Wednesday, 8 April 2020
Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020, Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus (Measures No. 2) Bill 2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 5) 2019-2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 6) 2019-2020; Second Reading
That these bills be now read a second time.
I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.
The speech read as follows—
CORONAVIRUS ECONOMIC RESPONSE PACKAGE OMNIBUS (MEASURES NO. 2) BILL 2020
APPROPRIATIONS BILL (NO.5) 2019-20
APPROPRIATIONS BILL (NO.6) 2019-20
Today I introduce the Government's third tranche of measures responding to the economic impacts of the Coronavirus. As with the previous package of measures, this legislation adheres to the principles announced by the Prime Minister. They are targeted, temporary, scalable, and utilise our existing tax and transfer system.
This package includes the $130 billion JobKeeper payment, which will support significantly affected businesses, not-for-profits and sole traders to help keep Australians in jobs. This historic wage subsidy will be available to around 6 million workers who will receive a flat payment of $1,500 per fortnight through their employer before tax, or approximately 70 per cent of the national median wage. This will help ensure the connections between employers and employees is maintained even through a period of hibernation.
These Bills also make amendments to existing laws to give the Government flexibility to respond quickly to challenges posed by the Coronavirus outbreak and to extend existing support to those Australians who are most in need.
Combined with the Government's previous actions, this totals $320 billion of economic support to Australian businesses, households and individuals affected by the Coronavirus outbreak to get them through to the other side and to put Australia in the best position possible to bounce back.
Fair Work Act amendments
This schedule will allow for the effective operation of the jobkeeper scheme within the national industrial relations system. It will quickly provide the certainty that employers using the jobkeeper payment need. By temporarily varying working arrangements where necessary, we can keep people employed. At the same time it will offer employees strong protections from employers misusing the provisions and certainty as to their entitlements under the jobkeeper scheme. These measures are time-limited to the COVID-19 crisis and are only accessible to businesses participating in the jobkeeper scheme, whose that really need this flexibility right now.
In order to manage a downturn in business caused by COVID-19, this schedule allows an employer to stand down an employee by directing them to work fewer days or reduced hours if the employee cannot be usefully employed because of the impact of the COVIDD-19 crisis on the business. It also allows an employer, where the employer reasonably believes it is necessary to maintain the employment of their employee, to direct an employee to work from a different location, such as the employee's home, or undertake different duties than usual, but only where the direction is safe to do so and reasonably within the scope of the businesses' operations. It further allows an employer to stand down an employee by directing them to work fewer days or reduced hours if the employee cannot be usefully employed because of the impact of the COVIDD-19 crisis on the business. An employer will also be able to request that an employee agree to change their days or time of work or use some of their annual leave, provided it does not result in the employee having a balance of less than two weeks annual leave.
This schedule includes strong protections for employees to ensure they are treated fairly in any direction by an employer. The schedule applies only to employers and employees who are eligible for the jobkeeper payment. Any direction issued by an employer under this schedule must be reasonable, the employer must consult with the employee about it, and it must be put it in writing. An employee can dispute a direction made by an employer and; the Fair Work Commission will be able to settle any such disputes, including by arbitration and serious penalties will apply to employers who misuse the provisions.
The JobKeeper Payment
The Government will provide financial support to businesses, not-for-profits and sole traders affected by the Coronavirus outbreak.
Under this framework, the Government intends to deliver a wage subsidy to those employers significantly impacted by the Coronavirus outbreak to continue paying their employees. The JobKeeper Payment will support employers to maintain their connection to their employees, helping them to reactivate their operations quickly – without having to rehire staff – when the crisis is over.
Eligibility for the JobKeeper Payment will be set out in rules made by the Treasurer. The JobKeeper Payment will be payable to an eligible employer who chooses to participate in the scheme, for a maximum of 26 weeks in respect of each employee that is on their books on 1 March 2020 and is retained or continues to be engaged by that employer. The program commenced on 30 March 2020, the day of its announcement. Eligible businesses can begin distributing the JobKeeper payment immediately and will be reimbursed from the first week of May.
This schedule will also help new parents who have been stood down during the Coronavirus pandemic to retain their eligibility for the Government's Paid Parental Leave scheme by allowing the JobKeeper payment to qualify as work for the purposes of the Paid Parental Leave work test.
This change will provide increased certainty and security for expectant families through this difficult time.
To assist Services Australia to assess claims for social security payments, the Bill allows temporary modifications to Part 5 of the Social Security (Administration)
Technical amendments to the Guarantee of Lending Act
We are making a minor amendment to the Guarantee of Lending to Small and Medium Enterprises (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Act 2020.
The amendment will ensure that smaller lenders that are non-authorised deposit-taking institutions are eligible for the Government's Coronavirus Small and Medium Enterprises Guarantee Scheme. This reflects the Government's original policy intent to enable a wide range of lenders to be eligible for this scheme.
Amendments to support the child care sector
The Government will assist families who are already struggling with the financial impact of the Coronavirus by updating the calculation method used at Child Care Subsidy Balancing for individuals who have changed their relationship status during the financial year.
We will ensure that this cohort of families' Child Care Subsidy entitlements more closely reflects their income capacity as it changes throughout the year. This change will take effect at reconciliation from July 2020 onwards.
This measure will ensure funding of the Community Child Care Fund Special Circumstances Grant program and the Additional Child Care Subsidy through special appropriations. It gives the Government flexibility to respond quickly to community need in the event of unforeseen events such as the recent bushfires, drought and Coronavirus.
Modification of information and other requirements
The Government is responding to challenges posed by social distancing measures and restrictions on movement and gathering which were introduced to respond to the Coronavirus pandemic.
We will provide a temporary mechanism to alter arrangements for meeting information and documentary requirements under Commonwealth legislation, including requirements to give information in writing and produce, witness and sign documents.
In recognition of the importance of continued business transactions and government service delivery during the Coronavirus pandemic, this schedule provides that a responsible Minister may determine that provisions are varied, do not apply or that another provision specified in the determination applies, for a specified time period. The mechanism is temporary and will be repealed at 31 December 2020. Any determination made under the mechanism will also cease to operate at this time.
Additional support for Veterans
We will ensure that payments and assistance for veterans and their dependents can be amended in line with future changes to payments and assistance for equivalent social security recipients.
The Coronavirus supplement will be extended to veterans or their dependents who receive payments on the same basis as those Department of Social Services payment recipients who receive the Coronavirus supplement.
The schedule will include a provision for the Minister for Veterans' Affairs to make a legislative instrument under which payments of the Coronavirus supplement could be paid to a person receiving a payment or a benefit under the veterans' law for the same period as payments of the Coronavirus supplement are payable under the Social Security Act 1991 (the SSA).
For both of the provisions under which the Minister for Veterans' Affairs may make a legislative instrument, the Minister must be satisfied that the determination was made in response to circumstances relating to the Coronavirus pandemic and the Social Services Minister is to be consulted before the determination is made.
This legislation will ensure the Government is equipped to respond to this unprecedented challenge with the best available information. Under this schedule, the ATO will temporarily be allowed to disclose relevant de-identified data to the Treasury for the purpose of policy development or analysis in relation to the Coronavirus, including any programs introduced in response to the economic impacts of the Coronavirus.
Treasury currently is able to access de-identified information from the ATO for the purpose of designing or amending a tax law, estimating or analysing taxation revenue, and estimating the cost of policy proposals.
Full details of these measures are contained in the Explanatory Memorandum.
This package of legislation also includes Appropriation Bill (No. 5) 2019-20 and Appropriation Bill (No. 6) 2019-20. The details of these Bills are set out in their accompanying explanatory memoranda.
I commend these bills.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important legislation today. This package of bills forming the government's third economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic is largely built around the $130 billion JobKeeper payment. To begin with, I'd like to acknowledge those workers who are keeping the place going—frontline workers providing the health response, workers in our supermarkets, tradies, cleaners, garbage collectors, truckies and public servants right around the country in both state and territory and federal governments who are all turning up to work every day to keep the rest of us at home or at home as much as we can be.
It's very clear that in just four short months COVID-19 has really changed the world as we knew it and as we all understood it and how it operated. I don't think anyone could have predicted the virus, the extent of the virus, the challenges presented by the virus, or, indeed, the impacts it's having on the global economy, on individual countries, on individual cities and on all of us and our families. It's changed the way we live, the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we shop and the way we educate our children. So many of the things we thought were fixed and immovable have been upended and thrown into a world of uncertainty, and for some—way too many—with devastating consequences. The lines outside Centrelink, the calls to our offices, the emails and letters coming in outlining individual circumstances for individual businesses, local businesses, long-term businesses, all tell the stories of the economic reality of what happens when a busy, thriving economy is changed in just a few days. It is for these people that we are here today.
COVID-19 touches all of us, not only in our jobs but personally—talking to the children about why they can't go to school and why they can't see their friends and family, and not being able to answer the questions that children most need us to, which are: 'When is it going to be back to normal?' and 'When will things get better?' None of us can answer those questions at this point in time other than to reassure that we know it will be one day.
My sister, who I'm very proud of every day anyway, rises every morning to her job as the senior nurse on the ward that cares for COVID-19 patients. For 30 years she has tirelessly cared for people, often in the background but with dedication and professionalism, and today she finds herself right on the front line. You really can't get any closer than she is, providing care and compassion to those who fall sick and are hospitalised from this awful virus. She won't see her adult children or her grandchild or really any of us for some time, as she keeps herself away to ensure that the rest of us are safe. She and her colleagues are the bravest of the brave, and their fearlessness and dedication to their profession provides instruction to all of us. It is for my sister and her colleagues all around the country that we are here today. Compared to those on the front line, we have a relatively straightforward job to do here.
We must pass these bills to support the economic response to COVID-19, just as we have with the previous packages. We will raise our concerns with aspects of the government's response, and we will move second reading amendments about those issues which we have raised publicly and on which the government, at this stage, has refused to budge. But we will not block these bills—despite them not being perfect and not being exactly as we would have designed them in government—because six million workers and their families are relying on us doing the right thing today.
This third response brings the total financial support provided as part of the economic response to COVID-19 to over $300 billion. Throughout this time, over the last couple of months, Labor's priority has been to ensure we support the economy; protect jobs; help Australian workers, businesses, families and communities through this difficult time; and ensure that vulnerable Australians are supported. We have been supportive of the government measures and we have been working constructively in a bipartisan manner. This is the same when it comes to the JobKeeper payment before us today. We'll be ensuring that it passes through the parliament today, because a wage subsidy was something that Labor had called for the government to introduce. In fact, I think last time we were here, when we were debating the second economic response package, we were calling on the government to consider a wage subsidy to make sure that employers were in a position to retain workers.
The JobKeeper payment will provide $1,500 per fortnight for every eligible employee. These employees have to be full time, part time or casuals employed on a regular and systemic basis for more than 12 months as at 1 March 2020 and be at least 16 years old. They also have to be an Australian citizen, a holder of a permanent visa or a special category subclass 444 visa holder as at 1 March 2020. Employers, including not-for-profits, will be eligible for the subsidy if their turnover has fallen, or will likely fall, by 30 per cent or more, for businesses with an annual turnover of less than $1 billion, or by 50 per cent for those with a turnover of over $1 billion and not subject to the bank levy. There's a carve-out for charities where they only have to show a turnover reduction of 15 per cent.
The legislation before us sets out the mechanism by which the Australian Taxation Office can administer the JobKeeper payment program. Rules will be made by the Treasurer, setting out eligibility details and details of the administration of the program. The fact that these details are in rules means that there is significant flexibility regarding how the program will operate into the future, and the Treasurer is able to widen eligibility as required. The tax commissioner will also have significant discretion in the administration of the program and will publish detailed guidance for businesses, including how to self-assess a reduction in turnover, how alternative tests may be applied to assess eligibility and how consolidated groups of companies can independently assess isolated entities.
It must be made clear that our support for the JobKeeper payment does not change the fact that Labor has concerns with the measures—namely with the groups of people who will miss out on the valuable support offered through this program. And we're not talking about a small cohort either. One point one million casual workers will be left out because they've worked for their current employer for less than a year. This includes a large number of casual teachers, many of whom have been reaching out to their MPs over the last couple of weeks; temporary migrant workers who are not eligible for JobKeeper, jobseeker payment or the coronavirus supplement; local government workers who have been stood down; and charities, who, while the government did act recently to lower the turnover reduction threshold to 15 per cent, may still miss out because of the grants they receive. Disability service providers may miss out, as may universities and non-government schools, as my colleague the member for Sydney outlined in the other place today. Many of my colleagues in this place and the other place have been inundated with correspondence from people concerned about how their individual circumstance may mean that they miss out on the JobKeeper payment.
Whilst we will be raising these issues in our second reading amendments—and they have, of course, been raised in the other place prior to this debate—we do acknowledge that there is significant flexibility provided to the Treasurer to widen eligibility for the JobKeeper payment, and indeed the Treasurer himself acknowledged that in question time today. We know—and all of those out there who are doing it really tough and falling between the gaps know—that there is nothing preventing the Treasurer and government from providing JobKeeper to these groups other than their current refusal to do so. They could act and ensure that more jobs are protected. We know the Prime Minister has said that all jobs are essential jobs. This gives them the opportunity to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, because this would ensure that more people are brought into a scheme that protects more jobs.
These concerns that I have raised, and that my colleagues will raise in the second reading debate, add to the issues that we have about the government's economic response in general, which include the issue of residential renters; the early release of funds from superannuation accounts, which we believe risks undermining retirement incomes and should have only been used as a last resort, not the first stop; and the speed and urgency with which the economic support is going out.
But as our leader, Mr Albanese, has said today in the other place, despite our concerns, we will deal with this legislation today. We will not engage in a situation where the legislation could get blocked between chambers. That is not an option. The six million people who are waiting for this wage subsidy and the businesses that employ them require us to pass this legislation today. Unfortunately, our amendments did not succeed in the House, and the government have shown in a very clear and concrete way that they are not prepared to support the reasonable amendments that we put forward. As such, it's very clear that, if we were to pass amendments in this chamber, they would return to the House and we would get ourselves in a situation which I don't think the Australian people looking on us today would expect us to engage in. They want their parliament to act in their interests and the interests of all of those people who have been affected. We've done that with the first and second package, and we will do that with the third.
I move the second reading amendment that has been circulated in my name:
At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:
(a) notes that this legislation gives the Treasurer extraordinary powers to include those not currently eligible for the JobKeeper Payment; and
(b) calls on the Treasurer to use his power under this legislation to ensure more jobs are protected and that struggling, otherwise viable businesses and organisations are able to access the JobKeeper Payment".
This amendment goes to the extraordinary powers that the Treasurer has been given to essentially set the rules on eligibility for the JobKeeper payment and calls on the Treasurer to use this power under the legislation to ensure more jobs are protected and that struggling but otherwise viable businesses and organisations are able to access the JobKeeper payment. The power is there; the capacity is there. At the moment the will is not there, but we urge the Treasurer and the government to use this power and to ensure that more people are offered the support that they are after.
I would just like to make a couple of comments around the appropriation bills, which we support as part of this package. We do think it's important that the supplementation is provided for agencies that have been inundated and those that have lost revenue and are providing a high level of quality service to the people of Australia through the departments. Today the bills seek to appropriate about $650-odd million across a range of departments that are being affected one way or another by the coronavirus and indeed other important payments to the non-government sector to respond to issues of increased demand around domestic violence and food bank programs. We do support those. Also, with the $40 billion advance to the finance minister provision, we accept the government's point that it may need access to those funds earlier than what would normally be available through the financial year and that this access to those funds should be made available from an earlier date—I think from April. We believe that is a sensible approach, and we support the government's amendment to allow that to happen with the conditions that have been placed on that from the last debate, which are working well.
In conclusion, I think the job for us today is very clear. Whilst this scheme is not perfect, it is a big deal. It is something that we had called for, and we are pleased that the government has responded in this way. There are too many people with uncertain futures. There are too many businesses worried about how to get through the next few months. And this parliament, through the passage of this legislation today, can offer them a bit of light in what has been a very difficult and challenging time. Perhaps this is the most important job we'll do for a little while. It is important, and we need to stand up to the challenge, because workers right around this country are doing that every day. As the world has changed, our lives have changed. Restrictions have come in, and we need to play our bit there too. The sooner we can deal with this, the sooner we can get back to our constituents and start dealing with the very real day-to-day problems that many people are having and encourage everyone to stay home, to stay safe, and to keep other people safe.
I rise to speak to the package of coronavirus bills that have come before us today. This is not an easy time for anyone. I'd again like to acknowledge and commend the immense efforts of our nurses, our doctors, our paramedics, our cleaners, our pharmacists, our aged-care workers and our supermarket staff—all of those who are helping us get through this most challenging time. We recognise the immense risk that healthcare workers in particular are taking to save others, and we will be pushing to make sure that they've got the personal protective equipment and the ICU beds that they need to tackle this crisis. We'll be proposing changes to allow healthcare workers to access workers compensation if they test positive for coronavirus, without having to prove that they contracted it at work.
Our hearts go out to all those who have lost loved ones, to people who have the virus and to those who have family members or friends who are unwell. To families and friends who are separated by isolation and those who are struggling without the social interactions that usually sustain them—again, we are thinking of you and we are you. In these uncertain times, the financial difficulties and anxiety continue to put a strain on support services. So I'd like to acknowledge the social workers, the mental health support teams, the frontline domestic and family violence workers, the child support agencies and others who are working tirelessly to keep people safe in this pressure-cooker environment. Experience in other countries shows that these services, sadly, can expect to be stretched for many months to come. And whilst I welcome the announcements made to date for increased family violence crisis accommodation, support for referral services and a funding reprieve for the crucial WESNET safe phones program, it's still not enough to meet increased demand and keep everybody safe from family and domestic violence. I urge the government to provide the significant extra funding that's needed to allow frontline family violence services to actually keep up with demand and make sure no-one is turned away.
The Greens also acknowledge teachers, who've borne the brunt of policy uncertainty for weeks and who'll spend their Easter break working on ways to deliver classes remotely in term 2, often whilst homeschooling their own children at the same time. We acknowledge the early childhood education workers, who have been at the forefront of our collective response to this pandemic.
This crisis has highlighted the essential link between accessible and free child care and workforce participation, and the Greens will push for child care to remain free once this pandemic has concluded. But we also recognise that the risks to those workers are immense, and we will continue to insist that early childhood teachers have options to protect their health and have access to appropriate personal protective equipment.
The Greens would also like to acknowledge the millions of parents who are struggling to work from home whilst homeschooling their kids and mediating between warring siblings trapped indoors, caring for elderly relatives and negotiating changes to shared care arrangements whilst maintaining their own mental health.
As the Greens spokesperson on women and a proud feminist, I would also like to reiterate my colleague Senator Faruqi's observation at the last parliamentary sitting that this is also a gendered crisis. Women are disproportionately represented in the frontline roles needed to respond to this crisis. Eighty per cent of our healthcare workers are women, 70 per cent of pathology services are provided by women, and the majority of teachers, carers, cleaners and social service providers are women.
Women are disproportionately represented in the short-term casual roles that are currently ineligible for the JobKeeper support, especially those in the hospitality, healthcare and retail sectors. They are also disproportionately at risk of domestic and family violence whilst in isolation with an abusive partner, and women will, sadly, also bear a disproportionate load of the caring required to see us through this crisis.
We will be proposing amendments today that address some of those issues, but as a society we have a lot to do to address this gender imbalance in the future. After a summer of bushfires and now a pandemic, it's clearer than ever that Australians are all in this together, and we need to support each other.
On transparency, I want to touch on the importance of democratic institutions in a crisis. Some decisions need to be made efficiently, and decisive actions need to be taken in an emergency, but the scale of this crisis and the response that's required means we need more transparency and not less. We need more oversight and more debate to make sure that we're making public health decisions that are informed by the best expert health advice and to make sure that we're targeting funds to those who need them the most. This can make sure we come out the other side of this crisis in the strongest, fairest and most equitable and sustainable position possible.
The Greens support the oversight committee that was established earlier today, although we are disappointed that our amendments, which would have allowed the Prime Minister and ministers in the other place to be called, were not supported. But we also believe that parliament should continue to sit during this crisis, and we've called on the government to find ways to make that happen.
Critically, given the limited oversight that's available outside of parliament, we must make sure that any regulatory actions enabled by these bills are strictly confined, and I'll be moving an amendment to restrict the rule-making powers given to relevant ministers.
The country's response to this crisis will be judged on how well we managed the health risks but also on how well we helped those who needed help to survive in this difficult period. Whilst we welcome the increase in Newstart, now called jobseeker allowance—something which my colleague Senator Siewert has been championing for 10 years and which we probably wouldn't have seen happen without the efforts of her and the sector—we will be fighting to make that increase permanent once this pandemic is over.
From the outset of this pandemic, we have said that a wage subsidy was the most equitable way to offer security to the people who are most affected, and we're pleased that the government has finally come around and supported this intent behind the JobKeeper scheme. But we are concerned that those schemes still fail to cover a number of critical and vulnerable sectors of our society: casual workers, migrant workers and international students, and people receiving the disability support payment and the carer payment. So my colleagues and I will be proposing a number of amendments to plug those holes in the safety net and make sure that no-one is left behind.
On casual workers, every job that we're able to keep through this crisis is a job we don't have to re-create when we get through the other side. When large-scale events were first being shut down, the arts and hospitality industries were the first to ring the alarm bells. They warned that this crisis wouldn't put just their jobs in jeopardy but would risk the stability of their entire industry. Festivals, concerts, music halls and theatre productions have been shut for weeks. These closures have pushed arts workers to the brink, but, despite being some of the worst off, they're getting nothing from today's package.
We've heard from a flood of people that have been working in the service industry for years but have been shut out of the support because they've recently moved jobs. By limiting the jobseeker and JobKeeper payments to people who've worked for their current employer for more than a year, the government has shown they don't understand the modern workforce. If they'd spoken to young people or people who work in hospitality or arts or the tourism industry, they'd know that many industries rely on seasonal and irregular work. Bartenders, tour guides and even teachers are now expected to move through several workplaces and are just as important to the success of a workplace whether they've been there for two months or two years. The arts, hospitality and tourism sectors have high levels of seasonal unemployment, and this package has done nothing for them. My colleague will be moving an amendment to address that and we hope to receive support, although sadly we are not expecting that to occur. Last time we were here, the government made a mistake by refusing to accept the Greens amendments to include wage and job guarantees in their stimulus legislation. We acknowledge that they have now redressed that, but today they are making a mistake by leaving over one million casual workers behind.
On temporary visas, over a million people have chosen to make Australia home, helping make our country stronger by contributing their skills and paying taxes here. They've been contributing like any other person here, but, when they've needed help, this government has turned its back on them. Many work in sectors that are essential to our survival during this time: health, aged and disability care, agriculture and child care.
The government has made changes to visa arrangements in order to gather a workforce to help our farmers, acknowledging that these visa holders fill a critical workforce gap. Despite this, the government refuses to extend eligibility for JobKeeper to them. Many of these folk are also ineligible for Medicare, and that is a very scary thought during a global pandemic. How does the government think these people will get by? They aren't eligible for any support for being out of work, they can't get any support to stay in work, they've got bills piling up and, with international flights being cancelled across the board, many will find it difficult or impossible to go back home. This isn't just a betrayal of the workers who put their faith in Australia; it's a betrayal of the businesses that choose to employ them. If an employer has chosen to employ migrant workers, today the government is punishing them for that decision. This will particularly harm the service and hospitality industries.
Universities have also been left out in the cold. Many universities these days rely on a casualised workforce. They are trying their best to get through this crisis but they've been hit for years by declining government funding. They've had their enrolment numbers hit hard through bans on international travel and they're now being told by the government that their employees aren't worth keeping on. What an insult. Universities are incredibly important and should be protected. They taught the scientists who are working around the clock to find a vaccine and save people's lives. And they're not only places of learning but also play a massive role in our communities. Think of the important community radio stations that are run out of universities, of the fact-checking units that keep us all accountable, and the contributions that they make to local business and community programs. These institutions will provide vital recovery opportunities from this crisis. We're going to need highly skilled workers to pull us out of this recession, and without universities we're going to find it a lot tougher to find them.
Under the JobKeeper scheme, charities are only eligible for the subsidy if they estimate that their turnover has fallen by 15 per cent relative to a comparable period. And while this helps some charities, those that rely on large government grants won't be able to demonstrate the 15 per cent decline in revenue if tied grants are included. That's why my colleague will be moving an amendment to address that.
Now, on to disability support payments and carers. The COVID-19 supplement has been a welcome relief for many recipients of income support, but two key groups continue to miss out—carers and those on disability support pensions—and yet the living costs that they face are higher in these self-isolation days. Instead of the extra $550 a fortnight that has allowed so many Australians to be pulled from poverty, many carers and DSP recipients are still living with the threat of eviction, hunger and worrying about keeping the lights on. The Minister for Families and Social Services was given extraordinary powers in the last sitting of parliament to extend the supplement to other categories of income support recipients. With the stroke of a pen she could help DSP recipients and carers survive this crisis, and the Greens urge her to do just that.
On renters, housing is a human right. Keeping a roof over people's heads during this crisis is surely the most fundamental thing that we could do. The government can't tell people to stay at home, but it looks the other way when this crisis puts people in a financial situation so tenuous that they don't know if they can pay the rent. The Greens have heard from so many people who've been threatened with eviction by their landlord in the same week that they've also lost their job. We've also heard stories of landlords who've reduced or waived rents, and we commend that, but leaving it to the goodwill of individual landlords is not enough. National cabinet met yesterday and again failed to come up with a national plan to support tenants. We've had broad aspirational statements but no legislation from this government. We need a solution. Our Greens' colleagues in several state parliaments have secured temporary bans on eviction to give tenants security during this crisis. That's fantastic, but we need a national eviction ban and we need rent holidays for tenants who are struggling to meet payments during this crisis.
This crisis has highlighted the extent to which Australia's safety net has been picked away at for 30 years. We've decimated the public health system and the social security system, we've become over-reliant on so-called corporate responsibility, and we've hollowed out the manufacturing sector. That means we weren't as well set up to face this crisis as we could and should have been. In just a few short weeks we've seen the beginnings of a stimulus that could set us up for better things and play to our collective strengths. We've seen the importance of a strong social safety net, and it's my hope that the structures that we are rapidly rebuilding in this crisis will be retained. It's a chance to think how we want this country to go forward, and hope to dream for a better future. We are all in this together, so let's not leave anyone behind.
I will be moving the Australian Greens second reading amendment on sheet 8950, which has been circulated in the chamber in my name. This amendment would ensure that all casuals, people on temporary visas, those in the gig economy and those in universities and charities can fully access JobKeeper. I want to flag that we've heard some statements by the government that they won't be countenancing any amendments. Well, shame on them. That is the job of this parliament: to scrutinise this legislation, to seek to improve it, to make sure that no-one is left behind. That is precisely what the Greens' amendments will be doing today, and we urge folk in the chamber to give them serious consideration and to act on them—if not today, then at least to use those discretionary powers which various ministers have been granted under these laws to close those gaps, to genuinely not leave anyone behind. If we are indeed all in this together, then that's the least we can do.
We're here today to help save Australian jobs, to save Australian households and families, to save the Australian economy and the Australian community. Today is not about catchy names or slogans; it's not about political pointscoring or personal backslapping. Today, just like nurses and police, childcare workers and supermarket workers, we're just doing our jobs so that Australians can keep theirs.
Labor supports this JobKeeper legislation because it is the right thing to do. JobKeeper is a wage subsidy. It's a policy that Labor, the union movement, the business sector and many groups in our society argued for long before the government took action. If it weren't for those who called for a wage subsidy for Australian workers, we would not be here today. When asked about a wage subsidy on Sky News on 27 March, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Cormann, ruled it out. Now, just 12 days later, we are legislating a wage subsidy to keep Australians employed. We are pleased that the government have listened. They have worked co-operatively with the trade union movement. They have listened to the business community. They have listened to the pleas of millions of Australians who are losing their jobs. Our intention throughout this crisis has always been to work constructively with the government, to highlight emerging issues and, where possible, suggest solutions.
The JobKeeper payment will see a flat wage subsidy of $1,500 a fortnight for six months for employees of businesses that have had a significant revenue downturn. Labor's priority is to protect jobs; to help Australian workers, businesses and families through this difficult time; and to ensure that vulnerable Australians are supported. That's why we will support this legislation and facilitate its passage through the parliament today. We say to Australians: we are on your side because we are all in this fight together.
Now, Labor will continue to be supportive, constructive and responsible throughout this crisis when it comes to addressing both the health and the economic responses. Where Labor have had concerns we have raised them. We have raised them today about charities, about local government workers, about university workers, about casual workers who have been with their employer for less than 12 months and about temporary visa holders. Indeed, Labor in the other place, in the House of Representatives, moved a substantive motion seeking to have these workers incorporated in the JobKeeper program. The government voted against that amendment. The government deliberately voted against our amendment to keep those workers in the JobKeeper program.
I say to those on the crossbench who are going to move amendments later: I understand your desire to do so, but understand this: you are engaging in an exercise in futility with a government that has already made its position crystal clear. It will not support those amendments. We want to see the JobKeeper legislation, which will see some six million Australian workers get the direct wage subsidy that they desperately need, the certainty that they need, delivered as soon as possible. We cannot risk engaging in some kind of repetitive bounce-back around the chambers with a government that has already made clear that it will not support these amendments.
I want to turn in my capacity as shadow minister for home affairs, immigration and citizenship to the issue of temporary visa holders. Let me say up-front that I actually agree with the Prime Minister when he says that temporary visa holders in Australia should go home during this health crisis. He is right. I'm sure many of those temporary visa holders would like to go home during this crisis. The reality is that many of the 1.6 million visa holders in Australia—I dare say most of them—are not able to go home right now. They are not able to go home because borders have been closed. They are not able to go home because international airlines have been shut down. So the reality is most temporary visa holders are now stuck here in Australia. No matter how often the Prime Minister says they should go home, the reality is most of them simply cannot. That means that they are here in Australia for the duration of this health crisis.
