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

6:33 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I have been a proud member of the trade union movement for over 40 years. Time after time, this movement has backed the working men and women of this country. The work that has been done over the last few weeks by unions and the Labor Party to fight for every working person and their family in our country has been nothing short of phenomenal. Sally McManus, Michele O'Neill and the leaders of the unions across the country have joined with the Labor leadership, including Anthony Albanese, Kristina Keneally, Tony Burke, Linda Burney and others, to stand up for all Australians.

My message to the working people of Australia, especially to younger workers, is that you're not on your own and you do not have to be at the mercy of the market and of whatever the market will bear. When you are a union member, you will never be alone, come war, economic downturn, global crisis or pandemic. The members of unions and the entire community are going to see the benefits from this hard struggle to make sure this proposal for extra support for our communities goes ahead.

I would also like to congratulate the government for buckling under the logic and finally seeing what Labor and the trade union movement, civil society and corporations have been saying now for many weeks. The support that is being delivered in this proposal is because of so many Australians standing up. As a proud member of the Labor caucus, I've come to this place with the same aim as many of us in here, whether Labor or anywhere else. In the case of Labor, we've also come here with the desire to make sure that working people in Australia maintain their connection to their employer so that they are in the best place to support themselves and their families until the global health crisis is over.

The coronavirus pandemic does not discriminate based on who you are. It does not discriminate on whether your employer is big or small. It does not care if you work for the government, the private sector or the not-for-profit sector. It does not care if you are full time or casual, or if you have had one employer for the last year or more than one. It does not care if you are an Australian citizen, permanent resident or visa holder working here in Australia. To be a victim of the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19, you just have to be a worker—full stop. And, if you are a worker, you deserve not to be sent to the Centrelink queues, made worse by the underfunding of this vital service and the cutting of Centrelink staff by this government. If you are a worker, you deserve to have a wage subsidy whereby you stay connected to your employer, and together you can ride out this crisis.

When Scott Morrison says we are all in this together, what he really means is this: except if you're a casual worker with less than 12 months; except if you're a worker for a local council; except if you're a worker in the arts and entertainment sector; except if you're a worker in the disability support services; and except if you're a worker for a charity that is not covered by the current JobKeeper package. This includes private schools and universities. They were initially told they would be included with other not-for-profits at the 15 per cent threshold for loss of revenue, only to be told that they would be treated like other businesses, even though they are clearly not like other businesses. Hundreds of thousands of skilled university staff, including casual workers, are facing job losses, but they will not be eligible for this JobKeeper payment.

Finally, the Prime Minister seems to think that we are 'all in this together'—and we are, because we're all victims—but are we all in it together? If you're a worker who's a visa holder, you're not included. Hundreds of thousands of visa holders, including international students who have paid fees to our universities, have been left out of this rescue package altogether.

I also want to foreshadow that I will be moving a second reading amendment circulated in my name. In that, I'll be calling on the government to ensure the JobKeeper wage subsidy is only used by employers to pay their employees' wages and not to subsidise their company's balance sheet, noting there will be no provision for business to force employees to pay for their annual leave and entitlements with the JobKeeper wage subsidy. For example, Qantas have told tens of thousands of workers that they will have to take their entitlements, and the company will still receive the $1,500 that was intended for the workers. But don't worry, Qantas has got it covered; they've made the decision to pay dividends to their shareholders in September. Not only will we see hundreds of millions of dollars less in taxes being paid for aviation costs, but we will also see the $1,500 that is supposed to be going to their workforce used to line their own pockets, and the pockets of their shareholders.

We need to recognise that the Australian arts and entertainment sector needs a specific, tailored fiscal response package to ensure its ongoing viability, given that the structure of the JobKeeper payment has been designed in a way that leaves many workers in this sector ineligible. It is a multibillion dollar industry at the heart of our culture within Australia. It's an important rebound not only for the mental health of this country but also for the economic health of this country; yet the government has left them swinging. They won't get support.

It's important that we extend the 15 per cent reduction in the turnover threshold to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, NDIS, and employment service providers, DES, and deliver a retention and support package for the disability sector workforce. These are some of the most vulnerable people in our community and some of the most vulnerable organisations that deliver services that are so critical to our civil society.

