Senate debates

Thursday, 10 December 2020


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020; Second Reading

4:00 pm

Photo of Wendy AskewWendy Askew (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020. As chair of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, I am pleased to make a contribution to the debate on this bill. This bill was introduced into the House of Representatives on 12 November this year. It was referred to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee that day, with the committee delivering its report on 27 November.

The impact of the global coronavirus pandemic, which affected us so greatly this year, continues to be felt by Australians. Australia's highly targeted income support system is designed to support those who are unable to support themselves through work, savings or other means. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian government has assisted individuals, families, communities and businesses through the introduction of a wide range of temporary support measures. The Australian government is committed to supporting those impacted by COVID-19 through providing financial assistance to people who have lost their jobs or who have reduced income. To this end, we are extending the temporary coronavirus supplement for an additional three months, until the end of March 2021.

This temporary continuation of the coronavirus support measures includes extending the coronavirus supplement for an additional three months at a rate of $150 per fortnight; extending changes to the personal income test for recipients of the JobSeeker payment and youth allowance to allow earnings of up to $300 per fortnight; extending changes to the partner income test for the JobSeeker payment; extending expanded eligibility criteria for the JobSeeker payment and youth allowance to allow sole traders, self-employed and permanent employees who have been stood down by their employers or people who have been directed to self-isolate to continue to be eligible for payment; extending the waiting period waiver, seasonal work preclusion period and newly arrived residents waiting period; extending the period during which income support recipients can maintain eligibility for payment and retain their concession card while receiving no payments due to employment income until 16 April 2021; and other minor policy changes, such as extending pension portability arrangements, under the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Act 2020.

This bill also allows the minister to temporarily modify social security law to respond to circumstances relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as when changes were applied in March and April to address the high volume of claims made to Services Australia at the height of the economic impact. Without this proposed extension, the minister's powers to make such changes will be automatically repealed on 31 December 2020.

We know that the temporary support measures that were introduced earlier this year have been successful in supporting Australians through a time of great economic shock and uncertainty. Eighty per cent of the 1.3 million people who lost their jobs or had their hours reduced to zero at the start of this pandemic are now back at work, and, over the five months to October, almost 650,000 jobs returned to the labour market. This includes almost 344,000 jobs for women and around 226,600 jobs for young Australians. The effective unemployment rate has come down from a peak of 14.9 per cent to 7.4 per cent, and the participation rate is at 65.8 per cent, which is approaching the pre-coronavirus level. October labour force figures show that market conditions have continued to improve, with employment increasing by almost 179,000 over the month. Full-time employment increased by 97,000, or 1.1 per cent, which is the largest monthly increase on record, and part-time employment rose by 81,000, or two per cent. The number of hours worked also increased by 20.6 million hours in October.

These labour force results show us that when coronavirus is contained and businesses have reopened across the country, jobs will return. National Skills Commission data show more businesses are looking to hire new staff now. In April this year, as we were grappling with restrictions imposed to combat coronavirus, less than five per cent of businesses expected to increase staff, but now that figure has risen to 24 per cent, and 47 per cent of employers are recruiting now, which is up 25 per cent on June's figures. After large falls between February and May this year, it is great to see gains in employment within accommodation and food services of almost 130,000 jobs, within retail trade of 59,600 jobs and within arts and recreational services of 53,000 jobs.

The NAB business survey found business confidence improved significantly in October 2020, rising by nine points to its highest level since May 2019. And the monthly Westpac–Melbourne Institute Survey of Consumer Sentiment index rose by 2.5 per cent in November, following an 11.9 per cent increase in October after the release of the federal budget. One of the reasons Australian business owners are confident is that their revenue is starting to increase. The ABS Business Indicators Survey showed 24 per cent of businesses reported an increase in monthly revenue in November, compared to 16 per cent in October, and 25 per cent of businesses expect their revenue to continue to increase, which is the highest percentage since this pandemic began.

The Reserve Bank of Australia has confirmed that Australia's economic recovery is well underway and has upgraded its forecast for Australia's economic growth and for our labour market. As Treasurer Josh Frydenberg pointed out when he spoke about the September quarter of the national accounts on 2 December, Australia's AAA credit rating has been reaffirmed, with Australia one of only nine countries in the world to have an AAA rating from the three leading credit agencies. In the September quarter, real GDP increased by 3.3 per cent, beating market expectations and making it the largest quarterly increase since 1976.

The RBA said the JobKeeper program has saved at least 700,000 jobs, and that government support programs helped to boost household savings in the June quarter. The figures speak for themselves. There were two million fewer workers and around 450,000 fewer businesses on JobKeeper in October, compared to September, and we have seen a drop in the number of people receiving JobSeeker payment. In mid-November, there were 1.46 million on JobSeeker and youth allowance, which is down from 1.57 million at the end of September. This recovery has been supported by the Australian government's record $257 billion investment in economic support through JobKeeper, JobSeeker, the cash flow boost, the coronavirus supplement and the two $750 payments to millions of pensioners and income support recipients, with more support in the form of two additional $250 payments on the way in coming months.

But we know we have a tough road ahead. We also know that the pandemic continues to provide challenging situations for many in our country. So we wish to extend the temporarily increased safety net for a further three months. The Australian government is very focused on supporting all Australians as we fight this virus and its impacts so we can open our economy again. The extension of support provided for in this bill will cost $3.2 billion, which builds on the overall response package of $507 billion invested since the crisis began. The 2020-21 federal budget was all about creating jobs, led by the $74 billion JobMaker plan to get people back into work. The HomeBuilder program has also been extended by a further three months, providing a $15,000 grant to build a new home or for a substantial rebuild and also boosting jobs within our construction industry. Jobs will continue to be our focus, because a healthy economy supports all Australians.

This government is focused on responding to this situation as it unfolds. While the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a situation that nobody could have expected, we have demonstrated that we will continue to monitor the situation and provide appropriate support. But we won't pre-empt future circumstances. We have always been clear that these enhanced levels of social security support were temporary and targeted. The plan is clear until the end of March 2020, in that we are providing an additional level of support while encouraging and helping people to get back into the workforce. We must strike the right balance between temporary enhanced support and providing incentives to work.

The provisions outlined within this bill will further support Australians as we continue to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill builds in additional flexibility to adapt to new circumstances as the country transitions to a post-COVID economy. This bill is part of a broader suite of measures aimed at ensuring Australians are supported to engage with the workforce, which in turn supports our economy to recover. I commend this bill to the Senate.


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