Senate debates

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Regulations and Determinations

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

6:32 pm

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

I'd like to add the name of Senator Rice as a co-sponsor of this motion. I, and also on behalf of Senator Rice, move:

That Items 4 to 7 of schedule 1 of the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Amendment Rules (No. 2) 2020, made under Schedule 1 of, be disallowed.

I'm aware that there are differing views on the two issues contained in the disallowance motion. Accordingly, I ask that at the conclusion of this debate the question on this motion be divided with respect to item 4 and items 5 to 7 so that senators may vote differently on item 4, relating to sovereign entities, and items 5 to 7, relating to the higher-education sector.

I rise to speak to my motion that would disallow items 4 to 7 of the government's Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Amendment Rules (No. 2) 2020. These are the amendments the government introduced on 1 May, which further tightened the eligibility for the JobKeeper program. I do this because there are thousands of Australians who deserve better from this government—their government. The COVID-19 health pandemic has rocked the foundations of Australia and of global society. It has closed successful businesses of all shapes and sizes across all industries, left millions of people around the world unemployed, and killed over 100 people in Australia and 400,000 across the world. It will leave a permanent mark on the lives of so many of us.

During periods like this, periods of unprecedented social and economic upheaval, the people of Australia look to us, their democratic leaders, for guidance, for leadership and for support. Throughout this period Labor has consistently called for action to support the economy, in order to protect jobs and to help Australian workers, businesses, families and communities through what has been a once-in-a-generation period of instability.

We know the origin story of JobKeeper. We know that at the outset the government really just wanted to throw Australians on the Centrelink queues. It was only because of continued pressure from the Labor opposition, the crossbench, the Australian trade union movement and the business community that this government announced that it would introduce a wage subsidy scheme, one that would give companies and workers certainty and support.

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced JobKeeper, the Treasurer said: 'Australians know that their government has their back.' But it very quickly became apparent that JobKeeper would not have the backs of hundreds of thousands of Australians and their families, which is why, when it was legislated, Labor moved amendments to ensure that key groups of workers were protected, including over one million casual workers; gig workers in transport and other areas; workers in the arts, in education and in local governments around the country; and migrant workers and international students, who pay tax and who came here in good faith. These amendments were defeated by a government uninterested in helping taxpaying Australian workers.

Since then, we've urged the Treasurer repeatedly to use his extraordinary powers to extend JobKeeper payments to those left behind. Instead, he has chosen to exclude even more workers. This program, which was meant to support workers, to keep them connected to their employers and, in turn, stimulate the economy, has instead been made so piecemeal that it is failing in its purpose.

The government promised an economic compact with the Australian people. It promised to support some six million workers—a number they trumpeted. Now, after their accounting blunder was exposed, we know it is just three million. Australian workers have been short-changed by this heartless government, which has broken its compact with the people of Australia.

The JobKeeper program began on 30 March 2020, but, on 1 May, the government moved to exclude Australian workers in universities and Australian workers whose companies are ultimately owned by a foreign sovereign entity. It was an outrageous and cruel stroke of a pen that has left thousands and thousands of families out in the cold. The higher education sector, a sector that employs roughly 260,000, may, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, see some 21,000 workers unemployed. These workers include cleaners, security staff, caterers and administrators working across Australia's universities, and the academics, the many that teach so many important people across the economy. They are workers in our suburbs and in our regions, the places hardest hit by the economic turmoil of the pandemic. These workers have done nothing wrong and yet the government has now on three occasions changed the regulations to make it impossible for universities to meet the thresholds for JobKeeper, depriving these hardworking Australians of the support they need during this shutdown. I want to commend the National Tertiary Education Union, their leadership and their president, Alison Barnes, for their steadfast advocacy for these workers, doing everything they can to keep them in secure jobs.

I want to focus now on those Australian workers who are shut out of the sovereign entity provisions. Let's be very clear about what the government has done: in 2018 they approved the sale of Qantas's Q Catering to dnata, a catering company owned by the Emirates airlines, which is itself owned by the UAE government. Now they want to turn around and effectively punish these workers for this decision. It is no fault of these workers what the ultimate ownership structure of the company is. It is a well-known feature of the aviation industry around the world that there are high levels of government ownership. This is how aviation works. In any case, it should not matter. They are Australian workers. They pay income tax, like everyone else, to this government. They expect the government to treat them equally and fairly.

JobKeeper is an Australian wage subsidy. The money is going into the pockets of Australian workers, not foreign governments. This government, instead, wants to split hairs about ownership structures and shareholdings. Qantas workers are getting JobKeeper. Even Swissport, an aviation firm employing thousands of Australians, opaquely owned by the Chinese government—through HNA's takeover—are getting JobKeeper. These aviation workers are getting this support because Australian workers are Australian workers. Full stop.

