Thursday, 12 November 2020
COVID-19: Income Support Payments
I rise to speak on this motion brought forward by Senator Gallagher. I'm very pleased to have this opportunity to highlight to the Senate the comments made by the Reserve Bank of Australia in its quarterly Statement on monetary policy, in which it made important statements. These were extraordinary statements to make about the economy, and it's very important that Australians understand the very deep economic recession that we are currently in. The predictions the Reserve Bank is making about how that economy will respond are something that Australians need to listen to and are something that the government needs to listen to.
The Reserve Bank said that growth in employment is expected to be subdued over the next few months. It also said that improvement in employment has slowed since August. It remains well below its pre-pandemic level, and there is a risk that business insolvencies will rise by more than expected as the government support programs are tapered. This is what the Reserve Bank of Australia is saying—that is, that as the government take supports away, insolvencies will rise. So it seems strange that the government would, this week, announce that they will be reducing JobSeeker payments. Cutting support prematurely to these payments will make the recession deeper and longer, and it's unfortunate that during question time this week the minister has continued to play word games about what this cut, this reduction in support, will mean to Australians.
It was very clever to put an end date on these payments so that every time the cuts came through, the government could stand up and say, 'We're not reducing the payment, we're extending it.' But they are, in fact, cutting the amount of money that people who are unemployed in Australia will be receiving and will be relying on during this incredibly difficult time, and during an economic period of our country's history where we know unemployment remains well below pre-pandemic levels. The unemployment crisis is getting worse—it's not getting better—as 1.8 million Australians are set to be unemployed by the end of this year—just in time for Christmas. Labor have consistently called for a permanent increase to the JobSeeker amount, and we are calling for the government to provide support to these Australians to get them through this difficult time.
The Morrison government are cutting the coronavirus supplement by $300 per fortnight from when it was first introduced at the $550 per fortnight rate. And when you ask the government why they are doing this—well, first they deny that they're doing it at all—they say that, actually, they're being so very generous in extending this rate. They're denying that they're cutting it in the first place, but, when your questions finally get through the denials and the word games and the very clever language used by the ministers responsible for these decisions, what you discover is that they do not believe that people need this money. They do not believe that they are responsible for helping these people through this crisis.
Even Senator Ruston has acknowledged that the job market is shallow, but she still thinks that now is the right time to make these cuts. In the last couple of days, or the last week, I recall that Senator Ruston said unemployed people needed to dip their toe into the employment market. There's one vacancy for every 28 jobseekers right now in regional Australia. I'm not sure what employment market Senator Ruston thinks the 1.8 million unemployed Australians are dipping their toes into. They're not sitting at home not wanting to work. That's a fallacy put forward by this government to justify their cuts.
The other thing that strikes me about these cuts is the impact they will have on the local economies, the regional economies that are starting to open up. These economies have suffered and they need assistance. We know that people who receive these JobSeeker coronavirus supplements are not saving the money; they're spending the money in local shops, they're going out and doing a full grocery shop for probably the first time in a very long time, they're going to the local gift shop, they're going to the local newsagent and they're spending money in local communities. A report from analytics consultancy Taylor Fry found that reductions to JobSeeker and JobKeeper in September had an 'instant and dramatic' impact on the finances of Australian households. The report found that JobKeeper and JobSeeker cuts would result in $4 billion less income in the pockets of five million Australians. And now they are cutting JobSeeker again.
We've questioned the government on this issue many times, and sometimes the retort from the ministers and those opposite is that these are silly questions or that these questions are repetitive. But we still have not received an answer as to what economic modelling the government has done on these reductions in coronavirus supplement payments. How will these cuts impact the Australian economy? What impact will making a cut to this payment have on local, small businesses that are relying on people going out and spending this money in the local economy?
The government have spent a lot of time in this place talking about how they support regional Australians. But the truth is that these cuts are hurting people living in our regions. In Far North Queensland, in the electorates of Leichhardt and Kennedy alone, these cuts have ripped out $11.5 million per fortnight out of the economy, and 35,000 people have been left worse off through these cuts. The Far North Queensland economy is reliant on tourism. Seventy per cent of that tourism is international tourism. There is still a lot of recovering to go, and yet this government is taking support out of that economy right now.
