Monday, 31 August 2020
Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise to continue my speech on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020. Women are already bearing the brunt of the economic impacts of the pandemic—so much so that economists have said that we are in a pink collar recession. Women lost their jobs twice as fast as men when the economy was shut down. Women are over-represented as casual workers and in industries most affected by shutdowns like retail and hospitality. Women are under-represented in the few industries which received targeted stimulus, such as the construction sector. Young women have been forced to dip into their already meagre superannuation balances at disproportionate rates to make it through the crisis, which is going to decimate their retirement savings.
The government's approach to early childhood education and care was a double whammy for women and their earning potential. Not only did the government rip away access to free child care—potentially one of the most significant boosts to women's capacity to enter and remain in the workforce in a generation—but it carved the highly feminised early learning and care workforce out of JobKeeper altogether, months before the scheme was originally scheduled to end.
There has been no job creation for women during this crisis and there is none planned for the recovery. Instead, women have been totally shafted and left to fend for themselves. I've said it before and I'll say it again: our recovery plans must have women at the front and centre of planning and decision-making. This recovery must be a feminist recovery.
Creating this two-tier JobKeeper system will also be a disaster. Can I remind the chamber that we are in the middle of a pandemic and in the middle of a recession. This is not the time to be cutting the critical JobKeeper payment, which is $1,500 at the moment; it's really barely a living wage to begin with. A cut down to $1,200 and a staggeringly low $750 in the case of part-time workers will put extra stress on people at a time when we should be doing everything we can to reduce anxiety and economic uncertainty and maintain household liquidity. JobKeeper should remain at $1,500 and there should be no tiered system.
The worst part is that the government didn't need to package up cuts to workers' conditions and incomes with the extension of JobKeeper. We could have enabled the extension of JobKeeper and the existing flexibility measures for eligible businesses simply by changing the prescribed period of the existing act. We didn't need to bring down the payments. But of course this government couldn't pass up the opportunity to wedge in some corporate welfare, weaken employment conditions for swathes of workers and shift the cost of recovery on to workers who are already doing it tough.
We know that protecting people's incomes is one of the most effective mechanisms to cushion the blow of an economic downturn. We know that low incomes perpetuate recessions and depressions. We know that one of the key drivers of homelessness is unaffordable rents at the bottom of the private market. Yet, when the economy needs more stimulus as it reopens, we see the government choosing contradictory policies. Slashing JobKeeper and JobSeeker and allowing businesses to cut workers' hours and wages will drive hundreds of thousands of people closer to poverty and homelessness. This could not come at a worse time, with an approaching end to the ban on evictions. This cliff is upon us—the federal government must extend the ban on evictions alongside extending JobKeeker and making sure that the current rate of JobSeeker continues.
When the government finally introduced measures like the coronavirus supplement to JobSeeker and other social security payments and the JobKeeper wage subsidy earlier this year, what we saw from them was an acceptance that, when a crisis hits, economic and social reality beat ideology. The government was rightly afraid of the public health catastrophe that we faced. But let's not forget that this irresponsible, economically illiterate government actively encouraged workers to dip into their superannuation in the worst possible market conditions—shifting the costs of the pandemic on to ordinary workers and hollowing out their retirement savings. Yet even that theft of people's future security was an acknowledgement by the government that what the economy needs right now is cash flowing through it and that the state holds the levers to make that happen.
The pandemic has exposed the great neoliberal lie that governments don't have the power to end poverty and homelessness, the lie that there is no alternative to inequality and insecure work and housing—that they're unavoidable conditions of modern life. The government's response to this crisis was uncharacteristically interventionist because reality forced their hand. What we are seeing now are desperate attempts at winding back that intervention before it's too late. Sadly, to this government and their corporate backers, emerging from this pandemic with a population that expect the state to provide an expanded, decent social safety net, would be disastrous. The government could have chosen simply to extend the JobKeeper package or, even better, to improve it by expanding eligibility to all workers who need it and ensuring that all workers could access paid pandemic leave to protect their incomes, their jobs and the health of their families and the community. Instead, the government are returning to form with a vengeance: devaluing the sectors of the economy where women make up a high proportion of the workforce, making policy decisions based on culture wars and backwards economic thinking, pushing people back into poverty and blaming them for it, and putting the interests of business before the interests of ordinary people. We cannot let them get away with it.
The Greens will seek to fix this bill, and I urge the Labor Party and the crossbench to stand up for workers and the community by voting to maintain adequate income support and protect workers' pay and conditions. Together we can force this government to give people the support they need to stay out of poverty and to ensure that workers are not the ones footing the bill for this pandemic. We can and must emerge from this pandemic safer and more secure, committed to building an economy and a society with people's needs at their heart.
I rise to speak on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020, and I do so with great pleasure. May I add that I welcome the Labor Party's support for this bill. It was great to see Senator Farrell, earlier in the debate, acknowledge how successful this program has been. He was trying to wrangle credit for the program for the Labor Party, but I welcome the support of this bill by the Labor Party nonetheless.
This bill extends the prescribed period of the coronavirus payment framework for the JobKeeper payment from 31 December 2020 to 28 March 2021. This bill also amends the information-sharing arrangements to enable the ATO to share JobKeeper payment information with Commonwealth, state and territory government agencies to assist them in their efforts to address the impacts of the coronavirus, and this would include such information as uptake of differing programs by area. The JobKeeper payment is a key part of the government's response to the significant economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic—and these effects are still being felt by many, many businesses—and the government is extending and better targeting the JobKeeper payment to support businesses and their workers as they manage and recover from the economic effects of the coronavirus.
As a senator for Western Australia, I've travelled extensively across the state this year, as I know Senator Brockman has done. I acknowledge his presence and his commitment to getting out into the regions. He, I'm sure, would share the same sentiment that we're feeling—that, as we get out and about, this response to the coronavirus pandemic in supporting businesses has been very, very significant. I've said in this chamber many times before that I've heard some quite inspiring stories of invention, ingenuity, adaption and resilience, and I've also heard many stories of those hit hardest by the pandemic and hit hardest by the economic shutdown and the resulting economic shock. Businesses right across WA and those around the Perth metro area, also including those in the great southern and right up in the far north of our state, have all the felt the impacts of the economic shock that's come as a result of the coronavirus.
The industries and the impacts that they have sustained have been substantially different—of course, no two stories are the same—but the Morrison government has continued to back them. This pandemic is impacting businesses differently. Whether you're across various parts of the state or across the nation, it certainly has—and no two stories are the same. This has been reflected in all of my conversations around Western Australia. Time and time again, I've heard stories of how JobKeeper saved jobs and allowed businesses to keep their doors open.
In Albany, in the south of my state, I spoke with Toni from World of Cars who was going to have to let go of her staff. On the day that she was about to announce to her staff that she was going to have to stand them down, the announcement of JobKeeper came in. That announcement came just at the perfect time, because it was only going to be later on that afternoon that she was going to deliver the most awful news to her staff—that they were going to have to be stood down. But because of the JobKeeper program and this government's response, she was able to hang on to those 25 full-time employees. As she told me this story, she was holding back tears. These people are small business people who care deeply about their employees. They know what it would mean to them, but they also recognise what it would mean to their business had they lost those staff. The cost of letting go of staff and then having to rehire and retrain people is astronomical, and it would be a major barrier to their business getting back up and running after we're through the impact of this economic shock.
We continue to listen to businesses like Toni's, and we continue to back them. We will continue to do everything we can to make sure that they are in the best possible position to bounce back in the recovery phase. On 21 July, the government announced that the JobKeeper payment would be extended for an additional six-month period—from 28 September to 28 March 2021—with eligibility retested and targeted to those businesses most in need. In addition, the payment will be restructured into a two-tiered system from 28 September 2020.
As I've gone around Perth, I find that Perth has actually been doing remarkably well through this pandemic. Many businesses are doing quite well. A good friend of mine runs a plumbing business, and he says he's actually never been busier. But then you look at other businesses, particularly those in the hospitality sector or the tourism sector. In my travel up north, I was in the east Kimberley. Broome is doing quite well; Broome is in the west Kimberley. But, in the east Kimberley, businesses are really suffering. They call the Great Northern Highway the longest cul-de-sac in the world because of the border closure. The grey nomads who normally come up from the south to escape the winter cold would often spend some time in Broome and then start heading east towards Kununurra. Many would do a full lap around the country. Quite possibly, those coming from the east would start in the north, head to the Kimberley and Kununurra and then go all the way down to Perth. But, because of the border closure, there is a cul-de-sac, essentially. These businesses are really, really struggling.
The government recognises that there are businesses that are doing okay and there are businesses that are not. Because of the nature of their business and where they're situated, they're going to have differing impacts. This legislation is all about supporting those businesses whose downturn came more recently than others who were affected right at the very beginning. We are responsive to that. We've recognised where the program can be improved. We've taken feedback. We've listened to businesses and we've listened to people on the ground. We've taken that feedback on board and we're implementing it in such a way that the impact is felt where it is most needed. These temporary amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 support the practical operation of the JobKeeper scheme and help to keep Australians employed and connected to their workplaces. They've been absolutely critical in keeping more people in work.
A survey of employers commissioned by the Attorney-General's Department shows that the flexibility measures issued under the temporary Fair Work Act amendments have been vital for businesses to survive the impact of the pandemic and save jobs. That is the singular focus not just of this legislation but also, importantly, of this government—to do what we can as a government to ensure that we are protecting jobs at this critical time. We cannot allow industrial issues to get in the way of a good commonsense approach to keeping a job and enabling people to be sustained in that job. This legislation goes to addressing the issues that many businesses have been facing. What employers have fed back to us is the flexibility of it, and that's why we have implemented it as part of this bill. Due to the ongoing economic impacts of the coronavirus and the extension of the JobKeeper payment scheme, the temporary changes in the Fair Work Act will be extended until 28 March 2021. However, the provisions relating to annual leave agreements will be repealed on 28 September 2020, as originally intended. Employers who qualify for the JobKeeper payment scheme on or after 28 September 2020 will be able to access the remaining temporary flexibilities in the Fair Work Act.
Businesses, as I've said, have had to deal with so much through this coronavirus pandemic—the health issues and the resulting economic impact. It is this government's commitment that we will ensure that we're adapting and that we're responsive to needs as they come up. In Western Australia, we need to really see things energised and to get back in a sustainable way. I look forward to having further contributions in the debate around what we need to be doing, because it is more than just keeping people safe. We of course must keep our communities safe and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and everyone needs to be doing absolutely everything they can.
We also need to be looking at what we can do at various levels of government—whether local government, state government or federal government—to ensure that we are creating the right economic environment so that businesses can actually grow, develop and take advantage of the opportunities that are being provided through economic stimulus programs that are putting resources and capital into the economy. But none of that would be possible if businesses were having to let go of people because they couldn't hang onto them. It's only possible to take advantage of the stimulatory measures that are being put in place by this government and then state governments because of the support that is there for businesses to hold onto their staff. That's why this legislation is so critical. I'm very pleased that the opposition supports this and look forward to hearing further debate.
I rise to speak on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payment) Amendment Bill 2020. I move:
At the end of the motion, add: ", but the Senate:
(a) notes that:
(i) this legislation gives the Treasurer extraordinary powers to set the rate and eligibility arrangements for the Jobkeeper Payment; and
(ii) millions of workers and struggling businesses continue to be excluded from the Jobkeeper Payment; and
(b) calls on:
(i) the Treasurer to use his power under this legislation to ensure the Jobkeeper rate is tailored to conditions in the economy, including rising unemployment; and
(ii) the Government to permanently increase the base rate of Jobseeker payment, to help people keep out of poverty and enable them to get back to work".
This bill extends the end of JobKeeper from its original end date at the end of September through to the end of March next year. The bill also makes some changes in relation to the industrial relations arrangements which are linked to the JobKeeper extension, and I know my colleague Senator Farrell has spoken in his second reading debate speech on those.
