Senate debates

Thursday, 18 June 2020



5:02 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate—

(a) notes that:

  (i) more than 5 million Australians and their families are relying on government assistance to help them through the COVID-19 pandemic,

  (ii) JobKeeper and the increase to JobSeeker are set to expire at the end of September, and

  (iii) more than $250 billion in deferred loans for mortgages and business are also due to expire at the end of September; and

(b) calls on the Government to outline a national economic plan that:

  (i) prevents millions of Australians being 'snapped-back' to unemployment, poverty and insecure jobs at the end of September,

  (ii) has job creation and skills development at the centre, and

  (iii) ensures that ongoing government investment is targeted to lift Australia out of its first recession in 29 years.

I very clearly want to make a contribution on this general business notice of motion. For those listening, the substance of this motion is that there are more than five million Australians and their families relying on government assistance to get them through the COVID-19 pandemic. JobKeeper and the increase to jobseeker are set to expire at the end of September. More than $250 billion in deferred loans for mortgages and businesses are also due to expire at the end of September. This motion calls on the government to outline a national economic plan that prevents millions of Australians being snapped back to unemployment, poverty and insecure jobs at the end of September; has job creation and skills development at its centre; and ensures that ongoing government investment is targeted to lift Australia out of its first recession in 29 years.

I'm not one of those in the community or on this side of the chamber who is entirely critical of the coalition in this space. I think they have done a sterling job to date in many areas, but it appears that the collegiate approach is fragmenting. We're now seeing drives and the increasing tone in the chamber of, 'If you were there, things would be worse!' Well, we've been hearing that for a very long time. The reality is that you're there. Your job is to make it better for all Australians. Your job is to have a coherent national plan which goes out there carefully and pragmatically assessing the risk and the need and putting in place a proper, prudent system for all Australians.

The simple statement, 'We would do it better than a Labor government,' is not going to wash. People have had the benefit of JobKeeper. They've had the ability to go to their banks and defer their loans. They've had the ability to take $10,000 or maybe $20,000 out of their superannuation. This extraordinary once-in-100-years event has caused some people to be in awful straits, so they've dipped into their super. That's kept the wolf from the door. They've spoken to their bank and put their loan out a bit further. They're enjoying JobKeeper, which is sustaining them. But if in September that all comes to an end without a careful, pragmatic evaluation of the economic risks, the recession we see will be deep and long-lasting. And it won't be a recession for 12 months; it'll be a recession for a number of years. No-one in this chamber wants that. I repeat: there is not a single member of this entire parliament that wants that. Nobody wants their constituents and their electorates to suffer, but we are going to face an awful calamity unless there is a careful, prudent, agreed economic plan out of this.

Senator Siewert mentioned the reports in one or two newspapers that maybe the jobseeker payment won't go back to Newstart rates. Well, is that really the way to do a careful economic plan for the nation—to leak a couple of things to a newspaper and see how popular it is? Seriously, as even former Liberal prime ministers have said, Newstart is inadequate. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry have said that people don't get enough on Newstart to be able to present properly for employment. There's no debate about whether it's enough or not. It's been substantially boosted, but if, catastrophically, it goes back the other way we're going to see a lot of people in destitution.

If we see JobKeeper disappear in the September quarter it'll be the same story. I talk to people in small business. I had a concerned constituent say to me the other day: 'My business is recovering quite quickly. I'm on JobKeeper and I'm getting quite a substantial amount of subsidy each month. When does it turn off? If my business is profitable enough to not qualify for JobKeeper, will the payment stop in July or will I continue to get it until September? Will I get a bill?' The answer to that is: I don't know; there's a review going on. JobKeeper is a great program—absolutely out-of-the-block stunning—but carefully evaluating its operation would be the way to go now.

Government Senator:

A government senator interjecting

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll take that interjection, Minister, and perhaps you can tell me what happens to a person whose business returns to profitability in July. Do they keep getting JobKeeper in August and September? I haven't heard an answer to that from the other side.

