Wednesday, 8 April 2020
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Answers to Questions
That the Senate take note of answers given by ministers to questions asked by Labor senators.
It was only a fortnight ago that we witnessed scenes no one thought imaginable in modern First World Australia. The images beamed to us from Centrelink offices across the nation, where lines of people snaked around the block, evenly distanced at 1.5 metres apart, were more reminiscent of wartime bread lines or depression job queues than what we would expect to see in the major cities of one of the richest countries in the world. We have been blessed with almost three decades of uninterrupted economic growth. But for Labor's swift and decisive go-hard, go-early and go-households response to the GFC, this uninterrupted economic growth would have ended a decade ago. But here we are.
In just a few weeks, a localised coronavirus outbreak in China has morphed into a global pandemic that threatens not only the lives of potentially thousands of Australians but also the social and political order that is the bedrock of our proud democracy. Economists are positing a question that is no longer about whether there will be a surplus, the size of a surplus or whether the surplus will be wafer thin, but rather: will we avoid a depression? To avoid that worst-case scenario is why we are here today.
Like many governments around the world, we have had to act quickly and decisively to stop the spread of the virus and protect our health systems from collapse. But, in tandem with this, we've also had to scramble together plans to save the economy, and with it the nation's workforce, from falling off a cliff. Just like the GFC, that response has been to implement some good old-fashioned Keynesian economics—get the money to households and get the money to businesses, and get it done quickly.
If we allowed a sustained break between employees and their employer, once the job is lost it may never exist again. This is the theory underpinning the JobKeeper package we are here to consider. Labor supports the government on this, because Labor supports the Australian worker. We are the party of the Australian worker. It is in our DNA. Indeed, it is in our very name.
The Prime Minister has said that everyone who has a job in this economy is an essential worker, and of course that is true; there is no hierarchy of importance of how we pay to put food on the table. This is why we on this side have been dismayed by, firstly, the Minister for Government Services and member for Fadden, Stuart Robert, claiming a distributed denial-of-service attack on the myGov website and then having to reverse it and admit that the system had been overwhelmed, only to actually worsen that by saying, 'My bad.'
Secondly, of course, we have been dismayed by the government's unwillingness to include various groups in the JobKeeper package: casuals who have been employed for under a year, workers in industries where short contracts are the norm, local government workers, and various other groups, including teachers, one of the most precious cohorts in this country. Across the country, casual teachers are being told that they don't have any shifts for the foreseeable future. If you're a casual teacher, you may well miss out on the JobKeeper package. Those teachers have been here for us throughout the spread of this virus, so we should be there for them at this time. The government have the discretion to include these Australian workers in today's package—and we heard in some of the answers given by government senators today that that is the case. The government have the discretion to offer these workers the support needed to get over this unprecedented health and economic emergency. We hope that they use this discretion and put into practice a plan to uphold the words of the Prime Minister on 24 March:
Everyone who has a job in this economy is an essential worker.
Another group at the coalface of vulnerability are our older Australians, and this horrible virus has shown us that they are disproportionately affected. We will also need to have a conversation about why our native capability to manufacture equipment such as PPE in this country has been so severely diminished, but perhaps that is a conversation for tomorrow. We are, of course, a country before we are an economy.
I'm very pleased to be able to make a contribution to this take note debate. Like a lot of simple pleasures that we previously took for granted, I have a new appreciation for the opportunity to take note of answers to questions without notice. I do so as the government's nominee as deputy chair for the new Senate select committee to be established to scrutinise the response to COVID-19. I want to take the opportunity of the take note debate today to reflect on the task of that committee, and on the task of all of us as parliamentarians in the months ahead.