Labor welcome this extension to JobKeeper. Unlike the Prime Minister, we never believed in the September snapback, not just in JobKeeper but for the coronavirus supplement. It was always going to be untenable for the September snapback to occur, with over 1.6 million Australians on unemployment benefits and more than 3.5 million Australians receiving JobKeeper. We also know there are another 400,000 Australians predicted to lose their jobs by Christmas. Those numbers alone tell you enough about what would have happened if the September snapback were allowed to happen. This bill simply legislates the extension of the JobKeeper program to the end of March. When it comes to extending JobKeeper until March, Labor fully support that extension. Indeed, we argued for it well before the government announced it as part of their economic and fiscal update in July this year.
What this bill doesn't deal with is the payment rates, including the tapering the government announced as part of their economic and fiscal update. The government intend to reduce JobKeeper rates for full-time employees from $1,500 to $1,200 a fortnight from the end of September and then from $1,200 a fortnight to $1,000 at the start of January. It is solely in the Treasury's power to change those rates at any time. For employees working less than 20 hours a week, the rate will be reduced from $1,500 to $750 and then down to $600 in January. The issues around eligibility for JobKeeper are also in the Treasurer's power to change.
This takes me to two issues with JobKeeper arrangements that Labor continues to have concerns about. On eligibility, despite the government budgeting for over $101 billion to be spent on JobKeeper, it still leaves out millions of workers—casuals, workers at universities and aviation workers such as those at dnata, which this chamber has heard a lot about. They were all left out of the original JobKeeper and will continue to be left out by this latest version of the wage subsidy scheme. Because of this deliberate design feature to lock out large numbers of workers from JobKeeper, the unemployment queues are going to be longer than they could have been. That's because of the choices of this government. When it comes to the payment rate of JobKeeper, we note that the government made the decision to reduce the rate of JobKeeper in two stages based on the economic conditions forecast at that time. But since those rates were announced there has been a further deterioration in the outlook for both the economy and the unemployment rate.
Labor have been arguing that the level of support in the economy needs to be tailored to the economic circumstances of the time. Our position is a sensible one and one which is supported by the RBA and respected private sector economists. We need to get the economic recovery right and we need the interventions from government to be as good as they can be and in the national interest.
What worries us on the Labor side is, whilst we know how much support the government want to remove from the economy, they don't have a plan for jobs for the economy. This legislation offers nothing in mapping out a plan for jobs in the recovery stage. Australia desperately needs a plan for creating good, secure jobs. We need to be protecting the jobs people have now and we need a blueprint for growing new jobs into the future. We need the government to show some urgency for all of those who are about to enter the labour market for the first time and for those who have lost their jobs or their businesses over the last six months. We all know that this government is big on slogans and spin. Snappy titles are easy to announce—JobMaker, JobTrainer, HomeBuilder—but living up to the titles is proving to be more difficult for this government.
When you look at JobMaker, the department of employment—that is, the department of jobs—didn't even know about it until the Prime Minister announced it in his speech. The same department couldn't explain what JobMaker was other than that they weren't responsible for it.
JobTrainer had the usual big announcement followed by—well, we don't know yet. We have to wait to find out what the skills focus will be, because that wasn't known when the announcement was made. The Skills Commission hadn't decided what the skills focus should be but apparently it's coming soon.
The photo opportunity for HomeBuilder was on 4 June, and yet more than two months later the government is just getting the application processes in place. The last time Treasury appeared before the COVID committee, just a couple of weeks ago, there were no successful applicants and there was no money out the door.
Australians need more from this government than slogans and spin. The country needs a comprehensive jobs plan—a real plan, not a slogan—that identifies where the opportunities are and outlines how the government is going to drive that plan. Witness after witness before the COVID committee, from backgrounds as diverse as you could imagine, is crying out for the same thing. They want a government that responds in a timely way. They want a government that takes their feedback seriously. They want support. They want certainty. They want to be valued for the jobs they do and for the businesses they run. They are desperate for the government to drive confidence up across the country, because without confidence there will be no incentive to invest or to grow jobs. In the end, what this is all about is the focus of the economic recovery. It has to be all about jobs.
In terms of instilling confidence, I think there are a range of suggestions for the government to consider. Labor has been talking about the need for a national jobs plan for months, but there are others things that government could be doing: taking responsibility for aged care, not using the royal commission as an excuse to do nothing. The country will be immeasurably better off in so many ways if older Australians are cared for respectfully. Get an energy plan in place to drive investment and create jobs. Seriously look at how you can support women into work by making sure the early childhood sector supports them and doesn't make it harder for them. Support the university sector. Stop telling us how rich and undeserving they all are as thousands of jobs are cut and teachers, researchers and scientists are thrown into early retirement or onto the unemployment payments, many for the first time in their lives. Stop looking at IR through the single lens of flexibility for the employer. How about broadening that to start dealing with the structural unfairness across our labour market faced by employees, the working people in this country who live hand to mouth, shift to shift with little or no entitlements to leave. Let's imagine a better way for those in insecure work.
Stop undermining superannuation—a quick dollar now that can't be replaced. Thirty-three billion dollars have already been approved to leave accounts. Hundreds of thousands of young people have balances of zero and will have to start again to save for their retirement. It's an indictment on this government that early access super—that is, people's private savings—was the single biggest economic stimulus into the recovery from April to August this year.
But this is just the start. Move beyond the media cycle and focus on delivery rather than the announcement, because it is increasingly obvious that the slogan, the spin and the marketing are always ready to go, but, when it comes to the substance, the delivery and the outcomes for people on the ground, the government is missing in action.
We know that the state of the budget is dire. High levels of debt and budget deficits are going to be with us for the next decade, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office. This means that every dollar spent, which needs to be borrowed, needs to be appropriately targeted and prioritised—prioritised to job creation, job security, keeping Australians safe, supporting families and the vulnerable to get through this really difficult economic time.
It is so important to get the response to the pandemic right. It's so important to ensure that we have a proper plan on the other side that will support and grow the economy, because the consequences of not getting it right mean that more people will face unemployment, more families will be in hardship for longer, the time taken to reduce the unemployment rate will be longer and more businesses will hit the wall.
JobKeeper has an important role to play going forward—we acknowledge that. We think the bill could be and should be strengthened to provide protections for working people so that their wages aren't able to fall below the JobKeeper rate. We are hopeful for the Senate's support and, indeed, for the government to consider that as a worthy amendment.
We urge the Treasurer, when setting the rates, to do something that is not in this bill: to consider the economic circumstances of the time. A decision made in July may not be the right decision for Australians or for the economy in September. The parliament has granted the Treasurer these unprecedented powers so the government can do the right thing. Consider the workers that they've excluded from JobKeeper, consider the economic circumstances right now and make sure the unemployment queues are not one job longer than they need to be. Make sure when you withdraw the money from the economy that you don't jeopardise the economic recovery. You've been warned by the Reserve Bank not to pull out support too quickly. We know from the government's own figures that they are expecting 400,000 workers to lose their jobs by Christmas. The last unemployment numbers said that, for the first time in our history, we had more one million unemployed Australians. So, Treasurer, as you get your pen out to set the rates and the eligibility for JobKeeper, think about the Australian families that are depending on you to do the right thing by them.
I rise to speak on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020. What we have here is a bill that extends the time frame for JobKeeper but facilitates cutting of the rate of JobKeeper and that doesn't address the fact that so many people have missed out on JobKeeper. Moreover, it now reduces some workers' rights even though the business of that employer has recovered. Whilst we support the extension of JobKeeper, there are some serious stings in the tail of this bill.
I think we all acknowledge that this global pandemic has not only challenged us all this year but has really revealed the existing inequalities in society. We know that young people have lost their jobs at record rates, which came after an already too-high youth unemployment rate. We know that more women are losing work than men—there is a disproportionate gendered impact there—and we know the industries that have been hardest hit are where young people and women are over-represented as workers.
We've said no-one should be left behind. The government, in its response, has chosen to leave people behind. It had the opportunity in this bill to fix that and to broaden the coverage of eligibility for JobKeeper, but it's chosen not to do so. When the crisis first hit, the Greens were proudly the first to call for a wage and job guarantee, so we welcomed the government's foray into this field. But, sadly, so many people were left out. Over a million casual workers missed out on eligibility for JobKeeper simply because they hadn't been in a job for more than 12 months or, at that magic date of 1 March, didn't meet that employment criteria. As I'm sure colleagues of mine will speak to, this had a massively disproportionate effect on gig economy workers and on people in the arts and recreation sector, who don't do traditional hours. They work seasonally. They work gig-to-gig. They've missed out on support. There have been some hastily patched-up promises that, frankly, do not give people the hope they deserve. We saw childcare workers have JobKeeper removed from them prematurely and, of course, the free childcare has ended, which has increased the pressure on many households when it should have been kept. We saw universities, which have already been subject to massive, successive cuts by this government, were not eligible for JobKeeper either. In some bizarre parallel universe, we're somehow meant to recover from a pandemic but there's no investment in the training and tertiary skills to do so.
This government have now come to us with a bill to extend the parameters and the Treasurer's ability to extend the parameters of JobKeeper, which we support, but they've left these stings in the tail and have failed to address that lack of coverage. We think JobKeeper, and JobSeeker for that matter, should continue at the current rates for as long as they are needed. That is how we get economic stimulus and that is how we help the community in a global pandemic. So we support this continuation, but we will be moving amendments, which my colleague Senator Faruqi has already mentioned, and she will be championing those amendments in the Senate.
The first of those addresses the fact that this bill creates a new category of employee. This bill allows the employers who were previously able to get JobKeeper for their workers because their business had been suffering to that relevant proportion and who have now recovered—they might have had a 10 per cent cut in their profits, but they're essentially on the road to recovery—to have huge powers to reduce their workers' hours up to 40 per cent, which we know might actually be greater than 40 per cent in monetary terms if you're talking about penalty rates. Businesses which are on the road to recovery and have essentially bounced back are now able, according to this bill, to reduce their workers' rights. Perhaps if they were still eligible for JobKeeper we could deal with that, but if they are on the road to recovery such that there's less than 10 per cent of an impact on their business they should not be given the right to slash their workers' hours by up to 40 per cent. That's not how you protect people in a pandemic. That's not how you reduce unemployment figures in a pandemic. Essentially, those employers are now feeling the economic benefit off the back of their own workers. So we'll be supporting amendments that have been moved by the opposition in that regard, and we have our own amendments drafted as well. We could pass the good bits of this bill without having those sorts of nasty provisions included in it.
The other concern that we have is that this bill, as the government has flagged, sets us up for a two-tiered system. The bill sets people up who were previously working low hours and generally not by choice—it was generally all of the shifts that they could actually get. For the first time they had finally been earning a living wage. That original rate of $1,500 was actually having a huge impact on pulling people out of poverty. It was helping single-parent families. It was helping kids. It was helping so many people actually meet their daily expenses, yet the government now wants to dump people who are, often through no fault of their own, working lower hours onto below a living wage.
I can tell you something about those people: they're disproportionately women. I've got some figures here. Many of the JobKeeper recipients who've previously earned less than the weekly minimum wage. That is, those low-paid, low-hours insecure workers who I've already said are predominantly women will now disproportionately—twice as many women as men—be affected by this change. Of course, many of the industries with the highest proportion of workers who work less than 20 hours a week, including retail, accommodation and food, arts and rec, have been hardest-hit by COVID and, again, are disproportionately worked in by women. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that this government still hasn't got the memo about gender equality despite it being the 21st century. We should not be cutting people's income in a global pandemic at a time of economic crisis. That's another unnecessary sting in the tail of this bill and another issue on which we'll be moving amendments to excise those nasty bits that are, frankly, unconscionable in the situation that we're in.
