Headlines last night and this morning were dominated by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s “withering” attack on Opposition Leader Bill Shorten as a “social-climbing sycophant”. The backbench and much of the press gallery lapped it up as the gloves finally coming off, but there were many more things worth paying attention to in Parliament yesterday.

Kicking the young and unemployed

Buried in the mild-sounding omnibus savings and childcare reform bill released yesterday, the government included a four-week waiting period before unemployed people under 25 are eligible to receive income support payments. This is one of those “zombie” budget measures from 2014 that last failed to pass the Senate in 2015, just days before Tony Abbott lost the leadership.

Young people wanting to get the dole will need to first meet with a Jobactive provider (like the ones that donate to the Coalition), agree to a job plan, update their resume and create a job seeker profile on the JobSearch website, and apply for a total of 20 jobs in the four-week period between applying for the dole and getting it.

The government is also planning on taking away up to $92 per fortnight for unemployed people between 22 and 24. Previously these people would have been eligible for Newstart Allowance which is up to $528 per fortnight, but now they will be shifted back to Youth Allowance, which offers a maximum of $437 per fortnight.

Centrelink in focus

Labor and the Greens are keeping up the attack on Centrelink’s disastrous automated debt notification system. The Senate yesterday agreed to establish a committee looking not only at the impact of the automated debt collection system, but also how it has been managed by Centrelink, whether the IT services and phone services were adequate to cope with the demand, and whether the data-matching algorithm comparing people’s claimed earnings with their Centrelink claims was actually as accurate as the government claims.

Both Labor and the Greens have made much of this matter this week, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert detailing three cases in the Senate yesterday where people had been issued with false debt notices adding up to thousands of dollars. Human Services Minister Alan Tudge has repeatedly denied there is an issue with the system.

Push back on national security laws

A report tabled in Parliament yesterday from former national security legislation monitor Roger Gyles — former because he finished in October last year and the government still hasn’t appointed a replacement — criticised the post-September 11 powers ASIO has to detain and question people secretly as “a step too far” and has suggested repealing the power — which incidentally ASIO has never used, according to the report. He has also suggested that there be a 10-day limit on how long ASIO can detain people without charge.

Then late yesterday and this morning, Labor indicated it would oppose legislation before Parliament to allow the Immigration Minister to review visas to ascertain whether there was any adverse information about a person already granted a visa in Australia. In the House of Representatives last night, shadow immigration spokesperson Shayne Neumann said Labor didn’t want to give Peter Dutton “Trump-like” powers:

“Labor cannot give Trump-like powers to a man that has such a high desire to see a divided Australia. Labor will not support a bill that could see whole groups of people targeted on the basis of their place of birth, passport or religion.”

Dutton this morning has claimed this is all a distraction from the “whipping” Shorten received in Parliament.

A federal ICAC

The Senate also established a committee to investigate the possibility of establishing a federal anti-corruption commission — or colloquially, a federal ICAC. The committee looking at a national integrity commission will look at what powers the commission should have to investigate federal corruption, how much finding it needs, and what the commission would actually cover. The committee will have two government senators, two Labor senators, one Greens senator, Derryn Hinch, and a Nick Xenophon Team senator. No luck for One Nation, Jacqui Lambie, David Leyonhjelm or new independent Senator Cory Bernardi. The committee is due to report back to government in August.

Pell hears the call of home

In light of the horrific findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Abuse about the sheer scale of child abuse within the Catholic Church — 4444 people made allegations of child abuse by members of the Church between 1980 and 2015 — the Senate yesterday passed a motion calling for Cardinal George Pell to return from the Vatican to Australia. Pell, unsurprisingly, isn’t too happy about it, telling the Herald Sun that it’s just the Greens being anti-religion.

Burqa Ban

Just to top it all off, Jacqui Lambie introduced a bill that would ban full face coverings in public in order to make the community “feel safe”.

“I remind the people who argue that this Bill impacts on the religious freedoms of some groups of people living in Australia that linking the restrictions on facial coverings to the National Terrorism Threat Level is a reasonable and balanced approach to maintaining and enhancing public security. Especially at a time when our security agencies are certain that further deadly public attacks by extremists and enemies of Australia will happen. Therefore the right to feel safe in public places for the general public in a secular, democratic society, in a time of extreme threat from terrorism – must always outweigh the right for expression of religious freedom. Australians are not the only people who have expressed concerns and feel unsafe when citizens wear full face coverings without good reason in public.”

Exemptions would exist for “the genuine pursuit of entertainment, work, and artistic purpose”.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey