Senate debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


COVID-19: Income Support Payments

4:52 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

[by video link] I will also take the opportunity to acknowledge Senator Siewert for being forthright and for the difference she's made for the unemployed and the employed—all the people who have been disadvantaged across the community—in giving them a voice. I would like to extend my very best wishes to her.

First of all, income support for workers, companies and the unemployed makes economic sense. The government's JobKeeper scheme made payments to businesses who otherwise would have been pressured to lay off staff due to the economic impact of COVID-19. The total cost of JobKeeper is likely to be around $90 billion, making it the largest one-off scheme the Australian government has ever run. Of course, to receive the payment, businesses and not-for-profits had to demonstrate or forecast a particular shortfall in revenue. Businesses with revenue over $1 billion needed a shortfall of 50 per cent, businesses with revenue under $1 billion needed a shortfall of 30 per cent, and not-for-profits needed a shortfall of 15 per cent.

According to analysis by the Parliamentary Budget Office, over the last six months of the scheme, $13 billion was paid to businesses which actually had increased revenue. We've seen the situation where millionaires make substantial profit on corporate welfare while the government fails to hold them to account and is unable to redistribute those resources to where they're needed. In the early months of JobKeeper 15 per cent of the money went to firms with rising earnings. These firms then received, as I say, $13 billion across the whole program.

Labor has led the public debate over JobKeeper misuse, pointing to firms such as Accent Group, AP Eagers and Best&Less as well as the men-only Australian Club and the King's School, which got JobKeeper despite increasing their earnings—and no call-back. A special mention should go out to Gerry Harvey. I could sum it up in a number of ways, but I think it has been summed up in a very nice way by Joe Aston in 'Rear window' in the AFR:

Harvey conducted a round of farcical media interviews in which he refused to even discuss his JobKeeper backflip and complained, "I've got certain people in the media that keep attacking me all the time."

He hung up on Rafael Epstein after (groundlessly) accusing the ABC Radio host of bullying him, the outlandish exchange ending with the immortal line: "You still there, Gerry Harvey? Hmmm, that hasn't happened in a while."

We struggle to empathise with Harvey or his harrowing persecution. This time four years ago, on national television, he was appealing for this columnist to be summarily executed.

And now Gerry would really prefer not to talk about JobKeeper at all. He has that much in common with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

This is the challenge of these arrangements, where only part of the money has, begrudgingly, been paid back. When you look at companies like Gerry Harvey's, which have been receiving corporate welfare whilst abusing those who receive welfare, saying it's illegitimate and improper, raises serious questions about Gerry Harvey and his entire business.

Some companies have repaid payments to a total of $225 million, which is only around 0.25 per cent of the total. Almost all of the repayments have come from public companies whose JobKeeper had to be reported in their annual reports. In New Zealand, which has an online register listing all recipients of payments from their wage subsidy scheme, around five per cent has been repaid. This is likely due to the fact that, under the New Zealand proposition, transparency was greater than under what was done by the Morrison government. The Morrison government are hiding behind their desire not to pursue these corporate welfare cheats, and they are, unfortunately, receiving support from crossbenchers who are not supporting the principle that all Australians and all businesses should be paying their fair share of tax and not ripping off the system.

To make matters worse, you've got one condition for the billionaires and another condition for the 11,000-plus people who received demands to pay back money they had received, much of which, from the reports that have been made public so far, was due to misinformation that they had received. You've got 11,000 struggling, poorly-paid people, trying to raise a family and trying to keep a roof over their heads, and then you've got Gerry Harvey and the $13 billion that those companies extorted—extorted—from the Australian public and taxpayers.

The real problem here is that the government don't want Australians to see how badly they steered the JobKeeper ship. When we see firms like Best&Less, which told their investors that JobKeeper was a one-off sugar hit that was never to be repeated, that's the sort of example that you don't need. If this money were available to the budget now, it could do more to support struggling businesses and the community. Of course, the government sent notices to the 11,000 Centrelink customers relating to JobKeeper payments. These notices were often for $1,000 or $2,000. Centrelink clients are paying them back out of their pensions at $10 or $15 a fortnight. After a single payment, they have paid more than many of the Australian billionaire shareholders and millionaire CEOs.

It's clear what the government's priority is. The government's priority regarding the situation that people are in with JobKeeper was also exemplified by its failure to turn around and include dnata aviation workers, many of whom had previously worked for Qantas when the company was bought by an overseas operator. Australians who had paid tax for many decades, aged on average in their late 40s, raising families, some supporting grandkids, failed to receive JobKeeper. Contrast that with the fact that the government had a $60 billion shortfall in what they'd planned to put into the economic recovery last year.

Of course, we then go to the situation of people who are in difficult financial circumstances. We now know that over 40 per cent of Australians are engaged in various forms of insecure work. When you don't have paid sick leave and you develop symptoms, your choice is either to go to work sick or to stay home without pay and go hungry. Some people have made the ludicrous statement that casual workers get a casual loading in lieu of paid sick leave, so they should have money saved. Tell that to people earning the minimum wage while raising a family and paying exorbitant housing costs and bills. Try telling that to aged-care workers, 90 per cent of whom are on casual or part-time contracts and earning below the minimum income needed to survive.

I'll turn now to road transport. The Morrison government has quite clearly abandoned food delivery riders, who are earning as little as $6.67 an hour on exploitative platforms like Uber and not getting any paid leave whatsoever, even as they perform essential and risky work delivering meals to people isolating in their homes. Then there are the parcel delivery drivers at Amazon, another group of Australian workers being exploited by a multinational tax dodge. The ABC expose last week showed the horrendous conditions at Amazon. Of course, Amazon calls them independent contractors. They're not human beings, not workers, not people carrying out a duty of care to make sure that deliveries are made on behalf of the company; no, they are independent contractors, which means they have no rights—no paid sick leave and no entitlement to the minimum wage. One driver, Alex Ayliff, said:

They've created an atmosphere of fear. They want drivers to think like they can't do anything wrong. They have to do what Amazon says, like it or lump it.

He went on to say:

But I would like to make enough money to actually live on. This is just no way to live.

Of course, this government, whether through its failure to give support to various groups or its lack of regulatory protection for some of the most disadvantaged workers, isn't really worried about how they make a living.

The TWU National Secretary, Michael Kaine, said:

The deadly recipe of wage theft, control and threat of the sack has been laid bare at AmazonFlex. Worker Alex Ayliff using AmazonFlex as his only source of income was left with under $18,000 in annual earnings after expenses.

Well, we've seen the amount of money that Amazon and other companies have made and continue to make out of the pandemic. Amazon and other companies at the top of the supply chain, like ALDI, are driving down pay and conditions for transport workers, such as truck drivers, across Australia, many of them owner-drivers. But there are no protections from this government and there is no voice for drivers under this government.

Why were thousands of Toll's drivers forced to go on strike last week? Because transport operators like Toll and FedEx are floundering under the pressure to compete with Amazon Flex's sham-contracting model. It is why Australia is facing weeks of disruption to food, alcohol and fuel supplies as workers are forced to fight threats of mass outsourcing. On this government's watch, the job security of hardworking Australians who have kept us going through this pandemic is being threatened because of the failure of the industrial relations system to give people fair and reasonable rights. Two weeks ago, Big Rigs reported that interstate operator Kevin Macdonald said that staff at the Shell roadhouse in Gilgandra—and this is where we get to the point of protecting people—denied him a sit-down meal because they had been threatened with a $5,000 fine by New South Wales police. To quote Macdonald: 'It is just crippling them. It's hurting them financially, and it's hurting the truck drivers.' I want to commend Mr Macdonald, Big Rigs and Senator Sterle, because after they raised this the Gilgandra issue was resolved. Mr Morrison should be making sure that there are clear and consistent rules about this nationwide. The government needs to be looking at the consequences and impacts of the decisions it has made over this period of time.

Even Mr Morrison's own workers in the Australian Public Service are being abandoned during the pandemic. At a hearing of the job security committee last week, we heard that APS workers are being outsourced to labour hire companies by the thousands. While APS workers are entitled to paid vaccine leave and paid leave if they have to isolate, labour hire companies like Hays, which received over $300 million from the federal government last year, are not giving their APS workers the same rights.

It's clear the pressure that small businesses in Western Sydney have been under, and this government has failed them. It has failed in its vaccine and quarantine rollout. I know that the government gets sick and tired of hearing this, but you did fail. Admit to your failures. You've put the Western Sydney community in such dire straits. You've failed to deliver the vaccine to the most remote Indigenous communities. You've failed to make sure that there is a proper system that applies to areas such as the tourism and aviation sectors. Even where governments have done a tremendous job of keeping COVID-19 out, such as in Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, there is still a heavy economic toll as a result of Mr Morrison's failures on vaccine and quarantine. In the Northern Territory, for example, tourism operators are suffering as a result of not having the same support the federal government provided last year. Tourism Central Australia CEO Danial Rochford said: 'The reality is that last year was bad but this year has been disastrous. The only difference is that we don't have the safety net that we had this time last year.'

This is the essence of the incompetency of this government: a failure to appropriately and adequately support the community in times of need, whilst picking winners and losers. Billionaires are the winners, and regular, hardworking people receiving welfare benefits are the losers. It's corporate welfare for one and persecution for the other.


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