I contribute to the debate on the State Revenue Legislation Amendment (COVID-19 Housing Response) Bill 2020 and, specifically, the amendments to the Payroll Tax Act 2007, which exempt from State payroll tax payments made under the Commonwealth Government's aged care workforce retention grants program.
The Labor Opposition supports the exemption of aged care retention bonuses from payroll tax; however, notes the overall limitations of the scheme proposed by the Liberal and National parties.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put our aged care system on a knife's edge. As we know, older people are particularly susceptible to the virus, and protecting aged care settings from infection is crucial.
In the United States and Sweden, there have been cases where up to 80 per cent of residents in aged care settings were infected and subsequently died. Closer to home, at Anglicare Newmarch House, 19 residents lost their lives after 34 staff and 37 residents were infected. Six people died at BaptistCare Dorothy Henderson Lodge following the infection of 13 residents and five staff. Most recently, a staff member tested positive at Ashfield Baptist Homes in my electorate, which caused considerable distress to staff, residents and their families. Thankfully, just yesterday that home was given the all clear. It is important to remember that the people living in our aged care facilities are more than just statistics. Each of them is deeply loved and valued members of families and communities, and those we have lost to COVID-19 are deeply missed.
The deaths at Newmarch House and Dorothy Henderson Lodge are being investigated by the New South Wales Coroner and the Aged Care royal commission; however, the indications are that they may have been sadly avoidable. We know that ensuring priority testing, the supply of personal protective equipment [PPE], the provision of proper training and paid pandemic leave are crucial to controlling infections. The Fair Work Commission's decision to award many aged care workers paid pandemic leave is an important one. It will mean that workers no longer have to choose between public safety and putting food on their family's table. However, to ensure its full effect, it must be expanded to include casual workers. This decision may assist to manage one of the greatest challenges we have faced in managing outbreaks in aged care facilities: critical staff shortages.
Staff shortages have crippled facilities as more and more aged care workers are forced to quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19. This is leading to gaps in care and critically important functions like facilitating communication with families are often falling to the wayside. Aged care providers have warned the Federal and State governments for months that staff shortages put residents at risk. The chief executive officer of Anglicare, Grant Millard, has argued staff shortages hobbled the response to the outbreak at Newmarch. In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald he described 20 April as the facility's "blackest" day:
"On that day, across the 24 hours, we had only nine registered nurses when we were looking to deploy 28, which is what we have now. There were eight or nine agencies we were working through; they just couldn't supply that many people."
The Prime Minister described workforce issues as a massive challenge in managing the unfolding emergency in Victorian aged care services, where there are currently 1089 active coronavirus cases in more than 80 facilities. Defence Force personnel are being deployed to cover night shift duties, and elective surgeries are being suspended to divert nursing and medical staff into aged care facilities.
Truthfully, the loss of good workers from the aged care system was a problem long before this pandemic. In October last year a national worker survey conducted by the United Workers Union and the Health Services Union revealed that 40 per cent of aged care workers were planning to leave the sector in the next five years because of stress, being overworked and underpaid. Ironically, 75 per cent reported that one of the key reasons they were overworked was due to chronic understaffing. The chief executive officer of Aged and Community Services Australia, Patricia Sparrow, agreed urgent action is required. She said:
We can as a country decide that we are going to prioritise and resource aged care so we can have the number of staff that we want to have to deliver the care that we want to deliver and the care that communities are expecting.
The former Chief executive officer of The Aged Care Guild, Matthew Richter, argued that the workforce needs to increase by over 150 per cent by 2050 if we are to "keep pace with the changing needs of senior Australians."
In another study, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation noted that in the 13 years leading up to 2019, chronic understaffing saw a 400 per cent increase in "preventable deaths" in aged care, including hundreds of deaths from falls, choking and suicide. One can imagine the sigh of relief from the sector when on 20 March the Commonwealth Government announced a $446.6 million package to support the industry, including a $234.9 million COVID-19 "retention bonus" for aged care workers. Initially the Government promised $800 after tax per quarter, paid for two quarters, for direct care workers and two payments of up to $600 after tax per quarter for those who provide care in the home. An additional $78.3 million was also provided to residential care to support continuity of workforce supply.
This announcement was broadly welcomed as a much-needed injection of targeted funding into the aged care system, with the express aim of bolstering the dwindling aged care workforce. However, the gloss was quick to come off and we can see why when we look at the detail. Firstly, peak bodies and unions joined to criticise the retention bonus as "divisive" and "unfair," given that it leaves out critical workers like those who work in the laundry, cleaning or catering staffs. Any resident or family of a resident in aged care knows just how important these workers are to their overall care and quality of life. Rightly, the Health Services Union pointed out that every worker in the aged care system is on the front line of the fight against COVID-19, with cleaners and support staff critical to protecting residents against infection. Denying cleaners and other aged care staff access to this retention bonus is an insult—during a pandemic it seems to me rather stupid.
In May I joined with shadow Minister for Health, Ryan Park, in writing to the Federal Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians and to the New South Wales Minister for Health. We asked that the bonus be expanded to include laundry, catering, cleaning and other support staff in aged care. Aged care workers were then aghast to discover the Federal Government had backtracked on its promise that the payments would be tax free—it announced in June that their bonus payments would in fact be subject to taxation—which would leave them hundreds of dollars out of pocket. I am very pleased that the State Government is moving to exempt the retention bonus payments from payroll tax.
The Commonwealth Government has opted to pay the bonuses to aged care providers, who will then pass on the payments as wages to employers. That is a good thing. Under the current arrangement, businesses would be liable to pay payroll tax on these amounts. The Opposition supports this amendment because it will ensure that is not the case and that no further burden is carried by aged care operators during the pandemic. This is particularly good news for the smaller independent and not-for-profit providers across this State. This amendment also signals that the Treasurer agrees that when the Government assists workers with one-off payments such as this, the taxman should keep his hand out of their pockets. I hope that he will pick up the phone to his Federal counterpart and ask him to honour his original promise to aged care workers and exempt the bonus from taxation.
I take this opportunity to also briefly note the other amendments contained in the legislation. Firstly, the stamp duty exemption for first homebuyers for new homes valued up to $800,000—up from $650,000—and on vacant land worth up to $400,000. I note that the stamp duty concession threshold will also be raised to $1 million. This will definitely be welcome news to those seeking to purchase their new home, particularly when prices are lower than usual, and I acknowledge that the measure is designed to underpin our construction industries. While Labor does not object to the measure, I note that it is a far cry from the far-ranging reform of taxation that the Treasurer continues to talk about in the media. I appreciate that these are unprecedented times, but it strikes me that the Treasurer does not seem to get that people are currently dipping into their savings or into their super to keep food on the table and or a roof over their heads.
The Treasurer has introduced a bill that will assist to new homebuyers, but it does not deal with many of the other problems that are confronting families across New South Wales. I note that a number of the other measures that have been introduced have fallen well and truly short. A number of previous speakers on this side of the House have raised those deficiencies. When we look back at the pandemic, and as the economic aftershocks come through, let us say that the decisions that we have made in this place served to protect and support everyone in the community; that we stood up for the vulnerable and for the extraordinary frontline workers who put their lives and the lives of their families on the line to protect us. Let us say we got our priorities right, reimagined a better society and built a fairer economy that serves everybody. I support measures that serve to advance the interests of vulnerable people in our community, workers across the economy and, in particular, our hardworking workers in our aged care sector.