11 June 2020

 

 

Most Australians have never experienced the kind of widespread disruption to our normal way of life that we have experienced over the last two months. There are, of course, members of our community who've experienced similar circumstances of lockdown and shortages. They are the migrants and refugees who came to Australia after their homelands were turned upside-down through war and famine, or our older Australians who remember the Great Depression, World War I, World War II and the postwar austerity required of our citizens. For the rest of us, however, our societal structure and way of life has, in no uncertain terms, been significantly challenged. From the ability to enjoy the wide open spaces or have a coffee or shopping, to the dislocation and collapse of employment and income safety, our way of life at this time is vastly different to what might have been expected at the beginning of 2020.

While Australia has done well to restrict the potential for COVID-19 to spread throughout the community, gaps have emerged. We have not ensured that all Australians have a roof over their head or the money to pay for food, medical or other bills. The first warning signs came when we all witnessed the huge queues outside Centrelink offices, when a million people lost their jobs overnight as health orders shut down many businesses. On Monday 23 March, half a million Australians became unemployed for the very first time in their life. Many of them had never had a need to have a myGov account, and it was clear that the computer systems that supported Services Australia and Centrelink couldn't cope. Unhelpful comments explaining that it was a result of a cyberattack were unnecessary, inaccurate and not funny. Disaster planning of these essential services was clearly not adequate. Queues down footpaths, stretching along streets around blocks and further, was a real-life example that Australians had nobody, or nothing, to turn to but the government for support. The fact that social distancing was almost impossible in these situations led to more stress, not to mention the stress of employees of Centrelink, who were needing to deal with these Australians.

Data from the ABS shows that 780,000 people lost their jobs between mid-March and 4 April, which was representative of the immediate impact on people employed by pubs, clubs, gyms, cinemas, beauty salons and any other business that deemed themselves non-essential. The same data also shows that some of our most vulnerable are bearing most of the burden of this number—youth and older Australians. Over two million Australians are now unemployed. Given these extensive job losses, especially considering the demographic of those bearing much of the burden, you can only imagine the stress that our frontline workers in our social security system are experiencing. When I hear the stories of abuse and shouting at people who are just coming to work to help others disappoints me greatly, especially when those throwing the abuse are the people they're trying to help.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that both the Jobseeker and JobKeeper payments will help many Australians economically affected by the virus, there are many who are falling through the gaps—and I'm not just talking about the $60 billion accounting error. Take, for example, one of my constituents who called me in April. He runs a business that employs six staff and subcontracts to live entertainment and catering. Naturally, his business was all but effectively halted. He, like many business owners, did not have the capital to pay all of these workers' salaries until JobKeeper allowances commenced, as it was paid in arrears. His only option was to obtain a commercial loan to cover the salary payments, which imposed additional costs in interest rates and other fees. In another example, a carpentry business in Werriwa had registered for the JobKeeper payment but felt the information they had to rely on was insufficient to make proper decisions. This business could not afford to pay the wages in advance, and that's why, I was told, they applied for the JobKeeper payment in the first place. It appears that the government set up the program without consideration for small businesses like this.

While, daily, I hear from honest, hardworking local business owners and people who find themselves unemployed about the delays in receiving payments, I'm also angered to hear of some of the rorts that have been going on. I've heard stories about businesses telling their employees they were going to retain part of the payment for administration purposes, and other stories where employees who had lost their job were allowed to return but only if the business retained part of the JobKeeper payment. Whilst I know there was a dob-in line, employees were concerned about recriminations if they did so. To rip off hardworking employees who need to put food on their table is just outrageous and un-Australian, but that's what happens when a program is unclear, overly complex for both government and participants of the program, and start dates were delayed so long that the only choice they had was to close.

In New South Wales, most nursing homes are still limiting the number of visitors that they are allowing. The aged-care system relies not only on those paid workers; it also relies heavily on volunteers and family members of those in care. These restrictions have meant that volunteers and family members have not been able to visit aged-care facilities to provide the level of assistance that the facility, the workers, the family members and the residents rely on. I heard from a constituent about the mental health challenges his loved one has had because of the lockdown and having little support. Further, with over 100,000 people waiting for support on the aged-care package list, isolating at home has further impacted their quality of life.

I've spoken previously in this place about the great impact that local government has had in my part of the world in south-western Sydney. I've spoken about council staff and the incredible contributions they make. But I'm deeply concerned that local councils are not eligible for the JobKeeper payment, which puts a further 40,000 jobs at risk right around our country. Councils maintain absolutely necessary social health and welfare services, so it really beggars belief that the government will not ensure these employees keep their jobs so that those services are maintained for the community. Keeping their jobs will also help our economy.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of social restrictions, the ability of charities to raise funds and continue providing necessary activities and services to our community has been destroyed, and the government needs to consider some sort of specific support for them. Close, lengthy proximity increases over the past months will only increase the chances of domestic violence and abuse in our community. This also means it's much harder for victims to get the help they need. The Sydney Women's Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service has said that many people are suffering right now, but they can't make the call. I spoke recently to the Liverpool Women's Resource Centre, which has reported a large increase in requests and need for support. It has given out probably 50 per cent more food vouchers and hampers to those who have lost their job or are suffering domestic violence and have had to flee. In many circumstances, the workers have had to read between the line because the person that they were speaking to was talking to them in code because the perpetrator was in the house with them. We need to make sure these services can continue to do the extremely important work they do so that all Australians can get help when and if they need it. I fear that many victims out there are unable to make this call and, even if they can, they're unable to get the immediate help they need because of the lack of other housing options.

The government needs to understand that there are volunteer community groups and other organisations providing key and vital services to communities right round Australia, and the government needs to ensure that they support them so that they can continue their operations and support during this time and beyond. What these groups do takes so much demand away from government agencies. The groups contribute $129 billion into the Australian economy each year. I have no doubt that we needed to act quickly and I accept that, in the need to act quickly, gaps will emerge, but the gaps must be filled. When major cracks emerge in our society, it's more important than ever for those who fall through to be assisted.

I'd like to thank our community of Werriwa for the positive outlook they've had during this extremely challenging time. I've heard so many stories and received so many calls and emails about the great actions of so many—for example, local business owners who take food to those who are at risk and vulnerable; some of our charities who have been working nearly 24/7 to provide support; and also neighbours checking in on each other. While this is a challenging time for all of us, through all of this, our community and our country will grow stronger, and we may come out of it—let's hope—a more caring, understanding and positive community.