ANTHONY ALBANESE MP
LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY
MEMBER FOR GRAYNDLER
JIM CHALMERS MP
MEMBER FOR RANKIN
FRIDAY, 20 MARCH 2020
SUBJECTS: Ongoing issues regarding COVID-19; health and economic implications arising from coronavirus; economy; economic stimulus package for coronavirus; supporting the workforce; superannuation; Government’s ban on foreign nationals; internal gathering restrictions; schools closing or staying open during coronavirus; Labor’s actions during the Global Financial Crisis.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks for joining us. I am here today with Jim Chalmers to respond to the ongoing issues relating to the health emergency and the consequential economic fallout as a result. Labor welcomes the news this morning from the Australian Banking Association for Small Business. We also welcome the urgent response by the Reserve Bank of Australia, made in its extraordinary statement yesterday afternoon. The Reserve Bank is certainly acting with urgency to protect our economy and to protect jobs, and small business. We want businesses to keep going. We want them to keep employing people and we want the economic consequences of this emergency to be minimised. That’s the approach that we’ve taken, to be constructive about these issues.
Next week in the Parliament, we will be supportive of any measures in terms of economic stimulus. We’ve received some of the legislation from the first stimulus announcement last night. We’re working our way through that. It may well be that we have constructive suggestions to improve that legislation. We await the Government providing us with the legislation for the further stimulus that it has foreshadowed but not yet announced.
So, we say that we need to go through our processes. We want to make a difference to people’s lives. And the best way we can do that is by adding constructive suggestions to Government proposals. We remain concerned about the impact on casual workers. We remain concerned that whilst people are concerned, quite rightly, about businesses, in many of the cases that hasn’t flowed through to a concern about workers. And we are concerned that many workers are feeling very anxious at the current time. Indeed, the community is feeling anxious, which is why we’re seeing that responded to in some ways which are most unfortunate.
We believe that there’s a need for the economy to urgently get money into it, get money into people’s pockets. We do need to move faster. One of the things that we have stated before, and I reiterate again today to the Government, is that if we are going to make a decision next week or the week after that’s a good decision, why not make it today to provide that certainty? I again call upon the Government to just as the Reserve Bank, when it makes a decision, provides an explanation for the context of that and, indeed, we saw the Reserve Bank Governor hold a media conference and take questions yesterday, the Government needs to explain why there are changes in position from day-to-day.
We support the decision to close our borders as of tonight. That is a sensible decision by the Government. I spoke to the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, this morning. We had a constructive discussion about how Parliament will operate next week. And we’ll have further discussions over the weekend about that. We want to make sure that the economic stimulus can flow through as quickly as possible. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve proposed, indeed, that the Parliament meet this week to get that money flowing. We need to not worry too much, I think, in the current context about what quarter of the financial year we’re having measures in. What we need to do is to make sure that money flows as quickly as possible. We need also, I think, to reiterate the message, that Australians are looking for clear, calm and consistent information. We need to spread kindness, not spread coronavirus. And that requires actions by all of us, by Government, by business, by community leaders and, indeed, by individual Australians. If we do that, we can get through this difficult time. And we can get through it together. Jim?
JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: Thanks very much, Anthony. As Anthony just said, we are pleased to see the banks come together and provide some relief for borrowers and for businesses. We’re grateful for the engagement between the banking sector and the Opposition as they came up with this package that they have announced today.
There’s a lot of anxiety in the community. That anxiety is understandable and it operates at all levels: people’s health; people’s job security; people’s superannuation; and other elements of their personal finances. What’s keeping people up at night is how they will service a mortgage that might be attached to a small business loan, how they’ll service an overdraft, how they’ll keep their business’ doors open long enough and hang on to their workers long enough to get through what is an extremely difficult period. The banks have announced some relief for small businesses in particular, but also mortgage holders whose mortgage is attached to a small business. As I understand it, they’re also working through ways to provide relief for ordinary mum and dad homeowners if they experience substantial financial stress and substantial mortgage stress. I would encourage people to get in touch with their bank and see what the banks can offer because the banks are willing to help their consumers at this difficult time.
Everybody has a stake in getting through what will be a difficult period ahead. We welcome the steps taken by the banks today. We welcome the steps taken by the Reserve Bank yesterday. We need to see the same level of urgency from the Government as has been exhibited by the banks and by the Reserve Bank.
No stimulus is out the door yet. We haven’t yet passed the legislation and we’re still waiting for the second package of stimulus which the Government flagged some days ago. The banks and the Reserve Bank are doing their bit and it’s now time for the Government to do its bit. This is no time for half-measures. It’s no time for dithering or delay. It’s no time for stuffing around. We need to get more money circulating in an economy which desperately needs support right now, not some months down the track. If the Government wants the Parliament to consider and pass a second set of stimulus measures then we need to see those measures, as Anthony said, so that we can put them through our processes.
We need to get support to workers, pensioners, families, employers, and communities quick-smart. We need to see scale, urgency, and coordination. Labor stands ready to facilitate all of those things in the interests of every Australian in the Australian economy.
