Senate debates

Thursday, 10 December 2020


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020; Second Reading

1:25 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

From the outset, I want to indicate that Labor will be moving a number of very detailed and important amendments to this bill in the committee stages. We will have a truncated debate, so I call on the chamber to listen to these issues: stopping government from cutting payments to around two million people at Christmas time, including people on unemployment support, students, apprentices, and single parents; requiring the minister, urgently, to consider a permanent increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker payment—the only way unemployment support can be increased is if the government decides to do it, so it can't be done in this chamber, because it involves expenditure; reversing the government's unfair reinstatement of the liquid assets waiting period; requiring the minister to urgently consider extending the beneficial changes that have been made to partner income tests; how much a person can earn before losing their payment; and eligibility rules for sole traders—among other things.

I also move my second reading amendment, as circulated in my name:

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

(a) notes the Government's plans to cut coronavirus support for businesses and individuals; and

(b) calls on the Government to permanently increase the base rate of the JobSeeker Payment".

In this bill, this is not an extension of coronavirus support. It is, in fact a cut. Yes, it extends the time line, but the government is seeking to put a cut in the hands of the Senate and the chamber, when the government has the opportunity to increase that payment of their own volition. The effect of this bill is, in fact, to return unemployment support to the old base rate of only $40 a day from 31 March, by ending the minister's power to make regulations extending that supplement. We vehemently objected to this part of the bill, and we will be moving to amend it. The government could choose not to use that power and cut payments at any time, as they have done twice already. But, in this bill, the government wants to remove this power, and that gives us a clear indication of the government's plan to take unemployment all the way back to the old rate of Newstart in March.

Today, we can see more than a million unemployed here in Australia, and 1.8 million Australians are projected to be on unemployment support by the end of the year. Two million Australians will be impacted by the government's scheduled cut to the coronavirus supplement next March, and, as we know, this includes people who have lost their jobs as well as single parents and students. We also know that the JobKeeper payments end. When businesses can't sustain the ongoing employment of their staff, we will see those people join the unemployment queue on that miserly rate of $40 a day. The base rate for unemployment is simply too low. The government knows that. Every jobseeker in this country knows that. Unfortunately, unless we can act today in the chamber, or unless the government chooses to do the right thing and lift that base, then hundreds of thousands more Australians will also know that—when the JobKeeper payments stop as well.

Unemployment support is what we need in this nation to provide a barrier to people descending into poverty. It sustains local communities and local economies, and those payments also create jobs. Returning the rate to just $40 a day risks placing millions of Australians in deep hardship and jeopardises local jobs. The government, as we know, temporarily boosted JobSeeker at the outset of the pandemic, when the number of Australians requiring support doubled overnight. I find it utterly galling that, while the number of Australians requiring that support might drop as economic activity picks up again, that number is expected to increase by the end of the year and will continue to increase with JobKeeper payments being withdrawn. It is galling that the government, in this legislation, wants to overtly cut that support.

The difficult thing for Labor is that there are many beneficial elements to this bill which must be passed by this parliament. This means things like including the coronavirus supplement for youth allowance—that is, student and apprentice recipients—after December as well as the increased income-free areas, taper rates and partner income tests that have been introduced as part of the response to the pandemic. It means we can't simply oppose this legislation to forewarn the government that we don't want to be complicit in their cuts to JobSeeker payments. The simple fact is: even if the parliament didn't pass those cuts, they'd have the power to make those cuts anyway. We want to give them the power to extend those payments and keep them at a higher level. The bill does schedule a cut to JobSeeker in March, for a return to the old base rate of Newstart. We very much welcomed the introduction of the coronavirus supplement. We consistently called for an increase to unemployment support long before the pandemic. It is simply too low and too inadequate. It does not protect Australians from hardship. It does not enable them to live with dignity.

The coronavirus supplement has been paid to most people through regulation-making powers that the minister has under the Social Security Act 1991. Under those powers the government can extend the coronavirus supplement and set the rate in three-monthly intervals so long as the impact of COVID-19 persists. The government can also choose not to use this power and cut the level of support. But this government has cut the level of support twice—once in September, and it has announced another cut at Christmas. The government has taken the coronavirus supplement from $550 per fortnight to $250 per fortnight, and will make it just $150 per fortnight from Christmas. This bill also repeals the minister's power to indefinitely extend the supplement on 1 April next year. Labor's amendment in this chamber is designed to address this. If there are crossbench senators listening in their offices: I'm asking you to please come into the chamber and vote for this amendment.

Earlier this year Labor requested that the government include a power to the minister within the economic response package—the omnibus act this chamber passed—that would enable the social security minister to make other changes to the social security system to help people impacted by the pandemic. We're very pleased we did that, because there have been new and important ways that the minister has been able to address things like income test thresholds and a range of other things. If it weren't for Labor's instigation of that, people would have been left in hardship. This bill, importantly, proposes to extend this power. It's a power we want to see extended, and we support it. We think the power needs to persist for longer. We want this flexibility to continue because of the ongoing economic challenges that may arise in the course of the pandemic.

