ABC Capital Hill – cashless debit card, IR reform, reflections on 2020

Thursday, 10 December 2020

JANE NORMAN, HOST: I’m joined now in studio by our final political panel of the year Labor frontbencher Amanda Rishworth and Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes. Thank you for joining me today. Hollie Hughes let’s start with you because you had a pretty late night here at Parliament last nigh. The Senate has passed an amended version of the cashless welfare card. Is this not a racist paternalistic policy?

HOLLIE HUGHES, LIBERAL SENATOR FOR NEW SOUTH WALES: Absolutely not. The cashless debit card is a really, really critical part of the welfare system. And we do have to remember that it is part of the welfare system. This is taxpayers money, and it’s ensuring that it is being utilised in the most effective way. We have had reports from a number of community leaders that since its introduction, we’re seeing that money is being spent more effectively, that people aren’t being pressured to hand over cash. That money is being spent on more fresh fruit and vegetables for their families, that children are getting access to more education tools, and vital services and clothing and all of the things that children and families require. It still provides 20 per cent of welfare payments for other products that people want to buy. But it does quarantine that money for essential purposes. And it is at the end of the day, a welfare payment that should be utilised in its most effective form.

NORMAN: But it does disproportionately impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

HUGHES: It impacts on people that are requiring those welfare payments. It is something that has been trialled in a number of sites. It’s been trialled for an extensive period of time, and under Labor it was continually extended as well. So it’s something that has been welcomed by a number of community leaders. And they’re seeing significant improvements within their communities and a reduction in alcohol consumption, which is obviously leading to a reduction in violence and associated impacts.

NORMAN: Labor obviously opposed this bill in the Senate last night, you’re in the lower house, but it was always divided there as well. What do you say to that point that community leaders in places like that have actually asked for this debit card to be trialled in their community?

AMANDA RISHWORTH, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT: Well firstly, Labor has said that the government should release the $2.5 million study that it’s done into this. I mean if the government was so convinced the evidence was there, why have they kept this report a secret? The only answer I can come up with is the fact that this does not say what the government wants it to say. So you can pick and choose who you want to talk to. But where is the evidence? And the evidence has not been released by the government. We know they’ve spent a lot of money on research, but they haven’t released it. But secondly, I’d say there are a lot of people that have said – and if we’re going to rely on anecdotal evidence – that they haven’t been able to get the essentials they need. They haven’t been able to access the clothing and other essentials that they need, because the card is not accepted, or they need cash to purchase it. And so I think there’s some real questions and the government has not laid out a case of why this needs to be extended. And then we have their backbenchers going out there and saying it needs to be rolled out nationwide. So this seems a lot like ideology to me.

NORMAN: Is this ideologically driven?

HUGHES: No, it’s not ideologically driven at all. And it is something that Labor also put in place and was extending over time. And I think when we want to look at the research, I was on the Community Affairs Committee that has spent a great deal of time looking into this. So if Labor want to have a look at some of the research that has been done, we heard evidence from across the country, in these communities up in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, where people were fully supportive of the benefits that was producing for their communities. But also when you talk about people not being able to access these stores, it is accepted now across the board. This is incredibly sophisticated technology with the new cashless debit card. It is broadly accepted in the same way an EFTPOS card is accepted and it does actually quarantine 80 per cent of funds. 20 per cent of funds are still available for cash and still available to be withdrawn for those purposes. So it’s actually being argued against in an absolutely implausible way.

RISHWORTH: Well release the research. $2.5 million of taxpayers money was spent on doing official research for the University of Adelaide. If the government’s so convinced that this is a great evidence based policy, then release the research.

NORMAN:I mean that’s fair, right? Because obviously, Federal Parliament doesn’t support the plan to make this permanent. So if the Coalition wants to make it permanent, why not actually provide the MPs voting on it with the research, the evidence? As opposed to the anecdotal stories we get through committees.

HUGHES: There has been a number of reports released into this. And, you know, as we see so often people decide to pick and choose which reports they want to read, and which reports they believe that support their arguments. So there have been a number of studies released. And we heard during evidence in our inquiry, that some people didn’t support some of the reports and research that have been done. And then there’s others that they were clinging to.

NORMAN: So would you support the government trying again with this bill to actually make this a permanent feature of our welfare system as opposed to just being a two year trial?

HUGHES: Yes.

NORMAN: Alright. Let’s move onto industrial relations. We used to say – well I obviously not been here long enough – that a bill doesn’t survive between lunchtime and Lateline. Well, this omnibus bill doesn’t appear to have survived from lunchtime to lunchtime. We’ve heard earlier from Christian Porter, the Minister responsible that he’s considering ditching this proposed two year exemption to the better off overall test. If that is in fact the case, Amanda Rishworth, does that make Labor slightly more inclined to support it?

RISHWORTH: Well I don’t want to get into hypotheticals. The government’s gone out today and said they need this bill, and they’ve introduced this bill into the parliament. And Labor has been very clear that we have a specific test for this legislation. Does it cut the pay and conditions of Australians, or does it promote well paid secure jobs? At the moment, the bill is a dog’s breakfast, which does have the potential to cut pay and conditions of the Australians that have got us through this pandemic. So we can talk hypotheticals about the political spin and manoeuvring of this government. But the truth is, the bill is in the parliament. It has the potential to cut pay and conditions of those very workers, as well as many others, that have stood us through this pandemic. It is unfair and does not meet Labor’s test when it comes to better paid jobs and better conditions for our workers.

NORMAN: That specifically was the issue yesterday that Anthony Albanese and Tony Burke spoke to, saying that if you allow businesses to have an exemption from this tests, you can cut workers pay and conditions. If the government gets rid of that exemption surely there are other parts of the bill that Labor might actually look more favourably upon?

