ANTHONY ALBANESE – TRANSCRIPT – DOORSTOP INTERVIEW – PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA – THURSDAY, 9 APRIL 2020
ANTHONY ALBANESE MP
LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY
MEMBER FOR GRAYNDLER
PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
THURSDAY, 9 APRIL 2020
SUBJECTS: Coronavirus; Parliament passing JobKeeper legislation; issues with JobKeeper payment; constructive role of Labor during coronavirus; need for transparency during coronavirus crisis; staying at home this Easter.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks for joining me this morning. Labor is very pleased that last night the Parliament passed the JobKeeper package. It is essential during this period that the relationship between an employer and their employee is kept intact. As a result of the JobKeeper package, millions of Australians will benefit financially and many, many businesses that would have simply disappeared, never to be seen again, will be able to continue. This was the Government’s package, but it was a package urged by Labor which argued for a wage subsidy the last time that Parliament met, many weeks ago. And had that be put in place, I think we could have avoided the scenes outside Centrelink that we have seen with so many people dismissed particularly because the JobSeeker payment had been introduced, people were dismissed in that 48-hour period. Labor does think the legislation was flawed. But we said at the beginning, as I have said consistently with my leadership of the Labor Party, that we won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And essentially, this legislation will do good. We attempted to move a range of amendments in the House of Representatives. Particularly, we are concerned about casuals not being covered. We are concerned about temporary workers. We are concerned about people in particular industries, including the arts and entertainment industry who are simply missing out in any support at this time. We believe, though, that overall it is a step forward. This is a difficult period. And I say to people this Easter, stay safe, stay home. It is important to recognise that we are certainly not through this crisis. The precautionary principle must apply. And we need to work together.
Can I say this, also, finally? That the Parliament should be sitting on a regular basis. Yesterday shows how effective the Parliament can be. We had a Question Time where we raised a range of questions about the Ruby Princess, about the airline industry, about PPE being made available particularly to medical staff, about a range of issues. And that is what Parliament is for, in terms of holding the Government to account, making sure that people get some visibility in terms of scrutiny. It is good that the Senate Select Committee, under the chairing of Katy Gallagher, has been established. And it will play an important role in the weeks to months to come. But at the same time, I do believe that we could be scheduling sittings of the Parliament. Not the full scheduling that was envisaged, but that would play an important role. I make this prediction; we will be back here before August. Because there is a need for legislation at a time like this.
JOURNALIST: What legislation do you see forthcoming?
ALBANESE: Well, I think that what we will see is in the roll-out of legislation, we will see gaps that clearly need to be fixed. I note that in childcare, for example, the New South Wales Government, my understanding is, have stepped up. But a whole lot of childcare centres are run by local government, which is what many of them are, or run by church organisations. There’s a childcare centre in my electorate run by the Greek Orthodox community. Those gaps were there. There will be gaps in this package. For temporary visa workers, I just say this, I don’t disagree with the Prime Minister that if people can go home and they are temporary visa holders, they should. The fact is, many of them can’t. There aren’t flights. There are border closures. Including, of course, here in Australia which effectively we have ground our international airline industry. So, how can people go home and then if they don’t have work, and they don’t have any money to survive, where do they sleep? How do they eat? How do they survive on a day-to-day basis? What we know is that is an issue for those individuals. But the thing we know about this disease, and the reason why we are all in this together, is that we are all interdependent. Perhaps, more so than ever before, there is a recognition about our social relationships. People can’t self-isolate if they don’t have somewhere to self-isolate. People need to have interactions. So, it remains people being completely marginalised without support, represents a health risk for the community.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that people are really going to listen to calls to stay home this Easter? Should there be an increase in police patrols, maybe road blocks, more fines etc.?
ALBANESE: Look, at the end of the day, we need to have a bit of common sense about this. I am not for a ramping up of authoritarian measures. We need to get the message across. The message needs to be very clear. I am concerned that some of the calls for lifting that are going on, lifting some of the measures that are in place, are a bit early to be doing that before Easter. We need a clear message out there. And I’m sure that the Government would join with me on this that people do need to stay home this Easter. People need to enjoy to the extent that they can the different experience. The Easter Bunny can still come. We can still have, for people of faith, they can still certainly engage with their faith this Easter. It is a very important time, I know. But I know that the COAG Premiers and the Prime Minister will be discussing. I’ve had a discussion with the Prime Minister about, for example, some temporary allowance, for example, some orthodox religions require more than two people to be part of the religious service at Easter. Common sense can apply there. We can have social distancing and have four members of the clergy or a small number being able to have that faith service. And that’s appropriate. But people should stay home. And we shouldn’t need for that to be reinforced. What we should do is all of us accept responsibility. I’ve said before that even though we’ve got to stay 1.5 metres apart, in so many ways we have never been closer together.
