Mar 23, 2020








SUBJECTS: Coronavirus; coronavirus stimulus packages; confusion around clear messaging during the coronavirus issue; Parliament sitting arrangements.


ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks very much. Today has seen the Parliament operating in the national interest. Labor has concerns with this legislation. It is not the legislation that we would have brought before the Parliament. We are raising those concerns in the form of amendments in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Measures including superannuation, which we think is not in the interests of either workers or in the interests of those superannuation funds to be in a position of either taking cash out of funds at a time when those funds have been affected by the drop-in share prices, is not in the interests of retirement incomes, nor is it in the interests of the industry funds themselves who could be forced to sell down assets at the worst possible time as well. We also are concerned that there is no direct guarantee at all in this legislation that workers will be kept on. There is no incentive because of the way that the Government has organised its business support is based upon employees who are employed in February, that is in the past, not in the present or in the future. And there is no incentive for workers to be kept on. We also are concerned about some of the income support payments that people who are on Austudy, Abstudy, and a range of other payments, won’t receive anything from this package. And we are concerned about the failure to provide support for particular industries that have been impacted. Industries like the arts and entertainment industry, for example, have been devastated by the shutdown of music and entertainment venues around the country. But we will be supporting the package when it comes to a final vote if our amendments are not successful. We have foreshadowed that a long period of time in advance. Because we have consistently said that the sooner we act, the better. Now, we know that the Government from time to time when it is in a political interest, moves with lighting speed. But at other times, it does not move at all. And the Government should have been prepared today for the number of people who tried to access the MyGov website. And the fact is that the minister this morning suggested that site going down was as a result of a cyber-attack. It was in Parliament that he conceded that simply wasn’t the case, that he just made it up. And the fact is that this wasn’t a cyber-attack. It was an incompetence attack by this Government and by this minister. The fact that the site went down because it can only deal with 55,000 people. And at nine o’clock this morning, there were many more than that trying to get information from the Government. This just adds to the record of this minister and of this Government in failing to prepare where there’s not a political imperative involved. What we actually need during this period, just like dealing with the post-bushfire crisis, is to ensure that people are actually getting the support that they need. That the Government puts in place the structures that they need as well to ensure that support can be delivered. Happy to take questions.


JOURNALIST: During the bushfire crisis Centrelink was setting up mobile offices where people needed so that people didn’t have to queue at offices as we’ve seen today. Have you made any suggestions of things along those lines?


ALBANESE: Look, the Government has to more adequately resource Centrelink and the public sector in general. One of the things that we’re seeing during this particular crisis is that some issues which are general, which we have raised, we are seeing the specific consequences of them. So, whether that is the casualisation of the workforce that’s seeing so many people laid-off without having conditions and leave entitlements, that don’t have access to the sort of support that permanent workers regard as essential. We’re also seeing the consequences of a Government that’s been determined to privatise and contract out assets. The truth is that the big four accounting firms have got a lot of Government taxpayers’ money over recent years and at the same time basic government functions have been stripped from their workforce. And Centrelink clearly needs more people. We saw the Robodebt debacle of what happens when you try to replace people with machines. And we’ve seen today, another debacle. And the Government needs to get on top of this and needs to get on top of this as a matter of urgency.


JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, just in terms of that process tonight, given the Senate, will Labor look to pass both legislations in the Senate tonight or to keep the debate going until tomorrow?


ALBANESE: Look, we expect that the legislation can pass tonight. The Senate, of course, as you know, as an observer, and as I’ve observed over many years, it’s functioning is a law unto itself. So, the senators will determine. They have a different culture. We have set up a system whereby the House of Representatives will pass the stimulus bills by 5PM and will pass the supply bills by 7:30PM tonight. So, as of 7:30PM, everything that is needed to be before the Senate will be before the Senate. It’s up to them to determine their own processes. But I’m sure that everyone is cognisant of the fact that we do need to get this legislation passed. But it’s also the case that most of these payments, one of the questions we just asked in Question Time, some of them off in July, some of them, the deeming rate changes, for example, don’t take into effect until May. And we believe a range of these payments have been delayed beyond what is appropriate.


JOURNALIST: Just in terms of the amendments that you’re looking at. Can you give us some idea, particularly you have raised concerns about superannuation and are you looking to get rid of that measure entirely? What would you replace that with?


ALBANESE: Well, we’ve moved amendments. And it’s not beyond the Government’s capacity to provide increased support if they believe that it’s necessary for low income workers. Of course, we know that there are no wage subsidies directly being provided by this Government. That’s another question that we asked in the Parliament. The Government has said that it’s going to come back with further measures. So, they themselves recognise they will have to expend more money at some time in the future. It is only, of course, been two weeks since the first stimulus package. And we have another one that was announced just yesterday. So, we just believe very clearly that the time to take money out of superannuation isn’t just after there’s been a market slump. Because the value of it, the value of it, is just like any other asset. If you sell at the bottom, that doesn’t make good economic sense, whether you’re an individual or a corporate entity, or an entity indeed, like superfunds. So, the concern is that for individuals, the money that they take out will be of less value because of the circumstances which are there with the decline in the market. And secondly, that for superfunds, if they’re forced to get rid of assets in order to provide that cash of people wanting to take money out of their funds, then now is not the time to sell an airport or to sell another asset as well. So, we think this is not a sensible measure. We have put that to the Government. I hope that the Government see sense and support our position. If they don’t, well, we’re not going to stop the whole economic stimulus package because of that. And consistently, myself as the Leader has said we’ll put forward our arguments, but we won’t throw babies out with bath waters if we’re not successful. But it makes no sense. And in fact, one of the things that is of concern is there was no consultation with the superannuation industry about those measures.


