House of Representatives

Economic Recovery Package (JobMaker Hiring Credit) Amendment Bill 2020

Second Reading Speech

Mr WALLACE (Fisher)

The bill before the House today, the Economic Recovery Package (JobMaker Hiring Credit) Amendment Bill 2020, is going to have a very significant impact across the country in every community and every business sector. Nationwide, it's going to help support up to 450,000 jobs, and I believe that few places will see more benefit than in my electorate of Fisher. That's because two of the largest industries in my electorate are tourism and construction. Both are sectors which employ more young people than most, and both are sectors which were particularly hard hit by the worst of the COVID-19 crisis. This measure is particularly well targeted by the government to support these impacted sectors, and, as a builder, I am focused on the difference it will make to the construction industry. It won't just be the construction industry, but that's the one I have a very significant connection with.

I'm sure that all of us who have a connection to the construction industry in Australia, given that it employs over 1.2 million Australians, will remember how it felt to watch the events of March, April and May this year play out across the country. Housing Industry Association figures show that sales of new homes fell by more than 20 per cent in the three months to May. Project cancellations hit 26 per cent. Master Builders Australia's April COVID-19 survey indicated an average reduction in forward contracts of some 40 per cent. The picture for many on the ground was devastating. In those weeks, I received phone calls from many builders, some of whom I'd known for decades. They're builders with successful businesses who plan prudently and who ordinarily maintain a strong pipeline of work. These builders were telling me that come August, when their current jobs were finished, they would not have one project to go on with. Builds were being put on hold or cancelled, and the industry was on the brink of grinding to a halt. I knew that the government needed to act, and act quickly, to prevent this unthinkable outcome. I spoke with the Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Housing and I was very pleased to find that he shared those concerns. I'm proud to have worked closely with the minister on the development of the government's response - that is, HomeBuilder.

The impact of this policy has been dramatic. The same Queensland builders and finance brokers who contacted me in May, saying that they were facing an economic cliff in the second half of the year, have been in touch with me since to say that they are now receiving more inquiries than ever before. This is the same HomeBuilder package that those opposite ridiculed. On the Sunshine Coast, the demand for new land and for construction has been described as a feeding frenzy. As of 20 September, one development in my electorate, called Harmony, has sold 400 new lots since the grant's June announcement. Buyers were camping out overnight outside the sales centre to get the blocks that they wanted. HIA new home sales data for the three months to August 2020 shows that nationally sales have risen 61.3 per cent compared to the quarter in which HomeBuilder was announced. In August 2020, the number of loans for the construction of new dwellings increased by 22.9 per cent. Private sector house approvals are at their highest levels since February 2019.

Thanks to the government's intervention, things are better in the construction industry than any of us could have expected at this point. However, there are still significant challenges facing the construction sector, which could derail the national COVID delivery. One of the most important challenges that lie ahead is the issue of workforce development, and it is this which the bill before the House will go so far to supporting. In order to service its growing pipeline of work, the construction sector must have the skilled workers that it needs. At the moment, that workforce is simply not there. The Australian government's most recent skills shortage report for the construction industry in Queensland noted that only half of available positions in the sector were being filled - just half. Bricklayers, plumbers, glaziers and tilers are in especially short supply, and the problem is so much worse in regional Queensland. Without these skilled workers, builders have to turn away jobs, projects experience lengthy delays and cost overruns and prices become inflated, reducing further demand.

This federal government is alive to these challenges. We've introduced billions of dollars in incentives to encourage Australians, at this difficult time, to train in a new trade and to make it easier for businesses to employ people, particularly new apprentices. As part of our COVID-19 response, the government invested an additional $1.5 billion, expanding our Supporting Apprenticeships and Trainees wage subsidy. Under this scheme, from now until March 2021, small and medium-sized businesses with fewer than 200 employees who retain an Australian apprentice can apply for a wage subsidy of 50 per cent. This measure alone will support approximately 90,000 small and medium-sized businesses, employing around 180,000 apprentices. In the 2020 federal budget, we went even further. The Treasurer allocated a further $1.2 billion for an expanded Boosting Apprenticeships Commencement wage subsidy. This applies to new apprentices taken on between now and the end of September 2021. There is no maximum cap for the size of the company, and the only requirement is that the apprentice is not already receiving any other type of government support. Once again, this new scheme will pay 50 per cent of the apprentice's wages, up to $7,000 a quarter, until the end of September 2021. This scheme's 100,000 anticipated new apprentices, combined with the 180,000 supported under the government's COVID-19 wage subsidy, represents a significant boost to the skills base in the sector over the coming year.

