Senate debates

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Motions

Pensions and Benefits

4:25 pm

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to rise and speak on this motion, which comes at a time when so many Australians are in shock following the devastating black summer bushfires. As we know, 33 people tragically died, including a number of firefighters; 2,900 homes have been lost; an estimated one billion animals have died, which is overwhelming in its scale; and an estimated 10.4 million hectares have been lost. I want to thank Senator Siewert for bringing this motion to the parliament, because I know it comes from a good place in Senator Siewert's heart. I hope that what Australians have been able to see in the Morrison government's response is that we too have made our decisions, in the way we've responded, with our hearts. We know how devastating these bushfires have been for so many families.

The Morrison Liberal government has been focused on the immediate relief we need to get to the people on the ground. We've also been holding a number of roundtables with each key sector to ensure that we're planning for the recovery effort in the weeks, the months and the years ahead. As the Prime Minister has highlighted, our actions are part of our initial support, but he has said this, and I want to stress this to the Senate: we will do whatever it takes to support the communities and businesses hit by the fires, and if we need to do more we will. This is not set and forget.

On some of the individual cases which Senator Siewert and other senators have raised in this place, or members have raised in the other place, can I please ask those senators and members to bring the cases to the government because, if people are falling through the cracks because of particular individual circumstances, we need to know about it so we can consider particular circumstances and respond appropriately.

In respect of this motion, I'm a bit disappointed that the Greens have put up this motion without acknowledging the very broad range of support, investment and work that we are doing. I will make reference to that in a minute. I first of all want to go through the payments and how they work, because it is quite complex and, of course, there are some differences, depending on which state people are in. Under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements, there's what's called a category A payment. That covers the personal hardship allowance. This differs, as I mentioned, in different states. The Commonwealth and the states actually share the cost of this payment. The states determine when this is activated. This has already been activated in various locations in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia. In Victoria, for instance, it's $540 for an adult and $270 for a child to a maximum of $1,890.

Then there's another payment: the Australian government disaster recovery payment. That's the one referred to in the motion. That's $1,000 per eligible adult and $400 per eligible child. We've just doubled that payment for children to $800. I know Senator Siewert proposed $1,000, so we're quite close in terms of the payment to children. This is a one-off, non-means-tested payment when the disaster on individuals and families requires an additional response. It's completely paid for by the Commonwealth and, to date, a very large amount of money has been paid—91,000 claims have been processed since 16 September and there has been $107 million paid. Then there's another payment, the Australian government disaster recovery allowance. It provides up to 13 weeks of income support to subsidise lost income. We're also going about simplifying the application process.

So, while we can't be definitive, because there are different payments under category A in different states, in very rough terms—and I'm looking particularly at the Victorian rates—a family of five, made up of two adults and three children, can receive up to $1,890 under category A, $4,400 under the disaster recovery payment and 13 weeks of income under the disaster recovery allowance for each working adult where they lost income. That's $1,000 a fortnight for a couple and $7,000 in total. So the total support is $13,300, which, of course, is substantial and is a lot more than is referred to in the motion that Senator Siewert has brought to the Senate today.

The range of support that the government is providing is unprecedented, and I say that because I have lived and breathed working with my community in the wake of the Wye River and Separation Creek bushfires, where 116 homes were lost. Thank God no lives were lost, but it was a very long journey, a very long road. I worked with many families, including to hold one insurance company in particular—AAMI, which is owned by Suncorp—to account. That particular case ended up in the royal commission because of the horrendous manner in which that insurance company treated a number of families. They were proposing to essentially rip off families. We took that to the minister and the parliament and, through a lot of advocacy and support from the relevant minister, we were able to rectify that terrible injustice. So I have lived and breathed this myself. I know how challenging this is. As we all know, this is going to be a very long road.

The Australian Defence Force have been assisting since the start of the season in September. There has been the compulsory call-out of reservists. More than 6,500 personnel have been deployed, and that has been very substantial in terms of support on the ground. The government is now paying volunteer firefighters up to $300 per day for lost income, with a total amount of $6,000 available. There are recovery grants of up to $75,000 to primary producers and farmers, and the initial estimate in terms of what the government will spend is $100 million. So it is very substantial additional support for our wonderful farmers and primary producers. We know how much they have suffered in these fires.

