28 October 2020

I am pleased to rise today to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020. I echo the words of the member for Barton in calling for substantive and important amendments to better support Australians who are unemployed or facing extra costs because of the impact of coronavirus. This is the right thing to do. Labor is moving amendments to this bill to create an obligation on the minister to extend the $250 per fortnight coronavirus supplement until March, in line with JobKeeper, and to create an obligation on the minister to better support pensioners—including age pension, disability support pension and carer payment recipients—who are facing increasing costs in protecting their health because of the coronavirus pandemic. Labor is also proposing important amendments to create an obligation on the minister to announce a permanent increase to the base rate of the JobSeeker payment above the $40 a day it is currently set at—that is, the $40 a day that those currently on JobSeeker can expect to return to living on come December because this government is unwilling to make a commitment to the more than 1½ million unemployed people in this country.

The government are willing to put Australia into $1 trillion of debt but not willing to help the most vulnerable people, whose welfare payments are set to go, once again, below the poverty line after this Christmas. They say they'll look at this later in the year and make considered decisions, but the Liberals and Nationals were all too happy to make the ill-considered decision to extend the $715 million airline support package to the owners of luxury jets. The Liberal-National government will not commit to increasing the JobSeeker payment to help Australian families live above the poverty line after Christmas, but they are all too willing to send tens of thousands of dollars to help out Crown casinos, Clive Palmer's Mineralogy, Leppington Pastoral Company and other members of Australia's business and financial elite—maybe some that a few members of this place hitch a ride across the country with from time to time. There's nothing for JobKeeper and nothing for jobseekers, but roll on the gravy train for good old 'MateKeeper'.

The legislation we are debating today implements measures outlined in the 2020-21 budget, and they'll have an immediately positive impact on those affected by it as soon as next month. That's why we support the passage of this bill through the House. It implements two further one-off economic support payments of $250 each to recipients or holders of the age pension, disability support pension, carer payment, carer allowance, double orphan pension, family tax benefit, pensioner concession card, Commonwealth seniors health card and certain veterans payments and cards. These two payments are due to be made in November this year and March next year. These payments are being made out to the same group of Australians who received the first two one-off economic support payments of $750 each. Make no mistake: this money is needed, and it's needed now.

The group of Australians that this bill supports are among the most vulnerable in the country, and, with only a matter of weeks until Christmas, people are relying on these supplements, and they need this certainty and hope into the new year. Those on JobSeeker deserve clarity in the lead-up to what will be a very uncertain Christmas for many of us after a very challenging year. We must be clear: today the 1.6 million people on JobSeeker can only expect to go back to surviving on $40 a day come mid-December. This is the prospect for unemployed Australians today in the midst of a global pandemic as they approach Christmas. This is why Labor is moving an amendment to extend the coronavirus supplement until March in line with JobKeeper and requesting that the government announce a permanent increase in the JobSeeker payment.

With 160,000 Australians expected to lose their jobs soon and around 1.6 million Australians on JobSeeker, the government has missed a huge opportunity to deliver hope and certainty to those Australians who were really doing it tough by delivering a permanent increase to JobSeeker in the budget. The budget was only delivered a few weeks ago. It's the budget that no-one is talking about anymore and the budget that delivered Australia $1 trillion in debt, which is $1,000 billion in debt, but no plan to increase JobSeeker payments beyond December. Merry Christmas. Honestly, what a bunch of wasters those opposite can be—paying $30 million for a $3 million block of land, publicly funding Cartier watches, blowouts in the NBN, handouts for owners of private luxury jets and $10 million on an Australia logo they've since discarded. It is staggering. They're $1 trillion in debt, and they can't properly commit to the support of Australia's most vulnerable people—those that cannot get jobs because the jobs simply aren't there.

Speaking of jobs, I'd like to touch on a large group of Australians that this Liberal government has somehow missed when putting together their budget on what they call jobs. I'm talking, of course, about those Australians on JobSeeker aged over 35. These people—almost one million Australians—were left hung out to dry in this budget. They're the largest cohort on JobSeeker, and yet they are ineligible for the government's wage hire subsidy. It's disgraceful, and it makes no sense. It's another group of Australians—one million of us—left behind by this government.

