July 10, 2020

RICHARD KING, PRESENTER: The headline on the front page of the Newcastle Herald this morning is ‘$100 million cliff, 66,500 Hunter workers facing end of JobKeeper payments in September’, and with more on that, joining us now is the Federal Labor Member for Shortland Pat Conroy who is on the line. Good morning Pat.

PAT CONROY, MEMBER FOR SHORTLAND: Morning Richard, morning Kim.

KIM BAUER, PRESENTER: Morning Pat. Yeah apart from the cliff in September, there’s a big cliff when the free childcare finishes on Monday, so a lot of people will be in a dilemma there. Have you been looking after your kids Pat whilst all of this has been happening?

KING: Doing a bit of babysitting?

CONROY: Well certainly during the lockdown period from March to May I was doing plenty of – I wouldn’t call it babysitting because they’re my own kids – but I have been looking after them at home and was doing home-schooling on Tuesdays and Thursdays because my wife is a nurse so she has a much more important job than I do. So it was only right that I look after the kids.

But you’re right about childcare. I was talking to a preschool owner this week and they’re really worried about how many families are going to pull out and the impact on the viability of their centre.

KING: Okay, probably even more important is the impact come September - the, what, 66,500 Hunter workers poised to lose JobKeeper. We’ve heard from our Prime Minister that, you know, the suggestion and he said anecdotal evidence from big and small companies is it’s a disincentive to go back to work. I know we’ve spoken about this in the past, but more and more business leaders have come out and said they agree that JobKeeper is a disincentive to go back to work.

CONROY: Well I don’t know what businesses they’re running because in our local economy it’s very slow, and it will be disastrous if JobKeeper is removed. As you said, it will pull out $100 million worth of wages from the economy every fortnight, so that’s $100 million every two weeks going into the local economy, and there will be businesses who will have no choice but to sack their workers. And that will have, obviously, a horrible impact on those families, but it will hurt the recovery of our broader economy.

I was talking to a drycleaner a couple of days ago who doesn’t get JobKeeper and they’re just keeping their head above water, but they’re really worried that the work that they’re starting to get will dry up again when JobKeeper goes. Because a big chunk of that 66,000 workers will be thrown onto the unemployment queue if it ends in September and that’s just the wrong way of approaching this recession. We are deep in a recession, and we need that certainty of that funding remaining.

BAUER: Well we understand that, and yes we all rely on it as well, but the fact is Pat that so many people are reporting that they can’t get workers – those that are trying to start again – because JobKeeper is just too much. They just don’t see the point of going to work when they can get more by working fewer hours elsewhere.

CONROY: Well we’ve certainly called for reforms to JobKeeper. From the start, Labor was calling for JobKeeper to be paid as a percentage of someone’s wage like they do in the United Kingdom. So what you would do is get 80 per cent of your pre-COVID wage so of course, when the crisis came, you weren’t getting paid more than you were previously. Unfortunately the Government chose to pay a flat rate which meant that someone who earned $100 a week suddenly got $750 a week.

So obviously there’s some flaws in the system that we’ve been calling from day one to be fixed. And it’s really important they’re fixed because a million casuals missed out on JobKeeper full stop, so we’ve been saying reform the system so that you can plug that gap with a million casuals who missed out, and make sure it’s working properly. But for every one of those instances, there are many more instances of businesses only staying afloat because they’re able to pay their workers the JobKeeper supplement.

And I make the point that the latest statistics show that for every job vacancy in the national economy, there are 10 workers receiving Newstart – the JobSeeker payment. There is this vast pool of unemployed people who are keen to get work so that anecdotal evidence is sort of around the edges, and we can fix that, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water and get rid of a scheme that is literally keeping the economy afloat.

Just imagine for a moment the impact of pulling $100 million worth of wages every two weeks out of our local economy.

BAUER: Yes we understand, it would be devastating.

KING: It would have a massive impact. So you’re accepting the fact that there are problems with JobKeeper, but modify it and improve it, but keep it going beyond September obviously?

CONROY: Oh absolutely, and when we passed the emergency legislation in April, we didn’t muck around with making the Government come back to Parliament. We put in place rules that meant the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg could change this scheme with the stroke of a pen. So he could have fixed any of this stuff just by signing an instrument. He didn’t need to get 151 politicians back to blow hot air for a week or two. He could have fixed it with the stroke of his pen. And he can still do that.

We are trying to raise this as an issue to say to the Government let’s work together, let’s find a way through this, we can fix some of the issues because there is money being wasted and we pointed that out at the start of the scheme, but for God’s sake, we need to keep it going. We need to keep JobSeeker at its higher rate as well because there are far too many people in our economy - and in our country more importantly - that depend on it.

And if this is removed prematurely, I worry that this recession will start to look like the Great Depression of the 1930’s. I don’t say that lightly, I’m not trying to scare people, but we are in a pretty significant recession already where the unemployment rate is well over 10 per cent, and it could get a lot worse if this assistance is removed prematurely. And that in fact happened during the Great Depression when people removed Government support too soon. It’s better to spend a day too long than a day too short during this recession.

KING: Hear, hear.

BAUER: Alright, thank you. And before we finish we will go back to where we started Pat - that’s kids. If you’re looking for somewhere to go down around your area, Swansea Centre, they’ve got dinosaur poo on display.

CONROY: Oh that’s great, my five year old boy is dinosaur mad so I’ll have to take him down.

KING: Jurassic Park comes to Swansea. Thanks for having a chat with us Pat and have a great weekend.

CONROY: Thanks guys, have a great weekend.

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