Economic Recovery Package (JobMaker Hiring Credit)


Peter Khalil: On the Economic Recovery Package (JobMaker Hiring Credit) Amendment Bill 2020: I’ll be corrected if I’m wrong by those on the opposite side, on the government benches, but, as I recall, this was one of the Morrison government’s key budget policies. So the manner in which we’ve had to bring this forward for debate this afternoon after question time tells you everything about how this government operates. We’re talking about the Prime Minister’s office—or the marketing department, which is probably the entirety of the Prime Minister’s office—working overtime to pitch to the media that Labor might not support this bill; they’re trying to get all the smoke and mirrors happening and the sleight of hand, to play the political wedge. It’s not about the actual substance of the bill; it’s not about having it brought before parliament so we can debate it, so we can look at it and bring it up to the light, as the previous speaker, the member for Rankin, has rightly pointed out. No—they just want to play politics on this. And it tells you everything about this government that one of the key policies in their budget was used in this manner to play a political game in the Press Gallery corridors.

In many respects, during this pandemic we have seen a very substantive argument made by our side of politics to be constructive around the packages put forward by the government—to hold them up to the light, as was said by the member for Rankin—but also to be supportive of what is necessary to get Australians through this once-in-a century tragedy and this once-in-a-century pandemic that has caused such devastation around the globe. Yet, the government wants to play politics with these packages. We have been calling for wage subsidies from the start of this pandemic, to support our vulnerable workers, businesses and communities. In fact, the member for Rankin was arguing for this back in March and February.

I remember the Prime Minister was reluctant even to go towards a wage subsidy. Maybe he saw the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, go there and thought, ‘Oh well, I better go there too.’ Maybe it was the so-called national cabinet, where the premiers made the strong argument that we had to have a wage subsidy for this pandemic. But he was reluctant—let’s not forget that—and he was pulled towards that policy package by those other factors that I mentioned. Of course, what do we get? We get a cookie-cutter package and a cookie-cutter approach. And the cracks that we’ve seen formed over the last several months have become chasms. The Grand Canyon of policy packages swallowed up a million casual workers, who are left behind. It swallowed up people like carers, people in the arts sector and people like temporary migrants—so many demographics have missed out or been left behind because of the way that the government has designed their JobSeeker and JobKeeper packages.

I said to myself early on: ‘It must be because they rushed it. It must be because they went headlong into this and it was all about responding to the pandemic.’ You give them a bit of the benefit of the doubt, but when you look closely at the cracks that formed and the chasms that formed from them, it all adds up. It’s clearly an ideological set of decisions to leave out big chunks of the Australian population—big numbers of people in Australia have been left out. It makes no other sense to me. In many respects, not only has the Morrison government’s response been slow, reactive and somewhat uncoordinated; there’s been a deliberateness in the manner in which they have made decisions about who gets support and who doesn’t. And that deliberateness, for me, is what we have been arguing against: the decisions they made to leave out people.

With JobSeeker, for example, we know that unemployment is on the rise. In my electorate, we’ve got 11½ thousand members of my electorate who’ve been relying on JobSeeker to get by, and another 26½ thousand in my community who’ve been reliant on JobKeeper through this pandemic. Again, we supported the packages for those very reasons. And there’ll be more jobless as we head towards Christmas. Those numbers are going up. When we look at this JobMaker package—as the previous speaker alluded to—it has some similar problems in structural set-up to JobKeeper and JobSeeker, in the manner in which they’ve left people out. There are 928,000 Australians over the age of 35 on our unemployment benefits who were deliberately excluded from those hiring subsidies. They were deliberately excluded. Us pointing that out as an opposition doesn’t mean we don’t support the support package for young Australians. We know how hard they’ve been hit by the pandemic. We know that this is a generational issue for them. So of course we support those elements of it. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore this or we shouldn’t focus on this issue. The government is once again deliberately leaving out a big chunk of Australians from these packages. We don’t want these Australians to miss out. The government’s budget was a real opportunity to set out a plan for economic recovery and reform that actually tried to be as inclusive as possible for as many Australians as possible. They missed that opportunity, and I can only surmise it was for those ideological reasons that they deliberately left out certain numbers of people—excluded them.

Everyone’s been going on a bit about how the government is great: ‘Look how much they’ve spent—we’ve gone a trillion dollars into debt, with $507 billion spent in the budget.’ Hold on. It’s not just how much you spend, right? They’ve never taken the lessons of understanding this. In relation to the manner in which the previous Labor government dealt with the GFC, they were very critical of the spend. But it’s how you spend that money. It’s how you go about putting stimulus into the economy to cover the most vulnerable in society, to make sure that you hit those sectors, those industries, those areas, to give those people a chance to recover. That’s what it’s about. That’s what it’s about for us as a social democratic party, where we intervene to make sure that we support the most vulnerable and those who need it, and to stimulate the economy so that, based on their hard work, they can keep going and survive and then flourish. But those opposite criticised us for that, for the selective spending that we made. Apparently that wasn’t good enough all those years ago. Yet they’ve gone and spent money. We use the old cliche of a drunken sailor. It wasn’t that at all—they were sober when they were making these decisions. There was a deliberateness about the manner in which they left certain people out of these packages, and they’re doing it again. They are doing it again with respect to the JobMaker hiring credit.

