Parliamentary speeches

Social Services (Coronavirus and other measures) Bill 2020

October 28, 2020

I rise to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020, and in support of the second reading amendment moved by my friend the shadow minister and the member for Barton. Before I turn to the substance of the bill, I'd like to acknowledge the contribution of the member for Higgins and in particular her affecting and informed remarks in terms of her former profession, going to the question of stillbirth, which is obviously one of the issues that is the subject of this bill. While I also share her hopes for 2021, I can't say that I share her entire assessment of the legislation that is before the House, but I wanted to acknowledge what a moving and important contribution she just made on that aspect of the bill. This is something that affects too many Australians, and I'm so glad that we've seen bipartisan action to give recognition to something that has been too little talked about in this building, while very often talked about around kitchen tables across this country. That that has been rectified and appropriately recognised is something that I think all of us in this place should be proud of, and I acknowledge her contribution in that regard.

Of course, the bill is designed to provide very significant support to pensioners and seniors during the pandemic, support which pensioners and seniors in my electorate in Scullin both need and, most definitely, deserve. But this bill, much like the Morrison government's 2020 budget across the board, is really defined by one characteristic: missed opportunity. We have before us a missed opportunity for pensioners, a missed opportunity for unemployed Australians, a missed opportunity for elderly Australians in aged care and a missed opportunity to make Australia a better place—a place where no-one is held back and no-one is left behind. As we start to imagine what our country might look like beyond COVID, we simply can't afford not to seize this critical moment, not just to recover but to build a stronger society. In thinking about that, I'm thinking about the member for Barton, the shadow minister, and what a difference it would make to that aspiration if she were the minister, if she could bring her passion, her experience, her dedication and her deep sense of justice to the challenge that is before our nation now. The budget delivered a couple of weeks ago was a missed opportunity for Australians who've lost their job as a result of this Morrison recession, a missed opportunity because it failed to deliver much-needed certainty to people who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. It was undoubtedly a good thing that the government increased the rate of JobSeeker for six months through the coronavirus supplement. I know that the emergency service providers in my own area of Melbourne saw the difference it made. I think of organisations like Whittlesea Community Connections and the Whittlesea Food Collective, which they helped establish, and of the stories of clients they weren't seeing, of families who, for the first time in quite some time, were able to feed themselves and start to improve their lives. What a difference that made.

But this bill doesn't provide certainty. That's why I'm so pleased to support the amendment moved by the member for Barton, which will create an obligation on the minister to extend the $250 per fortnight coronavirus supplement until the end of March, in line with JobKeeper. An extension of that extra $250 is essential for so many Australians as we near the festive season. People need certainty and stability at this time of great disruption, and people frankly deserve the dignity that this would secure. Labor's amendment, to extend the $250 supplement, will help provide some much-needed certainty, because the truth is 160,000 Australians are expected to lose their jobs before Christmas and the number of people on JobKeeper is expected to reach 1.6 million. These Australians doing it tough deserve our support. They deserve the best shot at bouncing back from this recession. But in order for that to happen they need the certainty and security that the old Newstart rate of $40 a day won't grant them. We know that $40 a day will condemn people to poverty, to misery and to personal risk, too, as the pandemic has so awfully revealed in so many stories. This is what's at stake. Do we want to plunge more than a million Australians below the poverty line or do we want to be a generous nation, a nation that invests in our people, that's confident in them and their capacities if given the chance, if given the support? Do we want to be a nation that makes sure that if people lose their job they aren't held back by inadequate unemployment benefit and everything that that entails? We know that with more jobseekers then there are job vacancies there are simply not enough jobs for everyone who needs one. We know that this shortage of jobs is particularly acute because of the pandemic and for particular parts of the economy and particular regions of our country.

I want to speak very briefly about someone in my electorate, Shannon, although that's not her real name, from Epping. Shannon has been on JobSeeker since late last year, so she's seen the difference that the extra support from the coronavirus supplement has made. She says, 'Looking for work takes a lot of time, money and emotional energy. You actually need a reasonable amount of money to pay the bills, to pay for transport to go to job interviews and to pay for the internet to look for job vacancies.' She says, 'Just because you're out of work it doesn't mean the bills stop needing to be paid.' So please, Prime Minister; please, Treasurer; please, Minister for Families and Social Services: if you're not going to listen to me, listen to Shannon and do justice to Shannon and the hundreds of thousands of people in her circumstances, people who've been given an opportunity to make their lives with dignity and to look for work with confidence and who are seeing that slip away.

