Senate debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


COVID-19: Income Support Payments

4:26 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate—

(a) notes that the Morrison Government has abandoned people in lockdown on income support payments; and

(b) calls on the Government to re-instate the Coronavirus Supplement, to ensure people are supported to stay safe at home.

I've moved this motion to ensure that this place debates and understands that 90 per cent of people on income support in those areas currently in lockdown in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT are not receiving any additional payments. The Greens believe that that is simply unfair, unconscionable and contrary to sensible public health decision-making in that, if people can't get enough financial support to be able to put food on the table and to pay for a roof over their head and essential medications, they are going to go out to try to find work, which often will be frontline work, and that could expose them to unhealthy situations, particularly if they have to keep going out searching for that work. They would not be staying home, which they are being asked to do. They would be forced to go out in unsafe situations—potentially bringing COVID home to their families—because they are not receiving an income that is adequate for them to live above the poverty line and put food on the table.

I'd like to quote Jay Coonan and Kristin O'Connell from the Antipoverty Centre and Jeremy Poxon, who volunteers with the Australian Unemployed Workers Union. These people have deep lived experience of trying to survive on income support and of working and advocating for people on income support. They have lived experience of being unemployed, trying to look for work and dealing with mutual obligations while on a payment that is below the poverty line.

They made the point in an article in the Guardianyesterday:

It's now abundantly clear shutting down the economy hurts the poorest most. Lockdowns are necessary, but the social crises they create are optional.

I couldn't agree more, because those people on the low payment of JobSeeker, for example, of just $44 a day are living way below the poverty line and they are not getting a cent of support if they were unlucky enough to only be able to find less than eight hours of work. I will point out that people who have lost over 20 hours of work get $750 a week as a disaster payment, yet somebody who has not been able to find work—remembering that structural unemployment is, at heart, the basis on which our economy works and operates—is left to try and live on $315 a week. Can you see the inequality there, straight up? Can you see why they are saying that the COVID crisis is deepening inequality?

The government thinks that it is okay for billionaires and big businesses who have claimed the JobKeeper payment and made huge profits to say: 'Oh, we calculated wrongly when we put in our application! We got lots of money and paid dividends to our shareholders and bonuses to our executives. They've done a good job. They got us JobKeeper.' The government thinks it is okay for them to keep the millions and millions that they have been paid out of JobKeeper. But the government then chases people who were on income support and may have received JobKeeper as well. They chase them for debts but do not chase the billionaires for the money they claimed that turned out to be a mistake.

Just as bad as that is what we see now is a deliberate choice by government to let those rich people keep the money they got from the system, but they won't support people who are trying to survive in lockdown. They will not pay them an additional payment to help them keep safe and as part of a public health message. They're saying: No, you're staying on $315 per week. You try and make ends meet. You try and keep a roof over your head.' What do you think's going to happen when people lose their accommodation or they are forced to share other accommodation, which is also extremely unhealthy in the current lockdown circumstances? 'Oh, no, we are not giving those people any support,' they say. Ninety per cent of those people were struggling already under normal circumstances. We know that people are living in poverty and cannot survive on $44 a day.

During lockdown it is more expensive. As the article from the Unemployed Workers Union and the Antipoverty Centre points out, it is much harder during lockdown because all the cheap brands go, for example. As for home delivery, for people trying to survive on $44 a day—believe me—every single cent counts. So they can't afford to get groceries delivered. They don't have any savings they can use. They have nothing, because you can't save when you are trying to survive on $44 a day. Now they're in lockdown and not being able to afford to get groceries delivered. They're having to go out and find groceries and are again exposing themselves to unhealthy situations. It's no wonder we are seeing the demand on and phone calls to emergency food services escalate dramatically. It's the charities that are picking up the pieces, because the government would prefer that the billionaires and millionaires and big business keep the money that they mistakenly claimed through JobKeeper than to actually put money in and bring back the coronavirus supplement.

The government know that the coronavirus supplement helped so many people during the initial lockdown. They know very well, and ACOSS has pointed it out very clearly, because they talk to their members' members—because ACOSS is a peak organisation. I've read out here in this place on numerous times what the coronavirus supplement meant to people. It meant they did not have to go out in a difficult situation. It meant that they could in fact—surprise, surprise!—eat three meals a day, that they could pay their utility bills, that they could keep a roof over their head, that they could buy the medication that they need. It made them much safer and helped us to get through the initial lockdown.

