Interview on ABC Adelaide with David Bevan

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: JobKeeper and JobSeeker announcements.
22 July 2020

David Bevan: But in the meantime, many of you are struggling with much, much smaller amounts of money, trying to get by on JobSeeker, maybe on JobKeeper, and while those payments were increased substantially at the start of a pandemic, the Government has said: well after September, which was always going to be the cutoff date, we're going to start to ratchet down the payments. We will extend them. We’ll extend them long beyond what we originally promised, but they will be ratcheted downwards. So, if you've got questions or comments about how that's going to work – I know it was announced almost 24 hours ago, but it really can be quite complicated. If you've got questions or comments, give us a call because Senator Simon Birmingham, South Australia's most senior Liberal, joins us now. Good morning Senator Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning David and good morning to your listeners.

David Bevan: Can you sum up what you see as the changes that were announced yesterday so that we can just start from there?

Simon Birmingham: Sure David. So what we announced yesterday was a six month extension to the JobKeeper program. This extension sees some tightening of the business eligibility criteria so that businesses have to show a prolonged downturn in their revenue – still the same 30 per cent decline in revenue – but rather than it being in just a one-month period, it needs to be demonstrated over each of the quarters of the impact of the pandemic so far. We also have announced a two-tiered payment structure for payments there. I've taken calls previously from listeners, highlighting individuals who were receiving more under JobKeeper than they were in their previous employment. So we have made changes in that direction to be able to have at least two tiers of payment under the JobKeeper arrangement. There's a tapering down as you said of the overall rate of JobKeeper and consistent with that, some adjustments to the JobSeeker supplement that sits alongside and works in tandem to give support to those who may not be eligible for the JobKeeper payment.

But on the whole, it's a program that's supported some 3.5 million Australian workers to date. It's the single largest intervention and economic support program that an Australian government has ever delivered, and we have now extended it out all the way through until March of next year.

David Bevan: Is Victoria the reason we have to do this?

Simon Birmingham: No. It's not David. We do face extraordinarily different circumstances right around the country, but these decisions have been under consideration as part of the JobKeeper review that we had Treasury do and subject to multiple rounds of Cabinet discussions.

David Bevan: But you can see where I'm heading with that question. It looked like we were on a good trajectory and the Government always said: look, six months and then we'll review it; and you made it quite plain that if things were continuing, you were going to do something beyond September. But we were on such a good trajectory and then we were hit with Victoria.

Simon Birmingham: Victoria probably means that the number of businesses eligible and therefore, the cost of the program will be greater than it would have otherwise been. But taking my portfolio areas, particularly the tourism part of my portfolio, not so much the trade and investment, although areas of trade are hit too. In the tourism space, we know full well that very internationally dependent businesses are still suffering. If you’re an audio visual supplier who provides support to the Adelaide Convention Centre, you are likely to be doing it incredibly tough right now or many other suppliers there. If you provide laundry services to the Hilton Hotel in Adelaide that remains closed, you'll be doing it incredibly tough right now. So, there are a lot of other types of businesses that outside of Victoria are still doing it tough and will be probably for the next six months as well. And so, this program is built in a way where it will direct support to both the regions that need it most. That could well be right now the state of Victoria or North Queensland being a very tourism-dependent region, but also then to the sectors of the economy and individual businesses that need it most as well.

David Bevan: Okay. Now, a text coming in for Senator Simon Birmingham, Federal Minister for Trade and Tourism, South Australia's most senior Liberal in the Morrison Government. One person says: regarding JobKeeper, how is it fair to continue to pay thousands of teenagers who live at home JobKeeper? We’re not talking about Stephan Knoll here, by the way. Thousands of teenagers who live at home. JobKeeper. Many of these kids only had a Saturday job and I know many who only earned $80 a week and now get $750 a week. What do you say to that person?

Simon Birmingham: A couple of things. There was a tightening of the criteria early on just to try to deal particularly with children. Those under 18 I think was the age range set and to narrow some of the eligibility there. I can't recall off the top of my head the detail there but we did hear that concern and acted on that pretty quickly. Obviously, young adults may be living at home. They may be living in rental. They may be living wherever. The change that we've made there is to put in place the two tiers of payment so that those working fewer than 20 hours a week will receive a smaller payment relative to those working more than 20 hours.

David Bevan: Chris has called from Heathfield with a question for Simon Birmingham. Good morning Chris.

Caller Chris: Good morning David and good morning Simon. Simon, the Prime Minister and a lot of the politicians have said while we're going through this situation, we're all in this together. Are the politicians going to look at taking a pay cut, maybe looking at a wealth tax? Because when we have these real critical situations, it's always the unfortunate poor and those that have got less income to protect themselves to get through these situations. Can we look at spreading the load and not have a society maybe down the track that's going to have a huge gap between the haves and the have nots? Can politicians look at taking a reduction in their income? We've got state politicians doing the wrong thing, which has been on the radio, dipping into things they shouldn't be dipping into. Can we get a balance in spreading the burden over the whole population and not just the lower end of our population, those that are really struggling?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Chris. One of the early decisions taken during the pandemic was to instruct a freeze on politicians’ salaries. That decision was taken right back around some of the earlier stages of this. I understand the sentiment you make. There are, in some ways, competing arguments around that. I do equally recall, I think David you had an economist that you interviewed quite early in the pandemic about questions of whether, as Government is scaling up expenditure and providing additional payments like JobKeeper and the JobSeeker supplement, whether to pay for that, there should be cuts to politicians and senior public service wages, and I think the argument that was put to by an economistwas that that was done during the Great Depression and that actually prolonged the economic pain at the time by having that sort of retraction of wages and causing other households to retract elements of their spending as well too. So look, I understand the emotion of that question, what I said is clear, that a freeze was put in place on politicians’ salaries, the continued process around the minimum wage case was heard, minimum wage handed down for the increases there, other processes we'll see continued wage increases occur through normal EBAs and so on, but they certainly won't be happening for federal MPs.