Dnata employs over 5,500 workers across nine Australian airports, including Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Darwin, Coolangatta, Avalon, Perth and Cairns. Many of them worked previously for Qantas, before it sold its catering business to dnata. These workers were amongst the very first hit by the coronavirus lockdowns, when the government made the decision to shut aviation down. It was hard, but they accepted this was a public health emergency. Subsequently, they were told by their employer that it would be okay, that they would get JobKeeper and they would have jobs on the other side of this crisis. Dnata had to stand down 90 per cent of their workforce and employ only a skeleton crew.

Then JobKeeper was announced, and the company was 'invited to apply'. Some workers even received payments from their employers in the expectation they would be receiving JobKeeper. Many cancelled jobseeker applications, looking forward to getting back to work and the certainty that JobKeeper payments would provide them and their families. They were playing by the rules, only to have the government move the goalposts on them mid-game. The lunacy—that workers who hand you the meal on a flight can receive the support, but the workers who make the meal are denied it. It is hard to describe this situation as anything short of these workers being double-crossed by their own government. Cancelling their applications has cost them time and money they can ill-afford.

I want to pay tribute to the incredible work of the Transport Workers Union of Australia and the Australian Services Union, who represent these workers, and, importantly, the workers themselves who are standing up. The workers at dnata have no control over who owns their company. They work for a company that is sovereign owned by another country. But they are Australian workers, and after a lifetime of work and paying tax they deserve our support. The decision to exclude these workers is harsh and lacks compassion and logic. It impacts not only these workers but also their partners, families and communities.

This decision has created such unnecessary and harmful stress to workers and their families. It's even more harsh after a $60-billion JobKeeper accounting error by the government was revealed only a few weeks ago. I'm pleased to acknowledge that at least one member of the government, the member for Hughes, Craig Kelly, has joined with me in supporting the case of the dnata workers. He acknowledges, as do many members and senators, that these workers could easily be included within the original funding envelope provided for the program.

This is a heartless decision that hurts Australians, Australians like Nelly and Darlene. Nelly was made a permanent employee of Q Catering in 1980. She took pride in her job. She says in writing to me:

Keeping myself mentally and physically active, continuing to be a provider for my family and also working with my team, who after 40 years had become my family away from family.

Sacrificing time away from actual family for all of those years to be able to contribute to something greater, knowing I wasn’t a burden on society also filled me with satisfaction.

I have never asked nor received family assistance from the government. I didn't ever plan to.

Unfortunately, as of March this year, we were all asked to 'step down' from our jobs.

Four decades working for Qantas, wiped clean because the company had sold to a foreign entity. Something we came to find out the Australian government approved before it could be sold.

Now 4 months into Covid 19, having paid taxes for over 40 years regardless of who owned the company, not only was I out of work, unable to qualify for assistance I should have been entitled to and left revaluating all of my life's hard work and sacrifices to this point, I felt helpless, broken and unsure of what to do next.

She is not eligible for jobseeker and, because of this government, she has been excluded from JobKeeper.

Another dnata worker, Darlene, also contacted me this week. This is what she had to say:

My grandfather served in world war one and world war two. My grand uncle died on the battlefield in Polygon wood Belgium 26/09/1917 serving in world war one. My father passed away last year from illness received serving with the Australian Navy in Korea, yet you don't consider me to be Australian enough to receive JobKeeper. Please explain what your requirements are to be classed Australian. The Australian government allowed this sale to go through yet are punishing and sacrificing us for their poor decisions. You can help us to right this wrong. Please give us JobKeeper.

Well, the Prime Minister likes to talk about quiet Australians. He likes to talk about a fair go. If you have a go, you get a go. Where is the go for Nelly, Darlene and their families? Where is the backing of these quiet Australians? If the JobKeeper allowance is not for them, it's not worthy of the name and would be more appropriately called 'JobFaker'. And this government is not worthy of a name either.

6:47 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians) Share this | | Hansard source

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 a 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 the program is able to be implemented as quickly and efficiently as possible and while remaining sustainable.

6:48 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Greens support this disallowance and specifically I want to talk to supporting disallowing item 4 of these regulations from the coronavirus economic response package. We also support the disallowance of items 5 to 7. My colleague Senator Faruqi spoke extensively to this in her own disallowance last week. I associate myself with the remarks she made about those items which were related to the higher education sector.

