Apr 2, 2020








SUBJECTS: Parliament sitting for wage subsidy legislation; coronavirus; impact of coronavirus; transparency from authorities during the coronavirus; asylum seekers; New Zealand’s Epidemic Response Committee; calls for the release of the coronavirus modelling for Australia.


RAFAEL EPSTEIN, HOST: Anthony Albanese, good afternoon.




EPSTEIN: I think you are at home at the moment. I am only mentioning that to ask what are the streets like? You’re sort of in a relatively inner-suburb of Sydney, what are the streets like near your place?


ALBANESE: Well, they are pretty quiet, I have got to say. But I am ringing you from my electorate office where I came to talk to you on a landline. And the Centrelink office is just three doors down. And the queue still goes for a couple of hundred metres.


EPSTEIN: Are they keeping their distance?


ALBANESE: They are. They are. It has been well organised. I have been doing walks just along the line just chatting with people over the last couple of weeks asking if there is anything we can do to assist, hearing stories which are tragic, I have got to say. Not everyone wants to talk, of course. What I do is just say g’day and then leave it up to them how far people take it. Everyone is polite. That is the nature of our community. But many of them are distraught, they’re distressed. They’re not sure how they’re going to get by. Certainly, the recent announcements will assist with that, particularly the wages package. We’ll see, I hope, some people who have been queuing put back into work with their employer.


EPSTEIN: Can I ask about the wages package because Parliament will sit next week briefly to pass that? There are groups who aren’t included in that. I think people who are on a Disability Support Pension at the moment aren’t included, casuals clearly miss out on keeping their job, there are people on temporary work visas who miss out. Would you use Parliament next week to add to the group who are caught or who can gain from the extra benefits?


ALBANESE: Well, we certainly will be advocating for measures like that. We’re still concerned about casual workers missing out. We’re concerned about temporary visa holders of various forms missing out. And it’s an opportunity, we’ll be meeting with the Prime Minister and other Cabinet members this afternoon.


EPSTEIN: Can I ask a logistical question about that? I’m just trying to work out how our politics works at the moment. Because Parliament is so short, you will raise your objections and try to get extensions in private meetings rather than the way you would normally in the chamber? Is that how this is working?


ALBANESE: Look, we will in advance indicate areas where we think there are weaknesses. And I’ve got to say that on some issues, the Government has been prepared to listen and to change their view. They, of course, were opposed to wage subsidies completely. We raised that as an issue when Parliament last sat. We raised it before, during and after. And we were successful along with the unions and of course, business was arguing the same point that it really needed a measure like this.


EPSTEIN: Are they going too slow, the Government?


ALBANESE: Well, I would have preferred if they had of taken that position when Parliament last sat. That would have meant that many people who were queuing outside Centrelink offices wouldn’t have done so. But, you know, to their credit, they changed their position. And that’s a good thing. And they deserve credit for that.


EPSTEIN: Can I clarify? Casuals get the JobKeeper, I think, if they’ve been with their employer for 12 months or more. What change would you seek?


ALBANESE: Well, I think we would like to see that lowered.


EPSTEIN: By six months or something?


ALBANESE: Well, we’ll wait. That’ll be the product, I guess, of negotiation. But in many professions, universities, for example, a lot of casual employees, I’m told, will be on very short-term contracts effectively and they’ll miss out. So, people who work in the hospitality industries, baristas will swap around, people work in bars or what have you, will swap around. So, for all of those issues we think that the Government should look at it. One of the things about Government is they have at their disposal something that we don’t. Departments that can look at the details and do costings, which is why we’ll raise these issues this evening.


EPSTEIN: Can I ask something about broader scrutiny? In New Zealand they’ve had three meetings of something called the Epidemic Response Committee. It is chaired by the leader of their opposition. It’s a committee dominated by Opposition MPs. They’ve been questioning under oath the Police Minister, the Minister responsible for New Zealand’s borders, the public servants responsible for the stockpiles of masks and gloves for health workers. They get asked questions under oath, like our Senate estimates. Do we need something like New Zealand’s Epidemic Response Committee?


ALBANESE: I certainly think we need some form of scrutiny in the form of parliamentary scrutiny. And we’ll be pursuing that issue as well next week in the Parliament. We would have preferred and indeed we voted against the deferral of Parliament. We felt that there should be ongoing meetings of the Parliament.


EPSTEIN: Can you tell us what how you would like that scrutiny to happen? A committee like this or something different?


ALBANESE: Well, we have a different parliamentary system. But be it either a Senate Committee or a Joint Select Committee should be established to provide that oversight, both in terms of the departmental responses, but also to hear from people about where there are gaps in the system. The truth is that no one, no individual or no political party, has a monopoly on wisdom. This is largely uncharted territory that we’re in here. And that’s why scrutiny would benefit the Government as well as, of course, most importantly, benefit the outcomes. We have also written to the Auditor General, asking that there be an ongoing National Audit Office consideration of the rollout of expenditure on an ongoing basis. That of course will be very independent of the political process. But when we’re talking about such large sums of money, we believe that would be appropriate. And that letter from Katy Gallagher, our Shadow Finance Minister, is up on the Audit Office website.


EPSTEIN: And they usually like invitations like that. A broader question on trust, Anthony Albanese. I’ve asked you this in these pandemic times before. But you say the Government’s been slower to a wage subsidy to making schools likely only open for the parents that need them, shutting the Grand Prix. Should we trust the Government more in these times?


