Thursday, 10 December 2020
Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020; Second Reading
From the outset, I want to indicate that Labor will be moving a number of very detailed and important amendments to this bill in the committee stages. We will have a truncated debate, so I call on the chamber to listen to these issues: stopping government from cutting payments to around two million people at Christmas time, including people on unemployment support, students, apprentices, and single parents; requiring the minister, urgently, to consider a permanent increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker payment—the only way unemployment support can be increased is if the government decides to do it, so it can't be done in this chamber, because it involves expenditure; reversing the government's unfair reinstatement of the liquid assets waiting period; requiring the minister to urgently consider extending the beneficial changes that have been made to partner income tests; how much a person can earn before losing their payment; and eligibility rules for sole traders—among other things.
I also move my second reading amendment, as circulated in my name:
At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:
(a) notes the Government's plans to cut coronavirus support for businesses and individuals; and
(b) calls on the Government to permanently increase the base rate of the JobSeeker Payment".
In this bill, this is not an extension of coronavirus support. It is, in fact a cut. Yes, it extends the time line, but the government is seeking to put a cut in the hands of the Senate and the chamber, when the government has the opportunity to increase that payment of their own volition. The effect of this bill is, in fact, to return unemployment support to the old base rate of only $40 a day from 31 March, by ending the minister's power to make regulations extending that supplement. We vehemently objected to this part of the bill, and we will be moving to amend it. The government could choose not to use that power and cut payments at any time, as they have done twice already. But, in this bill, the government wants to remove this power, and that gives us a clear indication of the government's plan to take unemployment all the way back to the old rate of Newstart in March.
Today, we can see more than a million unemployed here in Australia, and 1.8 million Australians are projected to be on unemployment support by the end of the year. Two million Australians will be impacted by the government's scheduled cut to the coronavirus supplement next March, and, as we know, this includes people who have lost their jobs as well as single parents and students. We also know that the JobKeeper payments end. When businesses can't sustain the ongoing employment of their staff, we will see those people join the unemployment queue on that miserly rate of $40 a day. The base rate for unemployment is simply too low. The government knows that. Every jobseeker in this country knows that. Unfortunately, unless we can act today in the chamber, or unless the government chooses to do the right thing and lift that base, then hundreds of thousands more Australians will also know that—when the JobKeeper payments stop as well.
Unemployment support is what we need in this nation to provide a barrier to people descending into poverty. It sustains local communities and local economies, and those payments also create jobs. Returning the rate to just $40 a day risks placing millions of Australians in deep hardship and jeopardises local jobs. The government, as we know, temporarily boosted JobSeeker at the outset of the pandemic, when the number of Australians requiring support doubled overnight. I find it utterly galling that, while the number of Australians requiring that support might drop as economic activity picks up again, that number is expected to increase by the end of the year and will continue to increase with JobKeeper payments being withdrawn. It is galling that the government, in this legislation, wants to overtly cut that support.
The difficult thing for Labor is that there are many beneficial elements to this bill which must be passed by this parliament. This means things like including the coronavirus supplement for youth allowance—that is, student and apprentice recipients—after December as well as the increased income-free areas, taper rates and partner income tests that have been introduced as part of the response to the pandemic. It means we can't simply oppose this legislation to forewarn the government that we don't want to be complicit in their cuts to JobSeeker payments. The simple fact is: even if the parliament didn't pass those cuts, they'd have the power to make those cuts anyway. We want to give them the power to extend those payments and keep them at a higher level. The bill does schedule a cut to JobSeeker in March, for a return to the old base rate of Newstart. We very much welcomed the introduction of the coronavirus supplement. We consistently called for an increase to unemployment support long before the pandemic. It is simply too low and too inadequate. It does not protect Australians from hardship. It does not enable them to live with dignity.
