Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020

Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020 Main Image

02 December 2020

I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020 and to support the amendment moved by the member for Barton. This bill is a missed opportunity for the government to permanently increase the base rate of unemployment support, and that is why Labor is moving an amendment calling on the government to permanently increase the base rate of JobSeeker payment.

 

There are beneficial elements to this bill, including continuing the coronavirus supplement for youth allowance recipients after December, as well as the increased income-free areas, taper rates and partner income tests that have been introduced as part of the pandemic response. However, this bill confirms the government's cruel plan to snap back to pre-pandemic levels of unemployment support from 31 March next year. Taking payments back to pre-pandemic levels will hurt around two million Australians: people who've lost their jobs or whose businesses have folded, single parents and students. Vulnerable people in crisis are more at risk because of this government's decision.

 

This bill ends the minister's ability to pay the coronavirus supplement after 31 March 2021, when we know that millions of people and families will still be hurting from the economic impact of the pandemic. Labor will be moving amendments aimed at getting the government to not cut the coronavirus supplement at Christmas, to deliver a permanent increase to the base rate of JobSeeker payment, to retain ongoing powers to keep paying the coronavirus supplement after 31 March 2021, and to make other beneficial changes to taper rates, the income test and eligibility criteria after 31 March next year.

 

This bill will end the minister's power to indefinitely extend the coronavirus supplement after the end of March next year. At the start of the pandemic the government introduced the coronavirus supplement. There is a $550 fortnight additional payment to those receiving unemployment support as well as to single parents and students. Labor supported this additional payment, which was urgently needed, not just because of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic but because unemployment payments were simply too low to live on. They were forcing people and families into poverty, some of the most vulnerable people in Australia, particularly in regional and remote Australia.

 

Currently, the coronavirus supplement is paid to most people through regulation-making powers the minister has under the Social Security Act 1991. The impact of the pandemic will clearly persist for many years, with the Department of Social Services expecting the number of people relying on unemployment benefits and unemployment support to still be higher in four years time. Not only is a permanent increase in the base rate needed but the minister should also have the flexibility to continue the coronavirus supplement for as long as the impact of the pandemic persists and impacts those most vulnerable people in Australia.

 

Earlier this year Labor negotiated with the government for a separate power to be included in the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Act 2020, enabling the minister to make other changes to the social security system to help people impacted by the virus. This power ends on 31 December this year. This bill extends this power but only until 31 March next year. Labor supports this extension, but this power needs to continue for as long as the impact of the pandemic persists on our community.

 

Because of this power, which Labor insisted on, the government has been able to: introduce more generous partner income tests for JobSeeker payment, which Labor negotiated—and we're advised that around 100,000 people are benefiting from this, including 40,000 who would not otherwise have been eligible for any support during this global crisis; make changes to the JobSeeker and youth allowance personal income tests, which provide an income-free area of $300 per fortnight compared to the pre-pandemic income-free area of $106 per fortnight, something, we're advised, around 15,000 people are currently benefiting from; make changes to the JobSeeker and youth allowance eligibility criteria so sole traders, the self-employed and permanent employees who have been stood down, and people self-isolating because they or someone they are caring for has been affected by the pandemic continue to be eligible for payment; extend the time people can maintain eligibility for payment and keep concession cards; and make other beneficial changes relating to pension portability, mobility allowance and self-declaration for couple assessments.

 

This bill removes the minister's ability to make regulations that waive the liquid assets test waiting period and the assets waiting period. The government should not have reinstated the liquid assets waiting period in September, and they should drop their cruel plan to make people wait 26 weeks to get unemployment support if they have even the most modest savings. It's a false economy. It means people are forced to run down their savings, to dwindle them, and it makes it more likely they will struggle to keep a roof over their heads or keep the car on the road or food on the table. It also means people are more likely to need to rely on other support from charity, like Foodbank, or emergency relief. Labor has called on the government to continue the liquid assets waiting period suspension.

 

One hundred and sixty thousand Australians are expected to lose their jobs by the end of the year, and 1.8 million Australians are expected to be relying on unemployment support by Christmas. On the Central Coast of New South Wales in my community, there are nearly 19,000 people receiving JobSeeker and over 2,500 young people currently supported through youth allowance. There are 4,000 fewer jobs on the Central Coast than there were in February this year. Coastal communities, like mine, were severely impacted by the pandemic. Retail, hospitality and tourism have had a severe hit. Over 4,000 businesses are still relying on JobKeeper and 15,000 workers are relying completely—entirely—on JobKeeper payment.

 

The government has missed a huge opportunity for Australians doing it tough by not making a permanent increase to JobSeeker in this bill and giving the most vulnerable Australians certainty—giving them some security and peace of mind. With more than seven jobseekers for every job vacancy across Australia, there are simply not enough jobs for everyone who needs one. It's even more difficult to find a job outside of big cities, in regional areas or the outer suburbs. In my community on the Central Coast there are 15 jobseekers for every vacancy.

