Wednesday, 8 April 2020
Questions without Notice
Pensions and Benefits
My question is to the Minister for Families and Social Services, Senator Ruston. Can the minister confirm that those whose partners earn over $78,000 a year, New Zealanders who are permanently living in Australia and temporary visa holders are not eligible for the jobseeker payment? What is the government's plan for those who are at risk of falling through the cracks as a result of not being eligible to either JobKeeper or jobseeker payments?
Thank you very much, Senator Sheldon, for your question. The government has announced measures over previous weeks and we come today to this place again with another package so that we can assist as many Australians as possible to get to the other side of what is an unprecedented crisis. We were absolutely focused in the first instance, with our first package that came out, which was the jobseeker package and the corona supplement, to make sure that we addressed the concerns of, and the impact on, those who are the most vulnerable in our society, those people who find themselves without income.
Today, obviously, we have another significant package. It is probably the biggest package that this parliament will ever have to address. Hopefully, we will never again have to be in a position to address a package the size of $130 billion. This package will look to add on top of the previous two packages to support another group of Australians who have been impacted by the coronavirus. Today, as we did when we were here last time, as we did before the parliament got up, this government continues to put in place a range of different measures to make sure that a broad range of Australians—
On relevance, Mr President. Again, we have a minister refusing to answer the question as to whether particular categories of workers are not eligible for the jobseeker payment. We don't need another speech about how great the government is. We'd just like an answer to our question.
Senator Watt, that was the first part of the question. The second part of the question was somewhat broader and commenced with 'what is the government's plan'. With respect, I am listening to the minister—
Senator Wong interjecting—
I just need to finish. I'm listening to the minister. The second part of the question was more broadly worded. Today after question time we will have an opportunity to debate the nature of answers to questions. Senator Wong, you were seeking the call?
With respect, Mr President, the word 'plan' doesn't exist on its own. The word 'plan' in the question referred directly to those who are not eligible for either JobKeeper or jobseeker payments. My submission is that direct relevance goes to the way in which the word 'plan' is used. Ministers can't just pick a word and extrapolate it from the circumstances.
I take the point. The question was: what is the government's plan for those who have—the question claimed—'fallen through the cracks'? I believe that was the phrase that was used. I'm listening to the minister, who is addressing a range of issues. I think that question was by its nature broad. There's an opportunity after question time to debate the nature of answers and what senators think of those answers. I'll continue to listen very carefully to the minister. She's now been reminded of it twice.
As I was trying to point out to those opposite, the measures that have been put in place are extremely comprehensive and seek to address the concerns that are raised about people who find themselves in particular circumstances. That, in the first instance, with our changes to the jobseeker payment and the corona supplement, was about dealing with people who did not have a job. I note that you raised the issue in relation to visas and those people who are in Australia who do not have direct access to benefits. A number of measures have been put in place, but a particular one that I would draw your attention to is the ability for those that are in Australia who have work rights as part of their visas to be able to access their superannuation. If not, they are welcome to go home. (Time expired)
As I said, this is a very comprehensive package, and today is just one part of that package. But there are a number of measures that have been put in place. I've mentioned a few of them in the answer to the first question that was asked by Senator Sheldon. In addition to that, as part of my portfolio responsibility I am working with emergency relief providers, with food relief providers and with financial counsellors to make sure that when people find themselves in a position where they have no access to assistance, because they're chosen to stay in Australia, we have a very comprehensive emergency relief response. I would be more than delighted to run through the components. There is a $200 million package which is focused almost entirely on the provision of day-to-day emergency relief—things like food, the payment of bills and access to cash—to make sure that those people in Australia who require this emergency relief will be able to get access to it.
The parliament has voted to provide the minister with expansive powers to vary thresholds for welfare payments to ensure that all those who will need support during this unprecedented crisis will receive it. When will the minister use those powers?
As you rightly point out—and I think Senator Wong raised the matter in her remarks on Senator Cormann's ministerial statement—yes, I do have the power to make changes to various cohorts, and this includes visa categories, should the need arise. At the moment we are obviously monitoring very closely the impact of the coronavirus as it continues to have an impact across the whole of the Australian economy. We are responding, and I think we are responding very quickly and appropriately. As I mentioned in response to the concerns that were raised about visa holders in Australia who have work rights, the ability for them to access their superannuation gives them the immediate opportunity to get access to finance to support themselves. So in response to your direct question: I do have those powers; I will continue to monitor the situation, along with my colleagues; and, should the need arise, those powers will be enacted.