We also call on the Government when they release the second set of stimulus measures to release alongside it a set of updated forecasts for the economy, and updated Budget numbers so we can see what Treasury’s latest thinking is on the state of the economy, so we can get an understanding of what’s happening in the Budget, and so we can establish a baseline for the effectiveness of the stimulus measures which will be rolled out in the coming weeks and months.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much. We might take questions from people who are here and then there are some people, in the context of social distancing, who are dialling in to this media conference.
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, should banks be following the lead of NAB, freezing mortgage payments now rather than later?
ALBANESE: Well, I think any measure that provides support to borrowers at this time is worthy of support. NAB has shown some leadership here. We’re very supportive of the measures that have been announced, particularly by all the banks, by the Association of Small Business, but we also need to also provide support for consumers at this time. This is about building confidence in the economy. One of the first things that Labor did during the Global Financial Crisis was dealing with the bank guarantee. That saw us through very well indeed. History shows that was very effective. I think that any measures adopted by the banks across-the-board is a positive thing. Do you want to add anything?
CHALMERS: We do welcome the steps announced by the National Australia Bank. I also know that the other banks are looking for the best way to support ordinary mum and dad mortgage holders in the economy. They’ve made a series of detailed announcements about small business, which we welcome very much. But we want to make sure that when Australians do get into mortgage stress, and we anticipate that that will happen increasingly, unfortunately, over the coming weeks and months, that each of the banks will have some arrangements to provide the relief that people need to get through a difficult period and to go back to repaying that loan when things improve.
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, under what position would Labor support early access to superannuation?
ALBANESE: We support superannuation. And we support increasing, indeed, superannuation. Superannuation isn’t about just a pool of funds that can be used like a bank account. Superannuation is about providing a quality of life after people retire. And I think we should be very cautious about any circumstance whereby we see it as just a bank account. It’s not. It’s there to provide people with that quality of life. We will come through this crisis, I have no doubt. But what we can’t do is use this period in order to run some ideological argument, which has been out there for a period of time from those people who are essentially opposed to superannuation, who don’t support it. Superannuation is good for individuals, it’s good for families. But it’s also good for our national economy as well. One of the things that we will rely upon as we emerge from the current difficulties is that pool of national superannuation which is a national asset as well.
JOURNALIST: To clarify, so Labor will not support early access to superannuation?
ALBANESE: Well, we are very cautious about any proposal that would interfere with superannuation entitlements. What we shouldn’t do is to undermine what has been a very effective system and every time it’s been examined; the truth is that superannuation has provided an important national savings pool as well as being good for individuals.
CHALMERS: I might just add to that, Anthony, if that’s alright. There are existing hardship provisions in the superannuation system. The first step for people who are thinking along these lines is to educate themselves about what options are already in the system to deal with people who are under severe financial hardship. We support those arrangements. As Anthony said, we would be very wary about extending them in a way which further undermines superannuation at this time.
JOURNALIST: The Government’s ban on foreign nationals coming into the country extend to temporary residents. Is that fair? Is that something that should happen?
ALBANESE: Look, we haven’t had the opportunity to examine all the details of the Government’s proposal. The Government needs to bear in mind, not just in terms of temporary residents, but also the concern that’s out there from Australians about the opportunity to get home. I’ve been contacted as a local member as well as the Leader of the Labor Party about family members who are concerned about people who are in Europe, in South America, in the United States, worried about the opportunity for loved ones to be able to come home. I know that the airlines are negotiating with the Government. Qantas, in particular, are looking at flights that would be able to return people to Australia and have that access. That is very important that that occur. I note also that some of the charter flight arrangements have a fee or a potential fee attached to them that are quite exorbitant and might be beyond people’s capacity to be able to pay. We have a responsibility to Australia’s citizens to deal with this crisis in a way that looks after people’s health, both those who are here and those who are overseas. So, these are matters that need to be worked through in a deliberate and conscious way. I note that Penny Wong, our Shadow Foreign Minister, will be speaking in about an hour-and-a-half and will be commenting on these measures in detail. And I’ll leave further comments to her then.
JOURNALIST: So, we have obviously seen support for small businesses today, and you have mentioned that you’d like to see more support for mortgage repayments. Is there any other financial implications that you think might be an issue in the near-future?
CHALMERS: Clearly, we need to keep a watching brief on the banking system to make sure that whatever can be responsibly and reasonably done to support people under stress is done. I think the banks have made a good start on that today and the Reserve Bank made a terrific contribution yesterday. We need to get money flowing in the economy. That means making funds as cheap as possible so that banks can continue to loan at really low rates to businesses who might need a little bit of help getting through a difficult period. We want them to hang on to their workers. We want them to keep their doors open where that’s possible. The finance system has a massive role to play in that and where the system does the right thing by its customers, then we’ll back them in.
JOURNALIST: There’s been some comments that the $750 for vulnerable Australians may not be enough and there have been calls for people to just raise the allowances. What you think?