I hope that we have support on that amendment. It's not clear to me where the opposition stand on that front. People will recall that for a time Labor were saying that people who were getting paid more than their original wage didn't deserve that. It was a bit bizarre having the opposition party advocating for folk to be returned to below a living wage, but such are the strange times we live in. I hope they've changed their perspective on that and I hope they support our amendment when it comes to a vote.
Here we have a bill that extends out JobKeeper and the time it will go for, but it doesn't fix the fact that so many millions of people have been left out from getting that necessary income support, and I want to go to some of the categories of those people: casual workers, temporary visa holders, and university and childcare workers. Despite the fact that the scheme is still $44 billion under budget, this government does not want to help casual workers, university employees, childcare workers and temporary visa holders, and that is an unconscionable choice this government is making with this bill. So we will be moving in the committee stage to expand JobKeeper to include those categories of workers in JobKeeper eligibility. We have a choice here. The government has dipped its toe in the waters of the wage subsidy, which has been shown to really help people. It's necessary in the global situation we are in, and we urge the chamber to continue with these supports, not to slash them, not to continue to turn a blind eye to folk who are missing out on that support and to actually start extending that support to the folk who need it. I look forward to the committee stage of this bill.
I rise to speak on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020. This bill seeks to extend the ability to make JobKeeper payments until 28 March 2021. The Labor Party supports this extension of JobKeeper, as it is crucial in providing the support Australians need in order to recover from the co-occurring health and economic pandemic. However, grouped with this amendment are additional provisions that give no clear understanding of how companies can implement cuts to hours and wages. We feel that this bill can be used as a Trojan Horse to introduce permanent changes that allow employers to, with minimum consultation, alter their employees' condition of employment.
The Coronavirus Economic Response Package passed by parliament on 8 April this year amended the Fair Work Act by inserting a new part that would temporarily enable employers to issue JobKeeper enabling directions. The directions were intended to provide for increased flexibility around employees' hours of work via new enabling stand-down directions, performance of duties and location of work. However, these directions also enabled employers and employees to make agreements for increased flexibility around annual leave and days and times of work. The Labor Party criticised this policy and as part of negotiations with the ACTU the government agreed that the legislation would specify that the amendments would expire in September.
The government's decision to extend JobKeeper for an additional six months means they also want to extend the JobKeeper enabling direction provisions. The bill does that at the same time as introducing a new category of so-called JobKeeper flexibility legacy employers. Legacy employers are those who will no longer be eligible for JobKeeper but who, according to the government, remain in distress. To qualify for this, employers must prove a mere 10 per cent drop in average business activity. These legacy employers will be able to access the extended flexibility arrangements. Why is the Morrison government giving companies that have been determined to no longer need financial support these additional rights? Well, the introduction of these thresholds is at least a concession to the public arguments Labor has made with respect to not extending the flexibility arrangements to businesses that have completely recovered.
However, this rings alarm bells, as these types of flexibility arrangements are often ones that employer groups have wanted for a long time, regardless of the pandemic. These WorkChoices-like policies mean that the Morrison government can sneak in this controversial legislation under the veil of a pandemic. This would have otherwise been subjected to lengthy scrutiny and negotiations. Policy such as this is something the Liberals have failed to introduce in the past 20 years and now, bundled with the JobKeeper extension, it will silently pass through.
Employer groups will claim that these provisions have worked so well during the pandemic that they should be retained indefinitely. The claim will be made that they allow businesses to employ more workers, but we cannot ignore that this would be on the basis that they were able to reduce and change workers' existing hours, duties or location of work without any notice. This is effectively eroding the rights of workers. This legislation provides a provision which allows legacy employers to reduce employees' ordinary work hours, despite employers having to commit to a minimum of 60 per cent of normal working hours. This would result in many low-paid workers previously receiving JobKeeper experiencing a substantial pay cut. This is just another example of the Morrison government not looking out for those who are most vulnerable, leaving people behind in this pandemic.
Thankfully, the one change to the existing flexibility arrangements is that annual leave provisions will be repealed. The annual leave provisions enabled employers to request that employees take annual leave. The Labor Party condemned this provision, and so it has welcomed the improvement.
With an additional 400,000 Australians expected to lose their jobs before Christmas, the unemployment rate at 7.5 per cent—a 22-year high—and people clearing out their superannuation accounts just to be able to cover their costs of living, it is clear that the economy is not going to go back to normal. Mr Prime Minister, there will be no snap back. Removing the substantial JobKeeper support from the economy without a jobs plan is irresponsible. It's not the plan to begin the winding back that assistance before many people who would otherwise be unemployed are currently not because of JobKeeper. We need to keep it going for as long as it is needed.
I would like to touch on some of the areas where there is still real concern. The JobKeeper wage subsidy proposed by the Morrison government was never expanded to support local government employees. That would have been very beneficial in the Tasmanian community. People who were casual employees, visa holders and local government employees still do not currently qualify for the payment. These workers were left to fend for themselves by this government. Despite moving amendments to this effect in the House of Representatives and the parliament, the Morrison government did not support these workers. We will keep fighting on this side of the chamber for all Australians. The Treasurer has the ability to expand the coverage of JobKeeper to more workers. It really is only a stroke of a pen. The Prime Minister was happy to foist this issue onto premiers, arguing that local government was their responsibility.
They do not want to take responsibility for anything. That is a hallmark. That's what defines this government—no responsibility, no accountability, no transparency, just spin. That's what they are about—making announcements without delivering. There are others who have been working really hard to protect their communities: the leaders and state premiers around this country. But what do we see, day in, day out, in this chamber? The government trying to blame Premier Dan Andrews in Victoria for the COVID-19 impacts on the aged-care sector. In my home state, as it is around the country, local government workers are fundamental as key people working within our local communities. They are very much in need of support and deserving of any support in relation to JobKeeper.
If we want to look at some other areas of real concern that affect my home state, there is also the aviation sector. The government has left that sector high and dry, without any support. We have seen tens of thousands of airline workers from Qantas and Virgin losing jobs without any support from this government, which means the impact on Tasmania's tourism has been devastating. We know that the state economy is going to be badly impacted by this COVID-19 pandemic. Tasmanians, if and when we see more flights out of our own states, or out of my own airport in Launceston, know airfares will be expensive. All of this goes to the detriment of the Tasmanian community.
Let's turn our minds to the universities. This government has, in fact, given them no support at all. We have seen university lecturers, people working there, losing their jobs and, at the same time, this very government is making it harder and harder for people to be able to go to university, increasing the costs of courses. Again, this is having a huge impact on my community in Tasmania, and I know it will have a huge impact around the rest of the country.
This Prime Minister has no real plan to get us out of this pandemic, to rebuild our economy, to give confidence to the Australian community that he is a prime minister of action, a man with vision and a man who will lead his government, be accountable and provide the transparency that this community needs. That sort of leadership is what is needed now. Victorians are turning to Dan Andrews as their Premier for that leadership, as they are in Western Australia, in Queensland, and even, might I say, in Tasmania, where a Liberal Premier is being responsive to what his community is telling him. What we need from this Prime Minister is for him to be able to step up, be accountable, take some responsibility for the failings, and do something about them.
I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020. This bill allows for the Treasurer to extend JobKeeper and make rules regarding the rate of pay and eligibility until the 28 March 2021. It also allows the minister for social security to extend the JobSeeker payment beyond the end of December, and I say 'thank goodness'. The capacity to do that always should have been there, because we know the impacts of this pandemic are going to last.
When the announcement was made about extending JobKeeper to March next year, the same should have been for the JobSeeker payment. Having said that, it doesn't mean that the minister will make that extension. We are deeply, deeply concerned about the uncertainty that those on JobSeeker are facing right now, because not only are they going to see a $300 cut per fortnight in just under a month's time; they also don't know what is going to happen to them after December. For us, it is essential that further support is provided to Australians doing it tough. This pandemic has not just exposed just how flawed our social security system is but has exposed the inequality that exists in our country. This pandemic very strongly risks extending that inequality, because we know that different groups and different cohorts are being disproportionately impacted by this pandemic, such as young people, women, older workers.
This bill does a number of things, including create a new class of employers called 'legacy employers'. These are employers who received JobKeeper between March and September this year but will be ineligible from September as they have recovered and will no longer meet the turnover tests of 30 per cent or 50 per cent decline in turnover. Although they will not receive the JobKeeper payment, legacy employers only need to demonstrate a 10 per cent decline in turnover in order to access the new flexibility measures established by this bill. Legacy employers will be able to direct employees to vary or reduce their hours of work and alter the location, duration and duties of their work. Workers who were depending on JobKeeper will now have this payment ripped away and face losing over 40 per cent of their income for up to six months. In other words, it is condemning people to uncertainty, to the risk of losing hours and the risk of actually descending into poverty.
People who work for businesses that have experienced a 10 per cent decline in turnover have no guarantee of minimum income, even though their employer is better off, comparatively. Again, this is disproportionately impacting certain cohorts of Australians. People are going to be left behind. The government has not made the case for giving employers extraordinary powers to cut their workers' hours and wages whilst leaving workers without any guaranteed source of income. If the government believes that employers are so in need of support, the government should do something about it; these employers should not be funded by cuts to workers' wages. We can pass the extension of JobKeeper and the flexibility measures for people who continue to receive JobKeeper without creating the new class of legacy employers, which amounts, in our book, to corporate welfare. The Greens will move to excise this appalling legacy employers amendment and their powers from the bill.
The government has announced their intention to cut the JobKeeper payment and introduce tiered payments. This will effectively mean that low-paid workers do not get paid a living wage. Slashing payments for underemployed low-income workers in insecure work will predominantly impact women and young people. The government apparently will not hesitate to kick workers when they are down and throw vulnerable workers off a financial cliff in the midst of this pandemic and recession. While this is not in the current bill, we must use this opportunity to prevent cuts for low-income workers and the establishment of a two-tiered system. The Greens will be moving amendments to prevent tiered payments, to ensure low-income workers are protected.
It should be noted that this bill does nothing to protect the millions of workers who have been left behind by the government during this pandemic. The government continues to deny millions of workers access to a wage subsidy they so desperately need and forces casuals, temporary visa holders, and childcare and university workers into unemployment. Again, people are being left behind. The Greens will be moving amendments to extend eligibility for JobKeeper to the millions of workers who have been left behind by this government and are struggling and depending on our hardworking social services and community sector.
As I said at the beginning of my contribution, this bill also makes JobSeeker changes. The bill extends the period over which the social security minister can make legislative instruments to change the coronavirus supplement and related payments. This means the minister has the power to extend the coronavirus supplement until 28 March 2021. This change will bring a small amount of relief to the 2.3 million Australians receiving the coronavirus supplement. However, I want to make it clear that there are no guarantees that the minister will actually use this power to extend the coronavirus supplement from December until March. The minister has repeatedly failed to commit that the JobSeeker payment will not go back to $40 a day. I have asked on a number of occasions and have received no such assurance. It is deeply distressing to Australians that, in fact, this issue is still not resolved. As I said earlier, there is no way that anybody could foresee a future where you could manage to survive on $40 a day.
We already know that the government has plans to wind back income support payments. The coronavirus supplement is being reduced by $300 a fortnight from 25 September. This means that 2.3 million people currently receiving the coronavirus supplement will see cuts to their income, taking them below the poverty line. The government is deliberately dropping all those people below the poverty line. I am also extremely worried that the 1.1 million children who are living in these households will have their incomes cut in September. What does that mean for child poverty in this country?
The ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods estimates that the number of people in poverty will increase by 740,000 when the rate of JobSeeker reduces in September. The researchers also found that the coronavirus supplement led to dramatic reductions in poverty rates, poverty gaps and housing stress amongst households who relied mostly on the JobSeeker payment. The poverty rate of this group was 67 per cent before COVID-19, but the supplement reduced the poverty rate to 6.8 per cent, thereby clearly demonstrating the value of having an adequate social security payment.
