August 26, 2020

House of Representatives

I rise today to speak in support of the Coronavirus Economic Response Package(Jobkeeper Payments) Amendment Bill.

I supported the initial JobKeeper legislation in April. When I did that, I said I had heard from businesses and employees across my electorate who said, ‘Yes, this is what we need’. Almost 400 people responded to a small business survey I conducted back in April, with 97 per cent of them reporting that they had been negatively affected by COVID-19, losing on average 71 per cent of their revenue,and 32 per cent of them reported that they had total loss of revenue.

Understanding of JobKeeper at that time was high, with 99 per cent of respondents reporting that they’d known about it and over half had already registered their interest with the ATO. Now I stand here and tell you that I’ve spoken again to dozens and dozens of businesses and employees across my electorate in the long months since. They’ve told me that this is what they need to keep employees in work and their businesses afloat. The August ATO data revealed that, in my electorate of Indi in April, over 4300 businesses and not-for-profits received JobKeeper, rising to over 4600 in May. Of businesses receiving JobKeeper in May, there were 875 in Wodonga, 587 in Wangaratta, 283 in Benalla and 179 in Euroa. These businesses employ thousands of local people. Without this initiative, where would businesses like Mely & Me Cafe run by Jasmely and Belinda Trotter, The Weekend Local run by Dayle Tame and her family in Euroa, Lisa Brown and her family at the Mansfield Hotel, and Belinda and Mark Sorrenson from Cafe Martini in Wangaratta be?

In a recent survey conducted by Business Wodonga in early August, 60 per cent of businesses believed JobKeeper had helped them and over two-thirds said they wanted it to continue for another six months. Businesses praised the government’s support measures and said what a difference they had made. This bill will extend JobKeeper for another six months until 28 March 2021, with payments gradually being reduced through changes to the rules. In light of the stage 3 restrictions currently in place in my electorate, and the impact of the Melbourne second wave on our regional economy, this extra six months will give our businesses the breathing space to work out how to best position themselves for recovery.

On this, I’d like to recognise the accountants who are so important in working with business owners as they adapt to this new world and new conditions – ones like Mark Evans, from Henry Partners in Mansfield, who I met in early winter. Mark has been giving business clients financial advice through the bushfire emergency and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Renae Pitargue, of First Class Accounts in Wodonga, has been helping her 120 clients understand how they can choose the most effective business structure or restructure their business to ensure employees have ongoing work, including bringing them onto permanent part-time work rather than on a casual basis to ensure they are committed to the company as it comes out the other side.

Businesses receiving JobKeeper under the extension will still be required to demonstrate the 30 per cent fall in revenue, or 15 per cent for charities or not-for-profits, for the relevant comparison period in each of the quarters to June, September and December 2020.

I am pleased that the alternative revenue test can continue to be used in circumstances where this reference period is not appropriate—in cases where a business is less than 12 months old or has been affected by drought or other declared natural disasters during the relevant comparison period. This continued flexibility will be appreciated by many businesses in my electorate whose revenue had been significantly impacted by the horror bushfires at the beginning of the year.

This year, 2020, has been a difficult year for everyone, but I especially want to recognise my constituents in Indi, who have stayed strong through a series of disasters both natural and man-made. These include the devastating bushfires, the initial COVID-19 lock-down, the Victorian second wave and the New South Wales-Victoria border closure. The Business Wodonga survey identified border closure as a bigger issue than coronavirus. This is truly incredible. The respondents told the survey, ‘The border closure is slowly suffocating our businesses’. They also said, ‘We’re looking at a significant downturn, with 50 per cent of our geographical service area being stripped from us due to the border crossing restrictions.

Leeanne Harkin, owner of Scissor Creations Hair Salon, has her hairdressing salon one kilometre from the border, and her trade went down 50 to 60 per cent overnight when the border restrictions were first put into place. Stephen Donaghey, of the Murray division of the Master Builders Association, has told me that it is fair to state that the construction industry in the border region is in turmoil and, without adjustments to current permit conditions, could slow to a crawl, if not total shutdown.

Some businesses have already shut their doors due to myriad problems caused by the current conditions of critical services permits and a lack of available permits for parties associated with construction, particularly new homes. It is for these people that an ongoing JobKeeper is so important. It is this sector which the government has proactively identified for support through its HomeBuilder scheme.

Construction was booming on the border. Now it is at risk of coming to a standstill. There are homes under construction in New South Wales that are stalling at progress payment stages, as the owners reside in Victoria and cannot inspect the sites to approve payments. Stephen and his Master Builders’ representatives met with the New South Wales Deputy Premier last week to discuss the impact of the border closure on the construction industry. I congratulate them for their dogged determination and advocacy on behalf of their members, and share their hopes that common sense will prevail and they can get back to work.