There is no comprehensive plan for jobs across the economy. The cuts to JobKeeper and the cuts to JobSeeker in the face of rising unemployment beggar belief. Again, the government are not understanding the need in the community. As the previous speaker, the member for Rankin, said, we’re going to work through our own assessment of this particular bill as it goes through the Senate committee. But there are a number of issues with it which we have raised and will continue to raise. This get-the-headline approach that I noted—this big announcement with the big headline, the sleight of hand, the marketing department working overtime to win a headline in the papers or on the radio without any substantive follow-up—is one problem, of course. Let’s look at the substance as well. It’s not just all talk, no action.

The government have alluded to their track record. Even this morning I heard members of the government talk about the Youth Jobs PaTH program or the Restart wage subsidy. Let’s have a look at those. The Youth Jobs PaTH Program was widely criticised for a lack of outcomes. There was little or no training and there were wage subsidies to big corporates like Coles and Hungry Jack’s. The Restart wage subsidy program, which they point to when we say, ‘You’ve left people over 35 out of this’ is another failure. It failed to get older people back to work and is undersubscribed. The government spent half of what it was meant to spend on the program, and 40 per cent of workers on the program were without work within three months. So we really hope beyond hope that we don’t see the same flaws in this hiring credit program, but I won’t hold my breath, given their track record.

There are a number of questions that need to be answered around this bill. That’s why we will be holding it up to the light. It will be examined as forensically as possible around the operation and integrity of the scheme. Again, looking at the track record of this government on some of this, I don’t hold my breath. Let’s start by looking at the eligibility criteria. For social security recipients below 35, there is no requirement for employment to be secure or permanent. It does nothing to encourage security at work and security of jobs. We know that this government has presided over an increase in insecure work and underemployment for many, many years—in fact, the seven years the government’s been in power. We know the design of this subsidy encourages a company to double their subsidy by hiring two workers on 20 hours each instead of one full-time employee, encouraging more casual and more part-time work and more insecure work. And there are no reporting requirements to prevent wage theft and other endemic exploitation that disproportionately affects younger workers. We know that. The evidence base is there. The regulatory oversight to date and the integrity measures have not been made clear. And we don’t even trust the government to put workers and their interests first.

The government really love to point out that they are doing something for younger people. What they’re doing, in fact, is once again pitting one demographic—one generation, if you like—against another, making younger Australians compete with older Australians. What’s the plan for older Australians, apart from those opposite pointing out they have the Restart program, which I’ve discussed? The competition that’s coming in the face of a deepening jobs crisis is real. The government themselves are forecasting that another 160,000 Australians will join the unemployment queues before Christmas. We know that. That’s in their own data, their own statements.

Another matter that is disturbing about this bill is the blank cheque element of it. Nothing is stopping the government handing out a blank cheque to distribute to businesses in whichever electorates they see fit. The two-year blank cheque for undefined employment and workforce participation programs under this legislation does raise concerns with us. Why? It’s not rocket science. Again, we’ve seen the government’s track record on this with sports rorts 2.0. We’ve seen how they go about it. It’s important, then, that this new wage subsidy scheme be designed with integrity, to avoid the temptations the government have all too often succumbed to with respect to these types of rorts. So we’re going to continue to ask questions around that and around the way the government implements this.

Looking at the design of JobMaker as well, are there design flaws that will prevent businesses even taking it up? The intersection of JobKeeper and the hiring credit is of real concern as well. The hiring credit takes over from JobKeeper, and its design stipulates that a business has to have additional workers in order to receive a subsidy. The businesses that are reliant on JobKeeper will ask the question: will we have recovered enough to take on more staff beyond the JobKeeper-supported staff levels? I’m from Victoria. I don’t think businesses in Melbourne are yet ready and able. Once they lose JobKeeper they are more likely to lose staff, not add them to their payroll.

It’s like this government—the marketing department in the Prime Minister’s office—has suddenly discovered young people: ‘Oh, wow, there are people under 35!’ After seven years they’ve discovered them and they’ve gone out and tried to pitch a story that suddenly they have a concern for them. Again it’s the sleight of hand, the smoke and mirrors. When you scratch the surface you see the cracks, and the cracks become a chasm. The flaws are so evident, and they really show what this government is about. Do you really have a care for the future of young people? It’s not much of an ask. Australians can’t afford to have this government play politics with their future, and that’s why we’ll continue to forensically examine this bill.