House debates

Monday, 22 March 2021


HomeBuilder Program

11:36 am

Photo of Phillip ThompsonPhillip Thompson (Herbert, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House notes:

(1 )the construction industry:

(a) employs over 1 million Australians;

(b) consists of 390,000 small and family businesses; and

(c) generates more than $100 billion, or around five per cent of our annual economic output;

(2) the Government’s HomeBuilder grant has provided critical support to the residential construction sector during the COVID-19 pandemic; and

(3) that Treasury estimates that HomeBuilder is underpinning $18 billion worth of construction projects.

I'm very glad to move this motion today because the HomeBuilder program has been a massive success not just for the entire nation but also for the electorate that I represent in Herbert. At the beginning of this pandemic, roughly around this time last year when everything was shutting down, the construction industry faced one of the highest amounts of uncertainty. Not only did they not know whether their job sites would be able to remain open or operational but who was going to build the new home or complete a substantial renovation when their job was at risk. The industry, which employs over one million Australians, told us they were going to fall off the cliff if we didn't implement something extra, targeted support in addition to JobKeeper. So after consultation with the industry, HomeBuilder grant was put together.

In the first round, we saw $25,000 for new builds or major renovations. In Queensland, we had an extra $20,000 from the state government for first home builders. That meant a possible $45,000 for a first-time homebuilder in an unprecedented time, and it was an unprecedented level of support. For a lot of people it was that little bit of extra cash they needed to outlay for their dream of building their brand new home to get it over the line.

Now, coming up to a year on, the grant is underpinning $18 billion worth of construction projects. That's supporting thousands of existing jobs and creating thousands more. Let's not forget the bigger economic impact—along with the supply line that $18 billion directly translates into $60 billion of broader economic activity. We have nearly 90,000 applications nation-wide and more than 10,000 grants paid.

To give more of an idea of how much HomeBuilder has turned things around, new home sales have dropped to their lowest level on record in May 2020, according to the Housing Industry Association. That's how they have increased by 32½ per cent compared to 2019. In 2021, the HIA says it has recorded 130,000 new detached homes projected to start construction. Master Builders have revised projections up from 124,000 to 160,000 and 43 per cent of new home loans at the moment are projected to be for new home buyers. The way this project has transformed industry and saved it from the brink cannot be overstated.

Let me zoom in a little bit on Townsville and give you an idea of the boom we're experiencing locally in the electorate of Herbert. We've seen new home approvals in Townsville triple just recently—a massive increase. We saw them increase gradually from 40 in July to 82 in September to 104 in November, with all this leading to a good problem to have, and that's some supply chain issues and some workforce issues. The last thing I want to see is people not being eligible for the grant because work can't get started through no fault of their own. I've already said in this place that we need to make some practical decisions to ensure that no-one has to give up their dream build because the construction time lines in the rules don't allow it. It's a conversation that I've had with the Assistant Treasurer and something that I'll be continuing to advocate for, as severe weather pushes the six-month period from signing a contract to laying the first slab out a little bit.

Finally, I want to touch on the bigger impact of not just HomeBuilder but the broader suite of assistance that has been provided. Last month PVW Partners' Townsville Business Confidence Index showed that business confidence in Townsville was at its second highest in 30 years. The Townsville Bulletin quoted PVW Partners managing partner, Carl Valentine, as saying:

"Business confidence is at its highest in 14 years. The last time we saw results this positive was right before the Global Financial Crisis in 2007" …

As we come out of one of the most economically uncertain years in recent history, it's fantastic to see the Townsville business community gaining in confidence in such a big way. Mr Valentine cited JobKeeper, cash flow boosts and HomeBuilder as the government programs that have kept the Townsville business community alive. It's fantastic to see that local business confidence has skyrocketed and is the best it's been in 14 years, and HomeBuilder has played a big part in that.

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Vince ConnellyVince Connelly (Stirling, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion.

