ANALYSIS

Coronavirus crisis: Have we finally reached peak support?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has announced a payment of $1500 a fortnight to casuals, part-timers, full-timers, sole-trades, whether they are working or have been laid off. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has announced a payment of $1500 a fortnight to casuals, part-timers, full-timers, sole-trades, whether they are working or have been laid off. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Without downplaying the devastation wrought by the coronavirus on lives, businesses and jobs, the pandemic has brought with it the most surprising twists, even bright spots in the terror.

Families which finally have down time at home, something virtually unknown for a generation. Scott Morrison told us on Sunday that Jenny had been out buying puzzles for the kids. It's childhood circa 1979 all over again!

And now, the change-counting Coalition, which you couldn't squeeze for another $50 a week for people on Newstart, or $20 for that matter, have embraced the universal wage. It's Thomas More's utopia.

Casual, part-time and full-time workers who have lost their jobs in March can now go back to their boss and ask to be put back on the books. The employer can do that at no cost to themselves, because the government will pay the wages - up to $750 a week. Staff still employed also get the subsidy.

To qualify, a business has to have seen a fall in turnover of 30 per cent, and the terrible reality at the core of this program is that the government believes six million workers will be paid this way. That's an awful lot of businesses whose turnover has fallen through the floor.

The scale of what Morrison announced is stunning. The government's entire spend in a year is $500 billion. This is another $130 billion in six months, and comes on top of about $80 billion in other business support and welfare announcements, and $110 billion into the banking system for loans.

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It goes further than the British scheme, which applies only to staff who have lost their jobs, and is more generous than the New Zealand scheme, and it applies to casuals. It also applies to New Zealanders living here, which was another gap in the welfare announcement last week.

Morrison has been brought to his JobKeeper payment incrementally, and in retrospect would have been better to go there first. He would have saved the heart-stopping sight of the dole queues last Monday, the morning he forced the nation's restaurant, cafes, clubs, pubs and gyms to close, and tens of thousands found themselves having to apply for welfare, albeit a massively boosted welfare payment, after the government doubled it to $1100 a fortnight.

Now the people who stood in those queues will have to go back to their former workplace, ask to go back on the books, and be paid that way instead.

There were gaps in that announcement - only just over a week ago now, so fast has this moved. The big positive in the latest payment is that it's a flat rate and it covers casuals as long as they have been with their employer for a year. Most staff in the businesses that were shut down last week are casual, so rather than trudging off to Centrelink they can stay connected to their workplace. By making it a flat rate, the government has avoided tying itself in knots trying to tailor it for people's incomes, and it presumably took a deep breath when it made that decision.

It's looking like a no-strings attached scheme. If staff are not re-employed till, say, May, they still qualify. If someone has been earning less than $750 a week - even a lot less as a casual - they still qualify, so for them it's a substantial wage boost. People qualify as young as 16, so it plugs a gap in the welfare payment. That payment didn't go to people aged under 22 unless they were living independently. This one goes to workers as young as 16.

The success of this scheme in keeping people employed, albeit in many cases without a great deal to do, will now depend on businesses understanding and trusting it. They now must go to the Tax Office website and register for the scheme and start paying their staff again. They can start paying staff immediately, but the money won't flow from the government until May after their next business activity statement, leaving a lag.

The only criteria for business is that they must have lost revenue of at least 30 per cent over a month. Or, a 50 per cent revenue loss for businesses with a turnover of $1 billion of more. Get your head around that. This payment doesn't go only to the small businesses forced to close their doors last week. It goes to the very big companies too, the big retailers. Airlines, even.

We seem finally to have arrived at peak-support in the economic crisis (other than nationalisation of key industries). In the health crisis, we're still making our way there in a way that is both incremental and at the same time lightning fast, with new restrictions every day. Just as Morrison has now gone to the virtual end-game on economic support, it is probably time he does the same on the shutdowns, and gets this over with.

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This story Have we finally reached peak COVID-19 support? first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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