I am honoured to be joining this committee, because I'm a big believer in parliamentary scrutiny of the decisions of executive government. I particularly have great faith in the unique capacity of this chamber to provide that scrutiny. I congratulate the chair and deputy chair of the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation, Senator Fierravanti-Wells and Senator Carr, for their initiative to continue the important work of their committee at this time. In times of crisis, parliamentary scrutiny remains important. It is even more important, given the extraordinary measures governments have been forced to put in place to respond to the coronavirus; measures this parliament would normally never agree to but that have been put into place—for good reason—very rapidly. Normal parliamentary oversight—like Senate committee inquiries into proposed legislation—has not been possible in this environment, where responding quickly is essential. That's why I'm pleased the Senate is establishing a Senate select committee, to be led by Senator Gallagher, to help fill that scrutiny gap, given the parliament may not have a regular sitting schedule for some time.
The committee and all of us as parliamentarians have a significant task on our hands in the months ahead. The most obvious and immediate task is to examine the health measures put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus and how effective they have been. The first duty of any government is to protect the health and safety of its citizens, and this will undoubtedly be the major focus of the committee. Many of these public health measures, implemented in conjunction with the states, have also had severe economic consequences which we are only seeing the beginning of. It will be important for the committee to carefully consider the economic costs of these measures on the lives of ordinary Australians. And, of course, that cost is not just measured in terms of dollars. We know from recessions past that lost jobs and failed businesses leave behind many human tragedies and a significant personal toll of their own.
Those economic consequences have necessitated a strong fiscal response from the government. While the need for these fiscal measures is obvious, they represent some of the largest-ever peacetime Commonwealth outlays. Meeting the cost of those outlays will be a shared national task for many years ahead and, depending on the extent and the length of the economic downturn we are all anticipating, it will potentially be an intergenerational one. As a younger member of this place, I'm particularly conscious of this. The interests of taxpayers must be carefully considered by the committee, given the burden the parliament is asking them to bear, today and in the years ahead.
The path out of this public health crisis is, understandably, of great interest to all Australians. It will be appropriate to question decision-makers in government, and the experts who advise them, about alternative pathways from here. Australians will also look to all of us for the reconstruction project ahead. Putting the economy into hibernation and starting it up again on the other side has never been tried before. The closest historical analogies we can draw are the transitions we've made in the past from a wartime economy to a peacetime one. Once the immediate danger of the virus has passed, rebuilding our economy and public services to a degree of normalcy will be our challenge. In the longer term, we'll also have to consider questions about our national resilience and self-sufficiency.
In response to the crisis so far, we have seen the suspension of the partisanship which normally defines our politics. My sense is that this has been warmly welcomed by the Australian people. Inevitably, though, there will be things on which we disagree, and that is normal and healthy in a liberal democracy. We come here informed by different values, and that is reflected in our policy preferences. In this crisis, we have all been required to set aside, to some degree, our political philosophy. When the conversation returns to the post-coronavirus world, it is likely that those differences will re-emerge, although perhaps not in the exact form that they took in the pre-coronavirus world. The challenge for us will be to set aside the gratuitous partisanship, and to explore those differences constructively in the spirit of national unity that has defined this crisis so far. That is what the Australian people expect of us.
We are in this chamber today as expectations of us as elected representatives have changed. The politics-as-usual approach that I've seen in my short time as a senator over the last four years can no longer cope or deal with the issues that people are confronting today. I think it's important to note the role the opposition has been playing in responding to this and in being constructive.
As Senator Kitching said in her contribution to this, I think that, obviously, for those people directly impacted by them and also for those people who observe them, seeing those queues outside Centrelink offices really brought home to people how devastating the changes that people are confronting are going to be. People of my generation have been in the workforce since school, for 20 or 25 years, and have basically been employed that whole time. I know that finding themselves now out of work and relying on government subsidies for the first time in their lives is having a dramatic impact on those people.
