Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Regulations and Determinations

Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Amendment Rules (No. 2) 2020; Disallowance

6:27 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That items 5 to 7 of Schedule 1 of the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Amendment Rules (No. 2) 2020, made under the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Act 2020, be disallowed.

This Greens motion disallows provisions of the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Amendment Rules (No. 2) 2020. Items 5 to 7 of schedule 1 limit universities' eligibility for the JobKeeper wage subsidy. This motion would reverse the extension of the turnover calculation period to six months and the inclusion of funding supplied under the Higher Education Support Act and the Australian Research Council Act in the relevant definition of revenue for universities.

Had the government done the right thing in the first place and included our universities in the JobKeeper program, we would not be here. Instead, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his ministers have gone out of their way not once, not twice but three times to amend the eligibility criteria for JobKeeper to close off any hope universities might have of accessing the program. First they created a lower, 15 per cent, fall in revenue threshold for charities, before quickly clarifying they didn't mean universities, despite them being recognised as charities and outstanding contributors to their communities.

Their second change—delivered sneakily late on a Friday afternoon, as a lot of the worst trash this government puts out is—was that universities would now have to count government funding under the Higher Education Support Act and Australian Research Council Act towards their revenue totals for the purposes of JobKeeper—another shift in the goalposts to keep JobKeeper out of reach for workers in higher education.

The final nail in the coffin, or twist of the knife, as one group of universities put it, was the extension of the period over which universities' revenue fall was to be measured from one month to six months. Once again, it's one rule for the rest of the country and it's one altogether for university workers, who the government is determined not to help. And so in three eleventh-hour rule changes, the government has condemned Australian higher education to an existential crisis. They'll claim they've thrown a little regulatory fee relief and some extra short courses at the problem, but we know that these are not even in the realm of enough and could never justify the government passing the buck on supporting staff and students during this crisis.

To make it all the more clear just how little the government cares, they also took the chance after this motion was tabled to amend the rules to allow four private universities access to the scheme while continuing to fail our public universities. Make no mistake about the impact the government's failure has had, and will have: 30,000 university staff are facing unemployment and hundreds have already lost their jobs or know that their contracts won't be renewed. From PhD students and casual tutors to career academics, professional staff and support workers, higher education workers are losing their jobs as a direct result of the government's failure to provide support, including access to JobKeeper.

Even if the government didn't care about the human toll of their neglect, and it really appears that they don't, the mind boggles that they can't see the disastrous long-term impacts it will have on the whole sector. Seven thousand of the 21,000 full-time equivalent jobs expected to be lost are in research related academic positions—researchers whose expertise and experience could help steer us through this crisis and build a better future on the other side are instead facing unemployment. Some are working on a vaccine for COVID-19 while their jobs and the jobs of their colleagues are more under threat than ever. With those jobs will go long-running research programs that our future depends upon, and generations of research talent that may never return to academia.

I feel in particular for the casual and insecurely employed staff at universities who this crisis has hit first and hardest. Over decades, the government has allowed casualisation and insecure work to run rampant in unis to the detriment of students' learning, staff wellbeing and research excellence. It's made higher education amongst the most casualised and least-secure industries in the country. Universities in Australia now employ far more in casual jobs than they do in permanent ones. Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows that a majority of our universities have rates of casualisation exceeding 40 per cent. Many more staff are employed insecurely or on fixed-term contracts.

In my time teaching at a university I never saw the levels of anxiety, stress and constant worry in academic environments that I've seen in recent years, where a majority of the staff are being forced to work without paid leave, without sick leave and with no certainty of ongoing jobs. Coronavirus has made these conditions worse. A survey conducted by the University of New South Wales Casuals Network found that one in three casuals had already lost work due to COVID-19, that 81 per cent feared losing their jobs and that one in three of these were working more than 10 unpaid hours per week.

We are absolutely committed to seeing that no worker is left behind, and that means including casuals in our demand for security for workers. In giving universities access to JobKeeper the government must also ensure that it extends to all casuals, lest we see generations of academic talent lost and more lives destroyed. The losses that have happened and those that will come, if the government doesn't act, should be felt as a society. When we, existentially, threaten public universities and their contribution to our democracy, communities and economy, we threaten our commitment to developing the knowledge and solidarity which can build a better world for each and every one of us.

Not, of course, that the government cares. Exclusion from JobKeeper is just the latest episode in the Liberals long-running series of malicious attacks on universities. As much as it is farcical, the government bending over backwards to deny universities access to the wage subsidy is incredibly sinister stuff as well. Universities have been dealing with huge uncertainties for months now. Constantly shifting the goalposts is not only enormously unfair to them but revealing of how the Liberals feel about higher education.

