Apr 14, 2020







SUBJECTS: Coronavirus; support for the Australian airline industry during COVID-19; impact of coronavirus on north-western Tasmania; Ruby Princess debacle; the need to build Australia’s manufacturing sector back; National Cabinet model rather than use of COAG.


ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks for joining me. Australia continues to face an extremely difficult time. But I do want to congratulate all those Australians who did the right thing over the Easter long weekend and isolated themselves with their family, they stayed at home, they might have taken their dog for a walk or done a bit of activity in conjunction with the rules, but they did the right thing. And what we’re seeing and continuing to see are some positive signs, but of course, we can’t be complacent. We also need to recognise that there are particular challenges. And one of those challenges is in the aviation sector. This is a major challenge for our country. We have directly and indirectly some 15,000 people who are dependent upon Virgin Australia. Our two-airline system in Australia has served the country well. And today’s announcement of support for some flights will not go anywhere near enough to what is actually required to ensure that the two-airline system in Australia will be able to continue in the future. And I’m particularly concerned about the idea being floated that somehow, we can just get rid of cabotage. That arising out of a crisis where all Australians have been reminded of the importance of Australia being able to control our own destiny, least of all in transport areas, that we would give up the right to determine who flies here in Australia, must Australian-based domestic airlines, as is consistent with what happens just about everywhere in the entire world. The idea that a new airline will just step in if Virgin isn’t able to continue and take up that position is frankly a fantasy. We need to recognise that is the case. So, today I say to the Government, stop the bits and pieces support, provide support for our airline industry. If that needs equity injections to ensure that Government investment by taxpayers is protected, then the Government should go down that route. And it should go down that route sooner rather than later. Because we know the pressure on these airlines isn’t about to become less for a long time.


Can I also make some comments about north-western Tasmania and what is occurring there? It’s very clear that the Ruby Princess debacle is one that should never have been allowed to happen. It’s one that reminds us again that we should be in control of these issues. And the ongoing buck-passing that we’ve seen for this debacle has just got to stop. There will be time for an appropriate inquiry at a very high level into this debacle. But it’s very clear that this debacle has cost lives, and we need to make sure that we’re on top of these issues because in Tasmania this is an absolute crisis that is emerging there.


Happy to take questions.


JOURNALIST: What do you think should be done? The Treasurer suggested a 10 per cent unemployment rate. What should be done to stop that skyrocketing rate?


ALBANESE: Well, that’s too many. That represents about 1.4 million Australians. At least. It represents people not being able to pay their bills. People who have families and need to provide food and support for those families. So, I think we need to do everything we can to keep people away from Centrelink and unemployment. And that’s one of the reasons why we’ve argued that JobKeeper needs to include casuals and needs to include people like those who work in the arts and entertainment industry, who have just about been forgotten by this Government. That’s not good enough. We need to do better. Labor’s priority is absolutely to protect jobs at this time. And this morning we had a very successful caucus meeting by phone, we’re going through all of our normal processes. And that caucus made it very clear the feedback people are getting on the ground in electorates right around the country, in every state and territory, is that we want to protect jobs. We also need to have a plan emerging out of that crisis. And part of that plan needs to be to support Australian manufacturing. To support the Australian aviation industry. To support the Australian flag being on the back of Australian cruise ships and ships carrying freight, so that we actually represent a strengthening of our national interests coming out of this crisis.


JOURNALIST: The Australian Council of Social Services has suggested that a permanent increase to unemployment benefits, a lift in Newstart, these sorts of things will help people in crisis. What do you think about that?


ALBANESE: Well, we have argued for some time that Newstart needed to be increased. I have argued that since I have become the Labor Leader. What is extraordinary about the politics of this time, how many arguments the Government was completely against they’re now in favour of. They have acknowledged the fact the JobSeeker payment represents a doubling of the old Newstart allowance. They have acknowledged that $40 a day simply isn’t enough for people to live on. So, it’s clear to me that the idea that you would just return back to $40 and do it in a way which the Prime Minister implies with snapback, that you do it instantly, would provide a massive shock to the economy. We have been reminded during this crisis that Australians do depend on each other. We’re looking after each other. We need to carry that spirit forward, well after this crisis has gone.


JOURNALIST: What do you make of the video that has emerged today of Brendan Murphy suggesting that the 49 cases at a hospital in Tasmania came from an illegal dinner party of medical workers?


ALBANESE: Well, my understanding is that is being investigated over whether that is true or not. And I will leave that to play out for what the facts are.


JOURNALIST: Should he be commenting on a rumour?


