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


Peter Khalil: I also rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020. People in this place, at least on this side, are going to be very, very emotional and passionate in their contributions on this bill and the amendment that Labor has moved, because it is an emotional topic. We’re talking about people. We’re talking about Australians who are struggling and who have been struggling. We’re talking about the lack of empathy, the lack of care, the lack of regard, frankly, from the government benches to that struggle. So people will be emotive and emotional. They will be passionate in their contributions, and I think it’s because there is a degree of care for Australians who are suffering and for the constituents in our electorates we speak to who have been struggling and who will struggle on JobSeeker on $40 a day.

There are 160,000 people who are expected to lose their jobs, and there are 1.4 million Australians on JobSeeker currently. The previous speakers have talked about the missed opportunity to deliver certainty for these Australians with respect to delivering a permanent increase to JobSeeker and extending JobSeeker, and on both fronts the government has failed. We have consistently called for this increase for a number of years now, even before the pandemic struck, because we understood, and continue to understand, the need. But, of course, it fell on deaf ears on the government benches. And, if they have their way, the rate will return to $40 a day—$40 a day puts people into poverty; $40 a day forces people to skip meals; and $40 a day will take our economic recovery backwards, put a brake on it.

I’ve said this before: the people in my community who are on JobSeeker or Newstart are not saving that money in a sock under their bed. They’re not buying shares with it. They’re not going out on the piss. They’re not going out gambling.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Rob Mitchell ): Order! Use appropriate language, please.

Peter Khalil: I withdraw, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Thank you.

Peter Khalil: But the government benches would like us to believe that people on JobSeeker are spending this money frivolously. That’s just not the case. There are families who are struggling day by day to put food on the table and buy clothes for their children so they can go to school. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that there are many Australians in this situation who struggled even before the pandemic. And they’re not saving this money, as I said, under their beds. They’re going to be spending it. They’re going to be spending it in the economy. Even the economic argument that this government puts about the economic recovery, the economics of recovery, the reduction in unemployment and so on is short-sighted because that JobSeeker money is going to be spent in the economy. The single mum is now not going to buy that extra coffee. She’s not going to be able to spend that extra bit of money in retail because it goes back to those basic needs when you’re on $40 a day. And that can only be bad for the economy and our economic recovery in the long run.

So, for all of these reasons, Labor is moving this amendment today, calling for the government to permanently increase the base rate of JobSeeker, and we’ve said it time and time again. These amendments are about calling the government to reverse their plan to cut the coronavirus supplement around Christmas time and to deliver that permanent increase for JobSeeker.

The previous speakers have also spoken about the benefits in this bill. But, like everything this government does, they just short-change you, don’t they? There’s a lot of shallowness: it all looks good on the surface but, when you scratch it and go a bit deeper, you start to see the big gaps, the chasms, that emerge that a whole lot of Australians fall into. I can’t understand why, but maybe it’s people they don’t like. There are demographics that have been left out of their support packages that have fallen through the cracks. It can only be because they don’t regard these people, they don’t care about them. I can’t find any other explanation for it. Whether it’s the unemployed, whether it’s carers, whether it’s people who are temporary migrants or whether it’s asylum seekers and refugees, they’re all falling through the cracks.

This bill includes continuing the coronavirus supplement for youth allowance—students and apprentices—after December; that’s a good thing. But it also puts in black and white the government’s plan to revert to the pre-pandemic level of unemployment support from 31 March 2021. As previous speakers have said, that is unnecessary; it’s cruel. Two million Australians will be hurt by these cuts and Australians are already feeling anxious about Christmas, knowing that in just a few months these payments will be cut. Unlike the government, we on this side, Labor, know that the impacts of the pandemic will actually continue. They’ll last for years. The pandemic isn’t going to come to an end at the end of December or even on 31 March. We hope the vaccine is distributed and starts to work, but there will be ongoing economic and social impacts of what we have experienced this year. The Department of Social Services is expecting the number of people relying on unemployment support still to be elevated in four years time. So not only is a permanent increase in the base rate needed for the basic dignity of these people, so they can get by on a basic living wage with basic living costs covered, but it’s also needed for the economic recovery. As I said, this money isn’t going to be hidden under a bed; it’s going to be spent in the economy.

