Senate debates

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Regulations and Determinations

Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Amendment Rules (No. 8) 2020; Disallowance

6:55 pm

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

I move:

That Part 3 of Schedule 1 of the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Amendment Rules (No. 8) 2020, made under the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Act 2020, be disallowed [F2020L01165].

On 28 September, the JobKeeper wage subsidy which supports about 3½ million workers was reduced from $1,500 to $1,200 a fortnight for employees who work more than 20 hours a week, and to $750 a fortnight for employees who work fewer than 20 hours a week. This motion would reverse these cuts. JobKeeper and the coronavirus supplement should never have been cut. If anything, JobKeeper should be expanded to workers left out of the scheme. Any worker who needs it must have access to this vital support. The risk of the pandemic to people's health and livelihoods has not abated. People are struggling now and they will suffer more as a result of these cuts. Borders are still closed and workplaces are still being radically impacted by COVID-19. The cost of living hasn't suddenly reduced by $300 a fortnight. People will again be forced to skip meals and take on extra debt to pay their rent or to just survive. They'll have to forgo essential health care, like dental appointments and medicines. Modelling by the ANU released last month showed that, as a result of these cuts, the national poverty rate will rise to over 15 per cent. The government should really be ashamed of itself.

A few days before the JobKeeper cut, the $550-a-fortnight coronavirus supplement for those on JobSeeker and other social security payments was also cut by $300. The Greens are fiercely opposed to the cut to the coronavirus supplement for people on social security payments like JobSeeker and youth allowance, but unfortunately the Senate won't even have the opportunity to seek to disallow those cruel cuts, as the only way to strike down the cut would be to strike down the supplement itself.

The Greens were the first to call for a wage subsidy for workers during this crisis. While we have had serious issues with the JobKeeper scheme, there is no doubt that it has helped millions of people. We strongly oppose the government's repeated changing of the rules to keep university workers out. When the government withdrew access to JobKeeper from early childhood educators, we spoke up and spoke out against it. And shamefully, from the very beginning, the government cruelly refused to extend JobKeeper to many casuals and all temporary visa holders.

We are in a pandemic and we are in a recession. This is not the time to be cutting the critical JobKeeper payments, which are only just a living wage to begin with. One survey in June found 50 per cent of people on JobKeeper were being paid less than their pre-pandemic income. Around a million people lost their jobs in the early stages of the pandemic. Unemployment could reach 10 per cent by the end of the year, regardless of the Treasurer's optimistic projections. JobKeeper and the coronavirus supplement were the only things keeping millions out of crushing poverty and serious risk of homelessness when eviction bans are lifted. These cuts are indefensible.

Over two million people are expected to be kicked off JobKeeper over the next few months as the government winds back support. At the very least, hundreds of thousands of people currently on JobKeeper will be pushed onto the even lower poverty-level JobSeeker payment. The Treasurer has admitted this but is still hell-bent on making this happen. What's worse is that the budget last night confirmed that this government doesn't mind spending money. It's not that they are cheap; it's just that, rather than supporting ordinary people, they'd rather splash cash for their mates—the fossil fuel barons, the property developers and speculators, the big banks and the cashed-up private schools.

Cutting back JobKeeper is also an attack on women. Women have borne the brunt of this pandemic, and the cuts to the JobKeeper payments are yet another harsh blow. Women lost their jobs twice as fast as men in the early stages of the pandemic and had their hours reduced at a higher rate than men. Women are now overrepresented in the ranks of casual workers and in industries most affected by shutdowns, like in retail and hospitality. And twice as many women as men will have their JobKeeper payments cut to $750 a fortnight due to their overrepresentation as part-time workers.

The removal of free child care and the withdrawal of JobKeeper from early childcare staff was a double whammy for women. Two-hundred and forty thousand women over 55 are at risk of homelessness and we are staring down the barrel of a homelessness crisis for them when the eviction ban ends. This government needs to commit to closing the gender pay gap and to addressing the financial insecurity so many women find themselves in—not consciously or deliberately making women's lives harder and their futures even more uncertain.

