Thursday, 14 May 2020
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) to a question without notice asked by Senator Gallagher today relating to impacts of Covid-19 on the economy
I will raise some points about the labour force figures. I think everyone in this place today knew, when those figure figures were released, they were completely devastating and a real sobering message to all of us here about the devastating impact that COVID-19 is having on our economy and our society. Whilst these figures are released as numbers, every number has a story behind it: every person, their family, and the pressure that comes with losing a job so suddenly and not being able to find another job in the times that we are currently living. These are also figures I don't think any of us ever expected we would see: 600,000 people losing their jobs in a month; one out of every five Australian workers either losing their job or having less work; and the effect on young people, with youth unemployment jumping 2.2 percentage points, the largest monthly increase on record. These are staggering numbers.
I think it really highlights for me the importance of getting the economic recovery right and of the government considering these numbers and the people that sit behind them. That's why my question today went to giving the government the opportunity to reconsider some of the decisions they've taken. We accept that JobKeeper and jobseeker were put together in an urgent way to address and, in a sense, align with the restrictions that were urgently being put in place to flatten the health curve. That was done in a matter of days.
We have also consistently, over the past couple of months, raised issues around eligibility, particularly where we think that the government could have allowed more into the JobKeeper scheme, in particular, where some of the eligibility criteria have been unfair. A young person who has a part-time job, and has had that part-time job for a couple of years, might have gone from earning $200 a week to all of a sudden earning $750. Whereas someone who, merely by length of service—11 months, 10 months or eight months—but with significant dependants and other costs, is denied access to JobKeeper on those grounds alone. We think there are some inconsistencies, and the government could have used this time to get it right. And we still think that's the case. We believe the shorter the unemployment queue is, even at the peak of this economic crisis, the better it will be in the long run—to keep people off the unemployment queue. It would be interesting to know whether the government had advice from Treasury about whether if they'd gone bigger, if they'd gone earlier, if they'd allowed eligibility for casuals, for uni staff, for casual teachers, fewer people would be reflected in these figures today. There are 500,000 people who have left the labour market entirely. They are not looking for work anymore and they are not in a job. They aren't reflected in the official headline results. They are gone. And we know where they've gone. They've gone onto jobseeker because they weren't able to keep their employment relationship going. That's what we have concerns about.
We know that the recovery out of this will be longer and harder. It will be different across particular industries disproportionally affected by the restrictions that are being put in place. This is the issue that we have been urging the government to rethink. Today's numbers, gave the government the opportunity to look at this and see how many more people they could get out of unemployment and back into some connection with their jobs.
This is something we continue to press because the big decisions that were taken urgently—the time that we have now to reflect and to understand some of the statistics will determine the recovery out of this. When you look at the underemployment rate and the youth unemployment rate, we can already see the disproportionate impact on young people. They will be out of the labour market; the ones who have just entered will be forced back; the ones who want to be able to get into it probably won't be able to. And, however long it takes to recover, they will carry these years with them for the rest of their lives. So we would urge the government to keep its mind open and consider changes where they are sensible to be made.
If there is one Senator Gallagher and I agree on it is that the economic recovery from this health crisis is very important. There is no doubt that the Australian economy and the many Australians who, as a group, make up that economy have taken a big hit as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. But it's important to note that we approach this crisis from a position of strength. While those on the other side demanded late last year that this government abandon financial responsibility and start handing out wads of cash, we held fire knowing it's important to have some money in the tin for a rainy day, something up your sleeve for when times get tough.
And 2020 has provided a number of those tough times. No doubt, there are many Australians feeling that pinch acutely. That's why the government has taken decisive action to address the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. The JobKeeper payment, a $1,500 a fortnight payment worth $130 billion to the Australian taxpayer, has been brought in to tackle this significant economic impact. It works by keeping Australians tied to their workplaces during this difficult time. It's had enormous take-up. That tells us something about the nature of the economic impact of coronavirus but it also tells us something about the nature of Australian businesses—their desire to do the right thing by their staff, their desire to keep them on and ready to take up the mantle again once we get through this difficult time. There has been record take-up.
But, since then, we have seen so many examples of how this payment is working to help in my home state of Queensland. Sam O'Connor, the member for Bonney, knows just how well the JobKeeper payment can favour business. Recently he met with Toula from the FRIGG Cafe, which has two cafes—in Brisbane and in Labrador on the Gold Coast. Toula says there is no way her business would have survived without JobKeeper assistance because during the period of restrictions business has been down 80 per cent. Sam visited on the Saturday before Mother's Day to put some hampers together and saw firsthand the benefits of JobKeeper: Toula's six vital staff members, who make tasty burgers, pancakes and schnitzels every breakfast and lunchtime, still have a job.