ALBANESE: Well, I leave that to Doctor Murphy to explain what the circumstances are of his comments. I don’t seek to politicise his position. He has done his best in what is a very difficult job at this point in time. And I say also, though, it is very clear that the Ruby Princess played a critical role in the spreading of this disease. And it is very clear that when it comes to our border controls, whether it was cruise ships or whether it is the fact that people were coming through Sydney Airport with not even a temperature check and through Melbourne Airport, through Brisbane Airport, all of our international gateways, is a problem. We called for that to be fixed earlier. It has now been fixed with the 14 days quarantine in hotels. That is a good thing that it has been fixed. We now need to turn our attention absolutely towards ensuring that, Tasmania I know that Rebecca White, the Tasmanian Labor Leader, and other Labor members as well as Jacqui Lambie, I had a chat with this morning, are very concerned about the circumstances and whether the Tasmanian health system will be able to cope. We have seen hospitals close. It is not just a matter of people with COVID-19 symptoms, it is people who have other health care as well who now will have difficulty accessing that health care.


JOURNALIST: The WHO is now backing the re-opening of wet markets in China. What is your position on that?


ALBANESE: Well, I agree with the Prime Minister that we need to make sure, and China needs to make sure, that this can’t happen again. So, there needs to be appropriate protections put in place. Common sense tells you that that’s the case.


JOURNALIST: Just on the Ruby Princess. Investigation is now expected to take another five months. How long do you expect it to remain in Australia with it now in Port Kembla?


ALBANESE: Well, look, it’s untenable for it to remain in Port Kembla indefinitely with people on board. This is potentially another health disaster. And Labor has called for everyone on board that ship to be tested. Once that occurs, and people who need health care can get it and those who need to help assist the ship back to its port of origin should be able to do that with a minimal crew given there will be no passengers on board. And other crew members need to be assisted to get home to their country of origin. This can’t be allowed to just sit there indefinitely out of sight in Wollongong as if Wollongong is somewhere that no one will notice this is an issue. Potentially, this is a real issue for health services in the Illawarra as well. So, this needs to be resolved. We need to bear in mind that the crew on board that ship, they haven’t done anything wrong. They’re workers. Workers who have worked in an industry that is an industry devoted to looking after people. And just as we look after those people who have been passengers on the ship, the crew also deserve appropriate dignity and health care. And we need to resolve this issue. It can’t just stay off the port of Port Kembla.


JOURNALIST: New South Wales Labor wants an independent inquiry. Would you be backing that at a Federal level? Looking into the Australian Border Force officials?


ALBANESE: Look, we’ll be making announcements at the appropriate time about what our view is with regard to investigations about a whole range of issues relating to this disaster. One of the things that Labor did do last time were in Government, we had Royal Commissions that made a difference. The current Government came to office and had Royal Commissions into Labor Leaders and Labor Prime Ministers effectively. They used it politically. What we need to do is to have proper investigations, both to know how things occurred, because very clearly, the passing of the buck here from the Federal Morrison Government to the state Berejiklian Government to Carnival, it’s just got to stop. It’s clear as mud what happened here. What I know is that since Federation, the national Government have had control of our borders. I know that that’s the case. So, we need to be clear about what happened. Not just as a matter of record, but more importantly, to make sure that we put in place policies and mechanisms so that this can never, ever happen again. But I say there is one thing that I do know and something I’ve been passionate about for a long period of time, is that the Australian flag on the back of Australian ships gives you more control than flags of convenience. I know that is the case. And I’m not saying that is the only element because it’s not. But it is an element in this.


JOURNALIST: You said you will make announcements at an appropriate time. When is the appropriate time?


ALBANESE: Well, we are saying what should happen with the ship. The question is what should happen with an investigation. The ship should be looked after now. People on board, everyone, should be tested. Now. People who need health care should get that health care. Now. The people who can take the ship back to its port of origin should do that as soon as they’re given the okay in terms of health. These actions should be taken now. These aren’t a matter of having an inquiry. An inquiry will take time. That’s the nature of it. If you do it properly, it will take time. This issue needs to be resolved, not wait for an inquiry to be resolved. Thanks very much. Questions on the phone?


JOURNALIST: Thanks for this opportunity. Just on the question of Virgin. Are you suggesting that you would support or that Labor would support a partial nationalisation of airlines? And if that is the case, would it be limited to Virgin? Or would you say more broadly across the sector?


