The federal government is fending off pleas to act now and plug the “major gaps” in its coronavirus response before new lockdowns in Victoria – and potentially other states – start to truly bite.
The focus has been on JobKeeper and JobSeeker in recent weeks, with the wage subsidy and increased welfare payment both set to expire in September – just weeks after Melbourne will emerge from lockdown.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said JobKeeper in its current form will conclude, but further ongoing income support will come in the July 23 mini-budget.
Labor and The Greens are also piling on the pressure for the government to not return JobSeeker to the $40 a day under the old system.
But a raft of other initiatives – both official government programs and arrangements with business – will also soon run out, and advocates warn their cessations would prove calamitous.
Programs like rent pauses or eviction moratoriums for those who have lost jobs, the suspension of job appointments activities for Centrelink recipients, and emergency accommodation have been praised as critical reforms keeping people from homelessness and sickness.
The Victorian Council of Social Services said even one of these programs ending would be a disaster.
“All these programs have worked together to put a floor under the damage caused by COVID-19. They’ve done just enough to avert a full-blown social catastrophe,” VCOSS CEO Emma King told The New Daily.
“We can’t pick apart this tapestry of protections now.”
Centrelink’s mutual obligations – requiring recipients to undertake job workshops or training, and apply for many jobs per week – are currently paused, but will restart.
Ms King called for their indefinite suspension.
“People doing it tough shouldn’t be forced to waste time on useless ‘box checking’ admin for the benefit of government bureaucrats,” she said.
Recent figures show 13 times as many unemployed Australians as vacant jobs, with reports of employers inundated with dozens or hundreds of applications for one position.
The Australian Unemployed Workers Union said re-instating suspended mutual obligations could be a health risk.
“With a resurgence of coronavirus in NSW and Victoria that has been concentrated in low-income areas, in-person contacts with job agencies pose a significant risk to the public with no demonstrable benefits for recipients,” AUWU spokesperson Tom Studans told The New Daily.
The AUWU said it had received an “extraordinary” number of reports from members of job agencies contacting them to encourage them to fulfil job tasks, despite the obligations being suspended – including some instances, reported by The New Daily, of agents allegedly continually cold-calling people.
“It’s crucial that providers are aware that penalties are suspended in the first place – we are hearing of harassing behaviour,” Mr Studans said.
Dr Cassandra Goldie, Australian Council of Social Services CEO, praised the rapid introduction of JobKeeper and JobSeeker but said “major gaps” remained.
“Given the likelihood that further lockdowns will be more localised, governments must develop effective partnerships with local communities, working with respected community leaders and trusted organisations to manage implementation and ensure that the needs of diverse community members including people facing higher risks are being met,” she told The New Daily.
Dr Goldie said the federal government should pay back Centrelink robodebts quicker, with some 400,000 people in line to have illegal payments refunded.
“Many of these people would be doing it tough and need every cent they’re owed,” she said.
Dr Goldie also called for the next phase of JobKeeper and JobSeeker to include international students and people on temporary visas, left out of the initial phase.
Jenny Smith, chief executive of Victoria’s Council to Homeless Persons, said many Australians were experiencing poverty or housing stress for the first time, and praised the framework for allowing tenants to delay or reduce rent payments temporarily.
However, she also feared what would happen once those “lifeline” dispensations ended.
“The moratorium on rent increases and evictions is a vital measure that helped thousands of people at risk of homelessness stay in their homes,” she told The New Daily.
“In light of the second lockdown, they risk falling off the cliff if the rent and eviction moratoriums aren’t extended.”
Ms King agreed, saying such measures should continue for the duration of the COVID crisis – not be removed early.
“We should be doing all we can to keep people secure in their homes,” she said.
“Nobody should be kicked out of their home or forced to house hunt in a pandemic.”