Mar 13, 2020









SUBJECTS: Economic stimulus for COVID-19; coronavirus; impact of coronavirus on casual employees; mass gatherings; calls for Parliament to resume as soon as possible.


ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks for joining us. Australia, like the rest of the world, is currently undergoing a health emergency as a result of the coronavirus. This represents a challenge for all of us. For Government decision makers. For private companies and business interests. But most importantly, for the community as well. We believe that the Government has been too slow at getting out the public information campaign. They were very quick during the bushfire crisis to have ads up with the muzak going, the full Defence Forces in shot. But on this campaign, it has been too slow. They need to do better. The public need clear information based upon the expert medical advice. There is no doubt that major events that are held have serious implications in a health environment like this. There is news, just come through, that both the Grand Prix and the 1-day cricket match at the SCG will be spectator-free. Organisers of major events need to seek urgent medical advice on the best way of protecting the community, including whether the event should be postponed or made spectator-free. But it’s also urgent that the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, made up of Commonwealth and State Chief Medical Officers, provide the latest information and advice to all Australians. This is absolutely critical. And I believe it is what Australians are asking for. So, this has to continue to be seen through the health policy prism. The most important thing is keeping Australians as safe as possible. It is the case that with proper precautions, with good public policy, we can minimise the impact. Which is why over issues like major events, or whether it be the issue of travel restrictions, we should be taking the best possible advice, putting health first, but making sure as well that there is a sensible way through this. It’s also the case that this will have an economic response. Because the implications of the coronavirus mean less economic activity. And that’s why we have been positive about the Government’s announcement that they made yesterday. And we said we will be in constructive. We do believe that the economy was very flat last year. And we were calling throughout the second half of last year for measures, including the business investment measures. We were calling for a bring-forward of stage 2 of the tax cuts. We were calling for a bring-forward of infrastructure investment. So, it’s not surprising that we regard measures such as payments to welfare recipients, to pensioners, as being a positive thing that will stimulate the economy whilst providing support for those people. It remains to be seen whether it is large enough and timely enough to see us through these issues. But it is important that it be done quickly.

And that’s why this morning I have written to the Prime Minister asking him to recall Parliament next week, rather than wait for the week after. Parliament should resume next Tuesday, after the Party rooms have a chance to consider any legislation next Monday. Labor will expedite any passage of legislation through both Houses of Parliament and there won’t be any procedural issues raised by us with the normal notice that has to be given to the Houses of Parliament for legislation to be introduced and then debated. We, of course, want to want to examine the legislation to see if improvements can be made, but we want to be constructive about that. We want to examine measures such as the issues regarding the casual workforce and whether further measures can be given to provide support there and for low-income earners. We want to examine the billion dollars that’s announced for the fund for regional communities, to make sure that the sort of rorts that we have seen in the sports rorts and other activities don’t occur as well. But, we will be constructive. The Shadow Treasurer, Jim, has been constructive throughout this as well. I will ask him to comment on the economic measures.


JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: Thanks very much, Anthony. There is a genuine sense of urgency here to give people more information about the health aspects; to clarify and update the advice on mass events; and also to make sure that the stimulus measures get out the door and into the hands of workers, pensioners, and businesses as soon as possible. We need to get the Parliament back to consider these measures, so that we can expedite them and give these stimulus measures every chance of doing the good in the economy that they are supposed to do. We have been supportive, responsible and constructive throughout this period, because we understand that Australians are anxious about the health aspects and the economic aspects. People are worried about their superannuation when they see what’s happening on the stock market. People are worried about their job security. Casuals are worried about the absence of sick leave and what that means for difficult decisions that they have to make about staying home if they are unwell. Our overriding objective here is to do what we can to inject a sense of urgency. These are serious and challenging times in the economy. The measures which were announced yesterday are worthy of our support. They are not perfect. There are deficiencies. We will point those out and do what we can to pressure the Government to improve them. Whether it be on casuals, on some clarity and transparency around the billion-dollar fund, or on guarantees that workers will benefit from the billions of dollars which are being provided to businesses right around Australia. Our approach is defined by urgency. That’s why the Parliament needs to come back. That’s why we need to get this support out the door and into the economy. It desperately needs it now. It’s why we need to update the information and the advice so that Australians can get through this difficult period together. We will continue to play a constructive role in that. That’s why Anthony’s suggestion today to bring the Parliament back as soon as possible is so important.


ALBANESE: Thanks. I should tell people that Chris Bowen will be standing up in Sydney shortly in a couple of hours to update on health issues in particular. But we’re happy to take questions.


JOURNALIST: What would have been different with the stimulus if Labor was in Government?