It's really important that the role that the opposition plays continues to be constructive. I'd like to acknowledge the work of the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, the senior shadow ministers, particularly those in health and Treasury, Tony Burke and others. They have held the government to account, but have done so in a way that has been constructive, which we saw through the first part of this year with the bushfires and we've seen in dealing with the COVID-19 emergency as well. It's often the case that the government have got to the right decision after insistence from Labor, and I think that is an important role for us to play. Labor has identified gaps in the health and economic response, but, instead of just identifying those gaps and trying to charge at the government to say there have been shortcomings, we have been constructive. We have been constructive in the health area and we have been constructive in the economic response, which is the substance of why the parliament is back here today.
The Australian people are no doubt looking for outcomes, so they don't want to see unnecessary political debate. They don't want to see unnecessary political arguments and game playing; they want to see a constructive approach. They can look to this parliament for guidance and hope that there is going to be support for them when they need it, both from a health point of view and from an economic point of view. But they also want to see hope for the future; they want to see that the country is going to get through this come out the other side in a stronger position.
There's no better example of the way that the Labor Party, as the opposition, have behaved during this than when we talk about the JobKeeper package that we are here to debate today. The government initially rejected the Labor idea of a wage subsidy, which, from a Labor point of view, was designed to help keep people in work. We welcome the package. We acknowledge the fact that the government has been working constructively with the union movement as well, which I think has been an important development for workers in Australia. But what is disappointing is that the government can't bring themselves to bring forward a package that supports more workers.
I'll focus on the requirement that the government have insisted on with regard to a casual employee needing to be in a workplace for 12 months. If one looks at ACTU data, which is based on ABS modelling, there are 215,000 Queenslanders who do casual work but have been with their current employer for less than 12 months. This includes 11,000 people in Central Queensland, 8,300 people in Wide Bay, almost 11,000 people in the Moreton Bay region north of Brisbane, 3,400 people in Toowoomba and 82,000 people in Brisbane. These are just some of the areas that I look after in Brisbane that are going to be adversely impacted because the government couldn't quite bring themselves to have that 'team Australia' moment that they like to talk about. They like to talk about it when they are setting the agenda, but they can't quite bring themselves to talk about it when there are going to be people who are adversely affected because of the decision-making of this government. We will continue to pressure the government over this issue. There are a lot of people who will be adversely affected, and we need to be on their side. (Time expired)
I rise to participate in this take note debate. I appreciate the contributions that have been made thus far. I, like Senator Kitching, acknowledge the images that we saw of the queues outside the Centrelink offices. I think we were all aware of the impact of the decisions that were being made and of what would occur, but those images really brought home that this is very real and is being felt very much by all of our constituents right across the country. It has made us all even more aware of the importance of what we do in this place and the fact that the decisions we make here have a very real impact on people in their day-to-day lives. That's why what we're doing today in passing the JobKeeper package is so fundamentally important; it does extend support to people who would otherwise be joining those queues and exacerbating the problem.
I acknowledge the concerns that have been raised by the opposition regarding those who seemingly miss out on the JobKeeper package. But, as was stated by Senator Cash in her response to some of the questions during question time, we have to draw the line somewhere. We don't have a magic pudding of money and we have to be as responsible as we can be, fiscally and economically, as we try and address this health crisis. In saying that, it is really important to note that those who do miss out on the JobKeeper package do get access to the other packages that we have put out there. The jobseeker payment and its increased capacity is in place because we knew that there would be those who would ultimately not be eligible for other measures we consider, including the JobKeeper package.
For those casual employees who have an ongoing relationship with their employer and those permanently employed who have that ongoing relationship of 12 months or more, what we've done with the JobKeeper package is extend a status that's already recognised under Australia's taxation system. In putting together the $130 billion package, that is where we ultimately drew the line, because when you put these lifelines in place you have to draw a line somewhere. As heartbreaking as it is that some people will miss out, we have to be responsible. We have to remember what we are in this place to do. We are in this place to do the best we can do for the whole of the Australian community, not individual sectors and not individual circumstances. It is impossible to individualise, as much as we all may want to.
