ANTHONY ALBANESE MP
LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY
MEMBER FOR GRAYNDLER
TUESDAY, 24 MARCH 2020
SUBJECTS: Coronavirus; Parliament sitting; coronavirus stimulus packages; confusion around clear messaging during the coronavirus issue; Centrelink lines; Stuart Robert.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Yesterday afternoon, after 5 o’clock, I had a meeting with Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg. I put to them a range of proposals, which subsequently were adopted with the support of Mathias Cormann, as the Finance Minister, and our Senate team, and then subsequently were supported in the House of Representatives. It was a good thing that the package was improved. And we made three major improvements.
The first was the extension of the Coronavirus Supplement to Austudy, Abstudy and Youth Allowance payments. That means an additional 230,000 Australians will receive that financial support. Secondly, we provided a mechanism which will result in the Minister being able to change the taper rates for taxation arrangements. What that will do essentially is to make sure that the cut-off period will go from $48,000, where it is now, to around about $75,000. That’s important in terms of providing that tax relief, in terms of where the taper payment kicks in from $26,000 at the moment, people lose 60 cents in every dollar. By doubling that, it will provide significant benefit for low- and middle-income earners. It will also ensure, by increasing the rate, that more people will be eligible for the coronavirus payment.
One of the concerns that we had, that I raised with the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, was that many working families out there in Australia’s suburbs have a mum or dad working full-time, they have the other partner working part-time. We know that many of those casual employees will lose their job. And what it would mean, is if they were on $48,000, they would miss out on the Coronavirus payment. By ensuring these changes and increasing the rate up to $75,000, there will be far more people who will receive this one-off payment. We put forward these ideas constructively. On Sunday, when we had the meeting here also, we proposed an arrangement for the Finance Ministers’ prerogative, which is there at the moment, for $1.2 billion in grants. The Finance Minister has the capacity to write to the Finance Department and say, ‘I need this discretion to make payments for special purposes that were unforeseen.’ What the Government was proposing was to increase that to $20 billion. We wanted that figure to be higher, of $40 billion, but to be with the support of not just the Finance Minister but the Shadow Finance Minister, Katy Gallagher as well. The Government agreed with that. That is a good thing. That is Parliament working as it should. People putting aside partisan differences to make things better for the people who send us to this Parliament.
We have got to remember this is all about people. Today the queues outside Centrelink are longer than they were yesterday. We’ve got to remember so many people out there are anxious, are scared about their futures. So many people rely on the day-to-day income, whether it be their wage or their Newstart payment, or their pension, to get by on a day-to-day basis. It’s why the messaging has to be clear on these issues. The Government have said they’ll need to come back for further stimulus measures, and we think that’s right. We don’t believe this package is perfect. And it’s not the package that Labor would have put forward. But we weren’t going to stand in the way of a package which was urgent. And the other thing we consider is that for some of these payments, such as the Coronavirus payment, due to come in five or six weeks’ time, for it to be brought forward. The payments such as the changes to the deeming rates are due to come in on May 1. The second payment of $750 is due to occur in July. We believe that, with health or with economics here, sooner is better. Sooner is more effective. We need to get the economy cushioned as much as possible from the economic impact of this virus.
I’m very proud of my team. I want to thank Chris Bowen, as our Shadow Health Minister, and Jim Chalmers, and Katy Gallagher, who lead our economic team. We have put forward constructive suggestions, just as we did in the bushfire crisis. The fact that many of them have been adopted is a good thing. I’ve said from the beginning, from my first day as Labor Leader, I wanted to be known as just that. The Labor Leader, not the Opposition Leader. I’ve had some say to me that that’s a mistake. It’s not. We’re elected to represent the national interest, and we should never forget it in this place. We have responsibilities to people who are really struggling out there. I say to people, stay safe. But also, I say to the Government, we stand ready to work in a cooperative way in order to achieve outcomes to cushion the impact of this virus.
JOURNALIST: The Government says these payments can’t go out any quicker because of the way the system operates. And if they are getting out faster, under the Rudd Government during the GFC, you’re saying things can be done to expedite the payments?
ALBANESE: Of course, things can be done. The truth is that the payments, in terms of pensions, for example, we know what the database is for age pensioners. If they’re going to receive an additional payment, that is possible for it to occur. It’s one of the reasons why we said the Parliament should meet last week rather than this week. We were ready to act. We remain ready to act. That’s just one example whereby it is possible. And for the Government’s own position, if it’s possible to send out $750 in a week’s time, and then in a number of weeks’ time, and then another $750 in July, how is it not possible to send out $1,500 at the time of the first payment?
