Senate debates

Thursday, 10 December 2020


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020; Consideration of House of Representatives Message

8:08 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the committee does not insist on its amendment to which the House of Representatives has disagreed.

In doing so, I emphasise that the government has brought forward this legislation to this chamber and to this parliament to extend an additional support mechanism that we put in place as part of the economic lifeline that we have provided to Australians through the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been an important part of the comprehensive response provided by our government to this global pandemic. In doing so, it's provided assistance that, from the very outset, our government made clear would be targeted, temporary and proportionate. We have stuck to those principles to guide us through the crisis. In doing so, we have been able to provide the greatest levels of support at the greatest times of need. But it is important to recognise that the scale of government intervention put in place in the depths of the pandemic is not sustainable for the long term. That is why we were clear at the outset that measures would be temporary. They would be targeted and they would be proportionate. In relation to the JobSeeker supplement and the JobKeeper payments, we have been true to those initial principles that we outlined as a government. We have ensured that, in being proportionate, we have adjusted them—gradually, at stages, over time. We have always indicated that they would be temporary. The measures brought forward here have a clear end date of 30 March. That is no secret; that is what the government said when we announced this extension. We brought it transparently to the chamber.

The amendments that the House of Representatives has disagreed with would provide for an enduring ability of the minister to continue the supplement. It is not the government's belief that that enduring power is necessary, and certainly not that it need sit in the hands of the minister in that way. This parliament will have appropriate powers, as it always does, in relation to legislation. We put in place extraordinary powers for ministers in the depths of the global pandemic, during those extraordinary and dark days. Australia is in a far better place right now, which enables us to be here, in person, debating these things, with parliament having resumed its sittings, in the ordinary, normal course of events. In these times, it's not necessary for the minister to maintain such powers in an enduring way. We said that these measures would last until 30 March. That's what our legislation does. That's what we're standing by. That is why the government has not accepted the Senate's amendments.

8:11 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, what an extraordinary contribution, but not as extraordinary as the statement of reasons. Everybody, hold on to your seats! Mr Morrison wants us to not insist on the amendments because he says it is important to respect the parliament. It is important to respect the parliament and to deal in primary legislation rather than regulation. It is important to respect the parliament! I've got two names in response to that. The first is Angus Taylor—a bloke who misleads the House of Representatives, relies on—

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

I have a point of order.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Birmingham?

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Wong well knows to refer to members of the other place appropriately.

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

That says something about the debating style, doesn't it? You can defend on a technicality but not on the ethics, because you know this bloke relied on a forged document and doesn't have the decency to front up. But he's still there. That's respect for the parliament under Scott Morrison. Do you want to know the second name? It's Senator Richard Colbeck—censured by this chamber, turns his back on the Senate chamber when he's asked to explain his role as minister when so many Australians have died. And now we have the representative of the Prime Minister coming in and doing Mr Morrison's bidding, obediently trotting in here and saying, 'We have to respect the parliament, so we don't want you to insist on the amendment.'

What this really shows us is the pettiness of this Prime Minister. What it really shows us is the pettiness of this Prime Minister. He doesn't want to compromise. This is a provision—I'll say it again—that the minister told the opposition she had no problem with. I accept that they've been come over the top of—your Senate team. I accept that those in the PMO who advised Mr Morrison have said, 'No, we can't possibly compromise.' But the reality is that she knew the truth of it. She knew the truth of it—that the amendment that was moved by this chamber simply put the minister in the position she was in already, whereby she had the discretion to extend the supplement. That's the pettiness of the Prime Minister.

He's a bloke who pretends to be the daggy dad. But you know what he actually is? He's a bloke who never holds a hose. He's the bloke who never holds a hose. He's the bloke who never takes responsibility—never takes responsibility. It's always about the optics and the photo shoot and the headline and the story, and never about the reality. We see that here again today. We see that here again this evening, where he can't even cop an amendment that his minister knew was acceptable because he doesn't want to have a loss. Really? That's what we want the leader of the country focusing on? This message and these reasons for the decision demonstrate very clearly the sort of man that leads this country—prepared to talk about respect for the parliament but not prepared to demonstrate it.