There is another group of older Australians that this government has left behind. Let's not forget the dismal record of the Liberals and Nationals in regard to Australian pensioners. This Liberal government were caught red-handed by Labor on the pension freeze that they've permitted for almost 2.5 million pensions, and, really, it's only because they were caught out that they have acted on it. The reality is that pensioners plan for their twice-yearly indexation—one on 20 March and one on 20 September. The government were first caught out on their pension freeze in August. The freeze took effect in September, and they made pensioners wait until the October budget a few weeks ago before announcing any kind of relief at all. My office in Rockingham received countless calls and emails from pensioners left bewildered at such an unkind and uncaring act by this government wrought upon the pensioners of this country.

The Liberal government have a long track record of cutting or attempting to cut the pension, and Labor has an equally long track record of defending Australia's pensioners at every turn. I want everyone to be very clear about how the Liberal-National government have treated Australian pensioners. In 2014, they tried to cut the pension indexation—a cut that would have meant pensioners would be forced to live on $80 less a week within 10 years. In the same year they cut $1 billion from pensioner concessions, support designed to help pensioners with the cost of living. They axed the $900 seniors supplement to self-funded retirees receiving the Commonwealth seniors health card. They also tried to reset deeming rate thresholds, a cut that would have seen half a million part-pensioners worse off. In 2015, they did a deal with the Greens—can you believe it?—to cut the pension to around 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year by changing the pension asset test. In 2016, the government tried to cut the pension to around 190,000 pensioners as part of a plan to limit overseas travel for pensioners to six weeks. In that same year, they tried to cut the pension for over 1.5 million Australians by scrapping the energy supplement for new pensioners. The government's own figures show this would have left over 563,000 Australians who are currently receiving a pension or allowances much worse off. Over 10 years, on their own figures in excess of 1.5 million pensioners would have been worse off under the government's plans.

The Liberals and Nationals spent five years trying to increase the pension age to 70. Pensioners have paid their taxes and contributed their entire lives to this nation. They deserve our respect, and the simple fact is they are not getting it from this government and they never have. I will always defend the pensioners of Brand from the thoughtless attacks of this Liberal and National government, and I will always fight to ensure pensioners and senior citizens are treated fairly.

Despite significant concern and sustained advocacy from pensioners, the government still hasn't adjusted deeming rates, which remain significantly higher than interest rates. They are used to determine how much pensioners earn from their secured financial assets, typically savings, for the purposes of determining their eligibility under the income test for the pension. The upper deeming rate is 2.25 per cent and the lower deeming rate is 0.25 per cent. With a cash rate nearing zero, it's difficult to see how pensioners could reasonably earn 2.25 per cent on their savings in these times. So we see pensioners are being short-changed by the government's unreasonable and unrealistic pension deeming rates.

This bill is welcome, but the process is symptomatic of the Liberals' approach to government—only moving on an issue when they're literally dragged to the table, maintaining a status quo approach when it's clearly not benefiting as many people as it should, only acting on a problem when they've been caught out making a mistake and then sometimes not even acting to address the problem. We can see that if we look at sports rorts, the crisis in aged care and the revelations of 'watchgate' earlier in the week. It's always the announcement, never the delivery, pointing the finger and taking a hands-off approach, telling Australians that, when it's too hard, it's someone else's problem. That, in my opinion, is small-minded and unacceptable.

As my friend and colleague the member for Rankin observed recently, imagine the tragedy if Australia and Australians endured this remarkable and painful time and failed to learn anything from it, if we do nothing different after than we did before. But here we are with a government continually adopting bandaid solutions to issues which need far more than that. This Liberal and National government has missed the boat on the chance to deliver meaningful reform. This government's short-term approach has delivered $1 trillion in debt and no plan to create the jobs Australians need, and we know the jobless rate won't go back to pre-crisis levels for more than four years.

So what happens in the meantime? Well, don't ask your federal government, because they clearly have no idea. If the government did have an idea or a notion of doing the right thing, there wouldn't be a need for Labor to move an amendment to this bill and call on the government to extend the coronavirus supplement until March. We wouldn't need to ask for the government to announce a permanent increase in the JobSeeker payment. But they haven't got a clue and they don't really care. So, while we support this bill, we must require this amendment to help the people this government are all too willing to leave behind. It is the right thing to do.