Very clearly there is work going on. It's probably not as collegial as we would like. That's fine. You can take your victories and take your losses, but if you drive the economy into recession further and harder than is necessary then you will ultimately pay a price for that. But, more particularly, Australians will pay a price for that. It will be Australian workers who will be without jobs. It will be Australian workers who will have their houses repossessed or the wherewithall to provide for their families taken from them. We want to see a clear, upfront, stated national plan to take us forward into the future. We're not seeing any of that. As I surmised in a contribution I made when I came back here a short while ago, once the rosy period is over, economics will come to the fore. We'll throw things at the government; the government will throw things back at us. But the awful reality is that people in the economy will suffer.

We know now, as we speak, that all of those workers in dnata have already had the back of the axe. They've got nothing. Dnata workers are being told to go and find themselves a way to get onto jobseeker. They're not deemed as the same kinds of workers as Qantas or Virgin workers, and yet they work at the same airports; they do the same jobs. Because of the foreign entity decision, they didn't get JobKeeper. When those airports come back together, a lot of those workers may have wandered off all over the economy, as is their legitimate right, but there is a practical effect of that. It takes a bit of time to get an aviation security identification card, an ASIC. You have to have proper vetting to work in an airport. If a big employer like dnata loses a substantial number of people, then you'll have a backlog, because the security checks will have to be done before people can go airside. You actually constrain a business.

We all know that the airline industry has become very competitive over the last three decades, say. But what could possibly happen here, without a coherent economic plan, is that we could be handing Qantas and Jetstar a monopoly. I accept—and I'll probably get vehement agreement from the other side—that competition is good. If you hand Qantas and Jetstar a monopoly over the 60-odd million domestic passenger trips that are taken in Australia each year, it's not going to be a good outcome for the economy. We're going to pay higher fares. We're going to get long queues. Profitability for Qantas and Jetstar will go up—fine; I've got nothing against profitability—but there won't be the level of competition.

At the moment, the lack of a plan in the aviation sector indicates to me that we're going to do exactly what we did when Ansett collapsed, and that was let Qantas win. Qantas won, and it took decades to get that competition back in. I was around in the airline industry when Virgin came to Australia. With $53 million they started an airline. I think Brett Godfrey's quote at the time was: 'I didn't know that $53 million would only buy me a bunch of coconuts.' But he formed Virgin with a very small amount of money, and it became a competitive force in this country. If the lack of a coherent national economic plan and a coherent aviation plan allows Mr Joyce and Qantas and Jetstar to ramp up their prices, tell people when they're going to travel, say where they're going to go or not go, without competitive influence, that's a bad thing, and it'll be a drain on the economy. It'll be a drain on the economy, because we know—and I'm sure the other side agree—that competition is good.

The airline industry is a really stark area where it's going to take a number of months, if not years, to recover. International flights are probably well on the back burner, and domestically we're going to see a period of time before recovery. There is no greater indicator of inequality in Australia than regions versus cities. Regional areas of South Australia or the Northern Territory or Queensland or Victoria or anywhere are going to suffer, because Qantas is not, out of the goodness of its heart, going to say, 'I'm going to zip a plane down here and zip a plane over there.' Everything will be done in the absence of competition.

So the first of the two most important sectors that I see the government really failing in is clearly aviation. The other area that they don't appear to have a coherent plan for is the education sector, particularly in regional Australia. If you don't want to support those trainers and those colleges out in regional Victoria or regional Queensland, the impact it can have if they collapse, and we lose lecturers and lose courses, is that we have a lower-skilled regional workforce. I remember this contribution from a casual lecturer at a regional university. He said: 'It's not about me. I will survive this pandemic. I think the government is doing a pretty good job. But what I've got to tell you is, in the 20 years I've been at this university, I have seen the blue-collar workforce skills increase exponentially. That's been good for the workers and the employers, and the universities, or the VET providers, have made some money out of it.' So it has been an all-round good effort, and people in regional areas have benefited. The educational standards in regional areas have gone up. That is a remarkably good thing. It helps to underpin the productivity of our nation.

If you haven't got a plan for aviation, if you haven't got a plan for regional areas in respect of universities and the like, I think you need to go and revisit. Or, if you've got a plan, please tell people. Please get on the front foot and get out there and do it. My fear is that areas which struggled economically prior to the pandemic are going to catastrophically impacted in a recession. If we had 29 years of economic growth and we still had pockets of inequality in Australia, then we're going to lose the growth and we'll lose the ability to address those pockets of inequality, and they'll get deeper. Those who do well will get further away from those who don't do so well. That's not the kind of Australia that the Australian Labor Party wants to see. We don't want to see more insecure work. We don't want to see one million-plus casuals who, once the restaurants were closed, have nothing—no work to go to. We don't want to see that. We want to see people educated, trained and enjoying good, productive jobs.

