Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 November 2020


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading

9:31 am

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Families need certainty about their access to paid parental leave during these challenging times. We all need leadership from this government so that anxious families have some peace of mind when looking to the future. Treasurer Frydenberg infamously said in July that people should have more babies to stimulate the economy. But with the government taking so long to implement a change as simple as this, it provides no consolation to prospective families.

The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020 also improves assistance for families affected by stillbirth and infant death in respect of payments for newborn children. The bill does this by increasing the maximum amount that eligible families can access after a stillbirth or a child's death up to the child's first birthday. This is a welcome amendment and will come as a relief to many families who are going through this traumatic event. Losing a child is a devastating and heartbreaking experience, and we commend the government for finally enacting these important provisions. Again, this is something Labor has advocated for a very long time.

Finally, this bill will allow the minister to determine the average weekly earnings trend figures ordinarily published by the Australian Statistician for child support assessment purposes. This will be under the circumstances where the publication of trend estimates for the average weekly earnings series has been suspended due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the labour market.

These amendments are welcome, but they do not go far enough to ensure that Australians who continue to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic are not left behind. During the last sitting period, Labor moved amendments in the House to (1) extend the $250 per fortnight coronavirus supplement until March. Currently, it is scheduled to end at Christmas, but obviously there was an announcement yesterday. Christmas is rapidly approaching us and people relying on this supplement need certainty. It will help 2.2 million Australians who will face the cruel Christmas cut and bring the payment in line with JobKeeper. The government has determined that these people need additional support. Why not those on JobSeeker? That's the question. And (2) it requires the government to provide more support to pensioners who have faced increased costs during the pandemic, such as the cost of face masks, hand sanitiser, doctors appointments and the traditional costs of trying to keep safe. Three, Labor also moved to call on the government to announce a permanent increase to the base rate of JobSeeker again. Not only has Labor been calling for this for some time but also economists, the crossbench and industry specialists have all said that there needs to be a permanent increase to the rate of JobSeeker, or, as it was previously called, Newstart.

Right now it is more important than ever—1.8 million people are set to be unemployed. They need this support and they need it now. Numbers are still predicted to be above pre-recession levels until 2024. By increasing the rate of JobSeeker, it will have a beneficial effect on employment, health and economic growth. People shouldn't have to fall into poverty because they've lost their jobs, but reducing JobSeeker back to $40 a day will do just that. Put simply, it's not enough to cover the basic costs of housing, food, public transport and bills. How can people rebuild their lives if they can't do these basic things?

To no real surprise, the government voted against these amendments, as they have distorted views of people who live on welfare payments. The Morrison government need to give people who have lost their jobs certainty beyond Christmas. They can do this by extending the coronavirus supplement and announcing a permanent increase to the JobSeeker payment. I think that we can all agree that this year has clearly demonstrated that living on $40 a day is not sustainable or suitable for having a decent quality of life in this country. An important part of our economic recovery will be to promote consumption, but now Australians on social security will have less to spend on local and small businesses, and these businesses will have less to spend on wages and jobs.

With currently around 106 jobseekers for every job, how can government start to rip away support from these people when the government can't even provide enough jobs for them to apply for? This recession was induced as a result of government mandated lockdowns to protect us from the health consequences of this virus spreading to an uncontrollable point. It is only fair that the government continues providing support until the economy and the unemployment rate shows true signs of recovering.

Labor support the changes announced by the government as they are measures which we have been advocating for from the outset of this pandemic, but, with Christmas just around the corner, the Morrison government will deliver a cut to thousands and thousands of families. In these uncertain times, we don't want a marketing manager; what we want, what this country needs is a leader. Those sitting across the aisle know that a permanent increase in the rate of JobSeeker is the right thing to do. But what we hear from them is deafening silence on this issue as they are unwilling to embrace the true spirit of Australia and ensure no-one gets left behind. As a nation, we look out for one another.

The minister is in the chamber at the moment. She has the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy, which she has acknowledged and understands. She has been listening to the thousands of families who find themselves in hardship, who find themselves unemployed. And there are many thousands of people who never expected to be unemployed and having to try and survive, because they can't live on the JobSeeker payment. They can't live on it. All they're trying to do is survive from one day to the next. So this is an opportunity for the minister to be a leader in her government by making a permanent change and speaking up for those people who don't have a voice in the government. I know the Prime Minister doesn't like to hear the minister speak too much, which we saw evidence of in the media, but the reality is, when you're a cabinet minister, when you have this responsibility, you owe it to those who don't have a voice to be a strong voice within your government. We on this side of the chamber are strong.

