Mar 12, 2020









SUBJECTS: Government’s economic measures for COVID-19; coronavirus; impact of coronavirus on casual employees; The McKell Institute’s ‘Wage-cutting Strategies in the Mining Industry’ report.


ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks very much for joining us. The Prime Minister has made statements this morning about a $17 billion economic stimulus package. Labor has said that we will be constructive, and where possible we will be supportive. That’s the approach we’ve taken to our role in the Parliament. For some time we have been pointing out that this economy is failing, that debt under this Government has increased from $175 billion to $430 billion. Consumer demand is flat, productivity going backwards, wages stagnant. And that what we have is a circumstance whereby before the impact of the bushfires and the coronavirus, we saw the Reserve Bank reduce interest rates three times. And we saw the Reserve Bank Governor and economists call for economic stimulus, call for support for our economy. That was rejected, time and time again by the Prime Minister and the Treasurer. And they continued to say, for example, that cash payments were not appropriate.

Today, it’s a good thing that increased money will be going into the pockets of pensioners and the unemployed through Newstart. It is a good thing that there are wage subsidies for apprentices to make sure that they are maintained in employment. Our priority will be to ensure that jobs can be maintained, that the economy be kept going. But we do think that the Government has been complacent for a long period of time. It is reminiscent of their attitudes towards the bushfire crisis, where for so long they said it was a state issue, said there was no need for economic compensation for people who were volunteer firefighters. They said there was no need for an increase in our aerial firefighting capacity and then eventually we saw Defence assets finally deployed. We saw a more appropriate response. On this issue, of course, we need to bear in mind that this is first and foremost a health issue which is then having an impact on the economy. So we need to make sure that we get the health impacts of this coronavirus crisis right as well. We need to stop the mixed messages. We need to make sure that those people who do need testing do get tested in an orderly way. And we need to make sure that we minimise the impact that it has on individuals, most importantly in terms of their health but also in terms of the economy.

Now we’ll examine the details of the statement today that has been made. There was no attempt to reach out to the Opposition by the Government in order to secure in advance support for their announcements. But we do note that many of the things that they’ve put forward are the sort of measures that were put in place by the Rudd Government during the Global Financial Crisis. Measures which were criticised and voted against by the Coalition at that time. Labor is far more responsible, and we’ll be acting responsibly. We’ll be examining the details. And we’ll be responding to the details once we’ve had a chance to look at what it is precisely that the Government has announced it intends to do today. I’ll ask Jim to make some comments.


JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: Thanks very much, Anthony. Labor has been calling for some time for there to be support for workers, employers and communities, and the Government has at last come to the table with a package. We will be as supportive as we can of what the Government is proposing today. We understand that Australians are anxious. Workers are anxious about their job security. People with superannuation are anxious about what’s happening on the stock market. Businesses are anxious about whether or not they can keep their doors open. We will be constructive, responsible and supportive where we can be. Our highest priority all along has been those workers, those employers and those communities and getting them through what is a very difficult time for them and for the broader economy. There are some welcome measures in this package that the Prime Minister and the Treasurer are announcing today. We won’t stand in the way of those. We’ll do what we can to be supportive of them. We’ll do what we can when legislation is necessary to support them through the Parliament as quickly as possible. We need to see this support into the hands of Australians and Australian businesses and circulating in shops, businesses and the broader economy as soon as possible.

It remains to be seen whether this package is big enough or will be deployed fast enough to prevent job losses, to prevent businesses failing, and to prevent a deeper downturn in the economy. This is a Government which has made big announcements before but unfortunately they have had trouble getting the promised support out the door. We’ve seen that with bushfires, we’ve seen that with drought relief, and we’ve seen that with infrastructure funds as well. Our job is to be supportive but also to put pressure on the Government to get this support at the door as soon as possible and implemented properly so that it can do the good in the economy that it needs to do if we are to prevent those job losses, to prevent those business failures and support communities and the broader economy as well.