Yesterday I had a Zoom call with migrants living in Australia on temporary visas. These are people who have jobs or who have recently lost jobs because of the coronavirus crisis. One of them said to me that they feel like they are currently living through the certainty of the uncertainty. Well, that's what we're all living through right now. We are all facing this crisis together. I want to acknowledge that, of the 1.6 million visa holders—that figure includes New Zealanders—the government has, through this package, given 444 visa holders, people from New Zealand, access to JobKeeper. I thank them for that. It is a position Labor has been advocating. But, regardless of where visa holders come from or what visa they might be on, these people are members of our community. They're our neighbours, our co-workers, our friends. These people are like you and I. They work hard, they pay taxes, they are building lives and relationships here in Australia, but 1.1 million of them are not eligible for JobKeeper payments.
Many of these people will have been in Australia for years. Some of them will have built their own businesses. The reality is this virus is not going to check anyone's visa status before it infects them. All of us in the country are vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. A survey undertaken by Unions NSW of over 5,000 respondents showed that 70 per cent of temporary migrants in Australia are now unemployed as a direct impact of COVID-19. One in two temporary migrants are currently living off savings but expect these to run out within a matter of weeks. A staggering 43 per cent of temporary migrants are already skipping meals on a regular basis, while 98.7 per cent of temporary migrants receive no form of government support, and only 1.5 per cent had accessed support from a charity.
We acknowledge the government has also listened to another of Labor's requests—that is, to give temporary visa holders early access to their superannuation. I acknowledge in the chamber here that Senator Hume, the assistant minister for superannuation, has made this change. It's a position that Stephen Jones, my colleague in the other place, had been advocating. This is not a position Labor would normally advocate for—early access to super—but, given the large number of people on temporary visas in Australia and the absence of other support, this is a fair and equitable proposition. But, despite these small steps, this is not enough. If the 1.1 million visa holders in Australia who don't have access to JobKeeper—who don't have access to jobseeker either—are not able to access any form of income support, they're going to be forced to keep working or keep seeking work. They risk homelessness. They risk impoverishment. If they cannot self-isolate, that puts every public health measure we are currently enacting at risk. It is no good for the Australian community to be practising self-isolation if we have over a million people living in the country who cannot self-isolate because they lack income support or access to medical testing or treatment. We risk prolonging this crisis if we ignore what is happening to over a million people currently living in this community.
Today's legislation does give the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, broad discretion to expand JobKeeper to other classes of workers by regulation. And I would say this to the Treasurer: it is in our national interest for you to do this. It is in our public health interest for you to expand JobKeeper to temporary migrant workers. The Treasurer will be able to, with a stroke of his pen, make this change. We don't have to recall parliament; we don't have to have another piece of legislation passed. This discretionary power is similar to the one that was given to the minister for social services, Anne Ruston, at the last sitting of parliament when it came to jobseeker payments. She is able, with a stroke of her pen, to incorporate temporary visa holders into the social services system. Following the passage of this legislation today, the only two people standing in the way of temporary visa holders being able to access income support and social services support are the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and the minister for social services, Anne Ruston. They have been given extraordinary powers by this parliament in this extraordinary and unprecedented crisis, and we encourage them for the sake of Australia's national interest to use those powers.
Migrants, both newly arrived and permanently settled, have stepped up to support the broader Australian community during this crisis. Colombo Social, a Sri Lankan restaurant in Newtown in my state of New South Wales, provides employment for asylum seekers and supports their integration into Australia. The restaurant, of course, is now closed, but they're keeping the kitchen open to help feed vulnerable communities in Sydney, providing up to 2,000 meals a day free of charge. I've seen the Sikh community—Turbans 4 Australia they call themselves—on the streets of our capital, delivering hot meals and hampers. As the immigration minister himself said on the weekend, there are 8,000 skilled medical professionals on temporary visas, helping fight the coronavirus on the frontline. This includes thousands of international student nurses on visas, as well as nurses on working holiday-maker visas, who've had their visa requirements relaxed by the government so they can work as nurses after Labor called for this to happen.
The irony here is almost grotesque, though. We have thousands of temporary migrants working on the front line of our health system to keep Australians as safe and well as possible during this COVID-19 crisis. But if those very same temporary migrant workers fell sick themselves, what kind of support would they get from Australia? Would they get income support to self-isolate? Would they get access to Medicare, medical assessment and treatment? It is grotesque to consider the fact that we are relying on temporary migrant workers to help us through this crisis but we are not giving them the support that they need to be part of our community and to be included in the measures we are all taking—the extraordinary measures—to keep our community and our economy safe.
Like so many actions by this government, we have been frustrated that they failed to have a comprehensive plan to manage the return to this country of those Australians who are stranded overseas, as well as to assist temporary migrants to depart. My colleague Senator Wong has been encouraging the government to deploy Qantas and Virgin to bring Australians stuck overseas back home. I wrote to the minister for immigration on 20 March to say: 'What a good idea. Why don't you use the outbound legs of those flights to help temporary migrants have affordable options to depart Australia before the brunt of this crisis hits us?' Regrettably, the government has chosen to bury its head in the sand.
The Prime Minister, the Minister for Home Affairs and indeed the minister for social services in this chamber today can cry out all they like that temporary visa migrants can go home but, when international borders are closed and there are no international airline flights, to tell them to go home is simply futile. The reality is many of the 1.6 million temporary visa holders in Australia are trapped here. Putting in place a plan to help temporary migrants depart Australia should not be beyond the government. Rescuing Australian citizens trapped overseas should not either. And supporting those people who are trapped here to keep Australia's public health as safe as possible should be a sensible measure this government takes up.
I'll conclude on this point: just as Labor is committing to helping all Australians, we're committed to scrutinising the government's response to the COVID-19 crisis. We will do that in the newly established Senate select committee chaired by Senator Gallagher to ensure that all Australians are being protected during this crisis—indeed, that all people in Australia are being protected during this crisis. I look forward to being a member of the committee and working with my colleagues, the crossbench and the members opposite alike.
We're here today because this crisis has ground our economy, our community and our way of life to a halt. Australians are resilient, but at times they look to their government, they look to their parliament, for help. This is exactly what this package does. The measure of a society is how it treats the most vulnerable in its community. This package, while it is flawed, will help millions of Australians who are incredibly vulnerable right now. Labor is very pleased that the government has taken up the recommendation to have a direct wage subsidy. This is a significant moment in Australian history. It's a significant move by this government, and we acknowledge it. It comes after significant lobbying by the Australian trade union movement, the Labor Party, the business community and civil society, and we're pleased the government have listened.
We will continue to work together to fight through this health and economic crisis as Australians, because the livelihood and the lives of all Australians depend upon it. As I conclude, I foreshadow I will be moving the second reading amendment circulated in my name.
As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I want to discuss our people's health and safety, the security of our national economy and our national economic recovery in the near future and the long term, because no-one is discussing the key issue, and One Nation has solutions. I remind people of government's three primary roles: to protect life, protect property and protect freedom. Importantly, in democracies, those governing do so only with the permission of the people governed, and those governing are responsible to the people. I will in this speech discuss a former prime minister who I had respected until I did my research.
I want to thank everyone who is caring for us and keeping us safe, including healthcare workers, police, defence, emergency workers and everyone serving others, including helping to supply and feed us, provide electricity generation, cleaners, garbage collection, water supply and many more. Many of us feel gutted that this year will be the first time Anzac Day public commemorations have been called off. This illustrates the seriousness of the threat we face.
Firstly, health and safety: this must be every government's primary focus. There is no manual on dealing with COVID-19, so while I empathise with government's challenge, people want answers. People are feeling confused, afraid and concerned. Some feel lost, grieving for those dying and there is grief for our country. Some people are angry. Many are still living in disbelief. Why? It is because people want to know what has to be done, why it has to be done, how long before it's over and what it will cost—financial, social, personal, mental and emotional. Remember, we have to pay these bills. People have a right to know the fair dinkum facts, and right now many people are, like me, in the dark or plagued with uncertainty.
Two and a half weeks ago in this place I praised the success of East Asian nations in combatting COVID-19, particularly Taiwan and South Korea. Their focus is on people's health and safety. Both are democracies, and their governments provide strong, clear leadership. The people trust those governments because they used facts; instituted rigorous widespread testing of body temperature and virus infection; relied on data; and had solid processes and systems with medical supplies and facilities. Both those nations quickly arrested the virus and, instead of isolating everyone, they quickly and rigorously isolated the infected and vulnerable, allowing the majority of healthy people to continue working. This is their lesson to us; they acted decisively to make health their first priority, minimising disturbance to their economies.
Western nations, though, have tried to balance health and the economy, and as a result both have been compromised. Australians are asking serious questions: Why did it take so long for the government to publicly discuss modelling, as it pretended to do yesterday, yet not release the modelling? Why did the modellers release the draft version separately yet not release the model? Why did the government not discuss the underlying assumptions, including infection, transmission and mortality rates? Why did the government not discuss the variables modelled? Without knowing that, we can make no conclusions. Why did the government not disclose the modellers' results? Did the government gather data and facts from successful nations like Taiwan and South Korea? If so, what did it learn? Modelling is often flawed, yet, in this case, doesn't failure to get the data or failure to model mean acceptance of needless deaths? When did state and federal health ministers last get together to scenario-plan the effects and management of a virus pandemic? Have they ever? Have they considered their interaction with border security and who to allow into our country from planes and ships? Did they involve the hospitals and medical colleges?
Data suggests Australia's testing for the virus is narrow and well below the world's best per capita. Why is the government's data on the number of cases continually revised, with dramatic changes to its graph? Are casualties and deaths from flu and pneumonia, here and overseas, being reported as being from COVID-19? How many people will die with the virus compared with how many people will die from the virus? In some nations, are deaths inflated? What is the government's plan for treatment using hydroxychloroquine, which is showing amazing results in New York and elsewhere, or ivermectin, which has been 100 per cent effective in Monash University's in vitro test? What is the plan for mental health issues? Everyday Australians want to know: How long will I be working from home? When can we get back to work and school? When will we be safe from this virus?
I now turn to the Chinese communist government, which harmed the Chinese people and people worldwide. It hid the outbreak, suppressed the news of the virus, and punished the doctors who wanted to inform and prepare the world. That meant the virus spread rapidly around the world. What will it do now to people in poorer countries—Africa, India? Instead of protecting its people, the Chinese communist government neglected, controlled and punished them. Worse, in January the United Nations World Health Organization spread the communist government's lies that there is no human-to-human transmission of the virus. Then, in March, the UN World Health Organization said the time to act had been two months earlier, in January. The World Health Organization: gutless, bumbling, incompetent, hopeless, dishonest and inherently corrupt, just like the whole UN. This virus needs to be renamed 'the Chinese Communist Party-UN virus'. The Chinese Communist Party and the UN need to be held accountable. Compare the Chinese communist government with Taiwan's democratic government. Taiwan's 24 million people responded freely, and, as of today, Taiwan has had just five deaths. Freedom works, providing the government serves the people. With freedom come responsibility and self-control—always far superior to imposed control. The communists gave us the virus; democratic Taiwan gave us medical equipment.
Now let's turn to our fragile economy. People expect governments to lead and they expect leaders to have a plan based on solid data and facts. Economies are living organisms comprised of families. Economies depend on human interaction. Isolate people, and economies wither. So what is the plan for bringing back our economy? What are the government's trigger points for changing the strategy from isolating everyone to wider testing and then isolating only the sick and vulnerable so the healthy majority can return to interacting, producing, exchanging and getting back to work, like they have done in Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore? The government's shutdown is a ticking time bomb. It is necessary but it is a ticking time bomb. Humanity needs security, connection, family and friends. The worst thing we can do to a person, after all, is to take their job from them. I note for now that this bill needs to be structured as an open cheque to the government to ensure the flexibility to support people.
This crisis has highlighted a huge gap in our country's security: shortages of critical equipment, like basic medical supplies, and, worse, an inability to manufacture medical equipment. Cars and many other goods that we once made ourselves are now imported. Why? Because the Whitlam Labor government signed the UN's Lima declaration in 1975, and the Fraser Liberal-National government ratified it the very next year to transfer manufacturing to Third World countries. Worse still, we have an inability in Australia to grow our own food. We were exporters of basic food commodities, like rice and wheat; now we cannot get enough rice, and, due to the virus, Vietnam has blocked exports to us to ensure supplies for its own people. There is a shortage of durum wheat for pasta. Why? Because the Howard government, under the guidance of Liberal senator Robert Hill, Nationals Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson and Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, in 1996 stole farmers' inalienable right to use the land they bought. And to avoid paying compensation they colluded with Queensland Nationals Premier Rob Borbidge and, later, Labor Premier Peter Beattie and New South Wales Labor state minister Bob Carr. Why? For the Howard government to comply with the UN's Kyoto protocol. The UN: let's get out!
Who buys our farms? The Chinese communist government does, despite banning Australians from buying Chinese properties. What about water? Farmers lost their water as a result of the Turnbull-Howard Water Act 2007, which, according to world-renowned John Briscoe, took the world's best national water policy, under the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, and made it the worst, under the Turnbull-Howard Murray-Darling Basin Authority. How? By infecting it with politics, UN rules and regulations. The UN? Exit!
This week yet another farmer in New South Wales, Tanya Ginns, asked us to please help her against the government, the global corporates and the UN—our own farmers asking for help against the government!—so she and her family can produce food for our people.
Then there's energy. Never before have humans materially advanced so quickly as in the last 170 years, and it has been due to the ever-decreasing real price of energy—electricity, oil and gas. It's the miracle that raised living standards, gave us independence from weather and eliminated famine. It gave us longer, healthier, safer, easier, more productive, more comfortable and more secure lifestyles. We are the world's second-largest exporter of coal and the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. Yet we now have high domestic energy costs. In just a few decades we went from the world's cheapest electricity, thanks to our clean, high-energy coal, to the world's most expensive electricity, thanks to the Howard government's policies based on the UN lies and fraud. Eight years after John Howard was booted from office he admitted in Britain that on climate science he was agnostic. He had no science, yet he destroyed all these industries. We now export our coal to China so it can produce cheap electricity, because China, sensibly, uses hydro, coal and nuclear, the cheapest forms of electricity generation. The Chinese already produce about eight times more coal than Australia, and they're rapidly increasing their production. India is furiously increasing its production. Why? Because they know that cheap energy is the key to productivity, productivity is the key to wealth generation and wealth generation is the key to raising everyone's living standards.
At the same time, China exports wind turbines and solar panels to us, which wreck our environment and steal our precious farmland. We subsidise Chinese companies to install these inefficient monstrosities which raise our electricity costs, destroy reliability of supply and drive our manufacturers and jobs overseas. Why? In our renewal plans this must be reviewed and dumped. Mind you, it provides entertainment, with Barnaby Joyce and Senator Canavan first speaking clearly as climate sceptics, then contorting and converting to speaking for the UN's climate rort, and now backflipping to copy One Nation's stance. Although they now speak like us, they still vote like Trent Zimmerman, Zali Steggall and the Greens.