How are those people going to survive now? We know that in New South Wales and Victoria they've just extended the lockdown and we know it's going to take quite a number of months, and they're still going to be struggling to survive in lockdown in unsafe situations, under the poverty line. The government has made a choice—and I've said this before. They've made a political choice to keep people in poverty. You can take no alternative view. They made a choice that people who are trying to survive on JobSeeker should be kept below the poverty line, should be made to struggle even more in difficult circumstances.

It is a very well-known fact, and we hear it every day, that lockdown impacts on people's mental health. We know that living in poverty impacts on people's mental health. If you're lucky enough to find a mental health specialist or worker or carer, that costs you money. We already know that the mental health professionals are booked out months and months ahead and that people are struggling to find mental health support. So, if people are dealing with lockdown and people are living in poverty, what do you think that does to people's mental health? It is having very significant impacts on their mental health, and they cannot afford to find mental health support, and this government is escalating the mental health crisis in this country for those who are currently on income support and living in poverty. Shame on this government!

The coronavirus supplement helped people enormously. It was the right thing to do. It showed that the government understood that you can't live in poverty in lockdown. So what the government have done now is they've chosen to give some people additional money so that they're not living in poverty during lockdown, but they haven't given the people who are already condemned to poverty additional support so they do not have to live in poverty. We now have two systems here: we have the system where we'll reward and we'll support, quite rightly, people who were working before, to keep them out of poverty, but we won't actually support those who cannot find work. We will keep them living in poverty, hence the Greens' very strong assertion that the government's approach will escalate inequality in this country.

The Antipoverty Centre, in an article published yesterday, made the point:

With cheap goods flying off supermarket shelves, more of us are confronted with the choice of skipping meals, falling behind on bills or paying rent.

Surviving on jobseeker is not Covid-safe. Buying the essentials forces us to leave home. Wealthy people get groceries delivered and poor people get Covid exposure. The nightmare scenario is transmission at a food bank.

As we battle Delta, we need payments that ensure everyone – especially unemployed people – can afford to stay home safely, even as living costs go up. We need to make sure families feeling the pressure of being cooped up together don't experience unnecessary financial stress—

They also point out that that can contribute to further domestic and family violence because you're creating a pressure cooker for these families. The article continues:

Poverty also traps us in unemployment, even the frontline workers we most need as our health system struggles.

As Covid spreads further into our communities, so does inequality. To solve both problems, we need to protect everyone.

I absolutely agree. That is why we need additional payments to those people on income support. We need to bring back the coronavirus supplement so that, in fact, we are again all in this together, because, at the moment, we are not.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Siewert, and I note that it appears that that might be your final contribution in the Senate, and I thank you for your 16 years of dedicated service to this parliament and to the Australian people as a senator for the Greens party.

Honourable senators: Hear, hear!

4:41 pm

Photo of Ben SmallBen Small (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Acting Deputy President O'Neill, you are indeed correct. Shortly, both Senator Siewert and I will be leaving this place, bound for the airport and heading home to Western Australia after some five weeks here in the capital. It is the 5,908th day that Senator Siewert has represented the state that I also call home. so I acknowledge that at the start.

Turning to the matter at hand, the Morrison government remains today just as committed to protecting lives and livelihoods as at the onset of the pandemic. Indeed, we remain focused on supporting all Australians as we reopen the economy, because this is a government that rejects the assertion that we have two streams here in Australia. In regard to the coronavirus supplement and JobKeeper, the situation was very different in this country at the onset of the pandemic. We were facing materially different circumstances in that this was a government that made decisions with very limited information. A once-in-a-century pandemic was afflicting us and, indeed, the rest of the world, and that, of necessity, meant that we made different decisions.

As more information has come to hand through the pandemic, we have altered the government's policy positions not only with regard to social security payments but also, more broadly, in terms of our stewardship of the Australian economy. That is, I think, what responsible government is, because, fundamentally, every dollar that you ask us to give away, Senator Siewert, has to be taken from someone who earned it. When the Morrison government introduced those coronavirus supplements last year, we were facing a period of total national shutdown, practically overnight and for an indefinite period of time. Now in 2021, we know that our economy recovers quickly from lockdowns, thanks to the resilience that our economic supports gave to the economy. We saw more people in work in July this year than were in work before the onset of the pandemic. Indeed, unemployment had dropped to a low of 4.6 per cent, and workforce participation was at 66.2 per cent in June, including a record high for female participation. So we know that our economic comeback was strong and that our economy recovers quickly when the necessary restrictions to preserve lives in Australia are lifted.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Commonwealth government has spent more than $291 billion in direct assistance to individuals, businesses and Australian communities. That includes the coronavirus supplement we talk of today as well as, of course, JobKeeper and now, more relevantly, the COVID-19 disaster payment, as just one of these supports in place to Australians who are doing it tough. The COVID-19 disaster payment provides targeted and quick support to those who have lost work because of lockdowns. I note that some of these disaster payments are hitting bank accounts less than an hour after the request is made. That is, by definition, targeted, time limited and effective support to Australians.