We call for more support for staff in schools, TAFE and universities affected by the crisis, noting that hundreds of thousands of school and university staff, including casual workers, are facing job losses but will not be eligible for the JobKeeper payment. The government should be saving jobs and making sure that Australia has a strong and sustainable education and training sector on the other side of this crisis. We need to have that bump when we move out. We need to have that capacity to rebuild economically. We need to have the foundations; yet the government has deserted these people. Casual employees working from school to school are not included. They're educating our children. It's critical that they are connected to our schools and connected to our education system.

We also call on the government to recognise the importance of the local government, acknowledging that the closure of council facilities has resulted in significant revenue loss and workers being stood down without support. Up to 45,000 local government workers could lose their jobs, demonstrating the need for the government to work together with state governments to address these important issues. In the Prime Minister's own electorate—the Sutherland Shire, where I spent my childhood—330 people have lost their jobs because they're working as casuals for the local council in the Sutherland Shire. What is he doing for his residents? Those 330 families and individuals need the support of the government. They need not to be exceptions; they need to be part of the rule.

We've seen examples on the reach outs of what could be done with local councils. I make this plea. The councils in a number of my duty electorates in New South Wales, such as Calare, Lyne, Bathurst, Blayney, Lithgow, Oberon, Orange, the MidCoast, Port Macquarie, Hastings, Dungog and Port Stephens, do not have the capacity to survive the jobs and keep them as critical major employment hubs within those communities.

It's essential that the government acts for regional Australia, which has been hit by bushfires and drought, and now by the coronavirus and a lack of government action. Congratulations to civil society and corporations for joining the union movement, and to the government for finally coming to the table, but millions and millions of people have been left out. Millions and millions of people have been deserted in our local councils, in our arts and entertainment industry, in the important areas of the NDIS, in charities, and in the area of visa holders. Many people have been affected as a result of these circumstances that we now find ourselves in.

There are three particular examples. I gave this example in Sutherland Shire, and I plead to the Prime Minister to reconsider his and his party's position on local government. In the Prime Minister's electorate of Cook, in the Sutherland Shire, for more than five years, Sally—not her real name—has worked at the council leisure centres. She was sacked last week and is one of 330 workers, some of whom have worked in the Sutherland Shire for five or 10 years. She is not eligible for the JobKeeper payment, and nor are any council workers in Australia.

Gig economy sole traders are an important question to be raised with the government. I would be keen to hear the minister's comments on this. The government's options for self-employed businesspeople also leave a lot to be desired. For example, it is not clear how family partnerships, like those used in small trucking companies, would work. Right now, partnerships where multiple partners are active business participants are limited to a single JobKeeper payment; they cannot claim two, for example, in the case of a husband-and-wife trucking company.

Then there are visa holders and international students. I had the joy of my office speaking to Suhail, a 23-year-old international student visa holder in Sydney. He has paid nearly $100,000 in fees to an Australian university and is in the final year of his degree. He has supported himself, his wife and baby as a rideshare and food delivery worker for nearly three years, delivering food and people during this critical time, putting himself out, exposed, to make sure he can support his family. Well, rideshare is certainly drying up. He had been working 20 hours a week. He has paid for his own health insurance, as required by his visa, and he has never asked any money from anyone, certainly not the Australian taxpayer. Now, through no fault of his own, Suhail is sick and has been advised by his GP to self-isolate. He now must choose between feeding his family and paying his rent and trying to work when there is a massive drop-off in work. Suhail says he does not want to ask for help, but his parents in Bangladesh have also lost their jobs and cannot afford for him to get home safely. He just wants his family to be safe and for him to be able to finish the degree he paid for. He is not eligible for the jobseeker payment or the JobKeeper payment.

It's critically important that we remember that the welfare minister, Minister Ruston, has the capacity to make changes. It is very important to know that the Treasurer has the power to make further changes beyond the propositions being put today. I say this to every Australian, I say this to every working person and the two million that have been left out, and I say this to the millions of others that care so much about a fair go: make sure that the two million other people living in this country, working hard and paying their taxes, also get a fair go.


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