Senate debates

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Bills

Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020, Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus (Measures No. 2) Bill 2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 5) 2019-2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 6) 2019-2020; Second Reading

5:12 pm

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important legislation today. This package of bills forming the government's third economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic is largely built around the $130 billion JobKeeper payment. To begin with, I'd like to acknowledge those workers who are keeping the place going—frontline workers providing the health response, workers in our supermarkets, tradies, cleaners, garbage collectors, truckies and public servants right around the country in both state and territory and federal governments who are all turning up to work every day to keep the rest of us at home or at home as much as we can be.

It's very clear that in just four short months COVID-19 has really changed the world as we knew it and as we all understood it and how it operated. I don't think anyone could have predicted the virus, the extent of the virus, the challenges presented by the virus, or, indeed, the impacts it's having on the global economy, on individual countries, on individual cities and on all of us and our families. It's changed the way we live, the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we shop and the way we educate our children. So many of the things we thought were fixed and immovable have been upended and thrown into a world of uncertainty, and for some—way too many—with devastating consequences. The lines outside Centrelink, the calls to our offices, the emails and letters coming in outlining individual circumstances for individual businesses, local businesses, long-term businesses, all tell the stories of the economic reality of what happens when a busy, thriving economy is changed in just a few days. It is for these people that we are here today.

COVID-19 touches all of us, not only in our jobs but personally—talking to the children about why they can't go to school and why they can't see their friends and family, and not being able to answer the questions that children most need us to, which are: 'When is it going to be back to normal?' and 'When will things get better?' None of us can answer those questions at this point in time other than to reassure that we know it will be one day.

My sister, who I'm very proud of every day anyway, rises every morning to her job as the senior nurse on the ward that cares for COVID-19 patients. For 30 years she has tirelessly cared for people, often in the background but with dedication and professionalism, and today she finds herself right on the front line. You really can't get any closer than she is, providing care and compassion to those who fall sick and are hospitalised from this awful virus. She won't see her adult children or her grandchild or really any of us for some time, as she keeps herself away to ensure that the rest of us are safe. She and her colleagues are the bravest of the brave, and their fearlessness and dedication to their profession provides instruction to all of us. It is for my sister and her colleagues all around the country that we are here today. Compared to those on the front line, we have a relatively straightforward job to do here.

We must pass these bills to support the economic response to COVID-19, just as we have with the previous packages. We will raise our concerns with aspects of the government's response, and we will move second reading amendments about those issues which we have raised publicly and on which the government, at this stage, has refused to budge. But we will not block these bills—despite them not being perfect and not being exactly as we would have designed them in government—because six million workers and their families are relying on us doing the right thing today.

This third response brings the total financial support provided as part of the economic response to COVID-19 to over $300 billion. Throughout this time, over the last couple of months, Labor's priority has been to ensure we support the economy; protect jobs; help Australian workers, businesses, families and communities through this difficult time; and ensure that vulnerable Australians are supported. We have been supportive of the government measures and we have been working constructively in a bipartisan manner. This is the same when it comes to the JobKeeper payment before us today. We'll be ensuring that it passes through the parliament today, because a wage subsidy was something that Labor had called for the government to introduce. In fact, I think last time we were here, when we were debating the second economic response package, we were calling on the government to consider a wage subsidy to make sure that employers were in a position to retain workers.

The JobKeeper payment will provide $1,500 per fortnight for every eligible employee. These employees have to be full time, part time or casuals employed on a regular and systemic basis for more than 12 months as at 1 March 2020 and be at least 16 years old. They also have to be an Australian citizen, a holder of a permanent visa or a special category subclass 444 visa holder as at 1 March 2020. Employers, including not-for-profits, will be eligible for the subsidy if their turnover has fallen, or will likely fall, by 30 per cent or more, for businesses with an annual turnover of less than $1 billion, or by 50 per cent for those with a turnover of over $1 billion and not subject to the bank levy. There's a carve-out for charities where they only have to show a turnover reduction of 15 per cent.

The legislation before us sets out the mechanism by which the Australian Taxation Office can administer the JobKeeper payment program. Rules will be made by the Treasurer, setting out eligibility details and details of the administration of the program. The fact that these details are in rules means that there is significant flexibility regarding how the program will operate into the future, and the Treasurer is able to widen eligibility as required. The tax commissioner will also have significant discretion in the administration of the program and will publish detailed guidance for businesses, including how to self-assess a reduction in turnover, how alternative tests may be applied to assess eligibility and how consolidated groups of companies can independently assess isolated entities.