Not only is the government taking $300 per fortnight from people; millions of unemployed people still don't have certainty about the rate of payment after December. This lack of certainty around the rate of JobSeeker payment means that people are unable to plan for their future, causing a great deal of anxiety and contributing even further to people's poor mental health, which is already adversely affected by this pandemic. Australians are incredibly distressed about their income dropping in September and then again in December. We are going to see a lot of hardship and people defaulting on their mortgages or having to leave their rental properties because of the choices this government is making.
I'm incredibly worried about what will happen to Australians on low incomes when the supplement is cut. We will see people having to borrow money and getting deeper and deeper into debt. This is particularly true for those cohorts that are particularly affected, such as young people, women and older people. The numbers of people on the JobSeeker payment for over-50s in the three cohorts 50 to 55, 55 to 60 and 60-plus have more than doubled. All of them have more than doubled. If you're over 60, I'm deeply concerned about your future and your ability to find work. This government is condemning them to poverty by taking $300 a fortnight from them, further undermining their ability to have an adequate quality of life as older people moving into retirement.
In the middle of a pandemic and a recession, amid so much uncertainty, we should be providing an adequate, livable income to unemployed Australians. Not only is this obviously good for them, keeping them out of poverty; it also helps stimulate our economy. As far as the ministry is concerned, the JobSeeker payment will be dropping back to $40 a day after 31 December, because the government and the minister will not clarify and will not commit, hand on heart, that it will not drop to $40 a day. This is at the exact same time that our effective unemployment rate is predicted to reach 13 per cent. The $350 coronavirus supplement has had a huge impact on the lives of unemployed Australians. It has brought JobSeeker above the poverty line. Because I understand there has already been a second reading amendment moved, I foreshadow that I will be moving a second reading amendment about the impact of lowering the coronavirus supplement and calling for the current rate to be maintained.
Last week, ACOSS asked community service workers what kind of impact the coronavirus supplement is having on the lives of people they help. A team leader from a housing and homelessness service said, 'Extra payments for COVID-19 meant people could pay for accommodation and to eat.' Imagine that. A child, youth and family service worker said that the double JobSeeker payment has meant that, for the first time in years, very low-income single mothers have been able to buy new winter clothes, replace broken white goods and repair cars. A practitioner from another housing and homelessness service said, 'We work with rough sleepers who have not, as yet, been negatively affected by COVID-19. We are more likely to see an increase in rough sleeping if the additional funds for JobSeeker and JobKeeper cease and people from the private market lose their accommodation.'
For the first time, many people in our community on JobSeeker have been able to cover the essentials without needing to make difficult choices. We should all have the opportunity to afford fresh food such as fresh fruit and vegetables, turn on the heating and buy essential medications. We cannot go back to $40 a day. As I said, this is why I'll be moving a second reading amendment to call on the government to retain the full $550 COVID supplement and increase JobSeeker permanently.
I particularly want to point out that people on the DSP or carer payment are still missing out. I'm very disappointed to see that additional support for people on the disability support pension or carer payment is absent from the government's plans. Since March, the Greens have been campaigning alongside the sector to have the DSP or carer payment recipients included in the coronavirus supplement. The government keeps telling us disabled people and carers were excluded because they don't receive working age payments. I can tell you that people on the DSP or carer payment do work and have lost work from COVID-19. Data from DSS shows that around 43 per cent of people on the DSP have had their hours reduced compared to this time last year.
Disabled people and their carers are doing it extremely tough, and they have been since the start of the pandemic, experiencing higher costs when it comes to groceries, food deliveries, transport and PPE. It's likely that disabled people and carers will face longer periods of lockdown and quarantining and will return to work later because of the nature of COVID-19. I once again call on the government to provide the $550 corona supplement to people on the DSP or carer payment. We need to acknowledge the thousands of Australians on the DSP or carer payment who need the extra support during this crisis.
This bill fails to close those gaps that are widening in our community because of COVID-19. It fails to address the critical need for income support above the poverty line. It fails to address the fact that those on the DSP or carer payment are missing out. I want our government to be supporting every Australian who needs help through this crisis. We have a responsibility to do this—
I rise to speak on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020—a bill that offers, on one hand, a reduction in JobKeeper payments and, on the other hand, an extension of extreme and extraordinary industrial powers to companies without the need for them. The government has backed down on some earlier proposals, but there is no compromise—it is still a deliberate belting of secure work with the added insult of no JobKeeper payments.
COVID-19 is a once-in-a-generational shock to our economy, to our healthcare system and to our society. Just look at some of the few facts. Underemployment is at 7.5 per cent—more than one million without work. Alarmingly, close to 20 per cent of people are either unemployed or underemployed. Roy Morgan reports that consumer confidence was three-quarters of what it was this time last year. The government's response should be leadership. It should be working in a bipartisan way—a way that should be above politics. During Australia's last economic crisis—the global financial crisis—that was how Labor operated. It showed leadership, it acted quickly and it saved this country from a recession. Instead, this Prime Minister and his government have been found wanting. He has done as he always does but never enough to do the whole to support workers. Promising to have everyone's back, he legislated JobKeeper policy that left millions of Australians without support.
Under the cover of COVID, the Prime Minister and his renegade backbench have acted to undermine our superannuation system. The effect would be to see millions of Australians denied dignity in retirement. Why not help put back the money that would afford people dignity in retirement? I won't be holding my breath, because, with this government, the policy is always the same—austerity for working people in good times and even more austerity in the bad. And now here is this legislation before the Senate.
The government continue to seek to extend extreme powers to businesses—powers that continue their pre-COVID policy of wage suppression and insecure work. It would be one thing to keep powers for those businesses that are still doing it tough but entirely another that they try to keep them for businesses doing better than ever. This government would have given these powers to companies like dental company 1300SMILES, who are paying out a dividend of which two-thirds was funded by its JobKeeper payments, passing on the wage subsidy to shareholders. They would have given the power to cut hours and wages to companies like Adairs, who received more than $11 million in wage subsidies at the same time as its online sales soared. Why would they need these extreme and extraordinary powers? If you have enough to be paying dividends to your shareholders and you don't need to reduce the hours of your workforce or reduce their wages, profits are up then you don't need extraordinary powers to reduce wages.
The government is yet to adequately explain why a business experiencing a 10 per cent drop in revenue should be able to reduce a worker's hours by up to 40 per cent, with considerable wage loss when taking into account shifts and other penalties. Indeed, employers already have the ability to make changes to their operations by mechanisms in the relevant award or agreements that require the companies to consult with their workforce and their representatives over a suitable period of time. In the middle of a pandemic, this government has no plan for jobs. It wants people to spend and support the economy, but they need the certainty of secure employment where possible. And, while I support the continuation of JobKeeper, an adjustment to the existing scheme is much needed. There are more changes the Prime Minister could be bringing in this place.
When the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, announced JobKeeper, the Treasurer said: 'Australians know their government has their back.' Except they didn't have everyone's back. They didn't have the backs of casuals. They didn't have the backs of migrant workers. They didn't have the backs of those who work in the arts, in local government, in higher education or in child care, and they certainly didn't have the backs of those who work for companies like dnata, an aviation company the government excluded. The workers at dnata are getting tired of hearing more talk from this government and no action to help them. Dnata workers Natasha and Donna, over their working lives, have paid their fair share of tax. Many dnata workers work for Qantas and still provide meals to Qantas passengers. Many are still being paid entitlements by Qantas. And yet, because of the sale of the catering arm to dnata, they are considered employees of dnata and are cut off from any government support. And now, with the cowardly announcement by Alan Joyce, another 2½ thousand jobs at Qantas are to be replaced with external companies like dnata. We will see workers who are currently receiving JobKeeper move to new companies, perform the same work they have done for years, and stop receiving JobKeeker. This is the cruel situation the Prime Minister and the missing minister for transport have created by abandoning the aviation industry.
The government could right some wrongs, like the exclusion of migrant workers and international students from accessing JobKeeper or JobSeeker. So deplorable has been our treatment of these guests in our country that it is no wonder many are telling friends and family to reconsider studying or working in Australia, at a future major cost to our economy. Despite countries such as the UK, Canada and Ireland offering wage assistance to Australians who are stuck abroad, we are not returning the favour. Unions NSW recently published a survey of 5,000 international students and they found 60 per cent had lost their jobs, 31 per cent no longer had the income to pay their rent and expected to be evicted soon, 26 per cent were sharing bedrooms to save money, and 46 per cent were skipping meals on a regular basis.
I support the extension of JobKeeper to March and the introduction of eligibility criteria so that companies making record profits can't reduce their workers' hours and wages, just so they can deliver bigger dividends. And there is much more that could be done to fix JobKeeper so that it offers some meaningful support to people who need it. There is much more that could be done to stop businesses like Qantas from taking more than half a billion dollars in public money and then abusing the spirit and intent of the financial support.
I rise tonight to also make a contribution to the debate on this legislation. As you've no doubt heard from many Labor senators this evening and earlier today, Labor does support the extension of JobKeeper but we continue to call for improvements. In the first round of JobKeeper we saw the exclusion of local governments, backpackers, visa workers and international students. We saw real poverty and hardship amongst those groups. I have to say that, certainly when I've spoken to local government in Western Australia, they have been absolute champions of looking after residents, particularly seniors, yet they have had to manage on their own. This new iteration of JobKeeper, this extension until March, is also lacking. We continue to exclude casuals, we continue to exclude what international students are left—and we are bringing a whole lot back into South Australia. We continue to exclude the visa workers who have remained here. This scheme now drops the rate and makes it more difficult for employers to be eligible.
Of course Labor was calling for the extension and we thank the government for finally listening to us and extending it. But really I think we need greater certainty than what we've seen. What we know with this government is that there is always a sting in the tail. The sting in the tail in this extension is the cuts to people's incomes—those who have been surviving on JobKeeper—and making it harder for employers to access the payment.
I want to focus particularly on Western Australia because it is hard for us to get a bit of a look-in. I'm not saying that with a chip on my shoulder, but there are some particular fundamentals that have been ignored around Western Australia. What I would say at the outset is that there are nine ministers amongst the Liberals in Western Australia, five of whom are cabinet ministers, and yet we have not seen any particular champion of Western Australia. What we do see is those ministers simply toeing the lines of the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, standing behind them nodding in furious agreement, like those toy animals on car dashboards. Yet Western Australia has some significant problems. A recent report by REMPLAN has shown that five local government areas in Western Australia are amongst the 10 biggest users of JobKeeper. I bet you haven't heard that from any of the Western Australians on the government benches today.
In Shark Bay and Exmouth, areas in the electorate of the minister—Melissa Price, the member for Durack—we have a couple of the highest users of JobKeeper. Over 64 per cent of businesses in Exmouth and Shark Bay rely on JobKeeper. There is a whole range of other local government areas in Ms Price's electorate, and yet where is she? Is she out there saying, 'We can't afford to cut JobKeeper, because it will damage those businesses in Exmouth and Shark Bay and across Denham more generally'? No, she's not. She is completely silent on that. Shark Bay and Exmouth are second to Byron Bay. That's not because the Western Australian border is closed; it's because the Australian border is closed to the international visitors who normally flock to those regions. But you would not hear that from Minister Price, who is simply missing in action on JobKeeper.
Earlier tonight I heard another Western Australian government senator who had recently been to Broome say, 'Broome's doing fine.' I don't know who he spoke to. Perhaps he walked down the main street of Broome and spoke to only a couple of businesses, because Broome also has a high reliance on JobKeeper. Almost 50 per cent of businesses in Broome—again, this is Ms Price's electorate—rely on JobKeeper. Is Ms Price championing for Broome and for the government to not cut rates and to not exclude employers? No, she's standing behind the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, certainly not representing the interests of Western Australians.
In Dundas, a significant number of businesses are reliant on JobKeeper. It is one of the top five LGA areas. It's largely in the O'Connor electorate of Mr Rick Wilson. Where is Mr Wilson on this? Completely silent once again. I haven't heard him out there, saying, 'We can't have cuts to JobKeeper because it will affect significant voters in my electorate and damage local businesses.' No. Like Ms Price, he has been silent on the matter.