JOURNALIST: The bills passed last night effectively confirm that the Government is going to run the biggest Budget deficits since World War Two. What sort of role do you see Labor playing in terms of repairing the Budget and paying down what is going to be the highest amount of debt since about 1943?
ALBANESE: Well, I await with interest the Government’s rhetorical position down the track. Because the Government, of course, have said, frankly, some absolute nonsense at various times. They’ve doubled the debt before the bushfires and before this current crisis. They doubled the debt. So, let’s not have any position that the debt that has been run up is just because of this crisis. This Government has been, as the proportion of spending as a proportion of GDP, the tax that they have raised as a proportion of GDP. The gap between the rhetoric and the reality of this Government has been extraordinary. And we know that with regard to money, they treated taxpayers’ money in the lead-up to the election as if it was LNP money. We won’t let go. And Australians shouldn’t forget the sports rorts fiasco, the abuse of infrastructure money, the $3 billion fund that went to just marginal seats and LNP seats, the great spending in seats like Kooyong, and Higgins, for example, that happen before the election. So, this Government needs to be held to account on all of those issues. We have been, I think, very constructive. I think any objective analysis, except for some August publications have recognised the role that we have played. And we’ve done that consistently from day one. Some of the absurd opinion pieces, frankly, that haven’t bothered to look at what I’ve said and what Labor’s actually said, speak for themselves and I think do more damage to the authors than they do to the Labor brand. But we have been responsible. We’ve been constructive. I think that the Government will be held to account for their failure. Their failure prior to this crisis. Interest rates fell point five per cent before this crisis. We had an extraordinary explosion of debt before this crisis. We had consumer demand falling before this crisis. On all of these measures, the truth is that the idea that they are great economic managers, I think they’ve seen no reform also. No productivity agenda, no significant tax reform agenda. They’re just coasting, occupying the space. They’ve been in a victory lap since May. And what they haven’t done is do the hard decisions, do the necessary reform decisions on productivity, on micro-economic reform. And I think the economy went into this crisis weaker because of it.
JOURNALIST: I know you said that it’s too early to talk about an exit strategy. But the Premiers will today, we understand, will bring that up with the Prime Minister exactly how they will do that. Is an exit strategy necessary? Not right now, but in the months ahead? And what should that look like and which state do you think should start lifting these restrictions first?
ALBANESE: Well, look, one of the things that we’re seeing, be clear about the process that’s going on. For some period of time since New South Wales and Victoria, essentially flex their muscles and said, ‘We’re going to take stronger action’. They have. States have acted independently. What we’re seeing in today’s phone hook-up, no doubt, will be no different from that. And it’s a good thing that that’s happening, is more coordination and people talking with each other. It’s good that that’s happening with the Prime Minister. It’s good that we’re getting that coordination. But they essentially are able to make their own decisions. This isn’t a uniform process that happens with a Cabinet where everyone’s bound to the one decision and then they go forward. So, the same thing I expect will happen with regard to as we move out of this crisis. What I say is as we come into Easter, it’s a particularly vulnerable time. And the medical experts tell us that you can’t assume the outcome in terms of the flattening of the curve, the indications are positive. We welcome that. But they also say you’ve got to wait a couple of weeks. It’s not a couple of weeks since that started to happen. And in terms of community transmission is the concern that is there, that it’ll be transmitted through community interaction. And that’s a concern that we have. So, the message I hope that comes out of today’s meeting, whether from the Prime Minister or any of the Premiers, or Chief Ministers, is this Easter, stay home. Let’s keep going in terms of the responsible actions that overwhelmingly Australians are doing, let us be very clear, overwhelmingly Australians are doing the right thing and doing their best, as we’re doing here at this press conference. As I’ll be doing when I drive back in my car, by myself, today this afternoon, back home to my home in Marrickville.
JOURNALIST: Just on the deficit, Mr Albanese. Does Labor have a plan to claim this back? And does that potentially include the return to franking credits, I suppose?
ALBANESE: Look, I’ve said that we won’t take the same policy on franking credits to the election. And I’ve said that before. And that’s a position that we’ve taken Look, there is plenty of time, this legislation passed last night. So, have we had a Shadow Cabinet process and then gone through caucus and ERC between last night and this morning? Well, the answer that is no, actually. But we have a very clear indication of what is needed, the direction that we will take. We are concerned about, at the moment, the focus has to be on the package. Some of the weaknesses there, see how it rolls out. We have said, we said in Parliament, that we will continue to raise issues of the gaps that are there particularly for casual workers. Because there are people who simply have been left behind by this process. Can I just make this point as well? Can I make just one further point and then I’ll come to you and then to you. That in some of the rhetoric, on the issue of climate change, and I just make this point, that we continually say that you don’t have to look at just the cost of action, but the cost of inaction. That principle applies here as well. The cost of inaction would have been much more for our economy, but more importantly, in terms of lives lost. So, you always have to look at that. I just hope the Government takes the thought process that they’ve had on presenting this package and translates it to other issues as well.
JOURNALIST: What is the first priority for the Senate Select Committee?
ALBANESE: Look, far be it from me as a member of the House of Representatives to tell the Senate Select Committee how to operate. They’ll operate independently. They’ll operate in the national interest. It is a good thing that I’m very confident that our team of Katy Gallagher, ably assisted by Kristina Keneally and Murray Watt, are three of the most effective people I’ve seen in this place over the last two decades. They will hold the Government to account. But also, Jacqui Lambie, not shy, not shy. Whoever the Greens political party put up, we’ll wait and see. But I’m sure that there will be a holding to account for expenditure. We know, for example, that there are issues as well of, we raised an issue in Question Time yesterday about costs that we don’t think is necessary so that if someone on JobKeeper is told to take leave, and we accept that they can’t use their last two weeks of leave, then for the company, they are getting the benefit of running down their balance sheet by the individual being on annual leave, but they’re still getting the JobKeeper payment on top of that. Now, that could have been a saving for the Government. There are a range of areas where we think that the Government could have spent less during this process.
JOURNALIST: Just re coming back to the Parliament. You said you need to, obviously there’s no legislation to be made so that’s one reason why you don’t need to come back. You said want to scrutinise what’s already passed and perhaps call for the Treasurer to change so that more casuals can get included. Do you need to do it in this building? It’s just our politicians are at high risk by traveling around the country. And it is hypocritical that you’re telling people to stay home when you want a bunch of politicians to travel around, gather in one building and then travel back?
ALBANESE: Sitting in my car on the way home, the only chance of infection is if there’s an infection in my Pixies tape. That’s the only possibility of an infection. It’s safe to do so. You’re in this workplace. We’re expecting nurses, we’re expecting teachers, we’re expecting the cleaners in this building to do their job. Why is it that politicians aren’t expected to do our job? And with regard to no legislation, are we really saying, is this Government saying, and perhaps they are, I have got to say, I’ve said for some time, but I’m glad to have confirmation from the the media that you’ve noticed this too, that they don’t have an agenda. Have we really solved the issues of childcare, of welfare, of the economy, of micro-economic reform, of productivity, of our manufacturing sector, of science and technology, of research. Of all of these issues, the thinking and the process of coming out of this will be absolutely critical. Reform is more important than it has ever been coming out of this. To strengthen the economy. To strengthen our social bonds coming out of this. There are so many issues that the Government has essentially, you’re right, that at the first week sittings of the Parliament all we had was appropriation debates with 15 minutes of people saying whatever they want about Aunty Mavis’ 90th birthday in the Parliament. There should be serious legislation before this Parliament. Part of the problem for this Government is that there was no agenda for the future. I think there should be. There should be a range of legislation that should be considered both dealing with the existing crisis but looking beyond it, as well.
JOURNALIST: Are you confident that the tax commissioner has enough discretion to pick up people that might fall through the cracks as the roll-out takes place, for example, casuals who may just fall a few days or a month out of a year from being able to receive JobKeeper?
ALBANESE: No. I’m concerned that people will miss out. Josh Frydenberg has, under the legislation passed, some discretion to widen the number of people including casuals. And we will continue to argue that he should do that. He should identify people who have missed out. Because people who have missed out, again, because we’re all interconnected here. It’s very bad for them, but it’s bad for all of us. And that’s why we need to make sure, and we’ve said, we want to help the Government to get it right. We help the Government to get it right by continuing to support a wage subsidy so strongly. They dismissed it. They dismissed it. And we raised it, not just publicly, we raised it privately as well. They, it’s fair to say, and I’m sure many of you raised it at various forums and privately as well. They dismissed it. They then adopted it. That’s a good thing. We hope that they continue to listen to our constructive approaches we have done not just on wage subsidies, but extending JobSeeker to Austudy, Youth Allowance, Abstudy recipients about the changes that were made where two people and one person loses their job, increasing that threshold for entitlements from $48,000 to $79,000. As they did over evictions, as they did over increased testing, as they did over increased Telehealth and increased mental health support. We have raised a range of issues, including support for the childcare sector during this crisis. We’ve done it constructively. We’ve been very clear about what our intentions are. We have said that we would support any legislation. We did that. We tried to improve it. We don’t resolve from that. We will continue to play a constructive role. We’ll have a discussion with the Government this afternoon, at 5:30. That will be another opportunity for us where we will continue to advance our positions. Because we’re advancing them not from a partisan perspective. We’re advancing them because they are in the national interest. Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.