Because of this power, which Labor asked for, the government's been able to introduce a more generous partner income test for JobSeeker payments, which we negotiated, and it tapers now at 27c in the dollar and cuts out at a partner income of $80,000 a year. This power has also enabled the government to make changes to the JobSeeker and youth allowance personal income tests. It provided an income-free area of $300 per fortnight, up from $106 prior to the pandemic. It's enabled the government to expand other eligibility criteria for the JobSeeker and youth allowance payments. These now also include sole traders, the self-employed, permanent employees who've been stood down, and people who are self-isolating because they or someone they are caring for has been affected by the pandemic. You can see how important these powers are and how it might be necessary for them to be ongoing. The powers have enabled the government to waive the ordinary waiting period of one week, the seasonal work preclusion period and the newly arrived residents waiting period. They've enabled the government to extend the time people can maintain eligibility for payment and keep concession cards. They've made other beneficial charges relating to pension portability, mobility allowance and self-declaration for couple assessments, all things that have been critically important to the lives of Australians.

In its current form, though, this bill removes the minister's ability to make regulations that waive the liquid assets waiting period and the assets period. Labor does not support this, and this chamber should not support this. The government should not have reinstated the liquid assets waiting period in September. They should drop their cruel plan to make people wait 26 weeks to get unemployment support if they have modest savings—notably, perhaps even if they've taken their superannuation out previously because of the pandemic. People are forced to run down their last dollar, meaning they're more likely to face hardship in things like struggling to pay the mortgage, keeping their car on the road or, importantly, finding new work.

The government's plan to return JobSeeker to its old base rate of $40 a day will only make things harder for the 1.8 million Australians expected to be on unemployment support by the end of this year. Unemployment levels are expected to be elevated above pre-pandemic levels for at least the next four years, and the simple fact is that the government should be helping people back to work, not penalising them because they've lost their jobs. The number of jobseekers far outweighs the number of jobs in the labour market, a problem that is much greater in our regions, and the government have failed to deliver them a jobs plan—no plan for those 1.8 million jobseekers. The government will continue tripping people up with their targeted compliance framework, administered by for-profit companies that in no way serve people getting back into the workforce at a time of high unemployment like this, and the government continue to cynically insinuate that Australians who've lost their jobs have chosen to do so. There is also their ideological obsession with the cashless debit card, which has failed to demonstrate that it actually works.

This bill is a missed opportunity for the government to deliver a permanent increase for unemployed Australians. The government's plan for unemployment and other payments to go back to their pre-pandemic rate on 31 March is laid bare by this legislation. That's why we're moving amendments. We are calling on the government to announce a permanent increase to unemployment support rather than choosing to plunge people into hardship and a risk of poverty this Christmas.

1:39 pm

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

I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020. Well, here we go again: another day, another group of people being hit and disadvantaged by this government, because, no matter how the government tries to explain this away by saying, 'Actually, what it's about is we're giving people more money; it's not a cut,' it is a cut. So let's start on the basis of the fact that we all knew the JobSeeker payment was too low at $40 a day. The government, very rightly—and we supported it—introduced the coronavirus supplement. They knew that was essential because they knew people couldn't live on the JobSeeker payment of $40 a day; that's been very clear for years and years. Then they cut it by $300 at the end of September, dropping people into poverty because the combined JobSeeker payment plus the coronavirus supplement bring that payment below the poverty line.

Now, despite all the rhetoric, they are cutting people's payments again, when the recession isn't over, despite the claims of the Treasurer, and we are still dealing with issues around the pandemic. They're being cut again, by another hundred dollars, dropping families and people further below the poverty line. I can hear those on the opposite side of the chamber coming out and saying, 'Oh, yes, but they get other payments.' The majority of them get an extra $4 a day for the energy supplement, which takes the JobSeeker payment plus that to $44 a day. This is another hit to the most disadvantaged in our community, who are trying to survive on payments that now don't enable them to meet their rent, meet their essential bills and meet any medical bills they may have. This is another go by this government at those who can't find work. We should bear in mind that last night they passed legislation that continued the cashless debit card for another two years, and that last night a number of us articulated the impact that that card has had on people's daily lives. This is yet another impact that those people are going to have to deal with.