The other hotspots in Western Australia are in the south-west in the electorate of Forrest of Mrs Nola Marino, another Morrison government minister. We have the international hotspot tourist area of Margaret River. It's beautiful country. It's wine growing. Tourists flock there. There's very high use of JobKeeper. 'Where is Mrs Marino?' you might ask. She is with Ms Price and Mr Wilson—completely silent.
So we have these three large Western Australian regional electorates—Durack, O'Connor and Forrest—and their Liberal members, two of whom are ministers with, you would think, some influence on the Treasurer and Mr Morrison, yet they're silent. They've just signed up to a JobKeeper scheme which will potentially cut the take-home pay of voters in those electorates and lock out employers who are currently eligible. It will lock some of them out in the future, yet they've given it the big green tick. The other point about these nine ministers is that five of them are in cabinet. You'd think they might be able to take a Western Australian perspective—but, no; they've lined up with the Prime Minister and the Treasurer and said, 'We've got to make a cut to people's take-home pay and we have to ensure that in the future some businesses will be ineligible.'
I want to look at the metro areas. Let's look at the electorate of Pearce, the electorate of our Attorney-General, Mr Porter. He went on the record as not supporting Western Australia, as are all the Liberals, over the state border closure when he lined up with Mr Clive Palmer. They did not line up with the millions of voters in Western Australia, no. They didn't. They lined up behind Mr Palmer, so much so that they were part of his court action to try to force open Western Australia's border. Perhaps they are not in WA enough or perhaps they are not taking a test of the temperature, but something like more than 90 per cent of Western Australians think the border should remain closed, but not the tiny little Liberal cohort, not the nine ministers and certainly not the five in cabinet. Although they did finally get the message a couple of weeks ago and have subsequently pulled out of the case, it's too little, too late. But where is Mr Porter, the Attorney-General and the member for Pearce, on this? Pearce is one of the outer metro suburbs with a very high reliance on JobKeeper. Where is he on this? Completely silent. He's just signed up to cut local voters' take-home pay and make some of the voters ineligible.
Another cabinet minister, Mr Wyatt, is in the seat of Hasluck, an electorate where there is high eligibility for and high reliance on JobKeeper. Where is he? Has he been out saying, 'Hang on a minute. This is a bit unfair. This is going to mean people have less take-home pay. This might mean some businesses in the seat of Hasluck will no longer be eligible.' But, no, he has signed up as well.
So they're all missing in action. Every single one of those five cabinet ministers is missing in action when it comes to paying Western Australia some attention and looking after the interests of Western Australian voters. We've seen this; they've got form. First of all, they backed Clive Palmer over Western Australians' interests, and now they are backing cuts to JobKeeper and making sure that some businesses won't be eligible in the future. Some might say that the Liberal Party only listens to the chamber of commerce. Well, guess what? The chamber of commerce is also saying this. It's got a survey out that says one in three Western Australian businesses is very concerned about what will happen come March when, presumably, JobKeeper will disappear. The confidence that we like to talk about in business is completely missing for one in three businesses. That's outstanding. That's a horrible statistic. Where are those cabinet ministers, where are those other ministers and where are those Western Australian backbenchers? They are all standing behind Mr Morrison and Mr Frydenberg, nodding in agreement and cutting out the interests of Western Australian voters.
Western Australians are watching. They're certainly very angry about what the Liberal Party have done in relation to Clive Palmer and they will be just as angry about this. You cannot have five out of the 10 local government areas across Western Australia—across the electorates of Ms Price and Ms Marino—be the highest users of JobKeeper and have those Liberals opposite from Western Australian just ignore Western Australian voters and put their own jobs and their own self-interest first.
I rise to speak on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020. On 21 January, Australia stood up its National Incident Room to deal with something referred to by most as the 'Wuhan coronavirus'. Since that time, we've been through a lot. We've had the Ruby Princess. We've had a first wave. We've had lockdowns. We've had emergency legislation for JobKeeper and JobSeeker. We've deployed the ADF to aid civil power. We've had border closures. We've now got a second wave, although, hopefully, we're seeing that curve flatten in Victoria.
Our response to coronavirus, COVID-19, hasn't been perfect, but I think we've done okay. The federal and state governments have done okay. The Public Service have done okay. Healthcare workers have done a great job. Our emergency services and the ADF have done a good job as well, and I'm sure everyone in this chamber is grateful for the work that they have done. But the response has been exactly that: a response. It has been reactive. We're seven months in, almost eight, and we don't have a plan. We know that there is a vaccine in sight. We don't know how effective it will be. Will it be 50 per cent, 60 per cent or 90 per cent effective? We simply don't know, so we're going to have to have a plan that deals with those potential outcomes.
It's certainly possible for us to have a third wave, and perhaps even a fourth. We're already seeing contingencies being put in place to deal with spot outbreaks. Again, we're dealing with a response package, not a plan. We should be dealing with a plan. We shouldn't just be looking at this legislation and saying, 'Does this do something positive?' We ought to be looking at this in the context of a much broader economic plan that tells us how we're going to get from where we are now to being a prosperous nation on the other side of COVID-19. We're getting a little bit of information but not enough. We need to have a plan that directs government procurement towards maximising local benefit in our economies. We need to have a plan that encourages R&D. We need to have a plan that promotes manufacturing, that helps us out with resilience and, certainly, ends the state we've been in for the last 100 years where we're simply exporting rocks and other commodities. We need to be value-adding and building that resilience. We need to make sure that we take our raw commodities and produce goods, and we need to make sure that we create jobs and wealth when we do so. Where's that plan?
We need to be looking at things like multinational tax avoidance. Tax transparency data that has been made public by the tax office in accordance with the law shows that, over five years, 221 companies have earned $850 billion in revenue and paid zero tax. If we understand how we're dealing with that sort of circumstance then we can understand whether or not we can afford to be more generous or less generous. This legislation is being presented in the absence of a plan, and that's hugely problematic in my view. I've actually been waiting for a plan since the commencement of this parliament. I remember sitting in this chamber, listening to His Excellency the Governor-General. I have no criticism of him. It wasn't his speech; it was the Prime Minister's speech. It had no inspiration. It talked about a pie and how that pie was going to be cut up. It didn't talk about making a bigger pie or making a tastier pie. All of that was absent. I find myself in the same situation again. I want to see a big plan so I can see where this piece of legislation fits into that plan, but it's absent. It's left me with the view that our Prime Minister has managed well but is not a leader.
Even at the lower level, the Senate is being asked to pass legislation that relies heavily on rules that no-one's seen. Sure, we've seen media releases. I've seen some fact sheets. But we do this time and time again in the Senate; we just work on blind faith that regulations will flow. When we were looking at the SDL changes for the Murray-Darling back in May 2018, we were committing huge amounts of public money but we had no idea of each of the projects around the country that were designed to help return water to the Murray-Darling. We just had blind faith, and that's not the way we should do business. So I say to the government that, whilst I support what you're trying to do with this legislation, proper process demands that we should be seeing the rules before we consider the legislation. We are, in effect, granting a power to allow the Treasurer to do many different things that we may have to correct at a later stage. When JobKeeper 1.0 came along, we needed to have flexibility. I understand that. But things have stabilised, so we need to be little bit more careful as we grant powers to ministers to expend public money. We should be seeing the rules upfront.
I indicate that I will support the bill. I will support the extension of JobKeeper. That's the pragmatic thing to do. It's about making sure we look after our businesses and their employees. We need to do it in a way that is flexible, so I even support the ideas behind the press releases and the fact sheets. We want to be able to target JobKeeper in different ways for different areas of the economy that are doing things at different speeds. Again, the rules should permit that. It's just sad that we haven't been presented with the rules.
There's certainly a contentious part of this bill, which I'm going to address briefly, and that relates to legacy employers. They are those employers who are no longer hitting the JobKeeper eligibility, either through a 30 per cent reduction, or through a 50 per cent reduction in the case of larger businesses. For those that sit between a 10 per cent reduction and a 30 per cent reduction, the government wants to introduce changes to the Fair Work Act that will give businesses some flexibility. Whenever we have that sort of legislation being put up, there is contention. There is a need to balance the needs of the business and, indeed, the needs of the workers. Anyone who's run a business—and I have—knows that, actually, to run a business you need to have a good workforce. When workers and businesses come together, you get productive outcomes. Therein lies the problem with this contentious part of the proposed legislation. We could grant powers for companies to have greater flexibility, but I point out that there is already flexibility in the current industrial relations legislation that permits employers to sit down with their employees, explain the circumstances that they're in and seek to make changes. There's nothing to stop that from occurring right now.
In trying to strike a balance, in trying to work out where the better outcome lies, I've had to think about employers who look after their employees. I know that, in those circumstances, those conversations can occur; the employer can talk to the employees and they can work out something that will help both of them through the crisis. However, it worries me when you have an employer who is not prepared to do that and who might otherwise simply treat their workers as cash cows rather than as part of their team. That's the only circumstance that I can think of where the IR changes that are being proposed would be necessary. In all other circumstances, I think the current rules will allow a good outcome. In terms of the changes, it is a fine balance, and it's not going to hold me either way, but I will be supporting Labor's amendment in relation to legacy employers—that is, to remove the additional powers that businesses are seeking. But I do so in recognition that there is already in place industrial relations legislation that allows workers and employers to sit down and work their way through a particular crisis.
I will support this bill. It brings stability. It helps us to look after businesses. It helps us to look after employees. I commend it to the Senate.
There is no denying that JobKeeper has been an important lifeline, keeping Australians in work and businesses going. Labor knew from the outset that this country couldn't have had this support snapped back on 27 September as the Morrison government initially had planned. The opposition has always been constructive during this crisis, and I hope the government will continue to listen to our suggestions to improve our economic recovery. We called on the government to introduce wage subsidies despite their ruling it out earlier this year. We called on the government to abandon its proposal to extend emergency IR powers to businesses that have fully recovered—and they have. We have called on the government to extend JobKeeper, and today they are doing that. So, Labor will be supporting this legislation.
I said at the beginning of this crisis, in February, at a meeting with tourism operators and business owners in Cairns that this pandemic would hit Cairns first, and worse—and it has. More than 6,000 businesses in the Cairns region were relying on JobKeeper in July, during a time of uncertainty over the future of the program. For too long, the LNP believed it could stick to its snapback strategy, which would have led to mass unemployment queues, particularly in regional Queensland. The member for Leichhardt at the time was out there saying that extending JobSeeker was a no-brainer, while the member for Mackellar called for the scheme to be shut down even earlier than September. The government was saying one thing in Cairns but another thing in Canberra, and this led to uncertainty and confusion in the community.
I spoke to businesses, workers and community groups in regional Queensland, and the overwhelming consensus was that Far North Queensland could not afford to have JobKeeper snapped back too early. I started a campaign calling on the government not to cancel JobKeeper too early, and it was supported, particularly by hospitality businesses but also by the community sector. This bill allows the Treasurer to make that extension. So, I want to thank all the community groups, the hospitality businesses and people in the community who supported this campaign and called for this extension. It should not have taken so long for the government to commit to that extension, but I'm happy that we are here.
As we know, this bill allows for an extension to changes to the Fair Work Act which allows employers to reduce employee working hours down to the rate of the JobKeeper payment without breaching workplace conditions. Employers also retain the right to effectively cut the rate of pay for JobKeeper recipients who continue to work normal hours. The government has since said that they want to extend this flexibility for workers who are no longer on JobKeeper. The perverse effects of these changes mean that a low-paid worker would have their hours cut to 60 per cent of their ordinary hours and earn less than the rate of JobKeeper. Labor can see where the government is going on this. The government is testing their future plans for permanent industrial relations changes in the name of so-called flexibility, when really they are attacking decent jobs. Australia's lowest-paid workers could lose up to $300 a week from their pay packets during the deepest economic crisis in our recent history—many essential workers who have helped us get through this crisis. Labor will stand up for these low-paid workers by fighting this change.
