Thursday, 18 February 2021
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
JobKeeper Payment, COVID-19: Tourism
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Birmingham) and the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Senator Payne) to questions without notice asked by Senators Gallagher and Brown today relating to the JobKeeper scheme.
I always learn something from listening to Senators Farrell and Abetz. I learnt a lot then about Adelaide Football Club culture. I learnt from Senator Abetz two things: firstly, he doesn't take public accountability very seriously; and, secondly, I suspect the length of his remarks had something to do with being anxious to avoid having to participate in a vote in a debate on Senator Hanson's motion, which is apparently to be dealt with later on this afternoon. Call me cynical, but I think that may have been it.
I listened with some interest. It was hard to hear Senator Gallagher's question, but I could hear the interjections when Senator Gallagher asked the Leader of the Government in the Senate questions about the poor economic performance of this government. What you could hear from the backbench, when she asked questions about the poor performance of the government during this Morrison recession, was people yelling out, 'Ask Dan Andrews!' and, 'Open the borders'. The refrain that rose to a crescendo in the lead-up to the Queensland election and then went faintly quiet—they stopped—is now starting to surge back up again as the mantra on the coalition side.
The truth is: it's the premiers in Australia who have kept Australians safe. It is true that around the country mistakes have been made from time to time. But the premiers and the states have actually stepped up, taken responsibility and done the hard things. There is no economic recovery without a public health program that the country can have confidence in. There is no economic recovery in the absence of dealing effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no recovery without public confidence.
The Prime Minister's approach to the pandemic and the economy has been a complete contrast. Like with the bushfires, he is nowhere to be seen when the tough decisions need to be made, when other people are doing the work. He only ever turns up for good news—usually the result of the work of others. He's all announcement and no delivery. If it were left to the characters on the back bench, Australia's performance in the COVID-19 pandemic would look much more like Florida or Alabama, our cities' public health performance would look much more like Glasgow's and Sheffield's and our economy—now weak, weak to start with and weakened already—would be a catastrophe. I heard one of the other ministers saying, 'The economic recovery is well underway.' Those on the government's side have no idea of the circumstances of ordinary people.
The Prime Minister talked about the Canberra bubble to try and set himself somehow as this different daggy dad. The former political director, former marketing manager and former Tourism Australia manager of no account who's spent his life in politics is somehow different from everybody else. Well, he is in a bubble within a bubble if he thinks that the economic recovery is well underway. We started in 2019 with an economy in deep trouble—30 years of growth gone. And now we've got a country that has low wage growth and anaemic levels of growth. The jobs that are coming out of the economy at the moment are low-quality jobs. We've got a government that's got no plan for the economy, is relying on the states for the public health response and doesn't hold a hose on bushfires. Apparently the Prime Minister, according to him, didn't direct anybody in the sports rorts affair and, despite evidence emerging this week, was entirely unaware of the very serious allegations that were made in this place many years ago.
I rise to contribute to this debate to take note on COVID-19 and the economy. I will start these remarks by reminding the Senate of the economic position of the country coming into this pandemic. Senator Ayres talks about the 'Morrison recession'—what a ridiculous turn of phrase that is. This has been the most significant economic shock in a century, and we have seen Australia's economic performance in the absolute top quartile. There are few countries other than Australia that people would want to live in during this pandemic. We're top of the pops in economic performance and very strong in health performance. There's been minimal community transmission of coronavirus over the past 12 months, and people want to have a debate about the pace at which the vaccine will be rolled out. The reason that we can do it in an orderly fashion in this country is that there isn't enormous community transmission like there is in the US and UK, where in many cases the virus simply wasn't taken seriously. We have taken this virus very seriously. We've opened the nation's chequebook. We've spent a lot of money to ensure that the country could get through this huge economic shock.
Coming into this recession, unemployment was closer to five per cent. When we came to office in 2013, unemployment was closer to six per cent. Over that period, we have done all we can to create more jobs. Over the course of the past year, there's been a big drop in employment, but we've now re-established about 90 per cent of the jobs that were lost in some form. In taking the virus seriously, it was our judgement that the borders should be closed and there should be innovations, as you've seen in the form of national cabinet, which has given the country a more cohesive way of managing serious challenges like this pandemic. No-one, as far as I am aware, has bemoaned the loss of COAG, and I think we now have a model of managing the Federation through the national cabinet process which will endure. Yes, there have been different ways that the virus has been managed at the state level. I don't think that the Australian people are interested in hearing about sectoral and state based wars and arguments. They're not particularly constructive. But I would say that I think that the New South Wales government has had a good plan to manage the pandemic as opposed to some other jurisdictions where their plan to manage has been to simply close the borders.
But this is a federal discussion. We will spend $100 billion on JobKeeper, which is the most serious economic policy in terms of expenditure in the nation's history. That has been essential in getting us through to the other side. We've also taken a novel approach to opening up superannuation for people to use during the pandemic. That is their own money. Three million people have decided to use that. People have been able to take up to $10,000 of their own money to improve their personal balance sheets. It is true that the Labor Party, for ideological reasons, don't like people being able to get into the locked box of their own money, but that has been a successful policy. Perhaps for the first time people have thought: 'This is my money. I am going to use it to improve my personal balance sheet. I'm going to use it to pay down my mortgage or reduce my debts.' That has been very successful.
