Senate debates

Thursday, 10 December 2020


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

4:10 pm

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

I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020. The bill extends the coronavirus supplement from 1 January 2021 to 31 March 2021, at the reduced rate of $150 per fortnight. This bill will force almost two million people to try and live on $51 a day, at Christmas time, and then go back to the unliveable rate of $40 a day in April 2021. There is an abundance of evidence and information out there which shows that this is not an adequate amount to live on and actually entrenches welfare dependency.

Forty dollars a day is not enough to cover the basic expenses of food, housing, transportation and health care, let alone if you get sick and need to buy medication or have to go to the dentist, get prescription glasses or attend specialist appointments. There is barely any room in the tight budget for getting a haircut or buying new clothes—items which help individuals to be presentable when they try to get an interview. There is no money for unexpected bills. There is no money to engage in any hobbies or buy loved ones presents. How can people rebuild their lives if they can't have these basic things?

It's unfortunate that those opposite haven't had any lived experience and haven't actually talked to people that are unemployed and looking for work—because maybe then they would have a little bit of compassion and understanding about how difficult it is to rebuild your life when you have lost your job. As uncovered by the Senate inquiry, this low rate of payment results in entrenched poverty, which further exacerbates social exclusion and poor physical and mental health outcomes, and increases homelessness. The Liberal government's disdain for people receiving social welfare means that they don't look at the evidence of how increasing this supplement would not only help people's welfare but also, importantly, help the broader economy.

The impacts of this pandemic are likely to last for some time. Following the release of the quarterly GDP data last week, which showed Australia's economy had grown by 3.3 per cent, the Treasurer himself heeded the warning that it would be a long bumpy road to recovery. The government have predicted that employment will not return to pre-COVID levels by at least 2024, but they committed themselves to cutting support at the end of March and have given no indication that they will permanently increase the rate of JobSeeker. This bill is a missed opportunity for the Morrison government to deliver a permanent increase to the base rate of unemployment support. That's why Labor is moving an amendment calling on the government to permanently increase the base rate of the JobSeeker payment.

The majority of submitters to the inquiry into this bill welcomed the introduction of the coronavirus supplement in April 2020 and noted the positive effects that it had on individuals, families and the community. It meant that people were not living in poverty, particularly single parents with children. The Salvation Army and Mission Australia both commented that their organisations witnessed a significant decrease in the number of regular users of their emergency relief services—that's a good thing—because people could afford to buy essential items such as fresh food and were able to pay for their housing, health care and other basic needs, and were able to pay their electricity bills et cetera. These are things that everyone should be able to do.

A reduction of the coronavirus supplement will contribute to the rising inequality we are experiencing in this country, which has been exacerbated by this crisis. It is well recognised, including by previous Senate inquiries, that the rate of Newstart, now JobSeeker, is inadequate, and it has been recognised as such for a long period of time. The appropriate thing to do is to not only maintain the supplement but go for a permanent increase so that people who have lost their jobs can live in dignity until they become re-employed. This year has clearly highlighted—and all Australians have been alerted to this, I believe—that the rate of $40 a day is simply not enough. As members of the Liberal government themselves have stated, the idea of going back to $40 a day was a 'fairly cruel and unusual punishment'. It's okay to make those comments, and I appreciate those comments in the public arena or in this chamber. But you have to follow them up. You have to put pressure on your frontbench and on your Prime Minister to ensure that the rate for those jobseekers is increased.

Following the unprecedented measures put in place to protect our health from COVID-19 we've seen a once-in-a-generation recession—the deepest and darkest that we've experienced in over a century. Despite being delayed, the federal government's response with the COVID virus economic supplement support made a very positive impact on people's lives. We've seen people able to pay for their housing, electricity and gas bills, turn on the heating during winter, pay for their water, telephone and internet bills, pay for medications and, most importantly, eat enough healthy food, pay for their children's activities, buy clothing and shoes for themselves and their kids, participate in some activities and even address outstanding debt. We have seen women able to re-establish their lives with reduced anxiety, having left violent family situations, as well as recover and regain confidence in establishing themselves into a pathway of employment. Now we will see this support ripped away from people who are already vulnerable. People shouldn't have to fall into poverty because they've lost their job, but reducing JobSeeker back to $40 a day will do just that. Not only would permanently increasing the rate of JobSeeker improve the social welfare of hundreds of thousands of Australians; an increase would be good for our local jobs and local economies, particularly in rural and regional areas. Most importantly it would help my home state of Tasmania.