It has also become clear that there are a number of things missing from this legislation. Firstly, we know that this legislation doesn't fix gaps in JobKeeper that Labor has for some time been arguing need to be fixed, and can be fixed, by the Treasurer. Too many Australians are being left out and being left behind, some by accident but many deliberately. The Treasurer retains the power to include 1.1 million short-term casuals, university and local government workers and temporary visa holders in the JobKeeper program. He retains that right and yet he continues to leave them out of this program.
The other thing missing from this legislation, and from the government's overall response to the coronavirus, is a plan for jobs. Jobs—actual jobs—not re-announcements of previous measures or projects, which are taking too long to get off the ground; not the promise of a project to be constructed in, say, 2022 or 2023, as we heard the other day with inland rail; not fancy sounding slogans without any substance; not grants that sound great, but when a business applies for the grant they find out they're not actually eligible, which we know is what happened with one of the arts grants announcements where a Gold Coast arts company is not eligible.
For the first time in history one million Australians are out of work. The government's own figures show that 400,000 will be out of work by Christmas. Despite being faced with mounting job losses and rising unemployment this government's instinct is to remove substantial JobKeeper support from the economy without any plan to replace it, without a plan for jobs, without a plan for how those people who will lose their jobs before Christmas will find a job again. After seven years of the LNP so many jobs in regional Queensland are at risk. We are facing an unprecedented economic crisis and without a plan the unemployment queues will continue to expand.
Finally, I will say this: we know that the government's track record is to cut, sack and sell. We know that of the Morrison government and we know that of the LNP in Queensland. The Morrison government doesn't have a plan for jobs. They don't have a plan to bring manufacturing back home. They don't have a plan to bring forward infrastructure projects that regional Queenslanders desperately need. That is the glaring omission from this legislation—lots of announcements, lots of press releases, but no plan for jobs. Regional Queenslanders who have been hit hardest by this economic crisis deserve better from this government.
This pandemic has changed our world. In January I didn't expect to be dialling in remotely to give a speech to parliament here from my office in Melbourne. We didn't expect the closure of state borders to be one of the most talked about political decisions. We didn't expect that we would be waiting every day to see what the infection statistics are like in our cities. We didn't expect to be racing to share the good news, as I have done with my friends over social media in the last couple of days, that we've had another day when the number of new COVID cases is under 100.
The impact of this virus has been profound. In my personal story, the main way it has impacted me has been through my son John, who was one of the thousands of Victorians who caught the virus. He is no longer an active case, but like so many others he is still dealing with the long-term effects of having had COVID-19. He is now living with me so I can help him recover. I also help care for my elderly mum, who has hardly been outside her house for the last six months. Caring during this pandemic has only highlighted how important caring for older Australians is.
For so many others, of course, the story of COVID has been a loss of work, the loss of certainty, the loss of income and the deep worry about what the future looks like and how they're going to get through.
This pandemic has shown us how important a government's response is. The Australian people overwhelmingly supported the government when, early on in the pandemic, they brought in the doubling of the rate of Newstart to create the JobSeeker allowance and brought in JobKeeper. The Greens support JobKeeper but not unconditionally. We need a people-first response to COVID-19 that leaves no-one behind, because we've seen the devastation that can occur in situations where governments can't, or won't, put their citizens' welfare first.
Very early on in this pandemic we called for a wage guarantee and we are glad the government took that step. But supporting that step doesn't mean that we become an uncritical cheerleader. The truth is the government's response has left too many people behind: casual workers, university students and the university sector overall, artists, musicians and those working in the arts. We've seen childcare workers left behind, despite the vitally important work they do in our community. Women have borne the brunt of the crisis, in terms of child caring, in terms of the economic impact of casual workers who have lost work in the crisis and in so many other ways. Twice as many women compared to men work part time, women are going to be disproportionately affected when the JobKeeper payment for part-time workers is slashed in coming months.
Despite the nature of the crisis and despite the need to be looking after everybody, the coalition is still trying to make it easier for big companies and harder for workers. We are particularly concerned that this legislation today is creating a new category of companies that are doing well enough that they no longer receive JobKeeper but they still get new powers that alter the balance between workers and employees, allowing employers to cut workers' hours by up to 40 per cent if that is what they want to do. But these workers who are potentially going to have their hours cut by 40 per cent, undermining the existing conditions in the Fair Work Act, are not going to have their phone bills cut by 40 per cent. Their rent is not going to be cut by 40 per cent. Their other outgoings and other expenses are not going to be cut by 40 per cent.
Let's be clear. In the middle of a pandemic with so many people struggling in a recession, it is profoundly cynical of the coalition to be trying to advance their ideological agenda of cutting workers' rights in the interests of big business, because we can extend JobKeeper without cutting workers' rights. We can give people the support they need, without shifting the balance between workers and their employers. As we've seen with the second wave in Melbourne, this pandemic creates enormous challenges. Now is not the time to be cutting support and making it harder for people who are already struggling so much.
There are ways this legislation can be improved. The Greens will be moving amendments to this legislation to do just that. We want to see everyone accessing JobKeeper get the support they need. We do not want to see some workers—vulnerable workers—relegated to a second tier. We certainly should not be cutting people's income in the middle of a pandemic, and certainly not people who are on low hours and low pay in insecure work. We completely reject the idea that there should be a two-tiered system. We want the Fair Work Commission be able to deal with eligibility disputes. The Greens believe that all casuals should have access to JobKeeper. University workers, temporary visa holders and so many people have been left behind by this government.
My office has worked with one of my constituents who started a small business before the pandemic struck. They, like so many others, were devastated by the impacts of the pandemic. They went into lockdown and their income dropped off. On virtually every metric, our understanding is that they were eligible for JobKeeper. But they were denied access. Why? Because of the visa status of one of the business owners.
This is a government that is happy to hand out millions of dollars in subsidies to mining companies, to prop up fossil fuel companies, to give grants willy-nilly to their mates, whether it is the $3.6 million to Shine Energy or the almost $200 million in sports rorts, but they won't provide support for a small business in Victoria because the business owner is a temporary visa holder trying to build a life in Australia.
I personally know any number of university students who had casual work pre-COVID. A lot of them were working in hospitality or the arts to top up their student allowance because, as we know, student allowance is not enough to live on. It's completely inadequate to live on. The only way students can survive is to be doing part-time work. Of course a lot of those part-time jobs—working in hospitality, working in retail, working in the arts—all went when COVID struck. These students weren't covered by JobKeeper. Many of them hadn't been working for one employer for more than 12 months. They've survived COVID so far because of the double rate of student allowance under the JobSeeker supplement, but they are desperately worried about what's going to happen when the extra supplement is wound back, because their jobs are not going to be coming back in a hurry.
They're looking at such uncertainty about the future. Will they be able to pay the rent? Will they be able to keep studying? We should not be putting our young people through this—our best and brightest, our hope for the future, Australia's future. What does it do to your ability to study when you feel so uncertain about the future? It's hard enough to stay motivated when all your studying is online, as it has been for the last six months, but when you have to worry about whether you're going to have to ditch your studies altogether because you worry about being able to survive, that's putting young people through such pain and is just not fair. It is not equitable, it is not fair and it is not what a country like Australia should be doing.
So we support the extension of JobKeeper, but let's be clear: we must and we can improve this legislation. The government should be doing so much more. The Greens launched our Invest to Recover platform outlining so much more that the government could be doing. A government-backed jobs and income guarantee would help create hundreds of thousands of jobs and ensure that everybody has an income that they can live on. In particular, this would guarantee those young people a job if they wanted one, guarantee them a place for tertiary study or guarantee them an adequate income to live on. We cannot afford to leave our young people in the ranks of the long-term unemployed. We know from previous recessions that, once people are in the ranks of the long-term unemployed, it is very hard to get out. People need to have work, and there is so much work that is there and that could be done. There are the jobs that are there, and those jobs need to be filled and can provide work for Australians. We need to create new jobs and opportunities with bold government investment in manufacturing and sustainable infrastructure, building the foundations of a fair, clean economy. We need massive government investment in services for our communities, in health, in education, in child care, in aged care, in housing and in public services that would improve everyone's lives. There is so much more that this government could be doing to support people in the difficult times that we're currently going through. Things could be radically different if we have the courage to strive for a better future.
I rise to speak on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020. As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I want Australians to stop being slaves and to start living freely. Let's look at some facts. Australia's COVID-19 death toll stands at over 650. Let's compare with Taiwan. Taiwan has a similar population, 24 million—compared with Australia's 25 million—but on a tiny island, with higher population density making virus transmission far easier. Taiwan is close to mainland China, the virus source. Taiwan imported the virus onto their shores earlier than Australia did. Taiwan has far more people moving to and from China. How many deaths have they suffered in Taiwan? Seven. Not 700, just seven. While we locked everyone up in quarantine, trashed our economy and racked up massive debt for younger generations, Taiwan is steaming ahead. Despite its large markets in Europe and America suffering economically due to the virus, Taiwan has hardly had a blip. Why?
How can that be? Several words—'data', 'plan', 'leadership', 'trust' and 'truth'. That's the secret to Taiwan and other countries similar to Taiwan; they're not the only ones. They acted quickly and closed their borders.
Following SARS in 2003, Taiwan established a central command centre for epidemics. By January 2020 the command centre was coordinating the government's response to the coronavirus. It quickly compiled a list of 100 action items, including border controls, school and work policies, public communication plans and resource assessments of hospitals. Taiwan's government introduced a travel ban on visitors from China, Hong Kong and Macau soon after the number of coronavirus cases began to rise in mainland China. Anticipating the high demand for masks in late January, the Taiwanese government started rationing the existing supply of masks. Taiwan then leveraged the strength of its manufacturing sector and invested approximately $6.8 million to create 60 new mask production lines. This increased Taiwan's daily mask production capacity from 1.8 million masks to eight million masks. This has been called Taiwan's 'mask miracle'. The proof is in the pudding.
Taiwan have had, as I said, seven COVID deaths, compared with Australia's 652, yet they were exposed to it earlier. They have technology for early detection. The Taiwanese government has also used data technology to help medical personnel identify and trace suspected patients and high-risk individuals. The Taiwanese government also provide support for those put under quarantine. Local village leaders, for example, will bring a bag of basic supplies like food or books to quarantined individuals. Taiwan didn't lock up everyone; they locked up the sick and the vulnerable. They said, 'That's the way democracies are handling quarantine during the coronavirus outbreak.' It's very different from authoritarian governments.
Compare Taiwan with mainland China. This is a case where democracies should leverage their data and technologies appropriately so they can triage people to the right place and follow up with appropriate care. We did not behave like a democracy. Taiwan's strategy was the opposite of ours. Taiwan isolated the sick and the vulnerable and let everyone else get on with their work and social lives, and they've had one ninetieth of the deaths that Australia has had.
Taiwan focused on people's lives, remembering medium-term, long-term and immediate issues. People's health in Taiwan is No. 1, and, because of that, their economy has continued beating hard. So, as I said, the key ingredient is data. The Taiwanese had the data. They gathered the data—if they didn't have it, they went out and got it—and then they shared that data. They trusted their people. They developed a plan very quickly and they shared that plan with their people. Contrast that with our Prime Minister's six-month hibernation.
We still haven't seen a solid plan. We have been told lots of times what's happened, what has been happening and what has been done, but we aren't being told what will be done. The Taiwanese did tell people that. That's leadership. The Taiwanese leaders trusted the people with the data, with the facts and with the plan, and they shared the responsibility with business owners to manage their workplaces to keep people safe. Contrast that with Australia: severe lockdowns and severe punishments.
