December 02, 2020

Everyone agrees we are managing the health impacts of the COVID-19 crisis well in Australia. Thanks to Australians listening to the medical advice from experts and following the restrictions implemented by their home state or territory, we are for the most part COVID free. It's been wonderful seeing over the last couple of weeks the images of families and friends being reunited after being separated for months. So, from a health perspective, Australia is currently in a very good position. However, it is a far different story when it comes to the subsequent economic recession we are in.

If you looked at just the reports of a booming stock market, surging property prices and the reduction in the number of people receiving JobKeeper, you could be fooled into thinking we were back to normal. In fact, I think that in question time today the Treasurer will spruik the GDP figures that came out today that returned only half of the damage to the economy that we have suffered over the last nine months. But nothing could be further from the truth. That's been one of the strangest things about this recession. Certain industries and sectors have shown very positive signs of recovery; however, for significant and growing portions of our community, their circumstances are very grim—much grimmer than they were at the peak of the COVID-19 lockdown.

During the last fortnight I've had the privilege to visit some wonderful organisations helping the growing number of vulnerable people in Shortland. Many of my constituents might be surprised that there are food banks and distribution centres in our community. I want to acknowledge and pay tribute to the wonderful volunteers at Belmont community kitchen, OzHarvest at Windale, Manna House, Survivor's R Us and Southlake Marketplace for the truly magnificent work they are doing in the community I have the privilege to represent. At this time of year, particularly in this recession, many people are doing it tough, and these wonderful organisations, supported by their incredible volunteers, make an immeasurable impact and difference to the lives of so many people. Throughout this pandemic they have seen and heard firsthand how many people in my community are struggling. I want to thank all these volunteers for being there for those in need in our community.

At OzHarvest Newcastle, thank you to Elaine and Garry Ennis, Mary Riley, Max and Pam Gentle, Dale Bray, June Butler, Brian McEnearney, Kathy Herbert, Sean Carver, Helen Atkins, Ruby Wilson, Peter Gilford, Trish Stevenson, Pauline James, Sally Lucas, Bryan Wright, Lesley Byrne, Wendy Sahu-Khan, Sandy Olive, Christine Harvey, Toni Quinn, Peter Tom, Astrid Michaelsen, Carmel Byrne, Cathy Robertson, David Clausen, Michelle Lembcke, Colleen McKellar, Mark Henderson, Genevieve Briars, Nicole Fernance and Janet Manderson. OzHarvest has also had assistance from local Rotary clubs, so my thanks also to Gail and Kevin, Lyn Dennis, Lyn S, Richard Addinall, Lou Buzai, Tom Burgess, Paul, Janine, Pat, Marilyn, Kathy Brogan, and Louise.

Southlake Marketplace has had a number of volunteers working from their five sites throughout this pandemic. Thank you to Terry, Tracey, Wendy, Ange, David, Graham, Nicole, Tracey, Betty, Ray, Vicki, Kerry-Anne, Richard, Andrew, John, Jeff, Lynette, Moira, Kate, Eve, Jess, Hannah, Jessica, Carolyn, Corrie and founding director, the formidable Christine Mastello.

At Survivor's R Us, thank you to Adam Young, Kevin Humbles, Margaret Humbles, Adedevi Adekanmbi, Stephanie Turner, Sandra Eaves, Toby Sweetman, Liam Stokes, Jarrod Sawczuh, Hayden Sawczuh, Leanne Arnott, Cathy Arnott, Rynell Williams, Margaret Yoke Low, Jo, Bailey Clark and Ann-Maria Martin, the founder of this great organisation.

The feedback I've received from the managers of the local food banks I just mentioned was very disturbing, and I was reminded this recession is far from over, and that's the context for both the debate around this legislation and the second reading amendment moved by the member for Barton. The clients of the food banks are facing a much more difficult situation than they were six months ago, and this is directly linked to the government's cuts to JobKeeper and JobSeeker. There are 1.6 million Australians relying on the JobSeeker unemployment support, with the government predicting 1.8 million will be on JobSeeker by the end of the year. There are a further 1.5 million Australians on JobKeeper. The latest data from the ABS, released last month, show that the official unemployment rate rose to seven per cent, that over 10 per cent of Australians are still underemployed and that the proportion of people looking for work increased. There are 2.4 million Australians who are either out of work or desperately needing more work—this year is an historic high. The figures we've seen this year, including the 2.4 million, overshadow any previous figures for this measure—2.4 million Australians out of work or desperately needing more hours to meet their financial commitments.

In my electorate of Shortland, we have about 8,000 JobSeeker recipients and an estimated 17,000 who depend upon JobKeeper, so nearly 30 per cent of all Shortland residents aged between 15 and 65 depend upon one of these payments that the government has cut. And this brings me to the feedback I received from the food banks in my electorate. Ann-Maria from Survivor's R Us at Cardiff told me that at the height of the lockdown they were providing food packages to around 150 families. They have seen a massive spike in demand since the government's cuts to JobKeeper and JobSeeker in late September. They are now providing food packages to over 450 families. Just reflect upon that for a moment: demand from families in danger of starving tripled at exactly the same time this government cut JobKeeper and JobSeeker. This is no coincidence.

I received similar evidence from Christine from Southlake Marketplace. Christine was literally in tears as she explained the massive surge in demand for their food parcels. Southlake Marketplace were assisting 400 families at the height of the lockdown. Immediately after the September cuts, this surged to around a thousand families in need of assistance to have enough food. Let me restate that: demand for help with the basics of life is at 250 per cent the level of pre-September cuts because of this government's decisions around JobKeeper and JobSeeker. Christine also made the point that they cannot currently meet the demand for Christmas hampers and toys for families and kids in our area. She was distraught at the thought of turning away families, meaning kids would not receive a Christmas present. It's obvious that families in my community are hurting because of deliberate decisions of this Liberal-National government.

