Thursday, 2 September 2021
COVID-19: Income Support Payments
Acting Deputy President O'Neill, you are indeed correct. Shortly, both Senator Siewert and I will be leaving this place, bound for the airport and heading home to Western Australia after some five weeks here in the capital. It is the 5,908th day that Senator Siewert has represented the state that I also call home. so I acknowledge that at the start.
Turning to the matter at hand, the Morrison government remains today just as committed to protecting lives and livelihoods as at the onset of the pandemic. Indeed, we remain focused on supporting all Australians as we reopen the economy, because this is a government that rejects the assertion that we have two streams here in Australia. In regard to the coronavirus supplement and JobKeeper, the situation was very different in this country at the onset of the pandemic. We were facing materially different circumstances in that this was a government that made decisions with very limited information. A once-in-a-century pandemic was afflicting us and, indeed, the rest of the world, and that, of necessity, meant that we made different decisions.
As more information has come to hand through the pandemic, we have altered the government's policy positions not only with regard to social security payments but also, more broadly, in terms of our stewardship of the Australian economy. That is, I think, what responsible government is, because, fundamentally, every dollar that you ask us to give away, Senator Siewert, has to be taken from someone who earned it. When the Morrison government introduced those coronavirus supplements last year, we were facing a period of total national shutdown, practically overnight and for an indefinite period of time. Now in 2021, we know that our economy recovers quickly from lockdowns, thanks to the resilience that our economic supports gave to the economy. We saw more people in work in July this year than were in work before the onset of the pandemic. Indeed, unemployment had dropped to a low of 4.6 per cent, and workforce participation was at 66.2 per cent in June, including a record high for female participation. So we know that our economic comeback was strong and that our economy recovers quickly when the necessary restrictions to preserve lives in Australia are lifted.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Commonwealth government has spent more than $291 billion in direct assistance to individuals, businesses and Australian communities. That includes the coronavirus supplement we talk of today as well as, of course, JobKeeper and now, more relevantly, the COVID-19 disaster payment, as just one of these supports in place to Australians who are doing it tough. The COVID-19 disaster payment provides targeted and quick support to those who have lost work because of lockdowns. I note that some of these disaster payments are hitting bank accounts less than an hour after the request is made. That is, by definition, targeted, time limited and effective support to Australians.
We know, though, that this is temporary—and it has to be temporary. Any nation must live within its means, and they key to getting out of this is vaccinations. We encourage every Australian to roll up and get vaccinated, as I've done, so that our lives and our livelihoods can get back to a post-COVID normal. In New South Wales we've seen really promising rates of vaccination. I think that gives the people of New South Wales hope and confidence that their hard work is worthwhile.
From 1 April this year the government increased the working age payments, including the JobKeeper payment, by $50 a week, permanently increasing the income-free areas to support jobseekers as they secure employment and re-enter the workforce—something to which we give every opportunity in an economy that has rebounded as strongly as the Australian economy has. Here on the government benches we focus so strongly on work not only as an economic construct but also as a social construct, because we understand that work is central to an individual's sense of belonging in a community, connection to their community and indeed connection to their families, in that they're able to offer to their kids the opportunities they might not have had themselves.
The single biggest increase, year on year, to that JobSeeker payment, made by this government—an increase of 9.7 per cent, or $50 a week—was designed to ensure that Australia's safety net was effective as a safety net but not a replacement income. Fundamentally, as I said before, every dollar we give to someone through that safety net structure needs to be taken from someone who earned it. There is a compact with that. That's why this government has strengthened mutual obligations throughout the economic recovery, because that's the arrangement we enter into here in Australia: if you want a go, you get a go, as the Prime Minister said.
There's been no change in the government's view about the role of our social security safety net in Australian society. Our system has served us very well. Prior to this crisis, we saw the proportion of working-age Australians who are reliant on payments down to their lowest level in 30 years, at just 13.5 per cent. I think that speaks very strongly to the sense of opportunity the Morrison government's economic management has created. Our government's key focus is creating jobs—or, more correctly, helping business to create jobs—and getting people back into work, because that is what improves their living standards and those of their families and communities. It is not a wage. It is not a salary. Few countries are in a position to provide the strong safety net that we do. JobSeeker is a non-contributory, taxpayer-funded payment that provides that safety net irrespective of a person's circumstances. It's funded by the taxpayers of Australia, and we owe them the responsibility to manage that money carefully. That responsibility extends not only to us but also to the future generations of Australians who will need to meet the cost of the system in decades to come.
We've spoken often in Australia over the past couple of years about intergenerational debt, and never more so than in the wake of having to spend, by necessity of a once-in-a-century pandemic, huge amounts of borrowed money. Indeed, the one-off increase of $50 a week to the JobSeeker payment cost $9 billion in borrowed money over the forward estimates. That is money that, yes, strengthens the safety net here in Australia today but will need to be paid back by the Australians of tomorrow. Fundamentally, that is why we have continued, through the pandemic, to alter policy settings in light of increasing information. We now know we have vaccines in Australia and a road out of this pandemic. We know that the economy bounces back strongly when restrictions are lifted, and that's why, on 28 July, the Prime Minister announced the expansion of the COVID-19 disaster payment.
From Monday 2 August this year, increased financial support was available for hundreds of thousands of Australian workers as they were affected by public health orders and restricted movements in their respective state jurisdictions. The current rates of the payment—$450 a week for those who have lost between eight and 20 hours of work, and $750 a week for those who have lost 20 or more hours of work—reflect the lessons that we learned from the JobKeeper program, in terms of making it temporary, time limited, specific and rapid assistance to the Australians who need it, meanwhile upholding our compact with the Australian taxpayer to get value for money and ensuring that the money is used responsibly. From Tuesday 3 August, just a day later, a $200-per-week payment was available to eligible income support recipients who have lost eight hours or more of work. It is not taxable, it will not be included in the income test and it does not need to be reported as income to Services Australia. Claims can be made simply through the myGov website and, indeed, payments are hitting bank accounts in less than 60 minutes in some cases. That expanded payment arrangement is available from day one of any lockdown.
The government are focused on encouraging those under lockdown at home to stay home and reduce the spread of the virus. They are also encouraging all Australians, obviously, to get vaccinated, because that is how we get out of this. That is how we allow our economy to prosper. That is how we get families reunited, whether they are split across state borders or split across the globe. Ultimately, we all want the same thing, and that is for opportunity to resume. Throughout this pandemic, the government have been focused on lives and livelihoods. We have responded to changes in information and we have responded to the needs of Australians, both those temporarily affected by lockdowns and those in need of a safety net, until they are able to secure gainful employment, as we would all hope they would. Ultimately, we stand by the success of these policy decisions and the impressive economic indicators through this pandemic, as we have seen unemployment drop to 4.6 per cent, we've seen participation rates hit near record highs and, indeed, we've seen a record high participation rate for females in the Australian workforce. That is what success looks like, and it upholds the compact with Australians that, when we take a dollar off them to give to an Australian in need, that Australian is genuinely in need.