Senate debates

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

JobKeeper Payment, Pensions and Benefits

3:32 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) and the Minister for Families and Social Services (Senator Ruston) to questions without notice asked by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Wong) and Senator Gallagher today relating to the JobKeeper scheme.

For anyone that was hoping to be able to get some answers or clarity from the government today, they would've been sorely disappointed by the answers that we received in question time. What we see again is the government not providing that clarity and the government having no detail around what they call their snapback strategy. It is becoming clearer that it is indeed a flawed snapback strategy. More Australians than were expected have been forced onto jobseeker—140,000 Australians, to be exact. The government may refuse to acknowledge this, but of course it is unfortunately true.

I know many senators and members have been receiving a number of calls and emails asking, 'What is going to happen; what will happen post September?' because they're so concerned. We're unable to give them any clarity as to what this government is going to do. Government senators must know this. They must be receiving these calls and emails from people who are desperate to understand exactly what is going to happen post September. We didn't receive any clarity from the Prime Minister and we certainly didn't receive any clarity from Senator Cormann here today.

We have, unfortunately, 140,000 more Australians being forced onto jobseeker, but it's also true that the high number of people on jobseeker is a result of the bungled handling of the JobKeeper program. The government thought that 1.5 million would be on jobseeker by June this year, but figures released to the Select Committee on COVID-19 revealed that 1.64 million people are currently receiving the jobseeker payment. While more Australians are being forced onto unemployment benefits, local industries that may need help from the government to stay afloat aren't getting that help. Again, they're not even getting any clarity. So they're not getting the help they need from the government, local governments that operate regional airports aren't allowed to claim JobKeeper, our tertiary education sector aren't allowed to claim JobKeeper and our childcare and early-childhood education sectors have been told by the government that they will be the first industry to snap back. Hardworking Australians who have worked for the same company for 20 years have been told that they aren't eligible for JobKeeper either, despite the fact that they've been doing the same job at the same place for decades, because along the way the company they worked for was sold to an overseas company. For that reason, and for that reason alone, the government has chosen to punish these hardworking Australians and deny them and their employer access to JobKeeper. This is a real blow to these workers.

This really is a shocking way to treat our fellow Australians. The government's blunders and its decision to make our childcare and childhood education sector snap back will be particularly hard on women—96 per cent of the workforce in that sector are female. Women have been at the forefront of tackling the pandemic. They've cared for Australians who are ill. They've worked hard to keep our workplaces, our schools and our public spaces safe and clean. They've looked after older Australians and cared for and educated our young people. So what do we have from this government? We've had the bungled implementation of JobKeeper, we've had— (Time expired)

3:37 pm

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Part of me feels a little sorry for the opposition at the moment. I know it's their job to come into this place and hold the government to account. It's their job to be a critic, effectively, of what's happening, but they are really clutching at straws at the moment. They are struggling a little to be a critic through this crisis. You can tell they're struggling a little bit. You can tell their desperation by the fact that they're complaining about things not that we have done but that we might do. Most of Senator Brown's contribution was not about what the government has done, about the decisions it's made that help and assist Australians who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and its associated economic downturn. Most of the criticisms that were put by Senator Brown were about things we might do in a few months time if and when conditions improve—and hopefully they'll improve—and we no longer need this assistance. It's a pretty weak argument to put: 'They might do something bad to you in the future so be very, very worried.'

I think Australians actually know that the best way to judge somebody, the best way to judge a horse in a race, a business that you frequent or a government that you're looking to assess and judge, is on their form, on their record. It is on what they have done, not on what they might do; not what you might fear they will do but the record of what they've actually done. What the government has actually done has been to respond quickly and generously to the conditions that some Australians have found themselves in through no fault of their own.

It is true, as Senator Brown has highlighted, that millions of Australians have been put out of work, millions of Australians have seen their incomes reduced, and thousands of Australian businesses have seen their futures thrown into great uncertainty or, in the worst cases, had their businesses close because of this coronavirus. Every step of the way, the government have been there to increase assistance and support to those who are suffering. We can't make everybody whole. We, of course, cannot replace or completely make up for the loss and suffering that some have suffered through these past few months but we have done everything a government can do to help and assist those in need. It has required, of course, tough decisions at times to balance things up.

We've recently made tough decisions around the childcare sector. Our initial support was tailored towards what we thought would be a significant reduction in childcare numbers, a significant reduction in the utilisation of childcare services but in fact that did not occur. The uptake of childcare places, I think, was north of 70 per cent or so, even through coronavirus; therefore, the government has changed tack and adjusted the assistance to the circumstances which have eventuated in that sector and it's been welcomed by the sector.