What are the enduring reforms that will come from this era? Having spent so much money to help the country get through this pandemic successfully and as we look at the mass vaccination of Australians, what will be the signature economic policies? A few of them are already before this parliament. You've seen lending reforms designed to improve the flow of credit in the economy whilst maintaining consumer protections. Equally, there has been an agenda to try to attract more foreign investment and the best foreign minds to our country. We have always been a country that has competed for the finest minds and the best capital. The process that the Prime Minister has established through the Global Business and Talent Attraction Taskforce will be very important as we seek to compete with other centres, like Tokyo and Singapore, in attracting more jobs and more growth.
If you ever need an example of how out of touch and arrogant this government is, you only need look at the contribution from Senator Bragg just now. Think about the type of country that they are saying they want to leave behind after this pandemic. They actually highlighted robbing people of a decent retirement. Robbing people of dignity in retirement was one of the things they said they are proud of. That is what this government is responsible for.
When he came to talk about the vision, what they want Australia to look like in a couple of years, he rattled off a couple of things at the end. There is actually no bold vision. The government have been in power for seven years and they have actually run out of puff. They don't have a vision for where they want to take the country. They actually don't have a plan for Australian families to look forward to to see how their life or community is going to be better when Australia emerges from this pandemic.
We saw in response to a question from Senator Gallagher today the Leader of the Government in the Senate repeat some of that rhetoric. The government tries to claim that there is a recovery underway. Think about the two million Australians who are unemployed or looking for more work. How do you think they're feeling now? Think about the 1.5 million Australians on JobKeeper, which is going to end in 38 days. How do you think those Australians feel about the reaction we get from this government? The government are completely out of touch. They are completely lacking in vision for a better Australia. We absolutely deserve so much more. We know they are doing nothing. They haven't outlined what they are going to do when JobKeeper ends.
We saw this week the government pursuing changes to industrial relations that are going to undermine the pay and conditions of working people. How is that going to help Australia get through a pandemic? How is that going to help those two million Australians who are either unemployed or underemployed? How is that going to help the 1.5 million Australians on JobKeeper? It obviously is not going to do that.
When considering the government record we need to look at their rhetoric and how they deliver on jobs in the recovery. Over the last seven years—and this is pre the pandemic—they've overseen record low wage growth. That was until 2019. Over that time they've had no plan to lift wages. They've had no plan to help working people in this country look for a better deal. To add to that, look at the conditions that are facing Australians as we try to get through this year.
As I've said repeatedly, JobKeeper will end in 38 days. Imagine those businesses, imagine those workers attached to the business; imagine what they're feeling at the moment. Imagine the uncertainty they're dealing with. Imagine the uncertainty their families are dealing with. We know that there are more than 250,000 of these people in Queensland. We know that there are 1.5 million around the country; there are 250,000 in Queensland. We also know there are two million Australians who are looking for work or want more work. And what does this government offer? What does it offer these people who are desperate, out there looking for work or worried about what is going to happen to them? It ends JobKeeper in 38 days. It pursues legislation in the Senate and in the House of Reps that is going to undermine the pay and conditions of working Australians.
The government are responsible for the stagnant wages, the job insecurity and the underemployment. This is what their seven-year record has actually delivered. And what do they offer for the recovery? More of the same. That is what they have pursued in the chamber and that is what their vision has been for Australia.
But it doesn't have to be that way. There is actually a better way, and that is what Anthony Albanese as Labor leader has started to outline. We believe in secure, well-paid jobs and better conditions, and confidence for the Australian people that a better future is available. We know that the pandemic has done economic damage to every part of Australia. I see it in my travels through Queensland. There's no community that has been untouched by the pandemic. But what the L-NP offer these people, what the L-NP offer these communities, is more of the same; that's seven years of failure from this government. Australians deserve so much better. So the opportunity this year for Labor is to actually offer the Australian people a better future. They're not going to get it from those opposite, who are out of puff and out of ideas. It is only an Anthony Albanese Labor government that can actually deliver that positive vision for Australia.
What an education the last 18 months has been for me—a fresh-faced young senator coming into this chamber and finding out what politics is really about. What politics is really about, as Labor sees it, is repeating the same tired words over and over and over. But that does not make them right. Senator Chisholm has just told us how he repeatedly talks about the same things, and he does. He does. He repeatedly talks the same tired rhetoric about how only Labor can rectify jobs plans and jobs in the future, but it's just not true. The reason why I know that it's not true is that, at the last election, Queenslanders in particular returned the coalition government because they did not feel confident that Labor were able to provide security of jobs—and they voted for us in spades.
