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Thursday, 8 October 2020
Page: 7


Mrs ELLIOT (Richmond) (10:02): I am in continuation in speaking on the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. I was speaking about the cuts to JobKeeper. From Monday 28 September the cuts and changes to the JobKeeper scheme meant that many local businesses and workers in my area lost all financial support while others had their payments slashed by between $300 and $750 per fortnight. We've also seen a massive increase in the number of locals receiving income support through JobSeeker and youth allowance. Currently more than 14,000 North Coast locals are on JobSeeker. That's an increase of more than 7,000 people on the North Coast who are out of work or suffering from reduced working hours and are now accessing income support payments to get by.

The COVID-19 crisis has also impacted younger people in my region, with a massive increase in youth allowance recipients in a six-month period. An additional 1,000 young people in Richmond have applied for and received youth allowance in the six-month period from December 2019 to May 2020. There are now more than 1,600 young people on youth allowance. That's 169 per cent more local young people between the ages of 16 and 21 who are accessing income support due to the COVID-19 economic crisis.

The significant job losses mean that more families across the North Coast are experiencing a real and devastating hit to their household budgets. That's why we need a concrete plan from this government about rebuilding and focusing on the recovery. Workers, businesses and communities need and deserve a very comprehensive and detailed plan to get them through this crisis, yet we did not see that in the budget. What we saw was a budget that racks up $1 trillion of debt but still doesn't do enough to create jobs or build for the future. It just leaves too many locals behind. These job losses are devastating for our local communities and our local economies, and, indeed, some of the hardest hit industries are those that've been disproportionally excluded from JobKeeper.

On our New South Wales North Coast some of the biggest job losses have been concentrated in the hospitality, the retail and the arts and entertainment sectors, with young Australians, elderly Australians and women impacted the most. The COVID-19 crisis has also been devastating to our local small businesses, with so many having to close, and, of course, now here we are in the Morrison recession. The government now presides over the first recession in decades, with record debt and hundreds of thousands more Australians unemployed. The fact is the Morrison recession will be deeper and the unemployment queues will be longer.

As those of us on this side of the chamber have said many times, we need to see the rate of Newstart, now JobSeeker, permanently raised. This is a call that's echoed by many community organisations. Whilst acknowledging that the JobSeeker coronavirus supplement was in place and did increase earlier in the year, many people are now worried about how they will afford the essentials now that the supplement decreased in September and is again decreasing in December. So we're back to the very original concern: the very low rate of Newstart or JobSeeker. But in the budget we saw no plan to lift the permanent rate of JobSeeker from that $40 a day rate.

The base rate of JobSeeker is so low that it presents a real barrier to people finding employment. Many on the payment are unable to afford internet bills or transport costs—things that are really essential when you're looking for work or attending job interviews. The fact is having JobSeeker, or Newstart, at such a low rate forces people to make some really impossible choices between paying for food or paying for rent, between buying clothes for their children or paying the electricity bill. An increase in the JobSeeker base rate would deliver to the members of our communities that need it the most, so we continue to call on the government to look at that.

In terms of the staffing at Services Australia, we did welcome the government's announcement earlier in the year for an additional 5,000 new workers to help them through this increased demand, yet that figure is almost exactly the number that they'd cut from the frontline services over the past six years. In my electorate of Richmond this government had cut 114 public sector jobs over this period and we've seen those numbers decline so much because of the government's cuts.

It's also of grave concern that the Morrison government's been closing down Centrelink offices around the country. In my electorate we are facing the closure of three Centrelink service centres in the Tweed area. The government intends to close the Centrelink service at Blundell Boulevard, Tweed Heads South; the call centre at Enterprise Avenue, Tweed Heads South; and the Centrelink administrative office at Wharf Street, Tweed Heads. They're all set to relocate to a yet to be determined new location on one premises. I have been inundated with concerns from locals about this. I've written to the minister outlining those concerns and asking for his urgent commitment to the fact there will be no redundancies or cuts to current staff when that happens, no adverse impacts for frontline customer contact, no adverse impacts to payment or payment-processing times and no further decline in the delivery of services to our local community. I believe the major Centrelink office should remain at its current location at Blundell Boulevard, Tweed Heads South, and I've said that on many occasions. It's important that locals can access the services that they need, that they're easily accessible and close to public transport. It is very important that it remain in that location.

