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

6:18 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I want to make some opening statements about how we collectively, both as a parliament and as a community, should respond together to tackle this crisis. It is critical that we are able to act swiftly, clearly and decisively to do what needs to be done to contain this epidemic and to ensure support is available to our Australian community, particularly those who need it most. But we also need to act well. We have to be both swift and smart, both quick and careful. We do not want to be cutting the wrong corners or rushing critical measures in ways that make them less effective or less inclusive.

To be very clear: this is a $130 billion package to keep around six million workers connected to employment and to make sure that those who have to be stood down are looked after and are better able to bounce back. To ensure that that happens is a very good and very important thing. Our job today is to review this legislation to make it better where necessary, to make sure that it is as effective and as inclusive as possible, and to do everything we can in the short time available to us today to improve this package to make sure that its major benefits are delivered for the health and resilience of Australians and our economy. Anything that we do to make it better is likely to have long-lasting and even lifelong impacts on the prosperity and wellbeing of Australian workers, businesses and families. We know that this is a huge effort, and it has been pulled together in a short space of time. I think that even the government must surely admit that it is unlikely that it is perfect at this point. In fact, the Australian Greens argue that it's not. Our task tonight is to identify the issues and try, please, to fix them. We need to be asking the right questions and thinking about the big picture so that we can fill in the gaps and include those currently at risk of missing out, because this package does miss out people, just as the previous package missed out people.

We want to deliver the best possible support to Australians and those noncitizens that are here in Australia during this crisis to ensure that our community is healthy and resilient and to make sure no-one is left behind, particularly those that need the support the most. I'm deeply concerned about large sections of our population who are being left behind, who are being disproportionately affected by this health and economic crisis. Disability support pensioners and those on carers allowance are facing significant extra costs at this time, driven by the crisis and their need to self-isolate. They include costs of food delivery; health care; medical supplies; personal protective equipment, PPE; transport; and utility bills. Many services that disabled people rely on are being closed or withdrawn, including access to allied health and informal supports, and the options to replace these services are extremely expensive.

I have been inundated in my office with messages from people who are trying to exist on the disability support pension and carers allowance. I'll quote a couple of the things that I have heard from people: 'I'm unable to access any PPE and am struggling to find the essentials, meaning more energy-sapping running around online. It seems all groceries are full price, with barely any specials, which is great for supermarket shareholders but not for us. Having to try and stock up one month in advance for medications, with no disposable income, is near impossible. It's demoralising not being included in the conversation about COVID-19.'

'I still have two kids to care for on my DSP payment. It's not just about me getting more money; I'm raising a family, just like those on parenting payment. Why are our children's needs different?'

'I'm paying $15 per delivery and can only purchase one or two of each item. That means no more bulk buying to save on delivery costs.'

'Treat disabled people and carers with the same level of dignity as everyone else. I am a carer with two adult sons with disabilities. We need the extra help as much as others.'

That's just a few of the hundreds of comments that we have received in my office, and I'm sure people around this chamber have received similar messages.

The higher rate of jobseeker payment compared to DSP is leading to perverse outcomes where people have been asking my office whether they should drop off DSP and apply for the jobseeker payment instead. Of course we say it's not a good idea, but I can totally understand why it is tempting for people to try and do that. Today I will be moving an amendment to provide the coronavirus supplement for DSP and carer payment recipients, in recognition of the higher costs and significant barriers to entering the workforce that they face.

I'm also particularly worried about age pensioners who are renting during this crisis. The evidence shows that older Australians who are renting experience high rates of poverty and increased risks of homelessness. The current rate of the Commonwealth rent assistance is woefully inadequate at the best of times, let alone during this crisis. We must urgently work together to come up with a solution to support older Australians experiencing rental stress and homelessness.

I now turn to the significant problems that people have been experiencing with Centrelink. We have been witnessing very significant problems over the last month. What we have been seeing is not just a product of more people needing support, although I admit that is part of it. The cause is years and years of staffing cuts, funding cuts, IT cuts, bungles, not investing when we needed to, outsourcing and privatisation. When you take money out of the service delivery, you are left with a broken system that can't support Australians in their time of need. When the myGov system constantly crashes, it causes stress to those applying for income support and hurts people who are already on income support payments. Over the last two weeks, my office has received countless messages, both by phone and online, from people who have been unable to report their income to Centrelink. A lot of people ended up receiving the whole rate of jobseeker because they were unable to report their income, and these people are very worried that they're now going to be hit with debts. I understand they won't be pursued by Centrelink, but I asked the minister for social services to guarantee these people won't receive debts. The government has extended the suspension of mutual obligation requirements until 27 April, and people are very pleased about this, but we need to make sure that they are, in fact, suspended for the whole of the duration of this crisis.

