Federal Parliament - Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2020

December 02, 2020

Dr ALY: I want to start by echoing some of the sentiments exposed by the member for Mayo, particularly those sentiments around the beneficial elements of this bill, the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020, in its giving ability for the continuation of the coronavirus supplement until 31 March, which is obviously something we'd like to support. Indeed, the bill has several beneficial elements. It continues the coronavirus supplement for a number of allowances—youth allowance, students and apprentices—until after December as well as increased income-free areas, tapering rates and partner income tests, which were all introduced as part of the government's package to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

But I also want to express here real disappointment that this bill presents a huge missed opportunity for this government to permanently raise the rate of JobSeeker. In doing so, I support the amendments put forward by the shadow minister and the member for Barton, which are aimed at getting the government to, first of all, not cut the coronavirus supplement at Christmas; second, deliver a permanent increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker payment; and, third, retain ongoing powers to keep paying the coronavirus supplement after 31 March. Let's not pretend that 31 March is some kind of cut-off rate when the pandemic is suddenly going to stop and the economic impacts of the pandemic are suddenly going to stop. The amendments also retain ongoing powers to make other beneficial changes to taper rates, income tests and eligibility criteria after 31 March 2021.

The member for Mayo made a very good point—and it's a point I often make—about the fact that, as parliamentarians, we get $280 a day or thereabouts for our travel allowance. I thank her for making that point. I think it behoves each one of us in parliament to reflect on that today—and possibly every day that we're here. That daily allowance that we get would be equivalent to a week of payment on JobSeeker if it goes back to its pre-coronavirus rate—$280 a week compared to $280 a day. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing against the fact that obviously we need a travel allowance. Yes, those of us who rent or stay in hotel accommodation do need that, but I think it's important for us as parliamentarians to reflect on just what that means: our daily rate is equivalent to what the JobSeeker rate would go down to once this coronavirus supplement has ceased—$280 a week. I ask each and every parliamentarian—there are not many in the House today, but I know that there are those who are possibly watching this in their office—to reflect on how they could live, and if they could live, on $280 a week. You're living on $280 a day today. Think about what it would be like trying to live on that for a week.

I've lived on that. I've lived on that and raised two children, and it's not easy. You have to choose between putting food on the table and paying your rent. Often, you have to do that. As the member for Mayo, the member for Macarthur and the member for Wills rightly pointed out, we're moving into Christmas and, come January, the bills will pile up. You'll get your rates bills, which can be in the thousands, and the electricity bill and the gas bill. Often, you'll end up putting those bills off and try to make payment arrangements because you need to buy books to send your kids to school with. You need to buy their school uniforms and their pens and pencils and other things they need to go to school with. That can run into the hundreds of dollars as well. We're on a pretty good wicket here, and sometimes it's really easy for us to forget that there are so many Australians who are in such a dire state that even $10 is so much more significant for them.

I want to talk a little bit about what this bill does. We know that at the start of the pandemic the government introduced the coronavirus supplement, which was an additional $550 a fortnight. We supported all of that. In fact, we'd called for the government to have these wage and JobSeeker supports in place not just during the coronavirus supplement but even before that. Members on this side have been calling for an increase in the JobSeeker rate, and whatever it was called before then—what was it called before then?

Ms Burney interjecting

Dr ALY: The Newstart rate; thank you, member for Barton. Currently, the coronavirus supplement is paid through these regulation-making powers of the minister under the Social Security Act. This bill takes that away, beyond 31 March. That's quite curious to me, because surely the impacts of this pandemic will linger beyond 31 March. I don't know why it's 31 March. It seems to be some kind of arbitrary cut-off point that the government chose. I can't quite understand why—perhaps it was picked out of a hat. I don't know. But it's clearly obvious, I think, to everybody in this place that the economic and social impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are going to linger well beyond that.

Yesterday, in question time, the government ministers who were asked questions referred—I don't know if anyone else noticed—to the term 'comeback' quite consistently. I think it's the next most used thing after 'snapback'. Remember when they used to use snapback? Now they're saying comeback. I think that's quite telling, because it really speaks to what's going on here. We have a government that thinks it's okay to pay $30 million for a piece of land that's worth $3 million and thinks it's okay to stand up for a former senator utilising $4,000 an hour—it's not even a day, it's an hour; I don't even know what $4,000 an hour looks like—of taxpayers' money for what, essentially, is a job interview. Yes, we support an Australian in the OECD but it's a post-political career—yet the government expects a million Australians who are unemployed to make do on $40 a day. What does $40 a day buy you these days? It doesn't buy you much, really. Imagine having to pay your rent, your rates, your electricity bill and all your other bills and still buy food and—if you've got children—feed your children on $40 a day.

I think government members' use of this term 'comeback' is telling of the philosophy behind this bill. It really amounts to abject cruelty and the dismissal of Australians who are struggling through this pandemic—Australians who have lost their jobs, as well as Australians who are in insecure employment and know that they could lose their jobs tomorrow. I think it says a lot about how this government treats them. But what do you expect from government members who think that it's okay to live on $40 a day, who think that they could do it but have never done it, and who talk about 'lifters and leaners' and 'giving a hand up, not a handout'? If that's the philosophy and the ideology with which this government approaches our robust social security system, then I really do despair for our nation. Australia is the envy of the world for its social security system and for the fact that we have a system that looks after the most vulnerable.

One of the other things that this bill does is remove the minister's ability to make regulations that waive the liquid assets waiting period and assets period. The government shouldn't have reinstated the liquid assets waiting period in September. That has had real consequences for people. I was approached by a resident of Cowan, a resident in my community, who had been let go from a job that he had worked in for a number of years. He got a very small redundancy payment, nothing to write home about—let me just say, it was a lot less than what some members here will get as a pension when they leave. With that, he bought a car, because he needed a car to look for work, and paid some bills, but he was unable to get JobSeeker payments because of the waiting period. He was unable to get any form of assistance because of the waiting period. With that, he faced homelessness, he faced poverty, he had to go to food banks to feed himself, and he was unable to look after his son, who he shares custody of with his ex-partner. It really had an impact on his mental health and wellbeing as well. These are the real consequences of some of the measures in this bill.

I don't think there is a member in this House—I'd be surprised if there were—who has not had people from their electorates, like people from Cowan, come to them in a desperate state because of losing their jobs, because of being unable to find employment—particularly those over the age of 50. Let's face it: if you're over 50 and lose a job, it is so much more difficult to find a job. People have come saying that there is nothing for them, that there is nowhere for them to go, and that there is nothing for them in the government's 2020 budget to help them either find a job or get into to work to help them recover from the economic and social impacts of the coronavirus.

In closing, I reiterate my opening points. Whilst there are many beneficial elements of this bill—and we definitely support continuing the coronavirus supplement for youth allowance after December—the amendments that the member for Barton has put forward are going to benefit all Australians. In particular, for my community in Cowan, they are amendments that we need to have to ensure that those most vulnerable members of the Cowan community are able to get through what are going to be the lingering impacts of the coronavirus. Other members have mentioned the broader economic impact of not being able to support local businesses, not being able to buy local and not being able to spend money in businesses and the flow-on impact that that'll have on businesses as well; that's another concern that I share.

I support the amendment put forward by the member for Barton. And I urge this government very strongly to consider the fact that returning to the JobSeeker Payment pre-coronavirus is going to have a significant impact on Australians and a flow-on impact on the economy. This time is the perfect time for us to be discussing a permanent increase to the JobSeeker Payment.