11:41 am

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

This government loves congratulating itself. It's always boasting about success but never admitting to failure. 'How good are the WA Liberals?' yelled Senator Cash—a key line for the ages. We saw Prime Minister Scott Morrison claim that he won the WA state election. It's just more proof of how out of touch he is with Western Australia. I live in Western Australia, and I can tell the Prime Minister here on the record in Hansard that he did not win the WA state election. Now we have this motion, where the government is congratulating itself for HomeBuilder while doing absolutely nothing for the housing sector. If you need a slogan for a policy, instead of HomeBuilder, what about 'ShelterSeeker', what about something for the social housing sector, for homeless Australians and for low-income essential workers?

We know that homes took on new significance over the last 12 months. They became places of work, places of shelter, places where we had to crush boredom for weeks on end, and, for some people, unfortunately, places of no escape. But when this government is on to a good thing, as the member just told us, they have a tendency to cut it short. We saw it with JobKeeper, which was keeping a million Australians employed. What was the government's response? They're going to end it in six days time. We saw it with JobSeeker, which is providing essential support to low-income Australians who are about to see massive rent hikes when various rental freezes are cut off, particularly in my home state of Western Australia. Again, what was the government's response to something that is working well? Shut it down.

Then there is HomeBuilder. What will happen to this program? We've just have been told about the million Australians whose jobs are being supported by this program. The government is going to shut it down, with nothing to replace it in the social housing sector. It could fill some of that demand gap. We know that when it comes to the rollout of things, this government is always great at the announcement—and this is just houses; I'll get onto vaccines in a minute. The rollout was bumpy. We had people lodging their applications. We had disputes with state treasuries. We had problems where people couldn't meet the six-month requirement because they hadn't been provided with essential information by the government. We had building licences that didn't meet the government's criteria. It was a mess.

Then we had the problem that in some areas it caused unnecessary inflation. The chairman of the Master Builders Goldfields-Esperance branch, Brett Partington, said that buildings that used to take a week now take six weeks and that it has led to a 10 to 20 per cent increase in the cost of building houses and extensions at the moment. This is a huge problem in regional areas that this government has created because of the poor design of this policy. But it's okay because the member for O'Connor, Rick Wilson, came to the rescue. Rick loves policy on the fly; he loves making things up. Sorry—the member for O'Connor—

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I interrupt the member. The member seeks to—

Photo of Vince ConnellyVince Connelly (Stirling, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member should refer to members of parliament by their title.

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member is quite correct. We do not refer to people by their names but by their seats. I thank the member.

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

The member for O'Connor; said

I'm sure there will be a bit of leeway to allow people to press ahead and get their projects underway.

He actually said that the six-month deadline doesn't apply. I'm not sure that's actually true, but it's what he's been telling his constituents, which is a huge concern when people are making huge investments in their homes and building them up. It's a very worrying trend from this government.

One of the final things I want to talk about is that it is essential that every Australian has somewhere to call home. We've seen the congratulations from those opposite. They've allowed people to improve their homes—those who have maybe saved a few dollars here and there—but there was a very important report released by the member for Macnamara last week which talked about the housing crisis in Australia. I want to quote from that report. It says:

There’s always been a false narrative around people choosing to sleep rough. Anecdotally, it is common to hear that homeless people are choosing that lifestyle, but this is completely wrong.

People may choose to live on the street rather than use temporary housing that they can access, because a well-lit street under a CCTV camera can often be safer than an overcrowded and dangerous rooming house.

If we look at what's happened in my electorate over the last few years with increases in visible homelessness and a tent city having been erected, we see that there is indeed a crisis that this government has failed to confront when it comes to investing in social housing.

11:46 am

Photo of Julian SimmondsJulian Simmonds (Ryan, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to rise and support the member for Herbert's excellent motion and to reiterate the ongoing success of the Morrison government's HomeBuilder program. You know the government must be onto a winner, in terms of supporting Australians through a government program, when the Labor MPs who speak on the motion do everything but talk about the program in question. The previous Labor speaker spoke about JobKeeper, JobSeeker, homelessness and everything other than the HomeBuilder program, which has been a tremendous success for first home builders and for all Australians.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, we all know that, because of the actions that had to be taken to keep lives and livelihoods safe, business confidence suffered and there was the potential for the construction industry to be brought to its knees. This government wasn't going to allow that to happen. It wasn't going to allow the tradies to sit idle and be put out of jobs, so the Morrison government acted decisively to implement the HomeBuilder program—a targeted initiative designed to provide eligible owner occupiers, including first home buyers, a $25,000 grant to build a new home or substantially renovate an existing home. Importantly, it would provide critical support for the construction industry, which we know plays a vital role in the Australian economy, employing over a million Australians and generating more than $100 billion of annual economic input.

