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

5:42 pm

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

We're here today to help save Australian jobs, to save Australian households and families, to save the Australian economy and the Australian community. Today is not about catchy names or slogans; it's not about political pointscoring or personal backslapping. Today, just like nurses and police, childcare workers and supermarket workers, we're just doing our jobs so that Australians can keep theirs.

Labor supports this JobKeeper legislation because it is the right thing to do. JobKeeper is a wage subsidy. It's a policy that Labor, the union movement, the business sector and many groups in our society argued for long before the government took action. If it weren't for those who called for a wage subsidy for Australian workers, we would not be here today. When asked about a wage subsidy on Sky News on 27 March, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Cormann, ruled it out. Now, just 12 days later, we are legislating a wage subsidy to keep Australians employed. We are pleased that the government have listened. They have worked co-operatively with the trade union movement. They have listened to the business community. They have listened to the pleas of millions of Australians who are losing their jobs. Our intention throughout this crisis has always been to work constructively with the government, to highlight emerging issues and, where possible, suggest solutions.

The JobKeeper payment will see a flat wage subsidy of $1,500 a fortnight for six months for employees of businesses that have had a significant revenue downturn. Labor's priority is to protect jobs; to help Australian workers, businesses and families through this difficult time; and to ensure that vulnerable Australians are supported. That's why we will support this legislation and facilitate its passage through the parliament today. We say to Australians: we are on your side because we are all in this fight together.

Now, Labor will continue to be supportive, constructive and responsible throughout this crisis when it comes to addressing both the health and the economic responses. Where Labor have had concerns we have raised them. We have raised them today about charities, about local government workers, about university workers, about casual workers who have been with their employer for less than 12 months and about temporary visa holders. Indeed, Labor in the other place, in the House of Representatives, moved a substantive motion seeking to have these workers incorporated in the JobKeeper program. The government voted against that amendment. The government deliberately voted against our amendment to keep those workers in the JobKeeper program.

I say to those on the crossbench who are going to move amendments later: I understand your desire to do so, but understand this: you are engaging in an exercise in futility with a government that has already made its position crystal clear. It will not support those amendments. We want to see the JobKeeper legislation, which will see some six million Australian workers get the direct wage subsidy that they desperately need, the certainty that they need, delivered as soon as possible. We cannot risk engaging in some kind of repetitive bounce-back around the chambers with a government that has already made clear that it will not support these amendments.

I want to turn in my capacity as shadow minister for home affairs, immigration and citizenship to the issue of temporary visa holders. Let me say up-front that I actually agree with the Prime Minister when he says that temporary visa holders in Australia should go home during this health crisis. He is right. I'm sure many of those temporary visa holders would like to go home during this crisis. The reality is that many of the 1.6 million visa holders in Australia—I dare say most of them—are not able to go home right now. They are not able to go home because borders have been closed. They are not able to go home because international airlines have been shut down. So the reality is most temporary visa holders are now stuck here in Australia. No matter how often the Prime Minister says they should go home, the reality is most of them simply cannot. That means that they are here in Australia for the duration of this health crisis.

Yesterday I had a Zoom call with migrants living in Australia on temporary visas. These are people who have jobs or who have recently lost jobs because of the coronavirus crisis. One of them said to me that they feel like they are currently living through the certainty of the uncertainty. Well, that's what we're all living through right now. We are all facing this crisis together. I want to acknowledge that, of the 1.6 million visa holders—that figure includes New Zealanders—the government has, through this package, given 444 visa holders, people from New Zealand, access to JobKeeper. I thank them for that. It is a position Labor has been advocating. But, regardless of where visa holders come from or what visa they might be on, these people are members of our community. They're our neighbours, our co-workers, our friends. These people are like you and I. They work hard, they pay taxes, they are building lives and relationships here in Australia, but 1.1 million of them are not eligible for JobKeeper payments.

Many of these people will have been in Australia for years. Some of them will have built their own businesses. The reality is this virus is not going to check anyone's visa status before it infects them. All of us in the country are vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. A survey undertaken by Unions NSW of over 5,000 respondents showed that 70 per cent of temporary migrants in Australia are now unemployed as a direct impact of COVID-19. One in two temporary migrants are currently living off savings but expect these to run out within a matter of weeks. A staggering 43 per cent of temporary migrants are already skipping meals on a regular basis, while 98.7 per cent of temporary migrants receive no form of government support, and only 1.5 per cent had accessed support from a charity.

We acknowledge the government has also listened to another of Labor's requests—that is, to give temporary visa holders early access to their superannuation. I acknowledge in the chamber here that Senator Hume, the assistant minister for superannuation, has made this change. It's a position that Stephen Jones, my colleague in the other place, had been advocating. This is not a position Labor would normally advocate for—early access to super—but, given the large number of people on temporary visas in Australia and the absence of other support, this is a fair and equitable proposition. But, despite these small steps, this is not enough. If the 1.1 million visa holders in Australia who don't have access to JobKeeper—who don't have access to jobseeker either—are not able to access any form of income support, they're going to be forced to keep working or keep seeking work. They risk homelessness. They risk impoverishment. If they cannot self-isolate, that puts every public health measure we are currently enacting at risk. It is no good for the Australian community to be practising self-isolation if we have over a million people living in the country who cannot self-isolate because they lack income support or access to medical testing or treatment. We risk prolonging this crisis if we ignore what is happening to over a million people currently living in this community.

