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Canberra considers further support for locked down businesses, workers

The federal government has left the door open to increasing financial support for small business owners and stood down workers across the country amid strict coronavirus lockdowns that have shut down large parts of the hospitality and retail sectors.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday said he and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg were continually evaluating the rapidly changing economic circumstances. However, he all but ruled out returning to the previous wage subsidy scheme, known as JobKeeper, because he believed the current support system was more effective and flexible.

The union movement and small-business groups have labelled the current disaster payments – a maximum of $600 a week for those who have lost over 20 hours of work and a minimum of $375 for lost hours of between eight and 20 hours – as “grossly inadequate”. Support for small businesses has also been labelled as confusing, inadequate and administratively burdensome.

NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet made a public appeal on Sunday for more federal financial support during the lockdown, warning that as case numbers remained stubborn there was a need for extra financial support from the federal government.

Senior government sources familiar with discussions have told this masthead a further economic support package is under consideration by cabinet in response to the Delta outbreaks in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. It would probably include another round of subsidies for the embattled aviation sector.

While the federal government has ruled out a further round of early release of superannuation, it is considering a boost to some income support payments for affected workers and additional assistance for small businesses.

NSW is currently receiving $250 million a week in business support from the federal government and $220 million weekly in disaster payments to households while the lockdown continues. In recent weeks $30 million has been paid to Victoria during its shorter lockdown.

Mr Morrison said the qualification for the current payments was “extremely broad” compared with the previous system. All affected casuals, part-time and full-time workers were eligible, regardless of where their employers were headquartered or their financial situations.

“It doesn’t matter who you work for. It doesn’t matter who owns the company. It doesn’t matter what’s happening to the national turnover of your company,” Mr Morrison said.

The $90 billion JobKeeper program, which was phased out from its initial payments of $1500 a fortnight from September last year and wound up in March, was widely lauded by industry and employee groups despite several shortcomings, including the ineligibility of many casuals.

It also created controversy as several high-profile companies returned major profits and paid executives bonuses while claiming the subsidy.

Melbourne’s lockdown is due to ease on Tuesday night, while Sydney’s stay-at-home orders extend to Friday, but there is no certainty either city will reopen on those dates.

Mr Morrison said the current support program had been designed to deal with “the problem we have right now”.

“And, the problem we have right now is in specific states, in specific locations, and we need to be able to get it out quickly and switch it on quickly,” he said.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus said working people, businesses and the economy needed the return of a JobKeeper payment which included casuals.

She said the current disaster payment was less than the minimum wage and less than workers received during lockdowns in 2020.

“Working people need better support and the security of knowing a job will be waiting for them once lockdown is over. Small business must be supported to stay alive; if they don’t survive, neither will jobs.”

Labor frontbencher Bill Shorten told the ABC on Sunday that the government should return to JobKeeper “without the rorts”.

“People are doing it hard right now. They can’t wait till Christmas next year,” Mr Shorten said.