The Politics    Friday, July 1, 2022

Taken to task

By Rachel Withers

Image of protest signs seen decorating Employment Minister Tony Burke’s office. Image via Twitter

Protest signs are seen decorating Employment Minister Tony Burke’s office. Image via Twitter

Health and welfare advocates have expressed outrage at Labor for leaving several Coalition decisions in place

Today marks the start of a new financial year, and the official removal from office of several high-profile parliamentarians, including former Liberal senators Eric Abetz and Amanda Stoker, as some observers noted with glee. It also marks the departure of independent senator Rex Patrick, who appears willing to continue his fight for transparency as a private citizen. He is still pushing back hard against the prosecution of ATO whistleblower Richard Boyle and Witness K lawyer Bernard Collaery (while he’s also considering a tilt at Lord Mayor of Adelaide). Meanwhile, it’s the first day of term for independent senator David Pocock, who has welcomed the government’s commitment to additional territory rights, as well as former real estate agent now UAP senator Ralph Babet, who has complained of his great financial sacrifice. But it’s not just the changing of the guard. Today also marks the introduction or cessation of several new laws and programs, with health and welfare advocates furious at the new government for allowing several Coalition-era policies to go ahead.

But first, the less controversial changes. As the ABC notes, the minimum wage is officially now $21.38 an hour, following the Fair Work Commission’s welcome call to raise it by 5.2 per cent. We’ll wait patiently for the wage-price spiral that some have been fearmongering about to begin. The super guarantee has also increased half a percentage point, to 10.5 per cent, on its way up to 12 per cent by 2025, while minor tweaks have been made to schemes that allow people to use or make voluntary super contributions when buying or selling a home. The Albanese government has also announced changes to the Commonwealth Procurement Rules, with up to 20 per cent of the government’s annual contract spend of approximately $70 billion to be offered to small and medium businesses (up from 10 per cent), while officials will also have to consider what a procurement would mean for climate change when undertaking an assessment.

But it’s in health and welfare that changes will really bite. Welfare advocates have continued protesting the new points-based mutual obligations system, which comes into effect today, with Employment Minister Tony Burke last week saying that it was too late to scrap it. (Small tweaks were made to the system, but concerns remain.) Appearing on The Project last night, the Antipoverty Centre’s Kristin O’Connell said that the new system was going to force people into the same “pointless and punitive and dehumanising” training programs as before, adding that nervous jobseekers still hadn’t been able to wrap their heads around all the changes. “All of these communications have come too late,” she said, noting that the government has announced plans to resume debt collection against people on JobSeeker from July 1.

The Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union has today organised a protest outside Burke’s office, calling for mutual obligations to be scrapped, or at the very least paused during the transition, pointing out that Labor had been happy to see the protestors when it was in Opposition. Not any more, apparently. One protest sign came with a list of Tony’s Targets, with accompanying points for each “task” Burke had to complete, including raising the JobSeeker rate above the poverty line, scrapping Work for the Dole and cancelling the Stage Three tax cuts for high-income earners. The new government still shows no signs of moving on that last issue. Today, however, marks the end of the Low and Middle Income Tax Offset (LMITO), which despite the Coalition boosting it in its final budget, will not continue beyond 2021–22 tax returns.

Others, meanwhile, are furious at the health minister for going ahead with plans to scrap COVID-related policies and services, even as he warns Australians to brace for a worrying third wave. Mark Butler was on RN Breakfast this morning, urging people to get their booster shots. And yet Labor will not be extending pandemic-related telehealth services, which ended yesterday, while allowing COVID sick leave payments to lapse as planned (short-sighted, says ACTU secretary Sally McManus). Butler this morning defended both decisions as “decisions of the former government”, talking up cost issues. But as host Patricia Karvelas noted “you’re the government now”. Asked if people without sick leave might now go to work with COVID-19 instead, Butler said he “hoped not”. But the government appears to be sending mixed messages about whether or not this pandemic is over.

There are many areas in which the new government can and should hold the old one responsible – not least the recent energy crisis, which it was simply ludicrous for the Coalition to try to pin on Labor. But the Albanese government cannot blame Morrison and co for any of the July 1 changes that it has today allowed to go ahead, nor for any of the other policies it has decided to leave in place, such as the Stage Three tax cuts or the decision not to recoup what some estimate to be $40 billion in JobKeeper waste. Every jobseeker or worker needing to skip a meal this year due to lost payments or a lack of COVID sick leave is now on Labor. We may be in a new era. But it’s up to Labor to decide if it wants this one to be fairer than the last.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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