There was a time when the coalition liked to talk about 'team Australia'. But they're not talking about being a team now that we're in a crisis. Now that Australian workers are in the lurch, the coalition are back-pedalling as fast as they can. Now when it really matters, people in Australia who are doing it tough are finding out whose side the coalition is really on. This government might be willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to a former mining executive to fly around the country but they're not willing to support Australians who are doing it tough and communities that are struggling.

The particular workers that I want to talk about tonight are some of the workers in the aviation industry. We know the aviation industry is in a bit of difficulty at the moment with this pandemic, because, as we know, most people aren't flying. There are very few flights either domestically or internationally. We're in a situation, as states lift their restrictions, where we may see an increase in domestic flights, but international flights are not likely to return to the levels that we saw pre crisis in a particularly short amount of time—if, indeed, they ever do. So we've got a situation with aviation workers. There are tens of thousands of them who are out of work because of the pandemic. These are just the types of workers that the government's JobKeeper package was designed to support—people who, because their industry was being badly affected by this pandemic, were not able to be in work.

But we've got a particular cohort of workers who aren't being supported: the workers employed by dnata. Before this crisis, dnata handled 300,000 tonnes of cargo and supported more than seven million passengers. There are 5,500 workers, and the government is not supporting them. The government is also not supporting the hardworking workers of Cabin Services Australia, who do all the cleaning of cabins and preparation of flights across the country. I met some of these workers out on the lawns of Parliament House last week, and they could not understand why they were being singled out. They are proud of their work. As politicians, we fly around the country a lot. Every time we have flown on a flight, it's those workers at Cabin Services Australia who have done the hard work and cleaned the cabins to make sure that they are safe and clean for us to fly in.

So why aren't these workers being supported by JobKeeper? Because their companies are owned by a foreign government. But that makes no difference to them. In fact, in the case of dnata it's only a matter of different corporate takeovers now that the company is owned by a foreign government. It makes no difference to the workers. They are employed here in Australia and have been paying taxes here in Australia. They are just like all the other Australian workers who are being supported by JobKeeper. By supporting these workers with JobKeeper, we're not propping up foreign governments; we are supporting Australians who are out of work during this pandemic. Not supporting these workers has a terrible impact on them, their families and communities around the country; it's a huge impact. Supporting them means food on plates, mortgage payments and being able to pay the bills in the midst of this crisis. This pandemic is hard enough for people without the coalition throwing workers under a bus. The tragedy is that there is a real opportunity for this government to act and to make a real difference in people's lives. The government could step up and provide support, and support these workers in this crisis.

The Greens believe that we need to have a serious look at the sustainability of the aviation industry after the COVID pandemic, or whatever situation we're in as the COVID virus plays its way out throughout the world, and that we need to have a serious look at aviation in the context of the climate crisis as well. But leaving workers in the lurch on the arbitrary basis of their company being owned by a foreign government is not the way to do this.

The Greens believe that we should take action domestically to ensure that we have two viable airlines connecting up our rural communities as we come out of this crisis and to ensure that all existing workers in the aviation sector are looked after. We support the calls from the Transport Workers Union for a national plan for aviation, and I want to thank the Transport Workers Union for the work that they have been doing to try to support the workers in this industry. The TWU are calling for a two-airline model; government equity in the airlines to ensure long-term stability; accessible and affordable services for regions; protection and promotion of regional jobs; JobKeeper for all aviation workers; workers to get the same pay for the same job; safe supply chains and regulation of airports; and capped CEO salaries. We support those calls. This is a crisis, and it requires a real response from government that doesn't leave people behind. It requires a response that doesn't allow one of our domestic carriers to go into administration. The Greens are calling for the government to, if required, take steps for public ownership of Virgin as a step to deal with this crisis. However, of course the support that the government is giving should come with conditions. We think it should support worker representation on the board and no bonuses for executives.

Public ownership is an important way for government to support workers through this crisis, making sure that an aviation crisis doesn't exacerbate the jobs crisis that we face. Public ownership is also a way for government to support airlines in tackling the environmental challenges we face. In the long term, airlines must reduce their emissions if we're going to stay within our carbon budget and have a safe future on this planet so we can continue to live on it. Any public ownership stake must ensure that airlines live up to their commitments to reduce emissions under the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. We've heard reports that airlines are lobbying to have their targets made easier, even as they ask for government support.

So let's be clear. Government needs to be supporting the aviation industry. Governments must support workers through a national aviation plan that includes public ownership when necessary. It must ensure that airlines meet their emission targets. But in the context of this disallowance tonight, what we must ensure is that workers are not left behind—that hardworking workers in the aviation industry, who have been paying their taxes and working hard, like every other Australian worker, deserve to be supported like other Australian workers have with the JobKeeper scheme. For that reason, the Greens strongly support this disallowance motion tonight.

