GRIEVANCE DEBATE - JobKeeper Payment

By Matt Keogh MP

23 February 2021

Watch Matt's speech here

The Labor Party was founded by the union movement on the need to protect workers and to ensure those working had good pay, stable jobs and good working conditions. We know that this requires a prosperous small-business sector to support these jobs and we support them too. We acknowledge that owners of small businesses, be they tradies, mum-and-dad franchisees or the owners of local cafes, are all workers too. Small-business owners are usually not multimillionaire property moguls. In fact, many small-business owners take home at the end of the day less than the salary that they pay to their valued staff. Small businesses are often at the mercy of their larger suppliers, landlords or customers. They accept contracts, take jobs and rarely get to set their own prices.

We know, as the Labor Party, we must support small businesses and make sure that their interests are looked after and well represented for them, their families and employees. That's why Labor proposed a scheme through the COVID-19 pandemic that would ensure that not only could workers continue to be paid during the economic crisis to ensure that they could put food on their tables but they would also keep working, stay connected to their employers to keep businesses afloat and be able to survive the pandemic. But today there are 33 days until that lifeline, JobKeeper, is unplugged by the Morrison government.

The Morrison government needs to provide small businesses across Australia with certainty about what is going to happen from 28 March and what supports, if any, the government is going to provide after that date. At the moment, the only thing we know for sure is that the COVID induced economic crisis is not going to come to a shuddering halt come 28 March. As things stand, after 28 March the sun won't come out for small business, we won't have pink fluffy bunnies bouncing around everywhere, and it's not going to be all rainbows and lollipops. It's going to be bad. It's going to be bad for the 1.3 million people who are currently relying on JobKeeper and the businesses they work for. This is going to be bad for the 100,000 people who, though they have jobs today thanks to JobKeeper, this government's own Treasury department says will lose their job when JobKeeper runs out at the end of March.

Today we've seen reports that almost 70 per cent of South Australian businesses want targeted support measures to continue beyond 28 March. Until things go back to normal properly, there needs to be a safety net for small businesses. The economic impact of COVID-19 will not magically end on 28 March. In South Australia, two out of three tourism, accommodation and food service businesses, as well as the education sector, continue to experience revenue decline of 50 per cent or more. In Tasmania, the tourism industry fears 9,000 jobs are at risk. Meanwhile Queensland's most iconic tourism operators are preparing for a wipe-out, predicting up to a quarter of Queensland's 40,000 tourism businesses may go broke. Even in Western Australia, where our state has largely been normal for quite some time, tourism has been struggling with the lack of international visitors. Around a third of tourism businesses in WA are still relying on JobKeeper.

We've now also got reports that the cinema industry has seen an 80 per cent decline in its revenues, and they are suffering hugely. I recently met with the team from Grand Cinemas Armadale to see how they've been coping as a Western Australian independent cinema company. I won't sugar-coat it. Independent cinemas in Australia have been hit by the perfect storm—a drop in audience confidence due to COVID-19, prolonged cinema closures and capacity restrictions and the withholding of new release films by distributors. Now they are faced with the imminent withdrawal of JobKeeper. Meanwhile 90 per cent of live entertainment companies are still relying on JobKeeper to stay afloat. Whether it's hospitality, accommodation, aviation, small businesses—mum-and-dad businesses—across the country they are potentially going to slam into a wall at the end of March. The government has given small business no certainty. Businesses right now, with 33 days until the end of JobKeeper, are having to prepare to let staff go and having to prepare to potentially wind up the small business that they've worked so hard to build. This is a truly shocking situation for small- and medium-sized businesses.

With that in mind, there are also many small businesses just assuming that it will all be okay, that there has to be some sort of support on the way, that they will end up being covered by it and that it will be due to be introduced at the last moment. It's an optimistic view, but I'm not sure that will be what occurs. Reports today in The Canberra Times reveal that the ATO is already winding down its JobKeeper team and it'll begin shedding staff back down to pre-pandemic levels. It doesn't look like it has received any notification of potential continuation of support measures for small business.

This government has no understanding of the needs of small business. For the people who operate small and medium businesses, JobKeeper, even in a reduced form, has been a lifeline—a bridge to enable them to continue to navigate the turbulence we've all experienced with COVID-19. Now they're being left high and dry. It's clear that the Morrison government just doesn't get it. During the COVID-19 crisis, creating employment was simply not a priority for small business. It was just to maintain production and labour levels to keep their heads just above water. Until small businesses are confident that their businesses won't be interrupted by lockdowns and other restrictions, they're not going racing off to employ even more staff. So in this regard the JobMaker scheme is a complete farce. We know, through Treasury's own examples obtained by the ABC this week, that bosses could sack a full-time employee, replace them with three part-time staff and remain financially ahead, because of the way this scheme works. This scheme will just enable businesses to create more insecure work. Companies might be manipulated or even encouraged to transition employees out of a job only to be replaced under the JobMaker scheme. JobMaker was intended to create new jobs, but frankly small businesses don't want to be putting on good employees into a position of uncertain work.

Despite growing anxiety and uncertainty about JobKeeper being cut, we're running out of hope that a plan for good, secure, well-paid jobs to replace it will be announced. We've said all along that JobKeeper and other supports should be tailored to the economic conditions. Of course, it can't last forever, but some supports need to continue while these businesses are still suffering the impacts of COVID-19. Many workers, small businesses and communities are continuing to hurt. Labor are on the side of these working families. Only we understand that small business needs a level playing field as we continue going through this crisis. After COVID-19, Labor will deliver national reconstruction that is squarely focused on jobs, good secure jobs. We know that this also requires working with and supporting small businesses that provide these jobs. If you want good, secure jobs with fair pay and conditions, Labor are on your side. If you want an Australia that makes things and supports local jobs, Labor are on your side. Only Labor are truly on the side of small business.