Monday, 22 February 2021
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
) ( ): I move:
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Birmingham) to questions without notice asked by Senators Gallagher and Gallacher today relating to the JobKeeper and JobMaker Hiring Credit schemes.
I know this sounds like an oxymoron because there were no answers to the questions. Here we go, another day, another announcement from this mob over here. Come the end of March what we do know is that some 3½ million jobs that are currently being supported by JobKeeper are going to end.
We also know there was a $4 billion announcement from this mob over here, saying they are going to create opportunities for employers to get some money to create opportunities for young people. Their figure was 450,000 jobs. So when senators Gallagher and Gallacher asked Minister Birmingham how many jobs would be lost, typically, we got nothing. We shouldn't sound surprised. As someone who experienced youth unemployment in my home town of Fremantle back in the 90s, there was nothing worse than seeing 21 per cent or 22 per cent, whatever it was, youth unemployment in Freo, let alone the youth unemployment that is going to come now. What we do know is that for the majority of these jobs in hospitality, retail and such, the good chances are there will be a lot of young people who will be unemployed.
But the problem I have with this announcement of JobMaker—everything has a 'job' in front of it—is it is so smoky, it is so murky and it is so lacking in detail. Senator Birmingham is always half too cute. Senator Birmingham thinks that the best way he can deflect and not have to answer a question is to scream into the microphone at decibels that normally pierce all our ears. He thinks he has got away with it. Well, Senator Birmingham, you are in for a rude shock. You didn't get away with it because one of your failings is you get a little bit too clever. You said you could almost work out what the supplementaries would be.
Senator Birmingham also said something about a report in the media. Well, the report in the media that you would be referring to, the only one I have seen so far, actually related to a freedom-of-information request by the ABC. It was a freedom-of-information request, Senator Birmingham—while you are trying to deflect with your loud voice and not answering questions—of Treasury documents. Quite simply, this was from Treasury, not from The Guardian, The Betoota Advocate or the right-wing media you guys read. These documents show very clearly that through the Treasury's own examples obtained by the ABC freedom-of-information process, bosses could sack a full-time employee on $75,000 and replace him or her with three part-time staff on wages of between $22,000 and $30,000 while remaining in front financially, thanks to the generous JobMaker Hiring Credit. It is pretty simple. Opposition senators didn't make it up; that is Treasury—you know that mob down the road down here.
My other fear is getting rid of older workers. It is a well-known fact. You would think if this mob over there had any decency they would be trying to work out how to do this properly, how to do it sincerely and how to look after all workers. What about rural workers? You hear the peanut gallery over here, the doormats, who are carrying on all the time. I miss 'Bossie'. What happened to the last of the real Nats—'Bossie', Senator Barry O'Sullivan and Senator 'Wacka' Williams—the real decent representatives of the regions? The rest of you should be ashamed. I would bring them back tomorrow. They have forgotten more than this mob will ever know about representing regions. What about all these jobs in the regions? We heard those opposite banging on a couple of weeks ago. Where are they now? The silence is deafening. There is the laugh when you see the blue sign that looks like the green and yellow sign. What do you call yourselves? Regional Liberals. I forgot Senator Heffernan; he would not have put up with this nonsense. They were the good old representatives of the conservative side of politics for regional jobs, not this lot over here—absolutely shameful. Some of you are alright; I take it back.
Here we go again. It just makes sense that, not all but some, employers would do this. How lip-smackingly exciting would it be to have the opportunity for some unscrupulous employers to get rid of older employees, casualise their full-time jobs or put them on part-time? Here we go again, insecure work taking away full-time jobs for permanent jobs. Seriously, where is your moral compass? If you are going to do something, do it properly. What are the unintended consequences—not smarty alec answers at decibels that pierce people's ears, that don't answer anything? (Time expired)
Senator Sterle, I'm not even sure what that was about. That was just extraordinary. It was all over the place. Being able to rehash all of those old white men who used to be the stalwarts of the Senate, I hope you welcome the diversity that we now see. And I am so pleased to be part of this place when we now have over 50 per cent women. It certainly gives a different flavour to the place. It's always great to get the views of a range of Australians. I guess that's why, when we look at a range of Australians, we look at how we can best support all Australians.
We've just experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, and as we start the vaccine rollout and look to the future and look at how we can get all Australians back to work and our economy back to where it was, to pre-COVID-19 levels—that travel resumes, international borders open up and we start to see life resume to normal—it has been this government that has continually put in place targeted programs to ensure all Australians get the best opportunity but also that the taxpayers' dollars are going where they should go. It's not this carte blanche Prime Minister Rudd special, where they were sending cheques to dead people, where schools were getting wonderful halls that were over inflated in price, where we saw deaths, literally, occur due to the speedy rollout of ineffective programs.
The Morrison government has put in place targeted, sensible, economic programs that have ensured most Australians can be supported through this terrible time and we can acknowledge that, since the pandemic started, over 93 per cent of jobs that were lost or hours that went to zero have been returned. We're now seeing women's participation at almost the same level that was record high pre-COVID. But we do recognise that there are certain cohorts that will need more support than others. We're seeing older Australians being employed at a higher rate than ever before, but we're seeing at the younger end of the workforce market that there is a high rate of unemployment, that those jobs are slower to come onboard.
That's why the Morrison government has been so focused on programs to support apprentices, to make sure that businesses can keep their apprentices on. We've done that through programs such as HomeBuilder, where, in one of the areas that I have the privilege of looking after in the Hunter, builders and construction workers cannot keep up with demand. It's not only those small businesses in the area, it's all those supplementary businesses—the businesses that supply the tiles and the faucets and the grout. Those businesses are struggling to keep up with demand, and it's because of that program and those initiatives that we're seeing apprentices being kept onboard and younger people in the workforce.
We've also looked towards the JobMaker Hiring Credit. This is because we know from experience—and perhaps if those opposite were big enough to look back and make sensible decisions and have sensible discussions, they'd remember—that in the previous recession it was the younger part of the workforce that was impacted for the longest period of time. So in an effort to ensure that we don't see long-term unemployment occurring in our younger part of the workforce, that we're not entrenching disadvantage and unemployment for those under 34, the JobMaker Hiring Credit is a program where employers are bringing new people in the business, not seeing people just being supplemented and subsidised, that jobs are being created. This is to ensure that those members, under 34, of our workforce are given an opportunity to get back to work as quickly as possible and that we don't entrench long-term unemployment, that we don't entrench disadvantage and that we don't lose a generation to the workforce.
Economic recovery is underway, and I have absolute faith that the Morrison government will continue to roll out programs that are focused, that are targeted, that ensure that most Australians are set to benefit and the best bang for the buck of taxpayers' dollars is what's allowed to occur. We know that those opposite voted against JobMaker. They won't answer the question of why they don't support young workers. But this government, with this Prime Minister, will ensure all Australians, including our young workforce, are supported as much as possible.
Today the Leader of the Government in the Senate was asked a very simple question: when JobKeeper ends at the end of March, how many people will lose their jobs? It was a straightforward question—direct, simple—but, of course, there were no direct or simple answers to that question. In fact, what we received today was a proposition from the government that simply said they had to make choices, priorities had to be set, because there was a limit on the amount of money that the government had available. They said there was no bottomless pit of taxpayers' money available, that it was borrowed money and—as Senator Hughes, I think, rightfully pointed out—not all people in this country have been treated equally, because not all people in this country have been able to deal with the economic crisis in equal measure.