CHALMERS: We think the measures around casual and sick leave are insufficient. Tony Burke has had more to say about this this morning. We want to make sure that if casual workers are unwell, they stay home. No Australian worker should have to choose between doing the right thing by their colleagues and being able to work and feed themselves. This $40 a day payment that the Government is proposing may not be a sufficient incentive for people to stay at home. That concerns us. We said that yesterday. We are saying that again today. There are issues in the way that that support has been developed. We need clarity around the billion-dollar fund. The Government doesn’t have a great record with funds and allocating them in an effective and transparent way. We need to see how they intend to go about providing that. We want to see support for tourism companies. I was in Cairns and Townsville talking about many of these issues with tourism providers and all of the associated sectors. We want to see that support out the door. But it needs to be done well. It remains to be seen whether what the Government is proposing is big enough or will be deployed quickly enough to prevent job losses, to prevent business closures, and to prevent a deeper downturn in the economy. If what the Government is proposing turns out to be insufficient, they should come back to the table and do more in a timely fashion. They should be working on those options right now so that if it does become obvious that what they have proposed is not sufficient to deal with these serious economic challenges, they can do more.


JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) than before the GFC, is the recession now a foregone conclusion?


CHALMERS: It remains to be seen how deep the impact of this Coronavirus outbreak will be on the economy. Clearly there will be an impact. The response that the Government announced will be helpful, but we don’t yet know just how helpful it will be. The test the Prime Minister has set for himself on the stimulus package is will it prevent job losses? Will it prevent business closures? Will it prevent a deeper downturn in the economy? It would have been good yesterday for the Government to provide an updated assessment of what they think the economy will do in the absence of stimulus, and with the stimulus package being announced, so that we can judge it against that benchmark. They haven’t provided updated numbers on the economy or on the Budget. It would be helpful if they did.


JOURNALIST: Given there isn’t a big surplus, like there was pre-GFC, and there isn’t as much room to move with the Reserve Bank, can the Government be blamed if we do fall into recession? They don’t have as many options?


CHALMERS: Australians have been tested before in significant moments like this and they passed the test under Labor’s leadership with flying colours during the Global Financial Crisis. Every Australian should be proud of what we achieved together under Labor during that period. There are similarities and there are differences now. The issue of casuals and sick leave wasn’t an issue during the Global Financial Crisis. There are some similarities too. The main similarity is this is a serious economic event which warrants a serious economic response. You are right that the starting point is different in a number of ways. We’ve already had interest rates cut to 0.5 per cent, which is a sixth of what they were during the worst of the Global Financial Crisis, let alone at the beginning of the crisis. Unemployment is much higher now under the Liberals than it was under Labor at the start of the GFC. The fact that they have more than doubled debt over the last seven years is an issue too in the Budget. As Anthony mentioned before, the economy was not travelling as well as we would have liked it to be before the fires and the virus hit. We had slowing quarterly growth, below average annual growth, business investment had gone backwards three quarters in a row, productivity went backwards, wages were stagnant. For all these reasons there are a different set of challenges this time around. They warrant a substantial response. We will play a constructive role in that being implemented. If it isn’t enough, the Government should do more.


ALBANESE: It is worth pointing out as well, I think, that the Reserve Bank itself, the Governor and the economists, were saying last year that monetary policy couldn’t do all the heavy lifting. They were calling for fiscal policy last year and they were calling for an increased infrastructure investment. The Government ignored those calls. Why did they do that? Because they were obsessed with their ‘back in black’ rhetoric, saying, they said it was already achieved, ‘back in black, back on track’. What we know is that the economy was tracking back at the end of last year and was never in the black. So, whilst in LNP rooms there’s crockery being smashed, those little porcelain mugs, in order to wipe those statements from history, they deserve to be judged on their own hubris. Because one of the things that I have consistently said is that since the May election this Government has been complacent. And they have been engaged in a victory lap. They haven’t had a positive agenda going forward. We have just had four weeks of Parliamentary sitting where we spent day after day talking on the Appropriations Bills because there were no legislations of substance. A Government that is complacent in today’s world, the rest of the world moves past us. This is a Government that doesn’t have a positive agenda for the future. And that’s one of the reasons why we start this issue of dealing with this in a much weaker position than we should have been.


JOURNALIST: Should the Melbourne Grand Prix have been cancelled all together?