We know, though, that this is temporary—and it has to be temporary. Any nation must live within its means, and they key to getting out of this is vaccinations. We encourage every Australian to roll up and get vaccinated, as I've done, so that our lives and our livelihoods can get back to a post-COVID normal. In New South Wales we've seen really promising rates of vaccination. I think that gives the people of New South Wales hope and confidence that their hard work is worthwhile.

From 1 April this year the government increased the working age payments, including the JobKeeper payment, by $50 a week, permanently increasing the income-free areas to support jobseekers as they secure employment and re-enter the workforce—something to which we give every opportunity in an economy that has rebounded as strongly as the Australian economy has. Here on the government benches we focus so strongly on work not only as an economic construct but also as a social construct, because we understand that work is central to an individual's sense of belonging in a community, connection to their community and indeed connection to their families, in that they're able to offer to their kids the opportunities they might not have had themselves.

The single biggest increase, year on year, to that JobSeeker payment, made by this government—an increase of 9.7 per cent, or $50 a week—was designed to ensure that Australia's safety net was effective as a safety net but not a replacement income. Fundamentally, as I said before, every dollar we give to someone through that safety net structure needs to be taken from someone who earned it. There is a compact with that. That's why this government has strengthened mutual obligations throughout the economic recovery, because that's the arrangement we enter into here in Australia: if you want a go, you get a go, as the Prime Minister said.

There's been no change in the government's view about the role of our social security safety net in Australian society. Our system has served us very well. Prior to this crisis, we saw the proportion of working-age Australians who are reliant on payments down to their lowest level in 30 years, at just 13.5 per cent. I think that speaks very strongly to the sense of opportunity the Morrison government's economic management has created. Our government's key focus is creating jobs—or, more correctly, helping business to create jobs—and getting people back into work, because that is what improves their living standards and those of their families and communities. It is not a wage. It is not a salary. Few countries are in a position to provide the strong safety net that we do. JobSeeker is a non-contributory, taxpayer-funded payment that provides that safety net irrespective of a person's circumstances. It's funded by the taxpayers of Australia, and we owe them the responsibility to manage that money carefully. That responsibility extends not only to us but also to the future generations of Australians who will need to meet the cost of the system in decades to come.

We've spoken often in Australia over the past couple of years about intergenerational debt, and never more so than in the wake of having to spend, by necessity of a once-in-a-century pandemic, huge amounts of borrowed money. Indeed, the one-off increase of $50 a week to the JobSeeker payment cost $9 billion in borrowed money over the forward estimates. That is money that, yes, strengthens the safety net here in Australia today but will need to be paid back by the Australians of tomorrow. Fundamentally, that is why we have continued, through the pandemic, to alter policy settings in light of increasing information. We now know we have vaccines in Australia and a road out of this pandemic. We know that the economy bounces back strongly when restrictions are lifted, and that's why, on 28 July, the Prime Minister announced the expansion of the COVID-19 disaster payment.

From Monday 2 August this year, increased financial support was available for hundreds of thousands of Australian workers as they were affected by public health orders and restricted movements in their respective state jurisdictions. The current rates of the payment—$450 a week for those who have lost between eight and 20 hours of work, and $750 a week for those who have lost 20 or more hours of work—reflect the lessons that we learned from the JobKeeper program, in terms of making it temporary, time limited, specific and rapid assistance to the Australians who need it, meanwhile upholding our compact with the Australian taxpayer to get value for money and ensuring that the money is used responsibly. From Tuesday 3 August, just a day later, a $200-per-week payment was available to eligible income support recipients who have lost eight hours or more of work. It is not taxable, it will not be included in the income test and it does not need to be reported as income to Services Australia. Claims can be made simply through the myGov website and, indeed, payments are hitting bank accounts in less than 60 minutes in some cases. That expanded payment arrangement is available from day one of any lockdown.

