Mar 25, 2020












SUBJECTS: Coronavirus; coronavirus stimulus packages; confusion around clear messaging during the coronavirus issue; Centrelink lines; impact of coronavirus on workers in the retail sector.


ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thank you very much. I am here today joined by my Shadow Health Minister, Chris Bowen, Shadow Industrial Relations Minister and Manager of Opposition Business, Tony Burke, and Gerard Dwyer, the National Secretary of the SDA, representing workers in the retail sector. And we are here today because we are concerned about jobs. We are concerned that those queues that are snaking away from Centrelink offices represent families who are doing it tough, each and every person. We are also concerned that this Government is just not doing enough when it comes to providing an incentive for people to be kept in work. The employer support announced and part of the stimulus package, we said on Monday, was not enough because it was not providing any incentive for jobs to be maintained. We are seeing that played out, day by day, as retailers and others announce tens of thousands of jobs lost each and every day. We want the Government to get this right and we want to help them to get it right.

I also want to make some comments about where the issue is going and about the Prime Minister’s confused statement to the Australian public last evening. I watched the Prime Minister’s statement, which of course went more than half-an-hour. It was confusing. It was the reading out of a list. The Prime Minister actually spoke about details in which he himself then went on to say he did not know what it was. Australians are confused. They are confused that teachers can’t have a wedding with more than five but are expected to teach entire classes of more than 25 students. They are confused that each day the Government seems to be making different announcements about the way they should act, about what activity they can undertake, and about social distancing measures that are confusing. What the Government needs to do is to adopt some very clear principles and one of those is not that there is a tension between dealing with the health issues and dealing with the economic issues. That is a false distinction. Let’s be very clear, the Government has a responsibility to deal with this health emergency. That is the first priority. Then, it needs to deal with the economic consequences of the health emergency and the appropriate response. It needs to be done in that order. It seems to me that the Government hasn’t got that sense right, and that’s resulting in some actions which are confusing. It seems also to me that the Government needs to announce what it’s doing today and to foreshadow what will happen later on so that people can plan for it. Quite frankly, the announcement of five people at weddings, ten people at funerals, other numbers at different activities, is just causing confusion out there. Hairdressers are saying they can’t function with a 30-minute limit and will be better off simply being told that they need to close. Schools are getting confused messages that students shouldn’t be at school and that parents should keep kids home, but they’re all open for anyone who wants to go. The Prime Minister’s statement last night that the entire workforce were essential workers, was designed with politics in mind rather than designed with healthcare and the economic impact in mind. It’s time the politics was put aside. It’s time to deal with this health emergency, deal with all of its consequences and have clear and consistent messages and implement them in a way which is easy for the community to understand. I might ask Gerard Dwyer to make some comments now.


GERARD DWYER, SDA NATIONAL SECRETARY: I speak today on behalf of retail, fast food and warehouse workers. Those sectors represent one tenth of the Australian workforce. I’m here today also to speak in support of the trade union movement’s call also for a direct wage subsidy. The time has come. Businesses large and small, employers, employer associations, unions, all of us are speaking with one voice. This Government needs to put in place a direct wage subsidy to address what is currently a health crisis, but very quickly becoming an economic one. We’ve got voices out there from entities like [illegible], the Fair Work Ombudsman in terms of small business and AIG. Large organisations speaking on behalf of employers and business, and we’re adding a union voice to that, in calling for the wage subsidy. Similar to the UK, similar to New Zealand. It’s time for Australia to step up and act and put in place the direct wage subsidy. And it’s got to be done now. In our sectors of retail, the jobs are shifting in their thousands. It’s time to act. This is about health. It’s about jobs. And it’s about ensuring the businesses in which those jobs are, are there when we come out on the other side of this virus crisis. So, to the Morison Government, put aside the politics and put in place a direct wage subsidy for Australian workers, Australian families and the Australian community.


TONY BURKE, SHADOW INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS MINISTER AND MANAGER OF OPPOSITION BUSINESS: The Government has made a deliberate decision to shift people from work to welfare. And the Centrelink is at the moment that we’re seeing a showing exactly that. That decision is wrong. We want as much as we can to be able to keep people in work. We want to be able to keep people’s relationship with their employer. The Government’s design means two things. One, the support they give to business is not based on how many people they keep on but on how many people they used to employ. They haven’t kept any incentive for businesses to keep people on. And even when they do their calculation on how it works for how many people you used to employ, the median wage subsidy only goes to 20 per cent. Businesses that are suddenly watching their income disappear, can’t keep someone on if it’s only a 20 per cent level of support. There are different ways of fixing this. There’s a range of methods that the Government could use. But at the moment, they have gone down a path that guarantees the Centrelink queues that we are seeing. At the end of this, we want people to be able to go back to the same jobs they had, having been able to pay their household bills in the meantime, and to return having continued the relationship with their employer at the moment, by deliberate design of this Government, none of those things are happening.


ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Tony. Happy to take questions and Chris Bowen is here as well to take questions on health.


JOURNALIST: Do you support the (inaudible)?


ALBANESE: I absolutely support stricter shut downs and clear messages about them and a timetable of when things will occur. The Government at the moment is making new announcements every day. That’s no good for business. That’s no good for certainty. That’s no good for giving confidence in the community that those in authority know what they are doing. When they hear a different message every day, what some people are doing is second guessing where those messages are going. That’s why people are out there making the sort of purchases that we’ve seen, be it toilet paper, pasta, other essentials. Because they don’t have confidence in the certainty of the announcements that are being made. Now, there are two approaches to that. One is you can take what the Prime Minister has done, which is to hector people and blame people. The second approach which I want to see all government leaders, whether it be the Prime Minister or myself or my team, state leaders, is to be very clear about what is required today, what is recommended, and be very clear about what is likely to happen down the track. But if you have a proportionate response, as the Prime Minister has said, that is leading to new announcements each and every day and that is causing concern in the community. That’s the feedback. Get it right. Say what is occurring, say it clearly. If people understand it, they’ll be able to follow it.