JOURNALIST: The national cabinet is meeting tonight. What sort of measures would you like to see and bearing in mind that some (inaudible)?
ALBANESE: Look, quite clearly, we need some further support in terms of rental assistance. There are two issues here as well. One is in terms of small business. One of the things that small business has said to me is that a number of them, your local cafe all of a sudden has shut up, doesn’t have any work, still has to pay rent. They can do some things in terms of takeaway, but a range of businesses can’t. Gyms, for example, can’t do gym work by remote off site. It can’t happen. All of a sudden, they have had their income reduced to zero. I know of one case that pays $30,000 a month in rent. And when they contacted their landlord, they were told, ‘No, you’ve got to keep paying your rent.’ Well, that business won’t survive. We need relief in terms of small business, in particular. But we also need to plan for individuals. The concern that we have is if people are literally unable to pay their rent and evicted from property, then what we will have is consequences that are dire, indeed, for health, in terms of it’s impossible to self-isolate. One of the things I said in Parliament yesterday was, ‘How do you self-isolate if you’re homeless?’ One of the things that we looked at with the $40 billion payment, I believe the Government, as a matter of urgency, has to look at providing support in terms of grant funding for homeless shelters, for the organisations like Foodbank, for organisations that provide support for the most vulnerable in our community. That needs to be done as a matter of urgency. It’s a priority. It’s a health priority because there are health implications by the breakdown, if that doesn’t occur, but it’s also an economic priority.
JOURNALIST: It was suggested a few days ago that landlords should be taking a haircut to protect and help assist those renting. Do you agree there, both in a commercial sense and also in a residential sense?
ALBANESE: Look, absolutely. The truth is that in terms of landlords need to have a bit of common sense about this as well. They’re going to lose their tenants if they insist on people paying money that they simply don’t have. And in the long run, a good tenant, whether it be business or in housing, can provide stability for the landlord as well. So, I certainly stand with the Prime Minister on this issue. I think common sense tells you that that’s the case.
ALBANESE: I think there’s a very clear answer, when you look at international experience. We now know some things that work and some things that don’t work. We look at Singapore, we look at South Korea, we look at best practice. We look, quite frankly, at Wuhan. There are examples of things that work, which is that the harder you go in terms of protecting people’s health, the better the outcome will be, not just in terms of their health but in terms of the economy as well. There are no short cuts here. I have said consistently, if you go back and look at the interviews where I’ve done stand-ups each and every day for a long period of time, probably since the bushfires, to be frank, probably since November. I have said a couple of principles. One is, if you think you’re going to have to take action next week or the week after, do it today. The other is, the sooner you respond, the more effective that response will be.
JOURNALIST: So, you’re saying there should be more comprehensive shutdown now, along the lines of the UK?
ALBANESE: I’m saying that we need to listen to the health experts. And if you think something is going to happen, if the advice is in a couple of weeks we are going to have to take certain action, we need to either do that today or at least flag that. One of the concerns that I think is out there is the mixed messages. And there have been a range of them. I think it’s a good thing, as you know, Mark, I commented on the NRL. It’s a good thing. Because the mixed message that was there, however it could be configured, that blokes running into each other with sweaty bodies is okay, but everyone has got to protect themselves, as much as I love my sport, that’s a mixed message. It’s a mixed message to say that everyone could go to school, but it’s not okay to go to the beach. There’s a problem in terms of mixed messages out there. We need to be very clear about the messages that we’re sending the community. I have said throughout that we need to respond to the health advice that we had. We got a briefing on Sunday again from the, in this case, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer. I ran into him yesterday again and will continue to get health briefings. But health has to come first, to go back to the previous question. You respond to the health crisis, and then you deal with the economic impact of that health crisis. It’s a very simple order here.
JOURNALIST: So, for clarity’s sake you are saying yes that we should lock down society now?
ALBANESE: I’m saying that the health experts need to be listened to, shouldn’t be second-guessed by politicians. If the health experts are saying that is going to happen, then we should be responding accordingly.
JOURNALIST: That’s not what you said, though. You said you anticipated, you were saying, correct me if I am wrong, that if you are anticipating certain measures down the track, then you should take them now?
ALBANESE: If the health experts are saying that, then, yes.
JOURNALIST: Did they tell you that in those briefings?
ALBANESE: No, no, they did not. No, they did not. Well, the Government, I think, in terms of the response that occurred on Sunday and the changes that have been made, are ones that we support. We’ve said we support. We’re not trying to look for, be very clear here, we’re not trying to look for false distinctions with the Government here. I think indeed, it is important that there be as much unity as possible. I think there were very confusing messages, to be frank, even yesterday. I think the idea that we say schools are open, but we don’t want kids to go there, is a mixed message. And we need to be much clearer about it.