The major change introduced by this bill is the extension of the coronavirus supplement and its reduction to $150 a fortnight from 1 January—that is, just after Christmas—to 31 March 2021. The Greens think it is appalling that the government thinks that people are going to be able to survive following these cuts. I'm foreshadowing a second reading amendment that notes that the measures in this bill will cut the coronavirus supplement from $250 a fortnight to $150 a fortnight and throw an additional 330,000 people into poverty, which means that the government will now have forced a total of 1.16 million Australians below the poverty line since September this year. Our amendment calls on the government to immediately announce a permanent and ongoing increase to the JobSeeker payment and youth allowance so that unemployed and underemployed Australians can live above the poverty line. It is essential that the government increases the rate of JobSeeker, end the uncertainty and end the fact that people can't make plans when they don't know what the payment is going to be. This bill also extends several changes that were made to our social security system through to 31 March next year, including changes to the personal income test for recipients of JobSeeker payment and youth allowance, changes to the partner income test for the JobSeeker payment, and waiving the ordinary waiting period, seasonal work preclusion period and newly arrived residents waiting period.

When the coronavirus supplement was initially introduced at the rate of $550 a fortnight, hundreds of thousands of Australians were lifted out of poverty. This bill will cut income support payments by $50 a week, a few days after Christmas. In doing so, it will reverse the gains made in tackling poverty and plunge record numbers of people into hardship. We started addressing the issues around poverty, and now this government is rushing to take those supports away, dropping people back into hardship. In fact, as I said, this latest cut to the coronavirus supplement will throw an additional 330,000 people into poverty. That means that, when this happens, the government will force an additional 1.16 million people below the poverty line.

Researchers from ANU say that we are now seeing elevated levels of poverty that are well above the levels of poverty we had pre-COVID. Quite frankly, it makes me sick that this government is putting in measures that it knows very, very well will increase poverty in Australia. The timing of these cuts to the coronavirus supplement is simply incomprehensible. The Minister for Families and Social Services should know that emergency relief and financial counselling services traditionally experience a peak in demand around January. What do you think these people are going to need to do when they haven't got enough money? They're going to be reaching out for emergency support, just when there will already be a peak in demand. Why, then, has the government chosen 1 January to make these cuts? They are cuts—that's how they're seen by people on the ground. People on the ground see them as cuts. The government wants to frame this bill as an extension of support, but make no mistake: these are cuts. That is what it means to people's pockets. It's a cut to people receiving the JobSeeker payment, youth allowance and parenting payment.

The effects of this pandemic are far from over. Despite the government trying to talk up the fact that we're moving away from recession, people are still feeling it on the ground. Cutting the coronavirus supplement will only serve to further entrench poverty and stall economic recovery. People want to work, but even before the pandemic there simply weren't enough jobs to go around. Anglicare Australia's Jobs availability snapshot shows that there were 106 jobseekers for every entry-level vacancy. This week, Anglicare Australia released another report, a survey of Australians on Centrelink payments. This report paints a bleak picture of life before the coronavirus supplement was introduced in March and before the JobSeeker payment was, in effect, increased with the coronavirus supplement. It found that 59 per cent of respondents had less than $100 in weekly income left after paying their housing costs—$100 left to pay all their other bills. That was after just housing costs coming out. It showed 72 per cent of all surveyed respondents regularly skipped meals and 14 per cent of young survey respondents had to couch-surf. After the $550 coronavirus supplement was introduced, the percentage of Australians living on $7 a day was halved.

I'm extremely concerned about how unemployed and underemployed Australians will survive when the income support payments are cut to $50 a day, which is what this cut basically does, come 1 January. The government is condemning people to a life of skipping meals every day, couch-surfing and not being able to pay their rent. There are 1.1 million children whose parents are receiving the coronavirus supplement. This bill will condemn hundreds of thousands of children to living in poverty, which we all know has lifelong implications. Children living in poverty are more likely to face food insecurity, lack good relationships and miss out on learning at home. We also know that children from poor households are 3.3 times as likely to suffer adult poverty as those who grew up in never-poor households.

This government talks about wanting to reduce what it calls long-term welfare dependency, yet it fails to recognise how cutting the coronavirus supplement is in direct opposition to this goal. One of the best ways we can lift children out of poverty is by ensuring that the income support payments their parents receive are above the poverty line. I am deeply concerned about the impacts that cuts to the coronavirus supplement will have on older Australians. We know that many older Australians have lost work and suffered the greatest reduction in hours as a result of the pandemic. In reality, if you are aged over 55 and have lost your job, it's highly unlikely that you will be able to enter the workforce again. Anglicare Australia found that income support recipients aged over 45 were significantly more likely to be pessimistic about their future work prospects. By ignoring calls for a permanent increase to the JobSeeker payment, the government is condemning older Australians to live in poverty until they reach pension age.

I also worry about the impact this bill will have on people being pushed into debt and needing to seek out predatory payday lenders, because that's where people have to go when they're living in poverty and have urgent bills to pay. When income support payments fall below the poverty line, people are at significantly increased risk of using high-interest short-term lenders and unaffordable debt out of sheer desperation.

