation should be completely unwound, and we should go back to having a public centred approach to employment service provision—now potentially having the ability to put a black mark against someone's name and say, 'They didn't take a job that we reckon they were suitable for.'

And employers can do it too. Employers are able to dob people in, according to this new government hotline. So if you're a young woman who goes for a job at a place and comes out of it feeling, 'I don't trust that man who's going to employ me. He's creepy and he's sleazy, and I don't want to be working under him. I'm not going to accept that job,' you can get a black mark put against your name and potentially have your payment suspended. This is not slavery, in this country, but that is the direction the government is taking us in. Now you won't have the freedom to say no to working for someone that you might think could be completely inappropriate to work for; you're going to be forced to do it under this government. This government is now embarking on a process of virtually forced labour by saying you don't even have the right to say no to working for someone who's inappropriate. People should have the right, after they've met their employer face to face, to say: 'No. Actually this job isn't going to work out for me, and I've got some very good reasons why.' But no—this government's punishing them for even doing that.

The mutual obligation requirements that are being imposed in this bill as well are going to mean that, from July, people will be forced to apply for up to 20 jobs a month, in the middle of a recession, and they're going to be required to resume face-to-face appointments with jobactive providers, even while social-distancing restrictions are in place in many places around this country. Again, this speaks volumes about the government's approach, and the government's approach is to punch down and to blame people for not finding jobs that aren't there.

But there's a different way. If we make the billionaires and the big corporations pay their fair share of tax, then we can afford to ensure that no-one is living in poverty in this country and that we invest in the kinds of job-creating nation-building projects that will set us up for the future, deliver something of lasting benefit to Australia and get us back to full employment. Instead of handing out $1 billion a year to big corporations, including its donors, the government could invest some of that money in projects like getting Australia running on 100 per cent renewables, restoring our environment and expanding free education. That would create jobs. The government could actually do things right now, through its investment, that would create jobs. Instead, the government has a trickle-down approach to the recovery that says: we'll force people to live in poverty, but we'll give $100 billion a year to big corporations and the very wealthy and hope that they choose to use some of it to employ people.

High unemployment is a choice this government is making. This government is choosing to keep people out of work. What it could do with that $100 billion, instead, is invest it in projects that would deliver lasting benefit for the whole of Australia for decades to come and would give people meaningful work—a meaningful job for everyone who wants it. We could get back to full employment in this country if we wanted to. That's what they did in the US after the Great Depression. They invested, and as a result they've got a national parks system which is still used to this day and transportation networks that are still used to this day. They built amazing buildings and created incredible works of culture. Instead of giving money to the same people that helped cause the crisis, they put money into direct job creation, and that's what the government needs to do here. That is how you create the jobs for people. That is how you could go to every person in this country and say, 'We can guarantee you a job working on one of these nation-building, planet-saving projects.'

Look at our natural environment. Look at how devastated it is, especially after last year's bushfires. Look at how much work needs to be done in rural and regional areas to restore our environment and get it back to good health. That is work that could create jobs. Look at our aged-care sector and the scandals that we've seen there. The No. 1 recommendation of the royal commission was to invest in and lift the workforce. We could invest in our aged-care sector so that there are more nurses, attendants and other staff working in our aged-care sector, and that would create jobs. This idea from the government that, instead, we're going to just keep giving more to the billionaires and big corporations and hope things get better is a trickle-down fantasy. For as long as the government is refusing to offer people decent jobs, it has no right to complain about the unemployment rates. What we should do in this country is all agree on a single principle that, in a wealthy country like Australia, no-one should be living in poverty. We lifted people out of poverty during the worst of the pandemic and we can do it again. I commend my second reading amendment to the House.

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment moved by the member for Melbourne and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Clark. The original question was that this bill be read a second time. To this, the honourable member for Barton moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting others. The honourable member for Melbourne has now moved, as an amendment to that amendment, that certain words be added. The question now is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Melbourne to the amendment moved by the honourable member for Barton be disagreed to. The member for Indi has the call.

11:33 am

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

In the last 12 months, many Australians have experienced for the first time what it's like to be out of work. For several years, the number of Australians receiving the JobSeeker payment was bouncing around at about 700,000, but in March last year, when the pandemic hit, that number jumped to 1.2 million people, an increase of 54 per cent in a single month. Our country has never seen anything like it. At the same time, the government did something extraordinary and temporarily doubled the rate of JobSeeker payment to around $1,100 per fortnight. It also introduced JobKeeper to support the business community. These were two of the best decisions the government has made, and they were made because those opposite recognised several things. They recognised that the hundreds of thousands of Australians who'd suddenly found themselves out of work were unemployed through no fault of their own, and they recognised that it would be good for small business to put more money in the pockets of people who will spend it locally. Since that time, the government has slowly cut the rate of JobSeeker back to close to its original rate. This is despite the fact that in January there were still 1.2 million jobseekers in Australia, the number having barely budged since the pandemic hit. And the bill before us, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021, will permanently enshrine yet another cut in the rate. If this bill is passed, on the first day of April, two things will happen. First, the permanent rate of JobSeeker and several other social security payments will rise by $50 a fortnight. Secondly, at the same time as the permanent rate is increasing, the coronavirus supplement of $150 a fortnight is ending. This means that the actual rate of JobSeeker that people are receiving is being cut by around $100 a fortnight. Right now, a single person with no dependants who's receiving JobSeeker will be getting around $50 a day. In two weeks time, that very same person will get just $44 a day.