ALBANESE: That’s a decision for the experts. One of the things that we’re saying here today is that we need much greater clarity of these issues from, that’s why we have said the body that brings together the Commonwealth and the state Chief Health Officers, Chief Medical Officers, different titles in different states, should be making clear what the position is on the basis of health. And that should be the priority, rather than politicians trying to up the stakes and make decisions. They shouldn’t be political decisions, they should be health decisions. If it is OK for events to go ahead, there is obviously an economic interest in events happening. There is a cost to cancelling events. There is a cost to there being no spectators at the Grand Prix this weekend. But no economic benefit is worth a health cost. And that’s why we need to listen to the experts.


JOURNALIST: Your own MP, Mike Freelander, raised concerns about mass gatherings and given the F1 decision and the cricket decision, is it now time to cancel spectators at other events like football matches?


ALBANESE: I was with Mike Freelander, standing next to him, when he made those comments when we were in Blacktown at the medical centre. He made that in the context, he was concerned about the slow health response. The centre that we were at was telling us that they were running out of masks and personal protective equipment, and that they’d run out in the next 24 hours. They were struggling to keep up. What we know is that many people have struggled to get tests who have symptoms. There are people waiting at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in my part of the world, hundreds of people, waiting in queues, with other people who they suspect might be suffering, only to be told unless they had been to China or South Korea or any of the target nations, they weren’t eligible for testing. That’s not good enough. And we need to be far quicker as rolling out the support, including testing. Far quicker at rolling out the public information campaign. And we need the decisions over issues like major events to be made on the basis of expert advice and a clarity out there for people over whether events go ahead, either without spectators, or whether they go ahead at all.


JOURNALIST: Do you think that the Government has an obligation to be transparent about what modelling it has on the effects of the coronavirus, when we’re expected to experience a peak and those kinds of things?


ALBANESE: Yes. Look, public information helps create public confidence. That is why it is a good thing to be transparent about both the health aspects, so people can be clear. Because quite clearly the response that we’ve seen from members of the public over toilet paper and other issues shows people are anxious. It shows people are concerned. They are not quite sure what to do in response to these issues. And that’s why it is, this is an issue of leadership. I think that leadership should be from the health experts as well. Politicians should be giving that support to the experts to say, ‘You tell us what is necessary’, because while Dr Chalmers is, indeed, a doctor, he’s not a medical doctor. What we need is the experts to be giving us that advice and for that advice to be transparent. That will build public confidence. At the moment I think there is a great deal of anxiety out there. And that, of course, has an economic consequence in itself. It will have implications for the success of the stimulus. Because if people aren’t confident, they won’t be going out and spending money.


JOURNALIST: In the Government’s defence there have been daily press conferences updating people. The Prime Minister addressed the nation last night. So, couldn’t they fairly say, ‘We have given information’?


ALBANESE: The public information campaign, my understanding is that it has now begun. Compare that when the Prime Minister made an announcement that there was a national response on bushfires and you can draw your own conclusions.


JOURNALIST: What did you make of the Prime Minister’s address last night?


ALBANESE: To be honest, I was on a plane from Mackay to here in Brisbane. So, I have seen a transcript, but I haven’t seen the visuals of it. But it’s a good thing that the Prime Minister has an address to the nation. I will be having a reply. My understanding is that’s been negotiated out in accordance with precedent on Sunday.


JOURNALIST: Just on the economic stimulus, should that $750 payment have been made available to more people? It’s been made available to 6 million people. Do you think it should have been made to more people?


CHALMERS: One of the issues that we have been very clear on is that the Government needs a contingency if it turns out that what they announced yesterday wasn’t enough to build a floor under confidence, to protect jobs to, protect businesses and to get the place growing again. So, clearly those sorts of options should be on the table. As Anthony said last night, there are a range of alternatives and additional measures that could be considered here. Whether it be additional support for low-income earners, whether it be support for local governments or infrastructure, whether it be getting the casual workers and paid sick leave thing right. There are additional measures which should be under consideration. Because at some point it may become obvious to the Government that what they have done has been helpful, but not helpful enough. If that’s the case, they need to do more.


ALBANESE: Last one.


JOURNALIST: Should the states be doing more to add to the stimulus?


CHALMERS: The States have been already doing some good work on this front. I want to commend Premier Palaszczuk, in particular. I was in Townsville and Cairns talking to businesses who said the local councils and the State Government had come to the party and provided fee relief and all kinds of concessions to help businesses get through a very difficult period. At that time, the absence was leadership from the Federal Government. They have made some announcements in the last day or so but more things will be considered today during discussions with the Premiers at the Council of Australian Governments. That is appropriate. Every level of government needs to be seeing what they can do here to support workers in particular, but employers and communities as well who have been heavily reliant on parts of the economy which have been the hardest hit. I’m confident they are doing that. No doubt we will hear more about that at the conclusion of COAG.


ALBANESE: Thanks very much.