I'm so proud that, in my electorate of Ryan, we have not only a number of first home buyers taking up this grant but a number of fantastic companies who are seeing the benefit of this particular program to keep people employed and on the tools. I had the great pleasure of visiting two of those new builds in the Ryan electorate, in Upper Kedron, along with the 'architect' of the scheme, for want of a better word: the Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Housing, Michael Sukkar. Both of the new builds had received the $25,000 HomeBuilder grants. It was great to be there with the minister to not just see the homes being built for these young families but talk to the guys and girls who were on the tools and working. They have plenty of work waiting for them, I have to say, because of this particular program. I want to give a special shout-out to Lloyd Payne, the general manager of Fresh Homes, who was undertaking both of these builds and gave the minister and I a bit of a tour and explained just how critical the HomeBuilder program had been for his business throughout the pandemic. This is a direct quote from Lloyd. He said: 'Before the HomeBuilder grant, our business was decidedly down. HomeBuilder has really given us and our industry a boost.' That's from somebody who would know and is dealing with it at the coalface.

But Lloyd and Fresh Homes are not only doing great work in the Ryan electorate; they also have their business up in Townsville in the member for Herbert's own electorate, so no doubt he is noticing that as well. Lloyd said this about the member for Herbert's electorate—and I can see why the member for Herbert has gone ahead and moved this notion: 'In Townsville, we are geared to be able to build a bit more volume up there. We went from about 13 to 20 houses a year to about 107 houses.' Let me just say that again: because of the HomeBuilder scheme, Lloyd went from building 13 to 20 houses a year to 107 houses!

What HomeBuilder has done for the nation, I believe, is to really stimulate the employment and the economy. It's just incredible to see the amount of traffic around the new housing estates where homes are being built. What a tremendous outcome for young families and first home builders around the nation, but particularly in my electorate of Ryan and, in the electorate of the mover of this motion, in Townsville, where we are getting these first home buyers and these young families taking up these grants, getting them into their first home or a new home. As well, we are keeping good people like Lloyd and all of his tradies in a job, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and everything that has had to go into dealing with that.

Like Lloyd, I am just so passionate about making sure that we can continue to get young Australians into their new homes and to ensure that worksites are booming because of the HomeBuilder grant. It's a tremendously successful initiative that is supporting jobs and delivering, for our construction industry, the confidence that they need, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was great, during the visit with Minister Sukkar, to jump on the tools myself. I laid a couple of bricks. I can't say it was too tremendous; the brickies very carefully then took them down once I'd left! But I had a great time doing it, and I'm so pleased to be able to support those tradies.

11:51 am

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

When you listen to those opposite, you cannot help but listen to the hubris of this government. They constantly come into this place and the other one and pat themselves on the back and talk about how good a job they're doing and all of the wonderful things that they're doing as a government, when the reality facing Australians could not be in starker contrast to the government's delusions. The reality facing young families who are trying to get into the housing sector and into the homeownership market couldn't be further away from the self-congratulatory tone that these people come into this place with, day in and day out.

Homeownership in Australia has been a wonderful wealth-creator. It has been a wonderful way for Australians to be able to lift themselves out of poverty and find that small level of financial security that is so important, that so many Australians and Australian families have ambition for—to be able to retire with a bit of dignity and with enough assets so that they are comfortable in retirement. But, under the watch of this government—under the watch of people on that side of the House who have just occupied the Treasury benches without any ambition or agenda and governed this country in a slothful way—the ambition to get into the housing market is disappearing for too many Australian families.

