Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2020

I rise today to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Extension of Coronavirus Support) Bill 2020. It is a very lengthy name for a bill that does some pretty simple things, one of which, regrettably, is to send JobSeeker back to the old Newstart rate, a rate of payment which nearly everybody in the country, apart from, perhaps, the Prime Minister, agrees is unlivable for Australians. That is a very regrettable thing to do.

This nation is in the midst of a pandemic. We're still recovering from it. We're not out of the woods yet, and yet in the middle of this pandemic the government is seeing fit to send Australians back to a level of income that nearly everybody, apart from the Prime Minister, regards as unlivable. We note that this bill effectively continues, until 31 March next year, other beneficial social security changes that are due to sunset on 31 December this year by giving the minister relevant regulation-making powers, which include concessions to the JobSeeker income test and partner income test. Currently the minister has the power under the Social Security Act 1991 to continue paying the coronavirus supplement, except for recipients of youth allowance student, in three-month intervals, subject to being satisfied it is necessary to ameliorate the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus. Under this power, the minister has been able to set the rate of the coronavirus supplement. This bill repeals that ongoing power and will prevent the minister from extending the coronavirus supplement beyond 31 March 2021. No doubt, as we move into a post-COVID world—in the year to come, hopefully, with a vaccine on its way—we've still got to deal with the effects of the Morrison recession. This type of support is absolutely needed more than ever.

I have mentioned in this House some of these alarming figures previously, but let's reflect again on the numbers. With another 160,000 Australians expected to lose their jobs and 1.6 million Australians on JobSeeker, the government has missed a huge opportunity to deliver certainty for Australians who are doing it very tough, by delivering a permanent increase to JobSeeker in the budget. Over the past week, the Treasurer has come into this place and jumped around like a jack-in-a-box, talking about how there's an economic recovery underway—'economic recovery, economic recovery'. An economic recovery doesn't help people who are still on JobSeeker; it doesn't help people who are still unemployed. They have a finite level of income with which to pay all their bills. All the talk about an economic recovery doesn't help people on JobSeeker, so the last thing you should be doing is cutting their rate of payment in the midst of a pandemic.

There are many more jobseekers than there are job vacancies. There are simply not enough jobs for everyone who needs one. It's all very well for the Prime Minister to say, 'If you have a go, you get a go,' and, 'The best form of welfare is a job.' If every single job vacancy were filled, there would still be many more Australians unemployed. There are simply not enough jobs to go around. This is a fact of mathematics. There are not enough jobs to go around. And when there aren't enough jobs to go around, you have a moral obligation to look after those who are unable to get a job. You don't cut their level of income to less than what it costs to actually exist and live decently in this country.

It's even worse in the regions—some of which I represent—and that's a result of this government's failure to deliver a jobs program for our regions. It has no plan for jobs. It has a plan to cut JobSeeker payments, but it has no plan for jobs. In Tasmania, there are 21 jobseekers for every available job. Think about that. For every single job that's available, you've got 21 people lining up and 20 of them are going home disappointed. ABS figures released last week show that more than 50,000 Tasmanians are either looking for a job or can't get the hours they need to make ends meet. This has to be front and centre. Many Australians are in jobs—they're off the books as far as the government is concerned in terms of official unemployment figures—but they are underemployed, some drastically. They're not getting enough hours they need at work, which means they're not getting enough hours they need to pay the bills. That's why the neighbourhood food banks, community houses and donation boxes are absolutely flat out. They are feeding people now who they've never had to feed before: people with jobs. People who have employment are going to food banks to get their groceries, because the income they get is not enough. And yet we have this government seeking to take people back to the old rate of what was Newstart.

The number of jobs in Tasmania has fallen by 2,200 since August, and our unemployment rate is well above the national average. We're all hopeful in Tasmania that the reopening of borders that's underway this week will improve the desperate job situation that we have. But hope doesn't pay the bills. Hope doesn't pay the rent. Hope doesn't put food on the table. Hope doesn't put clothes on the kids. We need a jobs plan, not a wing and a prayer. In Tasmania, our jobs crisis is also a wages crisis. Tasmanians have experienced a fall in wages of 4.9 per cent, when the average fall has been 3.3 per cent. We're doing worse than the national average. And that drop-off comes off an already lower average wage in Tasmania. Tasmanian average weekly wages have fallen by $71, from $1,448 to $1,377, while national wages have fallen by $56 a week. We're doing much worse in Tasmania than the national average when it comes to affordability, and that's why the coronavirus supplement has been so important for people doing it tough.

