Wednesday, 17 March 2021
Matters of Public Importance
I want to thank Senator McKim for his contribution to this debate, considering the one we had earlier from Senator Rennick. I also rise to speak on this matter of public importance that's been brought before the Senate today, and surely just a few days away from this government's premature ending of JobKeeper. This matter could not be of any more public importance than it is right now.
Over the course of the past 12 months, JobKeeper has been a lifeline for millions of Australians right around the country. This time last year, as many of our fellow Australians faced the prospect of losing their livelihoods, to have JobKeeper there to support them at that time could not have been more important. As important as it was then, it remains so now. Whilst it is certainly the case that in some areas of the economy there has been a steady transition towards relative normality, for many the future continues to remain uncertain. In fact, it is estimated that in my home state of Victoria the premature ending of JobKeeper will impact upon 134,000 businesses employing around 413,000 workers—almost half a million workers in my state alone. For those 413,000 workers, the same concerns they had this time last year persist today. For those workers, transitioning to relative normality may have been a fortunate thing. But it is not an option. Some of them may work in retail, in hospitality, in restaurants, in tourism. But that is by no means the extent of it. Many industries other than those will be affected by this decision of the coalition government, and that is because for them the recovery, such as it is, is yet to be realised. For them the shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic remain, and this couldn't be more the case than it is in my home state, where the pandemic has brought quite profound disruption. Whilst those in other states were at bars, at cafes and at restaurants, roaming their regions or simply getting on with their lives as best they could, Victorians, through no fault of their own, were mostly confined to their homes, only in rare instances permitted to stray just five kilometres beyond their local area. I was obviously one of those Victorian, and take it from me: the economic effects of this remain. The support that was put in place, particularly JobKeeper, continues to be welcome and it is, quite frankly, needed.
One must ask oneself: what could possibly possess this government to think that cutting the safety net for these workers whilst they remain dependent on it is a good idea? We've heard from members across the aisle justification after justification. But the reality is there are people who will do it tough, who will struggle, who need that support from their government. That is why they pay their taxes and they look to government for support. They look to all of us here in Canberra to provide that support. What kind of government would seek to throw 413,418 working families into financial peril? I suppose, when one ponders the question, it should be hardly surprising that we see this government, this coalition government—of all governments—seeking to undertake such an action.
Let us in this place and this country not forget that JobKeeper was never a proposal that those opposite were prepared to embrace. In fact, when it was initially proposed by those in the Labor movement, those on my side of the chamber and the crossbench, it was dismissed out of hand by this government. The Prime Minister on 25 March last year said:
The best way to get help to people is through the existing payment channels … To dream up other schemes can be very dangerous.
'Dangerous' is what the Prime Minister said. What Australian workers saw as a lifejacket in a stormy sea, the Prime Minister saw as dangerous. As we have seen, JobKeeper has been anything but dangerous. Rather, it's been one of the most positive things to have come out of this place in quite some time. Thank goodness those beside me and around me, those in the community, never gave up on the fight for its establishment, and thank goodness that together we were able to successfully drag this government to the table. It is owing to those efforts that so many have been able to rely on the support they needed to get through. These are essential workers who every morning would get up to make sure that our supermarket shelves were stocked or our nurses on the front line at hospitals making sure that people got tested for COVID. These are the very people who rely on this payment along with the people that they live with or share their homes with.
It is because of many of the efforts being put in place that so many businesses, in particular small businesses, have remained afloat and so many workers remain connected to their place of work. It is a good thing that they are able to provide for their families, able to support the many local businesses that are reliant on local families and able to support their local communities in regional Australia. But the question that remains for us and for those who still require such assistance is: what is to become of them?
I note that the coalition government has recently unveiled its SME Recovery Loan Scheme. For those listening who are unfamiliar with the SME Recovery Loan Scheme, this is an initiative in which the government will seek to work with lenders to ensure that certain eligible businesses will have access to finance to get them through the many tough times ahead. But no matter how this coalition government might seek to dress up this scheme, it is by no means a like-for-like swap with JobKeeper. I can assure you that if you were the owner of a small or medium-sized business or, indeed, a worker in one of those small or medium-sized businesses, you would by no means be looking forward to what is to come in just 11 days time, when JobKeeper is scrapped. We know just how important that certainty is to business, big or small. I don't think you would have to convince anyone of just how important it is that, when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, we get the recovery right. Indeed, how we get out of this is crucial to guaranteeing our nation's future economic prosperity. At the end of the day that is all we want.
The success of Australian business is central to this. I know that the shadow minister for small business, Matt Keogh, has spoken at length with business owners from all around the country about their concerns. Should the government persist in scrapping JobKeeper without the provision of targeted additional measures, many of these businesses will close. This will have an effect not just on the businesses concerned and those directly employed by them but on other businesses that might rely on those businesses, too, and the indirect jobs that may be lost.
Labor has certainly made its own suggestions about what the government might do to improve JobKeeper. We have sought to work constructively with those opposite. Sadly, the government has not been forthcoming on this and, instead, in conjunction with other proposed legislative changes before this place, has sought to maintain an ongoing ideological crusade against working people. (Time expired)