Thank you, Madam Deputy President. Despite the recent drought, farmers with water could not afford to pay for electricity to pump irrigation water to grow fodder—in a drought—because of our electricity prices. China and the UN are doing this. Exit the UN. Let's look at seafood: we have the world's largest continental shelf fishing zone, yet we import almost three-quarters of the seafood we consume. Why? Because we have 36 per cent of the world's marine parks, which previous ministers, like Labor's Mr Tony Burke and Liberal Senator Robert Hill handed to the UN as World Heritage areas, all now managed under UN rules. And who is our largest supplier of imported seafood? China, with its tiny coast line and 56 times more mouths to feed compared with us. China and the UN. Exit the UN.
In Queensland we have 31 major federal and state polices gutting farming. As Charleville farmer Dan McDonald says, with every farm input now completely under regulatory control, farming is nationalised. We have lost our food security, our manufacturing, our farmers' land use, our water, our energy security. We have lost our productive capacity, our ability to produce. We have lost our economic resilience, our ability to rebound, all through globalism, in the name of interdependency—the corporate elite benefiting from our bureaucrats' gift of farming land and water and benefiting from owning Chinese manufacturing.
Interdependency is a con. It means we are dependent on others. We are dependent. This virus crisis is exposing a huge gap in our security, from face masks to food to loss of our independence. We voters have allowed our governments, since the formation of the UN—especially since 1996—to sacrifice our country's productive capacity, our economic resilience and our economic independence and security. Did you elect UN bureaucrats to be in charge? I didn't. Our national debt is now around $600 billion—in Queensland around $90 billion—before this package. Members of parliament and senior federal public servants need to share the burden: stop the perks like flying business class, cut our superannuation rates and reject or defer salary increases.
Let's look to the future. What will the world look like after the Prime Minister's quaintly named six-month hibernation? In just three to four months, what will people be doing? When we emerge from hibernation and look around, will we as a nation feel supported and excited, or depleted, hungry and angry? We need two plans: one for now and one for bringing back our productive capacity and economic resilience. One Nation will return with a detailed analysis. When this is over, though, everyday Australians of all backgrounds expect to see—and deserve to be—a healthy and secure people—a proud, independent Australia that reflects our lifestyle, culture, values, freedom, democracy and potential. All people want is a fair go and governments we can trust to work for our country.
I want to explain what today means for casual workers—casual workers in sectors like hospitality, where around 80 per cent of the workforce is casual. Last month, as we all know, the hospitality sector in this country essentially shut down overnight. This is a sector that employs a huge number of Australians—nearly a million workers. It employs permanents as well as casuals: women and men, young and old, people just starting out and people with families to support. It employs Australians and it employs people who've come from overseas to work and study for a few years in the hope of making a better life. For so many hospo workers, the JobKeeper package is great news. It is because of the work of the union movement and Labor working together and lobbying for this wage subsidy that hundreds of thousands of workers can have their jobs and incomes protected in this sector, along with many millions more workers around the country.
This bill offers hope. Because of unions and Labor, hundreds of thousands of permanent hospo workers will feel safer in coming months than they feel right now, today. And for casual workers who have been with the same employer for 12 months, today's bill offers real hope too. But let's face it: sectors like hospitality have been built on the backs of casual workers and migrant workers for years. Hospo is a sector where people move from casual job to casual job to make ends meet. There are casual workers in hospitality who have been working in the sector for five, 10 or 15 years, working 30, 40, 50 hours a week and more. They've been supporting themselves and their families on this work, but right now, today, they've been employed with their current employer for less than 12 months. Those workers are excluded from this wage subsidy package. That is a real shame. With no amendment to this bill to include them, these workers will be left behind.
I'm talking about people like Madison, a casual supervisor in hospitality, who says: 'As a casual hospo worker I live week to week. I have no long-term financial stability. I don't know when I'll be able to get a job again.' I'm talking about casual hospo workers like Peter, who says: 'I'm now in the position where I can either pay another week of rent or buy food and other supplies.' So not only were casuals the first workers to be laid off in this crisis, and not only were they then told by the government that they should have saved enough on their minimum-wage jobs to prepare for this pandemic, but now over a million casual workers across Australia won't qualify for the government's wage subsidy. If we want to save jobs in this country through this crisis, we need to accept the reality that one in four Australians are casuals. Casual workers need to put food on the table too, they need to pay the rent too, they need to support themselves and their families too, and they need to stay with their employers through this crisis just as much as the next person.
The same goes for hundreds of thousands of temporary migrant workers. Think about the thousands of chefs in Australia who have come here on skilled working visas. Their jobs have been shut down overnight. They don't qualify for the JobKeeper payment, and they also don't qualify for a Centrelink jobseeker payment. How are they meant to survive? How are the hundreds of thousands of international students who came here to work and study in Australia meant to survive? What about the refugees on bridging visas who have lost their jobs, or people on working holiday visas who have lost their jobs? Many of these workers have absolutely no way of getting home. They have no way to travel back to their home country. They are trapped in Australia. They are here with us in this global pandemic. These are the people who pick our food on farms across the country. These are the people who make food in our restaurants. These are the people who wash dishes, back of house, in restaurants and cafes. These are the people who deliver food around our cities. These are the people who are the backbone of life in this country today. Now the government is confirming that they're not eligible for this wage subsidy, and they're not eligible for unemployment benefits either. According to this government, they should just go home.
This is the message from Scott Morrison to migrant workers in Australia today: 'We invited you here. We wanted you here to pay your tuition fees. We wanted you here to wash our dishes, to cook our food and to deliver our food. We wanted you here to pay taxes, but now we want you to go home. Go home when you can't get a flight. Go home when borders are closed. Go home when it's not safe to do so.' This is not right. It is just not right. I'm talking about people like Santiago, a hospo worker who has been in Australia for three years. He said: 'I've lost my job. This is real. I have to pay rent. I can't go back to my own country.' I'm talking about people like Neil, an international student, who said: 'I am so stressed, and I am so scared. I feel I've got nowhere to go to ask for help. I just want to be treated like other citizens since I have been paying tax and enormous school fees in Australia for over two years.' Their situation, like that of so many other workers around Australia, is dire, and they need support now.
Let's be clear: workers who are in desperate need today are going to miss out on this wage subsidy. As the Prime Minister often likes to remind us, Australia is the country of the fair go. Well, these workers are calling on the government to give them a fair go. We're all in this together, so let's stand with them and give them the support that they need. Let's make sure that no worker is left behind. I foreshadow that I'll be moving the second reading amendment circulated in my name.
I want to make some opening statements about how we collectively, both as a parliament and as a community, should respond together to tackle this crisis. It is critical that we are able to act swiftly, clearly and decisively to do what needs to be done to contain this epidemic and to ensure support is available to our Australian community, particularly those who need it most. But we also need to act well. We have to be both swift and smart, both quick and careful. We do not want to be cutting the wrong corners or rushing critical measures in ways that make them less effective or less inclusive.
To be very clear: this is a $130 billion package to keep around six million workers connected to employment and to make sure that those who have to be stood down are looked after and are better able to bounce back. To ensure that that happens is a very good and very important thing. Our job today is to review this legislation to make it better where necessary, to make sure that it is as effective and as inclusive as possible, and to do everything we can in the short time available to us today to improve this package to make sure that its major benefits are delivered for the health and resilience of Australians and our economy. Anything that we do to make it better is likely to have long-lasting and even lifelong impacts on the prosperity and wellbeing of Australian workers, businesses and families. We know that this is a huge effort, and it has been pulled together in a short space of time. I think that even the government must surely admit that it is unlikely that it is perfect at this point. In fact, the Australian Greens argue that it's not. Our task tonight is to identify the issues and try, please, to fix them. We need to be asking the right questions and thinking about the big picture so that we can fill in the gaps and include those currently at risk of missing out, because this package does miss out people, just as the previous package missed out people.
We want to deliver the best possible support to Australians and those noncitizens that are here in Australia during this crisis to ensure that our community is healthy and resilient and to make sure no-one is left behind, particularly those that need the support the most. I'm deeply concerned about large sections of our population who are being left behind, who are being disproportionately affected by this health and economic crisis. Disability support pensioners and those on carers allowance are facing significant extra costs at this time, driven by the crisis and their need to self-isolate. They include costs of food delivery; health care; medical supplies; personal protective equipment, PPE; transport; and utility bills. Many services that disabled people rely on are being closed or withdrawn, including access to allied health and informal supports, and the options to replace these services are extremely expensive.
I have been inundated in my office with messages from people who are trying to exist on the disability support pension and carers allowance. I'll quote a couple of the things that I have heard from people: 'I'm unable to access any PPE and am struggling to find the essentials, meaning more energy-sapping running around online. It seems all groceries are full price, with barely any specials, which is great for supermarket shareholders but not for us. Having to try and stock up one month in advance for medications, with no disposable income, is near impossible. It's demoralising not being included in the conversation about COVID-19.'
'I still have two kids to care for on my DSP payment. It's not just about me getting more money; I'm raising a family, just like those on parenting payment. Why are our children's needs different?'
'I'm paying $15 per delivery and can only purchase one or two of each item. That means no more bulk buying to save on delivery costs.'
'Treat disabled people and carers with the same level of dignity as everyone else. I am a carer with two adult sons with disabilities. We need the extra help as much as others.'
That's just a few of the hundreds of comments that we have received in my office, and I'm sure people around this chamber have received similar messages.
The higher rate of jobseeker payment compared to DSP is leading to perverse outcomes where people have been asking my office whether they should drop off DSP and apply for the jobseeker payment instead. Of course we say it's not a good idea, but I can totally understand why it is tempting for people to try and do that. Today I will be moving an amendment to provide the coronavirus supplement for DSP and carer payment recipients, in recognition of the higher costs and significant barriers to entering the workforce that they face.
I'm also particularly worried about age pensioners who are renting during this crisis. The evidence shows that older Australians who are renting experience high rates of poverty and increased risks of homelessness. The current rate of the Commonwealth rent assistance is woefully inadequate at the best of times, let alone during this crisis. We must urgently work together to come up with a solution to support older Australians experiencing rental stress and homelessness.
I now turn to the significant problems that people have been experiencing with Centrelink. We have been witnessing very significant problems over the last month. What we have been seeing is not just a product of more people needing support, although I admit that is part of it. The cause is years and years of staffing cuts, funding cuts, IT cuts, bungles, not investing when we needed to, outsourcing and privatisation. When you take money out of the service delivery, you are left with a broken system that can't support Australians in their time of need. When the myGov system constantly crashes, it causes stress to those applying for income support and hurts people who are already on income support payments. Over the last two weeks, my office has received countless messages, both by phone and online, from people who have been unable to report their income to Centrelink. A lot of people ended up receiving the whole rate of jobseeker because they were unable to report their income, and these people are very worried that they're now going to be hit with debts. I understand they won't be pursued by Centrelink, but I asked the minister for social services to guarantee these people won't receive debts. The government has extended the suspension of mutual obligation requirements until 27 April, and people are very pleased about this, but we need to make sure that they are, in fact, suspended for the whole of the duration of this crisis.
The government must prioritise the health and safety of all people on income support payments and employment service providers. It's not safe for people to be attending meetings and appointments, and I don't expect this to change over the next three weeks. At this time of great uncertainty and anxiety, people on income support deserve clarity around their responsibilities.
There are thousands of asylum seekers and refugees with no income safety net. They don't have access to Medicare, Centrelink or other critical care services. Without support, they will be exposed to the worst economic and health impacts of this crisis. In recognising this, I will be moving an amendment today to extend eligibility for the jobseeker payment to temporary visa holders within the meaning of the Migration Act 1958.
I also seek leave—which I understand both the government and opposition agree to—to table a petition from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, which has 20,528 signatures, asking for the government to include emergency measures to protect people seeking asylum and refugees.
I table the petition.
I also foreshadow that I'll be moving a second reading amendment calling for support for access to the supplement. I'll be moving a second reading amendment to address the issue of people who are being left behind.
I want to address the issue of employment services, because I've just addressed the issue of mutual obligations and I want to extend that. I think there's still a critical role for employment service providers. They will play an important role during this crisis. While the JobKeeper package is an important step forward, it is likely that there will still be millions of Australians who face unemployment. Now is the time for a new approach to helping people to find and maintain connection to work. We want to see the compliance process removed from the system. Employment providers need to start providing individualised, responsive and tailored supports to people. It is time for providers to play that connecting role to support and identify emerging opportunities and to connect people, to support people through outreach and other community supports. So they still have a very important role to play.
Casuals employed for less than 12 months and part-timers are missing out through this package. They are another group that's being left behind. The rules requiring casuals to be employed for longer than 12 months will unfairly penalise people across a large cross-section of our society. Yesterday I heard from a part-pensioner who was undertaking casual work in hospitality to help pay the bills. He was recently stood down from his job, and he's not eligible for JobKeeper because he was employed for less than 12 months. Short-term casuals make up an important part of our workforce and should not be excluded from this package. I would like to draw the attention of the Senate to the COVID-19 data insight series produced by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre. They've done a series of reports, and part of the work they've done highlights that short-term casuals contribute on average over 50 per cent of total earned household income in the households which those casuals are part of. The majority of short-term casuals are employed in key industries, including food services, retail trade, health care and social assistance. They deserve our help. It is a concern that we have to date been unable to find out whether part-time workers who are on the flat rate of $750 could be forced to work additional hours by their employers. We have been seeking that information, and to date that information has not been forthcoming. I will be moving an amendment in committee of the whole on that particular issue.
I want to go to the critical role that charities play in our community, particularly during the crisis we are facing. Under the JobKeeper scheme, charities are only eligible for the subsidy if they estimate their turnover has fallen by 15 per cent or more relative to a comparable period. Many charities largely rely on government grants and contracts, which means they don't meet this threshold. This is grossly unfair, as charities are suffering major losses of income from a decline in fundraising donations and volunteer capacity. At the same time, our charities are supporting us through this crisis and experiencing an increase in demand for their services.
Businesses that are made up of sub-entities are having their revenue measured at the sub-entity level. Why can't charities also be assessed at a discrete service level—for example, child care, disability support and op shops, where they are seeing huge downturns in income? This is why I will be moving an amendment, again in committee of the whole, to ensure that the revenue test for charities excludes government grants and includes income from donations, investments and other areas. I'm also asking for charities' revenue to be assessed at the discrete service level instead of the level of the whole entity. This is absolutely critical. I acknowledge that some improvements have been made for charities in terms of the 15 per cent. But, as I said at the beginning, let's not rush this through without actually looking at the fact that you could improve this to get a much better outcome for charities. This is a crisis that we all face. We don't want to be leaving people behind.
