August 26, 2020

Let's start with some facts in this debate on the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill 2020. Fact number 1: Australia is experiencing its greatest economic recession since the Great Depression. Fact number 2: for the first time in Australia's history over one million Australians are unemployed. When you include the many hundreds of thousands whose unemployment is hidden, or who have lost hours, the number of Australians who want more work is much closer to two million people. Over 500,000 Australians have lost their jobs since March and countless hundreds of thousands have lost their hours. In my home region of the Hunter, 40,800 jobs were lost between March and June. The official unemployment rate is over seven per cent but when you use the effective unemployment rate it is over 13 per cent. The official youth unemployment rate is 16.3 per cent but when you include those who've given up looking for work it is 35 per cent. When you include those amongst young people who desperately need more hours, over two-thirds of young people in this country desperately need more hours. Just think about that for a minute. Two-thirds of young Australians either desperately want work or need more hours to pay their bills. This is indeed the greatest economic challenge this country has seen since the Great Depression.

And the challenge is much worse because this government has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into taking action. They resisted with every fibre of their body. When Labor first proposed a wage subsidy this government resisted it. They resisted it strongly. They had to be dragged kicking and screaming towards it. Even when they did implement it, they implemented it incredibly poorly. We saw massive issues, particularly one million Australian workers excluded—one million Australian workers who had the misfortune of being casual workers with less than 12 months connection to their workplace or who performed a series of short, contracted jobs in the gig economy. So, from day one, even when this government supported a wage subsidy, one million Australians missed out.

Nevertheless, JobKeeper has been massively important for Australia and for my region in particular.

For example, the travel industry has been gutted by the pandemic. A Warners Bay travel agent who I spoke to has told me that she was extremely grateful for the JobKeeper program, which has given her business the ability to remain, in some ways, operational. The agent pleaded with me to do all I could to ensure the extension of JobKeeper, and, thankfully, there is an extension of sorts until next year, although many businesses won't qualify under the new criteria and the rate is going to be reduced drastically at a time when the economy needs more stimulus, not less. The agent also explained to me how different the travel industry is from other industries, such as hospitality, which have in some ways been able to adapt and run more home delivery or more takeaway. Her business relies totally on international and, to a lesser extent, interstate travel, which of course has been drastically curtailed.

Another business owner I've had contact with runs a preschool. She too is overwhelmingly grateful for the wage subsidy that was implemented, which allowed them to remain operational. However, the government completely failed to deliver on its promise of free child care, and in fact JobKeeper was removed for early childhood education centres in July. Another example of a beneficiary of JobKeeper is the cafe across the road from my electorate office. Although they had to shut for a while at the start of the pandemic, they were able to support their staff through the initial period until restrictions were eased and they were able to reopen. These are just a few examples of businesses in Shortland who have been able to survive in this unprecedented economic Armageddon because of a wage subsidy that Labor championed from the beginning of the crisis and that the coalition resisted and dismissed as unnecessary. How wrong they were!

But, Madam Deputy Speaker Claydon, there are significant problems with the changes afoot in this legislation. For example, a constituent of mine runs a large party supply firm that's actually located in your electorate and employs 20 people. He's contracted me to outline that, although they've been severely impacted by the downturn, they did have one relatively good month of trading in July, which would make them ineligible for the October to December quarter of assistance under JobKeeper. This business will be trading significantly below 30 per cent in both August and September but, as it stands, won't be eligible moving forward. This is an anomaly, and I urge the government to address this for businesses in this situation. Twenty families who currently receive the payment will have it cruelly taken away.

The stats on JobKeeper in my area are that 4,150 Shortland businesses and organisations applied for JobKeeper, 15,769 Shortland workers are on JobKeeper and, in fact, 23 per cent of Shortland working-age residents are on JobKeeper. If JobKeeper ends, $23½ million per fortnight will be taken out of the Shortland economy. With the cuts embodied in this legislation, many millions of dollars of JobKeeper assistance will come out of the Shortland economy. That is desperately needed economic stimulus to keep Shortland businesses going. We have many shops that are closing. When I go through the town centres of many of my communities, I see more and more vacant shops, so the situation is not getting better. So for the rate of assistance and the industries receiving JobKeeper to be cut at this time is very premature. Millions of dollars per fortnight will come out of the Shortland economy.

Instead of these drastic cuts, this government should be laying out its future vision for jobs. They should be having a jobs plan to combat the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. But we don't have that; we have the government reverting to its base instincts of reducing the size of government and removing assistance, saying that business will fill the gap. Well, I'm yet to meet a business that can invest in this environment with any certainty, especially when money is being pulled out of the economy. What we need is a vision for a future for the Australian economy—a vision that should be grounded in bringing manufacturing home. I think this crisis has demonstrated that fragile supply chains that are internationally dependent have failed us. We need to bring some of those supply chains, the critical ones, home. We need to invest in national sovereignty. We need to reinvest in national manufacturing powered by cheap renewable energy.

That's why Labor has been so forthright in saying that we should use this crisis to have a green-led recovery.

We should turn the COVID recovery to one powered by cheap renewable energy made reliable by pumped hydro and batteries because that is the future of energy in this country. It is already the cheapest form of power in this country. We should be investing in it at this critical opportunity, not just to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions but to become again the land of cheap energy, to bring home manufacturing powered by cheap electricity so that we can reinvest in our aluminium smelting industry, so we can have green steel making, so with that we can have green ammonia, so we can have a hydrogen industry that the rest of the world is jealous of, so we can export electricity through DC underwater cables from northern Australia to South-East Asia, so we can export electricity through hydro again to South Korea and Japan, and so we can export rare earths—the lithium, the titanium, the iron ore, the silver, the copper—that the rest of the world needs in a renewable energy boom.

This is what Australia should be doing but, instead, we have a government mired in indecision, a government that is cutting JobKeeper, a government that is cutting JobSeeker and a government that has slogans like JobMaker and JobTrainer that its own departments don't know anything about. This is the critical challenge for this government: will they stand up and fight against the Great Depression or will they repeat the mistakes of previous governments, including the conservative parties in the 1930s in this country which withdrew assistance, cut public sector wages and cut assistance to pursue an imaginary damage surplus that made the Great Depression worse. That is the choice.

Labor stands for an optimistic future, a fairer economy that recognises that COVID has changed everything, an economy with a plan for Australian manufacturing, a plan for decarbonising the economy and a plan for investing in new mining, new resource extraction, new renewable energy. That is the way forward, but I think this government will disappoint us. I hope they don't. I hope they seize this opportunity, because the 15,000 residents of Shortland on JobKeeper and the 150,000 residents in the Shortland economy depend upon a changed approach.