There are also $50,000 grants to affected businesses, loans of up to $500,000 with deferred repayments and concessional rates, and some support provided with a single point of contact in a new hotline and 10 new financial counsellors. We've also made the decision to delay tax filing requirements.

A very substantial announcement by our government is the $2 billion national bushfire recovery fund. We made a number of announcements under that fund. Two billion dollars is an incredible amount of money. The National Bushfire Recovery Agency has been established, led by former AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin. There's $60 million to support severely impacted local councils, $76 million for mental health and $50 million—a down payment, with more to come—to protect our wildlife, which we know has been devastated. There is $40 million being paid to charities to enable them to provide direct assistance on the ground by way of food, fuel and cash; $10 million for expanded financial counselling; $15 million for rural financial counsellors; and $8 million for mental health support to fund an extra 25 Beyond Blue liaison officers and clinicians to support local schools and early childhood services.

There's increased resources for the National Aerial Firefighting Centre and water-bombing aircraft—$20 million on top of the $11 million announced in December—and of course our annual budgeted amount of $14.9 million. There is also an additional commitment of $100 million to help the states clean up bushfire damaged buildings—that's a huge cost in terms of the clean-up—and an additional $76 million to rebuild the tourism industry. We have announced some grants. Businesses are able to apply for grants. We know that, not just in bushfire affected areas but more broadly, this has hit tourism oriented businesses very, very hard.

And then there's a range of other support—our mobile service teams and our dedicated National Disability Insurance Agency resources in impacted areas. There is investment in emergency communications and wi-fi. There is a deferral of tax liability for individuals and businesses. There is free passport replacement. As I mentioned earlier, we're running a number of round tables to ensure that in every sector, in every part of the economy and in every community, we are doing everything possible. We can't do this on our own. We have to do it with all of the relevant agencies, communities and stakeholders. We remain open and alive to the fact that more help may be required. I say to Senator Siewert and other senators that, if anyone is falling through the gaps, we will take this very seriously and consider people's individual circumstances. We've also made a very substantial investment in the P2 face masks—to the states and territories. There is a supply of 3.5 million masks. We know the damage bushfire smoke can do and the health risks of that.

I hope what I have presented today is an overview of what can be seen as incredibly comprehensive support to individuals, to businesses, to communities, to our firefighters and to our charities. And an enormous amount of additional money has been addressed. So many kind-hearted Australians and people from around the world have opened their wallets and their hearts and raised millions upon millions of dollars. One of the great concerns of a number of people, including some who have contacted my office, is to make sure that the money that has been raised is being spent in these communities. The Red Cross initially announced that it was going to hold back some of those moneys for other future disasters. I think that went down very badly. That has now been remedied. We don't want to see that money going to administration costs. We want to see that money very quickly getting out to where it is needed.

I also want to reference the other part of Senator Siewert's motion in relation to Newstart. I appreciate that she is very closely concerned about the rate of Newstart. We are in absolute agreement; no-one is saying it is easy to live without a job. Newstart is not a wage replacement; it comes nowhere near equating to a proper salary. It is, and was always meant to be, a safety net for people while they are looking for work. Everyone who receives Newstart is eligible for some form of additional assistance from the welfare system. A very high proportion of Newstart allowance recipients also receive other payments—whether it is family assistance payments or rent allowance. The Commonwealth spends more than $4 billion on rental assistance. For low-income people it is bloody tough—absolutely, horrendously tough. But many families who are struggling are receiving a number of support streams from the government, which does make things a bit easier.

We're working incredibly hard to grow jobs and employment opportunities right across the economy. We're providing a range of programs to encourage people into work—like our Try, Test and Learn program and individual placement support. We're now seeing the dividends of the government's hard work: 1. 5 million more jobs have been created since we were elected and our unemployment rate is 5.1 per cent. In the Geelong region, which I proudly represent as a regional senator in Victoria, we have seen the unemployment rate drop to some very substantial lows, and that is resonating very positively across the community.

The social security system, which is complemented by a range of employment services and programs, is designed to support people of working age by creating pathways to employment and giving people the incentive to go out and look for work. We will continue to look at different, innovative ways in which we can support people in finding work and get those pathways to make it as easy as possible. I want to thank Senator Siewert for bringing this motion to the parliament today. It's certainly been a great opportunity to explain in detail the support that our government is providing to bushfire affected communities in this very challenging time.

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