I will support this bill because, if it does not pass, the JobSeeker rate will simply go back to its old level of $40 a day, but I do believe this cut is overly punitive and counterproductive not only for the people who are receiving it but for our small businesses looking for employees. I'd like to use this opportunity in parliament to outline my reasons why. I believe that the goal of our social security system should be to support people who can work to do so and to support people who are unable to work to live decent lives. Both of these things are important. I fear that this bill, by cutting JobSeeker to such a low level, achieves neither goal. It neither gives those people unable to work a decent life nor encourages people who are able to work to do so. On the new JobSeeker rate, a person will receive just $44 a day. I don't believe that there's any way to really survive on income that low. Before coming to this chamber, I checked on to see what it costs to rent a place in some of the towns in my electorate. The cost of an average rental in Wodonga right now is around $40 a day. In Bright, there's basically nothing on the market at all, but, if you can find something, the cost is $56 a day.

When I met with the Minister for Families and Social Services a few weeks ago to be briefed on this bill, she insisted that, because the government has other supplements available, people really are given enough to live on. To an extent it's true that the base rate of JobSeeker is not the only thing that determines the total amount of social security that an individual receives, but, even once you include these supplements, I simply don't see how we can plunge 1.2 million Australians into living like this. Let's take an example. With the new fortnightly JobSeeker rate, a single person with no children who is renting a property will receive $620 in basic JobSeeker, $9 in energy supplement and $141 in rent assistance. That's a total of around $770 a fortnight or $55 a day. If you live in Wodonga and you're spending an average of $40 a day on rent, that leaves you with $15 a day to live on. But, in some of the smaller towns, the lack of affordable housing is even worse. The cheapest rental available right now in Mansfield—not the average, but the cheapest—costs $740 a fortnight or $53 a day. So, if you're on JobSeeker in Mansfield, even with all the extra supplements that the government talks about, you're looking at spending 96 per cent of your income on rent. After paying rent, that just leaves $30 a fortnight. So how is a person supposed to survive on JobSeeker if they live in a town like Mansfield where there are simply not enough properties available to live in?

The minister also insisted to me that health care is 'free in Australia and universal', so people receiving social security are able to access health care at no cost, but this is simply not correct, particularly in regional Australia. People are not always able to access health care for free. Fifty-three per cent of patients in regional Australia face out-of-pocket costs to access Medicare, paying around $142 per person a year. I constantly hear from constituents who tell me that they can't access mental health care in places like Wangaratta and Benalla because the only providers charge significant gap fees. If you live in Benalla and you have a medical emergency, there is no emergency department to go to. Instead, you can only go to an urgent care centre where, when you see a GP, you will receive fee-for-service charges. As a result, some people in Benalla will drive for up to half an hour on the road in the middle of the night to go to the ED in Wangaratta just to see a doctor. These issues are not isolated to Indi; they happen across regional Australia. The idea that we can afford to have such a low rate of social security because health care is free is not only incorrect but actually dangerous. We have to be honest: making the rates so low means that some people are unable to access the essentials of life, like a place to live and basic health care.

I said at the beginning of this speech that giving people dignity in unemployment should not be the only goal of the social security system; it should also encourage people who can work to do so. We have to be honest: if the rate of JobSeeker is too high, for some it is a disincentive to work. But I believe that simply cutting JobSeeker is a crude way to try to get people into jobs. I don't believe it does much to address the structural barriers that stop people being able to work. A few weeks ago the Mansfield Courier ran a story reporting accurately that I was calling on the government to rethink its cuts to the JobSeeker rate. When I was in Mansfield last week, I was approached by one of my constituents, Mr Dean Belle. Dean owns the popular Delatite Hotel and the Mansfield Produce Store. He is well known in the community and I, together with that community, hold him in the highest regard. He told me that some of the business owners in the Mansfield main street were concerned about what I had said about the rate of JobSeeker because they're struggling to find enough people to work in their businesses. He told me that he too was struggling to find enough people to work in his pub and cafe. As a result, he and other business owners had missed out on thousands of dollars in lost trade.

Dean's comments, while alarming, unfortunately didn't surprise me because, to be truthful, I'm hearing this from many people. In the last few weeks I've heard the same message from small businesses in Tallangatta, Corryong, Bright and Mansfield. One pub owner told me he had to shut down on the Sunday of the Labour Day long weekend because he was so understaffed and the few staff he had were completely worn out by the huge crowds on Friday and Saturday. I know Dean Belle. He is a model employer, and so too is the IGA in Mansfield and other great employers. They simply can't find people to work. There are businesses there offering traineeships, and still they can't find people to work. Many businesses tell me that one of the reasons they struggle to find workers is that they think, in their mind, that it's easier to be on JobSeeker than it is to work. The brutal truth is that in some rare cases they're probably right. There are some people sitting on JobSeeker, turning down work, when these hardworking businesses are unable to fill their available spots. That is deeply unacceptable.

