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Monday, 23 March 2020
Page: 2883


Ms TEMPLEMAN (Macquarie) (18:06): I rise to speak on Supply Bill (No. 1) 2020-2021 and related bills and to address the challenging times that we now face. There is no better indication of the desperation that people are feeling in my electorate than the queues that have formed outside Centrelink offices today and the emails and messages that I'm getting from people who need financial support now. It is our job here in this place—in fact it's our obligation—to pass legislation that provides the necessary supports so that people's immediate financial needs are met, so that they can focus on what really matters right now, which is protecting themselves and their families from the health risk that this virus presents.

Coronavirus is first and foremost a health risk, so let's make sure that people are not forced to choose between their health and their finances. We need to do this swiftly. We will continue to ask the government to consider the extra steps that we recommend to protect people's financial situations as we go through these very challenging months ahead. For my community it comes on top of bushfires. We were barely able to start the recovery before this double financial whammy happened. Our economy was sluggish before the fires, shattered by the fires, and now it's even tougher for businesses to withstand the current situation. The $10,000 bushfire grants that we fought for are proving useful for many businesses, but there are others still waiting to see if they're eligible. I'd encourage all businesses in the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury who were affected by fires and smoke to investigate that grant.

So to the new measures that have been passed. We welcome the significant increase in jobseeker allowance through the $550-a-fortnight coronavirus supplement, the waiving of the assets test and waiving of waiting times. But 27 April is too far away. The queues and crashing of the myGov website show just how great the need is right now. The second one-off $750 payment to many social security, veteran and other income support recipients, including pensioners, is also welcome but it is being paid in July. That is too far away. The further reduction of the deeming rates to 0.25 per cent at the lower rate and 2.25 as the upper rate is also welcome, but I'm not sure why it has to wait until May.

It's concerning that there are no changes to the jobseeker payment income test. I've been answering many questions about this this afternoon. It means that singles with an income above $542 a week and couples with an income above $993.50 per week will not be eligible for any payments, even if a member of that couple has lost their job, lost their business or had hours substantially reduced. In two-income families, when one person loses their job, they are going to be at risk of missing out because the threshold is low. While I welcome the fact that it's been extended to people who've been stood down on no pay, to contractors and to sole traders, the failure to change that requirement is going to mean many people miss out on support, as will students and disability pension holders.

For sole traders, who make up a huge number of businesses in my electorate, there are enormous uncertainties. Not only do they need to replace the income that they generate for themselves through their business but they may have to keep paying rent and keep their premises ready to reopen when that is eventually allowed. Businesses who are franchised wonder if they can get relief from those payments. What access will these organisations have to loans? Will they qualify for any extra payments? So for sole traders this is still a time of great uncertainty, and there is definitely more that can be done to support them.

The arts sector—the musicians, the actors, the set designers, the directors, the roadies, the dancers, the singers, the painters, the sculptors and the filmmakers—have had the rug pulled from under them. Their existence was already precarious. Now their income is non-existent. This industry needs something extra to give these amazing people some hope that their sector will be viable when this whole thing is over, that theatres will reopen and that venues will function again.

Travel agents—the ones who've been frantically fielding calls from their customers to ask questions, to cancel bookings, to seek help in getting back to Australia and to deal with the disappointment of people not getting all their money back, and the agents who are watching commissions that were in the door go out the door—need more help. Hotel operators, operators of all the organisations now closed—the gyms, the bars and the nightclubs—and the massage therapists and hairdressers who have already, after assessing the risks, stopped their work all need more.

I think what's really frustrating is that, based on the announcements on Friday, a lot of businesses, like the Archibald Hotel in Kurrajong Heights, went to enormous lengths to quickly meet those requirements and educate customers, only to be told yesterday, two days later, that a large part of their business actually had to close. Small businesses who were doing the right thing are now looking at a very different future. They're adapting fast to takeaway and deliveries, suggesting that EFTPOS fees be dropped so people switch to only tapping, and being creative with how they minimise contact with customers. We must continue to find ways to help these businesses survive.

I also want to talk about teachers. My electorate of Macquarie has a greater number of teachers than any other electorate—schoolteachers in all sectors, TAFE teachers, early childhood teachers and university lecturers. We are bound with them. Teachers at school, in childcare centres and in TAFE are being asked to shoulder an enormous responsibility right now and make invidious choices. Many are older. They're grandparents themselves and in the category considered at higher risk of being more profoundly affected by the coronavirus. Others have their own children and, while they're teaching, they must send their own kids to school or preschool. None of this is ideal, and the confusion of the messages about who should and shouldn't go to school is causing huge anxiety for teachers and parents. I want to thank schools in my electorate—schools like Richmond North Public School and Warrimoo Public School, who have sent parents clear letters saying things like: 'The advice from the New South Wales government is to keep children at home where it is possible to do so. If you can do this, you're encouraged to do so.' That sort of message to parents will make their choices easier.

If we feel it's a good idea for schools in one state to close or for another state to encourage parents to keep their children at home if they can, it's hard to understand why collectively we haven't gone further. If it's a good thing to do next week, it's a very good thing to do this week. Health should come first, and what heroes our health workers are—the thousands of them in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury. Every single one of them deserves a medal for the work they're doing now and the work we know we are going to ask them to do over the next few months.

Just to finish, I am pleased to see many of our suggestions about aged-care workers and the aged-care sector have been adopted. This is a sector that is going to have a really tough time, and it will need all the help it can get.

On older people, the changes to deeming rates for pensions was another very welcome thing. But I have to say that I am concerned about encouraging younger people to access their super and sell it down at a low point in the market yet, at the same time, we're not allowing retirees to do that because we don't want them selling down at the low point in the market. So I see a contradiction there, and I'm disappointed that we haven't been able to refine that.

We have supported the package. We have not supported the package because it's perfect. We haven't supported it because it is enough. We haven't supported it because there aren't more things that we can do—because there are. We're supporting it because we're a responsible opposition. We do need to work together, and we are willing to compromise and work together. We're supporting it because it's urgent and it's needed. But I hope the government puts actions to its words that there is more to do, because there is, and I hope that everyone, as we proceed through the next few months, shows kindness and compassion and does everything they can to be a good neighbour.