I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge that over the last couple of weeks, whenever I have reached out to the government and to ministers, they have been responsive. I do appreciate that collaboration and cooperation to solve the problems that people are facing. But right here and now we are facing the fact that we are leaving so many people behind—those with disabilities; carers; age pensioners who are renting; age pensioners who are part-pensioners; and so many casuals. A million casuals are being left behind because they don't make up the 12 months. They are playing a critical role in delivering services or could be playing such a role.
I would like to end by encouraging every Australian to make sure that where they can—because I know our health workers, who are doing such an amazing job, will be out there working—if they don't have to work, if they are not working supporting people in our community, they stay home this Easter. I know it will be tempting to go out and try to see your families, but stay home. Think of your families. Skype them, Zoom them and save up your hugs, because we will get through this. That is why we want to see these amendments made: so we get through it taking everybody with us.
I have been a proud member of the trade union movement for over 40 years. Time after time, this movement has backed the working men and women of this country. The work that has been done over the last few weeks by unions and the Labor Party to fight for every working person and their family in our country has been nothing short of phenomenal. Sally McManus, Michele O'Neill and the leaders of the unions across the country have joined with the Labor leadership, including Anthony Albanese, Kristina Keneally, Tony Burke, Linda Burney and others, to stand up for all Australians.
My message to the working people of Australia, especially to younger workers, is that you're not on your own and you do not have to be at the mercy of the market and of whatever the market will bear. When you are a union member, you will never be alone, come war, economic downturn, global crisis or pandemic. The members of unions and the entire community are going to see the benefits from this hard struggle to make sure this proposal for extra support for our communities goes ahead.
I would also like to congratulate the government for buckling under the logic and finally seeing what Labor and the trade union movement, civil society and corporations have been saying now for many weeks. The support that is being delivered in this proposal is because of so many Australians standing up. As a proud member of the Labor caucus, I've come to this place with the same aim as many of us in here, whether Labor or anywhere else. In the case of Labor, we've also come here with the desire to make sure that working people in Australia maintain their connection to their employer so that they are in the best place to support themselves and their families until the global health crisis is over.
The coronavirus pandemic does not discriminate based on who you are. It does not discriminate on whether your employer is big or small. It does not care if you work for the government, the private sector or the not-for-profit sector. It does not care if you are full time or casual, or if you have had one employer for the last year or more than one. It does not care if you are an Australian citizen, permanent resident or visa holder working here in Australia. To be a victim of the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19, you just have to be a worker—full stop. And, if you are a worker, you deserve not to be sent to the Centrelink queues, made worse by the underfunding of this vital service and the cutting of Centrelink staff by this government. If you are a worker, you deserve to have a wage subsidy whereby you stay connected to your employer, and together you can ride out this crisis.
When Scott Morrison says we are all in this together, what he really means is this: except if you're a casual worker with less than 12 months; except if you're a worker for a local council; except if you're a worker in the arts and entertainment sector; except if you're a worker in the disability support services; and except if you're a worker for a charity that is not covered by the current JobKeeper package. This includes private schools and universities. They were initially told they would be included with other not-for-profits at the 15 per cent threshold for loss of revenue, only to be told that they would be treated like other businesses, even though they are clearly not like other businesses. Hundreds of thousands of skilled university staff, including casual workers, are facing job losses, but they will not be eligible for this JobKeeper payment.
Finally, the Prime Minister seems to think that we are 'all in this together'—and we are, because we're all victims—but are we all in it together? If you're a worker who's a visa holder, you're not included. Hundreds of thousands of visa holders, including international students who have paid fees to our universities, have been left out of this rescue package altogether.
I also want to foreshadow that I will be moving a second reading amendment circulated in my name. In that, I'll be calling on the government to ensure the JobKeeper wage subsidy is only used by employers to pay their employees' wages and not to subsidise their company's balance sheet, noting there will be no provision for business to force employees to pay for their annual leave and entitlements with the JobKeeper wage subsidy. For example, Qantas have told tens of thousands of workers that they will have to take their entitlements, and the company will still receive the $1,500 that was intended for the workers. But don't worry, Qantas has got it covered; they've made the decision to pay dividends to their shareholders in September. Not only will we see hundreds of millions of dollars less in taxes being paid for aviation costs, but we will also see the $1,500 that is supposed to be going to their workforce used to line their own pockets, and the pockets of their shareholders.
We need to recognise that the Australian arts and entertainment sector needs a specific, tailored fiscal response package to ensure its ongoing viability, given that the structure of the JobKeeper payment has been designed in a way that leaves many workers in this sector ineligible. It is a multibillion dollar industry at the heart of our culture within Australia. It's an important rebound not only for the mental health of this country but also for the economic health of this country; yet the government has left them swinging. They won't get support.
It's important that we extend the 15 per cent reduction in the turnover threshold to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, NDIS, and employment service providers, DES, and deliver a retention and support package for the disability sector workforce. These are some of the most vulnerable people in our community and some of the most vulnerable organisations that deliver services that are so critical to our civil society.
We call for more support for staff in schools, TAFE and universities affected by the crisis, noting that hundreds of thousands of school and university staff, including casual workers, are facing job losses but will not be eligible for the JobKeeper payment. The government should be saving jobs and making sure that Australia has a strong and sustainable education and training sector on the other side of this crisis. We need to have that bump when we move out. We need to have that capacity to rebuild economically. We need to have the foundations; yet the government has deserted these people. Casual employees working from school to school are not included. They're educating our children. It's critical that they are connected to our schools and connected to our education system.
We also call on the government to recognise the importance of the local government, acknowledging that the closure of council facilities has resulted in significant revenue loss and workers being stood down without support. Up to 45,000 local government workers could lose their jobs, demonstrating the need for the government to work together with state governments to address these important issues. In the Prime Minister's own electorate—the Sutherland Shire, where I spent my childhood—330 people have lost their jobs because they're working as casuals for the local council in the Sutherland Shire. What is he doing for his residents? Those 330 families and individuals need the support of the government. They need not to be exceptions; they need to be part of the rule.
We've seen examples on the reach outs of what could be done with local councils. I make this plea. The councils in a number of my duty electorates in New South Wales, such as Calare, Lyne, Bathurst, Blayney, Lithgow, Oberon, Orange, the MidCoast, Port Macquarie, Hastings, Dungog and Port Stephens, do not have the capacity to survive the jobs and keep them as critical major employment hubs within those communities.
It's essential that the government acts for regional Australia, which has been hit by bushfires and drought, and now by the coronavirus and a lack of government action. Congratulations to civil society and corporations for joining the union movement, and to the government for finally coming to the table, but millions and millions of people have been left out. Millions and millions of people have been deserted in our local councils, in our arts and entertainment industry, in the important areas of the NDIS, in charities, and in the area of visa holders. Many people have been affected as a result of these circumstances that we now find ourselves in.
There are three particular examples. I gave this example in Sutherland Shire, and I plead to the Prime Minister to reconsider his and his party's position on local government. In the Prime Minister's electorate of Cook, in the Sutherland Shire, for more than five years, Sally—not her real name—has worked at the council leisure centres. She was sacked last week and is one of 330 workers, some of whom have worked in the Sutherland Shire for five or 10 years. She is not eligible for the JobKeeper payment, and nor are any council workers in Australia.
Gig economy sole traders are an important question to be raised with the government. I would be keen to hear the minister's comments on this. The government's options for self-employed businesspeople also leave a lot to be desired. For example, it is not clear how family partnerships, like those used in small trucking companies, would work. Right now, partnerships where multiple partners are active business participants are limited to a single JobKeeper payment; they cannot claim two, for example, in the case of a husband-and-wife trucking company.
Then there are visa holders and international students. I had the joy of my office speaking to Suhail, a 23-year-old international student visa holder in Sydney. He has paid nearly $100,000 in fees to an Australian university and is in the final year of his degree. He has supported himself, his wife and baby as a rideshare and food delivery worker for nearly three years, delivering food and people during this critical time, putting himself out, exposed, to make sure he can support his family. Well, rideshare is certainly drying up. He had been working 20 hours a week. He has paid for his own health insurance, as required by his visa, and he has never asked any money from anyone, certainly not the Australian taxpayer. Now, through no fault of his own, Suhail is sick and has been advised by his GP to self-isolate. He now must choose between feeding his family and paying his rent and trying to work when there is a massive drop-off in work. Suhail says he does not want to ask for help, but his parents in Bangladesh have also lost their jobs and cannot afford for him to get home safely. He just wants his family to be safe and for him to be able to finish the degree he paid for. He is not eligible for the jobseeker payment or the JobKeeper payment.
It's critically important that we remember that the welfare minister, Minister Ruston, has the capacity to make changes. It is very important to know that the Treasurer has the power to make further changes beyond the propositions being put today. I say this to every Australian, I say this to every working person and the two million that have been left out, and I say this to the millions of others that care so much about a fair go: make sure that the two million other people living in this country, working hard and paying their taxes, also get a fair go.
It is a great truism, as a great British Prime Minister once said, that a week is a long time in politics, but—my!—how time flies when are you in the midst of a pandemic. Everyone was a bit punch-drunk by the speed with which this COVID-19 outbreak has spanned the globe and by the appalling human toll the disease has already had. It was only over 2½ months ago that the Australian government was beginning to react to the news of a coronavirus epidemic in China. On 23 January, some weeks after the first report of the virus outbreak, the government moved to apply biosecurity screening to direct flights to Australia from Wuhan, the epicentre of the disease. However, those flights immediately ceased because the Chinese government imposed a blanket quarantine on Wuhan and the Hubei province, with no flights in or out. Although the epidemic had already spread across China, flights from other parts of the People's Republic of China continued—some 40 flights a day to Australia at that time, including flights from Hong Kong.
A week later, from 1 February, the Australian government banned the entry of foreign nationals who had been in China for two weeks prior to arrival in Australia. Australian citizens arriving from China were also asked to self-quarantine. At that point, the Prime Minister was insistent that Australia was well ahead of the game. He expressed confidence that the consequence here would be modest, saying 'we're a big country' and that people should 'go about their business in the normal way'. In talking points issued to coalition MPs and senators on 4 February, the government focused on its desire to further lower taxes, expand trade and keep the budget strong. It was business as normal. With regard to the coronavirus, the government declared Australia was ready.
How ready were we? I think the answer to that question is that we weren't very ready at all. I don't make that observation as a partisan point. We do now have the benefit of some hindsight, but it is the case that the pandemic risk really hadn't received the attention it deserved. Governments didn't properly manage the risk, nor adequately plan for something that numerous health experts and even the likes of Bill Gates warned was inevitable. Successive Australian governments were well aware of the risk of pandemic, whether a new form of influenza or another disease, such as is the case with COVID-19, and broad plans had been drawn up following the SARS outbreak of 2002-04, but we failed to flesh out those plans. They were left as very high-level frameworks. We failed repeatedly to test them and we failed to develop our understanding of the likely economic impacts of the measures that would be required to slow and reduce the human toll of a pandemic.
The only full-scale national pandemic exercise was Cumpston 06, which tested a short-term government response to a novel influenza virus pandemic, and Sustain 08, which explored maintaining a whole-of-government response over an extended period. These two exercises, which were conducted on a whole-of-government basis and fully involved states and territories, were held 14 and 16 years ago. That's right; a decade and a half ago. Although some smaller tabletop exercises have been carried out since within the Health and Home Affairs portfolios, and some response capabilities were tested with the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak, pandemic planning and preparation faded. It was well and truly relegated to the backburner. If anyone doubts this, they only need to look at the government's response to the one recent parliamentary committee report on these issues. In March 2013, a House of Representatives committee tabled a report entitled Diseases have no borders, a detailed examination of health issues across international borders. The terms of reference for that inquiry noted:
Growing global interconnectedness and close proximity to regional neighbours increases Australia's exposure to imported infectious diseases and to the risk of epidemic or pandemic disease outbreaks.
The committee made a number of recommendations aimed at improving Australia's ability to respond to international disease outbreaks, including that the Australian government undertake a large-scale pandemic exercise across relevant Commonwealth, state and territory government agencies.
Senators will be familiar with the long delays before government responses to committee reports—we've all seen that—and in this case it was no different. There was a federal election and a change of government in 2013. That said, it is a disgraceful fact that it took the current government one month short of five years—that is, until August 2018—to respond to that committee report. The government's response did eventually come and included some useful information, but a five-year delay was inexcusable and demonstrated a clear failure to properly prioritise a vital public health issue. Had the government engaged properly, had the government planned in greater depth an exercise to explore all aspects of potential scenarios, then we might not have been forced into the extraordinary improvisation of the past two months.
Back in early February, by its own admission, the government had no idea what the economic impact would be. The Treasurer said it was impossible to say what the economic consequences would be, but it should have been possible, even then, to model the likely impacts of border closures, quarantine, the shutdown of many industries and social distancing. Some people, including me, have compared the current challenges to those of a war. The problem is that, if this is the equivalent of a war, then the government had no real mobilisation plan. It's all been improvisation—vast improvisation certainly, but improvisation nonetheless. Had government engaged in proper preparation and planning, it would not be scrambling now, as it is, to gather information on the ability of Australian companies to supply personal protective equipment and the ingredients for a COVID-19 testing kit. In saying that, I don't wish to be overly critical or take unfair advantage of hindsight. The government does deserve credit for its response to the pandemic and for the extraordinary budget measures it has brought to the parliament, but it should not have been flying quite so blind and it should certainly not be unmoored from parliamentary oversight and accountability.
Before the Senate today, we have the framework for the government's $130 billion JobKeeper wage rescue plan to support some six million Australians. This is an enormous commitment over the next six months. It is an extraordinary measure to deal with an unprecedented shutdown of a large portion of our economy—something that will inevitably lead to a recession. It is likely to be a severe recession; perhaps even a depression. Among specific measures before us is the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020, the framework for the creation and implementation of the JobKeeper payment. The payment is a sensible response to assist employers to retain staff and assist employees to retain a job as part of the economy is forced into hibernation.
However, the framework removes the ability for the parliament to really make sure this economic response package is fully inclusive. It spectacularly fails at being fully inclusive. It misses support for fundamentally important industries and workers. I will go to a few examples.
The Australian agricultural industry relies heavily on migrant workers to pick our seasonal fruit for both export and local markets. With the picking season commencing in autumn and continuing to summer, it is a long season of steady work. Migrant workers on temporary visas are not included, so at the moment they are in limbo. They can't work, they can't go home and their finances are quickly running low.
Also locked out from the financial support are those people who have come here seeking a fair go. In the true spirit of the Prime Minister's mantra, he says, 'If you're having a go, you'll get a go.' There's a local cafe owner in Adelaide. His cafe is a family affair that has been highly successful for almost five years. As a law-abiding person, he tried to alter his dine-in cafe to a takeaway cafe, but it just wasn't doing well and he had to close the doors and lay off his staff. Because he's on a temporary visa, he doesn't meet the requirements for the JobKeeper program. He wants to, and intends to, reopen the cafe; he just can't keep it open for now. Where's the fair go for him? What about casual workers with less than 12 months of employment? Where's their fair go?
