Once again, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has re-emerged to announce something mostly good, today caving to pressure to increase the ever-changing COVID-19 disaster payment and expand access to it. In an afternoon press conference full of tired Olympics puns and various extra business support announcements, Morrison revealed that the payment would increase to $750 per week for those who lost more than 20 hours of work (equal to JobKeeper levels, but it was not a return of JobKeeper, he insisted) and $450 for those who have lost less. There will also now be an additional $200 per week payment for people on welfare who have lost more than eight hours of work (not quite the level of the $275 JobSeeker supplement). The new amounts will apply from the start of any future lockdowns, with Morrison acknowledging it was now “clear” that locking down early was the best approach with Delta outbreaks. The PM’s announcement came just hours after NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed a four-week lockdown extension for Greater Sydney, along with a raft of changes to its settings. Morrison claimed that his changes were “necessary” in light of the extension – though surely if they are now to be applied from the start of lockdowns, it would have been “clear” that they were needed by stood-down workers all along. The PM was keen to impress upon Australians, and especially Sydneysiders, that “the Commonwealth government has your back”. But why does it only have your back weeks into a crisis, and after public pressure has grown impossible to ignore? Why does it always take Morrison so long to come to the income-support table? Why is it still a constant battle to get the federal government to do its job?
In announcing the changes, Morrison insisted the Coalition’s policies were “never set-and-forget” but were intended to be able to be adjusted on the ground – a ground over which he has been repeatedly dragged, kicking and screaming, to make such adjustments. Morrison was keen to argue that circumstances were changing because of the Delta variant, and so they are: the virus is clearly more infectious, in a way that the NSW and federal governments didn’t see coming. (It seems weird that the feds didn’t anticipate this, considering they banned Australians in India from coming home because of it.) “There’s no guidebook to COVID,” the PM said. “Even when you think you understand it, the Delta variant comes along and you’ve got to adjust.” But while the variant may have changed the need for lockdowns in Morrison’s eyes, it didn’t change the circumstances on the ground for those who were always in need of federal support – something the retroactive nature of these changes acknowledges. Morrison understands that locked-down people who cannot work need income assistance. But he was willing to treat them as pawns in his desperate bid not to “incentivise” state leaders to use such measures. Interestingly, he today repeated his recent insistence that lockdowns are the only way out of this, with “no other option” other than to hunker down.
In trumpeting his increased support (while insisting he didn’t care who “got the credit” for it), Morrison repeated many of the exact justifications that had been put to his government recently, only to be flatly rejected. You need to pay people enough to stay home, because you need them to stay home for the lockdown to work, he said. People on welfare who have lost hours do deserve this extra payment, he said, because they aren’t able to earn that extra income they were earning – a point that he only last week pushed back against, insisting this was not about “replacing” people’s income. (It’s also worth noting there are still no additional payments for people on welfare who haven’t lost work, even though they are now unlikely to find work, and would have been eligible for the original JobSeeker supplement – because apparently someone must always miss out.) But it wasn’t a complete backflip. The changes still didn’t go as far as many would have liked, with no return to a JobKeeper-type program – which NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet was still publicly pushing for this morning, in an opinion piece in The Daily Telegraph. While today’s changes do go some of the way towards addressing Perrottet’s calls (and those of industry groups, employers and unions, he notes), the system still doesn’t contain a mechanism to maintain the relationship between workers and employers, and it expires as soon as the Commonwealth-designated “hotspot” classification is removed, regardless of whether people are still on reduced hours. Morrison was at least consistent when asked about the JobKeeper calls, insisting his new program had more “agility” with the ability to be turned on and off as required; he even briefly forgot the Olympics and offered up a footy analogy: “You don’t play last year’s grand final.”
Nonetheless, credit should be given where credit’s due: today’s announcement is a welcome one, even if it doesn’t go far enough. But it’s only the latest in a long series of late and insubstantial changes the PM has made to his lockdown support package, after resisting calls to provide it at all. The payments were only introduced, after much begging and pleading and shaming, during Victoria’s fourth lockdown, and then were introduced very much on Morrison’s terms: $500 or $325 per week, kicking in only after seven days, and only for those with less than $10,000 in the bank. The assets test was waived from the third week when Sydney hit that mark, prompting cries of “PM for Sydney”. The amounts were then raised to $600 and $375 respectively, before being altered to apply from the first day of a lockdown, pro-rata, with no asset test at all.
Inch by inch, dollar by dollar, week by week, the PM has lifted income support back to the level it was under JobKeeper (for some), while refusing to simply bring back the program that proved to be such a wild success. Just once, it would be great to see the PM do something not because he is gradually pressured or shamed into it, or because the polls are bad, or because he wants to address the perception he has played favourites. If only he would do something because it’s the right thing to do.