Senate debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


COVID-19: Income Support Payments

5:16 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

[by video link] I too rise to speak on Senator Siewert's motion today that notes that the Morrison government has abandoned people in lockdowns on income support payments. I too would like to add some words and pay tribute to Senator Siewert on what is her last day in the federal parliament.

Senator Siewert, you are a senator who has never forgotten where you come from. You've never forgotten who you came into the parliament to fight for. In my time here, I've seen you do an amazing job of making sure that the invisible people of our country have a strong and loud voice. No doubt you will continue to make sure that the forgotten people of our country are heard as you go on with your life beyond this parliament. So thank you very much for all of the incredible work that you have done.

I'll now go to the motion that Senator Siewert has put forward today. The Prime Minister and the entire Morrison government have failed to adequately support the Australian people throughout this pandemic. This is what we've come to expect from a prime minister who would rather blame people—who would rather shift responsibility—than lead people through. Under this Prime Minister it's always someone else's responsibility. It's always someone else's job. This is a prime minister who would rather pick a fight with a state premier than help struggling Australians, and there are so many Australians who are struggling around the country today. He would rather let people slip through the cracks than admit that he's got something wrong.

During 2020 we all found out the hard way that financial support is absolutely critical to keeping people going through this pandemic, with the economic crisis that has resulted from the health crisis that we are all experiencing. We learnt in 2020 just how important consistent, reliable support that people can count on is to keeping people in jobs, keeping businesses afloat and helping people survive through what can only be described as extraordinarily difficult times.

But somehow, as we came into 2021, it seemed that this lesson of 2020 was really completely lost on the Morrison government. The government had decided, as it came into 2021, that the pandemic was already over—that it had ended at Christmas 2020. So they had already decided that the pandemic was over when they came into 2021, because, like everyone, they wanted it to be—because it was all just a little bit too hard, and because it was someone else's problem to keep coming up with solutions to keep the country going. But, as we know—and as we know the hard way right now, with millions of Australians locked down across the country—this virus doesn't take holidays like the Prime Minister does. This virus doesn't take holidays like the Morrison government does. It doesn't care about calendars. It doesn't care if you're over it.

And so, despite what we learned in 2020, when lockdowns commenced this year, in 2021, the Morrison government were too slow to start, to act on and to deliver the vital financial support that people needed and that people continue to need today—financial support that was essential to keep businesses afloat, financial support that was essential to keep workers in jobs, financial support that was essential for people who are reliant on social security to keep their heads above water, financial support that was vital to keeping families housed and keeping families fed. In March, despite this pandemic being far from over, the government decided that it was time to cancel JobKeeper. What an extraordinarily bad decision that was—the government cancelling JobKeeper payments, the very wage subsidy that had seen so many millions of Australians through the economic crisis that followed the health crisis in 2020. And they did this despite the calls from so many people that JobKeeper should not be ended early. So many people, including those on our benches, could see that it was way too early to end the financial support that people needed to keep their heads above water.

It wasn't until June this year that the government announced a new COVID disaster payment. Even then, it took them until the end of July to match the original JobKeeper rates and to include a payment for people who had lost work and who were on income support. During this time, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to scramble to make ends meet as their hours were cut and as jobs were lost. Hundreds of thousands of people—people who were already stressed by the health risks of the pandemic, people who were already stressed about whether they would have a job to go back to in the end, people who were already stressed about the impact on their children, about the impact on their elderly parents and about the impact on their communities. At a time when the country was again in the middle of the COVID crisis, the government were nowhere to be seen.

Right when people needed the government to have their backs, right when people needed the government to give them a break, right when they needed certainty about what was going to happen for them and for their families, the Morrison government told them to wait, just to hold tight—as the country started to lock down again—while the government figured out what their plan would be provide essential financial support, the kind of essential financial support that they had cut too early, despite the warnings. Instead, the Morrison government told people to wait and to raid their savings and to raid their superannuation—savings and superannuation that so many lower-waged Australians just don't have. The government told people to raid the superannuation that people should be able to keep for their retirement. The Morrison government had months to rebuild a financial support program for the next stage of this crisis, such as the third wave that we are facing right now. But, again, it was too late. It was too little and too late. It took four weeks into the Greater Sydney lockdown to finally build a package which equalled the original JobKeeper payment rates—that is four weeks into a lockdown when people were struggling. If only this government had learnt the lessons of 2020. If only they had rebuilt JobKeeper without the rorts.

The JobKeeper rorts saw $13 billion of taxpayer money paid to big businesses who went on to make profits. We've heard the Treasurer try to justify how this happened, but as the manager of the scheme he had the power to make changes to ensure that the scheme was working as the parliament intended and that the public money the people had entrusted the government with was spent appropriately. The Treasurer did nothing for six months while $13 billion of taxpayer money flowed straight into the pockets of some of Australia's wealthiest and most profitable companies and executives. That $13 billion was intended to support struggling businesses to keep their staff employed and keep their doors open during the pandemic, but it went instead directly into big business profits.

This government has made some efforts to recover JobKeeper payments. But those efforts have not been to recover JobKeeper payments from the businesses who used that public money to boost their profits and pay their executive bonuses—no, the government's efforts to recover JobKeeper payments have been focused on people who received them whilst on social security. What a complete disgrace! Eleven thousand people have been sent debt notices from this government, which has been trying to claw back the $33 million in overpayments—an average of around $3,000 per person. That is the priority that the government has put on recovering JobKeeper payments—not the $13 billion that went to companies that were making profits, to executive bonuses or to lining the bank accounts of companies that were already profitable but the payments that were made to people on social security. The hypocrisy of this government is extraordinary. The hypocrisy of this government knows absolutely no bounds. But none of us would be surprised by that because this is a government that always goes after the vulnerable people in our community first. It is always hard on the vulnerable and soft on the strong—that is the character of this Morrison government.

And who could forget what this government said to the victims of its illegal robodebt scheme? 'We'll find you, we'll track you down, and you will have to repay those debts. And you may end up in prison.' That is what the minister said to the victims of the illegal robodebt scheme. Meanwhile, it has left the companies who received $13 billion of taxpayer money to boost their profits completely off the hook. It is using an entirely different language to talk to those recipients of public welfare. 'We're not in the politics of envy,' Prime Minister Morrison said: 'If there are some companies that feel they want to hand that back, great. Good for them.' It's one rule for big business and it's another rule for struggling Australians under the Morrison government.

Labor do not accept that social security recipients should be hounded to pay back their debts while big businesses pocket $13 billion that it turns out they did not need. That's why we have been publicly calling for greater transparency about the payments of JobKeeper to large companies making big profits. In order to put pressure on these companies to pay back the money we need to know who received money and how much they got. This government has absolutely no plan to get back the $13 billion that companies have profited from.

That $13 billion should be put into perspective regarding what else that taxpayer money could have been used for. That is more than this government spent in a year on public schools. It is enough to have built fibre-to-the-home broadband for every urban home in Australia, and those of us who have been remotely calling in would have really appreciated that investment. It's almost $1,000 for every Australian adult. It's $13 billion which could have been used to support businesses still in lockdown due to this government's total failure to roll out the vaccine. It could have been used to properly fix the problems in aged care which this government has still not responded to, starting with a plan for the workers. It could have supported workers who this government left off JobKeeper in the first place—workers in our hardest-hit and most insecure industries, who this government told to just smash open their piggy banks and drain their superannuation while it let some of the richest companies pocket $13 billion. (Time expired)


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