The only real criticism the opposition has of the government is, 'Wow, things haven't always turned out as planned.' Not as many people are on JobKeeper as was predicted. It's not costing as much as first thought but more people are on jobseeker than were predicted, and we have had to change our policies on child care but that is a function. Things change quickly as a function of a crisis like this. A crisis like this, a global pandemic, is not going to be predictable. A global pandemic like this will have fast-changing aspects to it that no-one could predict. A few months ago there was so much uncertainty about how this pandemic would eventuate, how bad the health impacts would be, how many people would be infected, et cetera. All of the government's policies have been designed to respond to those changing circumstances. All of them, we have stated, will be temporary. We can't keep spending over $10 billion a month on JobKeeper. We can't keep providing the same level of assistance forever and put it on the credit card. All of them have been designed in a responsible way and that's what we will continue to do for the Australian people. The Australian people can trust us to stand with them, as we have in the last few months, and alleviate suffering where we can and do so in a responsible and commonsense way.

3:42 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

Just stick around, Senator Canavan, I will tell you something that you've done; don't worry about that. You should really stick around if you absolutely care about Australia and about workers.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Sterle, I remind you not to reflect on whether or not senators are in the chamber.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

As I was saying, Senator Canavan should stick around and listen, quite clearly, because I'm going to talk about a group of workers, 5,500 in this nation, who have been treated absolutely appallingly by the government. They're not blue-collar, steelcap-booted big union men with loud voices; the majority of them are women and they're the dnata workers. For those senators sitting opposite—I know you don't have your say; you're not in the cabinet and I understand that—these are the people who clean the aircraft that you and I fly on every week. These are the same people. We see them when we're getting off the plane, whether it's midnight, whether it is five o'clock in the morning. We see them when we are getting on, the ones with the buckets, the ones with the gloves, the ones with the plastic bins, all waiting to come onto the aircraft to clean the aircraft that we have been sitting on and have had a comfortable flight on.

These are the same workers who put together the food, the nibbles and the drinks that are served on our planes throughout Australia every flight. They're the same ones who make sure that the trays have water in them and they're the same ones who are there to make sure there are colouring-in pencils and books for the poor kids down the back who are screaming and not enjoying the flight. These are 5½ thousand Australian workers who work in the catering kitchens, formerly Qantas flight catering. These are the same people who prepare the food. There are the chefs, the cooks, the pot washers, the cutlery bench, every single bit going day in, day out, making sure that Australia's aviation industry is not only effective but it's also viable, comfortable and enjoyable. They're the same ones who do it on all international flights. It's not a different bunch of workers; it's the same workers. These are the same workers, predominantly women, who all, at one stage, worked for Qantas or for Alpha catering. And that proud Australian airline, Qantas, couldn't wait to sell it off to dnata.

I appeal to my colleagues across the bench: these are not foreign workers; they are Australians. Most of them were born here or have made their home here. They go to the same shopping centres as we go to. Their kids go to the same schools. They pay their taxes here in Australia. It's just because the government actually allowed Qantas's request to have their employer go from the proud Australian—who had many times tried to water down the 51 per cent Australian ownership to suit their very highly paid officials at the top of the tree. These are Australians. They're not being told that they can't have JobKeeper—nor can they get jobseeker—because they are in an industry that is not worthy; they are being told by the government that they can't have it because the employer is a foreign entity.

How do you think they feel? You've seen the protest. You've seen their submissions. You've seen their approaches. I attended two rallies in Perth for the dnata workers. One of the rallies was at the Attorney-General's office. All they wanted to do was present a letter to the Attorney General to say: 'Dear Attorney-General, when you're next in cabinet could you please consider us Aussies who aren't getting this money. We're not foreigners, it's just that our company was sold to a foreign entity.' The sad part is that Minister Porter wasn't there. They knocked on the door, they walked into the office and they presented the letter saying, 'Please can we put our case to you?'—and I'm told the lady in Minister Porter's office was very well mannered and accommodating—and they walked out. Ten minutes later, I was sitting there and I said to the secretary of the Transport Workers Union: 'Mate, you might want to go out there and say hello. I've just seen two police cars turn up with four policemen, two of them Australian Federal Police. I know the two detectives sitting there, because I've seen them before. I've called the coppers and said, "There's a violent demonstration."' Most of the people there, the dnata workers, were women who stood about five foot two inches high. I couldn't believe it. I asked Timmy Dawson the other day whether he had had a response. To this day, he has still not even had the decency of a response from Christian Porter. (Time expired)

3:47 pm

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge Senator Sterle's contribution to the debate and place on the record my sympathies for the dnata workers. The unfortunate issue is that not only are they owned by a foreign entity; they are owned by a foreign entity which is 100 per cent controlled by a foreign government. As Senator Sterle knows, the legislation we passed in this place some time ago to deal with the JobKeeper payment excluded payments to wholly owned foreign entities owned by foreign governments. But I do acknowledge the comments he made.

With respect to Senator Brown's contribution, it perplexes me how Senator Brown can think there was any confusion whatsoever about what was going to happen with the JobKeeper and jobseeker payments. When we passed the legislation here in this chamber some months ago it was clear that both measures were intended to last for six months. That was absolutely clear. So I'm not sure why there is some confusion when the government has simply stated that it intends to maintain that course. I am not sure where the confusion is coming from. The government has been absolutely clear in that respect.