I also really want to note the opportunity that we may face at the other end of this outbreak. I truly believe our regions will emerge stronger at the end of this. What we are seeing is that our key regional industries are essential. Our agricultural industries are essential. We need to get behind those industries to ensure they're strong at the other end. But our regions are also very well-placed to welcome back manufacturing opportunities that we once thought were lost to this nation. As was mentioned before, we can manufacturer right here at home things like personal protective equipment, and we can do that in our regions. I think that now is an opportunity for us to recognise that regional Australia and agriculture are the life blood of this nation.
We've been through a lot. We've been through drought and we've been through bushfire, and we've had flooding in certain regions. Our regional and remote communities also rely on tourism, which has been absolutely slammed at this point. But if we get behind those industries, and if we support those industries and our regions, on the other side of this outbreak we will be stronger and we will be stronger together.
Can I just begin my contribution by thanking those on the frontline: our medical people, our paramedics, those working in workplaces that are staying open to ensure that we get the supplies we need, and those delivering services at this time. There are many people out there working without the necessary personal protective equipment to keep them safe while they're doing their job to try and keep us safe. I want to say thank you to all of those people and recognise the contribution that they're making. Senator Kitching and Senator Chisholm, in their contributions, both talked about the way in which Labor has worked constructively with the government to put forward, certainly from our point of view, improvements to the legislation to ensure that not as many people fall through the cracks—or that no-one, hopefully, would fall through the cracks. But there still are many thousands of Australians who will miss out. I think it was earlier today, or it may have been yesterday, that I heard the Prime Minister talk about cooperatively working with businesses and unions. For us on this side, that's not a new process at all. It's something that we've done for years. Unions are representatives of those workers who are out there on the frontline. They're representatives of the workers who are dealing with the difficulty of a very worried public at the moment, and they should be consulted. So for us it's not a new concept, and I hope that in the future discussions around all sorts of different things occur continually with business but are also inclusive of the union movement through the ACTU.
I want to talk a little bit about some of the responses that we got from the government today, particularly about those thousands of people who aren't eligible. I think it's over a million. There are casuals and labour hire, and there is the nature of industries. We understand that this legislation needs to get through, and I think Senator Wong, in her contribution to the ministerial statement that Senator Cormann put forward earlier, talked about the fact that we will not hold this up. But there are amendments that will help people. I heard Mr Porter the other day talk about this being our 'Dunkirk moment', that it was 'get the lifeboats out'. I guess one of the areas of concern that I have is that there are many Australians who are not going to get access to those lifeboats. That's why I urge the government to consider the amendments put forward by Labor. We need as many people in those lifeboats as possible.
Minister Cash talked about those being included, and that the government had to draw a line somewhere. I've been getting, as I'm sure everyone on this side has, and probably all of us have, lots of emails. We've seen the images of Centrelink; we've seen all that. We really need to think about the difficulties that some of those workers are going to face into the future. And not just the workers but the employers as well, when they lose employees who they may not get back—employees who they have trained and who understand their industry. There are a lot of workers in the labour hire sector. I know from my background with the AWU that there are a lot of concerns around some areas and some workplaces. Shipbuilding in Tasmania is a good example that I can give you, where there are some employees who have worked in a workplace for over 10 years, some for 13 years. They have worked at the same workplace for that period of time. They've been moved on to labour hire, then the employer employs them back, and they then go back to labour hire. They have been in and out of that same work site at the same address. The only thing that's changed is their employer—the name of the person who employs them—not their workplace, not their work address and not their pay rate or their classification. They come in one day employed by X employer, the next day they're employed by Y employer. Yet, they're not eligible. That doesn't seem to make sense to me, and there's no logic in this. I urge the government to look at these areas. Senator Ruston in particular has the ability to look at these areas. I urge her to do that, for those long-term employees who would be considered casual employees in excess of 12 months work, bar the fact that their employer has decided to change the method of employment, the name of the employer or the process of how they're actually employed.
Question agreed to.