Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020; In Committee
I've got a couple of questions that I'd like to clarify. I'm aware that Senator Dodson has amendments to move, but I thought it would be good to ask the general questions and deal with them, and then we can deal with the amendments.
Minister, can I go to the issue around the youth allowance independent test through agricultural work. The bill states that what constitutes qualifying agricultural work will be determined by a legislative instrument made by the secretary. Can you tell us what information the government will draw on to draft the definition of 'qualifying agricultural work'?
It will be the type of work that accords with the holiday working visa. It is clearly not the holiday working visa, but it will be an instrument that will reflect that kind of work—so very much around that horticulture component.
I flagged in my second reading contribution the issue around trying to get younger city based people into the bush, to get them over the issue of going to the regions for this type of work. I also flagged the need to support those young people, particularly if they've never undertaken or thought to undertake this type of work. What sorts of supports do you envisage being in place to support them to stay and have a good experience down there?
What we are trying to do is base it around the harvest trail services. At the moment, through the employment services network, the harvest trail services support jobseekers in that endeavour. We will seek to use the same services currently available for that to make sure we are supporting these younger Australians, in the hope that they decide to take up work in rural and regional areas.
What information have you got that that process is working in terms of supporting people to enjoy the experience, to be treated well and to have their needs met, or if they've got complaints or if they need reassurance or support? A lot of these people you're trying to encourage out of the cities to take up this work won't have had any rural experience, so they might need a bit of extra support to facilitate their involvement in taking up this work. We're looking at people who haven't had this experience before; I presume they're the young people we're trying to target through this particular initiative.
Obviously, the appropriate provisions need to be in place to support all people in their endeavours to get back into the workforce. I have to say, coming from a rural and regional area and having employed very many young people, it's not necessarily around all the support services they might need; you might find that they need a whole heap fewer support services in moving to rural and regional areas, because of the community spirit that exists in country areas. From a physical support perspective, the $6,000 relocation allowance would be accessible to these young people if they chose to move over a longer term, if they decided they were going to move to a region for a year or so to take up this work—not that the $6,000 is constrained by having to work in an area for a year. All the usual workforce and workplace measures in support of the rights and the occupational health and safety of workers exist. As I say, the supports that are provided in many rural and regional areas are exemplary.
Having lived and worked in the bush, I agree there is a lot of support available. But you have to admit there are a lot of young people who have also been exploited through this process, and I'm keen to ensure that that remains foremost in people's minds in supporting these young people to ensure that nobody is exploited. As I said in my second reading contribution, I realise that most employers in the bush and most farmers and horticulturalists are good employers. But I want to ensure that everybody has a good experience when they take up this particular opportunity.
All of the protections that exist and are applicable and all workplace laws are enforced. They could be minimum employment conditions, access to superannuation, workers compensation or workplace safety. They apply to everybody. If there were a situation where somebody believed that their employer wasn't meeting their legal obligations, the Fair Work Ombudsman would be an appropriate place for those matters to be taken up. I want to assure you that all of the provisions and protections that are in place for workers exist under this program.
Thank you. I will keep an eye on that to ensure that that happens. I move to schedule 6, which is the child support schedule. What data and information will be required when you're determining the alternative figure for the child support assessments?
My understanding is that the information that will go into making the determination in relation to the statistic that we will be using—as opposed to, as you would know, the MTAWE number that we've used in the past—will be through consultation with the ABS, particularly with the chief statistician. That data and advice will be independently determined by the chief statistician at the ABS.
My understanding is that we'll also be consulting with Services Australia because that's the organisation that implements this, but the key component of it will be through the ABS and the chief statistician.
I have a question for the minister. How many families will end up with a family tax benefit debt because the government changed Paid Parental Leave and will now make them eligible for Paid Parental Leave? Can you give me the critical date that that becomes effective from?
