PRIME MINISTER: Welcome, everyone. I am joined by Minister Ruston and Minister Cash. I want to assure all Australians that I can tell you, nothing will distract me or my Government from my pledge to them to save lives and save livelihoods. I pledged when I became Prime Minister that I would keep our economy strong. I said I would keep Australians safe and I said I would keep Australians together. I think if there's one thing that Australians have learnt about me and my Government is we're a pretty focused bunch. We know what our job is and we are very focused on that and I will remain forever focused on that. Because I know Australians, as I said to my party room today, they rely on me, they rely on our ministers and they rely on us to remain focused on them at all times. That is why, I believe, that over the course of this most difficult past year, it has been the focus of that attention on the Australian people that has enabled to connect with their great spirit of resilience. That is the platform upon which Australia has been one of the most successful countries in the world in dealing with this crisis, both in terms of saving lives but also in saving livelihoods. We have always remained focused on the task at hand and that continues today, like any other day and will continue into the future.
At the start of the pandemic, when we were addressing both the health issues and the economic issues, what was very clear to the Government was that the sheer shock, the economic shock, and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was that the social safety net that we had would soon become overwhelmed by the level of demand that would be placed upon that. And even with the increased estimates of what we thought that demand would be, we saw it very quickly become very clear, that the Government's income support measures would need to be further enhanced. And so we came up with what has been, I think, and I think many others think, has been one of the key economic policies in its design that have protected Australian livelihoods and lives over the course of this past year. It was the combination of an enhanced social safety net, which was the COVID supplement, which was our first initiative, to ensure that we strengthened the safety net upon which Australians would rely on. And then there was JobKeeper. JobKeeper, which effectively nationalised private sector payrolls to deliver a system of income support to a degree this country has never seen before in its history and did so in a fair way, with the same payments to everybody that were affected. A very Australian way. And the combination of JobKeeper, together with JobSeeker supplement, ensured that Australians had the confidence and the certainty to move through what would have been the most uncertain period of their lives for most of them. Perhaps not Jane Malysiak, I suspect she has seen some more uncertain times in her life and that generation has. But for most of us, the most uncertain time in our lives. Those two measures came together to provide that emergency support. Now, we said it had to be targeted, we said it had to be time-limited and there needed to be a clear path for how we would pursue this once the emergency situation had receded. At the end of next month, we will be in a position where JobKeeper expires and we will be in a position where, under the legislation, the JobSeeker COVID supplement also expires. The Government has been working steadfastly as to the arrangements that will be in place after that point in time.
Now, on Sunday I said we had moved into a new chapter with the commencement of the vaccination programme. I said that that would change how Australia was dealing with the pandemic. That is as true for the economic supports and other measures that have been in place as emergency measures, as it is indeed true for the many responses put in place on restrictions and things of that nature, and that will continue to change over the course of the year. But Sunday was a change day. Sunday was a day that Australia confidently moved into the next phase of how we fight this pandemic and we battle to secure the livelihoods and lives of Australians. And so, as we come into that next chapter, and by the end of next month, we will be well into that, as tens of thousands, if not greater, will have been vaccinated by that point, and the National Cabinet will have met again. That we believed it was important that we show faith once again in our social safety net. What I mean by that is we are now confident that at the end of next month that our social safety net can once again be able to provide the support it needs to Australians, as we come out of the COVID-19 recession, for that social safety net to be there for them if they find themselves without work. But we've also formed the view that that base level of support that exists within our social safety net needs to be adjusted for the long term. So we are moving from short-term emergency measures to long-term arrangements now that people can rely on, should they find themselves out of work. Now, we've still got a long way to go, we understand that, and that's why the Treasurer and I on another occasion will be making further announcements about what we will be doing in other parts of the economy. But the truth is the JobMaker Hiring Credit, that's in place, the tax cuts, they're in place, the instant expensing arrangements, they’re in place, the bring forwards of infrastructure projects, they're in place.