Clearly this government is doing some work. There's no doubt about that. The challenge or the question for them is: are they prepared to advance an economic plan that can be tested in the court of public opinion, that can be tested in this chamber, and, dare I say, even improved? This is a one-in-100-year event. I don't think we should be playing politics about it. If we can contribute something that's going to put things on a better pathway, I'm not sure you should just dismiss it out of hand. If we do get to that, that'll be an awful tragedy.

But I do detect that the tone in the chamber has changed back to the good old order, the good old bad days, I'll say, where, 'If you lot were in charge, things would be 10 times worse.' Well, we're not in charge, clearly. You're in charge. The future needs to be laid out in a clear economic pathway and plan for the various sectors that have been dramatically affected by this, where clearly they cannot bounce back. There is going to be no snapback in aviation. There'll be no snapback in some of the tertiary sectors. There'll be no snapback in some of the regional centres of Australia, and people are very cautious at the moment. They're not likely to just dive into their pockets and start spending—although I hope they do, and, if they do, that will be a great thing for the economy. This government needs to lay out a coherent economic plan for the future of Australia and try and take as many people, politically and in the community, with it.

5:17 pm

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

I do have a high regard for Senator Gallacher and his appeal to the better angels of my nature to be collegiate, so I will respond to that appeal and see if I can return to the spirit of collegiality as I engage in this debate. But I do think there are some matters which need to be recognised at the outset.

The first thing I'd say is that the May 2020 jobless figures are quite sobering. This country now has an unemployment rate of 7.1 per cent. A further 227,700 people are now unemployed, and, in my home state of Queensland, 167,900 jobs have been lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. I can remember what it was like entering the workforce when I graduated from university into the last recession Australia had. It's not a great experience, and my sympathy is with all of those people who are struggling at the moment in Queensland.

I think we should recognise that the federal government does have a plan, and it has actually outperformed nearly every other country in the OECD in protecting Australians' lives and livelihoods. The federal government has provided $260 billion worth of support. We've provided JobKeeper. We've provided jobseeker. We've provided cash flow boosts to medium and small businesses. When I go around chambers of commerce in my home state of Queensland, I receive very, very positive feedback in relation to the federal government's initiatives. It really has made a difference, absolutely. This week our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, announced the federal government's plan to achieve GDP one per cent above trend per annum over the next five years so that we can at least get the country back to where it was and then beyond, as we build the bridge to recovery.

I know Senator Gallacher is concerned about apprentices and technical trades training; he raised that in the course of his contribution. In that respect I make three points. First, the government's economic response to the coronavirus did include a $1.3 billion package of measures supporting apprentices and trainees. I think that was a very commendable package to make sure those apprentices could stay employed by their employers. Second, the government has recently announced a $585 million skills package entitled 'Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow', investing in supporting Australians to gain the skills they need. Third, the government's HomeBuilder scheme, which Senator Gallacher criticised in a somewhat less-than-collegiate manner earlier in the week, has been welcomed by the construction industry in my home state of Queensland. The chief executive officer of Master Builders Queensland said, 'Industry's calls for assistance have definitely been answered.' The CEO of Coral Homes, which employs hundreds of people on the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast, said:

This will definitely make a difference to the building industry, our supply chain and all the local contractors we employ.

In my home state of Queensland, when you put that $25,000 grant for a new home together with the Queensland state government's $15,000 First Home Owners Grant, first home buyers have a $40,000 sum, under a home and land package, for constructing their first home. That's a very, very positive thing.

There's only so much that the federal government can do. Unfortunately, I'm sorry to say, in my home state of Queensland it's hard to be collegiate when I look at the Queensland state Labor government. Unlike Senator Gallacher, it doesn't appeal to the better angels of my character. Indeed, it has been a source of continuing frustration. At the moment, the Palaszczuk Labor government is a millstone around the neck of Queensland as it tries to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. It needs to take heed of Senator Gallacher's words about pragmatism and do three things: (1) build dams, (2) approve projects and (3) open the state border. I call upon the Palaszczuk Labor government to do that last one today.

Let's talk about building dams. Under Deb Frecklington, the LNP opposition has announced a visionary—and it is visionary—project, the New Bradfield Scheme. The history of how this was developed is in itself visionary; it's bold. Deb Frecklington, the state opposition leader, sat down with two great Queenslanders, Sir Leo Hielscher and Sir Frank Moore, and discussed the concept of taking elements of the long-talked-about Bradfield Scheme and making the scheme practical. Under the New Bradfield Scheme proposed by the state LNP, the biggest dam in Queensland would be constructed—the equivalent of 28 Sydney Harbours. An area the size of Tasmania would be covered by this single dam. It would produce hydroelectricity for 800,000 homes. It's a visionary project and it's consistent with Queensland's state motto: 'bold but faithful'. It's a bold project and it's faithful to the Queensland I grew up in—the go-ahead state, the low-tax state, the state where you could get things done. The Queensland of old was the state where workers could get work and apprentices could get apprenticeships.

Unfortunately, the Queensland of today under Annastacia Palaszczuk isn't interested in building dams. In fact, it's tearing down dams instead of building them. It's actually lowering the wall of the Paradise Dam in Bundaberg. It has no plans to repair, rectify or replace that dam and undo the damage that was caused during the construction of that dam under a previous Labor government, under the Beattie Labor government. Let me quote from some of my friends in the Queensland parliament who have been fighting for the community with respect to this issue. My good friend Stephen Bennett, the member for Burdekin, said:

Labor is more interested in covering up its botched building of the dam rather than in protecting the community and jobs.

David Batt, the member for Bundaberg, said:

It’s unacceptable that Labor only has a plan to tear down the dam and no plan to fix it.

How true. My friend Colin Boyce, the member for Callide, said:

… if you have water you have jobs.

How true. The state government needs to build dams, approve projects and open the border.

Let's talk about projects. Earlier during these two weeks the six LNP senators from my home state of Queensland called for approval of the Acland project. This is a project that has been waiting for approval for 13 years. It's shovel ready. Not only will it protect 150 jobs; it will create hundreds of jobs and it will provide billions of dollars of revenue to local suppliers. Dozens of local businesses have called for this project to go ahead. Today youth unemployment in Toowoomba was announced to be 24 per cent. Those young people deserve a chance. Those young people deserve a state government which builds dams, approves projects and opens borders.

Let's talk about opening borders. Earlier in these two weeks I talked about the postcodes in Queensland which have been most impacted by the closure of state borders. They include Cairns, Surfers Paradise, Southport, Nerang and Gaven. They have all been impacted by the closure of state borders. My good friend Michael Hart, the member for Burleigh, summed it up best when he put up a billboard on the Gold Coast which said: 'Planes = jobs. Open the border.' Senator Gallacher has spoken about how important the aviation industry is. I agree. But the Queensland government needs to open the border to get the planes flying again to create jobs. Open the border. Create jobs. Get the planes flying again.

With Senator Gallacher appealing to the better angels of my nature, I thought that in my appeal to Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk I should invoke the spirit of one of the great Labor senators from Queensland, the great Ron McAuliffe, who served in this place between 1971 and 1981. Ron McAuliffe was responsible for the establishment of State of Origin. The first State of Origin match was in 1980. I remember Chris 'Choppy' Close carving through the Blues and scoring a try, and Mal Meninga kicking seven goals from seven attempts—and Queensland won the day. That was the first State of Origin. Annastacia, listen to what Ron McAuliffe said to the Queensland State of Origin players in 1980, listen to his words. This is what Labor Senator Ron McAuliffe said:

The future of the game is in your hands. We have taken this bold step. If we are beaten we cannot retreat to any other position. We must win.

I say to the Premier of Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, that you can't win the game unless you get the team out on the paddock. So build dams, approve projects and open the state border.

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Siewert, we only have a few seconds lift. Did you want 15 seconds?

5:29 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm sure I can do something in 15 seconds. The issue that is very important here is the fact that we have more people unemployed here in Australia over the last month—

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for the debate has expired.