When it comes to this government's cuts and incompetence we have also seen their robodebt scheme, and that's been an absolute debacle and caused a huge amount of distress. We saw hundreds of thousands of people issued with computer generated, false debt notices. And now more than $700 million is having to be refunded. It is just unbelievable that this has occurred. The government should immediately commit to repaying all of those people who've been impacted by it—some really severely impacted by it and the harm that it's caused. The government must allow an independent inquiry into the robodebt scandal as well.

We've seen, in terms of Services Australia or Centrelink, the threatened Centrelink closures across the country. We've seen an ongoing lack of resources, particularly when it comes to staffing. We've seen the robodebt debacle. We've seen major delays in accessing age pension payments as well. I know in my electorate this is an issue that many people raise with me—having to wait months and months and months to access that. We know the staff at Centrelink do an amazing job and are very committed people who are severely understaffed and underresourced by this government, so we need to see more resources there urgently to make sure those services can be provided.

Most Australians, at some point in their life, do receive support from Centrelink. Whether they're young, studying, doing it tough between jobs, raising a family or sick or whether they have a disability or receive an age pension, many people do use Centrelink services. Centrelink provides essential payments that are often a safety net or extra support that people need. It's been really disappointing that the Morrison government has taken a very harsh approach when it comes to resourcing Centrelink and the services people need. It really is a sign that the system is broken, and it's time that the government took a different approach to income support and a different approach to supporting people when they require it, at the most vulnerable time in their lives.

Whilst we agree with some regulatory changes in this bill, in terms of modernising certain aspects, we do have amendments in terms of staffing caps. We know how difficult they have made it to provide those services, particularly now as we continue through the Morrison recession and we continue to have people that absolutely desperately need those Centrelink services. So I'm calling on the government to resource Centrelink properly, to get those processing times down and to put the support where it's needed.

It's clear to see that the choices made by the Liberal and National parties continue to hurt regions like mine on the New South Wales North Coast. Their cuts to frontline services in our community mean that many locals are rightly feeling very betrayed. Whether that's at a federal or state level—or, indeed, sometimes at a local government level as well—when you look across the region, you see the disastrous impacts that the Liberal and National parties continue to make and how they hurt our community. There is widespread anger out there about all these cuts, and it's time for the lies, cuts and chaos to stop. It's so vitally important that they do stop, because we need to have more resources and more services right throughout our community. Particularly when it comes to Centrelink, we need more resources.

As I said earlier, the devastating impacts, particularly from the cuts to JobKeeper—with over 33,000 people having their JobKeeper payments cut—are affecting over 8,000 businesses. Those cuts are predicted to result in about $30 million a fortnight less in my local community, in my local economy. It is regions like mine that have been hit the hardest because of the nature of our industries—tourism, retail, hospitality, arts and entertainment. We have so many people on JobKeeper, on JobSeeker and on youth allowance, so we need to see more concrete plans from this government.

What we got from the budget was a $1 trillion debt and no real plan, particularly for older workers and women—nothing for them. We also saw nothing for child care and nothing for social housing. Regions like mine need the government to focus on those industries and the support that they need throughout the Morrison recession. It is a very difficult and devastating time right throughout the country, but it is regions like mine, in northern New South Wales, that are really feeling it at the moment.

We also need to see a greater investment in TAFE and our universities, and we didn't see that in the budget. What our young people need is proper training and skills so that they can get the permanent, secure, long-term jobs in the future that are so desperately required—again, especially for regional areas that were doing it tough and that will do it particularly tough right throughout this crisis. So I call upon the government to look at these regional areas and provide support for those industries and support right across the area as well, particularly for all those sections that missed out in the budget, the sections that the government decided not to fund. There are so many people that need support at this time.