I say to the Senate we should vote to insist on this amendment. I will also say—and the Australian Greens know; I made this clear to them before—we had a very productive discussion with the government. I'll come back to that. We have taken a responsible approach to this legislation because we believe we understand how many millions of Australians are relying on the continuation of these payments. So, unlike Mr Morrison, we're not going to play games.

I do want to say something about the shemozzle that we've seen in these last few hours, where the government belatedly realised it did not have the numbers to defeat two amendments and was unable to get those resolved. It was in this context that the discussions were had, where the minister made it very clear that she could live with this amendment but not with the other one. To her credit, she did what was requested of her. She explained to the chamber—to the Australian Greens and to the Australian Labor Party—why the government could not live with the second amendment. It was a shemozzle, and the government should have sorted it out earlier and should have explained it earlier; it should have made sure that it could actually run the procedure and the numbers. But, leaving that all aside, we didn't make a big song and dance about it, and we tried to find a way through because I understood what she was saying and so did Senator Siewert. How is this chamber met by the Prime Minister in the face of that cooperation? He's given us the proverbial finger. Let's be clear, he has. This statement of reasons makes it really clear: there is no substantive reason why the government can't accept this amendment that has no practical effect. The minister knew that and she told the truth. The only effect is on the Prime Minister's, Mr Morrison's, ego.

The fact that he's prepared to do this, in this way, with a bill that is about support for so many Australians, says something about his character. It says something about what his priority is, because it isn't the people who are supported by the bill. It's himself. And that's the consistent theme, isn't it? It's always about him—how he looks, the spin bike, the daggy shorts, the chicken coop. All these great picfacs are always about him, not about the people we're supposed to be helping and representing, and, in this bill, not about the people who are doing it tough. It is pathetic. It is a pathetic display—first, an incompetent display from the government, but we all make mistakes; worse, a display of pettiness and lack of character from the man who's supposed to lead the nation. 'I don't hold a hose, mate'—that's who he is.

8:19 pm

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

This legislation, we know, is important. But it's also important that the minister is provided with the measures that may be necessary to deal with what we still don't know may happen. We aren't out of this pandemic yet, and those of our fellow Australians who are doing it tough at the moment certainly aren't out of trouble. We're still suffering from a recession. This is the very least the government can do. We aren't out of this pandemic yet, and those of our fellow Australians who are doing it tough at the moment certainly aren't out of trouble. We're still suffering from a recession. This is the very least the government can do.

They won't raise the JobSeeker payment. They keep saying, 'Oh, let's wait to see what's happening with an economic recovery.' You don't actually need to know what's happening there, because we already know the JobSeeker payment is not adequate, and the government knows that. Those who were listening earlier would have heard the government tie themselves in knots trying to explain why they brought in the coronavirus supplement while denying that the JobSeeker payment of $40 a day was inadequate. They refused to acknowledge that. They know very well that the JobSeeker payment is inadequate. There is absolutely no excuse not to raise it now. If you need to do a top-up, do a top-up later on, in case something happens down the line. But we know we are never going to come to a situation in this country where 40 bucks a day is enough. It simply is not. So what this amendment did was ensure, just in case. But no. The government wouldn't do that, because apparently the government are always right. Well, no, you're not. You're not right on the cashless debit card, and you're not right on this.

I'll remind everybody that this bill actually cuts the supplement. Do you think I want to support a bill that cuts the supplement? Not really. I moved an amendment to keep it where it was, at $550 a fortnight. But we're supporting it because we don't want to see people going into Christmas and New Year having to survive on 40 bucks a day. So I'm sucking it up, as are the Australian Greens, when what I'd like to do is knock it back into the ballpark and make you come back with some better payments. That's what we want. We want a permanent increase to JobSeeker.

So it breaks my heart that we're having to sit here to support a bill that I know will make people live in poverty if they're trying to survive on this. We know it's dropping people down to below the poverty line as we come up to Christmas. Happy Christmas! We know that the January period is one of those periods when essential services, emergency relief and financial counselling are in demand, yet the government are cutting the supplement. They dress it up in fancy words: 'No, we're extending it, because it was going to run out.' No. Australians know that, come 1 January, the money in their pockets will be reduced by another 100 bucks. As we run up to March, when people are going to start not being able to pay their rent and they're going to start having to default, we are going to have a problem here. We still don't know what's going to happen with the pandemic. We still don't know what's happening with the vaccine. We don't know the future, which is the point the government's made. Yet what you're doing is cutting off an option to give the minister the power to deal with a situation that may arise.