As rent and mortgage moratoriums are lifted, we are going to see large numbers of people experiencing financial hardship and debt issues. While the government talks about payroll jobs returning, this holds little hope for the 700,000 people who were on the JobSeeker payment before COVID hit. This bill is going to entrench long-term unemployment by pushing those people on the JobSeeker payment further below the poverty line. We know that searching for work takes time and costs money. By keeping the payment below the poverty line, the government is putting barriers in people's way. People will have less capacity to pay for the costs associated with job searches, such as for clothing, transport and the many other things they need to find work.

I'm also concerned about the impact this cut will have on women experiencing domestic and family violence. We cannot ignore the intersection between poverty and family violence. We have all heard the powerful accounts of how the additional $550 a fortnight has supported women to leave family violence situations and re-establish their lives. I am extremely concerned about what the ramifications of cutting this payment will be for those women.

These cuts will also impact on the mental health and wellbeing of unemployed Australians. I really struggle to listen to the government doing shiny press conferences on mental health when they are turning around and cutting income support in the next one. Living below the poverty line for an extended period of time impacts people's mental health. It exacerbates existing health problems and creates new ones. People are understandably fearful about what happens next and how they will keep a roof over their heads.

This bill contributes to poverty by permanently ending the pause to the liquid assets waiting period and the assets test from 1 January 2021. It is absolutely premature to reintroduce these tests when millions of Australians are experiencing unemployment and underemployment. Older Australians who are being forced to wear down their savings before they can access support are going to be particularly worse off. I've also had people tell me how they've accessed their super and how that now means they cannot apply for JobSeeker because they don't meet the liquid assets test. It's appalling that, because of the liquid assets test, people are being forced to use their super, when we know that super is supposed to be there for their retirement.

We cannot not support this bill, because, if we don't support it, people won't get the reduced payment. But we absolutely resent and call out the government for cutting these payments way too early, because it is going to drop so many people into poverty. The government needs to announce a permanent, ongoing increase to JobSeeker to ensure that people won't be living in poverty and won't be living with uncertainty about their futures because they don't know how much money they're going to have in order to live.

1:54 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020. Through this bill, we are extending temporary increased financial support for Australians for an additional three months, from 1 January 2021, which is when the supplementary payments were originally slated to finish, to 31 March 2021. The Morrison government is committed to supporting individuals and families and the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing additional financial assistance to people who have lost their jobs or whose income has been reduced. Quite simply, this bill will provide more money for people, ensuring that no Australian is left behind as our economy is recovering and while that recovery is still in its infancy. The government is still closely monitoring economic conditions. It would be irresponsible not to. It is committed to maintaining—and remaining flexible about—the support measures that we have.

To date, our temporary measures have successfully supported Australian businesses and individuals through the global economic shock and uncertainty. But we understand that challenging conditions continue. The government has committed economic support at levels never previously seen, totalling $507 billion, or around 26 per cent of GDP. This is in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Importantly, this support is largely temporary, which means that the government is not locked into the superexpensive ongoing payments. This is a responsible way we can provide the economic support that Australians need. This is why we are legislating this amendment here today. The government is providing a safety net to those that need it most, while, importantly, maintaining those incentives that are important to get people into work.

This bill responds to improving economic conditions in Australia, which is great news for Australia. As health measures in place to respond to the coronavirus pandemic have further relaxed, we are recognising that the global economic growth across the world is tepid at best and it's coming off a very low base. But it must be noted at this point that Australia's economic growth over the last quarter has been world leading. We came out of a recession and had 3.3 per cent economic growth, with Al Jazeera describing our economic recovery as an 'unprecedented kangaroo hop'. Our economy's recovery has been world leading not only because of its scale but also because of its flexibility and the government's commitment to broad consultation. Rigid and prescriptive measures simply would not have worked. It is worth at this point commending the opposition for their mostly bipartisan support for stimulus and support measures.

This legislative framework allows government to extend temporary measures in the income support system to provide additional support to Australians impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The instrument-making power will be used to enact the following settings to 31 March 2021. We'll see the most visible of the changes in the extension of the coronavirus supplement for an additional three months at the rate of $150 per fortnight, meaning no change to JobSeeker or other payment rates until at least the end of March. We are going to be extending the personal income test for JobSeeker and youth allowance recipients. This is very important, because it is providing an additional $300 that's permitted in income and a 60c taper rate, as well as adjusting the taper for partners of those on JobSeeker payments to 27c per dollar.

We are standing side-by-side with Australians, particularly with Australians who have been hard hit by the economic impact of this pandemic. This bill continues to support and provide the minister with the authority to support Australians as required during this holiday period and all the way through to March. I commend this bill to the Senate.

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

It being 2 pm, we'll go to questions without notice.