Senate debates

Wednesday, 8 April 2020


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

5:27 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the package of coronavirus bills that have come before us today. This is not an easy time for anyone. I'd again like to acknowledge and commend the immense efforts of our nurses, our doctors, our paramedics, our cleaners, our pharmacists, our aged-care workers and our supermarket staff—all of those who are helping us get through this most challenging time. We recognise the immense risk that healthcare workers in particular are taking to save others, and we will be pushing to make sure that they've got the personal protective equipment and the ICU beds that they need to tackle this crisis. We'll be proposing changes to allow healthcare workers to access workers compensation if they test positive for coronavirus, without having to prove that they contracted it at work.

Our hearts go out to all those who have lost loved ones, to people who have the virus and to those who have family members or friends who are unwell. To families and friends who are separated by isolation and those who are struggling without the social interactions that usually sustain them—again, we are thinking of you and we are you. In these uncertain times, the financial difficulties and anxiety continue to put a strain on support services. So I'd like to acknowledge the social workers, the mental health support teams, the frontline domestic and family violence workers, the child support agencies and others who are working tirelessly to keep people safe in this pressure-cooker environment. Experience in other countries shows that these services, sadly, can expect to be stretched for many months to come. And whilst I welcome the announcements made to date for increased family violence crisis accommodation, support for referral services and a funding reprieve for the crucial WESNET safe phones program, it's still not enough to meet increased demand and keep everybody safe from family and domestic violence. I urge the government to provide the significant extra funding that's needed to allow frontline family violence services to actually keep up with demand and make sure no-one is turned away.

The Greens also acknowledge teachers, who've borne the brunt of policy uncertainty for weeks and who'll spend their Easter break working on ways to deliver classes remotely in term 2, often whilst homeschooling their own children at the same time. We acknowledge the early childhood education workers, who have been at the forefront of our collective response to this pandemic.

This crisis has highlighted the essential link between accessible and free child care and workforce participation, and the Greens will push for child care to remain free once this pandemic has concluded. But we also recognise that the risks to those workers are immense, and we will continue to insist that early childhood teachers have options to protect their health and have access to appropriate personal protective equipment.

The Greens would also like to acknowledge the millions of parents who are struggling to work from home whilst homeschooling their kids and mediating between warring siblings trapped indoors, caring for elderly relatives and negotiating changes to shared care arrangements whilst maintaining their own mental health.

As the Greens spokesperson on women and a proud feminist, I would also like to reiterate my colleague Senator Faruqi's observation at the last parliamentary sitting that this is also a gendered crisis. Women are disproportionately represented in the frontline roles needed to respond to this crisis. Eighty per cent of our healthcare workers are women, 70 per cent of pathology services are provided by women, and the majority of teachers, carers, cleaners and social service providers are women.

Women are disproportionately represented in the short-term casual roles that are currently ineligible for the JobKeeper support, especially those in the hospitality, healthcare and retail sectors. They are also disproportionately at risk of domestic and family violence whilst in isolation with an abusive partner, and women will, sadly, also bear a disproportionate load of the caring required to see us through this crisis.

We will be proposing amendments today that address some of those issues, but as a society we have a lot to do to address this gender imbalance in the future. After a summer of bushfires and now a pandemic, it's clearer than ever that Australians are all in this together, and we need to support each other.

On transparency, I want to touch on the importance of democratic institutions in a crisis. Some decisions need to be made efficiently, and decisive actions need to be taken in an emergency, but the scale of this crisis and the response that's required means we need more transparency and not less. We need more oversight and more debate to make sure that we're making public health decisions that are informed by the best expert health advice and to make sure that we're targeting funds to those who need them the most. This can make sure we come out the other side of this crisis in the strongest, fairest and most equitable and sustainable position possible.

The Greens support the oversight committee that was established earlier today, although we are disappointed that our amendments, which would have allowed the Prime Minister and ministers in the other place to be called, were not supported. But we also believe that parliament should continue to sit during this crisis, and we've called on the government to find ways to make that happen.

Critically, given the limited oversight that's available outside of parliament, we must make sure that any regulatory actions enabled by these bills are strictly confined, and I'll be moving an amendment to restrict the rule-making powers given to relevant ministers.

The country's response to this crisis will be judged on how well we managed the health risks but also on how well we helped those who needed help to survive in this difficult period. Whilst we welcome the increase in Newstart, now called jobseeker allowance—something which my colleague Senator Siewert has been championing for 10 years and which we probably wouldn't have seen happen without the efforts of her and the sector—we will be fighting to make that increase permanent once this pandemic is over.

From the outset of this pandemic, we have said that a wage subsidy was the most equitable way to offer security to the people who are most affected, and we're pleased that the government has finally come around and supported this intent behind the JobKeeper scheme. But we are concerned that those schemes still fail to cover a number of critical and vulnerable sectors of our society: casual workers, migrant workers and international students, and people receiving the disability support payment and the carer payment. So my colleagues and I will be proposing a number of amendments to plug those holes in the safety net and make sure that no-one is left behind.

On casual workers, every job that we're able to keep through this crisis is a job we don't have to re-create when we get through the other side. When large-scale events were first being shut down, the arts and hospitality industries were the first to ring the alarm bells. They warned that this crisis wouldn't put just their jobs in jeopardy but would risk the stability of their entire industry. Festivals, concerts, music halls and theatre productions have been shut for weeks. These closures have pushed arts workers to the brink, but, despite being some of the worst off, they're getting nothing from today's package.

We've heard from a flood of people that have been working in the service industry for years but have been shut out of the support because they've recently moved jobs. By limiting the jobseeker and JobKeeper payments to people who've worked for their current employer for more than a year, the government has shown they don't understand the modern workforce. If they'd spoken to young people or people who work in hospitality or arts or the tourism industry, they'd know that many industries rely on seasonal and irregular work. Bartenders, tour guides and even teachers are now expected to move through several workplaces and are just as important to the success of a workplace whether they've been there for two months or two years. The arts, hospitality and tourism sectors have high levels of seasonal unemployment, and this package has done nothing for them. My colleague will be moving an amendment to address that and we hope to receive support, although sadly we are not expecting that to occur. Last time we were here, the government made a mistake by refusing to accept the Greens amendments to include wage and job guarantees in their stimulus legislation. We acknowledge that they have now redressed that, but today they are making a mistake by leaving over one million casual workers behind.

On temporary visas, over a million people have chosen to make Australia home, helping make our country stronger by contributing their skills and paying taxes here. They've been contributing like any other person here, but, when they've needed help, this government has turned its back on them. Many work in sectors that are essential to our survival during this time: health, aged and disability care, agriculture and child care.

The government has made changes to visa arrangements in order to gather a workforce to help our farmers, acknowledging that these visa holders fill a critical workforce gap. Despite this, the government refuses to extend eligibility for JobKeeper to them. Many of these folk are also ineligible for Medicare, and that is a very scary thought during a global pandemic. How does the government think these people will get by? They aren't eligible for any support for being out of work, they can't get any support to stay in work, they've got bills piling up and, with international flights being cancelled across the board, many will find it difficult or impossible to go back home. This isn't just a betrayal of the workers who put their faith in Australia; it's a betrayal of the businesses that choose to employ them. If an employer has chosen to employ migrant workers, today the government is punishing them for that decision. This will particularly harm the service and hospitality industries.

Universities have also been left out in the cold. Many universities these days rely on a casualised workforce. They are trying their best to get through this crisis but they've been hit for years by declining government funding. They've had their enrolment numbers hit hard through bans on international travel and they're now being told by the government that their employees aren't worth keeping on. What an insult. Universities are incredibly important and should be protected. They taught the scientists who are working around the clock to find a vaccine and save people's lives. And they're not only places of learning but also play a massive role in our communities. Think of the important community radio stations that are run out of universities, of the fact-checking units that keep us all accountable, and the contributions that they make to local business and community programs. These institutions will provide vital recovery opportunities from this crisis. We're going to need highly skilled workers to pull us out of this recession, and without universities we're going to find it a lot tougher to find them.

Under the JobKeeper scheme, charities are only eligible for the subsidy if they estimate that their turnover has fallen by 15 per cent relative to a comparable period. And while this helps some charities, those that rely on large government grants won't be able to demonstrate the 15 per cent decline in revenue if tied grants are included. That's why my colleague will be moving an amendment to address that.

Now, on to disability support payments and carers. The COVID-19 supplement has been a welcome relief for many recipients of income support, but two key groups continue to miss out—carers and those on disability support pensions—and yet the living costs that they face are higher in these self-isolation days. Instead of the extra $550 a fortnight that has allowed so many Australians to be pulled from poverty, many carers and DSP recipients are still living with the threat of eviction, hunger and worrying about keeping the lights on. The Minister for Families and Social Services was given extraordinary powers in the last sitting of parliament to extend the supplement to other categories of income support recipients. With the stroke of a pen she could help DSP recipients and carers survive this crisis, and the Greens urge her to do just that.

On renters, housing is a human right. Keeping a roof over people's heads during this crisis is surely the most fundamental thing that we could do. The government can't tell people to stay at home, but it looks the other way when this crisis puts people in a financial situation so tenuous that they don't know if they can pay the rent. The Greens have heard from so many people who've been threatened with eviction by their landlord in the same week that they've also lost their job. We've also heard stories of landlords who've reduced or waived rents, and we commend that, but leaving it to the goodwill of individual landlords is not enough. National cabinet met yesterday and again failed to come up with a national plan to support tenants. We've had broad aspirational statements but no legislation from this government. We need a solution. Our Greens' colleagues in several state parliaments have secured temporary bans on eviction to give tenants security during this crisis. That's fantastic, but we need a national eviction ban and we need rent holidays for tenants who are struggling to meet payments during this crisis.

This crisis has highlighted the extent to which Australia's safety net has been picked away at for 30 years. We've decimated the public health system and the social security system, we've become over-reliant on so-called corporate responsibility, and we've hollowed out the manufacturing sector. That means we weren't as well set up to face this crisis as we could and should have been. In just a few short weeks we've seen the beginnings of a stimulus that could set us up for better things and play to our collective strengths. We've seen the importance of a strong social safety net, and it's my hope that the structures that we are rapidly rebuilding in this crisis will be retained. It's a chance to think how we want this country to go forward, and hope to dream for a better future. We are all in this together, so let's not leave anyone behind.

I will be moving the Australian Greens second reading amendment on sheet 8950, which has been circulated in the chamber in my name. This amendment would ensure that all casuals, people on temporary visas, those in the gig economy and those in universities and charities can fully access JobKeeper. I want to flag that we've heard some statements by the government that they won't be countenancing any amendments. Well, shame on them. That is the job of this parliament: to scrutinise this legislation, to seek to improve it, to make sure that no-one is left behind. That is precisely what the Greens' amendments will be doing today, and we urge folk in the chamber to give them serious consideration and to act on them—if not today, then at least to use those discretionary powers which various ministers have been granted under these laws to close those gaps, to genuinely not leave anyone behind. If we are indeed all in this together, then that's the least we can do.


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