The Morrison government has stared down calls in its own ranks to cut the $130bn jobkeeper payment off before its full six-month duration, and delayed a Labor and Greens push to expand the program.

On Wednesday the finance minister, Mathias Cormann, said that business “certainty” meant the $1,500 fortnightly wage subsidy will be delivered until September, although it could be adjusted after a review in June.

Employers joined unions in warning against plans to modify the payment, after Labor called to trim the subsidy for those who normally earn less than $1,500 in return for expanded eligibility.

A Labor and Greens disallowance motion attempting to allow more universities to access the program and a Labor motion to expand eligibility to entities owned by foreign governments – both due for debate on Wednesday evening – were delayed.

Centre Alliance and senator Jacqui Lambie will support both motions, but One Nation are the critical votes to expanding the wage subsidy program.

The Transport Workers Union has been lobbying for the foreign government ownership change, citing 5,500 workers at airline catering company Dnata who missed out on jobkeeper because it is owned by the Emirates Group.

The Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick told Guardian Australia his party supported the plan because “the jobkeeper money is directed at Australian workers – not the companies”.

The Liberal MP Craig Kelly has also backed the change, suggesting in the Coalition party room on Tuesday that withdrawing jobkeeper from businesses that recover sooner would help expand its eligibility for sectors that suffer longer.

But on Wednesday Cormann ruled out ending the six-month jobkeeper program after a review in June, explaining the government wanted to give business “certainty” they can retain their employees until September.

“We did make a commitment for a six-month period,” he told Radio National. “When we set this program up … we didn’t know how long this coronavirus crisis was going to last and to what extent.”

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Cormann said Australia was “winning the fight against the virus” so the government was hopeful the economy would recover sooner.

“This is a six-month program and while there might be some adjustments to make sure it works as intended after a review halfway through, as we always flagged, this remains a six-month program.”

Cormann rebuffed Labor’s calls to consider trimming the $1,500 fortnightly payment for workers who usually earn less, explaining it was not a “loophole” but an “unavoidable feature of the scheme”. Nevertheless, he said it would be reviewed in June.

Employers are wary that scrapping the flat rate of $1,500 per worker a fortnight may restore the incentive for employees to return to work but lose the simplicity of its design, requiring the tax office to count workers’ hours.

Cormann ruled out making jobkeeper payments to employees of foreign government-owned businesses and denied making rule changes to disadvantage the university sector.

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The Australian Industry Group chief executive, Innes Willox, warned that employers would not cop “any change in the minimum period over which the jobkeeper scheme will be paid or a phasing down in the amount of the payment”.

“Changes of this sort would dramatically undermine business plans that have already been put in place,” he said.

Willox said jobkeeper was “playing a valuable role in supporting employment and our economy at the moment but there are ways it could be made more efficient and fairer”.

“Employer eligibility should be extended so that businesses in larger groups face the same (30%) test as other businesses,” he said.

“Consideration should also be given by the government to extend the period of the scheme should conditions warrant it.”

The Senate is also due to consider a Labor-Greens-Lambie-backed disallowance motion to restore the one-week consultation period to change workplace pay deals, which was slashed to one day by the industrial relations minister, Christian Porter.

Pauline Hanson has proposed that emergency cuts in pay and conditions made under shortened consultation should last for 12 months, but Labor believes a medicinal cannabis industry bill rushed through the lower house on Wednesday was related to courting One Nations’ two votes on the issue.

Senator Stirling Griff told Guardian Australia there was “some merit” in Hanson’s proposal to limit the time cuts can have effect.

He said Centre Alliance agreed with Labor and the Greens that 24 hours “is not enough” but the party is “supportive of something closer to the three day mark”.


Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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