In Townsville, in the electorate of Herbert, the cuts have affected 13,900 people, and they're ripping $5.9 million from the local economy. I've spoken to young people in Townsville, students who go to the university there at JCU. For the first time ever JCU has had to have a food bank. People donate food, and students can come and get food from the food bank just to support themselves. That's the level of economic impact that is happening in our regions, and yet the government, who profess to stand up for regional Australians, are cutting back the support that they are giving them.
In Dawson, 11,000 people were affected by the cuts that the government made previously—$4.3 million was ripped out of the local economy. In the electorate of Dawson, the Whitsundays has been incredibly impacted by international tourism stopping, and yet the government's ripping money out of these regional economies. This is the worst recession that Australia has faced in almost 100 years, and the government is letting more Australians and communities fall further behind. The Prime Minister's premature cuts could push many Australians back into poverty, risk more jobs and business closures and make economic recovery even harder.
The Liberals and Nationals also decided to exclude Australians aged over 35 from a new hiring credit scheme. This will mean that the recession for those people who we know are relying on JobSeeker payments right now will be deeper and more necessary. The unemployment queues will be longer than they need to be. We know from what the government announced that they believe that all you have to do is put out a media release and jobs will flow—that, somehow, in a media release, putting out how much money you're supposedly spending or how many jobs you are creating is enough. But the people living in regional Queensland are starting to see through a government that are all about announcements and not about delivery. The people living in regional Queensland are starting to see through a government that are all about announcement and not about delivery. Ultimately, if the government were to take back this support in the face of those comments from the Reserve Bank of Australia about how difficult the economic situation is right now, you would expect the government to have a plan for jobs to come out of this recovery. Day after day—and they're going to do it again in this debate in the Senate—they're going to announce numbers and talk about big figures. They'll talk about the things that they are going to do. But we know that what they promise they do not deliver, and they don't deliver jobs in regional Queensland.
In the last budget, before this economic crisis had even started, this government announced it would upgrade the Captain Cook Highway in Cairns. We're still waiting for those upgrades to start. That was all in a media release. Then there's the government's big agenda around recycling. Of the $100 million in the Australian recycling fund, not one cent has been spent. This was a big election promise, and yet the government can't deliver on it. We know that the government has a $50 million mitigation fund that Labor secured in this Senate to spend on mitigation projects to make places like regional Queensland more resilient when it comes to disaster funding. But here we are, in cyclone season and in desperate need of jobs in regional areas, and not one cent of that mitigation fund has been spent.
The NAIF has been a complete failure. The government have failed to spend that money. They've failed to deliver what they said they were going to deliver. They have spent more money on senior executives and boardrooms in regional Queensland than on delivering projects through the NAIF. It's been an absolute flop. Every time they get up here and talk about the NAIF, they should be incredibly embarrassed.
When it comes to the JobMaker scheme, which we've spent a lot of time talking about this week, we know that the Treasurer announced in his budget speech that this scheme would create 450,000 jobs. But when we actually asked Treasury, those figures were much less. So every time that the government talks about the economy rebounding, taking away support because the economy is rebounding and their plan for jobs, know this: every time they put out a press release, they don't deliver on it. Every time they talk about creating jobs in regional Queensland, it is more about saving their own jobs—it is about giving them an opportunity to talk about the things that they are going to do. Regional Queenslanders need the government to get out there and get something done. This is the time to do it. This is the time to deliver the jobs that they have promised for years and years but failed to deliver.
Without a jobs plan, you cannot justify taking support away from vulnerable people who are trying to put food on the table during our deepest economic recession. That is the fallacy of what this government is trying to sell people in regional Queensland. I can tell you that people are fed up and they are starting to see through the constant parade of media releases and no delivery, cuts and no support for the people who need it during our deepest economic recession in regions that desperately need it. But this government gets up every single week and talks about how it supports people in regional Queensland. It doesn't sing true when you actually get there and talk to people who have been left behind by this government and by ministers who are afraid even to call something a cut when it's a cut.