But my view is that, whilst a portion of people on JobSeeker are choosing not to work, there are a slew of other reasons that prevent jobseekers from being able to take up jobs; it's not a zero-sum game. I heard from so many constituents about other structural barriers that stop them taking up jobs—things like housing and transport. If we just take housing, there is an acute lack of affordable housing, as I've mentioned. I've said before what the cheapest property in Mansfield costs. Just imagine: you're unemployed and living in Melbourne, and there's a job going in Mansfield, but the only place to live would cost you $740 a fortnight. It is impossible for you to even pay a security deposit out of your JobSeeker income. If you come up to work as a casual waiter or part time in a ski shop, you are unlikely to be able to afford that rent.

Lack of skills is another huge barrier. Many small businesses need people with experience and training in skills, which may not be available locally. Take Bright, for example. The Bright and Mount Beauty area has seen the number of people on JobSeeker go up by 96 per cent since March, the highest increase of any place in Indi. This is unsurprising, given it was heavily reliant on tourism, which was completely decimated in the pandemic. Many of those people who lost their jobs have subsequently left the area. Now that tourism is coming back, small businesses in Bright tell me the jobs they are trying to hire for are roles for chefs, bar staff and experienced waiters. The problem for these businesses is not the availability of people needing jobs but the mismatch between the skills they need and the skills that these local people have.

Another barrier is child care. In regional towns we have extremely limited childcare options, especially in flexible child care for shift workers. If you're a single mother on JobSeeker and there is a local pub offering you a shift on the bar at night, but you can't find childcare, you simply can't take the job. On top of that, even if you can find child care, it may be so expensive that it's not worth it for you.

Fourth is transport. If you need a car to get to a job and you don't have one, it's essentially impossible to take on a job in a regional area with very limited public transport options. If you live in Eurobin and there's a job in Porepunkah but you don't have a car, it's pretty simple—you can't take the job.

Housing, skills, child care and transport—these are four structural barriers to employment that I hear from my constituents. Simply cutting the rate of JobSeeker doesn't do anything to solve these four problems. I'm acutely conscious that these barriers don't tell the full story. We have to be honest: some would prefer to receive money for nothing. I recently met with Wodonga UnitingCare's social services, and they told me precisely that. But they also told me that these people are very much in in the minority; most people want to work.

If we really want to create jobs in regional communities, we should be creating more affordable housing, investing in transport, investing in child care and investing in skills. Addressing these issues in a holistic way, I believe, would do far more to create jobs in the regions than simply cutting JobSeeker. The government must be able to design public policy that allows our small businesses to thrive but which does not condemn our fellow Australians to the indignity of poverty. The debate about what the JobSeeker rate should be is a difficult one, mired in complexity and in politics, but simply railing against jobseekers, as some in the government do, is unhelpful.

I will support this bill because I think we're a society that lends a hand to people who are down on their luck, but I call on the government to offer a comprehensive regional investment agenda, one that's matched by services that enable people to live, work, study and thrive in the regions. It's high time they did.

11:45 am

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

I rise to speak on this important bill before the House, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021. I want to raise my voice regarding what the government is proposing—and, obviously, what my community has been concerned about for some time—regarding the issue of Newstart and the associated reforms that we are dealing with today.

The first thing I want to do is place on record my thanks and gratitude for the many service and community organisations that work across the south-west suburbs of Brisbane and the Ipswich regions who provide critical support for families and individuals who are in need. I've had the privilege and honour of working alongside many church community organisations and frontline workers, particularly during the COVID crisis, who have been there at the end of a phone call or have been running services to support some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged people in the community. The work that they do and the support that they offer is truly uplifting. Sitting and hearing their stories of, day after day, dealing with some of the most complex social needs and support services that are required by so many in my community—with rising poverty rates, and, particularly rising children's poverty rates—is one of the great privileges that I have as a member of parliament. Hearing their concerns and understanding the pressures that they deal with—not only the people who work in the sector but also the many, many families across the Oxley electorate that are desperate for work and desperate for income support—I understand that they are concerned and fearful for the future. With over one million people unemployed and more than two million people looking for additional work in one of the worst recessions that our country has faced, I think it is time that the government heard those concerns.

I want to talk a bit about some of the provisions that are in the bill and what this will mean as impacts for my community. I want to remind the government, who are patting themselves on the back about increasing the base social security rate, that once the coronavirus supplement ends unemployed Australians will actually face a $100 a week cut to their household income. We're not going to stand in the road of anyone keeping the previous increase, because people are doing it tough now; they are struggling.