6:56 pm

Photo of Pauline HansonPauline Hanson (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This disallowance motion on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Amendment Rules (No. 2) 2020 has created a significant amount of torment for both Senator Roberts and me. I stated from the outset that the repercussions the coronavirus will have on Australia and the rest of the globe will be potentially felt for generations. One of those industries that felt the immediate impact of this virus was aviation—and its affiliate industries. The fate of dnata employees was first brought to my attention by FIVEaa announcer Leon Byner several weeks ago. I made a commitment to Leon that I would look into this. I thank Labor Senator Tony Sheldon, who has been a very strong advocate for the workers of dnata. He has given me a very raw insight into what these employees are going through.

This chamber will never quite know how much anger I felt when I heard that we lost another wholly owned Australian business called Q Catering to the United Arab Emirates. You see, many of these employees started their careers employed by Qantas until it was sold to Emirates, a UAE state owned government company. Emirates have posted 32 consecutive years of profit. In their 2019-20 annual report, they posted a revenue of US$28.3 billion. Unfortunately for these Australian workers—and let's be upfront about this—they might work for a foreign government company, but they are Australian workers.

The emergency legislation that was passed by Labor and the coalition government to safeguard jobs under the JobKeeper program prohibits Australian and foreign governments from accessing the JobKeeper program. I'll say it again: the JobKeeper program cannot be accessed by foreign governments and, equally, it cannot be accessed by Australian governments, which also includes local councils. This was passed by the Liberals, Labor and the Nationals. The disallowance motion that has been put forward today is somewhat of a false hope for the workers of dnata. To them: I sincerely apologise to you and your colleagues if you had hopes that this disallowance motion would give you access to the JobKeeper program.

One of the questions I asked both the government and Labor related to the return of domestic and international travel. As Australian states determine their relaxation of domestic travel, there is an expectation that flights will resume in some form of capacity over the coming months. As for international travel, that's not likely to restart more broadly until we either find a cure for the coronavirus or somehow everyone miraculously recovers.

That brings me to the decision process that Senator Roberts and I used for our determination. The vast majority of the nearly 6,000 dnata workers here in Australia will not have a job to return to once the JobKeeper payments end on 27 September. As I stated months ago, our aviation industry will barely be open for domestic, let alone international, travel. This is going to be a complete blow to many dnata employees, but I'm being completely upfront and honest with you.

I have confirmed with the government that many dnata employees will qualify for jobseeker, which, at the moment, still includes the coronavirus supplement of $550 per fortnight and gives recipients a total of $1,100 per fortnight. Depending on an individual's circumstances, parents may be eligible for other supplements like family tax benefit part A, of up to $186.20 per fortnight for a child up to 12, or family tax benefit part B, which can offer up to $158.34 each fortnight for children under five. Jobseekers can also make an application for Commonwealth rent assistance. I also want to point out that people on social security payments will also be eligible for two $750 economic support payments, the second of which will be paid following 13 July. It is also important that anyone caught in these horrible circumstances knows that their ability to access jobseeker will not be asset tested and that the partner threshold has been lifted to $79,788 per annum.

I've always tried to maintain a responsible position when it comes to spending taxpayers' money. There have been some tough choices made by the Morrison government, and I can assure you: some of those I agree with and others I don't. But we've all had to make tough choices these past few months, and I sense that there are going to be many more over the next 12 months as well.

All employees who have lost their jobs or were ineligible for the JobKeeper program have my absolute sympathy at this moment in time. I am very conscious of the needs of these workers, and I'm also aware that my party's head office has employed one of these workers who lost their job at the Brisbane airport. Taryn has been with my head office now for a fortnight, and I would encourage any business that is looking for employees right now to consider closely the former employees of dnata and our airport staff.

Let me say this to all Australians: I will do everything in my power to ensure that we rebuild jobs in this country and that we stop selling our profitable businesses to foreign governments and overseas companies. And I will continue to fight with the same vigour to ensure that Australian jobs go to Australian workers moving forward. I want to acknowledge Senator Sheldon for his determined representation of the aviation industry, but, on this occasion, One Nation will not support the disallowance motion.

7:04 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a very short statement. It seems to me perverse that there are Australian workers who, for no reason that they had any control over, find themselves in a situation where they are working for a foreign company and yet are not able to get access to the JobKeeper payments. This is not money that goes to the company. It's money that goes to the workers. In some sense, it tells you how the Liberal Party think. They think through the lens of a business. They're looking at this from a business perspective and saying: 'How do we support businesses? This one's a foreign business, and, therefore it doesn't warrant support.' I understand that, but this particular payment goes straight to the worker.