People on the crossbench have for a long time, along with Labor, been advocating for a permanent change to restore dignity to those people who find themselves unemployed. On many, many levels, they feel the effects of poverty and self-loathing because they're not able to support their family. For those who have never experienced that, I can tell you: that's a lived experience that will stay with you your entire life, because it makes you appreciate everything that you have. And when you are able to climb out of poverty, able to be re-employed and able to carve out a career for yourself, I can tell you firsthand: you never ever forget those experiences. When you have to say no to your children—that they can't do that school excursion or that they can't have a new dress to go to a birthday party—those experiences stay with you well beyond your time being supported by social security, which is there in this great country of ours to support people and to give them a helping hand while they find their way back into employment. So I implore the minister to stand up for those people and to leave a lasting legacy as a cabinet minister to turn this government's mind to being more supportive, to being more caring and to giving those people a helping hand.

It's easy to say that the best form of help and social security is a job. The reality is that there are more than 30 people for every job that's advertised in Tasmania, my home state. So stating that a job is the best form of social security is an easy statement to make, but it's a hollow statement if you don't lead from the front and demonstrate that you have heard, you have listened and you are going to act to help restore the dignity and the opportunity for those people who find themselves out of work. So, Minister, we on this side are looking to you, because it's quite obvious that the Prime Minister is only ever interested in photo opportunities and headlines, because he never follows through and he doesn't listen to those people who are doing it tough in this country. We as senators have a responsibility to do everything we can.

9:42 am

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

As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I advise that One Nation supports age pensioners, and we believe the current pension rate is too low. Our policy is for an increase in the age pension of $75 a week. The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020 does not increase the base rate of the pension but rather gives two payments of $250. This is a little sugar hit that will achieve very little for the economy.

Our pensioners are trying to support themselves in a very low interest rate environment. Pensioners who have saved all their lives are finding it impossible to live off the income from their savings, because there is no income with interest rates at almost zero. A permanent increase in pensions is the only way to give pensioners a fair income.

Yesterday, the Senate passed the glossy JobMaker scheme. JobMaker is nothing but corporate welfare, with payments expected to go to the government's big corporate mates. Pensioners are clearly not the government's mates. Think about electricity prices that have been driven up by Labor, Liberal, Nationals and Greens policies—doubled or, in some cases, tripled in the last 20 years. That's a highly regressive tax on the poor. How can people afford that, especially pensioners who are receiving little income? Premier Palaszczuk in Queensland, the Premier in absence, is stealing $1.4 billion a year off electricity users in Queensland. Costs are going up but pensions are not. Australia has one of the lowest pensions in the Western world. It's time to increase pensions to restore dignity to pensioners.

The cost of a pension increase to the government is very small. Pensioners are on such a low income that any increase to the pension is immediately felt and immediately spent. This is why the government has selected pensioners for this sugar hit. Treasury knows the money will be spent in the local economy, where that money will grow the local economy and grow employment, creating jobs. That money then comes back to the government in tax revenue: GST, income tax, duties in alcohol and tobacco and so on. It's a shame that glossy JobMaker payments will not work like that. JobMaker payments go to the company, not the worker. That money will increase corporate profits and from there go overseas to overseas shareholders through dividends. JobMaker, notwithstanding its glossy brochure, with lots of colourful diagrams and photos and snazzy headlines, will have little expansionary benefit because the money is in the wrong hands. Pensioners should not be underpaid so big corporates can be overpaid. I do note that the government has made this payment conditional on the pensioner being a resident in Australia—at last. I hope this new-found concern for Australian taxpayers can be extended to every other application of government policy.

Schedule 2 of the bill supports young people whose path towards demonstrating independence through work has been disrupted by the economic impacts of the COVID virus. For the youth allowance, the six month period between 25 March 2020 and 24 September 2020 will automatically now be recognised as contributing to existing workforce independence criteria. That's welcome. Without this change, many young people may not be able to meet the independence criteria and may be unable to access income support if they plan to go onto tertiary study. With this change, as many as 4,000 students will be able to maintain their plan to go to university in 2021. I have previously pointed out that the Morrison government inflates the numbers it uses in these measures to make for a better announcement. I'm sure that this will be the case here. Announcements are not achievements. Announcements are for marketers; achievements are for honest governments and come from honest governance. Announcements are not governance. Nonetheless, One Nation support this measure as well because we support students being able to co-pay their way through university to gain the education they need to better their lives. At the moment, a relaxation of the rules for student payments is a very useful measure. With the level of debt imposed on Australians by the Morrison government now budgeted to exceed $1 trillion, young Australians will need all the help they can get for the future.