We will work our way through any concerns that we have with the package. We’ll want to make sure that enough is being done for casual workers in particular. We want our workers to do the right thing by their co-workers and that means Government and business doing the right thing by them. We don’t want Australians to have to choose between doing the right thing by their colleagues or going to work so they can afford to live and to eat. We want to make sure that what’s been announced today is sufficient. We’ll work through our concerns around some of the business payments to make sure that that money supports workers as well and not just businesses. We want to make sure that that money is effective. We will work our way through our concerns. It is our responsibility as an Opposition to be supportive, responsible and constructive, but also to point out when the Government can do better and put pressure on the Government to get the money out the door.

We call on the Government to implement these measures as quickly as possible. They need to guarantee that if this does turn out to be insufficient that there will be additional steps taken in the coming days and weeks to make sure that we can support the economy. We will have more to say about all of this in the coming days. We will work through the detail but we will be supportive, responsible and constructive because our highest priority is people in jobs, businesses in business, and communities prospering. It will be a difficult period and we’ll play our part in helping Australians get through this difficult period.


ALBANESE: Thanks very much, happy to take questions.


JOURNALIST: Isn’t it a good thing now that they’ve held onto this money and not gone earlier with it that they’ve got $17 billion to pump in on what is really a rainy day?


ALBANESE: Well it’s the Government that said they were back in black last year. That’s not true. It wasn’t true at the time, and it’s not true now. And it’s the Government that went out there with all the hubris on display. It is also the case that the economy has been much flatter than it should’ve been. The economic growth has been downgraded on a number of occasions. And the truth is, that had there been more action earlier, the economy would now be stronger. We’ve had underemployment rise to something like two million people. We’ve had consumer demand flatlining. We’ve had productivity growth going backwards in two quarters in a row. We’ve had, if you measure economic growth in terms of population, we have had per capita of going backwards.

So there has been these concerns for a long period of time. The Reserve Bank Governor has made comments about that, as has other economists. And the concern we have is that the Government has, for example the drought fund, announced with much fanfare, legislated last year. The fact is not a single dollar has been spent on the drought fund. The bushfire recovery fund, a notional fund of $2 billion that doesn’t exist anywhere, has allocated just $500 million in the financial year that we’re currently seeing. The only explanation for why you would allocate just a quarter of the spending you intend to make in the financial year in which the bushfires occurred is that you are so obsessed about the surplus and about the claims that you made that weren’t true. And we know indeed just 10 per cent of that money has been paid. So for those communities on the South Coast of New South Wales, in the Adelaide Hills, Kangaroo Island, the North Coast, the Gippsland region, they’re getting the double whammy now, because the economic downturn that we’re seeing as a result of Coronavirus is of course already building on the slowdown that had occurred because of the bushfire crisis.

So the fact is that the Government, if you look at its rhetoric and what it said about, for example, that cash payment. The cash payments that they are making and they have announced today, they have previous rejected this approach and they have had a lot of harsh words to say. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the Government to be held to account for the gap that’s there between what they’ve said in the past and what they’re saying today.


JOURNALIST: [inaudible] this was unforeseen.


ALBANESE: Well the bushfires weren’t unforeseen. Of course Coronavirus was unforeseen and that’s just a fact. But the bushfire crisis for example, was seen that it was coming, was predicted that it was coming, and the Government was complacent about it. The fact is, when we dealt with the measures, when Parliament was returning in June, there had already been interest rate decreases when Parliament sat as a result of the weakening in the economy. So Labor has been, I think, very consistent in the approach that we’ve had to these measures. Unlike, it must be said, unlike the Coalition, which voted for example against the economic stimulus plan when the Parliament sat back during the Global Financial Crisis.


JOURNALIST: But they supported your first round of it. So are you saying that you would block measures in the Parliament here?


ALBANESE: I haven’t said that. I’ve said precisely the opposite. And you know I’ve said precisely the opposite. Even your colleagues are laughing, having a chuckle at it.


JOURNALIST: So you would support it?


ALBANESE: Well we haven’t seen the legislation yet.


JOURNALIST: Then you haven’t said that you’ll support it.


