Left ‘Very Good at Spending Other People’s Money’: Senators Debate Pandemic Wage Subsidies

August 25, 2020 Updated: August 25, 2020

As the Australian Labor Party pushes to maintain the government’s pandemic wage subsidy scheme, JobKeeper, with crossbench support, New South Wales Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi has introduced a bill to Parliament to guarantee 14 days of paid COVID-19 leave to all permanent, part-time, casual, and gig economy workers.

Faruqi argued that JobKeeper—which provides $1500 per employee per fortnight to businesses—leaves many people in precarious work, casual employment, or on a temporary working visa in the lurch without paid leave to rely on should they contract COVID-19.

Faruqi told Parliament: “We are on a cliff, and we need the government to make sure that no-one falls off.”

The bill proposes to provide paid pandemic leave to employees under the following conditions:

  • The employee has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
  • The employee is unable to attend their workplace because it has been shut down because of COVID-19;
  • The employee is subject to self-isolation or quarantine, or the employee is caring for another person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or is subject to self-isolation or quarantine measures

Faruqi will also be moving an amendment to the bill so that paid COVID-19 leave is funded by the government by amending the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Act 2020. Employers would then be able to receive payments from the federal government for COVID-19 leave payments to their employees.

The Liberal government does not support the “one-size-fits-all bill” amending the Fair Work Act, with Queensland Liberal Party Senator James McGrath telling parliament it won’t be effective, scalable, or quick.

McGrath said: “We should not forget that the money that is being spent at the moment to save the Australian economy is not money that is sitting in a vault of the Reserve Bank. It’s not sitting hidden in the Treasurer’s office. It is money that we are borrowing.”

Further, he said Australians will be paying back this debt for decades.

“It is sometimes concerning when you really listen to what the Left says,” he said. “They’re very, very good at spending other people’s money.”

McGrath said he travelled his state speaking to business owners who expressed relief in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s JobKeeper program.

“The positive impact that JobKeeper has had on protecting businesses and saving livelihoods in Queensland should not be underestimated,” he added.

Labor does not support the proposed amendments, believing the bill will be shot down in the lower house—but does support a paid leave scheme.

“Labor wants the government to introduce universal paid pandemic leave now,” said South Australian Senator Don Farrell, adding: “Unless we get a universal scheme, we will have more community transmission, leading to more outbreaks and an economy-smashing lockdown. We cannot afford not to do this.”

Farrell said his party and the unions have been calling for paid pandemic leave since the start of the pandemic.

Labor wants the Commonwealth to contribute to the scheme and for the payments to be wage-like—that is, paid by the employer as they normally would pay any other kind of leave.

Western Australian Liberal Party Senator Matt O’Sullivan told Parliament a targeted approach was needed because the impacts vary widely across borders, regions, sectors, businesses, and individuals.

Additionally, disaster payments are already available to all Victorian workers, including casuals who are required to self-isolate and cannot take personal leave.

“These $1,500 payments could not be any easier to access. They’re available through Services Australia by simply picking up the phone and dialling 1802266,” said O’Sullivan. 

The Disaster Recovery Payment program provides a one-off, non-means-tested payment for eligible adults and children who have been adversely affected by a major disaster.

“Payments can be claimed on multiple occasions as needed,” he said.

O’Sullivan recently completed a 6,500-kilometre (4038 miles) car tour of Western Australia and reported that JobKeeper continued to be a game-changer for people, including those who work in the gig economy.

“[JobKeeper] makes sure employees are able to maintain that connection with their employer, something that is an incredibly important factor for those in regional and remote WA, where, if you lose someone, it really is a challenge to rehire for that position,” he said.

Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie (TAS) told parliament that while she’s generally supportive of paid COVID-19 leave, the Greens bill scares her because it hasn’t been costed.

They’re asking me to sign a blank cheque,” said Lambie. “I can’t do that in good conscience. I will never, ever do that.”

We have no idea how much more it’s going to cost our grandchildren to repay in the future,” she added. “There are better ways to stop people from going to work sick.”

Lambie also called for JobKeeper and JobSeeker to remain at the current payment rates until after Christmas because some states are in a worse off position than they’ve ever been in.

“Why would we cut JobKeeper when small businesses are on their knees? Things have changed since the government announced those cuts,” she said.

“There is not a soul in this parliament that thinks we’re all going to be hunky-dory four weeks from now. If you do, you are delusional and you probably shouldn’t be sitting in parliament,” she added.

Follow Caden on Twitter: @cadenpearson