Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks about Coronavirus and its impact on Warringah

8 April, 2020


I rise to speak to the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020, the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus (Measures No. 2) Bill 2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 5) 2019-2020 and Appropriation Bill (No. 6) 2019-2020. I thank the government on behalf of Warringah for its prompt responses to this crisis today. While the measures outlined in these bills are far reaching and welcome, legislation prepared in haste has gaps and some key groups will miss out on receiving support. I've already written to the Treasurer and the Prime Minister outlining the many concerns that people in Warringah have.

The issue with JobKeeper is that many miss out or are inadequately supported, such as casual employees, pay-as-you-go contractors and temporary visa holders. These groups are all proudly included by the government in reports of employment figures, so they should now, in their time of need, be included in the government's response. In relation to casuals, to require a consistent relationship with an employer for over 12 months disqualifies many casual employees who have been working routinely for a range of employers over many years. This does not reflect the modern workforce. For those ineligible for JobKeeper, the government says they are caught and supported by the jobseeker payment. However, this gives rise to inequity between single- and dual-income families—an inequity that I fear will impact women the most as, whilst JobKeeper does not impose a partner income test, the jobseeker payment does. Whilst I appreciate that the income threshold has been raised, over 55 per cent of families in my electorate are dual-income families, and many of these will be left in the cold to cope with substantially reduced family incomes. This may have dire mental health and domestic violence consequences. The position needs to be addressed in relation to pay-as-you-go contractors. It is inadequate today. Many in the arts, entertainment and fitness industries work through pay-as-you-go contractor relationships from project to project. They cannot turn to a previous employer for JobKeeper, and many will not be eligible for the jobseeker payment. I urge the government to consider a special package for the arts and entertainment industries. We should ask ourselves: where would we all be in this period of home isolation without the arts and entertainment industries?

There is no assistance for many visa holders and other vulnerable groups in our community in the measures today. Asylum seekers do not have another place to go. They are here because they have fled for their safety. They are in our community and require assistance. There are many in our community who applied for permanent residency before 1 March 2020. They have lived, they have worked and they have paid taxes in Australia for many years, and they too should be eligible. Many childcare centres, restaurants and others in the service industries rely on foreign workers to support their trade. If we want those industries to recover and those businesses to reopen, we must also support their workforces. I urge the government to extend its measures to these groups.

In addition, the government should provide greater clarity for startup businesses that have been in existence for less than a year and on the mechanisms through which non-profits will qualify. Many non-profits diversify their business model and will not be eligible for JobKeeper due to the requirement of a 15 per cent reduction overall of the whole business, yet essential services to our communities will be lost and many will lose employment.

In relation to self-funded retirees, this crisis has shaken many individuals who have carefully planned for their futures. I have received many representations from self-funded retirees who have been decimated by losses in income. These individuals have worked hard throughout their lives, they've contributed to Australia's wealth and they've pragmatically saved for their retirement. They have not previously been a burden on the welfare system. Many self-funded retirees are impacted by the government's call for landlords to set aside or reduce commercial and residential rents. I urge the government to consider a time limited access to a support payment like the coronavirus supplement afforded to jobseekers. This should only be assessed if an individual can show 30 per cent or more decline in income from property and where that income is below a certain threshold.

The rental situation is dire. I've received many very concerning reports of unscrupulous behaviour in relation to tenants and also in relation to landlords. Large companies that continue to operate at profit are using the crisis to stop paying rent to small self-funded retirees. Large profiteering landlords are refusing to negotiate on ongoing commercial leases of businesses forced to close. Unless help is provided, many businesses will simply not be there when we get through this crisis to reopen and they will not be in a position to sign up to the JobKeeper package and keep their employees. I appreciate the work done to develop the amended code of conduct for commercial tenancy, but more oversight and assistance in this area are urgently needed. The childcare package released this week, whilst well intentioned, has caused many negative consequences for childcare centres operated by local councils, family daycare providers and many in the sector. Many childcare providers in Warringah were still operating at high capacity at the time of the announcement and then saw their income cut to one-third of what it was as a result of the government's announcement. They are now facing closure.

With unprecedented expenditure and discretion given to decision-makers, we must have appropriate parliamentary oversight and scrutiny. There needs to be flexibility and discretion to provide for the very many and varied scenarios, but there also needs to be accountability. Whilst the Senate select committee that has been announced is better than nothing, it will not provide the appropriate and timely scrutiny and collaborative input to Australia's response to the crisis that we should see.

Whilst the bills presented today provide certainty for some Australians, there are many who will continue to fall through the cracks. I am concerned for the mental health and wellbeing of these individuals in particular and will continue to advocate for amendments to the legislation to capture their situation. There remain many areas of concern in Australia's response to this crisis, especially the repatriation of Australians still stranded overseas. I again urge the government to adopt a more collaborative approach in developing its responses, especially in relation to the make-up of the coordination committee. It is essential that this committee include independent expertise from all sectors and regions to ensure our response and economic rebuild is as strong and as future focused as it can be. I feel strongly for our youth, who will need to carry much of the burden of recovery for Australia, and especially for the class of 2020.

Thank you again to all our frontline workers: the public transport operators, the health workers, the lifeguards, rangers, police, and school teachers. Thank you for keeping Australia going and safe. And to all Australians, especially everyone in Warringah: please stay home and stay safe.