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Wednesday, 17 June 2020
Page: 3396

Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (10:42): The Greens are particularly interested in schedule 6 of this bill before us today, the Treasury Laws Amendment (2020 Measures No. 2) Bill 2020. Essentially it's an omnibus bill that includes six different legislative instruments, but we're particularly interested in schedule 6. The reason is pretty simple. We in the Greens fought hard to get JobKeeper during the COVID crisis that we've all been through in recent months. Indeed, I think the Greens were the first ones to raise the issue of the need for a living wage during this pandemic. We raised the fact that countries like the UK and New Zealand were considering a living wage, and that, while we applauded it—especially Senator Siewert, after all her fantastic work in recent years to increase Newstart, which has essentially become jobseeker—we felt that it didn't go far enough. We actually needed to provide certainty for workers and businesses to stay in business during this most unprecedented crisis that we've found ourselves in. It is simply to give confidence to families, to workers and to business owners and even to consumers and the economy, which is what we need to do in times of pandemic. We've learnt enough from history to know the most important thing we can do in times of crisis is inject confidence into the economy. We learnt that from the GFC and we've learnt that from other crises.

We got JobKeeper. Let me just say a few brief words about the background of JobKeeper. It wasn't just the Greens and the Labor Party and others who were actively out there saying that we needed a living wage in the form of something like JobKeeper. I understand that the reason the government finally came to the party and legislated a living wage like JobKeeper is that the business community itself, along with the unions, the ACTU—and the role that Sally McManus and others played in negotiating the JobKeeper package with the business community has been well publicised—recognised the need to keep businesses open and to keep continuity in place. They also recognised the fact that many small business owners especially—and that is what JobKeeper was firmly aimed at, small businesses—didn't feel comfortable about joining and were unlikely to go down and join the long queues outside Centrelink. So we got JobKeeper, and I think it was a fantastic collaborative effort both by people within this parliament and by many, many stakeholders outside the parliament.

It hasn't been perfect. The Greens have been on the COVID-19 committee inquiry and we've been continually asking questions about some of the failings of JobKeeper. It is a gigantic effort to pull something like this together at short notice, and I put on record the Greens' thanks to all the hardworking public servants, especially the Treasury officials, those at the Australian Taxation Office and others, who have literally worked around the clock to make sure that we have this payment to keep small businesses ticking and to give money to workers and give them confidence. But it did leave out huge cohorts in this country, such as casual workers who have been employed for less than 12 months; and those on foreign worker visas, who are absolutely critical. In my state of Tasmania we especially need foreign workers in many of our agriculture industries and tourism industries. So it hasn't been perfect. The Greens have continually pushed for extra payments to the disability support sector, to the arts sector and indeed to the university sector and so on, and we're not taking our foot off the brake in that regard.

But what we've discovered in recent weeks is that there are a number of glaring omissions that have raised their heads and need to be fixed, and one of them is about the government's one-in all-in rule, which basically said to employers, 'If you are going to put any employees on JobKeeper, you must put all your employees on JobKeeper.' Remember that employers, yes, had to fund the first four to five weeks of this payment, but then they would be refunded. That has definitely been an issue for many small businesses, particularly if they have dozens of employees; that was potentially $20,000, $30,000 or $40,000 they had to come up with at short notice. And, for those not following this debate, there was pressure put on the banks to provide low-interest loans and 'interest holidays' on existing loans, to do whatever they could, to help small businesses meet that gap. I moved an amendment to the original legislation many weeks ago to bring that payment date forward to make sure small businesses weren't put under that pressure. Nevertheless, that's no excuse for employers in this country, when they're being given money by the government—it's not their money; these are public funds, a stimulus payment to their workers, to keep confidence in the economy, to keep food on the table, to keep their businesses going—to cherry-pick who gets JobKeeper and who doesn't. If you are eligible—and I'll get to that point in a minute, because it's very important—the law as it stands says, if you pay one employee, you must pay them all.

Now, we know that many businesses, sadly, have not adhered to the one-in all-in rule. I accept there has been some confusion in terms of dealing with accountants around this. The rules and the goal posts have been changing a lot. The situation is very fluid. It has been a difficult time. But the one-in all-in principle is very simple, and it's there for a reason. This is a government stimulus payment to keep confidence in the economy, provided by the Australian taxpayer, the public. I know that Fair Work are dealing with thousands of complaints from employees who have been left out of JobKeeper. They've been told by their employer, 'Sorry. Joe and Jane got it, but I haven't been able to sign you up for it.'