The government thinks that we live in a society where we aren't responsible for one another; where governments don't have the primary obligation to facilitate our care for each other. This pandemic has shown that, in a crisis, ordinary people's instinct is for solidarity—to protect each other by making sacrifices, to check in on each other and to make sure that we each have what we need to get by. This disallowance is about fairness. It is about the kind of society that we want to live in. But, obviously, the idea of fairness for the Liberals is the exact polar opposite of ours. The choices the government has made in the budget in cutting support to people who need it most have intergenerational implications. Children will grow up in poverty and the effects will reverberate throughout their lives. Young people will continue to be locked out of our broken housing system. Those same children and young people face a climate crisis which this government is fast tracking as they give away money to their coal and gas donors.

And yet, in the budget handed down last night, this government is giving out massive tax cuts of $99 billion a year to big corporations and the wealthy. Tax cuts now mean service cuts later. I don't need a tax cut. The Prime Minister doesn't need a tax cut. The Treasurer doesn't need a tax cut. Their corporate mates don't need tax cuts—if they even pay tax in the first place. What the community needs is support for people so that they can come out of the pandemic with a brighter future. This Senate has the power to undo these cruel cuts to the JobKeeper wage subsidy and insist that this government support workers who need help, not be kicked while they're down. I implore everyone in this chamber to make the right choice today and support this motion.

7:03 pm

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

Labor supports this disallowance. We do not think this is the right time to withdraw support from the Australian economy. We do not think that this is the right time to withdraw support from Australian businesses. We do not think that this is the right time to withdraw support from people whose jobs and livelihoods are on the line. And on this basis we can't support a $300 reduction in this payment at this time.

Last night's budget was extraordinarily and deeply disappointing. We're in the grip of the most serious recession in almost 100 years. Businesses are closing, hours are being cut and, sadly, people are losing their jobs. The government, we believe, had the opportunity to significantly improve the lives of those doing it tough. Instead, their budget persists with ill-timed cuts to payments like JobSeeker and JobKeeper. And the Liberals' proposed cuts to JobKeeper are coming at the worst possible time for many, many workers, businesses and communities. A small-business owner in Penshurst in the south of Sydney said: 'If JobKeeper is cut, I think our business would close within a few months. We are a travel company and have been without income since February, when people stopped travelling. We have given up our office, sold or even given away office furniture and cancelled most contractors to save money. If people don't start buying from travel agents, I fear many of us will be closing before the end of the year.'

As the opposition in this chamber, we don't choose the structure of the legislation and regulations we're asked to respond to. Labor is supportive of better targeting the JobKeeper payment through tiered arrangements. However, we do not support lowering the rate of JobKeeper from $1,500 to $1,200. It is on this basis that we will be supporting Senator Faruqi's disallowance motion. Labor has always said that the arrangements needed to be tailored to the economic conditions, and we know they won't continue forever. But we know what the economy looks like today and how tough Australians are doing it right now.

This government loves to talk about how good they are for the economy, for businesses, for regional Australia, but they continue to leave them in the lurch. Their budget completely ignored the disproportionate impact of this recession on women. They failed to acknowledge the massive job losses in female dominated industries and proposed no new measures to end the gender pay gap, improve women's super balances or address family and domestic violence. Now they want to cut JobKeeper and push more people into economic limbo, unsure about where their next pay cheque will come from. Australians deserve much better from this government.

7:06 pm

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

The JobKeeper payment has been instrumental in supporting job retention and maintaining employment links and business cash flow as well as providing income support to eligible employees. This extension will provide further support to significantly impacted businesses so more Australians can retain their jobs and continue to earn an income. As the economy reopens, the payment will be tapered in the December and March quarters to encourage businesses to adjust to the new environment, supporting a gradual transition to economic recovery while ensuring that those businesses who most need support continue to receive it.

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

The question is that business of the Senate matter No. 1 be agreed to.