I want to put this in perspective. Once this measly payment is implemented, 1.3 million Australians or more will have just $3.57 extra to spend each day. You can't buy a return bus ticket with that, so what can you buy? A tin of soup or a tube of Colgate toothpaste or a pack of soap, but you can't have it all—not for $3.57 per day. These are the choices facing 1.3 million people right now. When JobKeeper ends, there are around 5,000 people in the Oxley electorate alone who will be cut adrift by the Morrison government. I've spoken to a number personally. They say they may not be able to keep all of the staff on their payroll. The businesses are concerned about what the government is planning to do with JobSeeker when they go over a cliff. So this will potentially mean even more people out of work. There are not enough jobs to go around, and the government know this, but they are simply making it worse. Well, I want to stand here and say that I hear what those concerns are, and I'll continue to fight for those residents.

While many Australians are or will be unemployed through no fault of their own, they're being punished by this government, which is putting in heartless measures attacking people who would never have been out of a job if better policy had been put in place to protect them. There are issues in this bill that I have concerns with, including the 'dob in a jobseeker' hotline. That has already raised concerns about the new reporting measures being so heavy-handed. Businesses have come out against those procedures, and I'm not quite sure that, from an ethical or employer standpoint, it is a good idea.

Whilst we won't be opposing this bill today, it is important to put on record the concerns that I have received from local businesses and local community organisations that have been working so hard alongside so many people to get them through the coronavirus pandemic. I'll always speak out for those who don't have a voice, and I'll always try to make sure that they have a suitable, decent living wage or at least income support to make their lives easier.

11:51 am

Photo of Zali SteggallZali Steggall (Warringah, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021. This increase to what was called Newstart, now renamed JobSeeker, has been long called for, but it is disappointing and, unfortunately, what is being put forward by the government is not a solution.

To provide baseline understanding in our discussion of this bill, I note that JobSeeker is due to return to the pre-COVID rate of Newstart, at $40 a day. In this bill, the proposal is that that be increased to $43.50 a day. Even with concession rates, that won't even get you to the city on the Manly ferry. So people living on JobSeeker and other payment types need a greater level of support to help them transition back into the workforce. This is a measly measure by the government that falls short of what is needed, and I've impressed upon the minister that much more is needed and this doesn't even begin to resolve this issue. People need to be able to pay the bills and still get the ferry to the city. They need to be able to go to the job interviews. If they are not, we will not get them back into the workplace.

We need to return to a more dignified approach to social security, going back to the roots of the Liberal Party. Sir Robert Menzies, who so many in this government revere and often quote, said:

The purpose of all social security measures is not only to provide citizens with reasonable protection against misfortune, but also to reconcile that provision with their proud independence and dignity as democratic citizens.

I do not believe maintaining the rate of JobSeeker significantly below the poverty line can be reconciled with the proud independence and dignity of Australians.

In my view, JobSeeker should be at least $60 a day. That's under 90 per cent of the pension rate and on the upper end of the bracket put forward by the Business Council of Australia. The Australian Council of Social Service recommends that the rate should be $65 a day, just under the pension, which is $67. Chris Richardson of Deloitte Access Economics argues that it should be around $58 a day to be comparable to when the rate was indexed to inflation in 1994. So it's clear that, at $43.50, the government is way off the mark from all advice. All of these rates proposed by business, the social sector and economists are significantly higher than the proposal of $43.50 a day by the government.

The government emphasises that the increase in this legislation is a $9 billion direct cost to the budget over the forward estimates—four years—but completely fails to recognise that you get back a dividend of $2 for every $3 by way of a bigger economy. It's an argument we hear in relation to so many other spending measures, but, when it comes to this measure, the government is conveniently silent about it. People with less money are more likely to spend it, because they need to. They buy food, pay rent and buy other essential items. Rebekah, a JobSeeker recipient, said:

The businesses that would receive the money as soon as I get it are no longer going to get that money, so that's going to affect my local shops.

It comes back to the economy and boosts it from the bottom up. In Australia, we have one of the world's highest minimum wages, but, relative to that, we have one of the lowest rates of unemployment benefit. The disincentive to work is not there, as claimed by so many members of government. The high rate of minimum wage is a huge incentive to work. When working two days a week at the minimum wage you will earn more than you can earn on JobSeeker. The incentive is there.

Jeff Borland of the University of Melbourne told The Australian:

To be honest, I can't remember a policy change I have been more disappointed about … Here was an opportunity—by giving a significant increase—to have a real impact on living standards of people experiencing hardship and provide a macroeconomic benefit without there being any likelihood of a negative effect on incentives for unemployed jobseekers to find work.

Independent economist Nicki Hutley estimates that we could lose 100,000 jobs as a result of the combined end of the coronavirus supplement and JobKeeper. I would argue it is mismanagement by the government to be ending both measures at the same time. Nicki Hutley said:

… we've got millions, literally, of people both on the JobSeeker supplement and on the JobKeeper allowance, and pulling those out of the economy… it's probably equivalent to around $5 billion a month … That's equivalent to roughly 3 per cent of GDP

that's going to be pulled out. That is a very significant hit to the economy. The economists lined up with the business groups, including the Business Council of Australia and the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, to say that we need to increase the JobSeeker permanently to 'a reasonable level'. This is not it.

