Aug 26, 2020

BILLS – Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020 – Second Reading – Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (17:01): Let’s be clear about one thing: this government has never supported wage subsidies. Labor, the business community and a whole range of small businesses in particular were all out there saying that what we needed to do was to keep the relationship between employers and their employees during what was complacently dismissed by this Prime Minister as something that would just be a temporary blip. That’s why we’re debating this Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020. This legislation has to be introduced because, when the government established JobKeeper, they did say it would all snap back in September. They said everything would snap back and all government support would be withdrawn from the economy because, essentially, they were uncomfortable with the position that they themselves adopted. I’ve said before, in my vision statement about the economic recovery from the pandemic, that it is Labor values that are getting our country through the pandemic and, indeed, it will be Labor values that we return to to get us through the recovery successfully.

 

The idea of government intervention at a time of need is a part of what Labor is about—the power of government to make a difference to people’s lives, to protect living standards and to create opportunity. Those opposite believe that, if government just gets out of the way and lets the market rip, it’ll all be okay. And that’s the philosophy that they brought to these issues at the beginning of this pandemic. It’s the reason the Prime Minister said on 23 March that the government decision to reject wage subsidies was ‘sound’ and ‘just too hard’. He said: ‘The measures require a complete redesign of delivery mechanisms, which will take many months.’ A day later, he said of wage subsidies:

 

… one of the weaknesses of the system that you’re advocating for is that it has to build an entirely new payment system for that to be achieved, which is never done quickly and is never done well. … To dream up other schemes can be very dangerous.

 

They had this view that you couldn’t do anything new and that everything was fundamentally okay at a time when businesses were crying out for support and workers were losing their jobs. And it was because the government established higher payments for people who were unemployed under JobSeeker prior to establishing JobKeeper that we saw those queues outside Centrelink as we gathered here on that Monday morning. It was as a direct result of the conscious decision by this government to provide a message, which was, essentially: if you are in doubt, put workers off, because they’ll be protected, once they’re unemployed, by the extra payments. That decision had diabolical results for workers, many of whom found themselves unemployed for the first time in their lives.

 

I have a Centrelink office just down from my electorate office in Marrickville Road. Each day, when I walked down, that queue wrapped down Marrickville Road, turned the corner down Illawarra Road and went on down the hill. Hundreds of people were in that queue, most of them representing many more people, because they had families. They were people who were desperate and people who thought they were in secure employment but found that they weren’t. Many of those people were laid off first, due to the fact that the government essentially provided a safety net, in terms of JobSeeker being increased, but without any wage subsidies or support for people in employment. They gave businesses the message: we’ll protect people and provide some support if they’re unemployed, but we won’t provide support if they’re employed. The direct result were those queues and tragedies for those families, many of whom just struggled because they were reduced to simply surviving. Of course, they didn’t have savings—remember that. We had the minister say that it was okay that casual workers were all being laid off and that they could survive because they got this loading that they were keeping in the bottom drawer—all these really wealthy casual workers in insecure work.

 

Let me say this: this is a debate about immediate needs. We need to deal with the immediate consequences of the pandemic, but we also need to have the vision and the foresight to look at the weaknesses that have been exposed by this pandemic in our labour market, the weaknesses that have seen a great increase in insecure work, the weaknesses that have seen an increase in casualisation and the weaknesses that have seen an increase in contracting out—because it is those people who tend to be the lowest paid who’ve been made to bear the brunt of this crisis. The fact that we’re having to deal with this legislation, because the government believed in ‘snap-back’, says it all.

 

When the government did introduce the JobKeeper program, they left too many people behind. Whether they were casual workers, people who worked at places like dnata, university sector workers or local government workers, whole sectors missed out, including the arts and entertainment sector, for example—they were just left behind. That had huge consequences. I know of families in my electorate where mum or dad were suffering, having lost their job or had their payments reduced; at the same time, my son’s mates were doing okay because they were getting extra money. So the design of the system provided for some people to miss out completely whilst others were getting additional payments. Some went from earning $150 a week in a casual retail job to all of a sudden getting substantially more than that: $750 a week—a five times increase simply because of the nature of their work. And, of course, there was the $60 billion mistake, the largest budget mistake of any Treasurer ever—and I suspect he will hold that record for some time. In trivia questions in future years, remember the name Josh Frydenberg, because a $60 billion mistake is what happened from this government. They didn’t seem to even realise.

