Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 November 2020


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading

9:31 am

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Families need certainty about their access to paid parental leave during these challenging times. We all need leadership from this government so that anxious families have some peace of mind when looking to the future. Treasurer Frydenberg infamously said in July that people should have more babies to stimulate the economy. But with the government taking so long to implement a change as simple as this, it provides no consolation to prospective families.

The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020 also improves assistance for families affected by stillbirth and infant death in respect of payments for newborn children. The bill does this by increasing the maximum amount that eligible families can access after a stillbirth or a child's death up to the child's first birthday. This is a welcome amendment and will come as a relief to many families who are going through this traumatic event. Losing a child is a devastating and heartbreaking experience, and we commend the government for finally enacting these important provisions. Again, this is something Labor has advocated for a very long time.

Finally, this bill will allow the minister to determine the average weekly earnings trend figures ordinarily published by the Australian Statistician for child support assessment purposes. This will be under the circumstances where the publication of trend estimates for the average weekly earnings series has been suspended due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the labour market.

These amendments are welcome, but they do not go far enough to ensure that Australians who continue to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic are not left behind. During the last sitting period, Labor moved amendments in the House to (1) extend the $250 per fortnight coronavirus supplement until March. Currently, it is scheduled to end at Christmas, but obviously there was an announcement yesterday. Christmas is rapidly approaching us and people relying on this supplement need certainty. It will help 2.2 million Australians who will face the cruel Christmas cut and bring the payment in line with JobKeeper. The government has determined that these people need additional support. Why not those on JobSeeker? That's the question. And (2) it requires the government to provide more support to pensioners who have faced increased costs during the pandemic, such as the cost of face masks, hand sanitiser, doctors appointments and the traditional costs of trying to keep safe. Three, Labor also moved to call on the government to announce a permanent increase to the base rate of JobSeeker again. Not only has Labor been calling for this for some time but also economists, the crossbench and industry specialists have all said that there needs to be a permanent increase to the rate of JobSeeker, or, as it was previously called, Newstart.

Right now it is more important than ever—1.8 million people are set to be unemployed. They need this support and they need it now. Numbers are still predicted to be above pre-recession levels until 2024. By increasing the rate of JobSeeker, it will have a beneficial effect on employment, health and economic growth. People shouldn't have to fall into poverty because they've lost their jobs, but reducing JobSeeker back to $40 a day will do just that. Put simply, it's not enough to cover the basic costs of housing, food, public transport and bills. How can people rebuild their lives if they can't do these basic things?

To no real surprise, the government voted against these amendments, as they have distorted views of people who live on welfare payments. The Morrison government need to give people who have lost their jobs certainty beyond Christmas. They can do this by extending the coronavirus supplement and announcing a permanent increase to the JobSeeker payment. I think that we can all agree that this year has clearly demonstrated that living on $40 a day is not sustainable or suitable for having a decent quality of life in this country. An important part of our economic recovery will be to promote consumption, but now Australians on social security will have less to spend on local and small businesses, and these businesses will have less to spend on wages and jobs.

With currently around 106 jobseekers for every job, how can government start to rip away support from these people when the government can't even provide enough jobs for them to apply for? This recession was induced as a result of government mandated lockdowns to protect us from the health consequences of this virus spreading to an uncontrollable point. It is only fair that the government continues providing support until the economy and the unemployment rate shows true signs of recovering.

Labor support the changes announced by the government as they are measures which we have been advocating for from the outset of this pandemic, but, with Christmas just around the corner, the Morrison government will deliver a cut to thousands and thousands of families. In these uncertain times, we don't want a marketing manager; what we want, what this country needs is a leader. Those sitting across the aisle know that a permanent increase in the rate of JobSeeker is the right thing to do. But what we hear from them is deafening silence on this issue as they are unwilling to embrace the true spirit of Australia and ensure no-one gets left behind. As a nation, we look out for one another.

The minister is in the chamber at the moment. She has the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy, which she has acknowledged and understands. She has been listening to the thousands of families who find themselves in hardship, who find themselves unemployed. And there are many thousands of people who never expected to be unemployed and having to try and survive, because they can't live on the JobSeeker payment. They can't live on it. All they're trying to do is survive from one day to the next. So this is an opportunity for the minister to be a leader in her government by making a permanent change and speaking up for those people who don't have a voice in the government. I know the Prime Minister doesn't like to hear the minister speak too much, which we saw evidence of in the media, but the reality is, when you're a cabinet minister, when you have this responsibility, you owe it to those who don't have a voice to be a strong voice within your government. We on this side of the chamber are strong.

People on the crossbench have for a long time, along with Labor, been advocating for a permanent change to restore dignity to those people who find themselves unemployed. On many, many levels, they feel the effects of poverty and self-loathing because they're not able to support their family. For those who have never experienced that, I can tell you: that's a lived experience that will stay with you your entire life, because it makes you appreciate everything that you have. And when you are able to climb out of poverty, able to be re-employed and able to carve out a career for yourself, I can tell you firsthand: you never ever forget those experiences. When you have to say no to your children—that they can't do that school excursion or that they can't have a new dress to go to a birthday party—those experiences stay with you well beyond your time being supported by social security, which is there in this great country of ours to support people and to give them a helping hand while they find their way back into employment. So I implore the minister to stand up for those people and to leave a lasting legacy as a cabinet minister to turn this government's mind to being more supportive, to being more caring and to giving those people a helping hand.

It's easy to say that the best form of help and social security is a job. The reality is that there are more than 30 people for every job that's advertised in Tasmania, my home state. So stating that a job is the best form of social security is an easy statement to make, but it's a hollow statement if you don't lead from the front and demonstrate that you have heard, you have listened and you are going to act to help restore the dignity and the opportunity for those people who find themselves out of work. So, Minister, we on this side are looking to you, because it's quite obvious that the Prime Minister is only ever interested in photo opportunities and headlines, because he never follows through and he doesn't listen to those people who are doing it tough in this country. We as senators have a responsibility to do everything we can.


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