The clear intent to lock universities out of JobKeeper can only be explained by the Liberals' ongoing hostility to higher education and their commitment to starve universities of funding. They are fully aware that 30,000 jobs are on the line, but they just don't care, because this is an opportunity to destabilise and weaken the university sector and lay the groundwork for further marketisation. Scott Morrison and his ministers' mistreatment of universities in this crisis is nothing but ideology writ large. They don't even have a financial justification to hide behind for excluding universities—or migrants and casuals, for that matter—from JobKeeper. With a whopping $60 billion underspent on JobKeeper, that could be going towards universities, casuals, migrant workers, disability support pensioners and carers with a stroke of the pen. It's clear that the government is acting out of malice.

It's important to note that access to JobKeeper alone will not be enough to protect the tertiary education sector, but it is an absolutely necessary lifeline. In addition to JobKeeper, the government must back universities through a new complete package which would massively boost funding, save jobs and improve universities for staff and students alike. A serious funding boost would help shade unis from the shock of international crises like coronavirus by reducing their dependence on international student fees. With extra funding we can eliminate the uncertainty of our fragile system so unis can improve learning and teaching conditions for decades to come. There is no going back to business as usual after COVID-19—and we shouldn't really want to.

Universities and TAFEs are absolutely central to research, reskilling, education and training. We need to survive this crisis and build a just economy and society afterwards. Higher education should play a key role in making ours a fairer, more equal country. Through that, we have to reset the neoliberal logic and the corporatisation and commercialisation that has been foisted on uni communities for too long. We have long called for free university and TAFE. We must reimagine universities as a public good, not corporate institutions, with democratic governance structures that support all staff and students in their collective pursuit of knowledge. It is our radical and unapologetic demand that all jobs be protected and that all people should have lifelong access to free tertiary education of the highest quality.

The Greens will always do everything we can to protect jobs and support workers in tertiary education. The disallowance before us goes some way to easing the punitive restrictions on JobKeeper access that are causing thousands of jobs around the country to be lost, but it unfortunately cannot unwind them all. It's telling that the government has drafted the JobKeeper rules such that the exclusion of universities from the lower revenue threshold of charities cannot be disallowed by this chamber. With the stroke of a pen, the government could reverse their absurd exclusion of universities from this program and begin the hard work of protecting the university sector. There are 30,000 jobs on the line, with impacted staff in every corner of the country. The unfair treatment must end today. Parliament has the opportunity to reject this malicious exclusion of universities.

I thank the members who will be supporting this motion for putting the interests of workers and the community first. I call on crossbench senators to do the right thing and back this motion. As I'm sure Senator Lambie is aware, the University of Tasmania is being forced to cut staff and courses. And I'm sure the One Nation senators from Queensland are aware of the terrible situation the Central Queensland University has found itself in, with hundreds of people set to lose their jobs. This disallowance will save jobs in every state and territory and deliver much-needed support to our universities and their staff and students at a very difficult time. I commend the motion to the Senate.

6:39 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the proposition from Senator Faruqi. The COVID-19 pandemic has been perhaps the most challenging health issue that Australia and the world have ever faced. Thankfully, through the good sense of the Australian people, we've been able to limit the number of lives that have been lost. Of course, any life lost is tragic. To the relatives and families of the hundred people who've lost their lives, I wish to express my support and say that the thoughts of all Australians are with you at this difficult time and that you are not alone.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive damage to the Australian economy. The Treasurer has admitted that we're in a recession. Unemployment is expected to reach more than 10 per cent. The scenes of workers queuing outside Centrelink offices are a stark and sad reminder of the impact this crisis is having on the livelihoods of millions of Australians. The response from this government has been reactive when it comes to managing the economy and the impacts. We know that they never wanted to introduce JobKeeper. They were hoping to push workers onto jobseeker, and it was not going to be at the increased level of support but at the old Newstart rates. It was a campaign from the Labor opposition, the crossbench and the Australian Council of Trade Unions, along with business, that forced the government to announce both the enhancement of jobseeker and the JobKeeper program. The government were forced into JobKeeper and has been trying to reduce its effectiveness ever since. Then we had the largest costing blunder in Australia's history: the $60 billion error, the Frydenberg fail, which will define the economic credentials of this Treasurer and this government.

The holes in JobKeeper are resulting in thousands of Australians falling through the cracks. Casuals, entertainment workers, those on temporary visas, workers in businesses like dnata and those working at universities have been let down by this government and this Treasurer. It is a clear demonstration of the government's lack of compassion for Australian workers. The regulations made to JobKeeper to exclude universities will leave over 21,000 people vulnerable to losing their jobs in the next few months. The higher education sector is expected to lose between $3 billion to $5 billion in 2020 due to COVID-19, affecting their income. Universities Australia has announced that each of its 39 members are projected to have an average shortfall of between $77 million and $118 million, mostly due to the plunge in international tuition fee revenue. This is a devastating blow to universities, and already the job losses have begun. Deakin University announced up to 400 jobs are to go. The university of Central Queensland, based in Rockhampton, is reported to be reducing staff by up to 300 positions and is closing its Biloela, Noosa and Yeppoon sites. At Charles Sturt University jobs are already under threat. At Wollongong university nearly 400 jobs could be lost. The list of universities that will be forced by this government to sack staff will only get bigger. These job losses will be felt by those workers who lose their jobs, their families and their colleagues.