ALBANESE: Because we haven’t seen it. We’ve said we will be as supportive as possible, we will be constructive, we will support any measure that supports people being in jobs. We’ll wait and see what the detail is. As I said, the Government have chosen not to have the courtesy of any consultation with the Opposition. That’s a decision for them. But given that the Prime Minister is probably still speaking on the announcement, it would be premature for us to just give a kick through. But we’ll be as supportive as we can be. We’ll be constructive. That’s the approach that I’ve taken as Labor Leader. I’ve said I want to be the Labor Leader, not the Opposition Leader. One mob acting like an opposition is one too many. It’s a pity that that mob happens to be sitting on the government benches.


JOURNALIST: But you’re reserving your right to block things if you want.


ALBANESE: No. You’re playing word games now. We’ve said we will be supportive of any measures, any measures, which are reasonable.


JOURNALIST: Putting aside the mass isolation, cancellation of events due to Coronavirus, are you on the same page as Bill Shorten?


ALBANESE: Look, we will take the advice from the health experts. That is what we’ve said the whole way along. We continue to receive briefings from the Chief Medical Officer. I think on matters like that, it’s important that we take the advice of the health experts and that’s the approach that we have taken.


JOURNALIST: [inaudible]


ALBANESE: Well, we’ll wait and see. We’ll wait and see what the impact is on business, on jobs. Our priority is keeping people in work and keeping businesses functioning.


JOURNALIST: Are these measures going to stimulate the economy?


ALBANESE: Quite clearly, a $17 billion stimulus will have an impact on the economy. We’ve said for some period of time, for example, that Newstart recipients who will receive a one off payment. My understanding through this is that if you give additional money to Newstart recipients they’ll spend every single dollar of it. If you provide the sort of support that’s required for pensioners, of course will also spend that money. So that’s a good thing. What that does is create retail activity at a time since right through the second half of last year we’ve seen very poor retail spending figures.


JOURNALIST: What about casual workers? I know Labor has been calling for casual workers to be paid if they need to self-isolate.


ALBANESE: Look, we’ll examine the detail of what the Prime Minister has announced. We’re very concerned that people shouldn’t be in a position of having to choose whether to go to work or to be able to pay for food to put on the table for their families. That’s a significant issue which is there. And I was very disappointed, I’ve got to say, by the comments yesterday by Christian Porter, who suggested that casual workers put money away for a rainy day because they receive higher rates. If only that were true. The truth is that casualisation of the workforce that we’re seeing has been used essentially to drive down wages and conditions. And today in the mining industry I’ll be releasing a report in Mackay, in a couple of hours, that points out just that. You can have workers doing the same job, standing next to each other. The casual employee, contracted out, being paid some 40 per cent less than the person for the same job. So we’re concerned about these issues and we’ll examine the detail. I note that the Prime Minister in his statement made some comments about sickness benefits being available, and waiving the waiting period. That’s a good thing if that occurs, but we’ll look at the detail. We need to prioritise, the first issue is health. And we need to prioritise that and make sure that anyone who needs to be in isolation is able to do that without being able to worry about whether they’ll literally be able to afford to live, to eat, to pay their rent etc.


JOURNALIST: Are you satisfied [inaudible] the health aspect?


ALBANESE: I think there have been some mixed messages out there and everyone knows that that’s the case. And I think the Government needs to be much clearer. Why is it that the Government only this week is talking about a future information campaign? When they did the announcement with the infamous Defence Force video in December or January, they had a video and public information campaign authorised by the Liberal Party ready to go at the same time. They couldn’t wait to get that out the door, because that was about politics. This is about the national interest. And it’s important that people get clear messages, and that they’re able for example to put in place measures in which people can get the support that they need, get tested if it’s appropriate that they be tested, and make sure they then get a health response if need be.


JOURNALIST: NRL season starts tonight. Will you be staying away from games? Should the PM stay away from games?


ALBANESE: Well I’ll be going to Souths/Cronulla on Saturday. Whether the PM wishes to go and watch his new team play is a matter for him.


JOURNALIST: Without a mask?


ALBANESE: I’ll be there with my fellow burrow members. Thanks.