Because of the fact that family tax benefit is an annualised payment we wouldn't be in a position to understand what that might be until it's reconciled at the end of the year, but, in relation to families that are now going to become eligible for the Paid Parental Leave scheme who otherwise had been denied because of the criteria—and now the change enables broader access to it—we do expect that some claimants may need to pay an offsetting debt where the claimant or their partner have been receiving income support newborn upfront payment and newborn supplement for that child and family tax benefit for the backdated period. However, we will be providing information to the people who have become eligible retrospectively and would be seeking to work with them to ensure that any opportunity to mitigate them incurring a debt because they are now able to access Paid Parental Leave will be a very fundamental part of the negotiations with those people as we identify them.
I thank the minister for her answer. I move opposition amendment (1) on sheet 1083:
(1) Schedule 1, page 31 (after line 4), at the end of the Schedule, add:
Part 5—Consideration of further additional economic support payments and a permanent increase to jobseeker payments
Social Security Act 1991
37 After Part 1.3B of Chapter 1
Part 1.3C—Additional economic support payments to address inequities arising out of coronavirus pandemic
38X Minister must consider what additional payments may be required
As soon as practicable after this section commences, the Minister must consider whether to do any or all of the following:
(a) extend the COVID-19 supplement until 28 March 2021 at the amount of $250 per fortnight, in line with extensions to jobkeeper payments;
(b) better support recipients of the age pension, disability support pension and carer payment who are facing increased costs to protect their health in the face of the coronavirus pandemic;
(c) announce a permanent increase to the base rate of jobseeker payments.
Labor has today moved amendments to ensure greater support for those Australians who have been left behind by this government in its economic response to the recession. It's very disappointing that the government voted against similar amendments in the House, and we sincerely hope the government has reconsidered. These amendments are reasonable and responsible, they are modest and they provide the government the flexibility it needs to deliver the appropriate support for Australians during the recession and into the future. Everyone in the parliament knows that the only way there can be support for all Australians that need it, including a permanent increase in the rate of JobSeeker, is if the government supports it. The government has the numbers in the House and it can do this.
We have structured these amendments in a way that gives the government the flexibility they need to deliver because we don't just want to make a point; we want to see change. The Prime Minister says, 'We're all in this together,' but our pensioners and carers have been left behind. He says, 'We're all in this together,' but 1.8 million Australians on unemployment support have been left uncertain as to what kind of support will be available to them beyond Christmas. If we're all in this together, why are almost one million Australians on unemployment support excluded from the hiring subsidy? If we're all in this together, the government should put their money where their rhetoric is and support this amendment moved by Labor.
During these difficult and uncertain times, pensioners and carers have experienced increased costs in ensuring they remain safe and healthy. Unlike the government, Labor acknowledge that older Australians, people with disabilities and carers have experienced increased costs as a result of the coronavirus. In June, we saw the release of a survey from People with Disability Australia which found that nine in 10 people with disabilities have experienced increased expenses due to the ongoing pandemic and 31 per cent have reported increased spending on health care. Pensioners have been facing rising health, dental, energy and grocery bills for years. Average GP out-of-pocket costs alone have gone up by $10 under this government. Labor's amendment will create an obligation on the minister to better support pensions, including the age pension, the disability support pension and carer payment receipts.
The government's announcement today that it will cut the coronavirus supplement by $100 a fortnight from Christmas is a huge disappointment. It is uncaring and cruel and will see people face hardship, poverty and, no doubt, mental stress. It's also bad for the economy, withdrawing support right at the time it matters most for local business and jobs. That's because people on low incomes and those on social security payments have such a high propensity to spend. They spend in local shops and local businesses right around Australia. Over 2. 2 million Australians will see their payments cut at Christmas because of this decision. At a time when the unemployment crisis is getting worse, not better, we can only assume that the rate will go all the way back to the $40 a day for many people from March, a rate that is simply too low to live on. The impact of this uncertainty is being strung along. It's terrible for people's mental health and their confidence. It doesn't create any jobs whatsoever. That is what this government should be focused on now. It should be focused on creating jobs and making sure people have enough to live with dignity. Instead the government's plan is yet again another cut to those out of work long before the crisis is over.