When we ran out of masks early on, our state and federal political leader said: 'Masks are not effective. Don't worry about it.' When we eventually built up a stockpile of masks, political leaders changed their tune and said that masks are essential. Which one do we trust? Which story? Trust is built on truth. There's no way around that. When leaders lack data, lack a plan, lack trust and don't give trust, they are eventually exposed, and that's what we're seeing now. The Prime Minister, the Victorian Premier and the Queensland Premier have been exposed and are being exposed not just on coronavirus but on the mess our country was in before February—before the virus arrived on our shores.
Think about the real issue here beyond coronavirus—the recovery. The Prime Minister and the premiers are focused on recovering back to February. They haven't got a clue how to do it, but that's the economic level they want to get back to. We should be focused instead on our economic strength when we were No. 1 in the world for gross domestic product per person, income per person. The coronavirus revealed—as we said early on, in March—our country's demise since 1944 and the loss of our manufacturing. We are now ranked with under-developed nations in the lack of sophistication of our manufacturing. Why? Because we've jacked up energy prices three times—they're triple what they were. We've replaced our independence with interdependency, which is really another word for dependency.
We've destroyed our economic resilience, our economic sovereignty and our productive capacity, thanks to the United Nations Lima Declaration that Labor signed in 1975 and the Liberals ratified the next year. We shipped our jobs to China. That shipping of jobs and that destruction of our productive capacity continued with the 1992 United Nations Rio Declaration that Labor signed and the Liberal-Nationals implemented. Then the UN's 1996 Kyoto climate protocol that destroyed our electricity sector, and for which the Howard government stole farmers' rights to use the land that farmers had bought and owned. Then the UN's 2015 Paris Agreement that the Liberal-Nationals signed to accelerate the destruction of industry—manufacturing, agriculture, trade-exposed industries.
And then, as I said, we heard the Prime Minister's initial response to the coronavirus: six months hibernation—no plan, no data. Stories about what we have done rather than what we will do. Now we have calls for a plan to get back to the February level of performance—still no data, still no plan. After almost 80 years of pandering to foreign agreements, we are living with declining living standards and higher costs of living. Why not aim to be No. 1 in per capita income? Let's get down to the basics. That's where we were in the early years of our federation. But now, instead of having competitive federalism, we have competitive welfarism—thanks to Chairman Dan. Sloppiness in Victoria led to complete breakdown of the control of the virus there—
Premier Daniel Andrews. We in One Nation said from the start that we need to treat the virus seriously. We said we must put lives first. We said there's no manual. We said we were understanding. We said we would support an open chequebook and do whatever is necessary. And we said we would come looking and hold people accountable. On accountability, the Queensland Premier has said she has handed control to the Queensland Chief Health Officer, Dr Young, who has honestly admitted that her sole responsibility is people's physical health. Who's going to manage the economic health? Who's going to manage people's mental health? Experts now estimate that the number of deaths from suicide will be far greater than the deaths from COVID-19. Queensland Labor have abdicated yet again. They've tossed the running of the state over to a health officer who's focused only on physical health—not mental health, not economic health. Just as the former Labor MP Jo-Ann Miller courageously and publicly said today: 'Labor has abandoned us in Queensland.'
I listen to Neil Breen on 4BC in the mornings, and I commend him for holding the government accountable: stories of Labor control freaks being so heartless—twins flown to Sydney on a 16-hour trip rather than a half-hour helicopter ride to Brisbane to get treatment, and one of the twins dying; cancer treatment for a Ballina woman just south of the border—denied; an infant under cancer treatment, in hospital alone and needing his mum—abandoned; suicides; and a newsagent in Currumbin who, to get there from the Tweed, had to drive to Sydney and fly to Brisbane and stay in quarantine, and then drive to Currumbin. These are insane things. And then the Queensland Premier—remember—welcomed the Black Lives Matter protesters, with 30,000 people on our streets spreading the virus.
The Prime Minister created the national cabinet, which is handy for dodging the blame if it goes pear-shaped. I must commend Senator Patrick for pointing out the messy failure. The Prime Minister has created a monster: the premiers and the Prime Minister making decisions without data. I wrote a letter to the Queensland Premier a few weeks ago, calling for her to provide the data on which she bases her decisions. She pointed to two websites. Our staff went there—no data.
Let's look at the symptoms of what's going on in our nation. We've handed sovereignty to foreign agencies. Senator Cormann in representing the Prime Minister responded today to my question with: 'We are going to live up to our international obligations.' To hell with the international obligations! Let's put foreigners behind Australian people. We have an obligation in this Senate, in this parliament, to Australian people.
Look the Water Act of 2007 that's gutting our food production and the Murray-Darling Basin. Look at our energy policy, where we've gone from the lowest cost electricity to the highest cost electricity. Why aren't Australians getting the benefit of our wonderful, high-energy, low-pollution clean coal? Why are our farmers losing their rights to use their land? Why are Hunter Valley coalminers with no safety protection told to not report accidents or be sacked with no workers' compensation and no accident pay? They're 40 per cent underpaid compared to permanents right next door to them in the same job to on the same mine site. Long service leave entitlements are not being tallied correctly and they were refusing to be audited until I came onto the scene. They have no leave. They have no protection. They've been abandoned by the state government, abandoned by federal government agencies and abandoned by the Hunter Valley CFMMEU, which has made deals with employers, undermining these miners. Local, state and federal Labor MPs like Mr Joel Fitzgibbon have abandoned them.
Queensland Labor are controlling farmers. They are misquoting and misrepresenting the science to control farmers. What we see now is control. We see this headline from Katrina Grace Kelly, writing in The Australian: 'After all this time'—meaning seven months—'we still haven't got a recovery plan'. It's not just me who thinks this way. Then we have this from Terry McCrann: 'Waiting for Godot, from one pandemic debacle to the next'.
This is hopeless. It is absolutely hopeless. It is an abdication of responsibility and accountability. We need trust and truth based on data for a plan to ensure recovery, back to Australia being No. 1 in the world for per capita income. We would start with just a simple plan to recover from COVID, because at the moment, as I said in my introduction to this speech, Australians are slaves. We are slaves to COVID. We know that there's a second wave coming. It started in Victoria. What are we going to do? Are we going to stay locked up until everyone has had many, many waves and we've locked down each time? That's no way to run a country. That's not leadership. That's abdication. We need strong leadership like Taiwan's and we need to get it quickly. Instead of being slaves to COVID, we need to master COVID. Taiwan has shown us. Sweden have shown us to some extent. You don't have to agree with their ideas, but at least they tried something. Israel has mastered COVID. Singapore has mastered COVID. South Korea has mastered COVID. Taiwan is not the only one.
We need to get on with the job of eating humble pie, admitting our mistakes, getting the data, telling the truth, developing a plan and providing real leadership. That's what the people expect. That's what we deserve. And that's what One Nation are going to continue to push for. We are going to expose the shortfalls in this government, the shortfalls in the last 80 years of government, and then we are going to put Australia on the right track. We were keen to see the Nationals today at least recognising some of the things we have been saying and doing. So there is hope, but we must get by with the truth and trust. (Time expired)
It's become a bad habit of mine to reflect on the comments of the speaker who's preceded me and I don't intend to do it in relation to all of Senator Robert's speech, but I will just say this: a speech that presumably is produced for distribution in social media in Queensland where the refrain 'Australians are slaves' and an inference—more than an inference—that other senators in here aren't putting their obligations to the Australian people first is deeply offensive and it's calculated for a pretty base political purpose and ought to be treated that way. I have deep disagreements with the people who sit on the other side of this chamber and some of the characters who inhabit the southern end of the show, but I do think that people actually are—sometimes in a misguided way—putting the national interest first. I think that we all ought to reflect on those kinds of comments and reflect on how language is important, and how political language is especially important.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Labor Party called for a wage subsidy package to support the Australian economy. I remember because I was one of those people calling for it. It was rejected by the government. We supported it because we could see the international evidence amassing in comparable economies overseas where they were adopting a wage subsidy approach—in the Scandinavian countries, in Europe and, not least, in Boris Johnson's United Kingdom. We knew how important it was to preserve the relationship between workers and their employers. We knew how important it was to prevent mass lay-offs and the catastrophic effects of long-term unemployment, particularly in our suburbs and regions. We knew that it was necessary because it would allow the Australian economy to recover more quickly.
We have cooperated with the government's approach. We have criticised it, but we have taken a constructive approach to dealing with the questions of stimulus in the economy. We do think that the government has got some elements of this wrong. We do think that the early access for superannuation program, which has provided the lion's share of the stimulus package so far, has meant that low-income Australians' retirement incomes in the future have been squandered. We know that if the government had moved faster thousands of jobs could have been saved.
There are many people excluded from the JobKeeper package: one million casual workers; workers in local government, many of whom have already lost their jobs; workers in the university sector. It is still hard to fathom why a government would take action that is so destructive to our national capability in research and teaching, but there will be mass lay-offs in the university sector. That will have a devastating effect on Australia's research capability, and it is not in the national interest. It will have a devastating effect on school leavers and their certainty about getting into the courses that they need to get into. That will have a long-term devastating effect. Childcare workers are excluded. Arts and entertainment workers are excluded. And, of course, we've seen in all of our capital cities the spectacle of food queues of foreign visa workers and university students from overseas.
There are also important design problems, which other speakers have addressed. We are being deeply critical of the September cut-off date—the snapback. Well, now it's a taper-off. We will support the legislation because it's necessary to, because the alternative is a deeper catastrophe. But we do say that the conditions that necessitated a wage subsidy are still with us, and the withdrawal too early or tapering off too early of the wage subsidy program will have long-term serious effects in the Australian economy, particularly in terms of people's jobs.
Snapback was always a bad idea. The government knew it was a bad idea. It is consistent with the Morrison government's now tried-and-true approach: step 1, hold a press conference; step 2, announce a program with a focus-tested name; step 3, dodge questions; step 4, refuse any accountability and blame somebody else. It is government by press conference. We've seen it in HomeBuilder, the government's home building scheme, which was an abject failure. HomeBuilder was announced at a press conference. It is a portmanteau name that sounds like it came from a third-rate marketing agency. They continually dodged questions about it and refused accountability. I imagine that is in no small part because the minister responsible for it has other matters that he needs to attend to in the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party and possibly isn't focused upon his real responsibilities. We've seen it in aged care. We saw it in the arts rescue package. There was a big press conference, this time with a big arts and entertainment industry name, Mr Sebastian. The package was announced on 25 June. Not a dollar has been spent. In fact, the facility that they named it in, the business that they announced it with, hasn't got a zack out of the program—not a dollar.
There's the COVIDSafe app. You can take the marketing boss out of Tourism Australia but you can't take the marketing out of this Prime Minister. No matter how serious the national crisis, no matter how overwhelming the pandemic, this bloke, the member for Cook, doesn't have any other speed but marketing. The snapback didn't come, and that's a good thing, but it still lives on in the imagination of many of the Liberals and Nationals on the other side. Take, for example, Mr Joyce, the member for New England—the seat where I grew up. In April, one in five workers in the electorate of New England were receiving JobKeeper, with 5,205 businesses and 19,780 workers' jobs supported by the JobKeeper package. The total fortnightly amount going into the New England economy was just over $30 million. However, he told local papers in May that he wanted the program to end as soon as possible. He said:
I hear what the Labor Party have been talking about and that is keeping these stimulus packages going longer.
Of course our hearts say that could work, but of course the accountant side of us says it can't, because it is money that is borrowed and money that has to be repaid.
He went on to say:
One of the peculiar things people have got to understand is this money is borrowed from overseas and in many instances from China, which we have to pay back to them, yet that was the source of the disease in the first place.
It sounded a little bit like Senator Roberts's recent contribution. It's an absurd approach. Following it through would have devastating consequences for the people of New England—the people Mr Joyce claims to represent. It's wrong. It's deeply wrong economically, but, most importantly, it's in direct contradiction to what his own constituents say they need. Regional manager for the NSW Business Chamber, Joe Townsend, said:
We haven't seen the economy come back at all. It could be something that could be wrapped up just before the end, but as it stands, JobKeeper should remain in place. The government does have to be very smart about its physical budget and not over do it, but given they have granted this, they should certainly see it out through to the end.
