Question Time in federal parliament this afternoon was dominated by debate over whether a loophole in the JobMaker hiring-credit scheme – which was designed to tackle youth unemployment during the COVID-19 recession – would incentivise employers to sack workers over 35 and replace them with cheaper, younger workers. The Senate last night passed a Greens-initiated amendment – co-sponsored by Labor and supported by every non-government member – to the enabling legislation, which would guard against businesses firing workers or reducing their hours in order to make new hires who would receive the government subsidy, but the government rejected the amendments in the lower house this morning.
Labor bowled up question after question about the plight of older workers left stranded as income support is progressively wound back. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese asked: “Why is the prime minister undermining job security for workers aged over 35? Isn’t the middle of a recession the very worst time to be attacking job security?” In response, Scott Morrison renewed his attack on Albanese for having an each-way bet on the pandemic response – both supporting and opposing the government’s initiatives – and for fearmongering. “What the leader of the Opposition is putting forward in this place is simply untrue and [he is] seeking to create fear in a pandemic,” said Morrison. “It is irresponsible and it is reckless.” Then – and this is the problem for the Morrison government – the PM called on Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter to add to his answer. Porter said the normal unfair dismissal protections would continue to apply, and he accused Albanese of sending “precisely the wrong message” to employers, by describing “something as potentially lawful which is absolutely unlawful”.
After Monday night’s Four Corners – implicating both Porter and his colleague Alan Tudge in a parliamentary culture of sexism and bullying, which led to former PM Malcolm Turnbull introducing the “bonk ban” in 2018 – the attorney-general has joined the long list of senior members of the government who have been tarnished by one scandal or another. So far, the PM appears determined to put the whole thing behind him, while Porter has rejected the allegations of sexism and is considering legal action. But after two coups and seven years in power, it is getting hard to think of a Coalition cabinet minister who gets on with their portfolio, is capable of carrying a public message and is not tainted by scandal.
The fate of the JobMaker subsidy now hangs on a resolution of the difference between the House and Senate. The government is trying to talk up the economy, and today pointed to figures showing that consumer confidence rebounded in October. Morrison referred to the “Great Australian comeback”, and for those who have lost track of all the programs announced during the pandemic, the government has even launched an official website – ourcomeback.gov.au – touting its “economic recovery plan”. But during the pandemic, scheme after scheme has fallen short or has resulted in unintended consequences. Who remembers the COVIDsafe app? Meanwhile, HomeBuilder is in disrepair and JobKeeper has turned into “BonusKeeper”. Will JobMaker be any different? And who is going to help the PM sell it?
At the current rate of scandals, Morrison – who was pretty much a one-man band throughout the 2019 election – might have to win the 2022 election on his own as well.