Social security recipients spend an estimated 58 per cent of their payments on retail goods or services at supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies, essential merchandise stores and other small businesses. It is projected that the scheduled end of the JobSeeker payment will take the equivalent of $8½ billion per year from the retail sector. That's $8½ billion every year. The equivalent of 130,000 Australian retail jobs are also on the line if we return the rate of the JobSeeker payment to its old base rate. Australians on social security will have less to spend on local and small businesses, and these local and small businesses will have less to spend on wages or on creating jobs. Even before COVID there were strong arguments for making a permanent increase in the JobSeeker payment. What COVID has done is give us a strong evidence base for thinking and realising—and for the government to come to terms with—that we need to make it a permanent increase, without it having significant adverse effects on the incentive to find work.

We could have a substantial increase in JobSeeker without adversely affecting incentives to take up paid work. I don't believe the sort of rhetoric that comes from people like Senator Hanson, who likes to come in here and try to grab headlines whenever she can to badmouth and run down people who are unemployed. If they're One Nation people or they're migrants, then they're targets for what she has to say. All people who are unemployed want to go out and find a job that is satisfying and will lift their standard of living. There has been no data to suggest that the higher level of JobSeeker during 2020 has had any considerable effect on incentives not to take up paid work. There has been no evidence of any significance, and that needs to be corrected on the record. The notion that it has had an effect is just based on the Liberal government's and Senator Hanson's distorted view of people who receive welfare payments and continues their ideological crusade. With more than seven jobseekers for each job vacancy, there are simply not enough jobs for everyone in my home state. It is even more difficult to find a job in our regions as a result of the government's failure to deliver a jobs program for it.

The travel restrictions imposed by COVID-19 in my home state of Tasmania have resulted in a dramatic reduction in tourism, which is an industry that directly and indirectly—as you, Madam Deputy President, and Senator Urquhart well know—employed 40,000 people and brought in approximately $4.5 billion to the state annually. Due to the ongoing restrictions and the downturn in economic activity, there are currently around 27 jobseekers for every job application, and the unemployment rate is set to increase throughout next year. There are seven jobseekers for every job across Australia, and there are 27 jobseekers for every job in my home state.

It essential that we continue to provide adequate support for these people so that thousands of Tasmanians and Australians who are unable to find work can attain a basic standard of living. That is not only something that Labor has been calling for for some time; economists, those on the crossbench and industry specialists have all said that there needs to be a permanent increase in the rate of JobSeeker. Right now it is more important than ever, with 1.8 million people set to be on unemployment support by the end of this year—and numbers are still predicted to be above pre-recession levels until 2024.

Initially through COVID, the Morrison government demonstrated that they had the will to spend money on welfare. But they have failed to acknowledge how important it is to ensure that people who are unemployed have a basic living payment to give them dignity and allow them to rebuild their lives. These people have been given a reprieve until the end of March. But what happens to them in April 2021? They will go back to receiving an amount of money that it is impossible to live on. I remember only too well, back in the eighties when my family were trying to survive, that you can't live on welfare payments; all you can do is try and survive. There are unexpected expenses, or your children want to go on a school excursion and you don't have the money. It can be that you get to the end of the fortnight and you can't find enough coins to buy a carton of milk—that's the reality. If your washing machine or your fridge breaks down, or even something as simple as your iron breaks down, you won't have the reserves to be able to buy a new appliance.

That's the reality for people who are on welfare. And it's certainly not because they don't want to work. It is certainly not because they waste their money. But every bit of their money is circulated in their local economy.

That's the difference between the government and the people on this side and most of the crossbench: we understand. We understand because we listen to these people. We have these people coming to our offices and contacting us on a daily basis—people who are desperate. We have them crying in our offices. This is the time for the Morrison government to step up, and they need to do it now.


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