Australia has outperformed all major advanced nations. We had a large proportion of Australians in work before this crisis began—and I hear that some of the Greens senators don't understand that Australian jobs and Australians were in a better situation, in a stronger situation, thanks to the performance of this coalition government as we entered this crisis. We had a stronger economy. We were well positioned to be able to respond with economic plans such as JobKeeper and JobSeeker. I think we all remember that time, March last year, when we went into lockdowns, as uncertainty swept the nation, and how grateful we were to have the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and the Prime Minister and the rest of the cabinet respond so quickly and so strongly with programs that meant that people knew that they still had a roof over their head, food on the table and a sense of security, as we entered the greatest pandemic since the Spanish flu.
I just want to go through some of the recovery numbers, though, because, again, Labor doesn't seem to appreciate the extraordinary resilience of our economy and the jobs and the businesses around the nation. I continue to talk about the strength of small business in this country, how hard they work, how much they put on the line and, now, how they're responding out of this difficult time. These improvements have been broad. Across Australia, we have more than half a million businesses employing more than two million Australians graduating off JobKeeper, and that was just to the end of December. In New South Wales, 1.2 million employees received payments over the first phase of JobKeeper, compared to 490,000 over the second phase. That's a fall of 60 per cent. In Victoria, expectedly, it is a lower number. There is only a fall of 44 per cent, reflecting the continuation of snap closures of the state. But, in Queensland, the fall has been 64 per cent, and in my city of Townsville there has been a 72 per cent reduction—a 72 per cent reduction!—of the number of businesses and employees who were on JobKeeper from the end of September to the end of the December quarter. Cairns, expectedly, is lower than that, at 55 per cent, due to the international tourists they had previously who are not able to come. Central Queensland is down 75 per cent. These are extraordinary numbers, and they demonstrate the strength of our mining, resources and agricultural industries. The Gold Coast is down 59 per cent, and the Mackay-Whitsunday region is down 71 per cent.
One of the other things that Labor continues to speak about over and over again is the lack of secure, well-paid jobs—particularly for young people. Right across Queensland, we have job vacancies, particularly in apprenticeship roles, that lead to well-paid and secure jobs, yet Labor does not seem to be aware of this. It's one more example of them living, potentially, all the time in Canberra—certainly not out in the regions of Queensland, where I'm from.
I am absolutely delighted to finish on the fact that JobKeeper in retail trade has fallen by 68 per cent, and I applaud all the butchers out there who are back in the game thanks to people eating more food.
Australian workers and businesses are facing a JobKeeper cliff in just 38 days, when the government cuts this absolutely vital support. We all know this. All of us in this place know this from the conversations that we have in our communities, and we know this from the comments of the Reserve Bank Governor, Dr Lowe.
But what we don't know as a result of the government's answers in question time today is exactly how many jobs will be lost by the government's refusal to listen to workers about their fear of this JobKeeper cliff, and their refusal to listen to small business about their fear of this impending JobKeeper cliff at the end of March. This government has demonstrated an absolute refusal to listen to the workers and the businesses that are about to be thrown off the JobKeeper cliff by this government. They've refused to listen to the Victorian events industry. They've refused to listen to the tourism industry. They've refused to listen to all of the economists and the experts, including most recently the National Australia Bank, who have warned against withdrawing support too early.
But what we do know is that the government is getting ready to throw hundreds of thousands of workers and hundreds of thousands of small businesses off the JobKeeper cliff at the end of March. Almost half a million direct tourism jobs have already been lost—half a million. And we know there are hundreds of thousands more jobs in tourism that are projected to be thrown off that JobKeeper cliff in March. Despite the increasingly desperate pleas of sectors like the Victorian events industry, which has been so hard hit during the crisis, the workers and businesses in that industry face the same JobKeeper cliff. In fact, I met with the Save Victorian Events team just this week.
So, yes, to the senators opposite, we are talking to businesses, and we are hearing what businesses are saying to us. I've been speaking to representatives of businesses in live events, corporate events and the events supply chain. I've been talking to representatives of 500 businesses across Victoria. They've surveyed their businesses. They've spoken to hundreds of workers about the financial impact of COVID on Victoria's events industry. The results of those conversations are very clear. They have told us—and I know they are telling the government—that, if JobKeeper ends in March, 43 per cent of companies will need to let staff go, and an additional 40 per cent of companies will potentially need to close their business. That means that 83 per cent of companies in Victoria's events industry will be severely affected by the ending of JobKeeper by this government. In other words, they will be thrown off the JobKeeper cliff by this government. This government is arrogantly throwing hundreds of thousands of workers, of jobs, off the JobKeeper cliff, and this government is arrogantly throwing hundreds of thousands of small businesses off the JobKeeper cliff. But we shouldn't be surprised that the government is throwing events and tourism off the cliff, because it has form.
This is the government that, not that long ago, threw manufacturing in our country off the cliff, when they goaded the car industry to leave. This is the government that has not delivered any kind of plan for good, secure jobs in its now eight years in office. The only plan from this government is the lowest wage growth on record since 2013. The only plan from this government is an explosion of insecure jobs, casual jobs and gig jobs. The only plan from this government is to cut wages and to cut super. That is the record of this government. Australian workers deserve better. They deserve a government that backs them up. They deserve jobs that they can count on and jobs that keep their heads above water.
Question agreed to.