Senator Hanson interjecting

I'm not talking about companies, Senator Hanson. I'm talking about people who work for companies, who are good people. They go to work and spend their time working hard for the company—servicing Australian customers, ultimately—and they will suffer as a result of the decisions made by government. What we're trying to do here tonight is stop this particular decision. Again, I'd just emphasise—this money goes directly to the workers. It does not go to the companies.

7:05 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The COVID scare has been having a massive impact on our country. We know that. As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I want to express my empathy to the people who have either been put out of work or have limited work. There's enormous stress on people—we know that—and especially in the airline industry. It has been decimated because there is such close contact between people when we fly on an airline or mix in an airline terminal.

I want to acknowledge the dnata people. They are fine people, fine Australians, who must be feeling devastated to be in such a solid industry and to have been sold out by Qantas, to have been sold out by the government that allowed that sale to a foreign company, a foreign government. It is very stressful, I'm sure. There's a lot of worry, a lot of concern and a lot of pressure. People want to be heard, and people also need support. We'll come to that support in a minute.

I want to compliment Senator Sheldon for his sincerity, his strength and his advocacy for the TWU and their campaign. I also want to acknowledge Senators Sterle and Gallacher, former TWU officials, who have also been strong in supporting Senator Sheldon. We've listened to Senator Sheldon, and we compliment him for the way he has brought his argument forward—the facts, and also his approach, which was very respectful and sincere. We also went to the government and asked them for their opinions, their views and their data. As Senator Hanson and I always do, we listened to people, to get the data and to get the facts.

As I said, we do not like the sale of this company to any foreigner, let alone a foreign government. It's one of the core industries in our country. It is, though, a very difficult decision. It's a very difficult issue. Senator Hanson pointed out—and I'm not going to go through the details of Senator Hanson's speech, because Senator Sheldon wants to put this to a vote tonight—the comparable after-tax benefits from jobseeker and JobKeeper. But I also want to point out, as I think Senator Hanson did, that JobKeeper ends in September. This program—and I disagree with Senator Patrick—is not for businesses. It's for people to maintain connection with the businesses, so I don't accept that criticism of the government from Senator Patrick. It is to maintain that connection. That connection is going to be severed after September. That's it. It won't last any longer. International air travel and even a lot of domestic travel won't recover by then. So I think it's heartless to give people false hope. I’m certainly not accusing Senator Sheldon of giving people false hope. I know what he's doing, and I admire him for that, but I think we need to be straight with these people.

What I'd like to do is to ask the government to think about its response. Maybe we need something other than JobKeeper and jobseeker—we need a 'job-restarter'. Taiwan—and I mentioned this to the government, back in March—has had amazing results. What they did was isolate the vulnerable, isolate the sick and let everyone else get back to work. That's what we could be doing. There has been virtually no impact on the Taiwan economy. They've had one-fifteenth of the deaths we've had, and yet they've got a similar population, they're very close to China and have a highly dense population. Instead of isolating everyone and separating everyone, by isolating the few that have got it, the few that are vulnerable, and letting the rest get back to work, they've done a remarkable job.

What we need to do is get this country back to work. If that was the level of performance when we led the world in per capita income back in the 1900s and 1920s—we were No. 1, but we're sliding out of the top 10 as a result of COVID—the target, I hope, should not be just to get back to where we were pre COVID; we need to get back to our full realistic potential. That's why I say we need to get 'JobRestarter' going—a comprehensive program that restores low-cost energy, restores infrastructure, creates a proper and fair taxation system, and creates an environment where more Australian businesses will survive and not have to sell out in the future. We need to end the stress on the economy, end the stress on people's health and end the lack of security. We need a realistic return not just to where we were pre COVID but to where our potential is.

We also need to remember that taxpayers are footing the bill. Through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, I compliment Senator Sheldon again—and Senator Sterle and Senator Gallacher. As Senator Hanson said, though, on this occasion we will not be voting with them.

7:11 pm

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

I want to qualify that it is Labor's advice, given to us, that the Treasurer, Mr Frydenberg, can change the legislation to address what Senator Hanson was saying when the legislation was put through. He can unequivocally change the legislation at the stroke of his pen.

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

I thank the crossbench for the opportunity to speak to them. This isn't a situation of voting with Labor or voting with the Greens; this is a situation of voting with Darlene and Nellie and the thousands of people like them. So I implore all the crossbenchers to vote with Nellie and Darlene and thousands of others.

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

The question is that item 4 of schedule 1 of the rules be disallowed.

7:20 pm

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

The question is that items 5 to 7 of schedule 1 of the rules be disallowed.