On average, the net worth of an Australian family is around $980,000, if they are able to get into the housing market, but, if they are unable to, that number is actually about $40,000. Housing is a huge wealth-creator in this country. But less than 40 per cent of Australians who are around the age of 30 are able to get into the housing market.

So, yes, there is some construction going on in the housing sector, but the incentives that the government are providing mean that those new houses are not being owned by the majority of young Australians. Young Australian families—the majority of them—are struggling to get into the housing market. If those opposite think that this job is done, is completely finished, because of a motion in the House of Representatives, then they are kidding themselves. To all of those families—all of those young professionals; all of those young Australians who are desperate to get into the housing market and desperate to be able to get either the constant wages in the amount required or to get that deposit—they are saying: 'No, we're doing a great job. You just need to work a little bit harder. You just need to work a little bit harder, because this government is doing a great job.' Well, they're not.

At the moment, the number of young Australians who are struggling to get into the housing market is increasing, and the people who this is disproportionately affecting are Australian women. Australian women are working for less, they're working in insecure jobs, they're working in industries that are paid less on the whole, they're taking more breaks off work not just for family and for looking after children but for caring—women are doing a disproportionate amount of caring for family members in this country—and all of that is resulting in insecure housing for Australian women. Australian women over 55 are the fastest growing cohort of homeless Australians. And what's the government's answer to the myriad of issues in the housing sector? It's to come into this place and pat themselves on the back and say, 'Look how good a job we're doing.'

What this government actually should do instead of congratulate themselves is admit that in the housing sector in Australia we have a real problem with access. We have a real problem with people who want to be able to get into the housing sector, into the housing market, and be able to spend their working life paying off a mortgage and accumulating a financial asset that they can have some dignity in retirement off. But, of course this government is not interested in those issues of access. All they're interested in doing is patting themselves on the back and saying look how good a job we're doing.

The final point I want to make, like my friend the member for Perth made very eloquently in his contribution in this debate, is that social housing is the responsibility of anyone who wants to take responsibility for it. To hear the Minister for Housing constantly repeat this nonsense that social housing is the responsibility of the states gets under my skin, because the truth is the only reason why it's a responsibility of the states is because the federal government takes no responsibility. The only reason why the states are doing the heavy lifting is because the federal government are taking no responsibility. It is rubbish. They can and should take responsibility for social housing and the myriad of problems in Australia's housing sector.

11:56 am

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

There's a man who's not on top of his brief, I have to say. I rise in support of this motion. I'm probably the only person in this chamber or the House of Representatives that's a builder. I spent 30 years in the building industry both as a construction lawyer and also as an actual builder, a hands-on builder, so I can speak with some authority on this point, and I'm very pleased to do so.

Around about May or June last year, I had a lot of my—don't go, member for Perth; please stay!—colleagues contact me and say, 'Andrew, we have got no work on the books beyond about August or September,' and a lot of them were very, very fearful of their economic futures. So I had some discussions with Michael Sukkar, the Assistant Treasurer and housing minister. What we looked at was ways that we could encourage—don't go, member for Perth!—builders to be able to stay in work, because we knew that they were facing an economic cliff. So HomeBuilder was born. It's a $25,000 subsidy to enable owner-occupiers. What the member for Macnamara said is total rubbish about that this is assisting people who are investors. It assists only owner-occupiers. What it does is help owner-occupiers to build their home—it doesn't have to be their first home. But what we are seeing is the largest increase in owner-occupiers, first home owners, the numbers of people buying and building their first homes, since 2009. So, for those opposite to say that this isn't assisting first home buyers or that it's assisting investors, is fundamentally false. That's why I said the member for Macnamara is not on top of his brief.

When we first launched HomeBuilder, we had the shadow Treasurer in question time saying: 'This will never work. This program will never work.' And there was a cacophony of voices from those opposite—

Photo of Vince ConnellyVince Connelly (Stirling, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I remember that.

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

Do you remember that? I remember that. I don't even know if you were here! But there was a cacophony of voices on the other side saying, 'This program will never work.' Well, it is working and it is working brilliantly.