Schedule 3 of the bill will make amendments to create temporary incentives in the income support system to encourage young Australians to undertake seasonal agricultural work. We welcome this. The amendment means that a person who earns at least $15,000 through employment in the agricultural industry between 30 November this year and 31 December next year, 2021, will be considered as independent for the purposes of student allowance and Abstudy.

It's about time the government realised we have a farmworker shortage. As Senator Hanson and I have travelled across Queensland in the last few months, we've heard from many businesses—many widely different businesses—who could not bring in the crop or run their business because there were no workers. I spoke with Jackie, for example, a florist in Rockhampton who has run a business for many years. She told me that her business and other small businesses in Rocky couldn't find workers. They now have young teenagers working there. The local waste company couldn't fill their rosters, so they couldn't turn their skips around fast enough to make a profit. That's thanks to the cowardly actions of Premier Palaszczuk, a premier in absence. Queensland farmers are ploughing millions of dollars of produce into the ground because workers won't—or can't, thanks to the Premier—go to the farms. This measure will, we hope, encourage 4,000 young Australians to go bush, where they will find the work rewarding, the pay generous and the lifestyle superb. The regional communities are very enriching.

If the government is to keep the borders closed to backpackers then more measures such as this are urgently required. It's not good enough that able-bodied Australians are languishing on JobSeeker, for years on end, when rewarding jobs are available in some of the best communities in Australia. It may take a push to encourage the unemployed to break patterns of behaviour that are failing them and embrace the move to the country. Now would be a really good time to do that. One Nation calls on the Morrison government to make schedule 3 the start of a new era of matching jobseekers to those seeking workers in rural areas. Matching employers and employees—wouldn't that be wonderful!

Schedule 4 of the bill introduces a revised paid parental leave work test. There will be $130 million spent to provide access to paid parental leave pay, and dad and partner pay, to applicants who do not meet the current work test provisions because their employment has been affected by the government's response to the COVID virus. This measure, we're told, will allow 9,000 Australians to retain their eligibility for parental leave pay and is expected to increase claimants of the dad and partner benefit by $3,500. Once again, government figures provided to spruik these measures are likely shonky; yet this measure will allow dads to give their newborns a better start. We welcome that because, for far too many years, some dads were a pocketbook and nothing more. The modern trend of encouraging dads to share in the birth and the upbringing of their children is most welcome.

The remaining measures in this bill are commonsense measures to simplify bereavement benefits and provide an alternative benchmarking system for child support payments during the COVID era only. One Nation will be supporting this bill.

9:49 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020. When the government does something good we're very happy to welcome it, and there are many good features in this bill. I'll highlight just a couple of those today. Then I'm going to talk about a huge missed opportunity this government had to address the need for a permanent and decent rate of JobSeeker.

Firstly, I welcome the government's 180-degree backflip on eligibility for paid parental leave. People might recall that just a few months ago the Greens moved amendments to the effect of ensuring that people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, because of the pandemic, could still get the paid parental leave they had been banking on receiving as folk about to become new parents or adding to their families. This government voted against that amendment, as did the folk in the One Nation party, but today we see in schedule 4 of the bill that this very same amendment is there. We welcome the government seeing reason and standing by people who are about to add to their families. I don't know why it was so difficult to do that two months ago—perhaps it was because it had 'Greens' on the header—but we're pleased to see that our original advocacy for this has ended up in a government bill that, naturally, One Nation is now supporting. I'm very keen to put on the record that our original good idea has now been adopted. We welcome that because raising a family isn't cheap, and people do bank on things like paid parental leave when they're doing their finances for an upcoming addition to their family.

When the pandemic hit the unexpected hit, and many people either had their hours reduced or lost their jobs completely and were not eligible, in many instances, sadly, for JobKeeper, which meant they were ineligible for paid parental leave. We tried to fix the eligibility for JobKeeper as well, at the time, but the government was resolute in denying short-term casuals, in denying people on particular visas and in denying people who work at universities the support that we and many Australians believe they should have received. Nonetheless, there's a backflip here, that we welcome, in extending the eligibility for paid parental leave for people who have lost their jobs due to coronavirus and, therefore, would not otherwise be eligible for PPL. We very much welcome schedule 4.