 

The legislation before us today also has mistakes in it. We’re supportive of extending JobKeeper. We’ve been the ones who’ve been arguing against snapback from the time those words came out of the Prime Minister’s mouth. We believe that an early withdrawal of support will mean a recession that is deeper and longer than it needs to be, and our economic team have been outlining that. So we’ll be constructive about this. But that’s why we’re proposing amendments to help fix up the legislation, just as we proposed wage subsidies to try and help—not to help the government. That isn’t our end. We’ll be honest about that. We want to help people. We want to help the government to help people. That’s what we want, which is why the government should support our amendments.

 

The first amendment that we’ll move, of course, is about what happens to companies that aren’t getting JobKeeper at all. We don’t see that it is reasonable that employers who no longer need government support also get access to emergency industrial relations powers that are provided by this legislation. So that’s a fundamental issue here.

 

The second issue is that a business trading at 90 per cent of normal turnover will be given the power to take away 40 per cent of their workers’ wages, with no safety net in place, unless our amendments are adopted. A business that has seen a fall in turnover of 10 per cent will be permitted by this legislation to cut hours by 40 per cent and therefore cut wages by 40 per cent. What is being proposed by the government would have the consequence that some workers would actually be better off if they were working for a firm that was more distressed. Then they’d have JobKeeper as a safety net. Because the company’s doing better, the worker will be worse off. How does that work? How is that logical? How is that the market in operation? How will that assist the economy? One of the benefits of JobKeeper and JobSeeker is increasing economic activity throughout the economy by increasing the circulation of money—income. So they spend money and they keep the economic activity going. A young hospitality worker who’s had two of their days cut could see their pay fall to just over $450 a week, $150 a week less than they would receive if their employer still had access to JobKeeper.

 

So we’ll be proposing amendments to this legislation—commonsense amendments that I hope the government adopts. To be fair to the government, in the past they adopted Labor amendments to extend support to Austudy recipients, youth allowance recipients and Abstudy recipients. They adopted Labor’s position, which was that, for two-income families, some of the tapering of family support meant severe disadvantage for those working families in our suburbs trying to pay off their mortgage. They should listen to Labor on our amendments here. They should adopt them, because a retail worker who’s rostered from Wednesday to Saturday and who loses their weekend shifts would lose nearly half of their income under this proposition.

 

The government has said, ‘We’re all in this together.’ The way out of this pandemic isn’t by cutting workers’ pay. We accept that businesses are doing it tough. But we don’t think that cutting wages through this mechanism is appropriate. We don’t think that someone, a full-time worker, who is working and has their hours cut by 40 per cent but is still working three days a week should receive less income than someone who works for a company that’s basically really struggling—not working at all, perhaps—and is getting JobKeeper, $750 a week, for not working. It’s an anomaly that’s here. We need to fix it. We want to make sure that any worker who has their hours cut by their employer doesn’t have their pay fall below the applicable JobKeeper rate under this legislation. That’s common sense.

 

I commend the amendments that will be moved to the House. We don’t want backdoor austerity, because austerity doesn’t work during a crisis. What works is providing support. It worked when Labor did it during the global financial crisis, in spite of the opposition of those opposite. But we have been constructive. We haven’t acted like they acted; we have acted like a responsible opposition. Our amendments we put forward are essentially to provide that safety net so that no-one who is working will be worse off than someone who isn’t. It is a commonsense proposition that should be supported by this House. We intend to advocate for it here. We intend to advocate for it in discussions with the government. I say that I think this is an unintended consequence—I hope it is—because, frankly, it just doesn’t make sense. (Time expired)