ANTHONY ALBANESE & BRENDAN O’CONNOR – TRANSCRIPT – DOORSTOP INTERVIEW – CANBERRA – MONDAY, 2 MARCH 2020
ANTHONY ALBANESE MP
LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY
MEMBER FOR GRAYNDLER
BRENDAN O’CONNOR MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND INDUSTRY
SHADOW MINISTER FOR SCIENCE
SHADOW MINISTER FOR SMALL AND FAMILY BUSINESS
MEMBER FOR GORTON
PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
MONDAY, 2 MARCH 2020
SUBJECTS: Labor’s calls for assistance to small businesses in bushfire-affected areas; bushfire recovery; Mardi Gras.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks for joining me. I am joined by Brendan O’Connor, but also the three New South Wales Members directly affected in terms of this region and the Blue Mountains by the bushfire crisis. The Government, it is fair to say, even on its own rhetoric, bungled the handling of the bushfire crisis. It was characterised by complacency and an attitude of, ‘Nothing to see here, we have had fires before’. And that prevailed throughout October, November, December, until finally there was some national action. One of the things that should have come out of that inadequate response was the determination to get the recovery period right to make sure that people were not left behind. But the fact is that is not the case. We met here in Parliament just last Thursday afternoon with the Canberra Region of Councils which spreads from East Gippsland, includes Bega and right up to Goulburn. And each of the mayors and council representatives were talking about the lack of support that is there on the ground. The fact is that in those applications that have gone in for support for small businesses, only 20 per cent of grants have been approved, and 5 per cent of loans have been approved. Quite frankly, that is simply not good enough at a time where our economy is really struggling, the failure to put money in that was promised at a timely fashion is holding back those communities. It means that people are being put out of work. It means that businesses are struggling to pay their bills and keep going. And indeed, what we did in 2011 as a Government, during the Cyclone Yasi impact, was to give assistance to North Queensland communities for up to 26 weeks. And what we are calling for today is for the Government to provide that support to small businesses and their employees. We need these businesses to come through the other end of this crisis that is there for their very survival as small businesses right throughout the south coast, throughout the Blue Mountains region, throughout Gippsland, Kangaroo Island, the Hills district of Adelaide, and the north coast of New South Wales. All of these businesses have been heavily impacted. And it is up to the Government to provide that support. Not just rhetoric. They don’t need good words. Thy need dollars. Dollars put into those communities to make sure that people continue to be employed.
I will ask Brendan to add and then I will ask each of the Members to give examples of struggling small businesses in their communities that need this support.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR SMALL AND FAMILY BUSINESS: Thank you very much, Anthony. As Anthony has made clear, we need to support small businesses now. They are struggling, and some are going under as a result of the lack of response by the Government. With small business, the need for speed is essential. Cash flow is critical and if you do not get support to them in time, they go under. That will have a rippling effect of local economies in these fire-affected areas. So, there is a real need. What is clear and what has been revealed recently is that there is such a small approval rate when it comes to the application for small loans and grants. As Anthony said, 20 per cent of grants of those have been applied for. And 5 per cent, less than 5 per cent of the loans where there have been applications made have been provided. Now, this is too slow. Way too slow for small businesses. And if they fall over, it will have a rippling effect across local economies. So, as we know you see hospitality, tourism, very significantly affected in particular. But if there are not workers that are gainfully employed, then you will see other businesses also being affected in these regions. You will see retail areas hit and you will see people not booking hairdressing appointments. And you will see a rippling effect through local economies, lasting for months, if not years. Now, when last in Government, Labor did provide an initiative to allow for wage assistance in a targeted way for businesses to employ staff by providing a Newstart amount for an effective full-time employee. What that did was ensure that rather than people get unemployment benefits and find themselves having to access Newstart, it meant that the employers could use it as a subsidy and keep those people gainfully employed and employed on the wages that they were being paid before the disaster. What that meant was those workers were getting sufficient income. That income was being paid and being spent in the local economy. And those businesses continue to keep the doors open. And, of course, other businesses benefited because they were able to purchase goods and services. It was an effective, targeted program. And we believe that is something the Government can take up here. Scott Morrison has to stop spinning and marketing and actually get some results for those people who have been devastated by these fires. This is one initiative that has already been tried and tested by a former Labor Government in relation to a very, very tragic disaster in relation to Cyclone Yasi and it is something that the Government has not embraced to date. We would like to work with the Government, work with the Government and communities in order to ensure these businesses get what they need to stay afloat and not only survive, but to thrive. Finally, I want to add, we would like to see a little more advice on the ground financially and we thought there were too few people involved. We have said businesses need more access to advice. And we believe a Business Task Force would provide more advice, particular advice for the business community, which again was deployed during the recovery stage of Cyclone Yasi. And we think that means we can provide advice that does not normally come from government agencies. This idea, this proposition is a good one and for that reason we believe the Government should take it up.
ALBANESE: Thank you, Brendan. Fiona Phillips, Member for Gilmore.