The government knows that we are not going to deny people money in the run-up to Christmas and into next year. We can't possibly. It's inconceivable that we would not support at least some money going to those people in Australia doing it tough. This is an appalling way to treat this Senate. It was a very reasonable amendment. We supported it because it was a reasonable amendment, and it's appalling for the other place to just kick it back. The Prime Minister has effectively kicked sand in our faces—that's what it's about—while they do over so many Australians by dropping them into poverty. Australians who are trying to survive on it will be thinking about that over Christmas: 'How are we going to make our rent payments? How are we going to pay the mortgage? How are we going to continue to put food on the table?' They'll start going without medications and skipping meals again, like they used to on the 40 bucks a week that JobSeeker was. People will be living in poverty. Over a million children will be dropped into poverty or further into poverty.

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order on the left!

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

This is not good legislation, but we have to support it because we don't want to see people literally go hungry.

8:26 pm

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

Let's just turn to the words in the message from the House of Representatives: 'It is important to respect the parliament.' I want to pick up on the word 'respect', because this is a government and this is a prime minister who do not understand what it is to respect. The do not understand what it is to respect the Australian people, to respect hardworking Australians who are doing it tough during this pandemic. We know that right now in Australia there are 1.5 million people on JobSeeker. We know that there are two million Australians—our fellow citizens—who are relying on the coronavirus supplement. While there is promising news about vaccines, we don't know when a vaccine is going to come. We don't know what is going to happen in the economy over the next few months. We know the government spent $15 million to come up with one word, 'comeback'. They think the economy is coming back. They made a $15 million bet that it is. But we know the snapback didn't occur. We don't know that the comeback is going to occur, and that's why this chamber, this Senate, believes it is important that the minister have the power for discretion to respond to changing circumstances. She doesn't have to use it, but she should have that power and she has even agreed she should have that power.

The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate is correct. We are here because the Prime Minister respects only one thing: his own ego and his own standing in the community. He doesn't care about Australians who are doing it tough. If we want to talk about the lack of respect from this Prime Minister, let's talk about the lack of respect he has for Australians in aged care. He gets delivered a report called Neglect from the royal commission. It talks about older Australians—our parents and grandparents—starving in their beds, with wounds with ants and maggots crawling out of them. Does this Prime Minister respond? Does he allocate money sufficient to give a response? Does he ensure that there is a plan in place when a deadly pandemic hits our shores? Does he deal with the fact that he has an incompetent minister who is censured by this Senate? No. The disrespect that this Prime Minister shows for older Australians in aged care is the sign of his disrespect not just for the parliament but for the Australian people and for older Australians in aged care.

Let's talk about his disrespect for workers. Dnata workers were deliberately excluded from JobKeeper by this Prime Minister and this government. These are Australians citizens who paid Australian taxes and worked hard in Australian jobs, but this Prime Minister disrespected them and discarded them from JobKeeper. Let's talk about the Qantas workers. This Prime Minister disrespected them. Two thousand Qantas workers got the sack this month. They got the sack. Their jobs were outsourced; their jobs didn't disappear. Let's understand this: this wasn't a pandemic problem; this was a privatisation and outsourcing approach by Alan Joyce and Qantas, and they were allowed to do it by this Prime Minister.

An opposition senator: And they got JobKeeper.

Qantas was given JobKeeper by this government. What did it do? This government stood by, with no plan for aviation, no plan for workers, and let Qantas disrespect. So don't talk to me about respecting the parliament, Prime Minister. You haven't shown respect.

You're not showing respect to the victims of the bushfires. You told us you don't hold a hose, Prime Minister. You haven't even had the decency to deliver one cent—one cent—out of the emergency relief fund for bushfire victims. People are still living in caravans on the South Coast of New South Wales because this Prime Minister disrespects the trauma of their experience.