In the electorate of Forde, we have the wonderful example of Packer Leather, a fifth-generation family-run Australian manufacturing business. They are delighted to be able to report to their outstanding local member, Bert van Manen, that the JobKeeper payment has allowed them to keep their 100 local staff members on the books. They were established in 1891. They have survived the Spanish flu; two world wars; the Great Depression; the rise of plastics and foreign competition; offshore manufacturing; and a number of recessions—and now, with the help of the Morrison government, they are surviving this crisis as an international leader in the production of high-performance leathers. They are a great example of the Australian fighting spirit and the sorts of businesses that job keeper, through the help of the Morrison government and the Australian taxpayer, is helping to keep going and keep people working through the recovery.
Ross Vasta, the member for Bonner, has spent time with the owner of the Manly Deck bar and restaurant, whose name is Sudhir. He explained that, without the JobKeeper payment, he wouldn't have been able to continue his daily operations. Laura Gerber, the fantastic new member for Currumbin, has noticed that the business of Rainbow Meats in Currumbin Waters, owned by Peter, has lost an enormous amount of trade—80 per cent of total revenue. Peter said that the JobKeeper program is the only thing keeping their doors open right now; it simply wouldn't be possible without that program helping to subsidise staff wages through this hard time.
Ray Stevens, the member for Mermaid Beach, met Lincoln Testa, the owner of Madisons Cafe in the Oasis Shopping Centre at Broadbeach, a cafe I'm very fond of. Lincoln said very flatly that his business would not have survived without the JobKeeper payment. That means he wouldn't have been able to keep as many staff on during this time. I could keep going with example after example of the businesses that are surviving this hard time because of the measures put in place by this government, and I could tell you story after story of workers who are hanging on because of the assistance they're getting through the JobKeeper payment or, even in a worst-case scenario— (Time expired)
That's all well and good, but when you consider the lines outside Centrelink, the queues of hundreds if not thousands of Australians who were standing in the Centrelink lines, and who continue to do so, we know that today's ABS labour force figures are incredibly devastating figures. They show that 2.7 million Australian workers have either lost their jobs or had less work in April. That's one in every five Australian workers. So more than half a million Australians have lost their jobs between March and April, pushing the unemployment rate to 6.2 per cent. That equates to around 19,810 jobs lost each day during that period. These are workers and they are families, and they need to put food on the table for their family and for their children. And they're people who are our friends, our relatives and our neighbours, and people in our community. Underemployment rose to a record rate of 13.7 per cent with over 1.8 million Australians underemployed. The number of underemployed Australians was already at a record high well before the pandemic. Labor has been calling on the government to respond to this record underemployment, even prior to COVID-19. That is really important to note. Labor's call to broaden out the JobKeeper package to cover the sectors most affected has just not been listened to.
It was Labor who called for these wage subsidies in the first place. Then we called on the Morrison government to broaden the JobKeeper package to include the 1.1 million casuals who had been with their employer for less than 12 months. If that had been done, if the Morrison government had listened, these figures would be better—and they should be. The unemployment queues are longer than they need to be because many Australian workers have been excluded from the government's JobKeeper program. When we look at the JobKeeper program, the government is still leaving people behind, particularly the most vulnerable people, casual employees and people in whole sectors like the arts and entertainment sector. They aren't even getting the support that they need and the government does need to respond to this. Again, these people are the people behind the statistics—they are our families, they are our friends, they're our relatives, they're our neighbours and they're our community members.
This week was meant to be the budget week. We thought in the new climate we would at least see a response of substance from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, but that did not happen—no substance, just a few old figures put together. In contrast, Labor is looking towards recovery, and we're looking to how it needs to happen. We are putting forward practical suggestions about JobKeeper and the jobseeker payment. Unemployment and underemployment have been turbocharged by this crisis, but they are not new challenges. The labour market has been weak for some time. What we actually need in this country is a government that has vision beyond day-to-day politics. Now is not the time to play politics. We've been showing bipartisanship, but that doesn't mean remaining silent. We as the party of working people have a responsibility to stand up for all of the wage earners of Australia. And we have been a responsible opposition, making constructive suggestions about the faults in the design of the JobKeeper scheme, just as we made constructive suggestions about unemployment benefits, the partner income test, mutual obligation, supporting students, relief from evictions, child care, telehealth, charities, access to broadband, and the aviation sector. It was the First Nations caucus of the federal Labor Party that pushed for the CDP program to remove the mutual obligation, so that First Nations people did not have to be penalised again and again, in an environment where this pandemic was going to so critically impact those CDP participants—33,000 of them in Australia, predominantly First Nations people. These were constructive suggestions by the Australian Labor Party to encourage the government to move far more quickly and precisely to enable all Australians to have an opportunity to get through this pandemic, and to continue to get through in life, in general, post this pandemic.
I must say I find it somewhat perplexing that, after the federal government has announced a $130 billion JobKeeper payment scheme, those on the other side of the chamber simply say that it didn't go far enough and it should have gone further. Let me make a few points on that. You can't look at the JobKeeper payment scheme in isolation. You have to look at it together with the government's overall response. That includes the jobseeker payment attribute of the government's response. That includes the $550 COVID supplement which is paid each fortnight to people who are on jobseeker. So it is simply not the case to assert that this government has left anyone behind. This government has sought on every occasion to provide generous assistance to everyone in our society who is impacted by this awful pandemic. In my electorate of Queensland and across Queensland, Queenslanders by and large have been absolutely applauding the federal government's efforts to keep Queensland businesses operating and to provide generous support to all Queenslanders.