I know that those opposite don't give a tinker's cuss about the residential sector, because they're all involved with their union mates at the CFMEU. All they care about is the unions and the industrial and commercial sector. But the building industry represents about five per cent of our GDP. It employs over a million Australians. It's one of the largest employers and sectors in the country and, as someone who has been intricately involved and linked to it for the last 32-odd years, it is a great sector. Despite the CFMEU, it is a great sector. HomeBuilder is not just helping people to buy their homes; it's helping people to stay in jobs.

I would have thought that those opposite would have been interested in job creation, particularly in what we once called the blue-collar sector, the trades. But those opposite, the Labor Party, have totally abandoned the construction sector and the trade sector. I'll tell you why—and this is proof positive of this happening. During the 2019 election, when I was on pre-poll and at the polling booth, anybody wearing high-vis would brush past every other person and come up to me and say: 'I want to vote Liberal because the Liberal and the National parties stand up for trades. They stand up for the workers.' That is unlike those opposite, who have totally abandoned their roots. Those members opposite are appealing purely and simply to the inner-city green elites. They have abandoned their trades. They have abandoned their working-class roots, and they should be ashamed of themselves. We will stand up—

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion be agreed to. I give the call to the member for Gilmore.

12:02 pm

Photo of Fiona PhillipsFiona Phillips (Gilmore, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I absolutely support jobs in the construction industry. It is absolutely great news that HomeBuilder has provided some stimulus to the economy—that is true—but it has certainly been no magic wand, particularly for people in my electorate on the New South Wales South Coast. When HomeBuilder was first announced, many local people thought that this would be great for them. We had only just been through the devastation of the bushfires. In the Shoalhaven and the Eurobodalla, 1,037 homes were lost or severely damaged, so it is safe to say that a lot of building work was needed. Local people were contending with underinsurance and increased building costs because of changes to bushfire attack level, or BAL, ratings, and an extra $25,000 to help would certainly have made a difference. Personally, I would have liked to have seen the Morrison government dedicate funding specifically to help bushfire victims rebuild, but, like I said, we took what we could get from this government.

It didn't take long before it was clear that HomeBuilder would simply not help many local people impacted by the bushfires at all. Roslyn, who lost her home in Conjola Park, one of the hardest hit areas, signed a contract to rebuild her home in March 2020. She was committed to getting on with things as quickly as she could. She thought this would help her recover from her loss sooner, but that meant she was excluded from HomeBuilder. I wrote to the Treasurer and asked him to make an exception. I got a response back two months later from his chief of staff—a resounding 'No'. What was the government's advice? 'Go and see the Red Cross'. It's appalling.

On the other end of this spectrum are a number of families who are not quite as organised as Roslyn. Because of circumstances beyond their control, they cannot get a contract signed in time to be eligible, but the government won't make allowances for them either. Fiona and Ian from Yatte Yattah lost their home and tried to apply for HomeBuilder, but they felt exhausted by the level of paperwork and constant requests for further information. Then there is Peter and David. Peter and David are mirror twin brothers from Jeremadra. They have lived together for 68 years and they jointly owned the home they lost in the bushfires. Like so many others, they have had to make special adjustments to their rebuild, like the massive underground water tank they had to install. How much did that cost them? It cost $25,000—perfect; HomeBuilder can take care of that! But again this government has shown its cruel heart to be just that. It has denied Peter and David's application. Why? Because they are siblings, and the eligibility explicitly excludes siblings from accessing the program. This makes absolutely no sense. I also wrote to the minister, for Peter and David. I'm still waiting on that response. So far the silence has been deafening.

I have also been hearing about another unintended consequence of HomeBuilder that is hurting bushfire victims in my electorate. With so much of our forest burnt and with the added demand of HomeBuilder, the timber industry is in crisis. Timber for building is either not available or incredibly expensive, and it is our bushfire impacted families that are bearing the brunt. And what is the government doing? Its grant programs to help the timber industry have been slow to roll out, and, with no transparency or accountability, it is difficult to see how they have helped. The reality is the government has no plan to address this crisis, even though it has been clear for more than a year that it was coming. Instead, its programs have made things worse, not better—flashy announcement, failed delivery once more.