The government must prioritise the health and safety of all people on income support payments and employment service providers. It's not safe for people to be attending meetings and appointments, and I don't expect this to change over the next three weeks. At this time of great uncertainty and anxiety, people on income support deserve clarity around their responsibilities.

There are thousands of asylum seekers and refugees with no income safety net. They don't have access to Medicare, Centrelink or other critical care services. Without support, they will be exposed to the worst economic and health impacts of this crisis. In recognising this, I will be moving an amendment today to extend eligibility for the jobseeker payment to temporary visa holders within the meaning of the Migration Act 1958.

I also seek leave—which I understand both the government and opposition agree to—to table a petition from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, which has 20,528 signatures, asking for the government to include emergency measures to protect people seeking asylum and refugees.

Leave granted.

I table the petition.

I also foreshadow that I'll be moving a second reading amendment calling for support for access to the supplement. I'll be moving a second reading amendment to address the issue of people who are being left behind.

I want to address the issue of employment services, because I've just addressed the issue of mutual obligations and I want to extend that. I think there's still a critical role for employment service providers. They will play an important role during this crisis. While the JobKeeper package is an important step forward, it is likely that there will still be millions of Australians who face unemployment. Now is the time for a new approach to helping people to find and maintain connection to work. We want to see the compliance process removed from the system. Employment providers need to start providing individualised, responsive and tailored supports to people. It is time for providers to play that connecting role to support and identify emerging opportunities and to connect people, to support people through outreach and other community supports. So they still have a very important role to play.

Casuals employed for less than 12 months and part-timers are missing out through this package. They are another group that's being left behind. The rules requiring casuals to be employed for longer than 12 months will unfairly penalise people across a large cross-section of our society. Yesterday I heard from a part-pensioner who was undertaking casual work in hospitality to help pay the bills. He was recently stood down from his job, and he's not eligible for JobKeeper because he was employed for less than 12 months. Short-term casuals make up an important part of our workforce and should not be excluded from this package. I would like to draw the attention of the Senate to the COVID-19 data insight series produced by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre. They've done a series of reports, and part of the work they've done highlights that short-term casuals contribute on average over 50 per cent of total earned household income in the households which those casuals are part of. The majority of short-term casuals are employed in key industries, including food services, retail trade, health care and social assistance. They deserve our help. It is a concern that we have to date been unable to find out whether part-time workers who are on the flat rate of $750 could be forced to work additional hours by their employers. We have been seeking that information, and to date that information has not been forthcoming. I will be moving an amendment in committee of the whole on that particular issue.

I want to go to the critical role that charities play in our community, particularly during the crisis we are facing. Under the JobKeeper scheme, charities are only eligible for the subsidy if they estimate their turnover has fallen by 15 per cent or more relative to a comparable period. Many charities largely rely on government grants and contracts, which means they don't meet this threshold. This is grossly unfair, as charities are suffering major losses of income from a decline in fundraising donations and volunteer capacity. At the same time, our charities are supporting us through this crisis and experiencing an increase in demand for their services.

Businesses that are made up of sub-entities are having their revenue measured at the sub-entity level. Why can't charities also be assessed at a discrete service level—for example, child care, disability support and op shops, where they are seeing huge downturns in income? This is why I will be moving an amendment, again in committee of the whole, to ensure that the revenue test for charities excludes government grants and includes income from donations, investments and other areas. I'm also asking for charities' revenue to be assessed at the discrete service level instead of the level of the whole entity. This is absolutely critical. I acknowledge that some improvements have been made for charities in terms of the 15 per cent. But, as I said at the beginning, let's not rush this through without actually looking at the fact that you could improve this to get a much better outcome for charities. This is a crisis that we all face. We don't want to be leaving people behind.

I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge that over the last couple of weeks, whenever I have reached out to the government and to ministers, they have been responsive. I do appreciate that collaboration and cooperation to solve the problems that people are facing. But right here and now we are facing the fact that we are leaving so many people behind—those with disabilities; carers; age pensioners who are renting; age pensioners who are part-pensioners; and so many casuals. A million casuals are being left behind because they don't make up the 12 months. They are playing a critical role in delivering services or could be playing such a role.

I would like to end by encouraging every Australian to make sure that where they can—because I know our health workers, who are doing such an amazing job, will be out there working—if they don't have to work, if they are not working supporting people in our community, they stay home this Easter. I know it will be tempting to go out and try to see your families, but stay home. Think of your families. Skype them, Zoom them and save up your hugs, because we will get through this. That is why we want to see these amendments made: so we get through it taking everybody with us.


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