I found that an interesting proposition, given that the JobKeeper program had promised so much but delivered so little, particularly when we consider the number of companies that have accepted public money and, I would suggest, in so doing have a moral obligation to use that money properly. When it comes to the question of priorities, there would be a great deal more money available if the government had provided much sharper attention to the issue of where that money was actually being spent, including on companies such as Premier Investments, the firm controlled by one of Australia's richest men, which shut down many of its stores as the pandemic took hold. They included outlets such as Just Jeans, Dotti, Portmans and Smiggle. The company received $40 million in JobKeeper. They earned bigger profits in 2020 than they did in 2019. Their shareholders received some $57 million in dividends, and some $20 million went to Mr Lew. CEO Mark McInnes received $2.5 million. The revival of the company's fortunes is of course a good thing it will be argued. But did Premier Investments repay any of the JobKeeper money? The answer is no.
The Business Council says that companies receiving JobKeeper funds should not pay executive bonuses. Some firms acted ethically. Toyota and Super Retail Group, for example, repaid $18 million and $1.7 million respectively. They had no legal obligation to do so. There was no request from the government to do so, no concern about the moral obligation they had to do so, no sense of political or moral priority. Yet the government talks about not having enough money to deal with those people in this country who have been suffering, and continue to suffer, as a result of the pandemic and as a result of the continuing economic crisis. There's no way that this government is the slightest bit interested in Premier Investments! JobKeeper assistance was provided by the millions and was paid in dividends to those shareholders who increased their profits.
Of course, we have the situation of Mr James Packer's Crown casino. Today I read an article in the press—and the minister talked about press articles today—where the universities were contrasted, by Ross Garnaut, with the operations of our casinos. Mr Ross Garnaut points out: 'Few would doubt their'—universities'—'superiority over casinos in terms of their national contribution.' He said Crown employed 15,000 people and universities employed 130,000 people directly and hundreds of thousands more indirectly. Who of course got the money? Crown. Was assistance open to the universities of this country? No, not unless they were private universities. Four private universities—Notre Dame, Bond, Torrens and the University of Divinity—got money, but not the public universities of this country.
What does this tell us about the government's priorities? It tells us an enormous amount when a government that talks about not having enough money to help people who are suffering, people who have been facing an acute economic crisis and continue to do so—particularly when the government withdraws support from those Australians at the end of March—has the resources to do so but is choosing to spend that money on its mates, on those political priorities aimed at helping those that don't— (Time expired)
Firstly, I would like to acknowledge Senator Sterle's kind comments with respect to two of my predecessors from the state of Queensland, namely the great senator Ron Boswell and senator Barry O'Sullivan. I absolutely agree with Senator Sterle's reflections on those two gentlemen—that they were absolutely fearless and resolute defenders of regional Australia, and whilst they were in this place they did all they could reasonably do to promote the health of the regions. I was actually thinking of former senator Ron Boswell on the Friday before last, when I was celebrating the Lunar New Year with the great Vietnamese community in Queensland at the Tet Festival. Former senator Ron Boswell had an extremely affectionate relationship with the Vietnamese community in Queensland, and I am certainly doing my best to continue that great tradition.
Senator Sterle made some comments in relation to the JobMaker hiring credit. He ran the example—and it has been run a few times—that there are all these employers out there looking to sack employees who are perhaps earning $75,000 a year and replace them with three junior employees, using the JobMaker hiring credit. I will say this to Senator Sterle: first, certainly from my experience in the private sector, if an employer has a valued employee, the last thing they want to do is to lose that employee. That is really the best check and balance of all—the fact that employers are seeking quality employees. The second point I would make to Senator Sterle is that there are a number of checks and balances in the system to ensure that employers can't rort the system, and that includes checks and balances which the ATO will run with respect to companies' aggregate payrolls to ensure that those new employees the employer is claiming the JobMaker hiring credit for are additional employees. They are not replacement employees—they are not employees replacing long-term senior employees; they are additional employees. The third point I would make with respect to Senator Sterle's commentary on the JobMaker hiring credit is that all the usual employee protections continue to apply, and that includes Australia's very tight unfair dismissal laws. So let's see what happens.