I take the point that those casual workers who've been working for a specific employer for less than 12 months are not included in the JobKeeper scheme. In response to that, I'd just say this: first, they have access to the jobseeker relief payment. Secondly, the basis of the JobKeeper payment was to keep specific employment relationships between employers and their longer-term or permanent employees. The line has to be drawn somewhere in that respect, and the line was drawn in this case with respect to people who are casual employees of an employer for less than 12 months. Why? Because they haven't got that long-term employment relationship that a full-time employee, a part-time employee or a casual employee who's been providing work for the same employer for over 12 months has. But they're not left behind. They're given access to the jobseeker payment, so it is simply not the case that they're left behind.
Senator McCarthy, you say that we need to look towards recovery. Can I say to you that, if the opposition wants to look forward towards recovery, I don't think the right thing to do is to throw bricks at some of those great Australians who have become commissioners of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission—people like Nev Power. He doesn't need to do this job. He's been a chief executive of Fortescue Metals Group. He doesn't need to do this job, and I say to you, through the Deputy President, that I thought it was absolutely tawdry and disgraceful in this place that when you rightly talked about moving forward and looking towards the recovery—and I absolutely agree with your comments in that regard—at the same time your colleagues were throwing bricks at a great Australian and, in fact, a great Queenslander—I'll claim him as a Queenslander; he's now living in Perth, but he was a Queenslander—about the fact he's getting his travel expenses and a per diem to perform that role. He's doing that because he's a great Australian, and he does not deserve to be attacked in this chamber by the Australian Labor Party. He should be congratulated, as all the members of that commission should be congratulated for putting their hands up at a time of great need in this country. All the commissioners have put their names forward and put up their hands. When they were asked, they came forward to help their country at this time of need. They did not deserve that tawdry performance which we saw in question time. They really did not deserve it.
So the Australian government is providing generous support and assistance across the breadth and width of this country, and we are looking towards the future.
First of all, I note the horrific and devastating figure of 600,000 jobs being lost in April and the effects on Australian families and communities right across this country from restrictions and business shutdowns. We look at the figure of one in five people, and we look at the issue of underemployment, a significant plague on this country prior to COVID-19. We look at those hard-hit workers who are not receiving support—casuals with less than 12 months with a single employer, workers in the arts and entertainment industry, local government workers and, of course, many workers right across our markets.
The JobKeeper wage subsidy was a very good idea, but it's been incredibly badly implemented. Throughout this discussion on JobKeeper, we've been constructive, supportive and responsible, but too many Australians have been left out and left behind—some accidentally but clearly many deliberately. From day one, we've seen that the scheme should have been better targeted so that people who really need it can get it and we don't waste taxpayers' money.
It's laughable, as we're talking about what we should be doing about JobKeeper and dealing with this crisis and these unemployment figures, that we have Minister Dutton commenting that it is 'laughable', as he said, that the Queensland government are going to invest $200 million into revitalising Virgin and saving 16,000 jobs. The only thing that's laughable is obviously Minister Dutton. Quite clearly, he might be better off concentrating on his day job, because he's not able to stop plague boats coming to this country, causing undue harm right across the economy and causing people to lose their lives. His failure has cost this country and those individuals who have been directly affected.
It's quite clear that we need to have a policy that turns around and includes those people who have been left out. Earlier today, we had a motion regarding Dnata workers. The government and One Nation decided to abandon 5,500 workers at Dnata. We've seen the Prime Minister, with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, announce, 'Australians know we've got their back,' but very quickly it became clear that JobKeeper would not have the backs of hundreds of thousands of Australians and their families. That is why we tried to introduce legislative amendments to make sure that those people were given the protections they needed, including those I have already mentioned as well as migrant workers and international students, who pay tax and come here in good faith. These amendments, of course, were defeated by the government, who are uninterested in helping those taxpaying workers. We saw on numerous occasions that the government moved to exclude, from 1 July, Australian workers in universities and, as I've mentioned, Australian workers at companies that are ultimately owned by foreign sovereign entities. It was outrageous that a cruel stroke of the pen left thousands and thousands of families out in the cold.
The government has short-changed this country and short-changed all those hundreds of thousands of workers across this country. Workers in Dnata have been striving to make sure that, when the aviation industry comes back, their vital operations will allow the tourism industry to be ready to boom to get us snapped back. This government is adamant about having snap-off, not defending Australian workers or appropriately supporting and having the back of every Australian. They are applying double standards to hardworking Australians and others who have been paying their taxes. It's incredibly important, with the struggles ahead, that jobseeker is properly allocated to support all the Australians and other taxpayers that we've mentioned on numerous occasions in this place. I implore the government to reconsider this, because they can make a difference with the stroke of a pen. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.