We have argued that the minister should also have the flexibility to continue extending the coronavirus supplement for as long as the impact of the pandemic persists, not just until 31 March. And it’s actually this power, which Labor insisted upon way back in, I think, March this year, that has enabled the government to introduce more generous partner income tests for the JobSeeker payment, make changes to the JobSeeker and youth allowance personal income tests which provide an income-free area of about $300 per fortnight compared with the prepandemic income-free area of $106 a fortnight—something, we are advised, around 15,000 people are benefiting from. We insisted on those changes. It also allowed the government to make changes to the JobSeeker and youth allowance eligibility criteria, so that sole traders, the self-employed, permanent employees who have been stood down or people self-isolating because they, or someone they are caring for, have been affected by the pandemic can continue to be eligible for payment. It has allowed them to waive the ordinary waiting period of one week for the seasonal work preclusion period and the newly arrived residents waiting period, and it has allowed them to extend the time people can maintain eligibility for payment and keep concession cards. We insisted on all of that. We pushed all of this because we understood the impacts and the follow-through.

With this bill, the government is forcing people to rely, effectively, on food bank services and emergency relief. When those payments are cut, where are they going to go? They’re passing the buck to NGOs already at full capacity. They’re passing the buck to charities that are already overwhelmed. They’re passing the buck to volunteers and neighbours. Australians have made a tremendous effort during this pandemic. I know my colleagues here know how much work is being done in their local electorates by NGOs, charities and volunteers to help people in need and to support them. That doesn’t mean the government should renege on its responsibility, but it has passed the buck again. Where they have allowed people to fall between those cracks that have become chasms, the pieces are being picked up by ordinary Australians who are doing good, who are caring for each other and who are doing the best in what are the most difficult circumstances. So I don’t think it’s fair to say that the government has just missed an opportunity. It’s way more than that. Yes, they’ve missed an opportunity to deliver certainty for Australians doing it tough by delivering a permanent increase to JobSeeker in this bill. They’ve missed that opportunity, but they’ve also failed to fulfil their responsibility and their obligation as the government of Australia to support people in need.

There are simply not enough jobs for everyone who needs one. There are about seven jobseekers for each job vacancy in a capital city. If you’re in the regions, forget about it; it’s even more difficult to find a job. That is the result of the government’s failure to deliver a jobs program for our regions. I’m not suggesting that it’s all the government’s responsibility. There are a lot of things that are out of the government’s control; they can’t control everything. But one thing they do have control over and one thing they can make an impact on is ensuring that each of those Australians who are doing it tough has at least the ability to cover the basics of living through this JobSeeker payment. I’ve heard from my own constituents how some have been forced to skip meals and to struggle throughout. Across Australia, there are one million jobseekers left out of work, including older workers. The budget left almost one million Australians on JobSeeker aged over 35 out of the budget and ineligible for its wage subsidy. Older Australians represent the largest cohort on JobSeeker, and they also have the most difficulty finding work because of structural barriers and age discrimination. And the government just left them out of the budget. They actively made it harder for them to find work, with the new JobMaker hiring credit skewed towards younger jobseekers under 35. In the last 18 years, the proportion of people on unemployment payments who are over 55 has gone from 8.8 to 26.6 per cent. It has more than trebled. It’s also true that many women over the ages of 45 and 50 have struggled, and those numbers have shot up, including the percentages of homeless single women in that age group. There are currently over 300,000 people over 55 on unemployment support, and they are having the most trouble getting off the payment.

I said earlier that the impacts of the virus are far from over and that Australians this year have done a tremendous amount of work, a tremendous job looking out for one another, working with each other and for each other. And they now need this government to look out for them and their interests. The people that are looking for work don’t need more cuts. The people struggling to support their families to put food on the table, to buy clothes for their kids and to live in dignity like every other Australian don’t need more cuts to JobSeeker in this particular period, at Christmas and in March. Australians, including all those on JobSeeker, expect and deserve a government that will actually support them during the tough times, not make a show of it and splash around the money and then keep entire groups without support or remove that support from them. Australians deserve a rate that sees them living in dignity, not in poverty; that sees people able to look for work; and that gives them that opportunity to go out and look for work, not just to worry about how they would feed or clothe their family.

That’s why we’re moving this amendment: because it is about empathy. It is about care. In this period during the pandemic, one of the probably less tangible things has been the manner in which Australians have cared for each other, looked out for each other, gone out of their way as neighbours or volunteers or by working in a charity to help those who need it most. To me, one of the wonderful things that have come out of this terrible year has been the efforts that have been made by ordinary Australians to look after people around them in their community—and not just their local family and friends but their larger community. I think that’s been reflected in electorates around the country. People have done this.

It’s time now for the government to step up and also understand that empathy and care can be translated into better policy. That’s why we’re moving this amendment and ask those here to support it.