Schedule 5 talks about stillbirth, and it's a very important topic for many people. The Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education did identify the need for more support to be provided to bereaved parents and their families, with more than 2,000 children stillborn each year. The current laws make a really inexplicable and unfair distinction in eligibility for stillborn baby payments. Parents who experience the loss of their first stillborn baby are entitled to a payment, but parents experiencing a second or subsequent stillbirth only get half that payment. But the expenses don't reduce, so there is actually no justification for that reduction in payment. The support payments are designed to relieve the financial pressure, but, as I've said, those expenses don't actually reduce and the grief and the stress are probably vastly increased once this has happened a second or third time around. So, in fact, the need for support is perfectly ample. We welcome the fact that the government has belatedly addressed this. It has been an inequity for many a year and we welcome, finally, some justice being delivered there.

To come to the parts of this bill that, sadly, could have been fixed by this government were they so minded but weren't, we saw this week the government finally announce that JobSeeker would be continued for a few months but at an even lower rate again. They have already cut it once and now they have cut it a second time. Come 1 January, the coronavirus supplement for people on JobSeeker is going to be only $150. That is not enough. That is still below the poverty line. Did the government learn nothing? Did the government not see the joy and the basic needs being able to be met by so many families around this country when they had an adequate amount of income support? As my colleague Senator Siewert has said for many a year, $40 a day was never enough to live on. It's the children that suffer. It's those choices between textbooks and dinner that no Australian, no-one anywhere, should have to make.

This government could have addressed the inadequacy of the JobSeeker payment in this bill, but, no, it didn't do that. What we saw earlier in the week was the Prime Minister making a belated and patched-up announcement of another reduction to JobSeeker support. What I would really like to see, what the Greens would really like to see, would be this Prime Minister actually focusing on job creation, rather than passing the buck to the private sector. We so frequently hear the Prime Minister say that it's not up to him to create jobs. Well, dude, you are the Prime Minister. You've got the public purse strings at your disposal. Public investment in infrastructure, in schools, in hospitals—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Just a moment, Senator Waters—

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I think you are going to tell me to withdraw 'dude'. I'm happy to withdraw that.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Okay. Thank you.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Prime Minister, you have the Commonwealth purse at your disposal. Use it wisely to invest in job-creating infrastructure. Schools, hospitals, manufacturing clean energy components—these are things that address issues but also create jobs. It just really irks us when the government try to claim that job creation is something that they can't do, that—gee!—they would love to but they're not able to. What an absolute crock. Instead of the $99 billion in corporate welfare that this budget represented, they should have invested in public services that create jobs and deliver the services that Australians deserve and rely upon. Rebuild our domestic manufacturing base, have top-quality public schools and hospitals, invest in 100 per cent clean energy, build some public housing so that we don't have a problem with homelessness and that people have somewhere to go—these are the job-creating initiatives and investments that could have been made by the Prime Minister. But, instead, the government chose the $99 billion to go to their big corporate mates through various different handouts and subsidies, often with no strings attached. There's still a refusal to increase JobSeeker to a rate that will allow people to live and have the ability to seek work, should work become available.

We welcome the parts of the bill that address some of those inequities. We welcome the adoption of the Greens' view that paid parental leave should have always been available to people who lost their job because of the pandemic. We welcome the fixing of the inequity in the stillborn birth payments. But we remain completely broken-hearted at this government's continued failure to see how desperate so many Australian families are and how much good it has done for those families to be able to put food on the table, to replace that broken toaster, to put petrol in the car or to buy a second-hand suit jacket to go to a job interview. These are the things that make a difference in peoples' lives. For the government to both wash its hands of job creation and still refuse to provide adequate support for jobseekers to live on is just an absolute abrogation of duty.

9:59 am

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a short contribution on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020. I acknowledge that my colleague Senator Dodson has responded comprehensively to the legislation, as has my colleague Senator Polley. I associate myself with and endorse their remarks. I would like to speak specifically to one aspect of the bill, and that is the changes that the bill introduces in relation to the stillborn baby payment and the bereavement payment. In doing so I rise as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education. I acknowledge my fellow members of that committee on a bipartisan basis and acknowledge the bipartisan report that was delivered to this chamber. It was the first set of national recommendations in terms of preventing and reducing stillbirth in Australia.

The measures that are in this legislation were actually not part of the Senate select committee specifically, but arose after the committee delivered its report. I'd like to acknowledge Senator Catryna Bilyk, who participated in the inquiry, for bringing this matter first to my attention and then to the attention of Labor's shadow minister for health, Chris Bowen. With the support of the Labor opposition, we discussed the matter with the minister and Senator Ruston.

