Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020 Second Reading Speech

October 28, 2020

I'm very pleased to support the member for Barton's amendment to the Social Services and other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus And Other Measures) Bill 2020 and to speak on some of the measures that it contains. I want to start with the positives. The one thing that I'm really pleased to see in this bill is changes to the tests to be eligible for paid parental leave. It is extraordinary, as we've heard here today, that these changes had to be backdated. This is something that should have been in place right from the start. It was always obvious that people's work patterns were going to be interrupted, particularly the work patterns of pregnant women. We have no idea what coronavirus does to pregnancy and newborn babies, and certainly back in March we had even less idea. We've still got so much to learn about it. So it was always going to be an impact for women in that situation.

I was contacted recently by Louise who has been struggling with these issues about trying to meet the eligibility criteria for paid parental leave. Her baby is not due until December. She had a tough start to the year, in fact her father died in March, just as coronavirus was really taking hold. And not long after she found out she was pregnant. That in itself was a joy because it wasn't something that she had expected to happen easily. The advice to her from her GP, the supporting practitioners she had around her and the school that she taught at was that she should err on the side of caution so she did. But when it came to filling in the form that asked why she was off early, in terms of eligibility for paid parental leave, there wasn't even a box to tick to say, 'Well, that would be because of COVID.' The system hadn't even caught up with the fact that there was a problem.

She has been really distressed because she is only about 35 days short of the number of days she has to have worked to be eligible for paid parental leave, but missing out by 35 days means she misses out on the whole amount, and that means being up to $15,000 worse off. It's not something that she was looking forward to having to cope with. Right now, as a pregnant person who's not working—and she's not eligible for JobSeeker—the family income is already taking a hit. But with this legislation she is very hopeful, even confident, that she will be able to access paid parental leave. So I really welcome this amendment, because there are many Louises who, since March, have been wondering: 'What's it going to be like? How long am I going to have to survive on my partner's income?'

The other positive thing I see in this legislation is around youth allowance. Again, this has to be backdated, because the government has belatedly realised that, oh yes, there was a problem there. I know things had to happen fast, but there were certain obvious place to look, and supporting people who are the most vulnerable through our social security system ought to have been a key priority for the government. The changes to youth allowance will obviously support young people. For those who want to do working holidays and gap years, I hope that this facilitates those sorts of arrangements and allows them to meet the independence criteria more easily.

The key part of this legislation relates to people who are unemployed. I think that everyone in this place has recognised, whether they've admitted it or not, that $40 a day is not enough to survive on, let alone thrive. It's certainly not enough to be actively jobseeking and preparing yourself for the workforce. Yet we're here talking about a reduction to a benefit that has, as we've heard, transformed people's lives. It has allowed them to get on top of debt and plan in advance for certain events and certain bills. I've heard such stories in my own electorate. Yet we've got a minister and a Prime Minister who are refusing to give any certainty to this same group of people, saying: 'We'll tell you later; we'll tell you in December. We're just working on it.'

What we've had this week is the minister not being able to rule in or out future permanent rises but then stressing that what she was looking at was temporary assistance, temporary measures, temporary conditions and temporary supports. That's not going to do anything for the mental health of people on unemployment benefits. It's not going to do anything to give them confidence for the future. It's not going to do anything to allow them to plan, to maybe think about how to take the next step. I'm really struggling with the idea that the government has asked us to support something that is very temporary, rather than focus on the impact on the individuals. I think we all recognise the difference it makes to someone's hip pocket.

I want to look at the difference it makes for our economy, because that's the other major consequence of the government not getting this right. We learnt just today that the number of people on unemployment payments will surge to 1.8 million by December, 300,000 more than the previous projections. That's from the Department of Social Services in Senate estimates today. We've also had it confirmed that the number of people who will find themselves on unemployment payments will be higher in 2024 than it was before the recession. The projections are 1.3 million in 2021-22, one million in 2022-23 and then 900,000 in 2023-24.

To put that into context, there were 813,000 people relying on unemployment benefits in December 2019. This obviously shows us the jobs crisis is going to get worse, yet has been there no plan for jobs from this government. For the people who rely on benefits, for every person who doesn't have enough to live on, social security benefits flow through to our local economies. They flow through to my local businesses—the hairdressers, the coffee shops, the supermarket, the petrol station. Every single business in my community relies on there being a flow-through of funds, and we all know that people who are on social security benefits flow all that money through into the economy. So it is a very short-sighted move to say, 'Let's squeeze these individuals.' Even setting aside the impact it has on them individually—on their health, their families, their mental health—think about what the consequences are for our economy. I'm conscious that there is a perception that businesses are struggling to employ people. There's no doubt that it is a patchy recession and there are uneven consequences. But that's not a good enough reason to make everybody suffer, which is what concern about not having ongoing permanent support does. If JobKeeper can be sustained till March, why can't JobSeeker be sustained at least until then? Why can't we see levels commensurate with what we're putting into other things? This inconsistency is very hard to fathom.

I drew interesting conclusions from the latest Deloitte Businessoutlook, which talks about 2021 looking more like a usual recession rather than the sort of recession that we're seeing. We may or may not still be in a recession technically, but we all know the consequences of a recession: it gets cleaned up on paper a long time before it gets sorted through in the community. The report talks about families and businesses facing a cash crunch between now and the end of March 2021 as JobKeeper and JobSeeker are dialled back, so it reinforces the idea that while the recession arrived fast it's going to leave us slowly. Measures that pull back support too fast are absolutely going to mean there will be a cash crunch.

As I said, it is going to be different in different areas. I look at the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury, in my electorate of Macquarie. My wonderful manufacturers of teardrop caravans, Frank and Olga, are doing really well. They are in one of those businesses that are really thriving in this environment. They're in South Windsor. Frank took a punt. He built seven of his teardrop caravans not knowing whether or not it was a good decision. It has proved to be a fabulous thing to do. They're being bought sight unseen online. But that isn't the case for every business. People aren't necessarily in businesses that have been able to thrive in this very peculiar and difficult set of circumstances.

Deloitte concludes that right now we need continuing government support. The government need to be going hard and going smart. That is what Australia needs right now. My concern is that this is not smart. It will be devastating for many individuals and their families, but it may also be devastating for our economy. What's absolutely appalling is that the Prime Minister has no plan to get even close to full employment—not even a hope of it, let alone a plan for it. They are the considerations I would urge the government to have.

The last point I want to make is about pensioners, because they are also covered in this bill. The pension freeze was a shock for pensioners. The rise wasn't going to be very much but it was factored into their expectations—a permanent small bit regularly to help them manage the additional costs they face. There is no doubt that COVID has cost people more money, not just pensioners but also people with disabilities, carers—there's a whole group of people who simply have had to hand over more money—yet what they're going to see is two lots of $250. That isn't sufficient, and I'd really ask the government to consider more compassion for people who really have no choice but to accept what they're given.

So these are some of the limitations of this bill. As I say, I wanted to start with the positives, but there are so many more things that could have been achieved by a piece of legislation such as this, and I only wish the government was able to put itself in other people's shoes and think about what would not only work not for those individuals but then flow through and support local economies like mine in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury.