Second Reading: JobMaker Hiring Credit

19 October 2020

An address to the Parliament of Australia on the Economic Recovery Package (JobMaker Hiring Credit) Amendment Bill 2020, Second Reading.

A little while ago when I was watching the farce unfold on that side of the House when they couldn't decide whether to support the passage of their own legislation, I was trying to remember what it reminded me of and it came to me that it was a lot like one of the really great episodes of Seinfeld. What happened in that episode was that Jerry is with Elaine and they go to pick up a hire car that Jerry has booked. They go to the hire care place and Jerry says, 'Do you have my reservation?' The person at the hire car place says: 'Yes, we have your reservation; we just don't have any cars.' Jerry then says: 'You're quite good at taking the reservation but you're just not very good at holding the reservation. It's the holding of the reservation that matters.' The reason that reminded me of those opposite is that they are really good at making the announcements, they are really good at getting around the press gallery scurrying in and out of the bureaus up there telling people: 'We're going to put lots of pressure on Labor today. They've got to pass our legislation for the hiring credit through the House of Representatives and the pressure is going to be on them.' They were all around the gallery and we read and saw all these stories about how the government was putting pressure on the Labor Party to support the speedy passage of their hiring credits. They did all that really, really well. They did all the spin really well.

But where they fell over was that they weren't actually ready to pass their own legislation through the parliament. They were able to spin that they were going to put pressure on us to pass the legislation through the parliament. But nobody thought: 'Hang on a second. If that's the case, we probably should be in a position to actually put the legislation to the parliament.' The Manager of Opposition Business suggested quite fairly, quite graciously, that if the government was that keen to pass the legislation through the House today—though they hadn't actually thought to put it before the House today—we would facilitate that. And we watched the absolute farce unfold as the member for Petrie and others tried to work out whether they would support the speedy passage of their own legislation. I think this speaks to a deeper truth about the government. This is a government which for more than seven years now has put all of the emphasis on the big announcements and none of the emphasis on actually delivering on the commitments and promises they have made. They are notorious for overpromising and underdelivering.

We saw that again today when they said they were going to pass that legislation today but they weren't even ready to put that legislation before the House. The reason why all of this spin fell over with just a little bit of scrutiny is that the government can't get beyond one inescapable truth about this legislation, and that is that, whether it passes in the next couple of hours or tomorrow or on Wednesday or even on Thursday, it can't pass the parliament until the Senate reconvenes in November. So with all this pressure about the speedy passage, no genius on that side of the House thought: 'Hang on a minute, no matter what we do in the House of Representatives it can't pass the Senate until next month.' So all of this rubbish that we had to read, see and listen to has been exposed. It's fallen over at the very first hurdle. No matter what we do here today, it cannot pass the Senate until next month.

What we've tried to do—and I think what the Manager of Opposition Business did a short while ago is of a piece with our efforts—is be as constructive and helpful as we can when it comes to implementing. If there's a good idea or something that the government needs help getting through here into a Senate inquiry and considered by the Senate then we have been prepared to be constructive throughout. But that doesn't mean just being meekly acquiescent. It means pointing out where the government may not have got things exactly bang on. It means asking questions about whether there are unintended consequences and whether there is the capacity for ideas like what the government is proposing to actually fall over in the implementation.

That's why we want the senate inquiry. We've actually got the time. We've got a few weeks until it can be put before the Senate, so let's use that time wisely. Let's use that time to have the Senate inquiry and look at the detail of what's being proposed here. As the member for Gorton eloquently explained a short while ago, there are a few areas in this legislation that concern us. We will be voting for it here in the House this afternoon, but there are issues that we want a Senate inquiry to look at because there are some things that concern us. We are worried that there is the capacity to rort this. We are worried about the way the tests have been set up. We are worried that it might be possible—and the government hasn't adequately convinced us that it's not possible—for an employer to sack an older worker and replace them with two part-time younger workers in order to receive the hiring credit twice. It would be incredibly concerning if that were the case. So we want a Senate inquiry to look at that.

We want the Senate inquiry to look at whether or not this policy will actually make a contribution to secure work or whether it's just kicking the can down the road, creating even more churn in the labour market, which has been defined not just in the last seven months but for the last seven years by insecurity, underemployment and a lot of precarious work—all of the things which have led to suboptimal wage outcomes and all kinds of other issues in our economy around consumption and the like. So we want to get to the bottom of that as well.