Let me also say that I have absolute sympathy for all of those workers who are at the moment on either the JobKeeper or jobseeker payments, because that reflects that the businesses for whom they work are not in a position to trade as they were trading before the coronavirus pandemic. If Senator Brown is concerned about those workers, if they're located in Queensland please pick up the phone and talk to the Premier of my home state, Premier Palaszczuk, and give her three messages. I'll even write the messages for you.

First: open the borders so the tourism industry can get back on its feet again. Just today, Premier Palaszczuk appears to be backsliding on the 10 July date. The tourism industry doesn't want to hear that. The tourism industry in my home state of Queensland wants to get up and running again. It wants to take advantage of that winter tourism season, and Premier Palaszczuk again is making comments in the Queensland parliament during question time that she's concerned that—

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On a point of order, Madam Deputy President: could I remind the member that we're taking note of the answers to the questions that were asked by Senator Wong of Senator Cormann and Senator Ruston. We're not talking about the Queensland government and borders. We're actually talking about the questions that were asked in question time.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Urquhart. It is a wide-ranging debate, and Senator Scarr started off on that footing. I'm listening very carefully. I expect he will go back to the taking note response.

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

He will, absolutely, and he'll go back on the basis that we could have more of the certainty that was sought from those sitting opposite with respect to the JobKeeper and jobseeker payments if we had more certainty as to when the borders were going to open. The two are linked, because employment prospects of people coming off both the JobKeeper and jobseeker payments are linked to the opening of the borders. The two are absolutely entwined. They're connected; they're related to each other. It's absolutely relevant.

This government could not have done a better job in terms of dealing with this once-in-100-years event than it has, and the facts demonstrate that. Australia is in the bottom three of countries across the whole world with respect to the lowest rate of GDP fall. That's how well we've done as a country. No government anywhere has done a better job than this government in terms of protecting lives and protecting livelihoods. Just this week we've heard how the government is going to be fast-tracking a number of infrastructure projects, and that's all about getting people off JobKeeper—their companies back running in accordance with normal trading conditions—and getting people off the jobseeker payment. That's how you provide the certainty and get people off JobKeeper and into their company's normal trading conditions and get people off the jobseeker payment and back into work. We're on common ground in that respect. We all want to see that happen. But the reality is that, in my home state of Queensland, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is backsliding on opening the borders, and that has a negative impact on people coming off the jobseeker payment.

3:53 pm

Photo of Raff CicconeRaff Ciccone (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this afternoon to also take note of the answers given by Senator Cormann and Senator Ruston to the questions asked today by Senator Wong—as Senator Urquhart referred to earlier—on the topics of the JobKeeper and jobseeker payments. It is sad to say that the answers that we've received from the government frontbench and backbench today were simply not good enough. They were not good enough for Australians—not good enough for those who are living pay cheque to pay cheque and, in some cases, those who are simply running out of money in their bank accounts.

In homes right across our country, people are feeling confused and uncertain about their future. But that's hardly a surprise, given that they have been experiencing this uncertainty now for seven years under the coalition government. Labor did support the JobKeeper and jobseeker payments legislation, but we did so on the understanding that government would also come to the table in good faith, that they would also review elements as things progressed and as the situation with respect to the coronavirus changed.

That simply has not been the case. This program, so far, has been poorly implemented, and it's left millions of people—millions of Australian workers, taxpayers—without any support. They are casual workers, people who work in retail, hospitality, fast food, warehousing and many other places, and, as we heard from Senator Sterle earlier, those workers at dnata. All they want is the same support that their fellow Australians are receiving right now. They're not after much; they just want help. They need help so that they too can pay their bills, put food on the table and have the heater on at home. But now millions of Australians are just a few pay packets away from losing that support, and for tens of thousands of others—particularly those in the childhood education sector—the end of JobKeeper is less than one month away. This is despite the government promising on multiple occasions that they would look after them. It's simply not the case.

Now we have 2.3 million more Australians who are on support payments offered by government. But this government is still proposing to slash these payments in half, leaving them around $550 a fortnight worse off. Ripping back the support of JobKeeper and jobseeker will do untold damage, not just to many Australians at home but to our economy. It just does not make any sense. Austerity does not work, and yet this government seems to be hell-bent on making sure that the fiscal bottom line of the budget is in order rather than the home and household budgets of Australian families.

Yesterday, in the other place, the Prime Minister acknowledged that winding back JobKeeper will see more job losses. Support for Australians and Australian jobs is what will make our economy continue to tick over and function, and get our recovery back on track. I am deeply concerned about what will happen to my home state of Victoria after September. There are enormous numbers of people who will be left behind by this government, and Senator Wong simply wanted a very straight answer from Senator Cormann to the question, 'What is the government's plan post September?' This is so we can give Australians certainty—certainty so that they can plan their household budgets. They're not just something that gets switched on or off at the flick of a switch. We need to give people notice, and the respect that they deserve, so that they can start planning for their futures. Do they need to start looking for other work or increasing their hours? They need to make the tough decisions so that they can support their families post September. We don't need more announcements, press conferences or media doorstops. We just need the government to come to the table and say that they will do the right thing and support Australians and Australian jobs.

Question agreed to.