JOURNALIST: If that’s the case would you like to go straight into stage three (inaudible)?


ALBANESE: Very clearly there is an argument for that. One of the things that we see with the group of eight experts who advised the Government, and last night I must say the explanation of that was just as confusing. But I’ve had the opportunity now to see that documentation. It clearly recommends that schools be closed, except for the children of essential workers, consistent with what is happening in other countries in the world. The recommendation can’t be clearer. The Government asked for expert advice. They received it. And now they’re not following it. They need to follow that expert advice. It’s very clear that there will be further measures very soon that have been foreshadowed. People need to know what that timetable is. And I’ve said consistently, if something is going to happen next week, you’ve got to have a very good argument to not do it today. That is an essential precautionary principle when it comes to healthcare. But it also makes sense when it comes to our economy.


JOURNALIST: (Inaudible)?


ALBANESE: I didn’t get the text message. It’s good that information go out there, but it needs to be clear. We had if you compare Jacinda Ardern’s press conference yesterday morning with the confused message we heard last night I think there’s a clear way forward.


JOURNALIST: (Inaudible)?


ALBANESE: Thanks for that question. I met with Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg on Monday after five o’clock in the Prime Minister’s office. There I proposed that the income at which tapering out occurred be doubled from $26,000 to $52,000. What that would do is mean that if in a two-income family, someone lost their job, which in our suburbs is a very typical family. Someone working full time, then someone working as a casual worker part time. If the casual worker lost their job, which we are seeing – tens of thousands of casual workers lose their job, then the income for the family in which they could get that tapering off would increase from $48,000 to above $70,000, a little bit more than $72,000. What that would mean is that they would also be eligible for the Coronavirus Supplement. So, a major benefit to those working families with someone who’s lost a job. Josh Frydenberg, I spoke to personally on Monday, he rang me and said it had been agreed. We also had the changes of course for Austudy, Abstudy and Youth Allowance that gave 230,000 additional people access to that supplement. It was agreed, the Senate passed a Government amendment, which we negotiated out, giving the minister the power to change those thresholds for the rest of this calendar year, that was done explicitly to fix this issue. And now the Government, the next day, Anne Ruston, the minister said there wasn’t an agreement. Well, why did the Senate pass that motion on Monday night that was then subsequently passed in the House of Representatives? I don’t know whether the Government costed the measure and decided against it. Because the last conversations I had with the Government were that they were going to fix it, and they should fix it. That’s what they said they would do, that was agreed should happen.


JOURNALIST: (Inaudible)?


ALBANESE: We want to keep people in work where it’s absolutely possible. The fact is that in terms of shutdowns, in terms of essential workers, the Government needs to take advice. And what we’re talking about here, as well as providing people with income support, like other countries have, what we’re seeing in the UK and other countries, is that people are being laid off, but with support for their wages being paid. And that is enabling them to keep a relationship between the employee and the employer, so that when things pick up, it assists the employer, but it also assists the employee to survive, and it also adds to economic stimulus in the economy. So, the fact is that this Government needs to deal with these issues consistent with what both the union today, but employers as well are calling for.


JOURNALIST: (Inaudible)?


ALBANESE: The Government here does not have a plan for any incentive to keep people in work. We have been, I think, extraordinarily cooperative. We passed the stimulus package in both houses of Parliament in one day. If the Government has a different scheme in mind, that can encourage people to be maintained in terms of their working relationship with their employer then we are happy to be supportive of any measure which achieves that objective. At the moment, there is no incentive for an employer to keep that relationship with their employee. Because the subsidy is based upon the workforce as of February, not as of now or into the future. That’s the point that we are making. We’re not being prescriptive on this. Again, if the Government has a different measure to help working families where two people are in employment, by all means, come forward with it. We voted for the Government’s entire package, even though we don’t believe that it’s perfect. We think there are major weaknesses in it. We think the measures on superannuation are unwise for both working people, but also unwise for the national economic interest. But we voted for the package because we didn’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good. So, what we will continue to do is to provide support for any reasonable measure that the Government puts forward. But we do say that these matters are urgent, whether it be the health response, or whether it be the response on the economy. Let’s not look back in a couple of months’ time and say, we should have acted sooner. We should have been stronger in that action. And we should have been more determined to get this right. Let’s get it right now. Because we have a responsibility to do that. Thanks very much.


JOURNALIST: (Inaudible)?


ALBANESE: Well, these are decisions that have been taken with the interests of health in mind. Quite clearly preparations are being made for what is going to occur, which is more people are going to get sick, more people are going to need that health care. And I might ask Chris Bowen to respond as well.


CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: It’s the right decision, the right decision to delay elective surgery to free up capacity in our hospitals and intensive care. Not many people who have elective surgery go into intensive care. But sometimes something goes wrong and they do. We need to put every potential resource in the hospital system at the disposal of those fighting COVID-19. This has been flagged for some time. It’s the right thing to do. We need to take many more measures, as Anthony has said, to make sure this virus doesn’t take hold in our community. But we also need to take the measures to resource our hospitals because our health system, if this trajectory continues of doubling every three days, will soon be under enormous pressure.


JOURNALIST: (Inaudible)?


BOWEN: I think if you do it too early, you’re not really achieving the capacity where necessary when the whole system becomes an enormous pressure. So, I think it’s the right time.


ALBANESE: Thanks very much. Thanks for coming along.