There is one last point I would like to make about HomeBuilder. The South Coast has the lowest rental vacancy rate in New South Wales, at 0.3 per cent. We are experiencing a housing crisis. It is dire. Once again, the government saw this coming. It should be a shock to no-one. Investing in affordable and social housing projects would have stimulated the economy and helped the construction industry while also addressing the unfolding and urgent housing crisis we are now facing. Instead, the government took the short-sighted path. It took the path that would help people in the city undertake extravagant renovations, instead of helping bushfire victims and instead of addressing the housing crisis impacting on everyday families across the South Coast. HomeBuilder has been nothing more than a wasted opportunity which has left vulnerable people in my electorate behind.

12:07 pm

Garth Hamilton (Groom, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In my electorate of Groom, the construction industry is one of the key building blocks of our local economy. From major national firms, like FKG and Hutchison Builders, to small mum-and-dad operations, Toowoomba region businesses deliver big at both the residential and the commercial levels. The sector employs nearly 7,000 people and generated $819 million in the last financial year, making it our region's third most valuable industry. And it's an industry that has not only survived but thrived during the challenges of COVID-19. Our local building boom has been supported by mass migration to the regions, with young people and families making the tree change to Toowoomba; and by this government's HomeBuilder scheme, which has seen 93,403 applications and over 14,578 grants paid nationwide since its launch.

The take-up of this program has turned around the fortunes of developments like the Avenues of Highfields, which sits in my electorate. Project director Stephen Bowers tells me he was feeling pretty sick about the COVID situation last February. Weren't we all. But, since HomeBuilder was announced, he's gone on to sell 220 lots, 50 per cent of those to first home buyers. They've now released the next stage of the development, four years ahead of schedule, showing that this truly is a market led recovery. The Toowoomba region has truly answered the Morrison government's call to renovate, extend and build.

The December ABS approvals data show that a remarkable turnaround took place in the last three months of 2020, with Darling Downs dwelling approvals skyrocketing by 121 per cent. The anecdotal evidence is that tradies are so flat out that there is a two-week waiting list for any of them. Local suppliers are now seeing shortages of some key materials, with sandstone blocks, crusher dust and most timber products in limited supply. This follows a national trend, with the Housing Industry Association's New home sales report for February showing that new home sales rose 60 per cent in the three months to February compared to the same three months in the previous year, while Master Builders Australia have revised up their projections for new dwelling starts for 2021 from 124,000 to 160,000. It is anticipated that 30,000 of those will be built in Queensland.

More of these homes will go to first-time buyers. The number of new loans to owner-occupier first home buyers was at its highest level in December 2020 since June 2009, during the GFC, when first home buyer grants were tripled. First home buyers now account for 42.5 per cent of new owner-occupier loans, which is above the 10-year average.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12:10 to 12:24

First home buyers now account for 42.5 per cent of new home occupier loans, above the 10-year average of around 30 per cent. The Morrison government is truly committed to helping more Australians get into a home of their own sooner. The First Home Loan Deposit Scheme is another mechanism we have leveraged. It was accessed by almost 20,000 first home buyers in 2020, with over 15,000 of those applications settled. An extension of this scheme supports the one million Australians engaged in the construction sector, at a time when the economy needs it most.

The huge demand for new homes in the Toowoomba region is also creating jobs for young people, with local construction firms expanding their teams. In my electorate, we've seen 846 apprentices registered through the Morrison government's $1.2 billion wage subsidy program. This program enables eligible businesses to be reimbursed up to 50 per cent of an apprentice's or trainee's wage, up to $7,000 per quarter. The announcement of the extension to this program received high praise in the Toowoomba Chronicle last week, with the headline reading: 'Toowoomba apprentices, trainers welcome extension to federal government's $1.2 billion subsidy scheme'. It's a great title for an article. In the article, the CEO of Downs Group Training, Kris McCue, was quoted as saying:

I think it will create a boost to apprentice numbers, we've already seen a big increase in numbers, and we see that continuing because it's promoting confidence in the sector.