ALBANESE: I think that in a democracy, it’s important that there be a two-way relationship. One that governments and people in authority need to, on the big calls, on when they say, for example, on social distancing measures, they should be followed. But governments also, it’s a two-way process, they have to trust the people. And they have to be prepared to be transparent about decisions. One of the things that I argued very early on was that when the changes were being made on a day-to-day basis, I think causing some confusion, I argued that just as when the Reserve Bank hands down an interest rate decision, they put out an explanation of why it is, what their thinking is. And I don’t think that was happening. So, people, I think, were more confused early on than they are now. But there’s been effectively a lot of controls put on and I think it’s become clearer and the new announcements about personal behaviour have become less of a daily event.


EPSTEIN: So, we can trust the Government on the big calls, but part of a democracy we’re allowed to query the small ones?


ALBANESE: We have to question all the calls. But that’s important for scrutiny. That’s an important part of our democratic process. So, for example, we have as the Labor Party, I have tried to be as constructive as possible. I put forward positive ideas where I think the Government’s got it right. I’ve said so. We voted for the stimulus package. We will vote to ensure that there are wage subsidies next Wednesday, even though I say that, even though I haven’t even seen the legislation. We will do all of that but at the same time, they don’t get a free kick. We will examine the legislation. Where there is the sort of gaps that you’ve indicated like on casuals, some visa holders, we will raise those issues as well. That’s an important part of the process.


EPSTEIN: Anthony Albanese is with us. He is, of course, the Leader of the Opposition. 1300 222 774 is the phone number. Tell me what you think about what he’s saying, what we’re talking about. 1300 222 774. On transparency again, Anthony Albanese, there’s been a bit of back and forth, whether or not the Federal Government and their senior doctors should release the modelling. There are mathematical models that show how many people they might expect to have in intensive care, how many people they might expect to die, given certain parameters. It looked like we were going to get that modelling. Now it looks like we are not going to get it. Do you think the Government should release more about their modelling?




EPSTEIN: What do you want to see and why?


ALBANESE: I want to see the detail. Because it’s what helps build confidence. We know that we have medical experts, the Chief Medical Officer, the deputy, the medical officers have different titles in each state and territory, but the senior advisers. And I think it would really help if we got that advice available to everyone.


EPSTEIN: Would it panic people if they knew how many people the Government thought might die?


ALBANESE: Look, I think people know this is very serious. And they know that we are preparing for a peak that we certainly haven’t reached yet. And in terms of information, I believe given the comments of the Deputy CMO who gave figures and said, ‘you do the maths’, I think it would have been better to actually just talk people through it. This is a scary time. That’s the truth. And I believe that we need transparency. And there’s been no reason given for why that transparency shouldn’t occur. Certainly, none given either publicly at none given to me.


EPSTEIN: There’s also a letter from more than 1,000 doctors. They want a lot of the asylum seekers and refugees who are in detention in Australia, bases in Brisbane, they’re in hotels in Melbourne, they are arguing that those asylum seekers and refugees should be released from detention because it’s too hard for them to stay safe in a pandemic. Do you think they should be released?


ALBANESE: Look, if there are circumstances whereby people can be treated in a way that protects their health, whilst not trying to circumvent the processes of looking at their applications, then we should be looking at it in a way which prioritises their health. And surely, in some circumstances, if people are just waiting for the consideration, for example, of their applications then I don’t think it’s beyond the width of the Department of Home Affairs and other bodies that are responsible to ensure that there was still an accountability there, that people weren’t gaming the system, but that their health was being looked after. Because that’s a priority. It is an absolute crisis going on in the United States with regard to their prison population. And in New York, the mayor there is looking at releasing people who’ve actually been sentenced, but who are low-risk, because they’ve got to deal with these issues. These are unusual times. And we need to prioritise healthcare whilst, of course, always looking at if there are any national security issues for particularly individuals, of course. We need to be mindful of that as well.


EPSTEIN: I don’t want you to divulge any of the content of your private conversations with the Prime Minister but you’re having conversations with him privately that I imagine that you’ve never had before. Have you changed your opinion of him as a person? Or do you reckon you understand him better as a person as opposed to the politician?


ALBANESE: Oh, look, I’ve been in Parliament with him for some time. So, you do develop relationships and have conversations with people in Parliament. I’m not sure that I understand him any better as a result of this. I’m not sure our relationship is improved as a result of this. I’m always prepared to have respectful conversations with people. I also am always prepared to have private conversations that stay private. I think that’s important in order to get things done. And I do think that it’s a good thing that on a range of issues, he has listened to the Opposition. We had a discussion of myself, him and Josh Frydenberg after the divisions that happened in the chamber over votes at about five o’clock on the Monday when we sat, and I went around to the Prime Minister’s office. I raised the issue of Austudy, Abstudy and Youth Allowance recipients and we agreed to another 230,000 people getting that supplement and that support. I also raised the issue the two-income families where someone loses their job and the threshold for support. And that was adopted as well. Ministerial discretion was given for the calendar year. And they were really practical outcomes. And they were good constructive discussions that we had. And they were requests that we had. We had amendments ready to move in the Senate. It was far better that the Government move the amendments that they go through on a consensus way. And I hope that with some of the outstanding issues with regard to the wage subsidy issues that have been raised with me, that we can work through those issues, as well.


EPSTEIN: Really appreciate your time. Thank you. Have a good afternoon.


ALBANESE: Thanks a lot, Raf.