Senate debates

Thursday, 14 May 2020


COVID-19: Economy

4:28 pm

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

I am certainly glad to hear Senator Seselja say how proud he is of the government's JobKeeper package that they put in place. I say that because the Greens called for a living wage very early on in the piece. Indeed, even as early as mid-March we were calling for a living wage, a European-style wage, which essentially looks very similar to JobKeeper. My colleague in the chamber with me today, Senator Siewert, has been one of the most outspoken MPs in this parliament, in this building, about raising the rate of Newstart, which of course is now the jobseeker payment—and I know that very shortly she will be talking about making that permanent.

I want to make a few brief points for my contribution. The importance of the JobKeeper package was simply to provide confidence and trust in our economy. It wasn't necessarily to exactly replicate the wages of workers around the country. It was to set a stimulus payment at a level for all workers who had been impacted in businesses. I have literally lived and breathed JobKeeper at home for the last six weeks, because my wife and her business partners have been labouring to try to understand the labyrinth of eligibility requirements for JobKeeper. I've spoken to accountants. My office has been working around the clock, as I know Senator Siewert's office and many of my colleagues' offices have been doing, trying to help constituents to navigate both JobKeeper and the jobseeker payment. It wouldn't surprise me if many of us in this chamber have had all of our staff working around the clock to try and help Australians sign up to these schemes.

I'm also proud of JobKeeper. It's certainly not perfect; it has a number of issues, and, along with my colleague Senator Siewert, I continue to ask questions on some of those issues at the COVID committee. It is a big outlay, but it's absolutely critical. What we know about pandemics and panics throughout history is that the one thing they all have in common is that people lose trust. They lose trust in their institutions and they lose trust in their financial systems. If they do that then the glue that holds our economy together comes unstuck, and then the next stage, further down the track, is smashing windows, setting fire to buildings, rioting, looting and so on and so forth.

There are certainly reasons to be critical of the pace at which the government adopted this. It took nearly two weeks, after coming under significant criticism from the Greens and others, for the government to adopt a living-wage scheme. I'd like to recognise the role that the unions and the ACTU played in this, and also that of the business community. COSBOA, the small-business group, and a number of chambers of commerce around this country also put pressure on the government. As I often say to friends of mine in the union movement, I'm not necessarily sure it was the Greens and Labor and the unions that persuaded the government to adopt this scheme; I actually believe it was probably the business community that persuaded the government to adopt a jobkeeper-style scheme. But, either way, it's a win for Team Australia, for everyone working together.

But the idea that somehow the economy is going to snap back in a few months time, like an elastic band—that somehow people around the country are going to be able to remove themselves from the fear and anxiety that they've been feeling over the last five weeks in isolation—is completely unrealistic.

What governments do really well in times of crisis is step in and do the heavy lifting. Whether it's bailing out businesses or providing money to workers—over five million workers around the country, in this case, which is unprecedented—governments have an ability to do that because governments can take on risk. This is a period of extreme risk. As Senator Cormann said the other day, it's a one-in-100-year event. Our capitalist system—businesses and markets—aren't built for risk. Any capitalist will tell you: if you want them to take on risk, they need a high expected return. Of course, in times of crisis and pandemic there are no returns. In fact, there are falling returns. We've heard today about real estate markets potentially losing a third of their value. We've seen what's happened on the share market. We've seen what's happened to superannuation balances around the country.

Governments are in a unique position to do the heavy lifting, and so they should. My point is: they must continue to do this in coming months if we are going to keep the good work we have done from unravelling. That trust and that confidence must be there, and it's the government's role to maintain it. And government needs to go a step further. It's not just about providing a stimulus payment. Governments need to step up and invest in their communities, invest in infrastructure and invest in a renewable energy future, transitioning our economy to clean energy. There's a whole range of things we could do.

Senator Seselja talked about the debt that's been put into JobKeeper being around 16 per cent of GDP. I'm not sure if that's net GDP. To give you a brief overview of Australia versus other advanced industrial nations: our debt is expected, at state and federal level, to exceed 30 per cent of net debt to GDP; advanced industrial nations are currently sitting around 90 per cent—three times what Australia's net debt position is. There's a very famous case study of Australia after the war, which any student of politics can tell you about: when Australia rebuilt and reshaped itself following the Second World War, our net debt to GDP was around 120 per cent, but it was paid off by growth. We should take on a lot more debt in this country, at record low interest rates. We should establish, for example, a government owned infrastructure bank. We should be using this as an opportunity, turning a crisis into an opportunity, and investing in our communities, investing in our young people and making sure everybody has a job.

I know Senator Siewert is going to talk more about the people who have been left behind in this crisis, those that have missed out on the JobKeeper payment and aren't eligible for the jobseeker payment, and there are way too many of them. My last point is: I'm glad that Labor have brought this motion forward for debate today. I was quite surprised when I read in the paper this morning that the Labor Party are considering tinkering with the JobKeeper system. They're proposing that casual workers and young people who weren't necessarily earning $750 a week before COVID be given a lower payment in the future so that the excess money can be allocated towards those who have missed out. We have enough money in this country to pay everyone and make sure no-one gets left behind, without taking money off workers. Remember: this was not designed to match people's wage; this was designed to be a stimulus payment, to give people money. That's what you do. Some people call it helicopter money.

Once again—and I promise I'll finish on this point—we shouldn't be taking money off young Australians. As we heard in contributions in question time today and from Senator McCarthy, young Australians are doing it tough. No-one is feeling the consequences of COVID more than young Australians.

I read an article about three or four weeks ago by Bernard Keane in Crikey saying that young Australians are doing it tough, but older Australians should form a pact with young Australians because of the sacrifice that they have made during this crisis, because they're doing it tough. Older Australians, who are much more susceptible to COVID from a health risk point of view, repay young Australians by forming a pact and helping them fight the crisis of their time, which is climate change, understanding the threats and challenges that they face. I think that's a really important point. And I hope a lot of older Australians do appreciate the sacrifices that—and rightly so—young Australians are taking by staying at home, by following the rules. So many of them have lost their job. The mental health crisis they're suffering has been well outlined in this place. It's time for an intergenerational pact between older Australians and young Australians. Once again, this could be an opportunity. We can turn a crisis into an opportunity.


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