Labor and the Greens push to extend eligibility for jobkeeper scheme

Bids to broaden scheme come as Liberal backbenchers debate ending it early and employers and unions unite in warning against cuts

 Australian prime minister Scott Morrison in parliament Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Two controversial changes to the jobkeeper program that excluded university workers and entities owned by foreign governments are under challenge in the Senate, where Labor and the Greens hope to overturn the rules limiting eligibility for the $130bn wage subsidy.

The bids to extend the jobkeeper payment come as Liberal backbenchers debate whether to end the six-month wage subsidy program early and employers and unions unite in warning against cuts.

On Tuesday the Liberal MP Jason Falinski broke ranks to call for an early end to the payment to encourage employers and employees back to work, and Craig Kelly suggested phasing out the payment for businesses whose revenue recovers in order to help airline catering workers excluded from payments.

Labor continued to probe the government about casual workers who earn more on the $1,500 fortnightly payment than their usual wages after signalling the windfall could be trimmed back for some workers in return for expanded eligibility.

Labor and the Greens have also decided to attempt to modify the scheme through disallowance motions in the Senate. Both believe they can reverse changes that excluded universities without harming other charities’ ability to access the payment and have given notice to do so. Labor’s Tony Sheldon will also move to disallow the exclusion of foreign-owned entities.

In a series of changes in April, the Morrison government stipulated that when calculating their revenue to access the jobkeeper payment universities must count their losses over six months, not one month like other employers, and must include commonwealth payments when counting their revenues, unlike other charities.

Universities were incensed by the changes, which have left them technically eligible to access the payment but in practice removed all of them from contention.

The Labor and Greens disallowance motions would help several universities that believed they were eligible before the changes, including La Trobe and Sydney. The parties would need support from four out of five of the remaining crossbench senators: two from Centre Alliance, two One Nation and Jacqui Lambie.

The Greens education spokeswoman, Mehreen Faruqi, told Guardian Australia: “Through multiple changes to the rules, universities have been targeted by this government and deliberately excluded from the jobkeeper wage subsidy scheme – 30,000 jobs are on the line, with impacted staff in every corner of the country,” she said.

The shadow education minister, Tanya Plibersek, said Labor had been urging the government to support universities for weeks, but the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, had instead “deliberately moved the goalposts to ensure universities are excluded from government support”.

“So we will do the right thing and try to fix this in the Senate,” she said.

Scott Morrison has refused to rule out further changes to jobkeeper, suggesting on Monday it could be “adjusted to provide better support” or help “sectors that come under strain over a longer period” than its scheduled September end date.

But some Liberal MPs are instead calling for the payment to be cut off sooner, citing the lifting of restrictions on economic and social life in all states and territories.

Falinski reportedly told he thinks the government should “turn off jobkeeper as soon as possible”.

“As soon as the schools are back then it should go,” he reportedly said. “That’s a signal to businesses to get back to work.”

In the Coalition party room on Tuesday nobody called for the early end of the program, but Kelly raised the issue of airline catering company Dnata, which has told its 5,500 workers it is ineligible for jobkeeper because it is owned by the Emirates Group, in turn owned by the UAE government.

Kelly told Guardian Australia the company was a “special case” because it was formerly owned by Qantas and it was a “tough call” to exclude Dnata because “100% of the payment goes to the worker” – not the foreign government owners.

Kelly said the aviation sector had been “slugged really hard”. “We can’t cut these guys off … or else the talk of we’re all in this together is rubbish.”

Sheldon said it “beggars belief” that the government had abandoned workers at Dnata by not including them in jobkeeper after approving the sale of the catering business in 2018.

Kelly is in favour of jobkeeper continuing for three months then to be extended on a month-to-month basis, arguing if businesses’ revenues recover – such as cafes – money saved on the program now could be spent on sectors that will struggle for more than six months, such as aviation.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive, James Pearson, told Guardian Australia that “it is too early to be thinking about restricting the scope of the jobkeeper payment” because of continued global uncertainty and “concerns about a second wave of the virus”.

“Rather, we believe its eligibility should be extended, as the amount budgeted for it will unlikely be spent by September,” he said.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has made the same point, arguing that given the scheme is currently only reaching five million workers out of a capacity of six million, it should be extended to shorter term casuals and temporary visa workers.

The ACTU president, Michele O’Neil, said “the worst thing the government could do is to create more insecurity around people’s payments and job”.

Asked about trimming the payment for some workers earning more on the wage subsidy than their usual pay, O’Neil said: “I don’t think there should be any proposal to reduce the assistance available. What is urgently needed is to extend jobkeeper to people that have missed out.”

Labor and the Greens are also hoping to reverse changes allowing employers to ask their employees to vary pay deals with just 24 hours’ notice. Changes approved by workers can last for the life of an agreement, cutting pay and conditions for up to three years.

On Tuesday Pauline Hanson said that One Nation, likely to be the swing votes on the issue, understands “the need for flexibility” but wants a “measured response”.

“Therefore senator [Malcolm] Roberts and I will be seeking further regulatory changes by the attorney general that will limit any variation to enterprise bargain agreements to 12 months,” she said.

“Should the attorney general not see fit to protect workers and employers alike, we will reconsider our position on the disallowance motion.”

The attorney general, Christian Porter, responded signalling he was open to the idea. “That seems a reasonable request and I will discuss with senator Hanson and other cross-bench senators over the next 24 hours or so,” he said.