The economic recovery plan continues to rollout but we change gears. And with that change of gears, what we are doing now is we are re-basing the JobSeeker payment to ensure that the long-term arrangements now are there for people to rely on should they find themselves out of work and to get the support they need when they're out of work and that will lead to an increase of $50 per fortnight in that base payment. But as I'm sure Anne will set out to you, that is of course not the only payment that people receive when they're on JobSeeker. There's Commonwealth rent assistance, there's energy supplements. There's a range of other payments which increases the amount someone will receive on a fortnightly basis by more than $150 extra per fortnight because of those additional supports. That’s our social safety net. We are now moving. I said every day would become more normal, moving back to a normal safety net arrangement is part of that normalising process but we're ensuring that it is set at a base we believe is appropriate going forward. Now, that puts the JobSeeker payment at 41.2 percent of the national minimum wage, which is commensurate with what it was during the time of the Howard government. It is true that this is one of the single - it is the single largest increase in the JobSeeker payment since the mid-'80s, year-on-year, that is true. But I think the more relevant feature to focus on is what it is as a percentage of the minimum wage. And this brings up from 37.5 percent up to 41.2 percent. That is commensurate with where it sat during the period of the Howard government.
Social security payments, welfare support, when people need it, is something we strongly believe in. And at a cost of $9 billion over the forward estimates, including the costs between now and the end of this year, that is a contract with Australians and Australian taxpayers. Australian taxpayers believe in this system, I believe in this system, and they know it is important for people who really need it. Particularly now, many people who may go on this payment who have never been on it before in the months ahead, as there has been over the course of last year, and what's important is the mutual obligation that we all have, one to one another, in how our social safety net works. Every person we get in a job, they're better off and the country is better off. So that remains our objective. If you're on JobSeeker, we'll work night and day to get you off it and into a job. We've already seen 93 percent of the jobs back into our economy. This is great progress but there is so much more to do. Every person we get off JobSeeker on to a job, that not only puts their household budget in a better position so they can have greater control over own lives, that also supports the Australian people’s budget, as expressed through the Australian Government’s Budget. It moves somebody from receiving taxpayer support to being a taxpayer and that was the big game-changer that actually enabled us to bring the Budget back into balance prior to this pandemic.
So with those rather lengthy introductory comments, I appreciate your patience, I will ask Anne to take you through those changes, and for Michaelia. There are mutual obligations requirements here that were put into this arrangement which are simply designed to one thing - to help people get back into work.
SENATOR THE HON. ANNE RUSTON, MINISTER FOR FAMILIES AND SOCIAL SERVICES: Thank you very much, PM. The package of measures that we are going to announce today are clearly about getting the balance right. We need to support people while they're looking for work, we need to create the incentives so they want to look for work. And we also have to remain a disincentive so they’re not disincentivised to work. But what we need to do is we need to ensure that we have a system that is fair and sustainable for the people who need it and the taxpayers who pay for it. As the Prime Minister said, this is the single biggest increase in unemployment benefits since 1986 with a $50 per fortnight increase. But in addition to that, we're also increasing the income-free area to $150 per fortnight for those people who are on JobKeeper and Youth Allowance other, as opposed to those people who are on a student payment or who already have a higher income-free area. What it does is create a greater incentive for people to put their toe in the water and test the job market because we know that people who report earnings are twice as likely to transition off payment than those who don’t report any earnings. As I say, the Prime Minister said, it comes at a $9 billion price tag.
