I am speaking on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020 today because it’s critical that Australians who are struggling right now as a result of this pandemic get the extra support they need, especially those in my electorate of Jagajaga, who are only just coming out of stage 4 restrictions this week. I support this bill, and the timing is important; however, this bill does not go far enough. That’s why I support the amendment moved by the shadow minister to extend the $250-per-fortnight coronavirus supplement until March in line with JobKeeper to better support pensioners—those on the aged pension, the disability support pension and the carer payment—and to permanently increase the base rate of the JobSeeker payment. There is a pretty special feeling in Melbourne this morning as we emerge from stage 4 restrictions. I certainly had a big smile on my face as I strolled up the street for my morning coffee and saw the chairs and tables back out in front of the cafes and the shops opening their doors. I even had to face some traffic, because I drove into the office this morning. So things are looking up for us.
But it would be ridiculous to pretend we’re about to experience some sort of miraculous snapback and that people are not going to need support to navigate our COVID-normal landscape. We know, from previous recessions, that employment numbers take a long time to recover. We know, from looking at the current numbers, that it’s not just people in Melbourne who are suffering job losses. The economy is weak not just in Victoria but right around Australia. The latest job numbers released show jobs were lost in every single state and territory. We’ve got a million people unemployed, and another 160,000 people will join the unemployment queues between now and Christmas Pushing these people into poverty makes absolutely no sense. It’s only seven weeks till Christmas, and people relying on the coronavirus supplement need certainty, not a cruel cut.
We are well past the stage where this government should be legislating a permanent increase in the base rate of the JobSeeker payment. Even before this crisis, we knew that the level of this payment was leaving people in unacceptable poverty: people having to make decisions about which meals they could afford to eat in a day or cutting back on meals for themselves so they could afford to feed their children; people couch surfing or moving between precarious forms of accommodation because they couldn’t afford rent or mortgages. And we know that older women and single parents have disproportionately been affected by this—people making unacceptable decisions because it’s not possible to live on $40 a day. And we’ve seen stories of people who, since the increase in the payment, have done things they haven’t done in years: gone to sleep without adding up the bills one final time; got a haircut or a new pair of shoes; felt equipped to actually begin the search for work, even within our current precarious employment environment.
Pushing people back into poverty will do nothing to grow employment in our community. It will do nothing to support the small businesses who are reopening in our community. When most people who are relying on the JobSeeker payment don’t have the money to go to the shops, to grab an extra coffee or to buy the school supplies that they need, that will hurt our small businesses. It’s time for the government to do the right thing and permanently increase the base rate of the JobSeeker payment. We don’t need a Christmas cut; we need a permanent increase.
The budget left Australians on JobSeeker aged under 35—almost one million Australians—out of the budget and ineligible for the government’s wage hire subsidies. Again, we know that older Australians represent the largest cohort on JobSeeker. These are the people who also face the most difficult challenge in finding work because of the structural barriers in front of them and age discrimination in our workforce. Just yesterday, I was contacted by a distraught member of my community who lives in Diamond Creek. She was made redundant this year as a result of the pandemic. She is now on the JobSeeker payment and she is struggling to cover her mortgage payments. She is acutely aware of how discriminatory the government’s JobMaker program is. She told me: ‘People of my age group have simply been left out to dry and thrown in the trash. Why would an employer, in the very limited job market, employ me over a person under 30 years of age whereby the government will financially assist the wages of a younger person?’ She has really summed up the flaw in the Morrison government’s support here. She also forwarded me an advertisement for a job she had applied for. The job criteria stipulated: ‘Preferably you are under 30 years old and receiving one of these three forms of welfare in the last 12 months—JobSeeker, youth allowance or the parenting payment—so that the JobMaker grant is eligible.’ So here’s a woman desperate to work and doing what she can to apply for jobs. She is being left out of being able to apply for these jobs because of the discriminatory way this government has put together its JobMaker program. All the while, she won’t know what payment she’ll be receiving beyond Christmas this year because this government refuses to put in place a permanent increase in the rate of JobSeeker. It’s unacceptable.
This is the reality facing thousands of middle-aged Australians who currently find themselves out of work and looking for jobs in a highly competitive market. The odds really are stacked against them. The Morrison government is just making it even harder for them to be considered for a new role. In Jagajaga at the moment there are almost 7,000 people relying on the JobSeeker payment. This is an increase of 4,130 people in our community who have been relying on unemployment payments since the start of this pandemic. These are people whose lives have changed drastically in the last few months, and the JobSeeker payment is what they are using to keep their families going, to pay their bills, to pay their health care, to make sure every day they can get up and keep going. At the same time as they are struggling to readjust their circumstances during a pandemic, this government is ignoring their need for certainty. These members of our community deserve to know what support they will receive and how they will pay their bills after Christmas. It is needlessly cruel of the Prime Minister and his social security minister to refuse to provide them with this certainty. These people need a permanent increase to the JobSeeker rate.