And let's talk about the lack of respect that this Prime Minister has for First Nations people. He has fundamentally rejected the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the First Nations Voice to the parliament, the makarrata commission. They have rejected every cry from the heart from First Nations people. Shame on them! Shame on them! And then there was the most appalling display last night as we listened. I was inspired and I was proud to be a senator in this chamber with the likes of Senator McCarthy, Senator Dodson and First Nations senators from the Greens and the Independents, who stood in this chamber and spoke from their experience in their communities about the racist nature of the cashless debit card. Don't talk about respect, Prime Minister, when you have fundamentally disrespected the oldest continuing culture on earth, our First Nations people. You have rejected their voice and you have disrespected them.

And let us talk about the Prime Minister's lack of respect for veterans. Veterans and their families know the scourge of veteran suicide. They have called for a royal commission; they have demanded a royal commission; they have pleaded for a royal commission. What did this Prime Minister do? Did he respect their views? Did he listen to them? No, because it's all about him. If he hasn't had the idea first, it's not a good idea. If he can't claim credit for it, if there's not a marketing campaign in there for him, he just rejects it. There's no respect from this Prime Minister for our veterans. Don't talk to us about respect, Prime Minister. Don't send a message to this Senate about respect.

Let's talk about the lack of respect for workers who helped us through this pandemic: nurses, teachers, cleaners, childcare workers, police officers, aged-care workers. What does he do? What's his Christmas present to them? It is an industrial relations bill that will cut their pay. The Morrison pay cut, that's what workers are getting: WorkChoices 2.0. It is in their DNA. He has disrespected the workers who put themselves on the line, put their health and wellbeing on the line, to ensure that Australians were able to have fundamental services. Retail workers, grocery store workers, the people who stock the shelves, the truck drivers—all of these people are going to get the Morrison pay cut for Christmas.

Don't talk to us about your respect, Prime Minister, and the esteem you hold it in. If you had respect for people you would never have introduced robodebt when you were the social services minister. If you had respect for people, you would have woken up to the fact that thousands of Australians were dying after they got robodebt notices. This is the Prime Minister who invented robodebt, proclaimed robodebt and banked his false surplus off robodebt. So don't talk to us about respect, Prime Minister. And, if you really had respect, you'd hold your ministers to account. Richard Colbeck has been censured by the Senate. Angus Taylor created fake documents and was never able to explain where they came from. Come on! What happened to ministerial accountability here?

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Excuse me, Senator Keneally. Senator Abetz has a point of order.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I shouldn't have to raise the point of order. Senator Ayres has a silly smile on his face, which tells it all. He called out, 'He's a crook,' in reference to Mr Taylor. That clearly has to be withdrawn. Nobody has ever suggested that Mr Taylor fabricated a document. That is a fabrication in itself.

Honourable senators interjecting

The TEMPORARY CHAIR: Order! Senator Ayres, it would assist the chamber if you could withdraw, please.

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A silly grin is my resting face, but, if it assists the chair, I'll withdraw.

The TEMPORARY CHAIR: Thank you. Senator Keneally.

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

If this Prime Minister really respected the Australian people, he would not have bought their votes with his corrupt sports rorts scheme. Let's call a spade a shovel here. This corrupt government bought votes in marginal seats with their colour coded spreadsheets and their corrupt sports rorts scheme, and they voted against accountability of Minister McKenzie—no, sorry, Senator McKenzie—fronting up to the sports rorts committee. So don't talk to us about your bloody respect, Prime Minister. Don't talk to us about it.

This legislation should go back. We should insist upon this amendment because it is the right thing to do, and the Prime Minister should respect the will of this Senate.

8:37 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm just rising to perhaps look at this from a slightly different perspective. I actually don't understand the reason for a vote on the motion not to insist on the amendment, because, in effect, the government's asking us to vote to remove a power from one of its own ministers to exercise a discretion. And, actually, we've heard a few things about different ministers. Minister Ruston is one of the ministers that I wouldn't suggest would abuse a power, would abuse a discretion.

People might recall that, when I rose to talk on the valedictory about Senator Cormann, I talked about relationships. I want to talk about Senator Ruston over the last few weeks as she has stepped up into the role of Manager of Government Business in the Senate. It's been pretty hectic. We've had some controversial bills. And, look, some mistakes have been made. I don't think anyone can be blamed. It's a complex task. Minister Ruston has to run the chamber as the Manager of Government Business in the Senate but also has to deal with her own legislation. She has been dealing with some controversial legislation over the last couple of days.