The impact on regional communities will be enormous. University campuses are critical employers in regional towns. They provide reliable, well-paid, good jobs in communities that need the income these jobs provide. The impact will then be felt by the small businesses and service providers in these towns. Incomes will be reduced, and spending in the shops and businesses across these communities will be hit hard. But where are the National Party on these issues? Why aren't they standing up for regional jobs?

As per usual, they're asleep at the wheel again. They should be working to protect regional jobs, not standing by and watching the disaster unfold.

I want to commend the National Tertiary Education Union for their steadfast advocacy of these workers, doing everything they can to keep them in secure jobs. As Dr Alison Barnes, National President of the NTEU, said:

The tertiary education sector is vital for protecting our health, our economy and our society. It is the engine room to cure COVID-19 - delivering the health and medical research that saves lives.

Without a real, secure package with new money, we are looking at losing tens of thousands of jobs. Sally McManus tweeted:

Universities have become totally dependant on casual workers, most of whom are highly educated, dedicating their lives to their field of knowledge. Highly skilled ppl have lost their jobs and are excluded from JobKeeper. How's this fair and what's the plan Dan?

Well, this is no-plan Dan, just as this is the no-plan government—to deal with the important impacts that COVID-19 has had on the economy.

Australian universities have had huge success over the last few decades. Since the Dawkins reforms of the Hawke era, they have redefined their role in Australian society. They've become places where people from all backgrounds can gain an education and get the opportunity to become doctors or lawyers or go into many other professional careers. They've become a powerhouse for our economy. The higher education sector is Australia's third largest export industry, employing more than 220,000 workers.

Whereas in 1989 universities derived more than 80 per cent of operating costs from the public purse, now it's estimated to be less than 40 per cent. They are not only providing a much-needed economic stimulus to our country but also building a more diverse and inclusive country. They are building lifelong links between Australia and the countries that people who attend our universities come from. These are links that will benefit Australia both socially and economically for many decades to come. This all happens because of the ongoing sustainability of Australian universities. This all happens because we have a wonderful workforce supporting and teaching these students and providing them with a positive experience in Australia. This is what the government is putting at risk through their short-sighted and mean-spirited approach to this issue.

Universities are an integral part of Australia's research and development effort. Their research partnerships with business are driving innovation and helping Australians to compete for the jobs of the future. The research being conducted in Australian universities—in information technology, engineering, the arts and, critically, health—is setting up the new business of the next decade and beyond. By harming our universities with their approach, the government is putting this vital role at risk. How many new inventions, medical advances and other research breakthroughs will be lost because the government doesn't value these institutions?

Universities Australia chair and Curtin University Vice-Chancellor Deborah Terry reminded us of the impact on the wider economy when she commented on the impact of COVID-19 on university research. She said:

We need to look at R&D investment that is much closer, at least, to the OECD average.

She went on to say:

We are all going to be paying a lot of attention to GDP over the next little while. Here's a known driver of GDP and it's absolutely imperative that we understand that.

Professor Terry is right. The path to higher growth, better jobs and growing income starts with innovation and research. This is core business for our universities. The government must change course on this damaging decision. They've backed down on the rate of the jobseeker payment. They've backed down on the need for JobKeeper. It's time to back down and support this proposal. I commend the motion to the Senate.

6:50 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I will take up this opportunity as a right of reply to thank Senator Sheldon for his support for the workers in universities. It actually says a lot about this Liberal-National government that they can't even stand up and justify their stance on why they are not supporting university workers. That's because they do not have a justification.

But today we do have an opportunity to begin righting the wrong of higher education's exclusion from the JobKeeper program and the government's failure to support the sector, its staff and students through this crisis. It is an opportunity to staunch the wound that this government's malice for public tertiary education has inflicted on our response to this crisis and our future.

Whether or not this motion succeeds, we will continue our efforts to support every worker in this country through this crisis and beyond. We will continue to fight the myopic neoliberal corporatism that those opposite us time and again use to weaken public institutions and the communities they are part of. We will continue to offer a vision of education in this country that is accorded the value it deserves with the resources and the security of work necessary to build the socially, economically and environmentally just future this crisis has shown we so desperately need. I want every worker in universities, in education or otherwise to know that the Greens are with them in their struggle. We know and we deplore the precarity the government would have you live in. We are doing everything we can to see this end.

6:52 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matters) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—In response to the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus, the government has provided total economic support worth $260 billion or 13.3 per cent of GDP. As part of this response, the $70 billion JobKeeper program provides unprecedented support to millions of Australians. Eligibility has focused on maximising the reach of the JobKeeper program while ensuring that the program is able to be implemented as quickly and efficiently as possible while remaining sustainable.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that business of the Senate notice of motion No. 2 be agreed to.