FIONA PHILLIPS, MEMBER FOR GILMORE: Hi everyone. I have been calling every day during this Parliament for more support, particularly for our small businesses. So, I am thrilled to see this announcement today. I just wanted to let you know one example in my electorate. And that is of Dive Jervis Bay at Huskisson. Now, that area was closed for over five days during that time and of course all tourists needed to leave. They have suffered significant loss of income. And they would have employed two to three skippers over that period and the longer period as well. So, this is something that will help our small businesses over the region and is really essential.
ALBANESE: Mike Kelly, from Eden Monaro.
MIKE KELLY, MEMBER FOR EDEN MONARO: Thanks. It is great to hear this announcement from Albo and Brendan. We have seen a tragedy through this summer and the fire affecting our regions. But there is an unfolding and ongoing tragedy in relation to our businesses and the jobs that are being lost. As I have met with Chamber of Commerce or their representatives around the region, and participated in the recovery committee meetings, there has been the same story. There is just nothing landing on the ground. And it needs to happen quickly. One example is the Merimbula Chamber of Commerce, whose President, Nigel Ayling, conducted a survey of 140 of his members. And the response was really disappointing. And in fact, I will quote from Nigel who has said that when it comes to Government assistance, it is a big fat zero. With 100 per cent of respondents saying they have received no Government assistance at all. Now, that is the story right across the region. It just is not good enough. And I am calling on the Federal and State Governments to stop passing the buck amongst themselves, to work together, and to reach out to the Federal Opposition, to Albo and Brendan. And let’s work through the solution to this problem now. Because if we kick this ball down the road any further, the losses of business will be staggering. In Merimbula, the Chamber of Commerce estimates that they will lose seven businesses in the next 12 months and potentially another 20 in the coming months. So, I am calling on urgent action now. Otherwise it will be too late.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Mike. Susan Templeman, Member for Macquarie.
SUSAN TEMPLEMAN, MEMBER FOR MACQUARIE: My businesses in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury have been crying out for support. They met with me a month ago, 300 of them. And they said we need some direct assistance fast in order to survive. Since then, businesses have gone under. Small numbers but we know there is more on the cards if they don’t get the support of immediate help. One example is Uplift, a fair-trade store in Katoomba. And Anna Spore who runs that tells me that she has been battling to keep her staff as their normal wages and for their normal hours. She is doing that, and she actually says she needs to that because she needs the creative thinking to find a way through this terrible natural disaster that has hit the region. And remember, most of my businesses did not burn down. But they might as well have given the business impact that they are now suffering. We need support through to businesses really fast. We needed it six weeks ago when Andrew Colvin and David Littleproud came and visited my region. It is now six weeks on and they are seeing nothing.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Susan. And we will be having a Shadow Ministry meeting in the Hawkesbury, next Wednesday. So, put it in your diaries. And we will be hearing firsthand from the communities throughout that region. Following that, we will be holding another Shadow Ministry a couple of weeks in Tumut. Because we want the entire team to hear on the ground the direct evidence of what is happening. And when we visited Gilmore, we certainly heard that from businesses from around Batemans Bay, Nowra, Mogo, directly what was going on. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: What is the reason for the delay?
ALBANESE: Look, some of it is just bureaucracy. When we were at Batemans Bay, we went to Stingray. Stingray, a restaurant, on Thursday night before the Shadow Ministry meeting. Stingray is run by a gentleman who is a CPA, a certified practicing accountant. He has given up his business as an accountant to move for lifestyle reasons to Batemans bay and set up a restaurant opposite where the main fish and chip shop is on the waterfront. He had filled a 17-page document and then was told it had gone to the wrong place and he needed to fill in more documents. This is a man who made a successful living as an accountant and could not find his way through bureaucracy. There were only four government areas that had only been given $1 million each. $1 million. Local government is in a position to get money out the door really quickly and get things happening quickly in local economies. But most local government areas have not received any assistance at all. They are struggling to pay their wages, let alone small business. What we need to do is to get this going on the ground. People do not have a point of contact is the frustration they are telling us. People need to be able to get that assistance immediately. But, this Government at the moment, it is just not happening. And we are putting forward this idea as something that has been proven to work in North Queensland. This is, during the bushfire crisis, Labor was constructive. We put forward a whole range of ideas, including increased aerial firefighting, increased involvement of the Defence Force, support for volunteers to give them some economic support, a national approach towards the crisis. On all of those measures, including increased mental health support, all of these measures, were adopted later on. Including of course the ecological audit. What we need is for the Government to adopt this and to adopt it now. Because these businesses are telling the local Members, they are telling their local media, they are telling anyone who asks, that they are going to go out of business, many of them. And that means that the long-term impact on the economy as well, we will need more decentralisation in the country. We cannot afford for small businesses in our regional communities to go belly-up.
JOURNALIST: You are calling for a situational change where people would need to make new applications to become a part of this Newstart application or get money. What about pushing for those guidelines to be changed so they can get their money more quickly?