Who knows what will happen if Mr Joyce is successful in his quest to regain the leadership of the National Party? The Australian people don't need Mr Joyce with a stronger voice at the cabinet table. The snapback was never based on economics or any coherent understanding of debt or how the economy works. It's always been a slogan. It's always been based on a callback to what Mr Frydenberg called the 'Reagan and Thatcher model'.
We have a tough week coming up in front of us, I think. Payroll data from last week suggests that 50,000 Australians lost their jobs in August. Accounts data is coming out this Wednesday, and we know that there must be grim statistics coming because of the Treasurer's performance this morning, when he waved his arms around a lot and blamed the Premier of Victoria for everything that was going wrong. We're still expecting 400,000 people to lose their jobs between now and Christmas. This is a deep and difficult recession and we cannot cut our way out of it. What we need from this government is a plan for jobs. What we need from this government is a sustained commitment, but not to marketing and announcements. We need this government to follow through and deliver a package that will deliver jobs for Australians, particularly in our suburbs and in our regional centres.
) ( ): I also rise to speak in support of the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020, and I do so because the future of this payment and the JobSeeker payment are the most critical issues before our parliament at the moment.
I'm speaking today remotely from my office in Adelaide and it is important that I do so, because I'm here speaking for Adelaide, and I'm speaking for my state of South Australia, because the future of JobKeeper is pertinent to our economic recovery in SA. Economically, in my state, we were already doing it tough before the pandemic. In June it got worse. We reached our highest rate of unemployment in 20 years at 8.8 per cent. Whilst we saw a welcome drop in July we know that figure is likely to really be much higher than the figures reveal. The Treasurer himself has said that about the national figures. The real unemployment rate is probably well over what the reported figures are telling us.
As of July 2020 for the first time in our history more than one million Australians are unemployed. Almost 346,000 are young people, young Australians, at an unacceptable rate of 16.3 per cent. Many of those young Australians are in my state of South Australia. Of course, these statistics don't just tell us numbers. They don't just tell us a broad picture. They all contain individual stories, individual stories of young people, of families, without jobs losing hope, people who are scared about the future of our economy, scared about what a second wave in South Australia might bring.
I've spoken to small business owners in SA who are still struggling to pay their bills each week. They've taken credits cards out. They've maxed them to the limit paying the bills while waiting for the payments and support to come in. Owners have withdrawn their super under the early access scheme, often to the complete detriment of their super balances, just to pay the bills, just to keep their businesses afloat.
The latest ABS data tell us that 71 per cent of small businesses reported that revenue had decreased as a result of the pandemic. While many of these businesses hope they can survive and recover the fact is this depends on the case numbers remaining stable in South Australia, because these businesses won't survive another lockdown. They need JobKeeper extended. Of course, it's not just small businesses. It's across our whole economy. Whole sectors have suffered terribly at the hands of this pandemic and continue to do it tough.
At the start of the pandemic the economic implications became rapidly clear, what the impact of social distancing and isolation would be on our economy, on our businesses and on our way of life. That's why early on it was Labor who called for the government to implement a wage subsidy with urgency. As is often the case from the government side, they dismissed our idea at first, but eventually they saw the necessity of it and JobKeeper was born. Notwithstanding our support for JobKeeper—I mean, it was our idea—and notwithstanding our support for this extension, there still remain considerable questions which have gone unanswered by the government. With mounting job losses and rising unemployment substantial support is being removed from our economy without a jobs plan set to replace it. This support needs to be tailored to conditions in the economy, including rising unemployment.
The Treasurer himself has extraordinary powers to set the rates and eligibility arrangements for the JobKeeper payment. The bill here doesn't specify the rate. The Treasurer alone has the power to decide what that rate is and who receives it, yet we know there are millions of workers and struggling businesses in Australia who continue to be excluded from the JobKeeper payment.
The most important test for this government's management of the recession and its aftermath will be what happens to jobs and what happens to businesses in Australia. Australian workers, businesses and communities all need a plan from the Morrison government that will promote growth, protect and create jobs, support business, support jobs and set Australia up for an economy. And, of course, it needs to be a plan that doesn't leave Australians behind. We are so committed to making sure that the most vulnerable Australians who have been hardest hit by this pandemic aren't left behind by any response the government takes, and that's something Labor has always fought for and will continue to fight for throughout this pandemic.
Early on in the rollout of this scheme we saw significant blunders from the government and significant challenges in the way that the scheme was implemented. Support was too slow, creating too much uncertainty and excluding too many people. There were one million casuals excluded, despite these workers being some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. We saw botched figures, with the $60 billion JobKeeper bungle, and we saw years of underinvestment in Centrelink and the Australian Public Service exposed. Queues spiralled out the door for blocks and blocks as Australians sought to access JobSeeker and couldn't get the support they needed to do so.
During this time, my office was one of many that fielded countless calls from South Australians, most of whom never ever expected to find themselves on social security payments. They had lost their jobs through no fault of their own and were in the unemployment queue seeking support from their government. They had no idea how to navigate the Centrelink system, no idea what to do. They waited in queues for hours on end and sat on phone lines for hours on end never to get through to someone, terrified about the future and unable to get help when they needed it. A big part of that was the huge underinvestment of our government in our Australian Public Service and Centrelink. We've also seen the government drag their feet on paid pandemic leave. No worker should ever have to choose between staying safe and healthy, and keeping their community healthy, and paying the bills, keeping a roof over their head.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of the government's response during this crisis has been the handling of superannuation. Their early-access scheme has forced three million vulnerable Australians to raid over $30 billion from their superannuation accounts. This is at those workers' expense. It is not the government's expense, not a package expense but from these workers. Superannuation is a great Labor reform—one of the greatest Labor reforms—and an important equaliser in our community. But it is under attack from this government, and, when super comes under attack, it is the most vulnerable workers in our community who pay the greatest price. It is women who pay the greatest price. It is young people who will pay the greatest price. The very idea, the very purpose, of super is completely undermined if Australians are forced to raid it well before they reach retirement age.
Of course, we know that the government's attacks on superannuation don't end there, through this scheme. They're there with government members taunting Australian workers with their ideas for scrapping the legislated superannuation increase. Those in support of this idea argue that it will result in pay rises for Australian workers, but we know that wage growth was stagnant prior to the pandemic. Where is the evidence to support the idea that suddenly we'll see wage growth if we get rid of the superannuation increase? It's not there. This is a legislated increase. Australian workers expect it. It's essential to realising the promise of superannuation—what it can mean for our community, for my state. While the minister may be ambivalent on it, Labor are not. We will take up the fight on super right to the end, because we always stand for Australian workers.
Throughout this crisis, Labor have worked responsibly and constructively with the government on the passage through the parliament of legislation to support Australians. We've done this because it's our priority to protect jobs to help Australian workers, businesses, families and communities get through, and to ensure that vulnerable Australians are supported and not left behind. We have been responsible and constructive, and our support for this bill is part of that. But that doesn't mean we'll be silent where there are serious failures in implementation going on. Australians have worked together to combat this virus. More work needs to be done by the government to ensure that the hardest-hit Australians are not left out or left behind in the recovery.
Through the early months of the pandemic, JobKeeper was a lifeline for business. Without any time to prepare or adjust, and facing a sudden loss of demand, many businesses were preparing to lay off staff and close their doors. It could have been, and almost was, economic carnage. The JobKeeper subsidy, along with other government support and rent relief, meant businesses could keep going through the worst of the pandemic.
Sadly, even with all of this support, not all businesses have managed to survive, and many of their staff have found themselves seeking new employers at the worst possible time. Many more businesses will fail in the months to come as support is withdrawn or reduced. The cessation, in most states, of the commercial rent moratorium will further exaggerate this. The businesses that will survive are those which are able to adjust to the new reality. This could mean changing the business's products or changing processes, which will often mean having to move staff to new teams or, sadly, cutting back on staff numbers. Absolutely nobody in this place wants to see people left unemployed. Even when the economy is booming, the toll that unemployment takes on a person's financial and emotional position is brutal, and it's even worse when the economy is in recession and opportunities for re-employment are scarce. As a former small-business owner, I've seen firsthand how important it is to adjust your workplace arrangements when you experience a downturn. Being able to move staff around, to adjust your focus and to restructure your business gives you the best chance of long-term survival. Employees might not love the change, and neither do employers, but it's a lot better than having everything taken away from you and losing that business. I don't believe parliament should be preventing people from saving their businesses and their employees' jobs. I know businesses are doing everything they can do to stay afloat, and I believe we should be backing them however we can.
At the present time we are all still dealing with a great deal of uncertainty. It will take some time for the economy to bounce back. It will be a real slog just to get back to where we were at the start of this year. The various state and federal government support packages have helped many businesses to survive and retain staff. They must continue, but they must also change. Freezing the economy has saved jobs, but it's also prevented the adjustments that are needed so we can return to growth after the pandemic has passed. JobKeeper has frozen the labour market. The rent moratorium has frozen the commercial real estate market. Easing back these arrangements is necessary to allow the economy to adjust to the new normal. It will be painful but it will, unfortunately, be necessary so viable businesses can grow and hire staff. It's necessary so our economy can grow.
Under this bill, the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020, the end date for the JobKeeper payment and workplace flexibility arrangements would be extended from the original September 2020 end date to 28 March 2021. The bill also creates a new class of employer: what the government is calling 'legacy employers'. These are employers who no longer meet the threshold to qualify for JobKeeper but who continue to experience at least a 10 per cent drop in turnover, which means they'll be able to access modified workplace flexibility arrangements. These modified arrangements mean, for instance, that instead of being able to negotiate an employee's hours down to any number including zero as a result of the impact of COVID-19 on their business, employers can only ask employees to reduce their hours to 60 per cent of their pre-COVID-19 hours. The modified arrangements also mean employers will have to give an employee seven days notice of any proposed changes to times, days or location of work. This is up from the current three days. Employers must also consult and invite feedback from their employees before making any changes.
Labor's proposed amendments remove the provisions for legacy employers from this bill. This means businesses that no longer qualify for JobKeeper will not have ongoing access to flexible workplace measures, even these modified ones. I agree with Labor that employers who are back on their feet should no longer need to rely on such flexible workplace arrangements. But I don't agree with stripping these provisions from this bill. It is far too soon to wind them back. Not all of these businesses are truly back on their feet. These provisions will be important in helping many of the legacy employers continue to reconfigure their operations over coming months in order to keep their businesses viable. Legacy employers include those whose turnover is just below the eligibility threshold, which for most businesses is a 30 per cent drop in turnover. But an improvement in turnover is not necessarily a recovery. Turnover doesn't equal gross profit, which you use to pay your wages—not in this environment. It is often just a 'less worse' position. Many legacy employers will continue to run at a loss in the current environment. Let's also keep in mind that these reforms terminate in March. They are temporary measures, and I support them because they are temporary, with a clear end date.
Labor also has an amendment that would require legacy employers to ensure that employees are not paid less than the JobKeeper amount, even when their hours are cut. I am truly sympathetic to Labor's argument. We need to have a safety net for these workers, but struggling businesses shouldn't be paying for the top-up; that's the government's role. In the end, I think we can all agree that the best thing for employees is to ensure that the businesses that employ them survive the pandemic. Centre Alliance will therefore be supporting this bill.
At the end of the motion, add:
", but the Senate calls on the Government to:
(a) end its plans to reduce the coronavirus supplement by $300 a fortnight which will cause millions of Australians to fall below the poverty line;
(b) continue to provide the current $550 coronavirus supplement throughout the pandemic to ensure unemployed Australians receive adequate support;
(c) commit to a permanent and adequate increase to Jobseeker Payment that allows unemployed Australians to live above the poverty line".