JobKeeper is the safety net our country needs right now, but the government is still deliberately excluding some sectors. The universities sector still can’t access JobKeeper not only for its academic staff but for the thousands of occupations on university campuses—the support staff, the cleaners, the bookkeepers, the administrative staff, the groundspeople and the gardeners.

On the border, the major regional campuses of Charles Sturt and La Trobe universities have hundreds of employees across these sectors. They have been under considerable stress during the pandemic, with no support from JobKeeper.

Border universities and TAFEs are crucial to our future as a vibrant region, and we need to support them. Recently I met with staff from Charles Sturt University, who told me they are now expecting considerable job losses right across the rural campuses.

The childcare sector is another one that fell by the wayside with the JobKeeper scheme. When the Minister for Education announced his COVID-19 relief package for child care he halved the amount of money that childcare providers received and expected that JobKeeper would fill the rest. But the problem was that many childcare providers were ineligible for JobKeeper, and especially so in rural regions such as mine. Many childcare centres in Indi are run by local councils, and they were not eligible for JobKeeper. This meant that these centres, which had almost normal attendance rates before the government’s package, had their revenues halved and they were denied JobKeeper. Many family day care providers were in the same boat.

Disturbingly, I received messages saying some family day care workers quit in disgust at the indignity of the government effectively halving their income, and, now that the emergency relief package has ended, childcare workers were the first ones to be kicked off what should have been a good scheme—because JobKeeper is a good scheme, but it has some significant holes in it. And it is for some of those holes that I will be supporting some amendments this afternoon.

JobKeeper is only one aspect of our economic recovery. It lasts for the next six months, but what about the six after that and the six after that? How do we set ourselves up for a prosperous future ahead?

The upcoming budget is our opportunity to plan for the long term, and that’s why I’ve worked with local governments right across Indi, and the community and health sectors, to nominate key projects for our region that will grow jobs and get people off JobKeeper. I was proud to present to the Treasurer my Indi budget submission, which is full of great ideas for regional revitalisation—ideas that, if implemented, will fast-track people into work and keep them there.

Firstly, I think this government should be co-funding major tourism projects by establishing a dedicated regional tourism infrastructure fund to support projects in bushfire and lock-down affected regions with strong domestic tourism potential, such as, in Indi:

  • Murray to Mountains Rail Trail
  • HotHouse Theatre upgrade in Wodonga
  • Euroa cinema upgrade
  • Alexandra-Thornton-Eildon rail link
  • King Valley Prosecco Road development
  • Holden heritage centre in Winton
  • Skyline precinct in Lake Eildon

– exciting projects that bring people to the region and create jobs.

Secondly, there should be more investment in shovel-ready local infrastructure projects that are locked out of current schemes. These include things like:

  • Baranduda Fields access roads and parking area
  • Mansfield Lords Reserve Pavilion
  • Alexandra streetscape and the Marysville regeneration projects
  • a telecommunications link between the North East and Gippsland
  • community energy, and
  • in health, rural health and aged care

We should be funding more home-care packages that employ home-care workers to enable people to age safely in place. We could co-fund the Albury Wodonga Health priority projects, including a new women and children’s wing, a research and education hub on health impacts of natural disasters, and a community services hub. We should implement the recommendations of the NDIS Tune review, and invest in the development of a skilled NDIS workforce in regional and rural communities, where they can be trained at our regional universities.

These are just some of the fantastic opportunities that exist in our community to bring about more employment and to guarantee North East Victoria’s place as a must-visit destination and a fantastic place to live and to work.

On behalf of my electorate, this week and next I’m going to government with this message and I’m meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister and various ministers, including those responsible for tourism, regional health, communications, education, forestry, to name a few. I’m convinced that they should see that these investments deliver value for money and get people off JobKeeper and off JobSeeker.

I would like to thank the nine local governments who worked alongside me to finalise this submission, including Alpine, Benalla, Indigo, Mansfield, Murrindindi, Strathbogie, Towong, Wangaratta and Wodonga. They care deeply about doing the best by their communities and are living examples of how rural and regional councils work hard to build prosperity and liveability in the regions—and they have been doing extraordinary work to support their communities during this COVID crisis.

In closing, I would like to thank the government for recognising that the economy cannot simply snap back in September. This extension of JobKeeper is very welcome, as it is clear from business, welfare and community leaders that the pandemic is not over. But I’m feeling more optimistic today that we have what we need in place to get through in a better state than otherwise we would.

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