2CC CANBERRA DRIVE
MONDAY, 6 APRIL 2020
SUBJECTS: JobKeeper payments for casuals; charities unable to access JobKeeper payments; the importance of maintaining community.
LEON DELANEY, HOST: Joining me now the Federal Member for Fenner and Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities and Treasury, Dr Andrew Leigh. Good afternoon.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good afternoon, Leon. Great to be with you.
DELANEY: Good to have you along again. I'll tell you what, that's a bit of a mouthful, all of this nonsense about changing the Fair Work Act and fiddling about with the different awards and enterprise agreements and so forth. I know we're here to talk about the changes for registered charities, but can we touch upon the JobKeeper package more generally to begin with, and which way you think the government should be addressing this question of implementing the changes. Changing the Fair Work Act or individually going through all the awards?
LEIGH: Leon, there's lots of twists and turns with this but I don't think it's hard to imagine the Fair Work Commission, which deals with a national wage case and with many awards every year, can't deal with an issue like this. What's important is to make sure that as many workers as possible are supported at a time when they might otherwise lose their jobs. There's debate in the US as to whether the unemployment rate there now is 13 per cent or 16 per cent, but either way it's clear that much of the world is in a recession already and it's just critical that as many employees as possible maintain that connection to their workplace. Once a firm goes insolvent, once a worker loses their job, those relationships are really hard to rebuild Leon and it means that the recovery becomes a whole lot slower. We want a V-shaped recovery, and that means doing what we can now. It also means looking after those casuals who've been employed for less than 12 months. The Government’s set this-
DELANEY: I’m going to come down as well, but does this mean that you will be supporting the Government's package on Wednesday as it is?
LEIGH: We've just seen that legislation last night, just came through. I think there's a range of concerns and it's important to get it right, make sure that there's not unintended consequences that flow out of it. We've been urging the Government all along to take as much action as necessary, both in terms of social distancing and supporting wages, as quickly as possible. If you wait on social distancing, then the virus gets its head and spreads more rapidly through the population. And if you wait on the economic support side, more people join the unemployment queues. So we've pushed very strongly-
DELANEY: Is that Christian Porter's argument though, when he says it would take time to go through all the awards and it's a lot quicker and simpler just to adjust the act and do it on a temporary basis, so there is a sunset clause built in.
LEIGH: I don't think it's beyond the wit of the Fair Work Commission to deal with this expeditiously, as it does each year Leon. But it's not my primary concern right now. My concern is those people that we saw queuing around the block at Gungahlin Centrelink when it opened the other day. There's huge concerns in the community about the Government having been too slow off the mark on this. They're coming back to Parliament on Wednesday in order to pass a wage subsidy package which Labor urged last time we were in Parliament. We believe that that's the right thing to do. It's what New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, many other countries have done in order to support work at the moment. So we're pleased this package is coming back. We'll work with the Government to make it as good as possible.
DELANEY: Now there have been some changes to include the measures now for registered charities, which is what we're here to talk about, but you were also just mentioned the casual workers which is the other big hot button issue on this front at the moment. People who have not been in work for more than - you know, people have not held their position for more than 12 months will miss out on the JobKeeper package. Now I said earlier today there's an enormous crack in the system there because some of those people won't be eligible for the JobSeeker payment either.
LEIGH: That's right. And when you look at the characteristics of people who've been casuals for less than 12 months and more than 12 months, you don't see a big difference. The earnings look fairly similar, the age composition looks fairly similar. It's difficult to say that those who have been casuals for less than 12 months are in any way less deserving. What we need to be doing right now is to be supporting employment right across the economy, and that includes workers who’ve been casuals for less than 12 months. We've got to move quickly on this, because if we don't then the risk is we go into double digit unemployment and that we break down a whole lot of relationships across the economy. And that's really all the economy is in the end – it’s all the relationships that hold us together. You break those, it takes a long time to put them back together and the scarring effect on workers’ wages could last years or even decades.
DELANEY: So you'd like to extend the package to casual workers with less than 12 months’ connection with their place of work, but you don't really find yourself in a position to force the Government to accept that, do you?
LEIGH: We’ll work with the government constructively on this. This is not a time that anyone wants to see petty partisan games. Labor's worked with the Government to try to improve the measures they've put in place. We did this on tele health. We've done on wage subsidies, and we'll continue to do it on other measures that the Government brings forward. So we will play a constructive role as much as we're able to, including on charities. We've been concerned that major charities were left out entirely of the stimulus package that was passed last time around, and many charities still seem to be left out of this one. I'm hearing from Anglicare, UnitingCare-
DELANEY: So the announcement’s been made that all registered charities will be eligible for the JobKeeper payment if their turnover falls by 15 per cent or more, which is a less onerous requirement than the 30 per cent for small businesses. But you have concerns that that will still leave some charities out in the cold. Why is that?