In Warringah, we saw the number of people on JobSeeker and youth allowance triple during COVID-19. That's more than 2,000 individuals who had not been on payments prior to the pandemic who now are. We also have over 4,000 businesses on JobKeeper. Many of those receiving JobKeeper will likely shift over to JobSeeker at the end of the month. This drop-off in support places people in Warringah in a very difficult position.

In Warringah, we have amongst the highest cost of living in the country. We've also got a large tourism and hospitality sector that's been devastated by the pandemic, especially through the Christmas lockdown, without any support from the government. Our electorate will feel the end of JobKeeper and, at the end of the coronavirus supplement, the move to other payments acutely. The events industry is still struggling. There are no plans, and there are no packages put forward by the government. There are more than 17 travel agents in the electorate with little to no work as a result of the international borders still being closed, and I should note that the recent announcements in relation to travel subsidies does not automatically flow to travel agents in all industries; it has gone to airlines, essentially. And we still do not have any long-term policy in relation to our borders from the government. There is an indefinite wait for borders to reopen and for Australians caught abroad to be able to come home, so we actually need some long-term planning.

I can accept that for the first month, March of 2020, an immediate response was needed, but we are 12 months on and we are still in a situation of closed borders, impeded travel and Australians being unable to return. It is, with respect, not good management and not acceptable. Ending the coronavirus supplement at the same time as ending the JobKeeper wage subsidy is a mistake. It will hurt both businesses and individuals, and this bill does little to alleviate that pain.

This bill is a permanent increase of $50 per fortnight to the base rate of JobSeeker. To be very clear to people listening, that's actually a decrease of $100 a fortnight from what they are currently receiving today. They will also soon have their payments impacted by other income. If any jobseeker starts earning an income, they are currently able to earn up to $300 per fortnight before their JobSeeker payments are impacted. Under this bill, that is halved to $150 per fortnight. That means if you get just one eight-hour shift in a local cafe at minimum wage in a fortnight your payments are already impacted. Surely people should be able to get at least a shift per week before their payments start going down, especially given that, even with one shift and the base rate of JobSeeker, you're still below the poverty line. The poverty line in Australia is currently around $457 per week. If you're on JobSeeker and you get one shift at a minimum wage, you will receive a grand total of $382 per week, still below the poverty line. Adding in rent assistance, which is a maximum of $78 a week, you are pretty much on the poverty line. But I should note that in Warringah, the median rent was, at the time of the census in 2016, $580 a week. So unemployed people in Warringah have no chance under the government support in this package.

The conversation about who is on JobSeeker and other payments is incredibly important as it provides some guidance about where we need to inject stimulus into the economy. It is all too often demeaning and incredibly insulting when members of government describe this in a very dismissive way, and really, I would say, prey on the more vulnerable in our society that are needing the assistance. Older people represent a growing proportion of those on JobSeeker. Let's be clear: ageism is real. As of September last year, 42.6 per cent of those on JobSeeker were aged over 45, and 32,000 people on JobSeeker were over 65. These people are increasingly making up the long-term unemployed. With respect to the government, it is incredibly hard for older people to find a job, particularly when there are programs that are incentivising the employment of younger people. It is not for lack of trying. Older people are trying to either find new professions, pivot, adapt to new professions or find new opportunities, but they are looking for work. Once losing work, they find it incredibly difficult to find employment again. For some, their skills don't match the needs of the workforce of today. For others, they're seen as overqualified for the roles available and not likely to be a good long-term employee. There has not been the shift to properly appreciate their experience and what they can contribute. This group are at a great risk, and without adequate support, they face a very uncertain future. It's no wonder, therefore, that women over 55 years of age represent the fastest growing group suffering from homelessness. That should be an incredible shame and stain on everyone in this place. We need to find employment solutions for this older generation, opportunities to retrain and policies to incentivise employers to take them on.

Women will be greatly impacted by the removal of the coronavirus supplement. In a month where the government's issues with women have been highlighted, this should be a very clear focus of the government as it prepares for its May budget. Jenny Davidson, the Chief Executive Officer of the Council of Single Mothers and their Children says:

The struggle to feed, house and provide for their families on so little money takes up time and energy that then can't be invested in parenting, studying, or seeking work.

So let's be very clear: by not adequately supporting older women, the government is also impacting the outcomes of their children and their families. Local and state services will be left to try to fill the gap with emergency relief and food packages and expect to be overwhelmed from April. As at September 2020, 46 per cent of people on JobSeeker were women. Among the parenting payment singles, that proportion is 95 per cent. Over a million children live in homes receiving the coronavirus supplement. The supplement has been the game changer for so many women and their families. There have been so many who have finally had the financial stability to leave abusive relationships. There are others who have been able to afford new clothes for their children for the first time.

