Mar 18, 2020








SUBJECTS: Government’s second stimulus package for COVID-19; coronavirus; airlines affected by coronavirus; Parliament sitting during coronavirus issue; support for the work force during COVID-19 issue.


ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks for joining us. Labor’s approach to this crisis has been that we want to help the Government to get it right. We have been constructive. We have put forward suggestions, including in my national address on Sunday night, offering support to the Government. But making sure, as well, that we put forward constructive suggestions so that the response is appropriate and timely. There is an urgency here. There is an urgency in two respects, on the health aspects to keep people safe, on the economic aspects arising from this health emergency. We know that the sooner the response, the more effective it will be and the less the cost will be in the long run. We want to protect peoples’ jobs. We want to protect businesses. And that is why we will continue to argue for an appropriate measured response but one that’s timely. If we’re going to do something next week that we know we’re going to do, we’re better off doing it today. And that principle is there, I think, in terms of health. But it’s also there in terms of the economy. What we don’t want to be is in a position whereby we look back at this period and think or say we should have acted sooner because the effect would have been better had we done so. I think, in terms of making sure that Labor continues to play a constructive role, we say that now is not the time for politics.


Now is the time to advance constructive proposals and that is why we support the announcements that were made this morning with regard to a range of measures, in particular an example is with the airlines, the $750 million. But we say there will be a need for further response. This is a devastating impact on our airline industry. We have the most effective, I believe, domestic airline system in the world. It hasn’t happened by accident. It is a competitive system with two major airlines, each with a full-service airline, Qantas and Virgin. Each of them with a budget partner, Jetstar and Tiger. And then we have an effective regional airline network, led by Rex. We need to make sure that arising out of these issues that we’re dealing with, that we don’t see structural changes that take years to put in place in order to effectively make sure that the ongoing long-term structure of the economy is not damaged.


I might ask Chris to make some comments in particular about the health issues. But I confirm what the Prime Minister said this morning as well, that we had a constructive discussion yesterday. We are putting in place measures to deal with the parliamentary procedures next week and we hope to expedite the support for any measures, be they ones that have been announced or even ones that the Government comes up with in the next coming days. We do ask, of course, we want to see the legislation so that we can deal with it through our internal processes. I would ask Chris Bowen, our health spokesperson, to add to my comments.


CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks very much, Anthony. The principle that Anthony outlined is an important one. And it underpins Labor’s approach to this health emergency. We cannot get to the other side and look back as a country and think we should have done more earlier. Hence, we have supported, as Anthony said, every single measure that the Government has put in place, including some that have been controversial at the time. We have supported every single measure. But we have also made constructive suggestions that more should be done.


In that vain, yesterday, the Government announced a small expansion in the telehealth rebate which I welcome. But I say that it needs to go much further. We don’t want Australians who can avoid going to the doctor having to go to the doctor because they can’t access telehealth, telephone, Skype, to talk to their doctor. Every single Australian, whether they are dealing with mental health or physical health, needs to have access to Medicare telehealth during this crisis at least. This is based on feedback across the country, I have been talking to many, many doctors, the doctors need to be able to provide that service from home. Some will be self-isolating, others will want to avoid the surgery if they can in the coming weeks. They can still provide a service to people, telehealth, in their own home. That is not currently covered. This needs to be expanded. I say to the Government, please expand the telehealth rebate further than they already have.


Secondly, in relation to the respiratory clinics, we welcomed the Government’s announcement. There will be respiratory clinics opened. They are still not scheduled to open until May, the second half of May. This is too slow. We need the fever clinics up and running, even if they’re not actively being used straightaway. We need them up and running if and when they’re necessary. This is a national emergency and it needs all the resources of the country applied to it. Hence, we are suggesting that the ADF, our military capacity be deployed, where appropriate, to help the fever clinics open as soon as possible, whether it is the engineering call or the medicos and medics in the army and across the ADF. Please consider using the ADF as a matter of urgency to assist the respiratory clinics to be opened as soon as possible.


