ANTHONY ALBANESE MP
LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY
MEMBER FOR GRAYNDLER
TONY BURKE MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS
SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE ARTS
MANAGER OF OPPOSITION BUSINESS
MEMBER FOR WATSON
THURSDAY, 6 AUGUST 2020
SUBJECTS: Paid pandemic leave; the need for Parliament to sit; Victorian coronavirus outbreak.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks for joining us. I’m joined by Tony Burke, our Shadow Minister with responsibility for workplace relations and the Manager of Opposition Business in the House. There are two issues I wish to raise today. The first is the issue of paid pandemic leave. And I want to make it clear that the reason why we need a national paid pandemic leave scheme is because it is a preventative measure. We do not want paid pandemic leave to be available after infections have grown, we want it to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That is why paid pandemic leave should be available on a national scale.
The second issue to go to is the sitting of the Parliament that’s due to meet on the 24th of August. Today, the President and Speaker will distribute, or have distributed, information from the Chief Medical Officer advising of the conditions particularly for people traveling from Victoria to sit in the national Parliament. What that requires is a fortnight of self-isolation either in the ACT or at home with strict conditions. That is the advice of the Chief Medical Officer that we received yesterday afternoon. As a result of that, I convened meetings this morning with my Victorian caucus members, as well as the Shadow Cabinet and the full Labor Party caucus to determine ways in which we could put a proposition to the Government that would ensure that Victorians were represented in our national Parliament and that people were not excluded due to the particular emergency circumstances which are there now. It has been Labor’s view that our preference by far is for Parliament to meet in the usual fashion, face-to-face, where people are able to hold the Government of the day to account and scrutinise decisions on behalf of their electorates. It’s clear, though, that the current issues make that difficult across the board. And that’s why earlier this year, we provided for changes to the standing orders to allow for different forms of sitting of the House of Representatives upon agreement between the Government and the Opposition. What Labor is putting forward is that there be a hybrid system whereby Victorian members, but others as well who are unable to travel to Canberra to sit in the national Parliament, are still able to participate by video link in terms of speaking to legislation, asking questions, answering questions. This will not interfere with the need for there to be a quorum on the floor of the national Parliament for it to be convened, or with voting patterns, which you will need to be present for. We believe this is a practical solution to the emergency circumstances which are there now. And one which should be time-limited and restricted to where it is absolutely necessary. We think the changes should be minimum. And as far as possible, Parliament should operate in the normal way. But these are not normal circumstances. Which is why they require flexibility, which Labor is prepared to engage with. I spoke to the Prime Minister just a short time ago and put this proposal to him. And we had a constructive suggestion. He is not opposed to such a proposal as a matter of principle and wants time to work through some of the practical issues such as the availability of video links that I believe should be available by the time we sit in a fortnight’s time. This is ensuring that the Parliament can continue to function, that people can continue to represent their electorates or their state and ensure that the national Parliament can engage in the fundamental issues that we need to discuss such as paid pandemic leave. Such as the continuation of both JobKeeper and JobSeeker. Such as the operation of the COVID-19 app. A range of issues that require the national Parliament to give consideration and provide leadership on. Labor has been constructive throughout this crisis. And our actions today in putting forward a sensible, practical proposition to the Government to allow Parliament to meet without disenfranchising one group of people, is consistent with that. And I would ask Tony to make some comments.
TONY BURKE, MANAGER OF OPPOSITION BUSINESS: Thanks very much, Anthony. As the Leader of the Party said at the outset, there is an issue for paid pandemic leave that is urgent. At the moment the Government’s proposal where they’d only provided it for Victoria is really simple. Something that prevents the spread is only made available after the horse has bolted. And that’s not sustainable. We need to not be in a situation for something that the Leader of the Labor Party was first calling for back in March, where the only place where it’s available is Victoria. Paid pandemic leave will save lives. And it needs to become a national scheme. And the Government needs to use national cabinet as a way of delivering that.
On the changes to the Parliament, Labor, in good faith, put forward a proposal some weeks ago after Parliament had been unilaterally cancelled by the Prime Minister, to establish a working group. The Presiding Officers, the Speaker and the President of the Senate, allowed that working group to happen. I have to say, it’s been really constructive. People from both sides of politics have been working constructively to put together a set of protocols that we could then put to the Chief Medical Officers to see if that found a way of being able to protect public health but make sure that every Member of Parliament could still turn up. The Prime Minister made a decision unilaterally just before that negotiation was about to start in terms of the protocols being put to the Chief Medical Officers to unilaterally seek his own advice. We now have written advice, and we have to deal with it. Under those rules, and we don’t dispute the medical advice itself, under those rules, the reality of it is this; at a time in Victoria, in particular, where every member of a household is pulling their weight, helping to make a household function, schooling and work at home, in ways that no one could have anticipated, that the Member of Parliament within that household effectively would have to leave the family for a month and say, ‘You’re on your own, can’t help you anymore’. Or, if they did the isolation at home, they may be in a situation where if their partner is still working, they’re effectively asking their partner to leave their job for a fortnight in order for the whole household to isolate. The reality of that means under these health orders, many people won’t be able to attend the Federal Parliament. And there has never been a time when the voice of Victoria is more important to hear in the Federal Parliament. So, the reason we’re putting forward the constructive suggestion to the Government, because the standing orders that were moved by the Leader of the House, Christian Porter, and in a similar way in the Senate some months ago, it is possible to make this sort of change. And so, we are putting forward, to the Government publicly, that we are now willing to have a situation, not a full virtual Parliament, we’re still opposed to that, but a situation where the Parliament sits in its normal way and a few modifications are made to make sure that the voice of Victoria can still be heard at a time when it’s more important than ever.
ALBANESE: Thank you. In conclusion, can I just say that all of the non-Victorian thoughts are with those people who are in Victoria today. That’s why we need to consider measures that enfranchise Victorians that give them a voice. And that’s what this proposal is aimed at. I look forward to constructively working through with the Government in the next day. Because if people are going to isolate, self-isolate in Canberra, they will have to travel this weekend. I’m confident that we can work through these issues and have a Parliament that’s functioning and a Parliament that is effective in the national interest at a time where it’s more important than ever. Thanks very much.