It must be made clear that our support for the JobKeeper payment does not change the fact that Labor has concerns with the measures—namely with the groups of people who will miss out on the valuable support offered through this program. And we're not talking about a small cohort either. One point one million casual workers will be left out because they've worked for their current employer for less than a year. This includes a large number of casual teachers, many of whom have been reaching out to their MPs over the last couple of weeks; temporary migrant workers who are not eligible for JobKeeper, jobseeker payment or the coronavirus supplement; local government workers who have been stood down; and charities, who, while the government did act recently to lower the turnover reduction threshold to 15 per cent, may still miss out because of the grants they receive. Disability service providers may miss out, as may universities and non-government schools, as my colleague the member for Sydney outlined in the other place today. Many of my colleagues in this place and the other place have been inundated with correspondence from people concerned about how their individual circumstance may mean that they miss out on the JobKeeper payment.

Whilst we will be raising these issues in our second reading amendments—and they have, of course, been raised in the other place prior to this debate—we do acknowledge that there is significant flexibility provided to the Treasurer to widen eligibility for the JobKeeper payment, and indeed the Treasurer himself acknowledged that in question time today. We know—and all of those out there who are doing it really tough and falling between the gaps know—that there is nothing preventing the Treasurer and government from providing JobKeeper to these groups other than their current refusal to do so. They could act and ensure that more jobs are protected. We know the Prime Minister has said that all jobs are essential jobs. This gives them the opportunity to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, because this would ensure that more people are brought into a scheme that protects more jobs.

These concerns that I have raised, and that my colleagues will raise in the second reading debate, add to the issues that we have about the government's economic response in general, which include the issue of residential renters; the early release of funds from superannuation accounts, which we believe risks undermining retirement incomes and should have only been used as a last resort, not the first stop; and the speed and urgency with which the economic support is going out.

But as our leader, Mr Albanese, has said today in the other place, despite our concerns, we will deal with this legislation today. We will not engage in a situation where the legislation could get blocked between chambers. That is not an option. The six million people who are waiting for this wage subsidy and the businesses that employ them require us to pass this legislation today. Unfortunately, our amendments did not succeed in the House, and the government have shown in a very clear and concrete way that they are not prepared to support the reasonable amendments that we put forward. As such, it's very clear that, if we were to pass amendments in this chamber, they would return to the House and we would get ourselves in a situation which I don't think the Australian people looking on us today would expect us to engage in. They want their parliament to act in their interests and the interests of all of those people who have been affected. We've done that with the first and second package, and we will do that with the third.

I move the second reading amendment that has been circulated in my name:

At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:

(a) notes that this legislation gives the Treasurer extraordinary powers to include those not currently eligible for the JobKeeper Payment; and

(b) calls on the Treasurer to use his power under this legislation to ensure more jobs are protected and that struggling, otherwise viable businesses and organisations are able to access the JobKeeper Payment".

This amendment goes to the extraordinary powers that the Treasurer has been given to essentially set the rules on eligibility for the JobKeeper payment and calls on the Treasurer to use this power under the legislation to ensure more jobs are protected and that struggling but otherwise viable businesses and organisations are able to access the JobKeeper payment. The power is there; the capacity is there. At the moment the will is not there, but we urge the Treasurer and the government to use this power and to ensure that more people are offered the support that they are after.

I would just like to make a couple of comments around the appropriation bills, which we support as part of this package. We do think it's important that the supplementation is provided for agencies that have been inundated and those that have lost revenue and are providing a high level of quality service to the people of Australia through the departments. Today the bills seek to appropriate about $650-odd million across a range of departments that are being affected one way or another by the coronavirus and indeed other important payments to the non-government sector to respond to issues of increased demand around domestic violence and food bank programs. We do support those. Also, with the $40 billion advance to the finance minister provision, we accept the government's point that it may need access to those funds earlier than what would normally be available through the financial year and that this access to those funds should be made available from an earlier date—I think from April. We believe that is a sensible approach, and we support the government's amendment to allow that to happen with the conditions that have been placed on that from the last debate, which are working well.

In conclusion, I think the job for us today is very clear. Whilst this scheme is not perfect, it is a big deal. It is something that we had called for, and we are pleased that the government has responded in this way. There are too many people with uncertain futures. There are too many businesses worried about how to get through the next few months. And this parliament, through the passage of this legislation today, can offer them a bit of light in what has been a very difficult and challenging time. Perhaps this is the most important job we'll do for a little while. It is important, and we need to stand up to the challenge, because workers right around this country are doing that every day. As the world has changed, our lives have changed. Restrictions have come in, and we need to play our bit there too. The sooner we can deal with this, the sooner we can get back to our constituents and start dealing with the very real day-to-day problems that many people are having and encourage everyone to stay home, to stay safe, and to keep other people safe.

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