The coronavirus supplement has been paid to most people through regulation-making powers that the minister has under the Social Security Act 1991. Under those powers the government can extend the coronavirus supplement and set the rate in three-monthly intervals so long as the impact of COVID-19 persists. The government can also choose not to use this power and cut the level of support. But this government has cut the level of support twice—once in September, and it has announced another cut at Christmas. The government has taken the coronavirus supplement from $550 per fortnight to $250 per fortnight, and will make it just $150 per fortnight from Christmas. This bill also repeals the minister's power to indefinitely extend the supplement on 1 April next year. Labor's amendment in this chamber is designed to address this. If there are crossbench senators listening in their offices: I'm asking you to please come into the chamber and vote for this amendment.
Earlier this year Labor requested that the government include a power to the minister within the economic response package—the omnibus act this chamber passed—that would enable the social security minister to make other changes to the social security system to help people impacted by the pandemic. We're very pleased we did that, because there have been new and important ways that the minister has been able to address things like income test thresholds and a range of other things. If it weren't for Labor's instigation of that, people would have been left in hardship. This bill, importantly, proposes to extend this power. It's a power we want to see extended, and we support it. We think the power needs to persist for longer. We want this flexibility to continue because of the ongoing economic challenges that may arise in the course of the pandemic.
Because of this power, which Labor asked for, the government's been able to introduce a more generous partner income test for JobSeeker payments, which we negotiated, and it tapers now at 27c in the dollar and cuts out at a partner income of $80,000 a year. This power has also enabled the government to make changes to the JobSeeker and youth allowance personal income tests. It provided an income-free area of $300 per fortnight, up from $106 prior to the pandemic. It's enabled the government to expand other eligibility criteria for the JobSeeker and youth allowance payments. These now also include sole traders, the self-employed, permanent employees who've been stood down, and people who are self-isolating because they or someone they are caring for has been affected by the pandemic. You can see how important these powers are and how it might be necessary for them to be ongoing. The powers have enabled the government to waive the ordinary waiting period of one week, the seasonal work preclusion period and the newly arrived residents waiting period. They've enabled the government to extend the time people can maintain eligibility for payment and keep concession cards. They've made other beneficial charges relating to pension portability, mobility allowance and self-declaration for couple assessments, all things that have been critically important to the lives of Australians.
In its current form, though, this bill removes the minister's ability to make regulations that waive the liquid assets waiting period and the assets period. Labor does not support this, and this chamber should not support this. The government should not have reinstated the liquid assets waiting period in September. They should drop their cruel plan to make people wait 26 weeks to get unemployment support if they have modest savings—notably, perhaps even if they've taken their superannuation out previously because of the pandemic. People are forced to run down their last dollar, meaning they're more likely to face hardship in things like struggling to pay the mortgage, keeping their car on the road or, importantly, finding new work.
The government's plan to return JobSeeker to its old base rate of $40 a day will only make things harder for the 1.8 million Australians expected to be on unemployment support by the end of this year. Unemployment levels are expected to be elevated above pre-pandemic levels for at least the next four years, and the simple fact is that the government should be helping people back to work, not penalising them because they've lost their jobs. The number of jobseekers far outweighs the number of jobs in the labour market, a problem that is much greater in our regions, and the government have failed to deliver them a jobs plan—no plan for those 1.8 million jobseekers. The government will continue tripping people up with their targeted compliance framework, administered by for-profit companies that in no way serve people getting back into the workforce at a time of high unemployment like this, and the government continue to cynically insinuate that Australians who've lost their jobs have chosen to do so. There is also their ideological obsession with the cashless debit card, which has failed to demonstrate that it actually works.
This bill is a missed opportunity for the government to deliver a permanent increase for unemployed Australians. The government's plan for unemployment and other payments to go back to their pre-pandemic rate on 31 March is laid bare by this legislation. That's why we're moving amendments. We are calling on the government to announce a permanent increase to unemployment support rather than choosing to plunge people into hardship and a risk of poverty this Christmas.