I want to deal with one other matter before Anthony and I take questions. The Prime Minister said this this morning and Greg Hunt said it and we agree, there is a lot of misinformation particularly online. I don’t know what motivates somebody to make things up online during a crisis. I really don’t understand what leads people to do this. But I say to all Australians be careful what you believe online during this crisis. Whether it says Greg Hunt or Scott Morrison said something or whether I said something, there is one out there about us that is fake, it is a fraud, just don’t believe it. Go to the credible sources. There is and the ABC and Dr Norman Swan and their coronavirus podcast which I recommend to all Australians. There is lots of credible information out there. Let’s stick to that. If you see something online, it is disturbing to people when they read the alarmist material online. We don’t need that, please don’t do it. And please be careful when you are sharing or forwarding material online, make sure it is a credible source.


ALBANESE: Thanks very much. Any questions?


JOURNALIST: Will Labor be supporting the economic stimulus package next week?


ALBANESE: Our inclination, we have said very early on is to provide support for any economic stimulus package. Quite clearly, it is needed. We haven’t seen the legislation yet. But our inclination is to provide that support. We will be constructive. It may well be that we have some suggestions which I indicated to the Prime Minister yesterday we would tell them in advance, ‘We think the package can be improved in this way’. But we will be supportive, make no mistake, of economic stimulus. We have been very constructive of the Government. If we have a suggestion, it’s been to bring things forward. If there is a principle here that has concerned me behind some of the approach, it’s that there has been some delay. For example, some of the economic stimulus plan is quite clearly designed to assist growth in the June quarter. That is good. But there is no reason why spending money today or next week isn’t better than waiting until March 31st. So, my view would be, as soon as legislation is passed, that money should go out the door, that support. For measures that don’t need legislation, they should be going out the door right now. We know that the timing of support is critical. We want to support your jobs and your businesses out there in the community and so similarly, with the health measures, we see no reason why the fever clinics should be delayed until May. We want to see them rolled out as well. I think whether it is health or economics, the response has got to be an immediate one. The sooner that support is there, the more effective it will be.


JOURNALIST: Do you expect Parliament to sit the entire week?


ALBANESE: No, I don’t. I would expect that Parliament will sit for as long as necessary. People will certainly, we won’t be having long speaking lists. We want this to be expedited. We will go through proper processes, as is appropriate. But I would expect that the Parliament won’t sit the full four days is my expectations. We will wait and see how long it takes. We don’t know, of course, yet how many pieces of legislation there are that have to be dealt with, because there are both health measures and stimulus measures that will need legislation. There may well be some national security measures as well. We will wait and see. We won’t be causing any unnecessary delay. Our whole principle here is I have argued that Parliament should be meeting this week rather than next week. Consistent with the principle I have put forward that the sooner you act, the more effective that action is.


JOURNALIST: Do you expect manufacturers around the country to step up and create essential products?


ALBANESE: Well, I think that is one of the things that is happening. And one of the suggestions that I have today is we know that, and the Prime Minister made some comments about this, about the run on products that is occurring in our supermarkets. People out there are feeling anxious. It is one of the reasons why we have said that the Government needs to give very clear and consistent advice to the public. This is a time whereby we want the public to trust those in authority. But in order to facilitate that, those in authority have to trust the public. They have to be transparent. They have to be clear in the messages. They have to talk about the direction in which it is going and make sure that the public have that confidence that is built. There is a great deal of anxiety out there. I think it would be a good thing for myself to stand with the Prime Minister and the heads of Woolworths, Coles, Aldi, our major supermarkets, and talk about the supply chain issues which are out there. Because it’s very clear that, in terms of the supply chain, that we’re not going to run out of toilet paper, or tissues, or pasta, many of the products that are being taken off the shelves. And that the result of those short-term shortages is that it is causing a great deal of concern and worry for some of the most vulnerable in our community.