The government are focused on encouraging those under lockdown at home to stay home and reduce the spread of the virus. They are also encouraging all Australians, obviously, to get vaccinated, because that is how we get out of this. That is how we allow our economy to prosper. That is how we get families reunited, whether they are split across state borders or split across the globe. Ultimately, we all want the same thing, and that is for opportunity to resume. Throughout this pandemic, the government have been focused on lives and livelihoods. We have responded to changes in information and we have responded to the needs of Australians, both those temporarily affected by lockdowns and those in need of a safety net, until they are able to secure gainful employment, as we would all hope they would. Ultimately, we stand by the success of these policy decisions and the impressive economic indicators through this pandemic, as we have seen unemployment drop to 4.6 per cent, we've seen participation rates hit near record highs and, indeed, we've seen a record high participation rate for females in the Australian workforce. That is what success looks like, and it upholds the compact with Australians that, when we take a dollar off them to give to an Australian in need, that Australian is genuinely in need.

4:52 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I will also take the opportunity to acknowledge Senator Siewert for being forthright and for the difference she's made for the unemployed and the employed—all the people who have been disadvantaged across the community—in giving them a voice. I would like to extend my very best wishes to her.

First of all, income support for workers, companies and the unemployed makes economic sense. The government's JobKeeper scheme made payments to businesses who otherwise would have been pressured to lay off staff due to the economic impact of COVID-19. The total cost of JobKeeper is likely to be around $90 billion, making it the largest one-off scheme the Australian government has ever run. Of course, to receive the payment, businesses and not-for-profits had to demonstrate or forecast a particular shortfall in revenue. Businesses with revenue over $1 billion needed a shortfall of 50 per cent, businesses with revenue under $1 billion needed a shortfall of 30 per cent, and not-for-profits needed a shortfall of 15 per cent.

According to analysis by the Parliamentary Budget Office, over the last six months of the scheme, $13 billion was paid to businesses which actually had increased revenue. We've seen the situation where millionaires make substantial profit on corporate welfare while the government fails to hold them to account and is unable to redistribute those resources to where they're needed. In the early months of JobKeeper 15 per cent of the money went to firms with rising earnings. These firms then received, as I say, $13 billion across the whole program.

Labor has led the public debate over JobKeeper misuse, pointing to firms such as Accent Group, AP Eagers and Best&Less as well as the men-only Australian Club and the King's School, which got JobKeeper despite increasing their earnings—and no call-back. A special mention should go out to Gerry Harvey. I could sum it up in a number of ways, but I think it has been summed up in a very nice way by Joe Aston in 'Rear window' in the AFR:

Harvey conducted a round of farcical media interviews in which he refused to even discuss his JobKeeper backflip and complained, "I've got certain people in the media that keep attacking me all the time."

He hung up on Rafael Epstein after (groundlessly) accusing the ABC Radio host of bullying him, the outlandish exchange ending with the immortal line: "You still there, Gerry Harvey? Hmmm, that hasn't happened in a while."

We struggle to empathise with Harvey or his harrowing persecution. This time four years ago, on national television, he was appealing for this columnist to be summarily executed.

And now Gerry would really prefer not to talk about JobKeeper at all. He has that much in common with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

This is the challenge of these arrangements, where only part of the money has, begrudgingly, been paid back. When you look at companies like Gerry Harvey's, which have been receiving corporate welfare whilst abusing those who receive welfare, saying it's illegitimate and improper, raises serious questions about Gerry Harvey and his entire business.

Some companies have repaid payments to a total of $225 million, which is only around 0.25 per cent of the total. Almost all of the repayments have come from public companies whose JobKeeper had to be reported in their annual reports. In New Zealand, which has an online register listing all recipients of payments from their wage subsidy scheme, around five per cent has been repaid. This is likely due to the fact that, under the New Zealand proposition, transparency was greater than under what was done by the Morrison government. The Morrison government are hiding behind their desire not to pursue these corporate welfare cheats, and they are, unfortunately, receiving support from crossbenchers who are not supporting the principle that all Australians and all businesses should be paying their fair share of tax and not ripping off the system.

To make matters worse, you've got one condition for the billionaires and another condition for the 11,000-plus people who received demands to pay back money they had received, much of which, from the reports that have been made public so far, was due to misinformation that they had received. You've got 11,000 struggling, poorly-paid people, trying to raise a family and trying to keep a roof over their heads, and then you've got Gerry Harvey and the $13 billion that those companies extorted—extorted—from the Australian public and taxpayers.

The real problem here is that the government don't want Australians to see how badly they steered the JobKeeper ship. When we see firms like Best&Less, which told their investors that JobKeeper was a one-off sugar hit that was never to be repeated, that's the sort of example that you don't need. If this money were available to the budget now, it could do more to support struggling businesses and the community. Of course, the government sent notices to the 11,000 Centrelink customers relating to JobKeeper payments. These notices were often for $1,000 or $2,000. Centrelink clients are paying them back out of their pensions at $10 or $15 a fortnight. After a single payment, they have paid more than many of the Australian billionaire shareholders and millionaire CEOs.