David Bevan: Okay. Not happening for federal MPs. Although David from Prospect says given Parliament will not be sitting, perhaps the politicians should be on JobKeeper. Can you tease this out for us? Is the reason you’re scaling back JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments from September, is it two-fold? One is you can't continue to pay at that rate. You just can't afford it. And the other reason is the government believes that these more generous payments, we've reached the point we’re actually impeding economic recovery because there's no incentive to go out and find work.

Simon Birmingham: So there are a few a few pieces to that puzzle, David. Yes, in part the last point you make is partially correct, that we don't want a situation where the payments being made are a disincentive to people looking for work or taking the work that's available to them at a point in time. And again, we've received calls on your program previously from people who say, well, I can't get the person receiving JobKeeper to turn up. One of the changes we've made in relation to JobSeeker is in relation to the amount of hours that somebody can work and making it more generous in terms of the encouragement for somebody in receipt of JobSeeker to also work a few more hours and still to be able to keep and receive JobSeeker so that we're trying to create the right incentive there for people to be back in the workforce. In terms of tapering down some of the rates, there is also an acknowledgement that at some point in time, the extraordinary intervention of JobKeeper, which let's remember is a wage subsidy. The government is paying businesses around Australia – so far some 960,000 businesses – money to pay the wages of their employees. Not something that we've ever done before, an extraordinary intervention and clearly one that has to be time limited. We do want to ensure that when it comes to an end, it is not to an abrupt end to the economy overall. So tapering down some of the scale of those payments is important to minimise the extent of economic shocks for- to encourage those businesses to adjust, to encourage people back to work and to make sure that hopefully, we've got the equilibrium right in the long term.

David Bevan: Okay. Now a listener asks, can you just explain again what's happening with JobSeeker? Because that's – for people who are trying to get their heads around all these different terms – that's the old Newstart or before that people would just call it the dole. So it’s the unemployment benefit. That from September for the next six months, will that be more generous than it was before the pandemic, although at a less generous rate? Do you follow what I mean?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, I do follow what you mean and the short answer there is, yes, it will continue to be more generous than it was pre-pandemic. So the so-called coronavirus supplement that's paid on top of the JobSeeker will be an amount of $250 per fortnight from the 25th of September through until the end of the calendar year.

David Bevan: Okay, so you- to put it plainly, it's still going to be $250 a fortnight more than it was pre-pandemic. Yeah?

Simon Birmingham: That's right.

David Bevan: But you will have to start looking for work, because during the pandemic, the government said we're going to waive the requirement to apply for, I don’t know, some unreasonable amount of jobs that nobody’s ever going to get. But you're going to reinstate that.

Simon Birmingham: Yeah. So gradually we’ll reintroduce the mutual obligation requirements, the need to look for work, that commenced back on 9 June, which included some voluntary job searches, seeking out at least one phone or online appointment with their employment services provider, the contracted agency by government, to try to help people find work or get themselves back into the workforce. And there'll be further steps that are intended in terms of reintroducing those requirements. But we are very mindful of circumstances like Victoria at present as well, and so there will be flexibility in that, that Anne Ruston as the responsible minister, will continue to deploy.

David Bevan: Okay. Now we know you've got to leave but can you- have you got time to take a quick call from Leigh?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, sure.

David Bevan: Leigh from Mount Barker. Good morning Leigh.

Caller Leigh: Hi, how are you doing?

David Bevan: Good.

Caller Leigh: I’ve just got a question about the JobTrainer that’s coming in for JobSeeker – people who are on JobSeeker. And I'm just wondering how that crosses over with Austudy for tertiary education? Because I personally am not eligible for Austudy but I am eligible for JobSeeker because they’ve made a greater allowance for my partner's income. So, I’m just not so sure how that works.

Simon Birmingham: Okay, Leigh. Well the additional supplement, the extra payment that David and I were talking about before, is definitely paid across Austudy as well as across JobSeeker. But your question relates to your eligibility for Austudy and that- so you're eligible for JobSeeker because some of the changes to the partner income testing that we've made, but not for Austudy. I think it's probably best if we grab your details and try to look at that off line because it's getting well into the weeds of eligibility criteria for different payments and I can't say I've got all of those memorised.

David Bevan: No. Well that's fair enough. Leigh, are you happy to pass on your details and we'll pass them on to Simon Birmingham, and he’ll maybe hand them under Anne Ruston and somebody will get back to you.

Caller Leigh: Yeah sure. That’s fine.

Simon Birmingham: I’ll definitely get back to you, Leigh. Promise on that.

David Bevan: Alright. Leigh, we will make sure your details are handed onto the people who can give you an answer. Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, David. My pleasure. Anytime.

David Bevan: Minister for Trade, Tourism, and Investment.

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