The financial empowerment that has been delivered by the increased supplement cannot be underestimated. This is the benefit of treating all jobseekers with dignity and fostering their proud independence. We need to deliver this security on an ongoing basis to make sure that people remain functioning members of society. Without the additional support, people suffer, and children suffer, and they're unable to maintain functional positions in society or achieve their full potential—and this ultimately costs more down the line. Let's be very clear. Our health services and many other aspects of our society pay the price when we are not adequately supporting the cohort that find themselves unemployed.

I implore the government to do more to help women and older workers as you deliberate and consider prebudget submissions before the budget in May. It is so important that this be the focus of the budget this year. Without additional support, people suffer and they're simply unable to maintain functional positions within society and achieve their full potential, and we will all pay the price for that. If you won't listen to so many sectors and raise the JobSeeker rate by a substantial amount permanently, look closely at those most at risk and deliver tailored packages for them in the next budget.

Unfortunately, we're in a position where there is no choice but to support the bill, because we would not begrudge the small increase, the meagre increase, that is being provided. But it is so disappointing when there was an opportunity to lead on this. The government had an opportunity, post the coronavirus supplements, to actually implement a policy that could bring dignity and an adequate level of support—and this level of support has been called for by so many in our community. Treat those on social security with dignity and develop their proud independence. There are economic and health benefits to a more substantial safety net. Ripping all this stimulus away at the same time will have dire consequences. I urge the government: listen to your communities.

12:06 pm

Photo of Tony ZappiaTony Zappia (Makin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Like so much of this government's legislation, the title of this bill does not reflect the intent at all. The Security Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill permanently increases the base rate of social security payments by $50 a fortnight, or $3.57 a day. The base rate of JobSeeker will increase from $565.70 a fortnight, or $40.40 a day, to $615 a fortnight, or $44 a day. Youth allowance will go up from $462.50 to $512.50 a fortnight, and parenting payment will go up from $793.20 to $843.20 a fortnight. The increase of $50 per fortnight will also apply to Austudy, Abstudy, special benefit payments, widow allowance, partner allowance, farm household allowance, DVA student payments and the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme. The changes will take effect from 1 April, when the $150-per-fortnight coronavirus supplement ends. So most social security recipients will in fact see a cut of $100 a fortnight to their payments.

The other key changes in this bill will be to the mutual obligation requirements, with a return to the pre-COVID requirement of 20 monthly job applications, and the creation of a hotline to dob in people who do not accept a job offer. There will also be a permanent increase to the free area for JobSeeker, youth allowance and parenting payment partnered recipients from $106 to $150 per fortnight. Throughout the pandemic, the free area for payments had in fact been increased to $300 per fortnight, but that also will now be wound back.

I speak in support of the amendment moved by the member for Barton. What is clear from this bill is that the Morrison government's longstanding ideology of callously disregarding and even attacking people on welfare payments is what drives this government. It's what has driven it in the past, continues to do so now and obviously will into the future. This is a government that, with the help of the Greens, has cut $12 billion from pensions and social security payments by changing the asset test and therefore cutting the pension of 370,000 people, by completely cutting the schoolkids bonus, by cutting pensioner concessions and by freezing family tax benefit rates. All of these changes were opposed by Labor at the time because we knew that they were unfair. Indeed, were it not for Labor blocking other measures, the Morrison government would have cut a further $12 billion in payments by making people under 30 years of age wait six months before they could apply for unemployment payments, by cutting family tax benefits and by increasing the pension age to 70, which is what this government wanted to do. Furthermore, it wanted to scrap the energy supplements for new applicants and cut parental leave payments. All of those cuts would have gone through were it not for Labor.

There are numerous other penny-pinching examples, across a range of portfolio areas, where payments have been cut from people who are already struggling. The time for this debate doesn't allow me to go through each one of them individually. One I will refer to is the government's current proposal to bring in an independent assessment process for people who are on National Disability Insurance Scheme payments. The government is currently doing a trial with respect to that. What that independent assessment will do, in my view, is simply create another barrier. It will create another consuming process for people who are already struggling to navigate a complex system. It will create a process by which people will have their payments cut, if they are already within the scheme, or, once they have gone through an assessment, they will be provided with a reduced payment. From my understanding, it's an assessment that cannot even be appealed. I note that the minister is in the House. If I'm wrong, he's welcome to respond and tell me so. But it's clear to me that the new independent assessment process is simply going to be brought in as another cost-cutting measure that the government wants to impose.

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The member will resume his seat. I call the minister.

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme) Share this | | Hansard source

On a point of order on relevance: whilst I understand that it's an important issue—and the member for Makin is free to see me anytime—the substantive nature of this debate is on social services and JobSeeker.

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, that's not a point of order. Please resume your seat. I call the member for Makin.

Photo of Tony ZappiaTony Zappia (Makin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I appreciate the minister's comments. I thought he might have actually clarified the issue I was alluding to, given that it is directly within his portfolio's responsibility. It is a matter of social security payments, and that's why I refer to it. It is consistent with this government's approach to cutting social security payments to people in need throughout this country, and it always has been.

There are currently 1,357,000 people across Australia on JobSeeker and youth allowance payments. I understand it's expected there will be an additional 200,000 people joining those queues when JobKeeper ends. Almost 107,000 are in South Australia, the state I represent, where there are currently 10 unemployed people for every job vacancy. We know that, nationally, there are about two million people who are unemployed or underemployed. Underemployed people are, by definition, people looking for more work. They are people who are 'having a go', to use this government's phrase, and who are taking whatever work they can get. Often, these are the people doing the work that nobody else wants to do or doing work at payment rates that are much lower than the accepted community standard. These people are not trying to rort the system. They are already within the workforce and they're trying to get more work.

Unemployed people, equally, are not people who are trying to rort the system, in most cases. Today, most of them are either people who are over 55 years of age or people with limited skills, or they are relatively new arrivals, who face their own difficulties in securing a job. It's not that they don't want to get a job; they have barriers to overcome. They do not want to live off welfare payments. They too have families to support and mortgages to pay. Often they are people who, through no fault of their own, have lost their job because of the COVID pandemic or other issues that have impacted society. They are people such as those within the travel and tourism sectors; people affected by the sudden trade sanctions applied by China; people who have lost their work because of the travel restrictions, such as university staff; people in industry sectors that have been affected by restricted numbers, such as those in the hospitality industry or in entertainment; people who work at sporting events; or even those who work within the funeral sector, such as undertakers. These are all people who, because of issues completely outside of their control, today find themselves either unemployed or underemployed. They are not bludgers or freeloaders but people with a strong work ethic who are indeed looking for work. But the work is simply not out there. Now they are being expected to live on $44 a day, if they are on JobSeeker, or, if they are on youth allowance, on $36.60 a day. These are people who already have financial commitments to meet each and every week.

I've heard members opposite who've spoken in this debate refer to those payments as 'a temporary safety net, never meant to become a permanent lifeline'. Can I just focus on the words 'temporary' and 'safety net'. Firstly, with respect to 'temporary': for many of them, it will not be temporary, because we know that there are at least 10 applicants for every vacancy—and that's in South Australia; in other places, it's even higher than that. Therefore, the likelihood of full employment is way down the track. It is also likely that, for many of these people—who, in many cases, are at a stage in their life where they're already going to find it difficult to get a job—being unemployed will be a long-term feature; it will not be a temporary matter for them but one that could affect them for months and months to come. Secondly, with respect to these payments being a 'safety net': how can living on $44 a day be a safety net? It is a safety net with lots of holes in it, because it simply will not support people adequately to even just live a basic life, let alone meet the commitments that many of them already find themselves with. So those claims that it is a temporary safety net simply don't stand up to scrutiny.

On the $25 increase that is being proposed by the government: unemployment payments in this country have not been increased since 1994. An increase of $25 is an increase of less than $1 for each year that the payments have remained stagnant—less than $1 for each of those years. And the government thinks that that is a fair outcome! Well, it is simply inadequate.

I will very quickly turn to the issue of mutual obligations, where the government will now revert back to requiring 20 job applications per month from every person receiving payments. Again, when there are dozens of people looking for the same job, it is impossible to get work. Quite frankly, I see that as being simply another mechanism by which the government will force people to breach their mutual obligation and therefore to lose not only their $44 a day but all of their payment. It is a harsh measure at a time when the economy is struggling, and the government knows full well that it is simply being brought in to further cut payments to people who already need every last dollar.

I also make this point: it is clear that the government understood the value of putting more money into the economy during the pandemic recession when it also increased the JobSeeker payment quite considerably. It did so because it knew that that would strengthen the economy. It knew that the money provided to these people would circulate and help all of the small businesses, who, in turn, would employ more people. In other words, there is a clear economic benefit, which the government understood when it responded to the COVID-19 pandemic but which it now turns its back on.

Quite frankly, I think the government's own actions are not going to help the economy at all. There is a social benefit from providing support payments to people who are struggling. It saves money in the long run because, if people are adequately supported, they will not incur other social costs that inevitably arise when people are struggling. When people are struggling and they cannot afford the food they need or the medical support they need, ultimately the social costs increase rather than going down. So it's in neither our economic interests nor our social interests to cut these payments the way the government wants to do. And, quite frankly, given that this government has now been in government for eight years and has had plenty of time to thoroughly assess this issue, the government's stance is condemned.

12:20 pm

Photo of Richard MarlesRichard Marles (Corio, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

Living in poverty is a full-time job, in terms of thinking through how every dollar is stretched in any given day. The necessities of life—food and shelter—which so many of us take for granted become a minute-by-minute problem to solve for people who are living in poverty. And $40 a day, which was the rate of Newstart prior to the COVID-19 crisis, is simply too little to live on. For a long time now, Labor has been calling for an increase in that rate.