I'm actually extremely positive about the JobMaker hiring credit. I graduated from university in 1992 into the recession we had to have—
Senator Dean Smith interjecting—
And Senator Smith said, 'Me too.' I'm happy to be in that corner with you, Senator Smith. It was extremely difficult for people my age to obtain jobs at that point in time. I certainly had friends who struggled for a number of years to enter into the employment sphere. So I think the JobMaker hiring credit is an extremely positive program. It will cost up to $4 billion, and Treasury has estimated that it will generate up to 450,000 jobs. If employers do the wrong thing, I certainly support the notion that the Australian Taxation Office and the regulators should hold them to account. I think the Australian people expect nothing less.
I will deal with Senator Kim Carr's contribution to this debate next. When Senator Carr speaks, I always listen to him very carefully. I serve with him on a number of committees and I have great regard for his views on a range of subjects. With respect to Senator Carr's reflections on companies that received the JobKeeper payment and then announced great profits, I will put it this way: I have a great deal of respect for those companies that received the JobKeeper payment and then, after considering their circumstances over 12 months, decided to repay amounts to the Commonwealth government. I think that was the entirely appropriate thing to do. I applaud those companies. I think they have earned their social licence in our civic community. I think all companies in that situation should carefully reflect upon what the right thing to do is. Does any of that reflect on the success of the JobKeeper program? Absolutely not. It has been an outstanding success. That should be acknowledged from representatives on all sides of this chamber. It's a great thing that over 728,500 employees in Queensland received payments. (Time expired)
For many Australians, last year, 2020, was the most challenging year in living memory. Tens of thousands lost livelihoods and for the first time found themselves in receipt of government assistance. And, boy, do we remember the phones running hot in my office, as, no doubt, they did in offices around the country. Thousands required assistance, not just from JobKeeper but from other government support, simply so they could make ends meet at their homes, so they could pay the bills, pay the mortgage. A lot were reduced to tears, and many people experienced what it means to be on government welfare.
Whilst, for some, the beginning of 2021 has seen a relatively normal start to the year in some ways, it is folly to think that these circumstances apply to all. For many Australians, JobKeeper continues to provide a much-needed lifeline, keeping them connected to their workplaces and the bills at bay. I'm deeply concerned, listening to other honourable senators in this place, at the attitude that they bring to the debate before us, at the attitude that we heard today in question time regarding the effect that a premature withdrawal of JobKeeper will have on many workers around this country, especially those in industries that are still yet to get back on their feet. I can think of a few—tourism, hospitality, retail—but I want to touch on aviation. Late yesterday one of my staff came to this place, travelling from Melbourne, and he encountered a pilot who is only being given one shift every month. That pilot made it very clear that he and his wife are struggling. They are thankful that, yes, they are receiving JobKeeper but they are still struggling to make ends meet, struggling to pay school fees for their children. When he went to get a cup of coffee, the lady over the counter felt sorry for him and actually offered to give him a discount.
These are the real stories of the real people and the real impact that withdrawing JobKeeper will have on many, many households around this nation—working families unable to pay their bills, unable to send their kids to school and probably unlikely to be able to pay for dinner, lunch or even breakfast. But somehow government senators seem to think the economy is just going to get back on track—snap back, as they claim. But we do see state governments around the country imposing lockdowns, and we will continue to see that, because the spread of the coronavirus will continue, especially while people from overseas enter Australia—and for good reason.
But we know that the numbers of people who will suffer will be great. The Reserve Bank governor has told us himself. The government's own Treasury secretary has told us that a pause in the labour market will have an impact on the economy. Whilst the government might seek to hide behind nonanswers in this place on questions of job losses after the premature end of JobKeeper, we know that, for many Australians, the answer will be painfully clear at the end of March. Is this the best that those opposite can muster? Is this the best that they can do to support Australians whilst they are doing it tough? This is simply not good enough.
Question agreed to.