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

7:09 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I'm glad to be here tonight, doing my job. We should be doing this regularly through this crisis. My party feels this deeply. The Greens have been on the record consistently raising the issue that parliament should continue to sit through to August.

We heard today from the government that this economic package is the biggest, most important piece of legislation since the Second World War. While we find ourselves in dangerous uncharted waters that require all political parties to work together for the good of the nation, the powers and discretion given to this government over the period of this pandemic are also unparalleled in recent history and need to be watched closely. Decisions need to be questioned constantly, if not respectfully and professionally. That is our job as senators. All governments, including state governments, need to answer reasonable questions and requests for information and provide full transparency.

I'd like to note upfront the hardworking public servants here in Canberra and abroad who have worked tirelessly around the clock to bring this legislation before us tonight. To those workers—staffers in Treasury, the Attorney-General's Department and so many other portfolio areas of government—a big thanks and shout-out to you all. In my books, you're as much of a hero as anyone else in this country.

I'm also glad to be here tonight at this historical emergency sitting because, over recent weeks—indeed, the past month—I have lived and breathed stimulus packages, especially in relation to helping small businesses and their workers, and one is finally happening tonight. It's far from perfect, but we're all in a much better place than we were even a few weeks ago. I've literally lived it and breathed it, because I've mostly been staying at home, like so many other Tasmanians and Australians. I've watched my wife and her business partners spend hour after hour, day after day on Zoom and on the phone working through this pandemic and talking to their dozens of employees, agonising over shutting down or staying open, having lengthy landlord discussions, having exchanges with the banks on interest rates and loans and, lastly, seeking advice on eligibility on how to use both the jobseeker and the JobKeeper packages. Day in, day out, I've watched it unfold in real life and in real time, and I know just how hard it's been for many small-business owners.

The Greens called for a job wage guarantee from the start. We worked out very early that the first two small-business packages were not going to be anywhere near enough. Indeed, they were the wrong approach—I said this nearly three weeks ago. I've seen and worked through a number of crises in my life, as I'm sure many other senators in this chamber have. There was the GFC and stock market crashes, and my family and I lived through SARS up in Hong Kong. I understood early that this crisis required everything to be on the table—a whatever-it-takes approach to see us all through, and I mean all of us, not just the lucky few.

We said this was mostly a crisis of confidence that required solutions immediately to restore trust because, ultimately, if you want a pandemic to not be a panic, you need to provide certainty and restore trust in government, in community, in our laws, in our economy and, most importantly, in people's futures. Of course, this can only be done by governments. At first, your government didn't listen to calls for a wage guarantee, but I'm glad that ultimately you did. To the small-business groups, to the unions and to the opposition—including, of course, the Greens—we finally got a UK-style wages guarantee.

I've experienced at home, firsthand, what this crisis is like for many small-business owners and their workers. I've also reached out to small-business groups, organisations and communities themselves. I've talked to many, many employees who were uncertain about what this all meant for them. I've asked for input, for feedback. Consistent messages arose, which I promised to take to Canberra. I am deeply concerned today that, after fighting so hard to get a wages guarantee in this place, I've had so much feedback that too many small businesses aren't getting on board with JobKeeper. There's too much hesitancy: 'It's too hard. It's too complex. It carries too much risk.' The Greens have been inundated by small-business owners and their workers contacting us for help and guidance.

I'm increasingly concerned that we're not going to see the huge uptake of this payment that we might expect. As a Tasmanian senator, this is of the utmost concern to me. Small business is literally the backbone of my state. Early survey results in a very hard-hit industry, tourism and hospitality, suggest that one-third of eligible businesses or perhaps more are not applying for, or had hesitancy in applying for, this scheme. The question is: why? And what can we do about it tonight? Many of the stories are the same: 'I've already laid off workers, stood them down and shut down. I've closed my doors. I've dealt with that grief and that frustration. I can't stay afloat any longer. This package carries too much risk for us.' Many businesses in a state like Tasmania rely on casual workers and visa holders, many of whom will not be eligible for the payment. The single biggest factor is that waiting for the payment to come through in May is not an option for many small businesses that have no revenue and no savings and have closed their doors. There simply isn't the money for them to pay their workers in the next month, and I will be introducing a substantive amendment in the committee stage to try and rectify that.