Central Alliance's amendments—and I foreshadow moving two amendments—will extend the JobKeeper payment to the temporary workforce, whether they are migrants or casuals, with three months employment. The Prime Minister says his aim is to get as many people and businesses over the bridge to the other side. He should ensure no-one is left behind to fend for themselves. Right now, we are in this struggle together and we need to get through to the recovery phase together.
Those concerns aside, these are, without doubt, vital measures. They are the economic equivalent of an oxygen tent. The big questions to come are how sustainable such measures will be and what will follow them. The pandemic modelling released by the government yesterday leaves no doubt that, in the absence of a vaccine or effective therapeutic treatment, we are in this for the long haul. It's not just the peak of the epidemic curve that counts; also, the breadth of the curve plays a critical part in this.
Continued border controls, quarantine, isolation and a significant level of social distancing, with the consequent restrictions on our economy and on many people's livelihoods, are likely to be of lengthy duration. They will likely extend well beyond the six month time frame the government is presently working to. The Prime Minister acknowledged this issue at his press conference yesterday, but the government is only just starting to come to grips with this wicked problem.
In the months to come, the Senate, through the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19, will need to keep a very close eye on the evolution of the government's response. We will need to conduct that scrutiny in a fair, open-minded and non-partisan way. But we will also need to pursue that oversight duty with absolute rigour and a preparedness to test the fundamentals of government policy in action. We will need to look very closely at all aspects of the government's response so far, with the benefit of hindsight—because that's how lessons are learned. We will need to pay very close attention to future steps, especially those critical decisions about how to move our economy out of hibernation without sparking new epidemic flare-ups. Rigorous oversight will be absolutely critical in relation to what may be very controversial government decisions.
In the meantime, I conclude my remarks by again reminding the Senate and other listeners how time flies in these extraordinary circumstances. Only four weeks ago, the Prime Minister was still actively encouraging people to go to the footy; now, social-distancing rules ban non-essential gatherings of more than two people. Where we will be in another month's time? In six months time? In a year's time? No-one can be sure. But all Australians listening to this debate should be assured: one way or another, the Senate will be here and we will be doing our duty to help out.
First of all, I would like to acknowledge all of those Australians who are currently going out to work, whether it's in this place or elsewhere across the country: thank you for the service that you are providing. It's very hard, with the 'stay home' messages, but I do want to acknowledge and thank those workers leaving their homes each day and going to work. I'd also like to acknowledge that many of those workers are members of my union, United Workers Union, and I say a special thank you to them.
I then want to congratulate the government on this bill—for taking the advice of Labor and for implementing what's become known as the JobKeeper package. For many workers, we know it will be a lifeline. It will enable them to keep vital connections with their employer and to be ready to play a part in getting Australia working again once we're through this COVID-19 pandemic. But this legislation does not go far enough. Most working people were already doing it tough. Before the pandemic, they had not seen their wages rise. Wages were stagnating or they had no wage increases at all. Many were part-time workers working second or third jobs to make ends meet. Many Australians were experiencing mortgage and rent stress. These issues haven't gone away. They're still there.
For some Australians, this JobKeeper package will be a lifeline. But for the many millions who will miss out, the government has deserted them in their moment of need. And I just want to talk about them. We've heard Labor senators in this place talk about the million casual workers who will miss out on this package. We can't allow that. Some of those workers are labour hire staff. Many of those workers are women and young people. We've also got visa workers, international students and local government employees who are not eligible for the JobKeeper scheme. And, as we move through the next week, more and more workers will be identified. WA's largest employer, Crown Casino, directed by the government, closed its doors overnight. It threw out its many casuals, many of whom will not be eligible for JobKeeper and many of whom are international students. Those are the people we need to be looking after into the future. They've been left totally without an income. We don't want to create a situation in this country where casual workers go to work sick because they have no other alternative. That's dangerous and it's irresponsible.
I want to talk about aged-care workers, who have also been hit. They're low-income, they're part-time and they're predominantly women. Many work second jobs to make ends meet. They're in a double jeopardy, because, for many of those women, their second job is with an agency commonly referred to as a labour hire company. Well, guess what? They're not eligible for JobKeeper either. And not only that: because they're working in a vulnerable sector, these workers have been directed by their employer that they can only have one job, and that's the aged-care work that they're currently doing as their first job—and I'm glad the minister's in here at the moment, because that's what employers are being told in Western Australia. I'm sure we can get you examples if you're interested, Minister. And so we see that these workers have now had their income halved overnight.
These are the workers the Prime Minister has thanked for their service, and yet he has not looked after them, and they now are without their second job because their employers see that second job as too risky. Their employers have said to them, 'If you want to continue working here in aged care, you have to give up that second job.'—and that second job is with a labour hire company, so they will be excluded from the JobKeeper package. These are the very workers that the Prime Minister has stood up and thanked for their service. Well, he's not taking care of them. They're taking care of the most vulnerable in our community, but the Prime Minister has clearly let them down. This could be fixed overnight. This could be fixed with a flick of a pen by the Treasurer, Mr Josh Frydenberg.
We know many workers are making sacrifices. Security guards at the airport in Western Australia have lost 80 per cent of their hours. Imagine what that does to—again—low-income workers. And they are probably not going to qualify for JobKeeper because they work for very large multinational companies who won't be able to demonstrate that they've made the required loss to enable them to get in line for the JobKeeper payment. Again, these are workers who are on the front line, and who are at work right now, but they have lost 80 per cent of their hours. To try and keep workers employed, employers are also asking full-time workers to share out their hours. So someone who was full time is now being asked to go part time, with unending contracts, for who knows how long. This is clearly not fair.
Last week I spoke to many councils in WA. I've got to tell you: councils are absolutely pulling their weight. They are checking on the most vulnerable in our community. They're redirecting staff to go and work for Red Cross. They're offering staff to the WA government to put on COVID helplines. And yet councils are not eligible for this scheme. They're freezing their rates. I spoke to one of our largest councils in WA, who were more than happy to pull their weight and more than happy to freeze their rates—$89 million in lost revenue for that council. It's not only the rate losses; they've also closed their revenue raisers—their gyms and their pools. So they're already losing more money on top of that, and yet they are not eligible.
WALGA, the WA Local Government Association, says that, in WA, it represents about 6,000 workers being stood down—6,000 workers with no access to JobKeeper. The government really does need to fix this. Mr Frydenberg needs to fix it for aged-care workers—the workers who get thanked almost daily by the Prime Minister and who are putting themselves at risk. Mr Frydenberg needs to fix it for long day care. He needs to fix it for family day care. He needs to fix it for local government. He needs to fix it for security. And the list goes on. Yes, it's a good start, but it's not good enough, because too many Australians are being left vulnerable, left with no money and forced to work when they're sick. This is not fair. It's a risk to all of us to have workers who are clearly unwell out there working, and I urge Mr Frydenberg, tonight or tomorrow, to fix this for those millions of workers who are currently not eligible for JobKeeper.
I'm glad to be here tonight, doing my job. We should be doing this regularly through this crisis. My party feels this deeply. The Greens have been on the record consistently raising the issue that parliament should continue to sit through to August.
We heard today from the government that this economic package is the biggest, most important piece of legislation since the Second World War. While we find ourselves in dangerous uncharted waters that require all political parties to work together for the good of the nation, the powers and discretion given to this government over the period of this pandemic are also unparalleled in recent history and need to be watched closely. Decisions need to be questioned constantly, if not respectfully and professionally. That is our job as senators. All governments, including state governments, need to answer reasonable questions and requests for information and provide full transparency.
I'd like to note upfront the hardworking public servants here in Canberra and abroad who have worked tirelessly around the clock to bring this legislation before us tonight. To those workers—staffers in Treasury, the Attorney-General's Department and so many other portfolio areas of government—a big thanks and shout-out to you all. In my books, you're as much of a hero as anyone else in this country.
I'm also glad to be here tonight at this historical emergency sitting because, over recent weeks—indeed, the past month—I have lived and breathed stimulus packages, especially in relation to helping small businesses and their workers, and one is finally happening tonight. It's far from perfect, but we're all in a much better place than we were even a few weeks ago. I've literally lived it and breathed it, because I've mostly been staying at home, like so many other Tasmanians and Australians. I've watched my wife and her business partners spend hour after hour, day after day on Zoom and on the phone working through this pandemic and talking to their dozens of employees, agonising over shutting down or staying open, having lengthy landlord discussions, having exchanges with the banks on interest rates and loans and, lastly, seeking advice on eligibility on how to use both the jobseeker and the JobKeeper packages. Day in, day out, I've watched it unfold in real life and in real time, and I know just how hard it's been for many small-business owners.
The Greens called for a job wage guarantee from the start. We worked out very early that the first two small-business packages were not going to be anywhere near enough. Indeed, they were the wrong approach—I said this nearly three weeks ago. I've seen and worked through a number of crises in my life, as I'm sure many other senators in this chamber have. There was the GFC and stock market crashes, and my family and I lived through SARS up in Hong Kong. I understood early that this crisis required everything to be on the table—a whatever-it-takes approach to see us all through, and I mean all of us, not just the lucky few.
We said this was mostly a crisis of confidence that required solutions immediately to restore trust because, ultimately, if you want a pandemic to not be a panic, you need to provide certainty and restore trust in government, in community, in our laws, in our economy and, most importantly, in people's futures. Of course, this can only be done by governments. At first, your government didn't listen to calls for a wage guarantee, but I'm glad that ultimately you did. To the small-business groups, to the unions and to the opposition—including, of course, the Greens—we finally got a UK-style wages guarantee.
I've experienced at home, firsthand, what this crisis is like for many small-business owners and their workers. I've also reached out to small-business groups, organisations and communities themselves. I've talked to many, many employees who were uncertain about what this all meant for them. I've asked for input, for feedback. Consistent messages arose, which I promised to take to Canberra. I am deeply concerned today that, after fighting so hard to get a wages guarantee in this place, I've had so much feedback that too many small businesses aren't getting on board with JobKeeper. There's too much hesitancy: 'It's too hard. It's too complex. It carries too much risk.' The Greens have been inundated by small-business owners and their workers contacting us for help and guidance.
I'm increasingly concerned that we're not going to see the huge uptake of this payment that we might expect. As a Tasmanian senator, this is of the utmost concern to me. Small business is literally the backbone of my state. Early survey results in a very hard-hit industry, tourism and hospitality, suggest that one-third of eligible businesses or perhaps more are not applying for, or had hesitancy in applying for, this scheme. The question is: why? And what can we do about it tonight? Many of the stories are the same: 'I've already laid off workers, stood them down and shut down. I've closed my doors. I've dealt with that grief and that frustration. I can't stay afloat any longer. This package carries too much risk for us.' Many businesses in a state like Tasmania rely on casual workers and visa holders, many of whom will not be eligible for the payment. The single biggest factor is that waiting for the payment to come through in May is not an option for many small businesses that have no revenue and no savings and have closed their doors. There simply isn't the money for them to pay their workers in the next month, and I will be introducing a substantive amendment in the committee stage to try and rectify that.
According to the ABS, half of our businesses have already let go staff or cut hours due to COVID-19. A business confidence survey from the Tourism Industry Council Tasmania showed 75 per cent of respondents—that's three-quarters of Tasmanian tourism businesses—had to suspend business operations in Tasmania until restrictions ease and 80 per cent had to reduce staffing levels. My home state has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, as it is highly leveraged to tourism and hospitality. I've heard numerous stories about businesses that have closed their doors, have no revenue, have no cash flow and have lost hope. This is a consistent criticism that we have received from small businesses around the country, and I look forward to moving that amendment in the committee stage to try and fix that.
We've heard a lot of talk in here tonight, especially from the Labor Party and the Greens, about problems with this legislation that leaves out too many people. Unions Tasmania have said that nearly 24,000 casual workers in our state will not be eligible for JobKeeper payments because they have been with their employer for less than 12 months. How many of them will be let go and forced into Centrelink lines? It looks like it will be nearly all of them. The decision to exclude casuals with less than 12 months employment is not an economic decision, in my opinion; it is purely a political one and a foolish one. It's simply penny pinching at a time when everyone should be treated equally—all workers and all industries. Universities Australia warn that the universities sector could lose more than 21,000 jobs in the next six months. That's 21,000 Australians who don't know if they're going to have a job when we get through COVID-19. Why not give them certainty? We know that way too many people who work at universities are employed on a casual basis. This casualisation trend—which is a cancer, in many people's minds—has been occurring for far too long. And the sector is the second-biggest, if not the biggest, employer in my home state of Tasmania, particularly in places like Launceston, where I'm based. Then, of course, there are local government employees. We've heard a lot about them in here tonight. One of the challenges after this sitting and after this legislation is dealt with tonight is to come up with a package to help local government casual employees who have also been put on the scrap heap, and we've got some good ideas about how to do that.
I also want to talk about temporary visa holders. I've been contacted by many temporary visa workers and their bosses in my state saying: 'Please take this to Canberra. We want our business to survive. We want continuity, like any other business in this package. We want to keep our jobs.' The Tourism Industry Council Tasmania tells me they are perplexed as to why temporary visa holders would be exempt, given how critical they are to our economy and our community. It would have a devastating impact on tourism in Tasmania if we were to lose these people and they weren't to return. They have told me this move is unfair and irresponsible and is likely to do long-term damage to the Australian tourism industry's international reputation.
The TICT, the Tourism Industry Council Tasmania—and I want to give a quick shout-out to Luke Martin from the TICT, who I've been working with over the last week; we may not agree on many things, but, on these issues, we are certainly on a unity ticket—said in a statement today: 'As an industry, we're not comfortable with the message it sends to the world about our country and its tourism industry that we are not prepared to support our international workers in these most challenging of times. We would expect that, if our own children or family members were specifically recruited to work on the other side of the world in a remote visitor destination like Tasmania, their community and government would support and sustain them through such extraordinary times.' There are stories across my state of these workers being stood down with no income and, with global travel restrictions, with no chance of going home. They are completely in limbo and are being looked after by local communities and, may I say, by many employers. It's just not good enough. It's another political decision. It's cruel and it's miserly.
The JobKeeper package we're debating tonight is far from perfect. It's very complex. It doesn't fill the cracks that many workers have fallen into, and it won't work for all small businesses, even those who are eligible. Whilst, of course, the intention of these measures is not to pit employers against employees, there still will be some business owners who choose to exploit workers through changes to the Fair Work Act, and the Greens have worked hard tonight to try and rectify this with our amendments. While jobs are important, so is having a roof over your head. I want to commend the work of my state colleagues in Tasmania Cassy O'Connor MP and Rosalie Woodruff MP for the work they've done on banning rental evictions in Tasmania. Many Tasmanians have fallen on hard times. They've lost their jobs and they're under financial hardship. This is what we should be doing all around the country.