We also will be extending a couple of temporary supports over the next three months, one of which is the ordinary waiting period. Currently, the ordinary waiting period is waived so that people who come on to payment don't have to wait for one week before they receive payment. In recognition that we need to make the smoothest transition on the 31st March to 1st April, that waiver will remain in place until 30th June. In addition to that, we will also maintain the accessibility to payment for people who are in isolation, because they have COVID or because they're caring for somebody who has COVID. This means 1.95 million Australians who are currently on working-age payments will receive an increase of $50 per fortnight as of the 1st of April. This is single parents, this is young people, this is students as well as JobKeepers. Just some statistics - that means 240,000 single parents with a child under the age of eight will receive a payment of $850.20 per fortnight. There will be a further 220,000 people who are over the age of 60 or who have a caring responsibility for a child over the age of eight, who will receive a JobSeeker rate of $676.30, including the energy supplement. When you consider there are a further 290,000 Australians on JobSeeker payment who also receive Commonwealth rent assistance, they will now receive $768.80 per fortnight. As I said, we want to make sure that people who are on payments experience firsthand the benefits of being on work by incentivising them to get back into the workforce. Certainly, there can be no doubt that this is the single-largest extension or measure that we put in place for those 1.95 million Australians who currently are on working age payments. We have made sure that in doing this, we have balanced their support, incentive to work and making sure we have a sustainable welfare system into the future so that not only today but into the future we will have a system that can continue to support people who need it. We will continue to make sure that our welfare system is targeted and comprehensive, with a range of supports that recognise the individual needs of Australians who need our support at this time. Thank you.
SENATOR THE HON. MICHAELIA CASH, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT, SKILLS, SMALL AND FAMILY BUSINESS: Thank you, Prime Minister, and thank you, Minister Ruston. Today, the package we bring before you also entails a strengthening of mutual obligation requirements. As the Prime Minister has said, the best form of welfare is a job. And our commitment as a Government is to do everything that we can to get people who are on welfare to get into a job. As such, we're reinstating mutual obligation requirements but we're also strengthening them. Last year, as a result of COVID-19, we did have to put a pause on our mutual obligation requirements. But now, in 2021 and in particular with 93 percent of the jobs lost during COVID returning to the economy and with our focus on our post-pandemic economy, it's time to reinstate mutual obligation. What does that actually entail? In the first instance, there will be a requirement for job seekers to attend face-to-face appointments with their providers. They currently do not have to do that, as a result of COVID-19. We're also going to increase the number of job searches a job seeker does per month. As a result of COVID, they were reduced to eight. We will progressively move that to 15 job searches a month and then, as of 1st July, 20 job searches a month, which is what it was before the pandemic hit. We will also, after six months of being on welfare, require people to enter into an intensive training stage. In other words, we're going to give them the best chance they can to do a short course to enhance their skills or to do some work experience. If they then do remain on welfare, that will give them an even better chance of getting a job. So this will now occur at six months. You often hear, though, employers saying, "Joe applied for a job. He was qualified for the job", or she, "and they said no." What we will be doing for employers is introducing an employer reporting line. So that if someone does apply for a job, they're offered the job and they're qualified for the job but they say no, the employer will now be able to contact my Department and report that person as failing to accept suitable employment. This will then mean that my Department can follow up with that person or alternatively, Jobactive can follow up with that person to ascertain exactly why they said no to a suitable job. In the event that they do not have a valid reason, they will be breached for that. We will, at the same time though, be increasing the number of audits we do of our job providers. We need to ensure that our job providers are following up on our job seekers and ensure they are doing the right thing. Remember, this is all about getting people off welfare and into work. We currently undertake around 4 percent of the caseload by way of audit. We will be increasing that to 10 percent of the caseload. We will also require all job seekers in stream a digital to now prior to being able to get their welfare payment to fill out their career profile. Currently, they don't have to do that. That type of information is instrumental in ensuring that we can properly match you, your skills and your career profile to a job in demand. This is all about acknowledging that, if I am receiving welfare, I have obligations to do everything I can to get into a job. But this is also the Government's commitment to all Australians. The best form of welfare is a job, and we will do everything that we can to move people from welfare into work.
PRIME MINISTER: So our social safety net is a social contract. It is a contract between the Government and Australians but it is also a contract between Australians, and what you've heard just announced today is about getting the balance of that right.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, even the best plans need a stable Government to implement it. Is your government stable, what assurances have you sought on received from Craig Kelly? And what is your plan with the Speaker of the House of Reps?