The government is also acting to ease skills shortages by additional training of existing workers in construction or other related sectors. The government's $1 billion JobTrainer package is going to pay for 340,700 job training places, which will be delivered at low or no cost to the trainee. Importantly, the specific skills and industries covered by the fund are going to be set by agreement between the states and territories and the National Skills Commission and will be based on data gathered by the commission on skills shortages in the economy. I'm confident many courses relevant to construction will be included in this package. I'm also pleased to say that the federal budget expanded this program too, adding another $252 million for up to 50,000 new short courses in sectors where there will be high demand for jobs in the future.

Anyone who's worked in the construction sector knows that, in terms of training and workforce development, there is no substitute for on-the-job training and experience. We need to get motivated young people with good foundational skills into the industry and give them the opportunity to learn by doing. That is what this bill helps to deliver. The JobMaker hiring credit will make it much easier over the next 12 months to give young Australians a start in the industry.

The $4.5 billion program enabled by this bill will help to create up to 450,000 new jobs not just in the construction sector but across all industries, including the construction sector. Eligible employers will be able to claim $200 a week for each additional eligible employee they hire between the ages of 16 and 29 and $100 a week for each additional eligible employee aged 30 to 35. Employers will receive the JobMaker hiring credit for up to 12 months from the date the new position is created. The eligibility criteria are very generous, with almost all businesses not currently claiming JobKeeper eligible. As long as the job is in addition to a business's existing payroll and the individual employed was previously on JobSeeker, it's very likely that the role will be supported with up to $10,400 from this government.

Members opposite have decried this measure, but I expect it to be a critical boost for construction businesses and businesses right across the economy looking to increase their capacity, develop the industry's workforce and help this country to grow its way out of this COVID recession.

This bill, alongside the budget's billions of dollars of other economic measures, will make a huge difference for this country's construction industry and many other industries too. I believe that, in response, the construction industry needs to work on its own initiatives to meet its critical challenges and to live up to its responsibilities to help us build Australia's recovery.

Among other measures, it is time for the sector to help us make the most of the billions we are investing in apprentices and training. We all know where the skills shortages are. The funding needed will be available with the passage of this bill and others. The construction industry has a responsibility now to use the government's apprenticeship funding and JobMaker incentives and work with training providers to put on more young people and ensure that they are being given the foundational skills they need to deliver when they get into the workplace.

Equally and importantly, it is time for the industry to work with the government seriously on industrial relations reform to protect the futures of those new young workers and stand up to the militant unions. This government has been rock solid on trying to get the criminal aspects of the CFMMEU under control. We held a royal commission. We reinstated the Australian Building and Construction Commission. We have brought forward laws like the protecting vulnerable workers act and the ensuring integrity bill. We have presided over a system that's handed down more than $17 million in fines to the CFMMEU. However, infrastructure projects continue to cost the taxpayer 30 per cent more than they should because of the misbehaviour of militant unions and, frankly, the weakness of the sector in dealing with them. I'm sad to say that, while the Labor Party continues to take more than $1 million a year from the CFMMEU, the construction industry will get no help from Labor. It's time for the industry to work more closely with this coalition government, follow the lead of Master Builders Australia and their CEO, Denita Wawn, stand up to the CFMMEU bullies and be a stronger ally with us in the ongoing process of industrial relations reform.

The construction industry will be central to helping build our economic recovery, brick by brick. To do that, construction businesses will need a significantly expanded workforce of young, fit Australians ready and eager to learn a trade. This bill will facilitate the delivery of this government's JobMaker hiring credit and it will provide a pathway for thousands of young Australians into not just the construction industry but across all sectors of the economy. It will form a foundational pillar of Australia's economic recovery. I commend the bill to the House.