What people need is support, reassurance and certainty. Cutting the supplement a second time from $250 to $150 will leave many families at Christmas time trying to decide where to make savings in the household budget. They've already become very tight and very strict. It is a time when Australians will simply want to be able to spend quality time with loved ones after what has been such a tough year for so many.
Labor's amendments will extend the coronavirus supplement at the current rate of $250 until the end of March, in line with JobKeeper. More than that, we call on the government to deliver a permanent increase to the JobSeeker payment, which is something Labor has consistently advocated for and is something that many on the other side also have been advocating for. The member for Cowper recently declared that returning the rate to $40 a days would be 'fairly cruel and unusual punishment'. We know the government used their numbers to defeat this amendment in the House, but we sincerely hope that they have used the intervening time to reflect on what this means for those Australians who have the least and have lost the most. In a country like Australia, poverty is not inevitable; it is a policy choice. It's time for the government to do the right thing and support this amendment.
I indicate on behalf of the Greens that the Greens will be supporting the amendment moved by Senator Dodson. We have been advocating for an extremely long time for a permanent increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker payment—the old Newstart payment. We would like to see the coronavirus supplement extended. Of course, I have a bill in this place that would extend the original supplement, but the $250 per fortnight is the least we can do. Although we've been advocating since the beginning of the crisis that people on disability support pension, people on carer payment and age pensioners who are on CRA should also get the coronavirus supplement, paragraph (b) of this amendment, indicating better support for recipients goes some way to meeting the needs of people on DSP, the age pension and carer payment, who we all know are paying more costs in the face of the pandemic and need additional support. We will be supporting these amendments.
The government will be opposing this amendment. I would like to reinforce in this place that the government is extending the temporary measure that is the coronavirus supplement from 1 January to 31 March. That is an announcement that was made yesterday. We're also extending a number of other measures that expand the criteria for eligibility for access to working age payment so as to include people who are self employed, people who are sole traders, people who've been stood down but remain engaged with their workplace, people who are isolating and people who are caring for people who are isolating. We're also continuing to waive a number of the waiting periods and to maintain the partner taper rate at an elevated level to ensure that even more Australians, who otherwise would not be able to get access to these payments, will be able to.
The suggestion that we are cutting anything is absolutely not correct. We will be making available to Australians $3.2 billion in the first three months of 2021 in support of the extension of measures. This government will be standing side by side with Australians who are doing it tough as they transition back to work. I absolutely reject the claim that we are cutting anything. A $3.2 billion additional spend in the first three months cannot be described in any way other than as an additional increase in payment. It is not a cut.
The amendment the opposition has put forward, which we are talking to at the moment, is not associated in any way with the measures contained in this bill. This bill delivers on a series of budget measures, in the Social Services portfolio, that provide additional support to a broad range of Australians but not in relation to the measure that the opposition is referring to in their amendment.
This bill provides two additional economic support payments to over five million pensioners, income support recipients and healthcare cardholders. It expands youth allowance through the new workforce participation criteria, provides concessional access through the paid parental scheme changes for people impacted by the pandemic and addresses inequities in the stillbirth payments and associated payments. The proposed amendment does not address any of these measures, whatsoever, and I would suggest it is nothing more than a political statement around unrelated elements of the portfolio. The government announced on 10 November 2020 that the coronavirus supplement would be extended at a cost of $3.2 billion. The legislation that will give effect to that measure will be subject to the introduction of a separate bill later this week. That legislation would be a far more appropriate place to raise this issue, if that's what you wish to do.
This government is very strongly supporting pensioners. We supported age pensioners, disability pensioners and carers as well as other recipients of family tax benefit and healthcare cardholders with two $750 economic support payments, which were provided to pensioners in April and July, and we have announced that a further two support payments will be made in the lead-up to Christmas and another one in early 2021. In respect of permanent settings for income support, the government has been very clear about making sure that we remain focused on supporting Australians, through these unprecedented circumstances, with this temporary targeted and comprehensive range of supports that are available to Australians who are doing it tough as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bill agreed to.
Bill reported without amendments; report adopted.