 

Australians relying on government support face an anxious and uncertain time this Christmas. They'll have less money to spend in local businesses, meaning less spending in the local economy. I visited The Entrance Neighbourhood Centre in my electorate this year in the middle of the pandemic. I spoke to them about the support they were offering, particularly to women and families. They said to me that, for the first time that they could recall, there were fewer parents coming in with electricity bills or needing support with groceries. Having this increase, this coronavirus supplement, has been a real benefit to people who were otherwise living in poverty and did not have enough to get by. To think that, whilst we're still feeling the impacts of the pandemic, this is going to be cut away! People, particularly women who are sole parents of families, are really going to be in crisis. It's just not fair. It puts them and their children at risk.

 

And there are older workers. In my community, one in five people are aged over 65. It's a popular place for older people to live, but it's also a hard place for an older person to get a job. If you find yourself out of work, if your business has folded or if the company you work for has reduced your hours to zero, what are you going to do? There are 15 jobseekers for every vacancy, and there's an incentive from the government to employ younger workers. The budget left out Australians on JobSeeker aged over 35. Almost one million Australians are ineligible for the wage subsidy. Older Australians are the largest group receiving JobSeeker. As I mentioned, in communities like mine there are 15 jobseekers for every job that's available, there is now an incentive for a business to take on a younger person, and structural barriers and age discrimination already exist. Where does that leave these older workers? It leaves them out in the cold. In the last 18 years, the proportion of people receiving unemployment payments who were over 55 has gone from 8.8 per cent to 26.6 per cent. It has more than trebled, and that has only made it worse for people looking for work in this crisis. There are currently an estimated 307,000 people over 55 receiving unemployment support, and they will be the ones who have the most trouble finding work.

 

I would now like to turn to how the proposals in this legislation really impact people living with mental health problems in Australia. On 16 November, the government finally released the Productivity Commission's final report into mental health, months after it received it. As was noted in chapter 19, 'Income and employment support':

Most people who experience mild to moderate mental illness are able to manage their illness and mitigate its effect on their employment. But for some, especially those with more severe illnesses, there are barriers to employment at the individual and community levels.

 

The clear and known link between financial distress and mental health crisis is, sadly, well established. Many Australians have experienced mental health distress and mental health crisis for the first time this year due to the economic impacts of the pandemic—because they're newly unemployed, because they've been reduced to a zero-hour contract or because their business has collapsed. The increase to JobSeeker payment has helped to ease this distress and helped to mitigate some of the extreme mental health impacts of this crisis. The Prime Minister has spoken many times in this House and elsewhere about his commitment to the mental health and wellbeing of all Australians, and I believe he is genuine. However, the decision to cut income support fails to do this. It undermines it. It means Australians who have relied on this support in the aftermath of the pandemic, as it continues to unfold and we still feel its impact, now face another hurdle and another risk to their mental health and wellbeing.

 

On the same day as the Productivity Commission report into mental health was released, the government also released the interim advice from the National Suicide Prevention Adviser. The introduction of the adviser is welcome, as is the government's 'towards zero' goal for suicide prevention. Any life lost to suicide is one too many. Recommendation 7.2 of the interim advice is:

Develop a Commonwealth process for reviewing new policies or initiatives to ensure they assess any impacts (positively or negatively) on suicidal risk or behaviour.

 

If that lens were applied to this legislation, it would fall short, because this legislation—dropping and cutting support to the most vulnerable people in the middle of a pandemic—risks their mental health and wellbeing and that of those around them. Cutting the rate of support for vulnerable Australians in the middle of an economic downturn, in the worst recession in 90 years—in living memory—is unlikely to help the government in its goal towards reducing suicidal ideation and suicide. Government announcements of increased funding for mental health services or direct provision of mental health services, and better access to them, are of course welcome and necessary, and often overdue. But, until the government begins to consider the consequences of policies like this, it will continue to fall short of its own aspirations.

 

This bill is a missed opportunity. It is a wasted opportunity for the government to deliver a permanent increase to unemployment payments. It also puts vulnerable people at risk. It puts vulnerable people at risk and it lays bare the government's plan for unemployment and other payments to go back to their pre-pandemic rates on 31 March 2021. This is why Labor have moved amendments, why we are calling on the government to stop its Christmas cut to unemployment payments and to announce a permanent increase to give people peace of mind, to give them certainty, to give them and their families the security that they need.

 

It seems everyone except the Prime Minister understands that returning to the old Newstart rate is not good for people. It's not good for families, it's not good for small businesses and it is not good for jobs and the economy. The RBA, the Business Council and the Retailers Association, as well as community groups and economists, support an increase in the base rate of unemployment payments. An increase would be good for people, for households, for local jobs and for local economies, particularly in areas outside of big cities—for the outer suburbs and for regional and remote Australia—and it would lift people out of poverty. The old rate was so low it was stopping people from being able to afford the basics: to keep a roof over their head, to keep groceries on the table, to be able to provide a fair go for their kids.

 

The government should show some heart this Christmas. It should really think about the most vulnerable Australians, those individuals and families who find themselves in crisis this Christmas, because the decisions that the government makes now will have profound impacts on these people and their families. This legislation would have a severe impact not just on the financial security but also on the mental health and wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable Australians.

 

I'll finish where I started by calling on the government to make a permanent increase to unemployment payments, to give people peace of mind and security and the insurance they need to be able to have a fair go, to have a good quality of life, and for us to be able to come out of this recession as a fairer country. I think that's what all Australians want. This government, as I said, should show some heart this Christmas and reverse these cruel cuts.