The Morrison government’s $130bn wage subsidy package has passed both houses of parliament with Labor support, after the Coalition rebuffed calls to expand eligibility to one million short-term casuals and to temporary visa workers.
Two bills to create the $1,500 fortnightly jobkeeper payment to keep Australian workers attached to jobs until the Covid-19 crisis abates passed the Senate on Wednesday evening, after Labor waved them through without insisting on amendments that had earlier failed in the lower house.
The jobkeeper payment is the centrepiece of $300bn of federal government economic supports, which Scott Morrison described as “the biggest economic lifeline in Australia’s history”.
The three stages of the Morrison government’s response dwarf the Rudd government stimulus packages in the global financial crisis as Australia seeks to combat what the prime minister called the “greatest economic crisis to afflict the world in many generations”.
On Wednesday the federal government updated that Australia has 6,013 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 50 deaths.
The health minister, Greg Hunt, told reporters that as the rolling three-day average rate of transmission had slowed to just 2%, the government had already begun to plan “the road out” although some restrictions were likely to remain for six months.
Hunt said there was “more to be done” but the Australian public had “risen magnificently to the challenge” through overwhelming adherence to physical distancing.
The more successful Australia is at reducing community transition, the sooner it can look to trial easing restrictions in some areas, he said.
“We know that for businesses – and today, obviously, parliament is dealing with the support for businesses and for workers – this has been an enormous challenge.”
In the lower house, Labor proposed a series of amendments attempting to expand access to the jobkeeper payments, including one million casual workers who had worked for their employer for less than a year and temporary visa-holders.
It also proposed a tailored support package for the Australian arts and entertainment sector, called for more support for staff in local councils, charities, schools, Tafes and universities, and a lower threshold to be extended to the disability support sector. However, all of the amendments were voted down.
The jobkeeper bills included various safeguards negotiated by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, including Fair Work Commission arbitration of disputes between employers and employees over new powers to direct workers to new duties, location and hours of work.
They also granted the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, a broad discretion to vary the eligibility for jobkeeper payments, in a bid to prevent the need to recall parliament if further economic supports need to be added to the three tiers already legislated.
Both ACTU secretary, Sally McManus, and Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, cited that discretion to make ongoing changes as the basis for a further campaign to press for wider eligibility to the jobkeeper payments.
“We will continue – if we are not successful today – to argue the case because I think it is a good one,” Albanese told parliament.
“It is one that is argued not in partisan interests, it is one that is argued in the national interest, because we all have an interest in coming out of this as strong as we possibly can.”
McManus said “the scale of this union-won package is unprecedented”.
“It wasn’t long ago that members of the Morrison government were suggesting people would have to rely on their savings and go on Newstart, now they have allocated $130 billion to wage subsidies,” she said in a statement.
Parliament adjourned and is not scheduled to return until 11 August, a four-month hiatus opposed by Labor, which will now seek to hold the government accountable for its response to Covid-19 through a Senate select committee, established on Wednesday.
The committee, to be chaired by the manager of opposition business in the Senate, Katy Gallagher, has the broadest possible terms of reference to examine any matters related to the Covid-19 response and two years to report.
National cabinet is set to meet again on Thursday. Scott Morrison has said the regular meeting of federal, state and territory leaders will now focus on reviewing relevant data without introducing major new measures as Australia moves into the “suppression phase” of the coronavirus.
But the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, continued to signal publicly on Wednesday that further restrictions will likely be required and most states and territories are yet to announce measures to assist residential tenants and landlords, after national cabinet declined to set a baseline beyond a six-month moratorium on evictions.
A federal-state fight over the decision to allow the Ruby Princess to dock in Sydney continues to boil, with a NSW police investigation into the cruise ship responsible at one point for 10% of Australia’s coronavirus cases unable to stem the blame game between the federal and NSW governments.
On Wednesday the Sydney Morning Herald reported that an Australian Border Force officer instructed a Sydney harbour master to allow the Ruby Princess to dock despite as many as 140 passengers in isolation on board.
Labor’s shadow home affairs minister, Kristina Keneally, leapt on the revelation, which she said blows Peter Dutton’s claims the docking was not the federal government’s fault “out of the water”.
Keneally called on Dutton to explain why “the concerns of frontline ABF officers [were] dismissed”.
Earlier, Hunt announced that 11m masks would be allocated to health workers and signalled front-line workers would be tested at higher rates.
Hunt appeared alongside the Australian Medical Association president, Tony Bartone, to call for Australians to show respect to health workers, and not to delay treatment for non-Covid-19 related ailments.