So there are many issues to be resolved, and we may well have to recall parliament again to get through additional measures. We need to get cracking on tailored support packages for those in acutely impacted industries, such as artists, small brewers and recyclers. I will be writing to the Treasurer myself to suggest ways forward for these industries. This is an opportunity for me to move a second reading amendment on behalf of Senator Hanson-Young, to support the arts and creative industries—
I foreshadow that amendment. To these artists and to casual and foreign workers who have missed out on this package, I say don't despair if tonight's package passes without giving you access to JobKeeper. The fight is far from over. The finance minister still has discretion over billions of dollars of expenditure and can revisit these issues if the government is pushed. It beggars belief that they are throwing millions of workers to the wolves. Common sense tells you they should adopt this for all workers, just like they did for others. I believe that there is a reasonable chance that we may get there.
Lastly, I urge—indeed, I plead with—all eligible small businesses to get on board and to do the right thing by your workers, your state and your country. This wage guarantee was hard-fought to get here, and it will be passed tonight. Please look into it. There are plenty of people to help you navigate the details. Sign up and get your workers on it. Get the certainty that they need to get them through the coming months, to put food on the table, to pay the rent.
I would also like to say something, on behalf of Senator McKim, my fellow Tasmanian senator who's had a lot of people petition him about Australians abroad. I know it's been raised in the chamber here today that many Australians are currently stuck abroad and want to come home but are not getting adequate government support to return. It is imperative that the government do more to clarify what help is available and provide more direct assistance to people who want to return to our country.
In the last minute that I've got left, I want to put out a special message for Julian Assange, an Australian citizen and a Walkley Award winning journalist, who's still in Belmarsh Prison in the United Kingdom on a show trial, an extradition trial to the US. We know that Mr Assange is critically ill, and he's highly vulnerable to COVID-19. Belmarsh Prison has had an outbreak of COVID-19 infections. Indeed, they recorded their first death of a prisoner on 7 April, just yesterday. Nearly 4,000 prisoners have been released from UK prisons because of the risk of COVID-19. Why isn't Julian Assange being released? He hasn't even been charged with anything. He has served his sentence. He just passed 12 months in prison. This is ridiculous, and your government—the government in this country, Senator Payne—needs to do more to get him out of prison and get him home to Australia, where he is safe.
Well, we learn a lot about ourselves in times of crisis. Earlier this year, Australians responded with enormous generosity to the communities that were devastated by the summer's bushfires. Now we're faced with a new challenge, and Australians have responded once again. Across the country, there's been a recognition of the responsibilities that we owe one another, the collective responsibility we have as members of a community. There's been a willingness to make sacrifices, the necessary sacrifices, to get through this. We're seeing communities organise grassroots groups to ensure vulnerable people get the help that they need. Healthcare workers, cleaners and other essential service workers turn up to work every day, despite the possible risks to their health, to ensure that crucial services continue. Millions of Australians have put their lives and their livelihoods on hold in order to stay home. We have brought our best selves to bear. That is not just a responsibility for the Australian people; it is a clear responsibility for us here in this place. Parliament has a duty to bring the best version of itself to the challenges that lie ahead. This legislation represents that duty, with Labor, acting constructively, making suggestions about how we proceed and working with unions and with the labour movement, and with the government responding. I'm proud to support the legislation before us this evening.
As we move into the next phase of our response to this pandemic, it is appropriate for us to think deeply about what comes next. How do we act, as a parliament, in a way that not only responds to the immediate health challenges and the immediate economic challenges, but leaves our society and our politics better off and better able to respond to future challenges? A core plank of the response must be a shared understanding of how we need to change our own behaviours, as individuals, as communities and in workplaces, to limit the spread of the virus and to save lives. Australians have responded to calls for social distancing. Movement tracking shows that in my hometown of Sydney, for example, movement has fallen from 121 per cent of normal in March to 17 per cent on 5 April. There will always be a role for police in responding to the minority of people who put their interests above everyone else's. However, policing and enforcement should not be the start and the end of our approach. We cannot arrest our way out of a pandemic. Australians deserve a response that recognises the capacity for people to make responsible decisions for themselves, for their families and for their communities. This demands openness and transparency from government. Government should not just communicate decisions and issue directions. Government needs to communicate the reason for decisions. The release of the modelling is a good start. It's a good step to build trust, but much more will be required over the long term. Governments should be thinking creatively about ways to draw on the community to lead local responses.
It is particularly important for young people. We will do much better if we engage rather than scold and hector. Ultimately, restrictions can only be maintained with the ongoing support of Australians. This is not an argument in favour of simply adopting the lightest-touch approach. It is an argument for building and maintaining a sense of shared purpose and allocating the leadership responsibility to all sorts of people right across our community. People want to do the right thing. Young Australians want to do the right thing. We should help them.
Parliament sat through the Spanish flu, and it sat through World War II. Our democratic traditions are not just a luxury for the good times; they are absolutely critical, and arguably all the more important, at a time like this. The contest of ideas produces better outcomes. There is no party, no individual, with a monopoly on good ideas, and we don't hold elections to anoint a dictator for a term. We hold elections to elect 227 people to represent us, and that task of representation is continual and ongoing. Different people in our community will have a very different experience of the pandemic. Our policy response needs to have a mechanism to capture that and respond to it.
Scrutiny is essential for transparency, and transparency is essential to building the trust that is absolutely necessary when we are asking Australians to make real sacrifices, very considerable individual sacrifices, to deal with this pandemic. Now more than ever, we need the parliament to sit. I call on the government to reconsider their glib dismissal of calls for regular sittings of the parliament. It is hard to imagine but we will come out of this eventually, but we will not emerge into a world in which all of our old challenges have gone away. Many of them will have intensified, and we will have to manage those old challenges while also trying to manage our recovery from what looks to be the economic event of the century.
If this crisis has taught us anything, it is that we are all in this together. But some people aren't getting the message. Like a broken record, these people are stuck on the old track. I'm thinking about right-wing think tanks that are calling now, already, for austerity and for spending cuts. I'm talking about Liberal ministers in state parliaments calling for cuts in environment protection. I'm talking about employers who are calling for wage cuts. I've got a very clear message in response: salvation does not lie in austerity. We cannot cut our way back to prosperity. We cannot ask the most vulnerable people in our community to bear the cost, because, aside from anything else, it turns out that these are some of the people who we rely on most to get us through a period of crisis. We shouldn't sow the seeds of a new disaster to pay off the debt of our current crisis. Environment protection is there for a reason, and the warming trends that drove our horror bushfire season will continue to punish our communities unless we can find an enduring and effective global solution. An enormous national and global challenge lies before us. We should meet it with all of the energy, creativity and goodwill that we can muster.
I want to briefly talk this evening about the bills that are before us here in the Senate. As a number of my colleagues have already outlined in the Senate today, Labor stands ready to pass the bills enabling the legislation for the JobKeeper payment. Labor has taken a very constructive approach to this, and it is really good to see, in a time of crisis, the major parties coming together for the betterment of our community.
We are living through an extraordinary crisis; there is no question about that. The coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented. It's clear that what we are doing as a parliament, the actions that we are all taking together as a community, is working to slow and, hopefully, stop the spread of the virus, and that is good news. But our community is not just impacted in terms of health; we are also impacted economically, as the steps that we must take to stop the spread force enormous change in the way that we work, where we go, what we do and how we interact with each other. Just as our community is working to keep as many people healthy and save as many lives as possible, we must work to protect as many livelihoods as possible as well. We are interested in getting a good outcome for the community, not engaging in political pointscoring with our opponents.
Labor moved amendments in the House of Representatives today to make the JobKeeper payment work for more Australians, to try and keep as many people employed as possible and to make the JobKeeper payment available to many thousands of temporary migrant workers, who our economy relies so much on. Many of my colleagues in the other place have already raised concerns for the situation of more than a million casual workers who will not be eligible for the JobKeeper payment. Many of my colleagues have also raised concerns for the wellbeing of temporary migrant workers, for international students and for many other non-permanent residents who will also not be eligible for the JobKeeper payment, and I endorse those remarks. Part of the bills before the Senate this evening is so that the Treasurer will have the power to expand the payment to other workers. I really do urge the Treasurer to make the JobKeeper payment available to the many casuals and temporary migrant workers who fall through the cracks.
Today I want to particularly focus on the plight of workers in agriculture. It's not hyperbole to say that without a strong and capable agriculture workforce we would be in a far trickier situation in relation to coronavirus than we currently find ourselves. In Australia we currently grow and produce enough food for our population three times over. Most Australians are only leaving their homes for essential reasons. For many of us, a quick stop at the supermarket or farmers market is the only outing we are taking. Our shopping lists are pretty simple: fresh fruit, vegies, a bit of meat, some pasta and, dare I say, hopefully some toilet paper as well.
This new way of life, where an outing to buy some groceries is something of a highlight, has many of us reflecting on what we buy and where it comes from. As I said in an opinion piece that was published today by The Weekly Times, this crisis has many Australians thinking about what it takes to get produce into a supermarket or a farmers market. We are reflecting on who milks the cows in my home state of Victoria, down in Gippsland. Who planted the apple trees in Shepparton? Who tended the grapes in the Mallee? Who picked the tomatoes in Mildura? Who fed the lambs in Bendigo and who made the cheese in Milawa? We are extremely lucky to have the farmers and workers in agriculture, growing what we eat. It means that we can continue to shop without panic but with confidence, knowing that we'll be able to get what we need during these very testing times.
There are approximately 40,000 temporary visa holders currently working in Australian agriculture. Some of those are skilled at undertaking complicated or scientific work on many Australian farms. However, many of them are doing low-skilled but absolutely critical work on farms across Australia. Whether that is picking and packing our fresh produce or not, all of it is essential, and I salute these workers for doing an absolutely wonderful job. These jobs are often filled by overseas seasonal workers or by backpackers who are travelling in Australia. Without these workers, we would face the possibility of produce being left to rot because there would be no-one else out there willing to pick the fruit or cut the vegetables.
The fact is that we as a nation rely on temporary visa workers, whether we like it or not. They pick and pack the fresh fruit and vegetables that we just conveniently grab off the shelves in supermarkets. None of us can afford to support temporary visa workers in agriculture, but I'm pleased that the government has offered opportunities for visa extensions to some Australian farm workers. This is, in fact, a step in the right direction. I really do want to acknowledge the work by many ministers on this front—in particular, Alan Tudge.
But we know that the coronavirus is not stopping to check someone's visa status, and this is a point that Labor has made through Senator Keneally time and time again. If a temporary visa holder can go home during this crisis, well, maybe they should. But the reality is that so many of them can't: 1.6 million temporary visa holders in Australia are not in a position to simply pack up and leave. There are many borders that have closed and, as we know, there just aren't any international flights leaving Australia or coming back here. They've simply shut down. What will happen if a temporary migrant can't afford to pay their rent? Or can't afford to get medical assistance? Or can't afford to pay for simple things, like groceries? Or can't afford to isolate themselves if they fall ill? We can, and we must, do more to support the situation that these temporary visa workers find themselves in. If a worker is here because we rely on them, and they cannot get home, then surely it is in our interest to support these workers. Surely it is in our interest to support them, be that financially. Surely it is in Australia's national interest to make sure that a temporary worker has access to financial support if they fall ill and are required to self-isolate. That is not to mention supporting the many farmers who will then have to ensure that there are provisions in place so that these workers themselves don't spread the virus to their workforce on site.
Again, I urge the government to expand the JobKeeper program to include casuals and temporary migrants because, in the case of farming and agriculture, we rely on them.
I rise to speak on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020 and the related bills. As has been acknowledged by pretty much every speaker in this debate, Australia and the entire world currently face a massive crisis—a health crisis and an economic crisis, and, indeed, a social crisis—as more and more people are affected by COVID-19.
As at today's date, over 6,000 Australians have been diagnosed with coronavirus, and sadly this has caused the death of 50 Australians. Try as we might, and despite what we might want to think, these numbers are likely to rise. I want to thank the essential workers who have played their role in fighting both this disease and the economic ramifications it has caused: the health workers; the aged-care workers; the retail and transport workers, who have kept our supermarkets stocked; the farm workers, who have continued producing produce for Australians to consume; and so many others on the front line, helping all of us through this.
From the very beginning, Labor has adopted a bipartisan approach in the way it has approached this crisis. We haven't used this as an opportunity to pointscore and we won't do so in this debate again tonight. We have supported pretty much everything that the government has put up to deal with both the health and economic ramifications of coronavirus. That doesn't mean, though, that we will just agree to every single thing the government wants. That's not a democracy, and there is a role for the opposition and other parties here to put up constructive suggestions about how the government's approach can be improved.
We have made, and we will continue to make, constructive suggestions to make sure that Australia comes through this in the best way possible. In fact, the bills that we are here debating tonight arise from one of the constructive suggestions that Labor has made. Labor supports the JobKeeper wage subsidy that these bills put into place. We have always supported it—in fact, we called for it, alongside working people, the union movement and many business groups. It's worth remembering that initially the Prime Minister opposed this idea when it was first called for by Labor. In fact, he and his colleagues said that Labor was playing politics. We weren't; we were just making constructive suggestions to ensure that Australians were cared for in these times. I and Labor are pleased that the Prime Minister did eventually agree that this was a good thing to do. We wouldn't be here today if he hadn't done so. I congratulate him for listening to Labor on this suggestion. Whatever happens here tonight, whatever amendments are moved, Labor will deliver this JobKeeper wage subsidy. But we do want it to be better. We think it can be better and we want it to be better. The reason is that millions of Australians are depending on us to make this JobKeeper wage subsidy better.
I think pretty much every single senator and every House of Representatives member has had an incredible influx of calls, emails and inquiries to their offices over the last few weeks from Australians in incredible distress, whether because of the health consequences or the economic consequences of coronavirus. I will give you a couple of examples of people who my office and I have assisted.
There is a mid-20s woman from North Queensland. Her husband is a tradie, and he earns just too much for the new income test applied to jobseeker payments. She's a casual health worker. She has now lost her job, and she misses out on meeting the government's requirement that a casual worker has worked for 12 months in that job. She has missed out by three days. She is three days short of working for 12 months and, as a result, under the government's rules, she won't qualify for the JobKeeper payment. She's recently married, and they're saving to start a family and to buy a house. She's genuinely worried. After this last pay cheque runs out she doesn't know what she and her partner are going to do. They have loans to pay. They're worried that, even when movement restrictions are lifted, business will take some time to start up again and employ her.
Another example is a Gold Coast scaffolder who has worked crew to crew, company to company, many times in the industry for almost 13 years—and, sadly, we see that too much in the construction industry and many other industries where people are only engaged on a casual basis. He has been with his current employer as a casual since September, so again he doesn't meet the 12-month rule that the government has imposed for the JobKeeper payment. Now, admittedly, it looks like he will qualify for the jobseeker payment, the old Newstart, but he and his wife have five kids. They'll be getting $550 a week with five kids to feed and a rental cost of $425 per week. It's just not going to cut it. I could give example after example, but the bottom line is that the government's rules as they currently stand for this JobKeeper payment exclude short-term casuals, migrant workers who cannot return home—no matter what the government says about them needing to return home—council workers, workers in the arts and entertainment industries, university staff and casual teachers, and workers for many charities.