Across the nation, it's estimated this demand-driven expansion will generate around 70,000 new apprentice and trainee places, building on the almost 40,000 businesses who've taken on a new Australian apprentice or trainee since the start of the Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements program. This is the evidence that local employers are feeling confident enough to expand their teams, growing the construction skills pipeline in our region that's so important for future projects like Inland Rail.

Looking at this big picture, it's easy to see that the HomeBuilder grants have been critical in supporting the Toowoomba region's residential construction sector through COVID, easing the strain on housing availability and helping build a strong base for our overall economic recovery. (Time expired)

12:26 pm

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Small business is one of the most important aspects of our economy. I would argue it's the foundation on which our country has been built, from when our Indigenous brothers and sisters participated in small business and traded to today, when we've got young people who are designing their own gumboots, having them made here in Australia and selling them. With this weather, I hope it's going gangbusters.

The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman tells us that small business employs a whopping 44 per cent of our workforce—44 per cent!—and contributes around 35 per cent of total GDP. It's no wonder, then, that we rely so much on the hard work and enterprise that goes into starting, developing and growing small businesses, not to mention the risk that people take—often mortgaging their homes or asking parents and friends to go guarantor for a business. They're the lifeblood of our national economy and our local economies, too.

It shouldn't need pointing out, then, that the scourge of COVID has hit our small communities and our small businesses for six. No electorate has been exempted from the financial destruction that the pandemic has wrought. For those fortunate enough to still have regular employment, the shock is still felt, and in my own electorate of Paterson, I've had many discussions with business owners who are facing the very real threat of ruin, if they hadn't already had that happen.

Michelle Chrimes is a travel agent in my electorate. Her business has plummeted because of COVID. Her business relies on bookings for international travellers, and it's obvious that restrictions on national borders have decimated her income. Michelle was eligible for JobKeeper, and that has been a great help. Unfortunately, she's not eligible for the consumer travel support program. She cites issues in definitions around eligibility criteria as impeding her claim, an issue which anecdotally she says is being experienced by many others in her situation. Again, red tape is making it difficult when it should be an easier process.

While we should give credit where it's due in relation to the JobKeeper program, we must also identify the shortcomings. It came later than it should have, after we, Labor, dragged the government to the table, and now it's being extinguished sooner than it should be, while we plead to the government to keep it going. Claims of JobKeeper being rorted by the bigger players are rife, and this government refuses to acknowledge the fact or act. As with bushfire assistance funding, the announcements for funding are made but badly delivered—critically, if delivered at all. I hope we don't see this with the flooding that now is wreaking havoc right across New South Wales and into South-East Queensland.

We now have a package for the aviation sector. Once again, this is welcome news. I've met with and support the aviation sector in my own electorate and appreciate the benefit that it brings to the Paterson economy. What we need from this government, however, is a comprehensive and understandable approach that can be effectively rolled out in a reasonable time. What we have instead is a government reacting rather than planning and, basically, picking winners, rather than doing it in a considered and fair way. They receive pressure from industry and then they make a snap decision on the run. I sincerely hope we are seeing the light at the end of the COVID tunnel, but we are a way off yet. It's too soon to pull the rug out from the small business economy.

We need a national governmental approach that recognises that all Australians need assistance. We shouldn't leave out universities and councils, and we shouldn't implement assistance schemes that hardly anyone understands and that are funded yet made no use of. That's the criminality of this; it's just a crying shame that the assistance is there but it is so difficult for people to make use of. It should be easy. We should have systems in place that help people. If the money is there, it should be spent and it should be spent on small business—getting it supported and up and running as soon as it can be.

For a government that boasts about being the partner to business and the economy, believe me when I say that I would welcome them showing some form in that department, because, so far, they have left too many behind, and we're seeing it again with the rollout of the vaccine. It's there but is not being implemented by this government well enough. Our small business community, like our GPs and their receptionists—if you're a GP receptionist, I feel sorry for you. Keep up the good work, but you do need a government to back you in properly.

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

The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.