It's clear what the government's priority is. The government's priority regarding the situation that people are in with JobKeeper was also exemplified by its failure to turn around and include dnata aviation workers, many of whom had previously worked for Qantas when the company was bought by an overseas operator. Australians who had paid tax for many decades, aged on average in their late 40s, raising families, some supporting grandkids, failed to receive JobKeeper. Contrast that with the fact that the government had a $60 billion shortfall in what they'd planned to put into the economic recovery last year.

Of course, we then go to the situation of people who are in difficult financial circumstances. We now know that over 40 per cent of Australians are engaged in various forms of insecure work. When you don't have paid sick leave and you develop symptoms, your choice is either to go to work sick or to stay home without pay and go hungry. Some people have made the ludicrous statement that casual workers get a casual loading in lieu of paid sick leave, so they should have money saved. Tell that to people earning the minimum wage while raising a family and paying exorbitant housing costs and bills. Try telling that to aged-care workers, 90 per cent of whom are on casual or part-time contracts and earning below the minimum income needed to survive.

I'll turn now to road transport. The Morrison government has quite clearly abandoned food delivery riders, who are earning as little as $6.67 an hour on exploitative platforms like Uber and not getting any paid leave whatsoever, even as they perform essential and risky work delivering meals to people isolating in their homes. Then there are the parcel delivery drivers at Amazon, another group of Australian workers being exploited by a multinational tax dodge. The ABC expose last week showed the horrendous conditions at Amazon. Of course, Amazon calls them independent contractors. They're not human beings, not workers, not people carrying out a duty of care to make sure that deliveries are made on behalf of the company; no, they are independent contractors, which means they have no rights—no paid sick leave and no entitlement to the minimum wage. One driver, Alex Ayliff, said:

They've created an atmosphere of fear. They want drivers to think like they can't do anything wrong. They have to do what Amazon says, like it or lump it.

He went on to say:

But I would like to make enough money to actually live on. This is just no way to live.

Of course, this government, whether through its failure to give support to various groups or its lack of regulatory protection for some of the most disadvantaged workers, isn't really worried about how they make a living.

The TWU National Secretary, Michael Kaine, said:

The deadly recipe of wage theft, control and threat of the sack has been laid bare at AmazonFlex. Worker Alex Ayliff using AmazonFlex as his only source of income was left with under $18,000 in annual earnings after expenses.

Well, we've seen the amount of money that Amazon and other companies have made and continue to make out of the pandemic. Amazon and other companies at the top of the supply chain, like ALDI, are driving down pay and conditions for transport workers, such as truck drivers, across Australia, many of them owner-drivers. But there are no protections from this government and there is no voice for drivers under this government.

Why were thousands of Toll's drivers forced to go on strike last week? Because transport operators like Toll and FedEx are floundering under the pressure to compete with Amazon Flex's sham-contracting model. It is why Australia is facing weeks of disruption to food, alcohol and fuel supplies as workers are forced to fight threats of mass outsourcing. On this government's watch, the job security of hardworking Australians who have kept us going through this pandemic is being threatened because of the failure of the industrial relations system to give people fair and reasonable rights. Two weeks ago, Big Rigs reported that interstate operator Kevin Macdonald said that staff at the Shell roadhouse in Gilgandra—and this is where we get to the point of protecting people—denied him a sit-down meal because they had been threatened with a $5,000 fine by New South Wales police. To quote Macdonald: 'It is just crippling them. It's hurting them financially, and it's hurting the truck drivers.' I want to commend Mr Macdonald, Big Rigs and Senator Sterle, because after they raised this the Gilgandra issue was resolved. Mr Morrison should be making sure that there are clear and consistent rules about this nationwide. The government needs to be looking at the consequences and impacts of the decisions it has made over this period of time.

Even Mr Morrison's own workers in the Australian Public Service are being abandoned during the pandemic. At a hearing of the job security committee last week, we heard that APS workers are being outsourced to labour hire companies by the thousands. While APS workers are entitled to paid vaccine leave and paid leave if they have to isolate, labour hire companies like Hays, which received over $300 million from the federal government last year, are not giving their APS workers the same rights.