Labor’s amendment to this bill will also create a requirement for the government to do more to support age pensioners, disability pensioners and carers. These people have experienced increased costs during this pandemic. I know I have been contacted by many who feel they have been left out in the Morrison government’s response. They deserve security, and there is capacity for the minister to better support these people. Of course, we know the government often forgets about pensioners. The government were caught out by Labor on the pension freeze for 2.5 billion pensions, and that’s the only reason they acted on it. Labor fought this disrespectful and cruel freeze. The reality is that pensioners planned their twice-yearly indexation, one on 20 March and the other on 20 September. The government was first caught out on their pension freeze in August. The freeze took effect in September, and yet the government made pensioners wait for the October budget before announcing any kind of relief. The government have had a long track record of cutting or attempting to cut the pension. And I note they still haven’t adjusted deeming rates, which remain significantly higher than interest rates. This is punishing pensioners. We absolutely need to do more for pensioners—for age pensioners, disability pensioners and people relying on carers payments.
This bill is adjusting how some families qualify for paid parental leave. To be eligible, a person must satisfy the work test, and the existing work test requires a person to have worked 10 of the 13 months prior to the birth or adoption of a child and at least 330 hours in that 10-month period. I have been contacted by families who are concerned about how this work test would operate in the pandemic and how it may actually cut them out of a payment that they were expecting when they first got pregnant and thought about how they were going to support their child financially. Sitting here as someone who is expecting a child in two months, I feel very fortunate that I’m not worrying about how I will support her or him financially. But I am really aware that there is a lot going on in those months before a child is born. So these people really deserve certainty. Again, it’s a shame that it’s taken the government so long to act on this, when Labor called for the government to temporarily suspend the work test as early as April this year so that families would know that they wouldn’t miss out, so they would have that time to plan and not add this financial stress to all the other stresses and lists that are in your mind as you plan a birth. Families do need certainty about their access to paid parental leave during these challenging times, and it’s disappointing it has taken the government this long to make this adjustment. It really has been an excruciating wait for so many families.
This bill also temporarily amends the circumstances in which a person may be regarded as independent for youth allowance. In May Labor called on the government to provide case-by-case amendments to the youth allowance parental income test. That was in May, and we’re only just getting around to it now. That’s because we were concerned that tertiary students would miss out on youth allowance and would be unable to afford to continue their studies. I have heard this concern from a number of young people in my community—young people who are facing such disruption in their lives, who have gone to uni, who have gone online for learning, who have lost their casual jobs, who are in such a different position to where they expected to be at the start of this year. Many of them did not expect that they would be forced by financial circumstances to go back and live with their parents. They are really distressed about the economic situation they find themselves in. They are concerned about how they are going to be able to complete their studies. They are concerned about being a burden on their families.
These are not ordinary times, and what we don’t want to see is students deciding that they need to drop out of study because they can’t afford it, because we haven’t made this change. Again, it is disappointing that the government has taken so long to act on this issue and has created a long and needlessly anxious period for our students. Currently in my community there are 466 young people relying on youth allowance. I want to make sure they are supported to get a good education, that they don’t feel like their finances are going to drop them out, and so this is a very important change.
Throughout this pandemic, Labor has been supportive of measures that support people who need it most in our community. What we have at the moment is the need for certainty. People in our community on JobSeeker need certainty. They are doing it tough. They are the people who face the worries that many of us are fortunate not to have to think about, and there are too many of them at this time. These people do not deserve to return to a rate of $40 a day. They need certainty from the government. I know we had one answer from the Prime Minister yesterday in question time about what might be happening and another answer today in estimates from the relevant minister, but, as the shadow minister said in her speech about this bill, it’s incomprehensible that the government hasn’t already been thinking about what it might do with the JobSeeker payment beyond Christmas. That’s only seven weeks away.
If the government is already thinking about it, if these plans are being put in place, be honest with the Australian people about the level of support you are going to give them beyond Christmas. People need to plan their lives. People need to know where they’ll be living, how they’ll be paying their rent, how they’ll be supporting their kids to go to school next year. These are major life decisions. They don’t get made with two weeks notice. It’s up to the government now to do what it needs to do to support these people on a permanent basis and provide a permanent increase to the JobSeeker rate.