I grew up in a household with a single mum. We didn’t have stocks of food. On pension day, that is when my mum went shopping and got enough for us to eat and survive for the next fortnight. That is the story of many millions of Australians out there. I can afford to go and buy, I don’t have to count the pennies like pensioners and welfare recipients do. We need to think of them. But I would have thought a measure like that could build confidence. I am available at any time to play any role which people see as being constructive. I’ve spoken to the head of Coles in this building. I’ve spoken to Woolworths. I think they are doing a great job. I would say this at this time, and I said this in my remarks on Sunday, we need people to show a bit of care. I say this. My son works for one of those companies. He has told me about difficulties being on the checkout, getting yelled at because certain products weren’t available. 19-year-old kids aren’t responsible for the fact there is no toilet paper in the aisles. If people could be kind at this time, be patient. But I do think that there is a need to get that message out there, that the sort of run-on that we have seen is not necessary, that the supply side issues will be dealt with in a way that ensures that we don’t have shortages.


JOURNALIST: On the aviation package. Are there any other ideas that Labor would like to see implemented?


ALBANESE: Look, there is an issue at the balance sheet of some of these airlines and their capacity to be able to borrow to get through this difficult time. In my view, the Government needs to consider very carefully any request which comes from the airlines to provide some support there. My understanding is that there are no requests for Government handouts directly to the airlines, but they are looking for some support, in terms of an assurance that Government would play a role in supporting those loan arrangements with the banks and financial institutions. One of the things that’s important for the airlines is that people have the confidence to be able to book on an airline, knowing that airline is secure in terms of its future. The Government needs to understand that and to be, in my view, look at favourably any requests that are reasonable from the airlines to ensure that we emerge from these issues with everyone continuing to have the sort of structures that we see have so effectively served the Australian population. We need to make sure that any arrangements are competitively neutral. That is that they’re offered to all the players that are involved. There aren’t very many, but they do run efficient businesses. We do not want to see, for example, regional airlines disappear at this time because, if you take away those regional flights, it will have a huge impact. I flew yesterday through Cooma and Merimbula on Rex. That is the lifeline for that community. It relies upon that aviation access. And I would say to the Government, I have said this directly to them, that they need to be, I think, consider the long-term implications of any requests which are made.


JOURNALIST: Does Labor still share the position of the Government on schools and keeping them open?


BOWEN: Look, these are matters for the States to work through in consultation with the Federal Government. The public education system is the responsibility of the states. They are receiving clear medical advice from their own advisors. Each school will make their own decision. In the private sector, schools make their own decisions. The key is the information for parents, for planning purposes. If there is going to be a closure of schools, let parents know as soon as possible and let them know what the trigger point might be. Also, we have said repeatedly, we will say again, prepare now for health workers. Let’s not use the fact that health workers who have their kids in school as a reason not to close schools if that becomes the right decision. Let’s plan now to provide the support for health workers. In Norway, the schools are closed but there is a skeleton teaching staff left in the schools for health workers, the kids of health workers so they can still go to work. That is one option. We have been raising consistently now, let’s put plans in place for the health workers.


ALBANESE: And when it comes to all of these issues as well, including on the airlines, we need to give consideration to the work force as well and what their issues are. When we talk about support for businesses, what we’re talking about is support for the business structures. But we’re also talking about support for the work force. That applies, whether it is in terms of the airlines, that airline workers, whether they be the people who work in baggage handling, the people who are attendants, flight attendants, whether they be the people on check-in counters. All of those workers are suffering. If we have some leave without pay and those issues, they need to make sure that they are allowed to have leave. And the ACTU has raised a proposal with regard to casual workers that needs to be given consideration. Similarly, in other sectors like childcare, what happens if childcare workers aren’t able to go to work? What happens if those childcare centres close? Amanda Rishworth, our Shadow Minister has made some important points on that. When we speak about businesses, our focus is very much on those business structures. But it is also on the workers. We need to make sure that they’re not forgotten in this process because that will cause enormous disruption to the economy as well.


BOWEN: There is one other matter just before we go which I should have raised earlier. Red Cross blood is running very low. We are all staying close to home and people aren’t going about their normal business. Blood donors, please go about your normal business and give blood. There is no reason not to give blood in this crisis. There is no risk to anybody involved. I am popping over later to give blood. Please, if you’re in a position and you are near a blood bank, please do so. They will need that blood in the coming weeks. Please remember the Red Cross. Yes, social distancing doesn’t include distancing yourself from the Red Cross. Thank you.


ALBANESE: Thanks very much.