The cuts to JobKeeper and JobSeeker are a deliberate act of cruelty by this craven, out-of-touch government, and I do not say that lightly. This cruelty means thousands of families in my community would be at risk of starvation without the intervention of charities like those in the electorate that I've mentioned previously. The government has chosen to cut JobKeeper and JobSeeker at the worst possible time. Removing much-needed support to those who need it the most is bad economics and disgusting social policy, and it's a damning indictment on this government. To make matters worse, we're hearing stories of families being evicted from their homes despite an eviction moratorium being officially extended by the New South Wales government. Loan deferrals have also been ended by many banks, meaning those families with mortgages are also facing grim circumstances. Many are not only struggling to put food on their table; they are struggling to keep a roof over their head.

I call upon the government to stop these cuts, which will go deeper in the new year, to ensure that families in my electorate and around Australia can have food on the table and a roof over their heads at Christmas. I am extremely concerned about the further cuts to JobKeeper and JobSeeker and the impact they will have on those who are already struggling. This recession is having huge impacts on people's mental health and wellbeing. Many support services have spoken about the significant increase in demand for their services. This will only get worse when the support payments are reduced and JobKeeper is removed altogether.

Sadly, just yesterday there was a report about the rise in domestic violence in Australia during the COVID pandemic. This is something that the local food banks in my community are very aware of as well. Christine from Southlake Marketplace said that the spike in domestic violence is something she'd never seen before. Out of the hundreds of new people she has been helping during the pandemic, she estimated that one-third of them are women who have fled domestic violence. Similarly, Ann-Maria from Survivor's R Us said the number of domestic violence victims seeking support from her organisation has increased 65 per cent during the pandemic. These are devastating figures and they are happening right across our nation. One of the main reasons for this increase in domestic violence is unemployment and financial stress and, again, this will only get worse when JobKeeper and JobSeeker are cut in the new year.

The government's new JobMaker hiring credit won't fix the financial struggles that so many people are facing. Despite their initial claims that JobMaker will create 450,000 jobs, Treasury recently conceded that it will actually only be around 45,000 jobs. That's nowhere near enough to address the unemployment crisis. About 2.4 million Australians are out of work or desperately needing more hours versus 45,000 new jobs under JobMaker. That's before you consider that there are 928,000 Australians aged over 35 on unemployment benefits who have been deliberately excluded from the scheme by this cruel government.

This economic crisis is far from over, yet this government is planning on removing crucial support from those who need it the most. It's symbolic of this government's attempt to pass the baton of the economic recovery from government to business and consumers—and they're doing it in a very ham-fisted way. They're cutting direct government support to people who need that money the most—to people who literally spend every dollar they receive from the government, thereby stimulating the local economy. As I said, 25,000 Shortland residents in receipt of JobKeeper or JobSeeker will have those payments cut or disappear directly, pulling millions of dollars a fortnight out of the Shortland economy.

At the same time, the government is embarking on their very courageous investment allowance to stimulate business investment. The challenges for that investment allowance which go to the recovery from the coronavirus recession—which is at the heart of the debate on this legislation—is that first off, businesses, even if they get 100 per cent instant asset write-off, are going to be very reluctant to invest in new pieces of equipment unless they're sure that they will get new customers to buy the products from that new machinery. If businesses have very little confidence in the economy—and we are seeing cuts to JobKeeper and JobSeeker that will actually deprive money from their customers—why would businesses invest in new pieces of equipment?

Secondly, if you look at the distributional impact of who will use this investment allowance, the businesses that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID recession aren't capital intensive businesses; they're cafes, hotels, accommodation, bars and bistros. For many of these places the biggest piece of capital equipment they are likely to invest in might be a new fridge or a new coffee machine, whereas this investment allowance is obviously much more relevant to capital intensive manufacturing, for example, where a facility might spend $5 million on a new laser cutting machine. So even if a business thought they had the customers to justify new investment, this investment allowance is targeted at businesses that were not impacted by the COVID recession as directly as those in hospitality or accommodation. This is one of the flaws with trying to pass the baton of the economic recovery away from government to business.

Another impact would be where the personal tax cuts are targeted. Targeting those tax cuts at middle- and high-income earners, as this government has done, will be less effective than providing direct assistance to low-income earners. The marginal propensity to save is higher for high-income earners. In plain in English, if you're on a high income you can save more of your income than someone on a low income. By targeting these tax cuts to high-income earners, some of that money will inevitably leak out of the economy into savings rather than be recirculating through consumption, thereby stimulating the economy.

The philosophical underpinnings of this legislation, which is effectively a cut to JobSeeker, coupled with the fact that JobKeeper will be abolished early in the new year, really highlight the flawed approach that this government has adopted to recovering from the recession. It's a recession where we still have 2.4 million Australians who are either out of work or who want more hours, we have up to a tripling in demand for the services of food banks and we've had huge spikes in domestic violence. And what is this government's response? To cut government assistance, and to cut government assistance at the worst possible time. Labor, on the other hand, has called for a more balanced approach: a permanent increase to the JobSeeker payment; investment in things that enhance productivity and labour force participation like child care; a reinvestment in Australian manufacturing to bring those jobs home; and investment in reducing power prices through the $20 billion Rewiring the Nation initiative.

This legislation is flawed. Labor has made known our view about what parts of it we will support. Justice demands a permanent increase in the JobSeeker supplement, not just so those families can survive but, quite frankly, so the economy can recover.