ALBANESE: We said at the time of the first stimulus announcement that we were concerned it mightn’t be enough. And it hasn’t been timely enough, it is very clear. I said very clearly to make an announcement of $750 and to say it will take place on March 31, that’s a political decision, not one that’s an economic decision. An economic decision would have been for that money to flow immediately. I say to the Government, we are being responsible here, we are not engaged in politics. We’re engaged in defending the national interests. The Government needs to do that as well and have less of an eye on what financial quarter particular measures are on, and one simple task, how do we keep people in their jobs? How do we keep businesses going? How do we minimise the economic disruption that’s occurring? How do we at the beginning, if we take a step back to, this is a health emergency, so actions on health will also have an economic consequence. The better the health outcome, the less the impact on our economy will be of this health emergency.
JOURNALIST: Thousands of people have already lost their jobs. It’s likely to get a lot worse. Is enough being done to support those people?
ALBANESE: Quite clearly, more needs to be done to help people. People are very anxious about their job. That consists of permanent workers, some of whom are very anxious. We have seen, yesterday, the decision of Qantas whereby 20,000 people are on leave. So, they have their job but they’re essentially using up their annual leave and their entitlements at the moment in a way that is beyond their control. That’s very difficult for them. And we saw images of distressed workers. There are many others as well who we won’t see. They’re the casual workers, the people who work on contract, the people who are sole traders, the people who earn their living on a day-to-day basis. Many of them in industries right across the board, particularly service industries, people in the arts and entertainment industry, who we won’t see because they won’t be performing. And they rely upon their jobs, their labour, to feed their families and to pay their mortgages, and pay their bills. They’re doing it tough. And our job as political leaders is to focus on them. It’s about people and the impact here. I think that the Government will need to do more. We don’t believe, at this point in time, that there’s been enough support. We’ll continue to put forward constructive ideas, be it on dealing with health issues or economic issues. I might take, is there any questions online?
JOURNALIST: I have one here for you, Mr Albanese.
ALBANESE: Yes, Trudy.
JOURNALIST: The National Cabinet, as we speak, is looking at tightening these internal gatherings restrictions. There are concerns that this could lead to some businesses going broke. Does that concern you?
ALBANESE: I’m concerned about any business going broke. But with these issues, what we need to do is to take the health advice and do that clearly and make decisions based upon health outcomes. There are then economic consequences of those decisions on health that then have to be dealt with. But that has to be the order. We can’t not worry about health as the first priority. Because to do so would be counterproductive. Because the economic outcome would still be there. It might have delayed it a little bit, but it would be more intense. Unless we deal with the health emergency as the first priority. So, we await, obviously, it is a decision of the Government to not involve the Opposition in these COAG meetings, which is effectively what it is. That’s a decision for the Government. We hope that they get it right. And we want to help the Government get it right but we’re not a party to those decisions. We will, though, await any decisions which are made, examine them and respond constructively as we have been determined to be during both this crisis and the bushfire crisis. Yes? Greg?
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, Greg Brown from The Australian. Do you think the Government should be prepared to nationalise companies including airlines even for a short period to get important companies and high employers through the crisis? Secondly, are you disappointed that Bill Shorten announced this week that he has taken his kids out of school? It was the opposite advice from what Scott Morrison had said he was doing, which is that his kids were going to school. Does that just lead to the sort of cacophony of confusion that’s out there in the community with parents not knowing what to do?
ALBANESE: Well, on the latter question, I’m not going to give advice to any family about how they deal with their family issues. On the first issue, with regard to businesses and the potential that you raise, I think people would have to look at any specific issues. That’s not an issue for any of the airlines at the present time, is my understanding. But the Government needs to be prepared to intervene in the economy. We have said that that’s the case. From time to time, when there’s an issue, governments need to take action that supports jobs and supports the economy. Because unless they do, the consequence is it ends up costing more to the Budget bottom line later on. I think that the more people look at the Labor response to the Global Financial Crisis, quite frankly, the better it looks. We kept Australia out of an economic recession that occurred right across the industrialised world. And there are hundreds of thousands of Australians who kept their jobs directly because of the action. I think, quite frankly, some of the childish commentary from members of the Government over programs like the Building the Education Revolution, which there is not a single school, Catholic, public, independent that isn’t grateful for that investment, that built confidence when it was needed, is an example of, I think, a program that worked very well, whether it’s that or the major infrastructure investment that was made. Whether it be on major projects like the regional rail link in Victoria, Gold Coast Light Rail, infrastructure that, today, people are riding on those trains, they’re riding on that light rail, they’re driving on their roads, like the Kempsey bypass in the Pacific Highway. They are working and participating in community activities in the 5,500 local government projects that went ahead in my portfolio under the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program.
So, I think in terms of the contrast between the then Opposition’s actions at that time, who forced more than 40 divisions at night, including third reading divisions to oppose the economic stimulus plan, contrast with Labor’s approach, which is constructive, which is positive, which is putting the national interest first. We’ll continue to do so. I look forward to continuing to have discussions with Scott Morrison and my Shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, is continuing to talk with Josh Frydenberg. We have Tony Burke and Katy Gallagher as Managers of Opposition Business to talk about how Parliament proceeds next week. This isn’t a time for partisan politics. This is the time to put the national interests first. We will continue to do so. We look forward to continuing to talk with you in the coming days. Thanks very much.