PRIME MINISTER: There are no changes that are required as a result of the announcement you've heard earlier today and you've heard that directly from the Member for Hughes. The government will continue to function, as it has successfully. And as the government has led Australia through the worst situation we've seen since the Second World War, we will continue to do so undistracted and we'll be able to do so with the support of the Parliament from the very undertakings that the member for Hughes has indicated himself, publicly.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what does it say about your authority over your party room when you lose one of your own members to the crossbench, and this is an individual who owes you? You saved his pre-selection?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, in relation to the member for Hughes, to Craig, we had a discussion a couple of weeks ago as you'll be aware. I set out some very clear standards and he made some commitments that I expected to be followed through on. He no longer felt that he could meet those commitments, but I can tell you, my standards don't change.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, when did Craig Kelly tell you he was going to quit the Liberal Party? Did he seek any guarantee about his pre-selection from you, is there anything he asked you to do that you would not offer him?
PRIME MINISTER: No, I learned of it at the same time as he announced it to the party room.
JOURNALIST: Had you lost confidence in Mr Kelly, his ability to be a Liberal MP given his freelancing and also his ability to win pre-selection for the Liberal Party, for Hughes?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, the matter of his pre-selection is a matter for him in the Liberal Party but that is no longer an issue because he has resigned from the Liberal Party. But I say what I just said to you before, I set out very clear expectations on a range of matters that I expected Craig to follow through on. He'd given me a number of commitments in relation to that. He no longer felt that he could meet those commitments and, as a result, he's made his decision today and by his own explanation, he has said that his actions were slowing the government down and he believed the best way for him to proceed was to remove himself from the party room and provide the otherwise support to the government so it could continue to function as it so successfully has, which he says is something that he remains committed to. So I would expect him to conduct himself in that way.
JOURNALIST: You're down to 75 on the floor now. So you've lost your working majority, Kelly, Mr Kelly has promised you or guaranteed you know, supply and confidence but what about your legislative agenda going forward? Is it going to make you rethink plans? And something like the energy bill which you’re not sure what’s going on with it at the moment, you now need a crossbencher for every vote effectively if you're opposed by Labor. Are you going to have to rethink the next 12 months?
PRIME MINISTER: No.
PRIME MINISTER: No. I mean,
JOURNALIST: Branaby Joyce has already been seen down in the office with Craig Kelly. Do you have any expectation that Craig Kelly will actually join the Nationals? And given that he has defied your requests as you described in various ways in relation to various alternative COVID cures, do you have any concerns that he's just going to end up with the National Party room?
PRIME MINISTER: No, I don't, but that's really a matter for others.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, a senior member in Mr Kelly's office, a staff member rather, has - is under police investigation amid allegations of inappropriate work conduct. There is actually an AVO taken out against that staff member. Would you expect that that staff member no longer be employed as a member of the government, and did that have any - are you concerned that Mr Kelly chose to keep that staff member onboard while those investigations took place?
PRIME MINISTER: I have long expressed to Mr Kelly my concerns about that staff member and he has long understood what my expectations were about how he would deal with that matter.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you said at the start of this press conference, "nothing will distract me or my Government from my pledge to save lives and save livelihoods". Are sexual assault allegations a distraction for your government and will you commit to setting up a dedicated support line for staff who work for the government and opposition to report sexual assault?