RISHWORTH: Well, let’s see from the government whether they’re actually going to put that amendment up. I mean, what we’ve heard is a lot of hot air. The government thought this was a good idea yesterday, they haven’t proposed any amendments at the moment. We also have some issues around casual workers that potentially lose their rights, there isn’t a clear pathway for casuals. But the government hasn’t abandoned this yet. There’s no amendments proposed, the government hasn’t said that they will. It’s been a leak to the paper as usual with this government, and no solid proposal. So we’ve got a firm test. If it meets that test, we’ll support it. But at the moment, we see the opportunity that this government’s taking to cut wages and conditions from ordinary workers.

NORMAN: Hollie what do you say to that? It seems pretty clear that this is the most contentious part, this exemption from the BOOT. Should the government just get rid of it so that it can actually start prosecuting the rest of the bill?

HUGHES: The Labor Party’s never seen a scare campaign that they can pit between employers and employees that they don’t want to put up. And this is just another example, where the Labor Party seems to not understand that it’s private businesses and small businesses where 80 per cent of Australians work, and they are who create jobs. And we have seen through this pandemic that employers are totally committed to maintaining relationships with employees as best they possibly can. And what we want to make sure is that there’s an environment where employers can create jobs as much as possible, but also that employees have security and flexibility to maintain those jobs. We have seen unprecedented times over this past 12 months. And employees, particularly casual employees, have faced more uncertainty than ever before. And by ensuring that there are provisions where casuals are given more security, are given more certainty and that employers can work more closely with their individual employees. Absolutely we should be looking towards that into the future.

NORMAN: Is there any evidence though that cutting wages and conditions actually leads to job creation or leads to work as getting more hours?

HUGHES: That’s not what this is about. It’s about creating flexibility and to make sure that there’s situations  –

RISHWORTH: When you scrap the better off overall test, when you go into enterprise bargaining it means that instead of the commission looking at an enterprise agreement and saying “well, there have been changes, there are flexibilities, penalty rates have been traded for higher per hourly rates”, when you get the commission and it says “okay, but overall employees are better off”, when you scrap that test, which is what this bill is doing, then you have the opportunity for employers to cut penalty rates with no increase to the overall pay. That is what this bill is allowing employers to do for two years. And I would say, Jane, that a lot of employees have worked very hard for their businesses during this pandemic. They’ve taken pay cuts because they’ve been equally committed to their businesses surviving. So for the government to start pursuing this is deeply unfair and disrespectful to those employees who have taken sacrifices to keep businesses going in this country.

NORMAN: Is Labor looking for like a fight on this? I know that it’s been a challenging year to be in opposition, because of course, all of the oxygen has been sucked up by the COVID crisis. But as we finish this parliamentary year, is this something that Labor can really see it can campaign on?

RISHWORTH: Well, the Labor Party is the Labor Party, we are there for workers, and we stand up for workers and, and we also want to see businesses work. We introduced enterprise agreements, and that is where employers and employees get together and work together to find a good enterprise agreement. But what we have always said is there should be a strong safety net, that is what we have stood for. And this is taking away that safety net potentially, so that employees will lose hard fought rights, such as penalty rates.

NORMAN: Hollie Hughes what’s your response to that? And can I just also say there are issues with enterprise bargaining, right, it’s taking far too long to enter deals between the Fair Work Commission and workers and businesses.

HUGHES: The Fair Work Commission is still there, and everything will still go to the Fair Work Commission. And again, Labor is just focused on a scare campaign trying to rile up the unions, trying to rile up employees, to wage war against employers and small and medium sized businesses, which is just a typical tactic from the Labor Party. It’s interesting to hear Amanda talk about the party of workers, I spend a great deal of time in the hunter region and I’m sure the coal workers up there are interested in hearing that because certainly that’s not reflected in their broader policies.

RISHWORTH: I’ll tell you they want a better off overall test, they don’t want enterprise agreements that cut their penalty rates and cut their conditions.

HUGHES: They also want their coal mines to stay open. But I know Amanda was there celebrating with Joel the other night in Don’s office.

NORMAN: To finish off the year, it is the last show the last sitting day, I just want to ask you both. We’re sort of running out of time. But Hollie Hughes firstly, what have we learned from 2020? It’s been such an extraordinary year, it’s actually difficult to even sort of characterise, but what do you think we’ve learned from this year?

HUGHES: I think we’ve learned a whole lot about a lot of things this year. But I think our resilience has been extraordinary. I think the way that the country has pulled together has been really something that we can all be very, very proud of. This year, you know, just today, more Americans died today than died in September 11. And in Australia we have weathered the storm so incredibly well. I’m a Senator from New South Wales, I’m incredibly proud of our Premier for keeping our economy open and our cases so very, very low. But it’s how we really have all pulled together and showed great resilience. I am interested to see what everyone’s going to do on January 1, because I think everyone is so looking forward to 2021. How they’re going to wake up in January and go that’s it it’s done.

NORMAN: I’m not sure what actually will change.

HUGHES: But I think everyone’s going to have a very, very big mind shift.

NORMAN: And Amanda Rishworth?

RISHWORTH: I think the sense of community has really come to the fore when we think about this year. I had neighbours putting letters in my letterbox saying “can we do shopping for you?”. And I think everyone really started looking after each other in their community and I think that is a positive that has come from it. There are a lot of vulnerable people out there and they do need support, especially when there’s really difficult things in their lives. So I think that sense of community and sense of support, and strangers looking out for other people has been something that has really, really touched me and I think many in our community.

NORMAN: On a very positive note, Amanda Rishworth and Hollie Hughes thanks for your time today.

ENDS

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