I'd like to acknowledge Senator Ruston for her reception, interest and support for ensuring that parents of stillborn babies are treated as parents—that is, if parents have a stillborn baby, they are still parents. A mother still gives birth; she goes through labour and delivery. The mother and the baby's father still have responsibilities as parents towards that child. The mother and the father both need to grieve and receive counselling and support. The mother needs to recover physically from the birth. I think for a very long time—and I apportion no blame in making this statement—many people have not understood that parents of stillborn babies are actually parents and they go through birth, delivery and recovery from the birth and they need to make decisions regarding things like autopsies, cremations and burials. There's a financial impact on a family. Sometimes there is a loss of hours at work or loss of a job. In the Senate select committee we heard terrible stories of people who were simply unable to work for very long periods of time. One family told us the story of how they lost their business because they could not continue.

Yet we had a support system across decades, with governments of both stripes, that treated parents of stillborn babies not as parents or not equally as parents. The changes that the minister is introducing here today in relation to the stillborn baby payment and the bereavement payment ensure that parents of stillborn babies are treated in the same way and supported in the same way as parents of babies whose child has died perhaps one moment or just moments after birth.

I also acknowledge that the legislation makes a change to supporting parents who have more than one stillborn baby to ensure that they receive equal support. Again the Senate select committee heard very sad stories. One couple who came before us, Bonnie and Stephen Carter, lost both of their daughters, Grace and Matilda. Bonnie has been a tremendous advocate for ensuring that parents of stillborn babies receive support and that Australia does what it can do to prevent this tragedy from happening again.

I thank the minister and acknowledge her support for this legislation. I'd like to thank senators, including Senator Waters, who spoke just now in support of the measures that are within this bill. I look forward to what I hope will be its passage through this parliament.

10:04 am

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the comments of Senator Keneally and thank her for her kind words. The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020 includes a number of beneficial measures that are primarily directed at supporting people who've been impacted by the economic consequences of COVID-19. The bill provides additional assistance through two further economic support payments of $250 to around five million payment recipients and cardholders in the lead-up to Christmas and in the New Year as part of the Australian government's response to the pandemic.

From 1 January 2021, amendments are also made so that the six-month period between 25 March and 24 September 2020 will automatically be recognised as contributing to the existing workforce independence criteria for people on youth allowance. This measure supports young people whose path towards demonstrating independence through work has been disrupted by the economic impacts of COVID. The same concessions will be available to Abstudy recipients through the Abstudy Policy Manual. The bill also creates temporary incentives in the income support system to encourage young Australians to undertake seasonal agriculture work to help address concerns across the agriculture sector about immediate workforce availability for the upcoming harvest.

From 1 March 2021, the new criteria will recognise a person who earns at least $15,000 through employment in agricultural industries between 30 November 2020 and 31 December 2021 as independent for the purposes of youth allowance student, subject to a parental income threshold. The same concessions will be available for Abstudy through changes to the Abstudy Policy Manual.

The bill will also introduce a revised paid parental leave work test period for a limited time to enable people to access paid parental leave and dad and partner pay who do not meet the current work test provisions because their employment has been affected by COVID-19. This will enable most individuals with a genuine work history prior to the pandemic to qualify for payments under the paid parental leave scheme.

The bill also makes amendments to address inconsistencies in payments for newborn children available to families affected by stillbirth and infant death by aligning the amounts that eligible families are able to access after a stillbirth or child's death shortly after birth, up to the child's first birthday. These amendments also remove discrepancies within the payment system in respect of multiple instances of stillbirth or infant death with the same family.

Lastly, the bill makes technical amendments to child support law to allow for alternative figures to be used in place of the male total average weekly earnings trend figure and average weekly earnings trend figure for the purposes of child support assessment calculations. From May 2020, the Bureau of Statistics has temporarily suspended publication of trend estimates for all average weekly earnings series due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the labour market. Child support law does not currently prevent alternative trend measures to be used. I commend the bill to the Senate.

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

The question is that the second reading amendment moved by Senator Dodson be agreed to.

Sitting suspended from 10:15 to 11:45

11:45 am

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

I move the Greens second reading amendment as circulated in the chamber:

At the end of the motion, add: ", but the Senate:

(a) notes that:

(i) this Bill and the 2020-21 Budget fails people on JobSeeker Payment;

(ii) the 2.3 million Australians receiving the coronavirus supplement are still in the dark about the future of the supplement beyond December 2020; and

(iii) the coronavirus crisis isn't over and unemployed and underemployed Australians will continue to need support during 2021; and

(b) calls on the Government to:

(i) announce its plans regarding the future of the coronavirus supplement beyond December 2020 immediately for at least the current level of $250 a fortnight and to ensure it doesn't fall any further below the poverty line; and

(ii) announce a permanent and ongoing increase to JobSeeker Payment and Youth Allowance so that the base rate of these payments is above the poverty line".

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the second reading amendment, as moved by Senator Siewert, be agreed to.