PRIME MINISTER: No, they're not a distraction. I do not consider those a distraction. I consider those a very important issue. So I wouldn't accept that suggestion for a second. They're important issues and we are addressing them, and the process that we're engaged in, in a multiparty way, which Minister Birmingham is leading that process now and I look forward to that process being settled very, very soon. I don't want to pre-empt the recommendations of that inquiry but I already moved this week to ensure there is additional counselling support that is available to staff right now. I think one of the things we've learned is that both the awareness of support services and, indeed the delivery of those support services, is coming under a lot of scrutiny. Today, Celia updated the party room on the processes I'd asked her to engage in. She has recommended to me, together with Anne Webster from the Nationals, that that process be consolidated into this broader multiparty process. And I agree with that and our leadership agreed with that today. So I think that will mean that that process is the single process for dealing and allowing staff and others, former staff and others, to engage with the process finally agreed between all the parties. So I consider it a serious issue, I consider it a significant issue. It is something we have to deal with and I am dealing with but it also won't be at the expense of what Australians expect me to deal with each and every day. So the two will be done.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what's the timeframe that you’re considering for this independent inquiry that Simon Birmingham is setting up? Are you going to commit to making public the findings before an election is called? And will there be an interim report so that staff know that progress is being made on this issue.
PRIME MINISTER: Well most of the answers to those questions are what is being discussed amongst the party leaders together with Simon now. So I can't really preempt what they will agree and what they will put forward, but it would be my expectation that certainly any report of that body would be made public. That would be my expectation. And I, when it would be completed by, I would hope they could proceed as quickly as possible but as thoroughly as possible. And I would hope that to be a reasonable timeframe and I would expect that to be well in advance of the next election. So that would be my hope and expectation. I suspect that view would be shared by the other party leaders representing the many parties that are in our parliament.
JOURNALIST: A follow-up on that question, PM. What about the Phil Gaetjens' review into your own office - will that be made public? If not, why not?
PRIME MINISTER: I haven't said it won't. I've simply said that I'm waiting for Phil to provide that report and I'll give further advice on that once I receive it.
JOURNALIST: On the matter of Brittany Higgins and her alleged rape. Can you explain why the alleged perpetrator's employment was terminated, apparently before the Government knew that an alleged rape had taken place, and if you tell us it’s because of a security breach, can you explain what was the security breach?
PRIME MINISTER: It was because of a security breach. That was the reason for it. As I understand it, it related to the entry into those premises.
JOURNALIST: After hours?
PRIME MINISTER: That's my understanding, but that's a matter of public record.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, on today's announcement, welfare advocates seem to be saying that they think it's not enough. Can you explain how and why you reached the conclusion that this amount was enough?
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, and Anne, you may wish to comment on this as well. 41.2% of the national minimum wage, which puts us back in the realm of where we had been previously. The indexation had been different to other payments and, as a result, it had fallen down to 37.5%. We had obviously taken advice about the level of the payment and this puts it back, comfortably, within the middle of the range that had previously been in place. Now I have no doubt that whatever rate you set the payment, there will always be suggestions by some that it should be more. There'll be some who will suggest it should be less. That's why a government has to exercise judgement in getting that balance right. But not just in the setting of the payment but also the conditions that sit around the provisions of that payment and that are seeking to support people not to have to rely on that payment and to be able to get them back into work. So they were the matters we considered as a government and took advice obviously. But ultimately governments make these decisions. And where we’ve made a decision, even though it has come at a considerable expense to taxpayers, some $9 billion, the final estimate will be confirmed in the Budget later this year, taking into account all factors and the updated forecasts that you’d expect in a Budget. But what I do know is this, is every person we get back into a job means that will be a lesser cost to the taxpayer. And that's why the mutual obligation arrangement is so important.
But I’ll ask Anne if she would like to comment further?
JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] they’re seeing it at $4 a day which doesn’t seem like very much?