This bill will also temporarily amend the circumstances in which a person may be regarded as independent for youth allowance. In May, the Leader of the Labor Party called on the government to provide case-by-case exemptions to the youth allowance parental income test. Labor was concerned that tertiary students would be missing out on youth allowance and would be unable to afford to continue their studies. These are not ordinary times, and we don't want to see students discontinuing tertiary studies because they can't afford to support themselves or their families can't afford to support them. It is disappointing that the government has taken this long to act on this issue. May was a long time ago, as those of us from Melbourne perhaps feel particularly acutely right now, and it's been a long and anxious period for students, for those directly affected in particular.

I want to give a shout-out to the young people in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. I know that this year has been tough, and I know that so much of the burden of this pandemic has fallen on young people—something else properly acknowledged by the member for Higgins. From remote learning to endless Zoom meetings, from cancelled shifts at work to big nights out with your mates that simply couldn't happen and the 18ths, 21sts, graduations and all the other rites of passage that simply couldn't happen this year, it has been a difficult year. I want to acknowledge the sacrifices that young people in particular have made to keep all of us safe.

Let's be clear: it was this Prime Minister, when he was the Minister for Social Services, who cut the pension to 330,000 pensioners, including kicking nearly 100,000 of them off the pension entirely. It was this Prime Minister who sought repeatedly to increase the pension age to 70. So pensioners are under no illusion that this Prime Minister and this Liberal government couldn't care less about them.

Let's go through the list of shame. In 2014 they tried to cut pension indexation, a cut that would have meant pensioners would be forced to live on 80 bucks a week less within 10 years. Also in that year there was $1 billion cut from pensioner concessions, support designed carefully to help pensioners meet the cost of living. Again in 2014, the government axed the $900 seniors supplement for self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth seniors health card. Again in that year, that infamous year, they tried to reset deeming rate thresholds, a cut that would have seen half a million part-pensioners made worse off. The next year we saw a deal with the Greens by this government—

Mr Conroy: Shameful!

Giles: That was a shameful decision late at night in this parliament to cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the pension assets test. The following year we saw attempts to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks, something of enormous concern to the multicultural communities that I represent and I know, Deputy Speaker Claydon, to the communities that you represent as well. Again in 2016, they tried to cut the pension for over 1.5 million Australians through scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners.

Pensioners will always be better off under Labor. The pensioners that I'm proud to represent know this. I want to say this to them: I can't wait to be able to spend time with you again as our city safely opens up and to hear directly from you about your concerns. I know that older Australians, particularly older Australians from migrant backgrounds, are the ones who've found it most difficult to remain connected to political life through the pandemic. I know how important those meetings are both as ways through which you receive information but much more importantly as ways when you can give me and my state colleagues guidance about the things that matter to you. On these issues, I've heard your concerns loud and clear and so has the entire federal Labor Party.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the plight of so many elderly pensioners in aged care during the pandemic. In Scullin, the outbreak at Epping Gardens has taken the lives of 38 people and infected more than 120 residents, along with many staff members. This was a tragedy and my heart goes out to the families and loved once personally affected by it. It's a tragedy that will leave a lasting scar on the communities of Melbourne's north for many years to come. Let me just say this: it is a disgrace that the Morrison government has still not acted fully on the interim recommendations of the royal commission. It's an absolute disgrace that does not do justice to those people.

I want to speak very briefly on the changes in this bill affecting paid parental leave. The bill is adjusting how someone qualifies for PPL. To be eligible, someone 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. The concern has been that during the pandemic families would miss out on PPL because of job losses or having their hours reduced, making them ineligible and leaving them perhaps $15,000 worse off. So Labor called for the government to temporarily suspend the work test as early as April this year so that families wouldn't miss out. In June, we moved amendments in the Senate for the work test to be suspended. But, again, the Morrison government voted this down.

I've talked a lot about certainty—that is, the certainty Australians deserve to get through this crisis and to rebuild. That applies here. Families need certainty about their capacity to access paid parental leave during these challenging times. It is disappointing, to say the very least, that it has taken the government this long to make this adjustment. It's worth noting that next year marks ten years since the Rudd-Gillard Labor government introduced Australia's first paid parental leave scheme under Jenny Macklin, the former member for Jagajaga. It's a scheme that has been a major policy success story. It's something that deserves to be recognised. It has transformed lives and helped boost workforce participation—one of those three Ps that will drive our economy forward in the recovery.

In conclusion, Labor supports the measures outlined in the bill. They're measures that Labor has been advocating for from the beginning of the pandemic earlier this year—a time that feels much, much longer ago. But now it's just eight weeks until Christmas. Around one million Australians, relying on the coronavirus supplement, need certainty, not an unfair cut. That is why we are moving this vital amendment to extend the supplement until March, in line with JobKeeper, and require the government to announce a permanent, just increase in the JobSeeker payment. I hope government members are listening to their communities and their conscience and will support that amendment.