Someone very close to me has been going through exactly this situation. They contacted Fair Work and said, 'Four of my fellow employees received it, three of us haven't, and our employer has provided no explanation apart from that he got it late or he didn't see it when you sent it through, and so on and so forth—all the excuses in the world'. Fair work said: 'You are entitled to this. Your employer needs to sign you up to it. It is the law.' Then Fair Work contacted them again and said, 'Look, we feel sorry for you, but there is nothing we can do to enforce this.'

I raised this issue in the COVID inquiry directly with the Australian tax office and directly with Treasury. As it turns out, while we have this rule in place, there are no enforcement powers in the legislation. There are no enforcement powers at all. Fair Work has been telling employees who have missed out—many of whom have severe anxiety and don't have the money to pay their rent and get through this—that it can't help them until this parliament legislates enforcement powers so Fair Work can go after these employers. When the tax office answered my question, it was quite interesting. I have a lot of time for Mr Hirschhorn and have worked with him now for many years. He said, 'Look, our first port of call is to have a discussion with the employer and say, "Why aren't you putting these workers on JobKeeper?" and try to sort it out at that point.' Mr Hirschhorn's view was that it's in no-one's interest for the employer to be fined. I understand where Mr Hirschhorn is coming from, but it's easy for him to say that. He's not the one missing out on getting a payment when he needs it. That's not a slur against Mr Hirschhorn at all, but I fundamentally disagree. I think there has to be a stick-and-carrot approach. If the carrot doesn't work—there are, sadly, dodgy employers out there—there needs to be a stick. Fair Work needs the information from the tax office and it needs the power to enforce this rule.

We don't know how much longer this scheme will go on. The government introduced, unfortunately, significant uncertainty into the equation again by saying that JobKeeper will be reviewed in June, after employers and employees had been told they would get it until September. The government suddenly took it away from the childcare sector 10 days ago at short notice. So the whole point of introducing confidence into the system by providing a stimulus payment is being eroded by this government's rush to pull the rug out from under the feet of employers and employees in this country. There is this idea that somehow the economy will snap back, but we're all very worried that we're facing a fiscal cliff and that, when these payments are withdrawn, we will have significant pain and hardship on our hands.

The Greens' view is that this payment should be extended, and it should certainly be extended to those unfortunate Australians who have been left out by this government. But let's fix the law as it is before us now, especially schedule 6 in this bill, which relates to the one-in, all-in rule. I understand that a second reading amendment has been circulated in the chamber on behalf of me and the Australian Greens. I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

", but the Senate:

(a) notes that:

(i) the JobKeeper scheme requires that employers that have decided to participate must ensure that all eligible employees are nominated for the scheme,

(ii) the decision about employee eligibility is entirely at the discretion of employers, and

(iii) there is currently no avenue for employees to dispute decisions made by their employer to include some, but not all, employees in the scheme; and

(b) calls on the Government to give the Fair Work Commission the power to deal with disputes about whether a worker of an employer participating the JobKeeper scheme is eligible for the JobKeeper payment".

I also want to highlight that my colleague in the other place, the Leader of the Greens, Mr Adam Bandt, will be introducing a private member's bill to cover this exact issue.

Senator Waters: And Mehreen's done it in this place, too.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: And I've just been reminded that my colleague Senator Faruqi has done exactly the same thing on behalf of Mr Bandt.

This is an issue we all care about. I know the Labor Party care about it and, I'm sure, so do the crossbench. To my colleagues across the chamber: in the spirit in which you introduced JobKeeper—and thank you for doing that; thank you for working with all stakeholders and bringing in a living wage—let me also remind you that what has been seen can't be unseen. Government stepping in and keeping businesses going is a good thing when it's needed. We would like to see this concept extended way beyond COVID to look at a permanent living wage. We think it's very important that government plays a strong role in our lives. The Greens have always argued for a strong role.

May I remind the minister, while I'm on my feet, that, in a recovery phase, the government also has a strong role to play by investing in the community: investing in infrastructure projects that will build this country; investing in transitioning to 100 per cent renewable energy in this country; providing job security for young Australians, who, by Jove, have had a difficult few years. If you're a young Australian now, you've been told to stay at home for three months and not go out. You've seen a summer of horrendous bushfires, with Australians being evacuated from beaches; record droughts; the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, with a third mass coral bleaching in our oceans. You surely must be wondering what the future holds for you. It's our job as government to give them that certainty—for the next generation, not just for the next few weeks or the next month through the JobKeeper scheme. Our role is to take that concept and provide a future and security for young Australians—something that they can feel that they are being supported on. So we need to take these principles that we've all applied in recent weeks and months, which have been great, and now extend them to the future. No more austerity. No more zombie budget cuts. Let's have a strong role of government in our lives. The Greens will be supporting— (Time expired)