We moved a number of amendments in the House to try to rectify these gaps, and I was very disappointed to see the government vote against every single one of those amendments. That's why we're taking the opportunity here in the Senate to again move amendments, and there still is an opportunity for the government to vote with us and fix these gaps to make sure that these casual workers, migrant workers, council workers, and arts and entertainment industry workers actually receive the JobKeeper payment that many other Australians will receive, because the bottom line is that no worker should be left behind.
I don't want to take too much longer, but I do just want to also reject the suggestion from the government that people who miss out on JobKeeper payments will be fine because they'll qualify for the jobseeker allowance, what was called Newstart. In many cases that is just not true. It's not just a matter of people missing out on one form of payment and getting another. For starters, even if they do get the jobseeker allowance, that's significantly less income than what they would get under the JobKeeper payment. But there are many people who won't qualify for the jobseeker payment either because their partner earns a little bit more than $78,000 a year—the income test—or, when we're talking about places like the Gold Coast, with a large New Zealand population, they may not have lived in Australia long enough to be able to qualify for the jobseeker payment.
Again, I'll give you one example of people we've heard from in our office over the last few days—a 35-year-old woman from the Gold Coast with two kids under six years of age. She has lost her casual job in a restaurant. Her husband earns just over the new income test of $78,000 a year, so she won't qualify for the jobseeker payment. As she says: 'After you pay rent of $450 a week, there's not much left. We pay our taxes and get nothing. Why do they think I go to work five nights a week after looking after the kids all day? Why would I do that if we didn't have to? We have no assets, no savings, nothing to fall back on. We have $50 until Saturday.' These are the people who are going to miss out from both the JobKeeper payment and, in this woman's case, the jobseeker payment. I am genuinely concerned about how these people are going to survive over the next few months until we see economic conditions recover.
In conclusion, I support the amendments that have been moved by my colleagues to try to fix these gaps. These are gaps that will affect the real lives of real Australians and their families in this time. We have heard many politicians across all sides of politics talking about this as a time for us to pull together. I wholeheartedly agree with that, and I encourage the government to think about that view of the world once we come out of this crisis. There are benefits in us sticking together. There are benefits in us thinking of ourselves as a community, as a collective, and not just as a series of individuals in some survival of the fittest.
There is going to be a time for us to think about the economic structure of our community—about the spiralling rates of casualisation that we're now paying the price for, about this overemphasis on individuals getting ahead rather than thinking about how we work together as a collective. We've got to see an end to the demonisation of those on income support, because we now understand very well that income support is there for a reason. In good times and in bad, it is to support those who need our assistance. We've got to see an end to the disrespect that so many show to those in low-paid work. It is the very low-paid work that we are now depending on—the aged-care workers, the early childhood educators, the transport workers and the disability carers who are out there continuing to help people, no matter the risk to their own health. These people are paid far too little, and we've got to fix those kinds of things as we come out of this crisis. More than anything, we have to reject the idea that small government is always good government. If this crisis has highlighted anything in the way that governments operate, we are now seeing the consequences of too much emphasis on reducing government, on small government, and cutting back on services. We are rightly now seeing massive government spending—I might note, of the kind criticised after the GFC by those who are now legislating for it. We've seen in those incredible Centrelink queues, which we've all seen, the cost of cutting back on government services and continually outsourcing those services.
We must take stock of these issues as we come out of recovery. But right now, tonight, is the time to get this legislation passed. We do hope that the government will back the amendments that Labor is putting forward to fix these gaps, but Labor is not going to hold up this legislation. There is too much riding on it. This is something that we called for for over six million Australian workers. We will be supporting it. We are not going to indulge in games where we make amendments that we know the government aren't going to agree to in the House of Representatives. This is not a time for ping-pong between the Senate and the House of Representatives. We need to get this done and we need to get the money out the door, but we do need to give it to as many people as we possibly can, those who really need it and those who are currently excluded by the government. Again, I encourage the government to think about the amendments that we put forward.
Firstly, I would like to thank all those senators who have contributed to this important debate. I will take this opportunity to briefly address the various second reading amendments that have been circulated. Firstly, the government will oppose the second reading amendments on sheets 8939, 8945, 8949, 8950, 8951 and 8952. In relation to the opposition's second reading amendment on sheet 8947, let me note the following. It essentially just notes a power available to the Treasurer in this legislation and encourages him to use this power. It doesn't mention any specific ways that the Senate feels the Treasurer should use this power other than to protect more jobs. The Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020 establishes a framework for coronavirus economic response payments. Under this framework, the Treasurer will be able to make rules to provide for new payments administered by the commissioner. This is a deliberate feature of this legislation which allows for flexibility of the payment arrangements and ensures that the payments can be quickly introduced and revised to appropriately respond to the evolving impact of the coronavirus. And, in so doing, we will be protecting more jobs, as this second reading amendment encourages us to do.
However, let us also make very clear the government's position in relation to temporary visa holders, local government employees and casual workers who have worked for businesses for less than 12 months and other groupings covered in those various second reading amendments that I have listed as being opposed by the government. We have no plans to extend the JobKeeper payments to those groups. Local council workers are the responsibility of state and territory governments, who understand that this is the case. Government schools and TAFEs are also the responsibility of state governments. The government has ensured that charities will be able to access a lower turnover decline test of 15 per cent for the JobKeeper payment. We will not extend the JobKeeper payment to temporary visa holders. Temporary visa holders are expected to support themselves while in Australia. The government has announced that it will allow temporary visa holders with work rights to access their superannuation funds to help them buffer the economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak. Those unable to support themselves over the next six months, through work, savings or access to superannuation, are strongly encouraged to return home. The time to go is now and they should make arrangements as quickly as possible. The situation will be periodically reviewed and further changes may be made if and as required.
The definition of casuals used for this legislation is taken directly from the Fair Work Act, which defines a long-term casual employee as an employee who has been employed by the employer on a regular and systemic basis for a period of at least 12 months. The government has provided clear and consistent advice to employers and employees regarding eligibility for JobKeeper. This will give certainty to those facing the uncertain period ahead.
The proposed eligibility rules are appropriate for the conditions we face now, but the government acknowledges that there are likely to be currently unforeseeable issues which may be ahead of us and which will need to be dealt with. That is why the Treasurer has the discretion to amend JobKeeper eligibility in the future, to provide flexibility to deal with these issues as they arise. This power is not there to expand the eligibility of the JobKeeper program to local council workers, temporary visa holders, casuals who have worked for a business for less than 12 months or other categories covered by the second reading amendments in front of us. The Australians who find themselves out of work have the opportunity to apply for the significantly boosted jobseeker payment. The government has waived many of the usual eligibility requirements or waiting periods for those payments, but, yes, it is correct that some eligibility requirements do remain.
In relation to leave arrangements, these are matters to be resolved by agreement and subject to relevant agreements between employers and employees. An employer can request an employee to take paid annual leave under the provisions of this legislation and the employee cannot unreasonably refuse. Where the employee is of the view that they are being treated unfairly, there is the capacity to consult the Fair Work Commission to review any such arrangement. Importantly, while on leave, the worker would be paid their full wage, subsidised by the $1,500 per fortnight payment; whereas, depending on the circumstances, it may well be that the worker would only be able to receive the $1,500 payment per fortnight. So it may well be in the employee's interest, and his or her choice, to draw down on their leave while they can before going onto the JobKeeper payment only—so not just in the interests of the business. I commend the legislation to the Senate.
The question is that the second reading amendment moved by Senator Gallagher on sheet 8497 be agreed to.
Question agreed to.
We will move to the second reading amendment of Senator Waters. Senator Waters, you will need to move your amendment.
I move the second reading amendment on sheet 8950:
At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:
(a) notes that the Government's proposed eligibility rules for the JobKeeper payment exclude millions of workers; and
(b) calls on the Government to extend access to the JobKeeper payment to everyone who needs it, including:
(i) over 1 million casual workers who have worked for their current employer for less than 12 months,
(ii) everyone who relies on insecure, short-term, contract and gig-economy work,
(iii) people on temporary visas, including work, skilled, protection, student, and non-protected special category visas, many of whom are also ineligible for Medicare,
(iv) universities and their highly insecure and casualised workforces who are crucial to our recovery from this crisis and deserve full access to JobKeeper, and
(v) charities that largely rely on government grants and specific purpose funding and will not meet the 15 per cent threshold as a result".
I move the second reading amendment on sheet 8939:
At the end of the motion, add:
", but the Senate:
(a) notes that:
(i) during the coronavirus crisis, if someone living in Australia needs support, they should be able to access it,
(ii) the Government has extended the jobkeeper payment to 444 visa holders on the basis that these visa holders have a long connection with their employers,
(iii) many other visa holders have equally long connections with their employers, but their employers will not be able to claim the jobkeeper payment for these employees,
(iv) the package of bills before the Senate will give the Treasurer the power to extend the jobkeeper payment to any visa holder,
(v) this is an important power given the current environment, and one that is supported by the Labor Party,
(vi) the Minister for Families and Social Services has similar powers to expand the jobseeker payment to other categories of people, including various types of visa holders, but the Minister has not exercised these powers in relation to temporary visa holders to date,
(vii) Labor supports the Government's position that if a temporary migrant worker can go home, they should. However, many temporary migrants are now trapped in Australia by border closures and the shutdown of international flights,
(viii) where migrants cannot go home, the Government must ensure temporary visa holders are not getting sick or falling through the cracks, and
(ix) the lack of support for temporary migrants trapped in Australia is a serious public health and economic issue for all Australians; and
(b) calls on the Government to use these powers to provide appropriate support to everyone living in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic."
At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:
(a) notes that casual workers deserve to be treated with the same respect as every other worker who faces losing their job because of this pandemic; and
(b) calls on the Government to provide the JobKeeper payment to the 1.1 million casual workers who have worked for their employer for less than a year".
At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:
(a) is of the opinion that the Government's response to COVID-19 continues to see large sections of our population left behind and disproportionately affected by this health and economic crisis;
(b) calls on the Government to:
(i) provide proper support to at least the following groups:
(A) Disability Support Pension recipients, carers, and age pensioners who receive Commonwealth Rent Assistance, none of whom will be eligible for the $550 a fortnight COVID-19 supplement and will be trapped beneath the poverty line,
(B) First Nations peoples who are at severe risk of harm from COVID-19 and urgently need adequate personal protective equipment and access to safe housing,
(C) disabled people, who must have guaranteed continuity of essential disability supports, and have equal access to healthcare to ensure their human rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities are upheld,
(D) those for whom isolation presents a heightened risk of domestic and family violence,
(E) people in Australia who are not Australian citizens or permanent residents, including asylum seekers on temporary protection visas, people who hold temporary work or skilled visas, international students, people who hold working holiday visas, tourists, New Zealand citizens on non-protected Special Category Visas, and permanent resident applicants backlogged in processing queues who do not all have access to work, income support, or Medicare,
(F) LGBTIQ+ people who experience poorer mental health outcomes, and experience discrimination in accessing crisis services,
(G) regional and remote communities who have poorer health outcomes and limited access to basic health services,
(H) people experiencing homelessness, and people facing rental and mortgage stress, who still are yet to see any solution to the homelessness, residential rent and mortgage crisis, and
(I) local government employees, who provide essential community services such as childcare, health facilities, and libraries, and have been left out of JobKeeper,
(ii) enable people to work from home and to maintain social connection by ensuring that no one is cut off from internet services including the NBN,
(iii) provide much needed extra financial support to specialist frontline domestic and family violence support services and crisis accommodation to meet additional demand during this crisis,
(iv) provide much needed extra financial support to those industries hardest hit, including tourism, hospitality, and the arts and entertainment sector,
(v) reverse funding cuts and lifts the freeze on indexation imposed on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation so that it can deliver timely, accurate and reliable advice to the public during this period,
(vi) guarantee that mutual obligation requirements will continue to be suspended until the crisis is over to protect the health and safety of all people on income support payments and employment service providers,
(viii) look to repay debts to robodebt victims once the crisis is over,
(ix) ensure Centrelink has adequate IT infrastructure and capacity and is appropriately staffed to guarantee Australians can get quick and efficient access to Centrelink, and
(x) immediately ensure eviction bans are enshrined in law right across the country so that renters have security, as well as giving rent holidays to those who need them; and
(c) is of the opinion that given the gaps already identified in the Government response to COVID-19, some of which the Government has subsequently fixed in response to community and parliamentary pressure, that proper and comprehensive parliamentary oversight of the Government response to COVID-19 is necessary to ensure that no one is left behind".
I move the matter which I spoke to earlier:
At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate calls on the Government to:
(a) ensure that the JobKeeper wage subsidy is only used by employers to pay their employees' wages and not to subsidise their company's balance sheet, noting that there should be no provision for business to force employees to use their annual leave entitlements and pay for that leave with the JobKeeper wage subsidy;
(b) recognise that the Australian arts and entertainment sector needs a specific, tailored, fiscal response package to ensure its ongoing viability, given the structure of the JobKeeper payment has been designed in a way that leaves many workers in the sector ineligible;
(c) extend the 15 per cent reduction in turnover threshold to all National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and Disability Employment Services (DES) providers, and deliver a retention and support package for the disability sector workforce;
(d) provide much more support for staff in schools, TAFEs, and universities affected by this crisis, noting that:
(i) hundreds of thousands of school and university staff, including casual workers, are facing job losses, but will not be eligible for this JobKeeper payment, and
(ii) the Government should be saving jobs and making sure Australia has a strong and sustainable education and training sector on the other side of this crisis;
(e) recognise the importance of local government, acknowledging that the closure of council facilities has resulted in significant revenue loss and workers being stood down and that without support, up to 45,000 local government workers could lose their jobs, demonstrating the need for the Government to work together with state governments to address these important issues; and
(f) note that a number of major charities will be unable to access the JobKeeper program, and will have to shed staff and cease programs as a result".
access to the COVID-19 stimulus package:
At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:
(a) is of the opinion that the arts, entertainment, creative and events industries, and hospitality and tourism industries have been severely hit by this crisis and are not getting adequate support from this package;
(b) calls on the Treasurer to ensure the following categories of businesses and workers are able to access the JobKeeper Program:
(i) casual workers who have not been with the same employer for 12 months,
(ii) freelance performers, content creators, and crew who are engaged as direct employees on short-term contracts on a project by project basis but are not registered as a business,
(iii) businesses that do not have a consistent stream of linear revenue across the year, such as those working on screen and stage productions, festivals and events, and therefore the revenue test is not applicable and should instead be for a comparable period not month, and
(iv) entities that are established as dedicated Special Purpose Vehicles which is common in the arts, entertainment and events sectors for individual projects, and are unlikely to meet the various tests and requirements therefore excluding many workers; and
(c) is of the opinion that the arts, entertainment and creative industries need a tailored package to provide adequate support immediately and to assist recovery after the crisis, which should include:
(i) restoring and increasing Australia Council funding to expand access for individuals and organisations to access grants,
(ii) establish a Content Creator Fund for the production of local content to support high quality local content, our creative industries and, importantly, allow Australians to keep telling their own stories, and
(iii) local content requirements for broadcast, radio, subscription and streaming services, such as Netflix, Amazon, Stan, Apple and Spotify".