Notwithstanding that I don't agree with the proposition that has been put forward by the government, what I can tell you is that her engagement with me personally in dealing with this legislation started probably a month or more ago, when Minister Ruston took me out to show me the technology provider for the cashless debit card and organised a cashless debit card for me. She sat down and ran me through all of the legislation. People might note that I asked about 50 questions on notice last week, which were returned really quickly. She's been available at any point in time to answer my questions. I think people appreciate that, after a heavy week in parliament last week, she gave up her weekend. She came with me to Ceduna and she showed me around, basically pushing her bill.

And I can tell you that there have been a number of conversations taking place between me and Senator Ruston, between Senator Ruston and Senator Lambie, between Senator Lambie and Centre Alliance, between Senator Ruston and Centre Alliance, and between the opposition and Senator Ruston, and those conversations have been taking place at all hours of the day and night. Minister Ruston looks tired. Minister Ruston looks a bit battered! I watched your facial expression today when you realised that you actually didn't have the numbers. Whilst people here have to vote on the merits of legislation, I actually felt a little bit sorry for you, noting the couple of weeks that you've had.

The point I'm trying to make is that the Prime Minister, in picking his cabinet, has to pick good people and then he has to empower those people to make decisions. And I'm very disappointed that, after Minister Ruston made a decision and made a commitment to Senator Wong, which Senator Wong then transmitted to the crossbench, the Prime Minister didn't stand by Senator Ruston's decision. That, to me, is disrespectful. Whatever you might think about the legislation that has been before the chamber over the last couple of days, the passing of that particular bill was very difficult for the government, and we all got snookered. When, finally, the numbers weren't available, Senator Ruston had a backup plan and she out-snookered all of us. So, whilst I'm not in any way suggesting that her managing to get the bill through the Senate is a good thing, I think she did a good job and I think it is hugely disrespectful, her having made a decision in this chamber, for that to be overturned by the Prime Minister. I think that's the wrong thing to do.

8:42 pm

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

Can I just put on the record some clarity around this amendment disagreed to by the House. The amendment that is being proposed would keep supplementary provisions in place indefinitely, rather than being managed by primary legislation. In the contributions from everybody else in this chamber, we actually didn't hear very much about the substance of the amendment. Instead, what we heard was an absolutely vicious personal attack on the Prime Minister. I think Senator Keneally traversed just about every single subject matter that's ever been before this chamber, with the exception of the matter that was before the chair.

When we first brought this particular measure into the chamber at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, on 23 March, we asked this place to enable me to exercise these powers in the absence of being able to come back to this place to seek for this place to make this decision as it normally would. Senator Gallagher, I'll quote your own words back to you. When you stood up in this place, when you gave me the powers for this particular measure, you said it gave 'unprecedentedly broad powers to the minister' and you said:

We did believe that this needed an expiry date because of the significant powers that are being delegated from legislation to regulation …

It has been extended. It has been extended but we're seeking—

Senator Keneally interjecting

So it is, rather, rank hypocrisy to come in here—

Senator Wong interjecting

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Wong!

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

and then arguing the fact that somehow—

Senator Wong interjecting


I'm having a little trouble hearing at the moment, Chair.

Honourable senators interjecting

The TEMPORARY CHAIR: Minister, could you take your seat, please. Could we please have order? I'm having trouble hearing the minister and I'm two metres away from the minister. Please, everybody, we're almost there. I can see Santa! Minister.

I just want to put on the record that, despite all that's gone before us today, the government believes it is an unnecessary amendment because it gives me the power to retain an instrument to make a power indefinitely when the parliament is sitting, as we speak. Additionally, the amendment engages highly technical legislation. If you passed this amendment, it would actually have unintended effects by the way of inadvertently ceasing some elements of the social security law linked to the payment in the supplement.

This power-making provision was initially put in place due to the unprecedented circumstances being faced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty around the ability for this place to sit. So circumstances have clearly changed, because the parliament is sitting. We are here today and the parliament is sitting. So, if the government decides to extend any measures past 31 March 2021 in response to circumstances that we might find ourselves in at that time, we will seek to legislate through the parliament in the usual manner because we do respect the power of this parliament.

The CHAIR: The question is that the motion moved by the minister be agreed to.