LEIGH: I'm being told by charities that many of them won't be able to meet that threshold because they get a lot of tied grants. So for example, if you get grants from the government to operate an aged care centre or to operate bushfire relief, then that revenue may not have dropped off even if your early childhood revenue has gone through the floor. So charities that operate early childhood centres in many cases won't be eligible. It just doesn't seem right Leon that if you're helping the community through bushfire relief that in some way you shouldn't be penalised by not getting access to JobKeeper. And indeed, if you-
DELANEY: Sure, sure, but if a grant is tied to a specific purpose, surely that can't be considered general revenue for the charity? It's not something, it's not something that they can spend on wages, is it?
LEIGH: You've hit the nail on the head. The Government is treating charities like they're businesses that can move money across profit centres. You simply can't do that in a charity. You've got to spend the money on the purpose for which it was provided. And that means that many of these charities are having let people go. I've been speaking to charity CEOs over the weekend and today who are having to make really tough decisions, letting staff go at a time in which we need our charities more than ever before. Banks are critical to the keeping the financial sector rolling. Charities are critical to the community keeping on rolling. So we've got to be supporting charities.
DELANEY: So that being the case, this problem with the tied grants, is that just simply a matter of the federal government not thinking through the details?
LEIGH: I fear it is. I fear that charities have been the last thing that the Government's been thinking about right now. The Coalition were very quick to focus on what the needs of the banks were, but they've been much slower to think about the needs of the community sector. And that's a real problem, because we're having a rise in mental health issues which charities can help out with, a rise in unemployment which charities are critical to. Food relief charities have been called upon, disability support charities are being called upon. There's medical research charities that are absolutely critical at a time like this, and they're not sure whether they'll be able to access the JobKeeper payment. JobKeeper’s got to be there for charities. We've got to help the helpers.
DELANEY: Well I couldn't agree more on that front. Going back to the casual workers for a moment. The Minister Christian Porter has said that keeping that criteria of the 12 month link is a fundamental principle and it's not going to change, and he says that because you've got to draw a line somewhere. Is this a case of the Government telling us that there's not enough room for everybody in the lifeboats?
LEIGH: I think it's a pity if the Government are simply ruling out particular organizations because they've got to make an arbitrary decision. What we know about short term casuals is that they're pretty deserving. I'm just going through some of the figures that Jeff Borland, a terrific Labor economist at the University of Melbourne, has compiled. He points out that there's 400,000 casuals who've been employed more than more than a year, but there’s a million who have been employed less than 12 months. There's a similar share in both groups that are aged 15 to 24, a similar share who are studying, and indeed the average weekly earnings are lower for casuals who have been employed less than 12 months. So these casuals employed less than 12 months are a group that deserves the Government's attention. I don't think they would look very kindly on a Minister who just says ‘we've got to draw the line somewhere and you’re out, sunshine’.
DELANEY: Okay. So how do you propose to get the Government to come around to your way of thinking on both the charities and with the casuals? Because as you said before, you want to work constructively and not play partisan games, but at the same time clearly you have an argument to put. So how are you going to get the Government to accept your argument?
LEIGH: Through the power of our oratory, Leon. I'm afraid we don't have the numbers in the House. We don't have the numbers in the Senate. But we do have the ability to make a strong public case as I'm doing with you today, as we'll continue to do in the Parliament on Wednesday. I'll be one of a small number of MPs returning to the Parliament. Social distancing rules will see a much reduced parliament, but the Labor MPs there will be making the case that this package needs to be a strong one if we are to avoid double digit unemployment.
DELANEY: Well at least you don't have to travel very far, so that's one on the upside isn't it?
LEIGH: Indeed, I’ll be one of the few MPs who definitely doesn't have to self isolate when I get home.
DELANEY: Exactly. So finally, do you have any particular words of advice or consolation for your constituency here?
LEIGH: I've been speaking to a lot of constituents over the last few weeks about the challenges people are facing. It’s just really important to be reaching out to those around you. A telephone call, an email, a text message to check in on those who are older or isolated. One in 10 Australians lives on their own and they're doing it tough right now. We're an amazing community in Canberra and I know many community groups have sprung up across the city. If you haven't already connected with those groups, get in touch with my office. We're very happy to plug you into your local support groups. We'll get through this together, and I hope we'll come out the other end an even more connected community.
DELANEY: And speaking of your office, obviously you're still in business but I assume has not actually opened for personal visits? It's all got to be done remotely.
LEIGH: That's right. So we're taking a flood of phone calls and emails. We're getting on Zoom where we need to. We’re engaging electronically, as I guess all of us are right now in this strange new world.
DELANEY: Indeed, strange days. Andrew Leigh, thanks very much for your time today.
LEIGH: Thank you, Leon. Take care.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.