That supplement is paid to recipients of JobSeeker payment, youth allowance, parenting payment, Austudy, Abstudy, partner allowance, widow allowance, farm household allowance and special benefit. Between 27 April and 24 September this year, the coronavirus supplement was paid at a flat rate of $550 per fortnight. We've heard lots of anecdotal evidence about the difference that the supplement made to people's lives. For the first time in a long time they were able to pay their bills, and buy clothes and new school shoes for their kids, things that most of us would consider as by the by. People on low incomes could finally afford those essentials. Between 25 September and 31 December, the government decided that the recovery was apparently on the way, 'So we'll reduce the supplement to a rate of $250 per fortnight.' Now they've announced that, between 1 January 2021—four weeks away—and 31 March 2021, the coronavirus supplement will be paid at a flat rate of $150 per fortnight. In a matter of eight months, they've stripped $400 a fortnight away from people who don't have the money to spare.

Earlier this month Labor moved amendments to the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2020, calling for the government to deliver a permanent increase to the rate of JobSeeker. This is critical. As I said, everybody in this country, apart from the Prime Minister, understands that the old rate of Newstart was too low to survive on. We all know it was too low to survive on. We've had members opposite acknowledge that it's too low to survive on. We've got the Liberal member for Bass in my state acknowledging it's too low. But those opposite are nowhere to be seen when it comes to actually legislating a permanent increase to JobSeeker, and that's what is needed. People cannot afford to go back to the old rate. The government need to legislate a permanent increase to JobSeeker. This bill is a missed opportunity for the government to deliver a permanent increase to this base rate of unemployment support, and that's why Labor is moving an amendment calling on the government to permanently increase the base rate of JobSeeker payment.

Now, there are beneficial elements to this bill. It continues the coronavirus supplement for youth allowance for students and apprentices after December. There are increased income-free areas, taper rates and partner income tests that have been introduced as part of the pandemic. But this bill also puts in black and white the government's cruel plan to revert to pre-pandemic levels on unemployment support from 31 March 2021. Is that when they think it's all going to be over? Do they think the world is going to be back to normal as of March 2021? Taking those payments back to pre-pandemic levels will hurt, and hurt in the most essential way, around two million Australians. Two million Australians who are already doing it tough will be hurt even further by this cruel and heartless government. These cuts will affect people who have lost their jobs, single parents and students. On 31 March, rent will not go down, food prices will not go down, the price of putting petrol in the car will not go down, school costs will not go down, but this government is expecting people on low incomes to take a massive hit to their income. They're saying, 'Find a job'—that doesn't exist—'and be happy with the way life is treating you,' because, apparently, there's an economic recovery underway. Where is the empathy? Where is the understanding? Where is the support? Where is the arm around the shoulder, the Australian way of looking after your mate when they're doing it tough; where is it?

We had the Minister for Social Services just recently saying an increase to what was then Newstart would result in more money for drug dealers and pubs. That's what she thinks. That's where she thinks this money is going—to drug dealers and pubs. I'll tell you where it is going, Deputy Speaker Mitchell. It's going to rent. It's going to food. It's going to school costs. It's going to petrol in the car. It's going to clean clothes so that you can present yourself decently at a job interview. On the old rate of Newstart, which they're now returning to, people can't afford to go look for a job. They can't afford to get clothes in order to present themselves to a job interview. They can't afford the bus fare to the job interview.

When we talk about $40 a day, we're not talking about $40 in your pocket for your incidentals in life. We're not talking about $40 a day for breakfast, a bit of afternoon tea, lunch and a bus fare. We're talking about $40 a day that has to cover rent, food, petrol and health costs. No-one here in this place, I included, would be able to do it. It is scandalously cruel to expect people to be able to do it—and all because of some ideological view in the guts of those opposite. In their guts those opposite believe that people who are unemployed are unemployed because it's their own fault.

They really, truly believe that people just aren't trying hard enough to get a job, and maybe if they turn the screws on hard enough it will force people to go and get a job that doesn't exist. In Tasmania there are 21 jobseekers for every available job. Mathematics don't lie. For every job that's available, 20 people are leaving a job interview disappointed. What are they meant to do to pay the bills? Those over there should be ashamed about the situation they are putting already vulnerable Australians into. They're not satisfied with literally stealing the money of hundreds of thousands of Australians under robodebt. They're not satisfied with that; now they're returning Australians to a level of payment that they literally cannot live on. Those opposite should be ashamed.

The more generous partner income test for JobSeeker payment, which Labor negotiated, is tapering at 27c in the dollar and cutting out at a partner income of $80,000 per year. A hundred thousand people would be impacted if the more generous partner income test were not continued, including 40,000 people who would lose access to payments entirely. It's been announced that the government intends to continue to use this power. But why would it continue those and not retain the coronavirus supplement? Why would it do that? I don't understand. I don't understand how this government thinks when it comes to poor people in this country.

Just some stats: in 2019, 58 people took their lives due to being unemployed, 32 people took their lives due to work related mental strain, 37 people took their lives due to the absence of a family member, 19 people took their lives due to the threat of losing their job and 214 people took their lives due to housing and economic circumstances. Being poor can be a death sentence, and those opposite are making that much more likely. They should be ashamed of themselves. (Time expired)