Today's legislation does give the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, broad discretion to expand JobKeeper to other classes of workers by regulation. And I would say this to the Treasurer: it is in our national interest for you to do this. It is in our public health interest for you to expand JobKeeper to temporary migrant workers. The Treasurer will be able to, with a stroke of his pen, make this change. We don't have to recall parliament; we don't have to have another piece of legislation passed. This discretionary power is similar to the one that was given to the minister for social services, Anne Ruston, at the last sitting of parliament when it came to jobseeker payments. She is able, with a stroke of her pen, to incorporate temporary visa holders into the social services system. Following the passage of this legislation today, the only two people standing in the way of temporary visa holders being able to access income support and social services support are the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and the minister for social services, Anne Ruston. They have been given extraordinary powers by this parliament in this extraordinary and unprecedented crisis, and we encourage them for the sake of Australia's national interest to use those powers.

Migrants, both newly arrived and permanently settled, have stepped up to support the broader Australian community during this crisis. Colombo Social, a Sri Lankan restaurant in Newtown in my state of New South Wales, provides employment for asylum seekers and supports their integration into Australia. The restaurant, of course, is now closed, but they're keeping the kitchen open to help feed vulnerable communities in Sydney, providing up to 2,000 meals a day free of charge. I've seen the Sikh community—Turbans 4 Australia they call themselves—on the streets of our capital, delivering hot meals and hampers. As the immigration minister himself said on the weekend, there are 8,000 skilled medical professionals on temporary visas, helping fight the coronavirus on the frontline. This includes thousands of international student nurses on visas, as well as nurses on working holiday-maker visas, who've had their visa requirements relaxed by the government so they can work as nurses after Labor called for this to happen.

The irony here is almost grotesque, though. We have thousands of temporary migrants working on the front line of our health system to keep Australians as safe and well as possible during this COVID-19 crisis. But if those very same temporary migrant workers fell sick themselves, what kind of support would they get from Australia? Would they get income support to self-isolate? Would they get access to Medicare, medical assessment and treatment? It is grotesque to consider the fact that we are relying on temporary migrant workers to help us through this crisis but we are not giving them the support that they need to be part of our community and to be included in the measures we are all taking—the extraordinary measures—to keep our community and our economy safe.

Like so many actions by this government, we have been frustrated that they failed to have a comprehensive plan to manage the return to this country of those Australians who are stranded overseas, as well as to assist temporary migrants to depart. My colleague Senator Wong has been encouraging the government to deploy Qantas and Virgin to bring Australians stuck overseas back home. I wrote to the minister for immigration on 20 March to say: 'What a good idea. Why don't you use the outbound legs of those flights to help temporary migrants have affordable options to depart Australia before the brunt of this crisis hits us?' Regrettably, the government has chosen to bury its head in the sand.

The Prime Minister, the Minister for Home Affairs and indeed the minister for social services in this chamber today can cry out all they like that temporary visa migrants can go home but, when international borders are closed and there are no international airline flights, to tell them to go home is simply futile. The reality is many of the 1.6 million temporary visa holders in Australia are trapped here. Putting in place a plan to help temporary migrants depart Australia should not be beyond the government. Rescuing Australian citizens trapped overseas should not either. And supporting those people who are trapped here to keep Australia's public health as safe as possible should be a sensible measure this government takes up.

I'll conclude on this point: just as Labor is committing to helping all Australians, we're committed to scrutinising the government's response to the COVID-19 crisis. We will do that in the newly established Senate select committee chaired by Senator Gallagher to ensure that all Australians are being protected during this crisis—indeed, that all people in Australia are being protected during this crisis. I look forward to being a member of the committee and working with my colleagues, the crossbench and the members opposite alike.

We're here today because this crisis has ground our economy, our community and our way of life to a halt. Australians are resilient, but at times they look to their government, they look to their parliament, for help. This is exactly what this package does. The measure of a society is how it treats the most vulnerable in its community. This package, while it is flawed, will help millions of Australians who are incredibly vulnerable right now. Labor is very pleased that the government has taken up the recommendation to have a direct wage subsidy. This is a significant moment in Australian history. It's a significant move by this government, and we acknowledge it. It comes after significant lobbying by the Australian trade union movement, the Labor Party, the business community and civil society, and we're pleased the government have listened.

We will continue to work together to fight through this health and economic crisis as Australians, because the livelihood and the lives of all Australians depend upon it. As I conclude, I foreshadow I will be moving the second reading amendment circulated in my name.


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