The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021 will provide for a $50 a fortnight increase in the rate on a permanent basis. In effect, though, the fortnightly rate will be lowered by $100 when the coronavirus supplement, which at the moment provides an additional $150 per fortnight, comes to an end. This increase will by no means end poverty, and no-one is suggesting that it will. It will stop people falling back, though, to the pre-existing rate of Newstart prior to the coronavirus crisis, so Labor will not get in the way of this increase. We note, though, that the government and its actions ultimately determine the outcomes here. The government is in control of the budget and the purse strings, and, in order to change the budget, ultimately we need to change the government. This is a matter to which Labor is committed. In government, it is something we would certainly seek to act upon.

In my contribution today, I particularly want to speak on the member for Barton's amendment to the bill. This amendment introduces a set of principles in relation to the mutual obligation provisions for jobseekers under the Social Services Act. Mutual obligation is a principle that Labor deeply supports. Indeed, it was the Keating government that first introduced the concept of mutual obligation. It established in 1993 the Committee on Employment Opportunities. At the time, in a green paper entitled Restoring full employment, this committee argued:

As the period of unemployment increases, so does the obligation on the Government to assist the unemployed person into a job, and likewise the obligation on the unemployed person to take more steps to find work and not refuse reasonable opportunities.

That principle of mutual obligation, as important as it was then, remains absolutely fundamental today, and Labor is completely committed to this principle. It does, though, need to be applied in a way which gives expression to the sentiment that was recorded in that passage back in 1993. Put simply, mutual obligation needs to be about government and those who are on unemployment benefits being able to work together.

Under the member for Barton's amendments, what is proposed is that the secretary, in putting in place the mutual obligation requirements, act consistently with a set of principles. These principles are articulated in the amendment that the member for Barton has put forward. The first is that the purpose of mutual obligation be there to help people get into jobs or to develop the skills necessary to get jobs. As obvious as that is at one level, that is something which needs to be legislatively put in place and be the fundamental underpinning of the way in which the secretary acts in terms of exercising mutual obligation powers. The second is that the powers are intended to be used as part of a mutual arrangement in which the Commonwealth undertakes a reciprocal obligation to help persons find work. This means that, in exercising powers in relation to a person, the secretary should take into account the availability of suitable jobs, the person's skills and abilities, and the person's personal circumstances. In part, this applies in the administrative arrangements that exist, but all of these ought to form part of the legislative set of principles which underpin the exercise of the secretary's powers.

It's also important to ensure, as a principle, that, in the exercise of the mutual obligation powers, we don't create a system where there is an unnecessary annoyance or burden for employers. That makes no sense at all, and these amendments make that principle clear. Nothing we have heard from the government in this space, in respect of the changes to the mutual obligation arrangements, offers us any sense of confidence that the mutual obligation arrangements will improve or, in fact, that the government is on the side of those who are looking for work.

If the best that the Morrison government can come up with for the two million Australians who are looking for work right now is a hotline for employers to report people who, regardless of the reason, haven't agreed to a job, they really are showing all the hallmarks of a tired, stale and empty eight-year-old government. Of all the bizarre and clueless things that have emerged from this government, a hotline to report people for refusing a job offer has to be near the top of what is now a very long list. Where is the hotline for those who have been systematically underpaid? That might have been a better place to start.

The truth is that this government has no real plans for the millions of Australians who have found themselves without the work that they want, through no fault of their own, as a result of this pandemic. It's critically important that, as a nation, we do better. The mutual obligation arrangements that have been set out in the amendment proposed by the member for Barton would assist greatly in doing that.

12:27 pm

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank all parliamentary colleagues who have spoken on the bill today. The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Income Support) Bill 2021 modifies the Social Security Act 1991 to provide additional support to people receiving working-age payments as they transition back to employment. Everyone receiving the JobSeeker payment, youth allowance, youth disability support pension, parenting payment, Austudy, special benefit, partner allowance, widow allowance, Abstudy (living allowance), farm household allowance or payments made under the Department of Veterans' Affairs education schemes will receive an extra $50 a fortnight, commencing 1 April this year. This will be in addition to the usual indexation of payments on 20 March. The bill also permanently increases the income-free area to $150 per fortnight for the JobSeeker payment and youth allowance (other) from 1 April 2021, allowing people to keep more of what they earn as they reconnect with the labour market.

The temporary measures which were in place from the beginning of the pandemic are no longer required. The economy and labour market are recovering, and the vaccine rollout is already underway. The bill extends the waiver of the ordinary waiting period for the parenting payment, JobSeeker payment and youth allowance for a further three months, until 30 June this year. The bill also extends, to 30 June 2021, expanded access to JobSeeker payment and youth allowance (other) for persons who find themselves having to self-isolate or caring for someone who is self-isolating, due to the pandemic. It also extends, until 30 June 2021, the portability period for certain age pensions and the disability support pension for people with significant disability. This means pensioners unable to return to, or depart from, Australia within 26 weeks due to travel restrictions resulting from COVID-19 will have their entitlement maintained until 30 June this year, as though they've been able to return home as planned.

The measures in the bill have an estimated cost of approximately $9 billion over the forwards, including $700 million in 2021. I commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Melbourne and Leader of the Greens be disagreed to.

12:41 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) 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 an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.