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Speech: Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 1 Sep 2020

I rise on behalf of the Greens to speak to the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020. The bill extends the prescribed period of operations for the coronavirus payment framework, which allows JobKeeper to be extended until March of next year. It also enables the ATO to share some JobKeeper payment information with the Commonwealth, state and territory government agencies. The bill extends the temporary JobKeeper fair work provisions in part 6-4C of the Fair Work Act, except for those relating to annual leave, until next March.

Much of the detail will be left up to delegated legislation. The Greens have been supportive of the JobKeeper wage subsidy and are on record as having pushed for a way to guarantee wages from very early on in the COVID-19 crisis. My Greens colleague in the other place, the member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, said, in speaking to this bill last week:

When the crisis started to hit, the Greens were the first party in parliament to call for some form of wage and job guarantee. We made it very clear that the government's initial response—shovelling billions out of the door to help business—was only part of the response.

Has JobKeeper been a success? Well, it has been a mixed bag.

There's no doubt that millions of people who would otherwise be out of work have benefited from the scheme. Plenty of businesses have accessed it and it has allowed them to stay afloat and keep their staff on board. This is, of course, a good thing. However, there are many cracks in the system and things haven't been smooth sailing. Unconscionably, temporary visa holders were locked out of the scheme. This set Australia apart from other countries in how we have taken care of members of the community who don't happen to be citizens or permanent residents. It has created a tiered system of residents in this country and, frankly, we should be ashamed. Businesses with reliable hardworking, highly skilled employees have been unable to receive JobKeeper payments for their staff. It's nonsensical, it's spiteful and it's just plain wrong.

Also infamously locked out have been casuals employed for less than 12 months, arts and creative industry workers, and our public university staff. Shamefully, early learning and care workers were the first to be kicked off the JobKeeper payment last month. It was reported last week that Crown Resorts has received at least $111 million in JobKeeper payments, but our public universities have not received a single cent. This chamber very narrowly voted down my disallowance motion which would have scrapped the rules that exclude some of the universities from accessing JobKeeper payments. But the government dug its heels in, and university job losses continue to mount in the thousands upon thousands. I have to say that it has been incredibly devastating for our universities who are already grappling with the loss of international students that will cause financial pain not only this year but over the next few years and possibly much of this decade. On top of that, we have the government choosing this moment to introduce a bill that will cut university funding even more. You really can't make this stuff up.

Let me be clear: the Greens support the extension of JobKeeper. There is no other option than to continue to provide a wage subsidy. JobKeeper has provided much-needed support to many thousands of people, but there were real problems and gaps in the original package, and there are big flaws in this bill as well. We have serious concerns with this bill and the related proposals. As, I understand, the Labor Party and others on the crossbench will, I also will move amendments in the Senate to make this bill more equitable for people. I will identify some of these issues that I've highlighted at this point and I will have more to say about the legislation at the committee stage.

This bill creates what is effectively a new category of employee. This is someone who is employed by a business that was eligible for JobKeeper payments and could access the emergency industrial relations powers that give businesses the power to reduce their hours, but now the business turnover has improved somewhat and they are no longer eligible for wage subsidy. In this scenario, the government won't provide JobKeeper for the business, but it will continue to allow them to follow the emergency powers and reduce their employees' hours. As my colleague Adam Bandt put it in the other place:

… there will be a category of businesses that, on the one hand, the government thinks are doing so well that they don't need to give JobKeeper to their employees but, on the other hand, are apparently doing so badly that they can cut their employees' pay.

This is perverse, and it's a cynical outcome. We will be looking at amendments to change this at the committee stage. The bill would force workers to foot the bill for businesses' recovery by letting legacy employers cut workers' hours by up to 40 per cent. For shift workers, it would mean the loss of even more than 40 per cent of their income if they lose hours that are subject to penalty rate loading. For a government to do this in the midst of a recession is nothing short of cruel.

Another objectionable part of the new JobKeeper proposal, I would point out, is its creation of a two-tiered system of payment, where people employed for less than 20 hours a week will receive a much lower payment than those employed with more hours. Those who are far more likely to be in insecure or part-time work are far more likely to be women, and they will see their payments cut. Women are already bearing the brunt of the economic impacts of the pandemic—so much so that economists have said we are in a pink-collar recession and so much so that women have lost their jobs twice as fast as men when the economy was shut down. Women are overrepresented as casual workers and in industries most affected by shutdowns like retail and hospitality. Women are underrepresented in the few industries—

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IN CONTINUATION 18:17: I rise to continue my speech on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020. Women are already bearing the brunt of the economic impacts of the pandemic—so much so that economists have said that we are in a pink collar recession. Women lost their jobs twice as fast as men when the economy was shut down. Women are over-represented as casual workers and in industries most affected by shutdowns like retail and hospitality. Women are under-represented in the few industries which received targeted stimulus, such as the construction sector. Young women have been forced to dip into their already meagre superannuation balances at disproportionate rates to make it through the crisis, which is going to decimate their retirement savings.

The government's approach to early childhood education and care was a double whammy for women and their earning potential. Not only did the government rip away access to free child care—potentially one of the most significant boosts to women's capacity to enter and remain in the workforce in a generation—but it carved the highly feminised early learning and care workforce out of JobKeeper altogether, months before the scheme was originally scheduled to end.

There has been no job creation for women during this crisis and there is none planned for the recovery. Instead, women have been totally shafted and left to fend for themselves. I've said it before and I'll say it again: our recovery plans must have women at the front and centre of planning and decision-making. This recovery must be a feminist recovery.

Creating this two-tier JobKeeper system will also be a disaster. Can I remind the chamber that we are in the middle of a pandemic and in the middle of a recession. This is not the time to be cutting the critical JobKeeper payment, which is $1,500 at the moment; it's really barely a living wage to begin with. A cut down to $1,200 and a staggeringly low $750 in the case of part-time workers will put extra stress on people at a time when we should be doing everything we can to reduce anxiety and economic uncertainty and maintain household liquidity. JobKeeper should remain at $1,500 and there should be no tiered system.

The worst part is that the government didn't need to package up cuts to workers' conditions and incomes with the extension of JobKeeper. We could have enabled the extension of JobKeeper and the existing flexibility measures for eligible businesses simply by changing the prescribed period of the existing act. We didn't need to bring down the payments. But of course this government couldn't pass up the opportunity to wedge in some corporate welfare, weaken employment conditions for swathes of workers and shift the cost of recovery on to workers who are already doing it tough.

We know that protecting people's incomes is one of the most effective mechanisms to cushion the blow of an economic downturn. We know that low incomes perpetuate recessions and depressions. We know that one of the key drivers of homelessness is unaffordable rents at the bottom of the private market. Yet, when the economy needs more stimulus as it reopens, we see the government choosing contradictory policies. Slashing JobKeeper and JobSeeker and allowing businesses to cut workers' hours and wages will drive hundreds of thousands of people closer to poverty and homelessness. This could not come at a worse time, with an approaching end to the ban on evictions. This cliff is upon us—the federal government must extend the ban on evictions alongside extending JobKeeker and making sure that the current rate of JobSeeker continues.

When the government finally introduced measures like the coronavirus supplement to JobSeeker and other social security payments and the JobKeeper wage subsidy earlier this year, what we saw from them was an acceptance that, when a crisis hits, economic and social reality beat ideology. The government was rightly afraid of the public health catastrophe that we faced. But let's not forget that this irresponsible, economically illiterate government actively encouraged workers to dip into their superannuation in the worst possible market conditions—shifting the costs of the pandemic on to ordinary workers and hollowing out their retirement savings. Yet even that theft of people's future security was an acknowledgement by the government that what the economy needs right now is cash flowing through it and that the state holds the levers to make that happen.

The pandemic has exposed the great neoliberal lie that governments don't have the power to end poverty and homelessness, the lie that there is no alternative to inequality and insecure work and housing—that they're unavoidable conditions of modern life. The government's response to this crisis was uncharacteristically interventionist because reality forced their hand. What we are seeing now are desperate attempts at winding back that intervention before it's too late. Sadly, to this government and their corporate backers, emerging from this pandemic with a population that expect the state to provide an expanded, decent social safety net, would be disastrous. The government could have chosen simply to extend the JobKeeper package or, even better, to improve it by expanding eligibility to all workers who need it and ensuring that all workers could access paid pandemic leave to protect their incomes, their jobs and the health of their families and the community. Instead, the government are returning to form with a vengeance: devaluing the sectors of the economy where women make up a high proportion of the workforce, making policy decisions based on culture wars and backwards economic thinking, pushing people back into poverty and blaming them for it, and putting the interests of business before the interests of ordinary people. We cannot let them get away with it.

The Greens will seek to fix this bill, and I urge the Labor Party and the crossbench to stand up for workers and the community by voting to maintain adequate income support and protect workers' pay and conditions. Together we can force this government to give people the support they need to stay out of poverty and to ensure that workers are not the ones footing the bill for this pandemic. We can and must emerge from this pandemic safer and more secure, committed to building an economy and a society with people's needs at their heart.

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