It's clear the pressure that small businesses in Western Sydney have been under, and this government has failed them. It has failed in its vaccine and quarantine rollout. I know that the government gets sick and tired of hearing this, but you did fail. Admit to your failures. You've put the Western Sydney community in such dire straits. You've failed to deliver the vaccine to the most remote Indigenous communities. You've failed to make sure that there is a proper system that applies to areas such as the tourism and aviation sectors. Even where governments have done a tremendous job of keeping COVID-19 out, such as in Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, there is still a heavy economic toll as a result of Mr Morrison's failures on vaccine and quarantine. In the Northern Territory, for example, tourism operators are suffering as a result of not having the same support the federal government provided last year. Tourism Central Australia CEO Danial Rochford said: 'The reality is that last year was bad but this year has been disastrous. The only difference is that we don't have the safety net that we had this time last year.'

This is the essence of the incompetency of this government: a failure to appropriately and adequately support the community in times of need, whilst picking winners and losers. Billionaires are the winners, and regular, hardworking people receiving welfare benefits are the losers. It's corporate welfare for one and persecution for the other.

5:07 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Since this is the last general business debate for Senator Siewert, I would like to take a minute to say thank you for your work and your support over the time that we've worked together. As a new senator and a member of the community affairs committee, and in the pre-COVID world, I used to joke that I spent more time with Senator Askew than I did with my own family. But, of course, you were always there as well, Senator Siewert. We also had a couple of WA trips together where we were the only two physically holding up the fort. Whilst there have been more issues we've disagreed on than agreed on—and we'll get to those soon—you've always conducted yourself professionally and demonstrated a tireless work ethic, and you're someone who I believe is innately decent. For some of us on the opposite side of organisations such as the Unemployed Workers Union—I know you've tried to explain them to me, but it still eludes me—you were always supportive when the political discourse went far beyond being anywhere near appropriate behaviour. You never made politics personal. You supported everyone on the community affairs committee and always understood if there were family circumstances afoot, and quite often they were discussed over a wine in an airport lounge in between hearing venues. I, for one, will miss your contribution to this place, and I wish you all the best.

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

Thank you.

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

But, as you know from our time on the community affairs inquiries—raising the Newstart rate, the Centrelink compliance program and the cashless debit card—there were very few times that we were on the same side of an issue. Here we are again, I guess, so we may as well finish where we started.

The Morrison government has, throughout this pandemic, worked on financial assistance for Australians to suit the situation at the time. This pandemic has evolved in such a way that it's hard to believe that, in early 2020, we weren't really sure how it spread and what the long-term impacts would be. And then, in the fastest speed we've ever seen, the world got to work on a vaccine, and we're now seeing close to two million Australians receiving the vaccine each and every week. We know that vaccination is the key to our recovery and to reopening internally as well as to the rest of the world. We need to learn to live with this virus.

I do note that it is Senator Siewert who's calling for the government to reinstate the coronavirus supplement, even though she is a senator from 'fortress WA'—the COVID-free land where Western Australians can live their lives unaffected by lockdowns. We know this because Premier McGowan keeps telling us so. The 'Lock the border' cry now has its own merchandise, and the message to those dreadful people from the eastern side of Australia is: 'Well, you just stay away from us in WA.' So why would the Morrison government look to a national payment when clearly there's no need for it in Western Australia? It's because this is what we do as a government. We ensure that the financial assistance is targeted and it reaches the people who actually require it the most. Why would the land of Western Australia want national resources diverted away from Australians who are experiencing lockdown, when Western Australians enjoy all the freedoms the Premier consistently speaks of?

I note today that Premier McGowan has genuinely been overtaken by Premier Palaszczuk this week. She allowed in a planeload of footballers and their families whilst keeping a three-year-old separated from his family—and I'm grateful that that is to be rectified soon. Then she claimed that she wants to stay closed off—except for footballers and celebrities—until all children are vaccinated, despite there being not one vaccine approved globally for children under 12. The chutzpah is unbelievable. I'd like to say more, but, after our talk the other day, Acting Deputy President Brown, I have absolutely no doubt it would be deemed unparliamentary language.

What we have seen this year from the Morrison government is the single biggest boost to unemployment benefits—an increase of $50 along with permanently increasing income-free areas to support jobseekers as they look to secure employment and re-enter the workforce. When the whole country was in lockdown, there was a coronavirus supplement, but this was always a temporary measure and was for all Australians on JobSeeker because all of Australia was locked down. Whilst we now have New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria in lockdown, these conditions aren't national. There are no lockdowns in Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and the Northern Territory, and, of course, Western Australia is locked off but not locked down. The payments that we've made available to all Australians have never been based on a set-and-forget model. They've been planned and timed to ensure that they can have the greatest impact when required. That's why last year, from April through to September, an additional $550 per fortnight was available to all JobSeeker and other payment recipients. But we've seen the landscape change. Not every state has been in lockdown at the same time since then.