SENATOR THE HON. ANNE RUSTON, MINISTER FOR FAMILIES AND SOCIAL SERVICES: Well look, back to your primary question around the process, the comprehensive process that we've been through, and clearly as I said in my statement we had to balance out three very strong interests that we had to balance. One, obviously, is to make sure that we provide support to people who find themselves out of work. We needed to make sure that we created a system and improved a system so that the incentives to take up work were there, and the disincentives were removed. That's very much part of the package that Minister Cash has put forward. But we also need to make sure that not just that it is a fair system but it is a sustainable system because we have to look after the people that need the system, but we also have to understand that it is paid for by taxpayers and it needs to be sustainable into the future. We certainly have drawn on the experience that we've seen over the last 12 months. We've had elevated levels of payment to people who are on unemployment benefits, recognising that back in March and April, the jobs market closed and the support was needed. But as the economy is recovering, as the jobs market is improving, certainly, we need to make sure that we have got the right incentives for people to go back to work. But our comprehensive and targeted welfare system has not changed. People who need additional assistance because of their circumstances, people who are renting who get Commonwealth rent assistance, people who have children who get support through the family tax benefit system, but there are a myriad of other supplements and allowances that are paid to people that recognise the range of individual circumstances. And all of these factors have been considered in coming up with the rate along with the other indicators that the Prime Minister has outlined in his response.
PRIME MINISTER: Hang on a sec, just to illustrate the point that you're making, a single person on the JobSeeker payment, inclusive of the increase anticipated because of indexation in March, will now see their payment increase, the base payment increase from $570.80 to $620.80 cents. That's inclusive of the indexation. It actually goes from $565.70 to $620.80. On top of that, if they're receiving Commonwealth rent assistance, that payment would increase to $760.40. And on top of that, the average value of standalone supplements - the energy supplement and so on - is an additional $13.03. So the suggestion that anyone who was on JobSeeker is simply on that payment alone and there aren't additional supports that are provided is not correct. There are additional supplements as you can see there, to the tune of some $150 in addition to that base rate, which would be a common experience of most people who would be on that payment.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, have you outlined the expectations you expected of Mr Kelly's behaviour to stay in the Government, when you spoke to him a few weeks ago?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I was speaking to him at that time about his support for the government's position on health matters and I've consistently outlined to him the matter in relation to the staff member that was referred to in an earlier question.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, will the extra spending on JobSeeker simply be absorbed into larger Budget deficits and does the Minister expect there'll be savings from the tighter mutual obligation requirements?
PRIME MINISTER: In answer to the first question and Anne can address the other matters, at present that goes directly on to the Budget bottom line and that is where it would be absorbed. And-
JOURNALIST: So there'll be no savings?
PRIME MINISTER: Well no, I'm saying I'll let Anne address those issues.
SENATOR THE HON. ANNE RUSTON, MINISTER FOR FAMILIES AND SOCIAL SERVICES: Well, clearly, the main objective of making sure - of all of the programs that this government has been putting forward have been focused on jobs. And of course, by getting somebody off welfare and into a job, there clearly is a saving, not only a saving because their lives are better because they're no longer relying on welfare but they're in the jobs market and they're paying tax. But there is no savings provisions considered in this particular package. But, clearly, we hope that it works well enough that we do have significant savings in the process of doing it.
JOURNALIST: Senator Cash, could I ask a question in relation to Brittany Higgins? So in October 2019, the Defence Minister Linda Reynolds called your Chief of Staff to alert him to a media enquiry regarding and incident that had happened in that office. What did the Defence Minister tell your Chief of Staff? He then spoke to you and then you then spoke to Brittany where you were very supportive and hugged her and told her you would look after her. If you maintain you didn't know it was a sexual assault, what did you think you were talking about?
SENATOR THE HON. MICHAELIA CASH, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT, SKILLS, SMALL AND FAMILY BUSINESS: Well, that is exactly what the Defence Minister said to my Chief of Staff. There was merely a media enquiry. I then spoke to my Chief of Staff and Brittany together. Brittany was actually concerned about the media enquiry and that she was a media adviser and she was going to have people enquiring about her. She was very concerned that she was going to become a story. It was actually about her job and nothing more. I have absolutely not and I have made my position very clear in the Senate.
PRIME MINISTER: I'm sorry, I have an international call I have to make. Thanks, everyone.