ALBANESE: Well, it’s Virgin that are particularly requiring support. And what I’m suggesting is that, and this is similar advice, to be frank, to advice I received in 2013, as the Aviation Minister from the Department of Treasury at that time, is that if Government is going to provide some financial support, at the moment, the proposal has been floated that a loan be given and if it doesn’t get repaid, then the Government would be able to exercise some ownership rights. I believe the Government should consider reversing that. I don’t believe that taxpayers’ money should be given unconditionally to a corporation. And there’s no reason why a Government could not make a financial injection through equity, and then that to be sold down the track. What we know is that at the moment, this is a bit like the reverse of the super circumstances of our concern there. This is an ideal time, if anything, this is the bottom of the market, that’s for sure. And what I say is that if it is the case that we are going to lose, effectively, the two-airline industry in Australia, then the Government should intervene. That’s the first point. The nature of that intervention, we’re prepared to be flexible about with regard to the Government, any ideas that it has. But an idea that’s consistent with the advice that I received many years ago, and that the incoming Abbott Government was also considering doing, is to purchase equity in an airline. And what that would do is provide it with support to ensure it could continue. We’re talking here about 15,000 direct and indirect jobs. We’re talking here about access to regional centres, of which our airline structure has ensured that that’s been able to occur. And all of that is at risk. The truth is, all airlines are under pressure at the moment. And there wouldn’t be an airline in the world of any significance that is not currently receiving a form of government support. Most major airlines in the world, the Middle Eastern Airlines, Singapore, the Asian airlines, including the Chinese airlines, are all either government-owned, partially government-owned, or certainly government-backed, including in the United States depend upon government support in terms of the airlines structure and the way that they’re not allowed to fail. So, that’s just the fact of the international aviation industry. And I believe that Virgin is important. It is important that we continue to have a successful Qantas as well as a successful Virgin. And that’s what I believe the Government needs to intervene on.


JOURNALIST: Should the same offer then be made to Qantas and to Rex and any other airlines in trouble?


ALBANESE: Of course. This isn’t about favouring one airline or another. This is about favouring an industry structure that serves the national interest. This is about Australia’s national interest, the interests of jobs. That social capital as well as physical capital that has taken more than a decade to build up. Ansett disappeared, of course. At that time Virgin Blue existed. So, you had a base. The idea that Virgin can disappear, and someone will just come in and pick up what’s left is just a triumph of hope over reality, which is why people in the Government are talking about opening up Australian domestic routes to foreign carriers which would carry foreign crew and pay foreign wages. They’ve done that around our coasts, and it has not served our Australian national interest or our fuel security. They should not be allowed to do it in our skies as well. Thanks very much.


JOURNALIST: Just two quick ones. On councils, is it fair enough what the Federal Government’s position is to help out councils with their current financial difficulties? And second, where do you stand in the general debate about our health strategies? Should we be the flattening curve or total elimination?


ALBANESE: Well, with regard to councils I’ll say this; local government is really under pressure. And it’s under pressure not due to anything that they’ve done. It’s under pressure due to the constraints that have been supported by Federal as well as state and territory governments on people’s movements. The fact is that in incoming times as well, rate payers will be getting their bills that they’ll have difficulty with, as well. I think there’s a need for far greater support of local government at this point in time. Local government currently can’t get access to JobKeeper. And we know that many local governments are putting off literally hundreds of people as we speak. That is not a good thing. And the Commonwealth as well as states all need to contribute at this point in time. With regard to health and the targets we think that the governments, plural, have got it basically right at the moment. This is what we were calling for. We would have preferred the controls of airports and ports to be much stronger earlier. We would have preferred some of the constraints to be done earlier. And in a way that was much more consistent in terms of saying, for example, that the weekend where people were told they couldn’t gather on Monday, but it was fair enough for 30,000 people to go watch for footy next to each other the day before. We didn’t think that made any sense. We think though, that as times gone on, these issues have been worked through. It was possible, perhaps, early on to work to an elimination of the sort of New Zealand model if you really shut down the borders a lot earlier. We didn’t do that. We did shut down the border with China very early. That was a good decision. And that made a big difference, no doubt. But we continued to receive people from overseas, whether by air or by sea. And that is where a majority of the infections have come from. We’re working well in terms of community transmission at this point in time. But we need to continue to be vigilant.


JOURNALIST: Do you agree with Mark McGowan that the National Cabinet should remain in place after the Coronavirus crisis and that it should essentially replace the COAG model?


ALBANESE: Well, it effectively is the COAG model. It’s the national government and state and territory governments meeting. We think there should have been, I am someone who argued last year, you might recall that during the bushfire crisis, we call for COAG to meet. COAG met once last year, in the entire year. There is much work to be done in terms of the Commonwealth, state and territory governments getting together to streamline regulations, to advance micro-economic reform, to coordinate activity. They’ve been doing a good job coordinating the activity that’s been rolled out at different times across state and territory governments. There are different rules in place with regard to schools. The golf course behind me in Marrickville, you can play golf. You can’t play golf in Victoria. There are different rules being set up by all the state and territory governments. But what it’s enabled to happen is coordination. And of course, there should be more coordination between state and territory governments. COAG works, of course, not just in terms of the Leaders’ meetings, but the ministerial council meetings are subcommittees of COAG. I know when I was a minister, through the Transport Ministerial Council, we achieved significant reform, including moving national transport regulators from 23 down to three. Perhaps not the most sexiest of topics, but one that benefited the Australian national economy to the tune of $30 billion over 20 years. So, there is much hard work that needs to be done. But it’s a good thing that we’re getting coordination at this point in time. Thanks very much.