‘No barrier’: government has power to provide coronavirus financial support now
The Australian government has the power to roll out paid pandemic leave via regulation, rather than having to pass new legislation through the parliament, according to advice from the parliamentary library.
The Greens, which shared the advice with Guardian Australia, said it showed the government should act immediately to prevent workers from “being forced to make terrible choices” when they felt they could not afford to stay at home while waiting for Covid-19 test results.
“There’s no longer any excuse for delay and lives are at stake so the government should act quickly,” the Greens leader, Adam Bandt, told Guardian Australia.
As Victoria moved to implement the toughest lockdown measures in Australia to try to cut concerning rates of community transmission, the premier, Daniel Andrews, revealed he had spoken with Scott Morrison about the issue of paid pandemic leave.
Calls are also growing for the prime minister to ensure economic support measures, like the jobkeeper wage subsidy, take account of the worsening situation in Australia’s second-most populous state.
Morrison cautiously opened the door to paid pandemic leave last week, saying he had asked the attorney general, Christian Porter, to consult on the issue. Porter has argued existing systems were “working relatively well at the moment in terms of coping with that scenario where people have to be self-isolated for a period”.
Unions have campaigned for action for months, but the idea gained momentum last week when the Fair Work Commission ordered residential aged care providers to provide two weeks’ paid leave to workers required by their employer or a government medical authority to self-isolate because of Covid-19.
The Greens asked the parliamentary library whether the rule-making power given to the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, in the law that delivered jobkeeper would allow him to make paid pandemic leave-type payments.
In the response, seen by Guardian Australia, the library said it had reviewed several pieces of legislation “and have not identified any impediments to drafting the law that you propose as a regulation rather than needing to draft and pass an enactment”.
The library noted the legislation that had passed parliament to implement the earlier economic response package appeared to have been “drawn widely”.
According to the advice, it allows the treasurer to make rules about “one or more kinds of payments” by the commonwealth to entities including individuals, body corporates, partnerships, any other unincorporated associations or bodies, and trusts.
The Greens have also drafted a bill to implement paid pandemic leave and plan to pursue it at the next scheduled Senate sitting in late August, but Bandt said the new expert advice showed the government could “act now using the powers that were granted to provide financial support during the pandemic”.
“There’s no barrier to acting,” he said.
Bandt argued broad access to the entitlement would be “a key part of helping get the outbreak under control in Victoria and preventing outbreaks in other states” because insecure work was fuelling the crisis.
“With millions of people in this country having no paid sick leave, people are being forced to make terrible choices about coming to work while waiting for test results or even with symptoms because they feel that they can’t afford not to.”
Bandt said states had taken some action to address the issue – such as the Victorian government’s hardship payments – but the federal government should help employers meet the cost of “an across-the-board 14 days’ paid leave for everyone so everyone clearly understands that they have that option”.
Bandt also cautioned the federal government against cutting back the rates of jobkeeper wage subsidies and jobseeker unemployment benefits in September, saying Victoria was “just not in a position for everyone to have the financial rug pulled out from underneath them”.
Andrews said on Sunday he had been having “very good discussions” with Morrison about issues such as paid pandemic leave and fixing “anomalies” in the jobkeeper scheme to ensure businesses that were doing well until the latest lockdown measures took effect did not miss out on support.
The premier said some employers were telling employees to turn up to work even while they were awaiting Covid-19 test results – while other casual workers without access to sick leave were worried they would miss out on shifts in future if they stayed home.
“All of those issues are driving these bad choices,” Andrews told reporters.
The federal Labor party stepped up its calls for the government to “fill the gaps where they exist” and ensure paid pandemic leave was available “right across the economy”.
The shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers, said the government needed to help fund such a scheme because “the cost of not doing that is much greater in terms of lives lost and impacts on the economy”.
“Every day of delay here is deadly,” Chalmers told the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday.
On Friday, Porter pointed to the actions of state governments in offering hardship payments, the federal government’s provision of $850m to the aged care sector to offset the cost of paid pandemic leave, and the FWC’s ability to decide on proposals in other sectors.
He said the government was considering “whether or not there is room for some consolidation and consistency of those three approaches”. But he warned that a broader paid pandemic leave scheme might be an extra cost for businesses “at a time where they can least afford that cost impost”.
On Sunday the health minister, Greg Hunt, announced $7.3m in extra funding for mental health, saying “many people in areas impacted by the second wave of the pandemic will be facing increased emotional and mental stress”.