We want to understand why the government chose the 35-years cut-off, recognising that 928,000 Australians who are on unemployment benefits will be excluded from the hiring credit that we are debating in the House right now. So we want to understand the impacts of all of that. As the member for Gorton again mentioned in his contribution, we want to understand where the government got this 450,000 people promise where they say the hiring credits will get 450,000 Australians back into work. That sounds to us to be a made-up number. So we want to get to the bottom of that. We want to understand it. We want to understand how that is actually additional people employed and not just part of the natural recovery in employment that you would expect to see after such a deep and damaging recession. So these are the sorts of issues that we want to get to.

We also want to get to the implementation of an expensive policy. It is $4 billion, and we want to make sure that the government does it right. Even the most objective observer would conclude that the government's got form in stuffing up these kinds of big policies, particularly in the labour market. One of the reasons why the Treasurer will become known as the butterfingers of Australian politics is that he takes ideas like this and drops the ball. He drops the ball repeatedly. When the government has form, I think it's our responsibility on this side of the House to try and understand where things could go wrong and to try and help prevent things from going wrong. So that's the issue here—the government has form.

Just think about that Restart Program. When the government were rightly criticised for excluding almost a million workers on unemployment benefits from the hiring credit, they said, 'Don't worry; we've got this thing called Restart for the over 50s.' We said, 'Okay, we'll have a look at Restart.' Restart has been hopelessly and woefully undersubscribed. It's nowhere near the commitments that the government made for the impact of Restart for workers over 50. It's hopelessly undersubscribed. We now know through the good work of Paul Karp at TheGuardian and others that so many of those workers on the Restart Program didn't even have a job three months after they had helped their employer get the hiring credit. So Restart has been a farce, and we don't want to see this go down the same path.

Speaking of paths, what about the Youth Jobs PaTH program quietly cut back in this year's budget?

The government doesn't want people to know that PaTH has been cut back. The funding has been cut back as part of a $1.4 billion cut to employment services in the budget handed down just a couple of weeks ago—another farce in the labour-market programs: Restart; PaTH.

And there's JobKeeper of course—the $60 billion blunder; the biggest blunder in the history of this federation when it comes to the budget. It was $60 billion out. It excluded millions of workers on the basis that the program was full, only to have to fess up, in quite a humiliating fashion, that the Treasurer was $60 billion out in his calculations. So it's a government that has form in not getting these things right.

There are parallels here between this hiring credit and the JobKeeper legislation, because this legislation that we're considering doesn't set all the rules; it doesn't set the eligibility or the rates and all that sort of thing. It basically gives the Treasurer a blank cheque to implement as he sees fit—to tweak the rules with the stroke of a pen on who gets it, how much it is and how they'll tighten it up if that's necessary. He hasn't been successful at doing that with JobKeeper, with so many people excluded and some companies receiving it that shouldn't need it—all of those sorts of things. So, once again, I think we've got a right to be sceptical about the Treasurer's capacity to implement this $4 billion program.

This is a deep and damaging recession. It's the deepest, most damaging recession in almost a century. It's the first recession at all in almost three decades. We're in the teeth of a full-blown jobs crisis. Almost a million are unemployed already and another 160,000 are expected to join the unemployment queues between now and the end of the year. Thirty thousand jobs were lost in the last month alone. So this requires us to do the best we can to get people back into work.

With a trillion dollars in debt and $98 billion of new commitments in the budget, we need to recognise that the country doesn't have a choice at the moment between borrowing or not, but we do have a choice about whether we get value for money from that borrowing or not. We measure that value for money by what it means for jobs. We measure that value for money by whether or not we actually have anything to show for the debt which has quadrupled on the watch of those opposite, despite them having spent much of the last decade running around Australia talking about debt and deficit disasters when debt was a tiny fraction of what it is today on their watch. So we want to get that value for money.

The best way for us to do that is to carefully examine what's being proposed here, to hold it up to the light, to make sure that we do what we can to prevent the Treasurer, the butter-fingers of Australian politics, from getting this hopelessly wrong once again. That's our responsibility to the Australian people. Every single dollar here is borrowed. We want to get maximum bang for buck. The government has got this wrong too frequently for us to just roll over without this Senate inquiry to have a look at what's happening here. If there are amendments required in that process, that's fine. We'll be supporting it through the House today, to get it over into that Senate committee. It can't be passed until next month anyway, so let's try and get it right.