According to the ABS, half of our businesses have already let go staff or cut hours due to COVID-19. A business confidence survey from the Tourism Industry Council Tasmania showed 75 per cent of respondents—that's three-quarters of Tasmanian tourism businesses—had to suspend business operations in Tasmania until restrictions ease and 80 per cent had to reduce staffing levels. My home state has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, as it is highly leveraged to tourism and hospitality. I've heard numerous stories about businesses that have closed their doors, have no revenue, have no cash flow and have lost hope. This is a consistent criticism that we have received from small businesses around the country, and I look forward to moving that amendment in the committee stage to try and fix that.

We've heard a lot of talk in here tonight, especially from the Labor Party and the Greens, about problems with this legislation that leaves out too many people. Unions Tasmania have said that nearly 24,000 casual workers in our state will not be eligible for JobKeeper payments because they have been with their employer for less than 12 months. How many of them will be let go and forced into Centrelink lines? It looks like it will be nearly all of them. The decision to exclude casuals with less than 12 months employment is not an economic decision, in my opinion; it is purely a political one and a foolish one. It's simply penny pinching at a time when everyone should be treated equally—all workers and all industries. Universities Australia warn that the universities sector could lose more than 21,000 jobs in the next six months. That's 21,000 Australians who don't know if they're going to have a job when we get through COVID-19. Why not give them certainty? We know that way too many people who work at universities are employed on a casual basis. This casualisation trend—which is a cancer, in many people's minds—has been occurring for far too long. And the sector is the second-biggest, if not the biggest, employer in my home state of Tasmania, particularly in places like Launceston, where I'm based. Then, of course, there are local government employees. We've heard a lot about them in here tonight. One of the challenges after this sitting and after this legislation is dealt with tonight is to come up with a package to help local government casual employees who have also been put on the scrap heap, and we've got some good ideas about how to do that.

I also want to talk about temporary visa holders. I've been contacted by many temporary visa workers and their bosses in my state saying: 'Please take this to Canberra. We want our business to survive. We want continuity, like any other business in this package. We want to keep our jobs.' The Tourism Industry Council Tasmania tells me they are perplexed as to why temporary visa holders would be exempt, given how critical they are to our economy and our community. It would have a devastating impact on tourism in Tasmania if we were to lose these people and they weren't to return. They have told me this move is unfair and irresponsible and is likely to do long-term damage to the Australian tourism industry's international reputation.

The TICT, the Tourism Industry Council Tasmania—and I want to give a quick shout-out to Luke Martin from the TICT, who I've been working with over the last week; we may not agree on many things, but, on these issues, we are certainly on a unity ticket—said in a statement today: 'As an industry, we're not comfortable with the message it sends to the world about our country and its tourism industry that we are not prepared to support our international workers in these most challenging of times. We would expect that, if our own children or family members were specifically recruited to work on the other side of the world in a remote visitor destination like Tasmania, their community and government would support and sustain them through such extraordinary times.' There are stories across my state of these workers being stood down with no income and, with global travel restrictions, with no chance of going home. They are completely in limbo and are being looked after by local communities and, may I say, by many employers. It's just not good enough. It's another political decision. It's cruel and it's miserly.

The JobKeeper package we're debating tonight is far from perfect. It's very complex. It doesn't fill the cracks that many workers have fallen into, and it won't work for all small businesses, even those who are eligible. Whilst, of course, the intention of these measures is not to pit employers against employees, there still will be some business owners who choose to exploit workers through changes to the Fair Work Act, and the Greens have worked hard tonight to try and rectify this with our amendments. While jobs are important, so is having a roof over your head. I want to commend the work of my state colleagues in Tasmania Cassy O'Connor MP and Rosalie Woodruff MP for the work they've done on banning rental evictions in Tasmania. Many Tasmanians have fallen on hard times. They've lost their jobs and they're under financial hardship. This is what we should be doing all around the country.

So there are many issues to be resolved, and we may well have to recall parliament again to get through additional measures. We need to get cracking on tailored support packages for those in acutely impacted industries, such as artists, small brewers and recyclers. I will be writing to the Treasurer myself to suggest ways forward for these industries. This is an opportunity for me to move a second reading amendment on behalf of Senator Hanson-Young, to support the arts and creative industries—


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