This government does recognise that these restrictions, when imposed by state and territory governments, can mean additional financial hardship, with hours lost or work totally put on hold. That's why, in order to support Australians who are affected by lockdowns in states and territories, we've put in place the COVID-19 disaster payment. It's up to $750 a week. That means that, for those who are already receiving government support, it's an additional $200 a week. So, on top of the already increased JobSeeker payment, those Australians are receiving an additional $400 per fortnight. This payment came into effect on 3 August 2021 and will continue every single week whilst that state or territory remains in lockdown. There are also crisis payments available if someone is deemed a close contact and needs to quarantine, or if, in fact, they test positive for the virus. These are measured and targeted supports to those Australians who are impacted by lockdowns—lockdowns put in place by state and territory leaders.

I know Senator Siewert has a very different view than I do when we look at social security. On this side, we believe it's a safety net for all Australians, and I know Senator Siewert looks at it as more of a living wage model. That is a point of difference that we've shared in a number of inquiries and debates. But the Morrison government has committed to supporting jobseekers in multiple ways, not only through the additional payments being received in those lockdown states but through initiatives around ensuring there are training opportunities and opportunities to assist people to move back into the workforce and to see them come out of this pandemic—as we've seen so many people go back into the workplace—and try and re-enter the workforce, to ensure that they're not reliant on government payments.

But it is a fitting way to finish the day, Senator Siewert: talking about one of our favourite topics—again, from opposite sides of the chamber. You will be missed from the community affairs committee. I wish you all the very best in the future, and I look forward to talking to you in our DSP inquiry on Monday.

5:16 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I too rise to speak on Senator Siewert's motion today that notes that the Morrison government has abandoned people in lockdowns on income support payments. I too would like to add some words and pay tribute to Senator Siewert on what is her last day in the federal parliament.

Senator Siewert, you are a senator who has never forgotten where you come from. You've never forgotten who you came into the parliament to fight for. In my time here, I've seen you do an amazing job of making sure that the invisible people of our country have a strong and loud voice. No doubt you will continue to make sure that the forgotten people of our country are heard as you go on with your life beyond this parliament. So thank you very much for all of the incredible work that you have done.

I'll now go to the motion that Senator Siewert has put forward today. The Prime Minister and the entire Morrison government have failed to adequately support the Australian people throughout this pandemic. This is what we've come to expect from a prime minister who would rather blame people—who would rather shift responsibility—than lead people through. Under this Prime Minister it's always someone else's responsibility. It's always someone else's job. This is a prime minister who would rather pick a fight with a state premier than help struggling Australians, and there are so many Australians who are struggling around the country today. He would rather let people slip through the cracks than admit that he's got something wrong.

During 2020 we all found out the hard way that financial support is absolutely critical to keeping people going through this pandemic, with the economic crisis that has resulted from the health crisis that we are all experiencing. We learnt in 2020 just how important consistent, reliable support that people can count on is to keeping people in jobs, keeping businesses afloat and helping people survive through what can only be described as extraordinarily difficult times.

But somehow, as we came into 2021, it seemed that this lesson of 2020 was really completely lost on the Morrison government. The government had decided, as it came into 2021, that the pandemic was already over—that it had ended at Christmas 2020. So they had already decided that the pandemic was over when they came into 2021, because, like everyone, they wanted it to be—because it was all just a little bit too hard, and because it was someone else's problem to keep coming up with solutions to keep the country going. But, as we know—and as we know the hard way right now, with millions of Australians locked down across the country—this virus doesn't take holidays like the Prime Minister does. This virus doesn't take holidays like the Morrison government does. It doesn't care about calendars. It doesn't care if you're over it.

And so, despite what we learned in 2020, when lockdowns commenced this year, in 2021, the Morrison government were too slow to start, to act on and to deliver the vital financial support that people needed and that people continue to need today—financial support that was essential to keep businesses afloat, financial support that was essential to keep workers in jobs, financial support that was essential for people who are reliant on social security to keep their heads above water, financial support that was vital to keeping families housed and keeping families fed. In March, despite this pandemic being far from over, the government decided that it was time to cancel JobKeeper. What an extraordinarily bad decision that was—the government cancelling JobKeeper payments, the very wage subsidy that had seen so many millions of Australians through the economic crisis that followed the health crisis in 2020. And they did this despite the calls from so many people that JobKeeper should not be ended early. So many people, including those on our benches, could see that it was way too early to end the financial support that people needed to keep their heads above water.