ALBANESE: It is both. It is both. It is not either or. They should be able to operate this as well as the grants and loans. It is a simple system. Newstart for full-time employees and that comes straight off, being available to all small businesses. And that comes off, essentially, their wage bill which allows them to have a real impact in terms of their cash flow. It is not either or. We need more assistance and we need to fix up the bureaucratic measures whereby the agency says in New South Wales 108 small business grants of 1.9 million have been approved since the start of September. There are 654 applications for $16.9 million.
JOURNALIST: What was the cost of the Cyclone Yasi payment? How will it differ from this?
ALBANESE: The cost of this will be different. During the Cyclone Yasi it operated for 26 weeks, for six months. And when you think about the crisis that is there, essentially the economy of the Cyclone Yasi and the impact on North Queensland were similar, they are seasonal economies. And we are about to go into the peak season, in Far North Queensland whereas the peak season we just had, December January. 26 weeks is about right because that what that would do is get them through into when the busy season comes up in places like the Blue Mountains, and the south coast of New South Wales, in terms of Gippsland and all of those regions as well.
JOURNALIST: Should the Government be looking at any form of compensation for other industries?
ALBANESE: One of the things that has occurred, we heard last Thursday, was that for the tourism component and, from memory, I think that is $76 million allocated, around about that, I may be one or two off, for the tourism support. Some of that has been used. It was allocated for the bushfires, for Far North Queensland and North Queensland. The same amount of money is now being reallocated and that is of concern to the Canberra region councils that we met with last Thursday. Quite clearly, what that will mean as well is some additional support. Clearly, places like Far North Queensland, that very much depends upon tourism from China, it is a fast-growing market, it needs to be looked at. We need to make sure that when there are these events, that Government is prepared to work with communities to make sure that they are able to come through the other end. Because if not, in the end, if nothing happens, the cost to Government is substantial. This is not a zero-cost exercise. If business goes bust, governments lose the income tax from the employees. They lose the company tax and there is a real impact and a knock-on impact as well. Whereby if businesses leave these communities, then what you are losing is the capital that has gone into those businesses.
JOURNALIST: At Mardi Gras on Saturday…
ALBANESE: Can we have this first.
JOURNALIST: Is Labor open to the idea that every time there is a natural disaster, (inaudible), the Federal Government should subsidise and compensate people?
ALBANESE: You are channelling Scott Morrison there from last November or December. You have asked your question. You have asked your question. You have asked your question and you referred to an economic hiccup and I believe that is channelling, with respect, Scott Morrison’s attitude where last November and December he said that we have had bushfires before. We have been through this before. There was an attitude of complacency. This is not business-as-usual. This is not business-as-usual. And I reject the idea that this is business-as-usual. That is implied in the question. In terms of the response, this was a national crisis that requires national leadership. We make no apologies for what we did during that crisis and say it required a national response. I think that was correct. We did not try to politicise it and we do not want to politicise it now. What we are saying is that the recovery period, it is important that one of the feedback that I have had from businesses is that they are very worried that now that the spotlight is on other issues, that their issues will be forgotten. That is the message that I got quite clearly last week. And on the weekend, on Saturday, I was in Singleton at the ALP Country Conference speaking to people from these communities who had been impacted by the bushfires. And they are very worried that now that the spotlight is off, and that is why today we have been determined to call for this, there is a need to make sure that the recovery period is absolutely critical and requires this sort of response. I heard your question.
JOURNALIST: You did not answer it.
ALBANESE: I did.
JOURNALIST: Every time there is a natural disaster or something that damages the economy, should the Federal Government compensate those victims?
ALBANESE: I dismissed the implication in your question that this was just business-as-usual. It is not business as usual. It requires support. This was a national crisis. A national crisis that requires ongoing support for the communities that have been impacted by this crisis. We lost 33 lives, 30 Australians and three visitors who came to our shores to provide us with assistance. We lost over 3,000 homes. We lost around 13 million hectares of bushland. We lost over 1 billion of our native animals. This requires something other than saying, ‘Oh, well, that is done. The spotlight is off, the fires are no longer burning, we can now relax’. This requires an ongoing response to ensure that these communities can recover.
JOURNALIST: Where would you draw the line on eligibility? Would a Canberra region winery or cafe get this Newstart-style payment?
ALBANESE: We want to sit down with the Government and we are prepared to work through those issues. We are saying that those areas that were directly impacted, and the areas are vast, they should be given this level of support, it should be considered. Clearly there are areas that have been completely devastated. You go into a place like Mogo or Cobargo where there has been a massive impact. And at the same time when the Government is talking about the need for economic stimulus due to the weakness in the economy, how about they provide targeted support?
JOURNALIST: Can I ask about Mardi Gras on Saturday when one of the protesters were screaming at things at you and in response you gave them the middle finger. Was that an appropriate response for that?
ALBANESE: There is no place for the sort of abuse that we saw at Mardi Gras. And I also think it is inappropriate to stop people from the Liberal Party marching. I think that is a good thing that people are there. I have been marching in Mardi Gras since 1984. It was a fantastic occasion on Saturday. And people who are on the extreme of the political spectrum will engage in activity from time to time and their actions speak for themselves. Thanks very much.