Thursday, 12 November 2020
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for Families and Social Services, Senator Ruston. The JobSeeker coronavirus supplement payment was $550 per fortnight, which the government then reduced, in September, to $250 a fortnight. Can the minister confirm this represents a $300 reduction per fortnight?
I thank Senator Polley for her question and her persistence in this particular issue. Senator Polley, I have to say that no matter how you look at an increase in the budget, an increase in the amount of spending that is being put—
Opposition senators interjecting—
Can I make a ruling? I appreciate the point you are trying to make. In my view, I cannot put words into a minister's mouth, nor instruct them on the terms of how to answer a question. If the minister is talking about the very supplement and the very amount and challenging an assumption in the question, I view that as directly relevant. It is very narrow and so the answer must deal with this particular payment supplement, in my view, to be directly relevant. Senator Wong?
On the point of order, Mr President, may I ask you to reconsider the ruling you just made, because in my submission that really does undermine the basis of that standing order and previous rulings. There is a very direct question which goes to whether or not $550 less $250 represents a $300 reduction per fortnight. Just because there's a reference in the minister's answer to the payment—the name of the payment—does not make it directly relevant to the question. My submission goes to actually ensuring that this question time operates as a forum for ministerial accountability, rather than as an opportunity for people to pretend black is white.
On the point of order, it is essential for the minister to be able to contest or question the validity, the elements or otherwise, of a question in their response to that question. A question cannot simply be presented in a manner that expects a black or white response. That is why we have a period of time for ministers to respond in question time. Mr President, your approach has been a consistent one: that the narrower the question, the narrower the scope for the response. But, where a question relates to a particular payment, then there has to be an opportunity for a minister to reflect on all of the elements of that payment, not just respond to the narrow proposition that the opposition may want.
I will restate what I have said before on this matter: in my view, to be directly relevant means that an answer must directly refer to or address—including challenging material or assertions contained in—a question. There was no preamble for this question. I accept that. I did not say, and I reject any assertion that I said, a minister only had to mention the payment. As long as the minister is talking about the payment, and only the payment, and the supplement that was asked about in that question, and not ranging across other matters—the point, Senator Wong, is that this minister has to directly address the topic raised. It is not appropriate for the chair to try to insert words into—
Senator Wong interjecting—
Senator Wong, if I could be honest: I will continue to make my ruling. I can take as many submissions as senators want, but I haven't finished making my point yet. I did not say that the minister only had to mention the name of the payment. I said, previously, the minister had to be talking directly about the payment. Now, that was a very specific question. I made the point there is no preamble. I've allowed you to remind the minister of the question, and I have made it clear that I'm going to strictly apply the test of direct relevance so that the minister must talk about that payment or supplement, as the case may be, in your question, but I cannot instruct her as to a manner or fashion of answering it.
As much as you might like to come in here and try and make me say something for some sort of social media grab that you want me to do, Senator Polley, I'm not going to do that. But what I will do is I'm more than happy to stand here for hours and hours and hours and talk to the chamber about the provisions that we have put in place as a government, $507 billion of them, to support the Australian people and the Australian economy.
On that point, Senator Ruston, the question was specific in nature. It does not provide an opportunity to range across other activities of the government in dealing with this particular crisis. I made my point earlier. Your answer, to be directly relevant to a specific question, must be about this particular payment—that is my test on direct relevance—and not other activities or a more wide-ranging answer about policy.
Equally, I'm more than happy to be talking about the coronavirus supplement, which is the matter on which Senator Polley's question was primarily based. But what I would like to specifically say—
Well—the only thing that Senator Polley's question was based on. What I would like to say is that the government put in place the coronavirus supplement, which is a supplement on top of the JobSeeker payment, to support Australians through this crisis. In September, the coronavirus supplement expired, as per the legislation that was voted on by everybody in this chamber. We all voted for it to go to 25 September. On 25 September, it expired. On 25 September, we put in an extension. And, equally, this week we have announced that as of 1 January 2021 we will be continuing to extend that payment in conjunction with the JobSeeker payment for another three months. But, as I explained to you yesterday, it is part of a suite of measures that we have put in place to help Australians. But, if you'd like me to just talk about the coronavirus supplement, it is something that we put in place. We recognise the job market remains shallow, and that's why we have chosen to extend the payment from 1 January, just like we extended the payment on 25 September.
Yesterday the government announced that the JobSeeker fortnightly supplement would go from $250 per fortnight to $150 per fortnight from 1 January. Can the minister confirm this reduction represents a hundred dollars less a fortnight? And I am being persistent!
Senator Polley, yes, you are being persistent! But, Senator Polley, at the risk of actually repeating my answer to the previous question, I categorically will put on the record, for as many times as you ask this question, that the government has on two occasions extended the coronavirus supplement as part of the JobSeeker payment. You cannot possibly come in here and suggest that an additional $3.2 billion—which the extension of the coronavirus supplement between 1 January and 31 March will actually deliver straight into the pockets of Australians in that three-month period—is a cut. Senator Polley, I absolutely cannot understand how you cannot accept the fact that $3.2 billion of expenditure is actually an increase.
I thank Senator Polley for giving me some latitude to talk about the impact on Australians. We have stood side by side with Australians who have been impacted by the coronavirus, providing them with support to help them through this crisis, not just in my portfolio area but particularly in Minister Cash's portfolio with small business, in the Treasurer's portfolio with the JobKeeper payment and across just about every portfolio area. In Senator Payne's portfolio we've been supporting our neighbours in the Pacific region, helping them. In Senator Reynolds's portfolio we've been making sure that defence personnel have been helping us through the crisis. To come in here and suggest that we have not been helping Australians, standing side by side with Australians and helping them through this pandemic, I have to say is nothing more than abject rubbish. What I would say is we will continue to stand by Australians by providing them with the help, the welfare support, that they need to get through this pandemic. We don't shy away from that, no matter how much you must ask stupid questions. (Time expired)