It wasn't until June this year that the government announced a new COVID disaster payment. Even then, it took them until the end of July to match the original JobKeeper rates and to include a payment for people who had lost work and who were on income support. During this time, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to scramble to make ends meet as their hours were cut and as jobs were lost. Hundreds of thousands of people—people who were already stressed by the health risks of the pandemic, people who were already stressed about whether they would have a job to go back to in the end, people who were already stressed about the impact on their children, about the impact on their elderly parents and about the impact on their communities. At a time when the country was again in the middle of the COVID crisis, the government were nowhere to be seen.

Right when people needed the government to have their backs, right when people needed the government to give them a break, right when they needed certainty about what was going to happen for them and for their families, the Morrison government told them to wait, just to hold tight—as the country started to lock down again—while the government figured out what their plan would be provide essential financial support, the kind of essential financial support that they had cut too early, despite the warnings. Instead, the Morrison government told people to wait and to raid their savings and to raid their superannuation—savings and superannuation that so many lower-waged Australians just don't have. The government told people to raid the superannuation that people should be able to keep for their retirement. The Morrison government had months to rebuild a financial support program for the next stage of this crisis, such as the third wave that we are facing right now. But, again, it was too late. It was too little and too late. It took four weeks into the Greater Sydney lockdown to finally build a package which equalled the original JobKeeper payment rates—that is four weeks into a lockdown when people were struggling. If only this government had learnt the lessons of 2020. If only they had rebuilt JobKeeper without the rorts.

The JobKeeper rorts saw $13 billion of taxpayer money paid to big businesses who went on to make profits. We've heard the Treasurer try to justify how this happened, but as the manager of the scheme he had the power to make changes to ensure that the scheme was working as the parliament intended and that the public money the people had entrusted the government with was spent appropriately. The Treasurer did nothing for six months while $13 billion of taxpayer money flowed straight into the pockets of some of Australia's wealthiest and most profitable companies and executives. That $13 billion was intended to support struggling businesses to keep their staff employed and keep their doors open during the pandemic, but it went instead directly into big business profits.

This government has made some efforts to recover JobKeeper payments. But those efforts have not been to recover JobKeeper payments from the businesses who used that public money to boost their profits and pay their executive bonuses—no, the government's efforts to recover JobKeeper payments have been focused on people who received them whilst on social security. What a complete disgrace! Eleven thousand people have been sent debt notices from this government, which has been trying to claw back the $33 million in overpayments—an average of around $3,000 per person. That is the priority that the government has put on recovering JobKeeper payments—not the $13 billion that went to companies that were making profits, to executive bonuses or to lining the bank accounts of companies that were already profitable but the payments that were made to people on social security. The hypocrisy of this government is extraordinary. The hypocrisy of this government knows absolutely no bounds. But none of us would be surprised by that because this is a government that always goes after the vulnerable people in our community first. It is always hard on the vulnerable and soft on the strong—that is the character of this Morrison government.

And who could forget what this government said to the victims of its illegal robodebt scheme? 'We'll find you, we'll track you down, and you will have to repay those debts. And you may end up in prison.' That is what the minister said to the victims of the illegal robodebt scheme. Meanwhile, it has left the companies who received $13 billion of taxpayer money to boost their profits completely off the hook. It is using an entirely different language to talk to those recipients of public welfare. 'We're not in the politics of envy,' Prime Minister Morrison said: 'If there are some companies that feel they want to hand that back, great. Good for them.' It's one rule for big business and it's another rule for struggling Australians under the Morrison government.

Labor do not accept that social security recipients should be hounded to pay back their debts while big businesses pocket $13 billion that it turns out they did not need. That's why we have been publicly calling for greater transparency about the payments of JobKeeper to large companies making big profits. In order to put pressure on these companies to pay back the money we need to know who received money and how much they got. This government has absolutely no plan to get back the $13 billion that companies have profited from.

That $13 billion should be put into perspective regarding what else that taxpayer money could have been used for. That is more than this government spent in a year on public schools. It is enough to have built fibre-to-the-home broadband for every urban home in Australia, and those of us who have been remotely calling in would have really appreciated that investment. It's almost $1,000 for every Australian adult. It's $13 billion which could have been used to support businesses still in lockdown due to this government's total failure to roll out the vaccine. It could have been used to properly fix the problems in aged care which this government has still not responded to, starting with a plan for the workers. It could have supported workers who this government left off JobKeeper in the first place—workers in our hardest-hit and most insecure industries, who this government told to just smash open their piggy banks and drain their superannuation while it let some of the richest companies pocket $13 billion. (Time expired)