JOURNALIST: Just on Centrelink, so, obviously we saw the myGov website go down yesterday.
ALBANESE: We did.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that the Government could have prepared for that better, given that it was almost predictable that we’d see that number of people trying to access it?
ALBANESE: Of course, we could have prepared for it better. What we could also have not done, talk about mixed messages, there was a false message yesterday from Stuart Robert. It’s just unacceptable for a minister to say that that was a result of an attack in terms of a, I’m trying to think of the word, denial of service attack, when it was an incompetence attack from the Government. As simple as that. And Stuart Robert, you know, has said today, flippantly, apparently, ‘My bad.’ Well, it’s a bit more serious than that. And the minister and the Government need to be accurate in the information that they’re putting forward at all times, but particularly at this time.
JOURNALIST: Stuart Robert’s going to be the face of Government Services for months to come. Would you agree that we should perhaps start using plain English language rather than terminology like DDOS and alike?
ALBANESE: It would certainly help if the explanations were clear and understandable. Stuart Robert gave just wrote messages yesterday. That’s unfortunate and it has consequences for people because it breaks down people’s confidence in the system. People need to explain things very clearly at this time. People are looking for certainty. They’re looking to build confidence.
JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) compassion for thousands of people who are standing outside of Centrelink offices?
ALBANESE: Well, the fact is that Stuart Robert has a history of not showing any empathy. And I think yesterday we asked this question in the Parliament and it was an opportunity for him to express his concern about what is happening. I noticed on one of the news channels last night showed my electorate office which is two doors down from the Centrelink office in Marrickville Road in Marrickville. That queue went right down Marrickville Road and the Illawarra Road. It must have had at least 500 people in that queue. That’s 500 people who are desperate. That’s 500 people who are anxious. That’s 500 people who are deserving of all of our sympathy but particularly one in which the minister just has to show some empathy. I think the depiction last night of when one of the offices had to be closed of a woman who had $10 to her name, not being able to speak to someone in Centrelink. There’s another point that I’d make, which is that one of the things that will happen arising out of this crisis is a reassessment of some of the general directions that we’ve gone in. Hopefully, that results in much more positive reform and a changing record. We have already had a change, and I don’t think we’ll hear some of the nonsense from the Government about our economic stimulus plan that they’ve gone on with for years that they know is just not accurate. But hopefully, as well, we see an end to the obsession with contracting out of the role of government. We have seen in terms of the abandonment of the visa privatisation plan, I mean, this Government that speaks about controlling our borders was going to hand over visa processing to a private company for profit. That is, that’s just absurd. And the fact is that Centrelink, Centrelink’s problems didn’t begin this week. They began a fair time ago. We saw it with Robodebt. And that’s one of the issues that should be learned. You know, the big four accounting firms have done pretty well out of this Government. And essential government services have missed out. So, I think those issues are absolutely critical.
JOURNALIST: What do you think about Parliament shutting down until August?
ALBANESE: Well, we opposed the shutting down of the Parliament. We think that the powers should have been there for, as they’ve always been, for the Prime Minister who writes to the Speaker and says it’s not convenient for Parliament to meet. Those powers were there. For us to foreshadow a shutdown all the way to August, I’ll make this prediction. We will be back here before August. We’ll be back here this financial year. Because there will be a need for further stimulus and for further legislation to be carried. So, what we said was that we will be very cooperative with any measures. Quite clearly, we were cooperative yesterday. You don’t have to look at what people say, look at what people do. Compare our actions yesterday with what happened during the Global Financial Crisis and how the Coalition Opposition acted. We have shown our good faith. And we will continue to be a responsible Opposition, but we will be one that continues to raise some of these longer-term issues such as contracting, just as we will raise one of the other issues that I think will be considered is the nature of work. I spoke about the future of work in my first vision statement. Casualisation of the workforce and the removal of rights that permanent workers have over a period of time, we’ve seen the consequences of that.
JOURNALIST: (Inaudible). What is your response to that?
ALBANESE: Well look, the Government clearly needs to do better. Because there are real consequences of what happened yesterday and what’s happening today. If people can’t get information, it just adds to their stress at a time where they’ve got a lot to deal with, on top of having to deal with losing their job, worrying about how they pay their rent or their mortgage, what happens to the kids in terms of education at home. All of these issues. One of the things that they shouldn’t have to deal with is not being able to log on to a basic government website. Thanks very much.