JOURNALIST: Just in terms of the Ruby Princess in Sydney. What concerns does Labor have about 2,700 passengers being taken off that boat, and more particularly about the breakdown in relations between the federal and state governments?


ALBANESE: Well, we asked a question about it in Parliament today. And we just got the blame game. The Prime Minister just blamed New South Wales. There’s a pattern there of him blaming New South Wales and Gladys Berejiklian’s Government, whether it be the bushfire crisis, or whether it be this issue. The truth is that the Federal Government are responsible for the entry into Australia. And the Government needs to accept some responsibility for it. Our concern is obvious. The concern that people who were known that this ship had issues regarding health, and they weren’t checks. People were allowed to disperse right around the country. And now there’s an attempt to find where those people are and who they’ve had contact with. Just as we remain concerned about mixed messages. It’s one of the themes that we’ve had. And we’ve put it forward constructively. And we’ve said, repeatedly, I’ve said to the Prime Minister, now on a number of occasions in different forums, that the idea that people are still coming into Australia, not getting heat-tested, not getting any test whatsoever, and then dispersing on domestic flights, or in cabs, or on the train, or in Ubers around the country to self-isolate, they do have to self-isolate now for 14 days. But in the meantime, they’ve been to a number of destinations. I raised this issue last Tuesday when I was at Sydney Domestic Airport. And the Rex Regional Express lounge was full of people who had got off international flights from places like the Philippines and the United States. And we’re flying to Wagga Wagga, flying to Ballina, flying to Cooma and Merimbula, and without any heat-testing, or any processes at all. The Prime Minister, we asked about that today as well, and the Prime Minister said that he was comfortable with it. I think that one of the issues that we have to get right is sending consistent messages. And consistent messages are not in my view aided by the idea that people can arrive in Australia and have no testing whatsoever.


JOURNALIST: What’s your position on temporary foreign workers? There are a lot of people in Australia on working visas. Presumably, if the businesses they’re working for have shut down, a lot of them are going to be left without any form of support. What advocacy are you doing for them? Is there anything that can be done for them?


ALBANESE: Look, we are very concerned about that issue and I indeed during Question Time, organised to talk to the acting Immigration Minister this afternoon. I intend to make contact with him, which he agreed to do across the chamber once this media conference ends. There are a range of issues. One is income support, including income support for temporary visa holders, Temporary Protection Visas. And I raised that in my speech in the Parliament today. Our concern is also over what happens for those who are on temporary work visas here but can’t get home? What happens to them? And I think the Government needs to come up with a plan to deal with all of those issues. I intend to raise it constructively with the Immigration Minister this afternoon. Because on both their access, their capacity to stay in Australia, and those issues, or on the issues of income support, I think the Government has to deal with them because we know that there are hundreds of thousands of people, indeed, who will be impacted in one way or another by those issues.


JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister said that for the next six months until the rest of this year, Parliament will operate on an emergency basis. Have you had any clarity about what that means? Will there be sittings in May or sittings for the rest of the year?


ALBANESE: Well, look, we had discussions yesterday about this. And we expressed some concern about the governance proposal. It hasn’t been dealt with in the Parliament yet. The Parliament will be bringing up a timetable, a change this afternoon once that issue has been dealt with. We are of the view that Parliament as scheduled should continue to be scheduled. And if there is a need to put off the May sittings, we accept the Government’s argument about the Budget that it is difficult to put together a Budget at this time. But we do believe that Parliament as scheduled should continue to meet unless it’s not possible to. We don’t know what the circumstances will be by the second week of May, which is when it’s due to sit. And so, we of course, would have preferred for that to be there and for the normal arrangements which are that, the Prime Minister could write to the Speaker and ask the Parliament not to sit, and then that would occur. What we have got, though, is the Government intends to not have the May and June sittings to remove them from the sitting schedule. And for the Parliament to be able to be recalled with the support and concurrence of not just the Leader of the House, but also the Manager of Opposition Business, so that there will be proper consultation about parliamentary processes. I am of the view that Parliament continuing to function as much as possible even in restricted forms is important. There will also be amendments made to the standing orders, which will ensure that whereas at the moment there needs to be effectively 76 plus members here this week, that number would be further reduced so that by changes to the standing orders about the operation of the absolute majority rule so that the quorum rule, which is in the constitution and can’t be changed, would operate. That is so the Parliament could operate with under 40 members in the House of Representatives, and with a much smaller number in the Senate as well. So, we’re prepared to cooperate on all of those matters. But we have put our view clearly to the Government, that Parliament should be functioning if it is possible in May. It may well be that is not the case. But if it is, then there is work for us to do. And as the national representatives, we should have input and not just leave it to the executive Government. We are a democracy. The Prime Minister made a comment during Question Time about the importance of showing through this crisis that a democracy can function rather than a less democratic regime which exists in some parts of the world. I think that is not only important to be done, it’s important that it be seen to be done. Thanks very much.