Government needs to go further for charities - Transcript, Doorstop

E&OE TRANSCRIPT

DOORSTOP

PARLIAMENT HOUSE

SATURDAY, 11 APRIL 2020

SUBJECTS: Charities unable to access JobKeeper payments; unemployment.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: While finance is the lifeblood of the economy, charities are the connective tissue. The 1.3 million charity workers help hold Australia together at times of crisis. This is a massive sector, and one which has been suffering a perfect storm over recent weeks. We've seen a huge drop off in donations to Australia's charities. Philanthropic foundations are experiencing lower sharemarket returns, so they're giving less. Australians are giving less to their favourite charities, and many significant fundraising events such as fundraising balls are dropping off. Op shops are closing. Charities are getting far less revenue now than they did in the past. They're suffering a fall in their volunteer base, too. Millions of Australians volunteer, but older Australians are increasingly refraining from volunteering because of the risk of being exposed to others.

At the same time, we need our charities more than we ever have. We need Australia's charities to assist with addressing family violence, with the challenge of joblessness, with the mental health issues that are arising and with problems around financial counselling. We're drawing on Australia's charities to help the homeless and Indigenous Australians, groups that are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. And yet the Government has been slow to assist charities. Their first response package contained nothing for charities whatsoever. The second response package contained nothing for major charities. The third package, the wage subsidy scheme called JobKeeper, did assist some charities and more when the Government on Sunday night changed the threshold so that charities only had to have a 15 per cent drop in turnover rather than a 30 per cent drop in order to qualify. Labor welcomed that change.

But as I said to Parliament on Wednesday, the Government needs to go further. We moved amendments to suggest that tied grant revenue be excluded, so that more charities could access the wage subsidy scheme. One of the problems with the scheme right now is that charities that are receiving grants for bushfire relief may not qualify because of that immensely valuable work. So you've got charities such as UnitingCare, with 50,000 workers and 30,000 volunteers supporting a million Australians, who’s concerned they may not be able to access the wide subsidy and may have to shed staff as a result. You have Anglicare, with 20,000 staff nationally and 9,000 volunteers also helping more than a million Australians every year – they’re worried too they might not be able to access JobKeeper and may have to let staff let staff go. You’ve got other charities such as St Vincent de Paul, who also are telling us that they're not sure that they're going to be able to access the JobKeeper scheme. I’ve spoken to charity CEOs in recent weeks who've had to let valuable staff go because they just haven't gotten the support they need from the Government.

Today's package is $100 million announcement for food relief charities, emergency services providers and financial counselling. $16 million of this was announced a fortnight ago and is being re-announced today. Labor welcomes the support being provided to the sector, but we have to keep it in perspective. This is a significant sector, so the $100 million package announced today is less than 1/1000th of the size of the charity sector. Labor calls on the Government to ensure that charities that are providing early childhood services, charities providing disability support are able to stay afloat in these troubling times. There are charities right now missing out on JobKeeper.

We call on Josh Frydenberg to use his personal authority under the legislation to allow those significant charities to be brought back in. To give you just a concrete example of this, Anglicare in New South Wales and the ACT has more than 5,000 children in its early learning centres. That includes three early learning centres in the Prime Minister's own electorate of Cook, some of which serve children of health services workers. We don't want health services workers unable to get to work because their children can't get a spot in daycare. Those early learning centres that are run by charities need to be supported through the Government's JobKeeper scheme. So, we welcome the measures the Government has put in place. We would have liked to see them implemented sooner, and we want the Government to go further in making sure that no charity performing a critical role right now misses out on Government support. We can't afford not to help the helpers. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST:  Charities are also affected by the challenges of panic buying in supermarket [inaudible]. Do you think enough is being done to address that nationally?

LEIGH: This has been a huge issue for the food relief charities, as you identify. The way in which charities such as SecondBite, OzHarvest have operated traditionally is through surplus food - there's food that isn't sold by the supermarkets and a portion of that is passed onto food relief charities. At a time when panic buying’s occurred, those food relief charities haven’t been able to get the supplies they need. So that's why Linda Burney and I called for the support a month ago. It’s why we were pleased a fortnight ago to see the Government stepping up and assisting food relief charities. We're speaking with charities about whether the assistance has been sufficient. As I understand it, the announcement today does not include new assistance for food relief charities and it is critical that they receive the support they need. I know many of my constituents who come to me are concerned about the financial pressures caused by job loss right now, and food relief charities are being called on more than ever before. So we've got to help the helpers.

JOURNALIST: Given the length of time that this is expected to continue, and particularly the length of time that this will have an effect on people’s wages, those people that would ordinarily give to charities, how much do you think needs to be given to the charity sector to keep it afloat? What would you be putting forward?

LEIGH: The charity sector needs to be assisted as part of the Government's other rescue packages. One of the things that's always troubled me has been when charities have been left out of programs that are extended to business. This is no time to be seeing charities and not-for-profits as less deserving of assistance than businesses. But we may also need to provide direct relief. There's been a number of thoughtful asks from the sector. I've had good conversations with ACOSS about what they think needs to be done to assist the sector right now. ACOSS ran a survey on Monday which found that many charities were expecting to have to shed staff, and that over a third of those expecting to shed staff had experienced less than 15 per cent drop in turnover because of the way in which turnover is calculated. So, we'll be working closely with the sector to see what they need and then amplify those concerns to the Government.

JOURNALIST: Do you have any specifics on which food relief charities are being excluded? Foodbank this morning are welcoming the package and are expecting assistance to flow this week to them.

LEIGH: What the Government has done is it's supported the major food relief charities, but many of the local food relief charities operating in regional cities for example haven't received assistance under this package. Those organisations may receive some flow-on support from the larger food relief charities. But it may also be appropriate to look at direct assistance to those regionally based organisations which have the eyes and ears on the ground and know exactly who are the people most in need. Organisations operating with Indigenous communities, specialist organisations who feed the homeless – they’ll  be charities that may not be assisted in a high-level package of this kind, not because of any ill will from the Government but because it is harder to have an eye on all of those smaller organisations. So we'll be looking particularly at the needs of those smaller food relief charities.

JOURNALIST: We’ve seen the queues of people outside Centrelink and charities have told us there’s been a surge in demand for their services, that people this need help. Can you talk about how there really is that need at this time and how charities are crucial and supporting that?

LEIGH: Joblessness is one of the most painful experiences somebody can experience in their lives. I graduated high school in 1990, with a cohort who was leaving school right into the teeth of Australia's last deep recession. I know how painful it is for young people facing down a job market that just doesn't have opportunities available for them. So, it's critical that we've got charities there supporting people who are unable to find a job. It's vital that we've got charities assisting people who've just lost a job, a wrenching and painful experience. We need to do our best to make sure that unemployment is minimised. According to Westpac forecasts, if we hadn't had the wage subsidy program Parliament passed on Wednesday, unemployment in Australia would have hit 17 per cent. Westpac still projects it will peak at around 9 per cent. It's almost a doubling of the Australian unemployment rate.

That means massive human misery and it's critical that charities step in, put their arm around those people, have them recognise that they haven't lost their job through any fault of their own – that this is a virus which has hit the world economy, and hit the Australian economy. We need to assist those people in finding productive opportunities for their skills, retraining, opening up those TAFE and university places, and providing the counselling the people need when they lose a job.

No other questions? Thanks everyone.

ENDS

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | Andrew.Leigh.MP@aph.gov.au | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.