Mar 23, 2020

Bills – Coronavirus Economic Support Measure Bills – Second Reading – Monday, 23 March 2020

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (11:56): In our response to this crisis we must remember, first and foremost, one thing: that it is about people. Sometimes when we talk about the economy we talk about figures and macro numbers. But, at the end of the day, this is about our people—maintaining the health of our people amidst the coronavirus epidemic but also then maintaining their economic health and wellbeing as people. What we know about humanity is the central role that having a job plays, not just in terms of your income but also in terms of your identity—who you are and being able to participate in and contribute to society. That’s why Labor has approached this crisis with an eye firmly on just one thing—not on politics, but on one thing: maximising people’s health and maximising their economic wellbeing. We have put partisanship aside and we will continue to do so.

That’s why we will support the legislation that is before us today, the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020 and related bills. This is not the legislation that a Labor government would introduce. A Labor government would, for a start, be acting with more urgency. A Labor government would have reconvened this parliament last week, not this week. A Labor government would have been making payments not with an eye for the $750 of it kicking in in the next quarter; we would have been putting money into people’s pockets to spend immediately we made that announcement.

But this government always has an eye on the politics—always. That’s why we on this side haven’t been invited to participate in the so-called national cabinet. That’s really just COAG phone hook-ups—and I note the rather bizarre spin put out by this government on that in today’s newspaper. I certainly don’t take it personally. It’s the right of the government to determine these matters—and it has, consistent with the approach that this government takes to participation.

Our actions stand in stark contrast to the actions of the then coalition opposition during the global financial crisis. I don’t resile from that, because that’s all on the record—the dozens of divisions that we had late into the night, with them opposing protecting people’s jobs and them opposing economic stimulus, which they said was too great. Well, let me say this: we are all Keynesians now, and the government’s rhetoric on Labor’s economic record should be consigned to the dustbin of history, as should their nonsense about the impact of what we did to protect jobs, which, yes, did result, therefore, in us not bringing down budget surpluses. Their hubris which said that we were already in surplus, I think, should cause them some embarrassment, but it should also cause them, I would hope, an opportunity to reflect on the damage that that rhetorical position has, because it leads to errors of judgement, which is why last year—when this economy was suffering from stagnant wages, falling consumer demand, three interest rate cuts, cuts to the projections of economic growth, and rising underemployment up to two million—this government did not act throughout that, because it was focused on the politics rather than what the economics required.

We will be supporting this package in spite of the weakness that we see, because, in my electorate of Grayndler in the inner west of Sydney right now, there’s something unusual going on that will remind people, in a strange kind of way, of what’s happening in our economy. There are people queuing outside Centrelink, which is just down from my electorate office. It goes around the corner to Illawarra Road. There are people queuing in Leichhardt Centrelink office as well. But there’s something else happening, which is that there’s silence above their heads. If you know Marrickville, where I live and work and which I represent, you’ll know that there are normally, at this point in time, 70 movements an hour above people’s heads, and every one of them will have an impact on my electorate. But it’s pretty quiet. That’s the silence of job losses that people can’t hear but can feel. It’s having an impact right now. We are losing jobs right now with the downturn. So our thoughts go out to the baggage handlers, the flight crews, the cleaners, the check-in staff and the caterers—the airport staff. Sydney Airport is the largest driver of employment in my electorate. There are some in the Greens party and others who say, ‘Shut Sydney Airport.’ I’ve always defended it as a creator of jobs, and I’ve been consistent in that, with regard to economic activity across the board.

We think of those people who are really doing it tough today. Qantas’s decision to stand down 20,000 workers from one company in one day had an enormous impact. If you reflect on what that human impact does and multiply it—be conservative and say each one of them has a dependent partner and one child—you’re talking about 60,000 people impacted by that decision, with one company. You need to think of all the hospitality workers who will struggle to keep their jobs. We need to think of all those people. I have a big representation of the arts community—all those musos, producers and people working in theatre and film who will not be able to perform. We think of those teachers who are doing their best—with uncertain messages coming through, it’s got to be said, but who are absolutely devoted to making the lives of the young people they teach better in the future. We think of every cafe owner who’s suddenly got a whole lot of bills but no customers, and every older Australian who’s already very anxious because they know that this disease can impact anyone and can cause significant health impact for anyone—including young people, but we know that older people are particularly vulnerable. And now they have been denied even the consolation of a cuddle with their grandkids. I note the very moving comments by my friend and colleague Jim Chalmers on Insiders yesterday about the measures he’s had to take with his own very young children and their respective grandparents.

This is having just an enormous impact, and that’s why we in Labor won’t stand in the way of this legislation. But we do say that throughout this period we’ve sought to point out the gaps and inconsistencies. We note there’s been some change from the government since yesterday—I think in part because of our advocacy about when some of the payments will be made available—but not enough. We need to get this money out the door. Just like for the health impacts, the sooner we act the better it is, the more effective it is. We know that occurred in our response to the global financial crisis. Those $900 cheques, much derided by those opposite, were successful in creating that confidence in the economy. We know there are no guarantees that the business support mechanisms will ensure that people are kept in work. We know, in fact, there are no incentives to keep people on because of the way that it’s been designed. We know that, as a proportion of peoples’ wages, it’s far less than what comparable industrialised nations are doing. In the UK, there is an 80 per cent subsidy; here, effectively, there is a 20 per cent subsidy but with no guarantee at all that that 20 per cent will flow through to any employee being kept on, so we know that’s a weak strategy. At the same time, the government are incentivising people to diminish their future retirement incomes by drawing down on their super at the worst possible time for that to occur. Once again, the government never miss an opportunity to undermine our compulsory superannuation system that they opposed when it was introduced and have sought to undermine at every opportunity.

We know that during the recent bushfire crisis, we saw the best of Australia—friend helping friend, neighbour helping neighbour, stranger helping stranger. We know that people in the rural fire services, in particular the volunteers, went out of their way to help. As I went around the country, when I was with Susan in the electorate of Macquarie, her brigades had been up in Tenterfield, up on the North Coast and then afterwards were also down the South Coast. Throughout the country, we saw the best of Australia, and I hope that’s what we see here as well.

I also say to the government that one of the things put to me last week when I had a business roundtable with the member for Eden-Monaro, Mike Kelly, in Bega and the mayor of Bega Valley, Christie McBain, was that businesses were very concerned that they would be forgotten. These communities have suffered so much since last year for a prolonged period of time. We know the government budgeted its support package for just one-quarter of the notional $2 billion to go out in this financial year. It’s beyond my comprehension why that one-quarter remains the case, in spite of the fact that we have such a substantial stimulus package before us that we’re supporting today. It is beyond my comprehension how that can be acceptable—that three-quarters of it is put off into the never-never. These communities have suffered now a double whammy. They’re now affected by the coronavirus just as much as anyone else, and I’d say that the government needs to—and I know there will be more packages—have a look at those measures.

But we will support this. We will be moving amendments that are constructive, that would improve the package and help government to get it right. We know that we need to act with the greatest urgency. Time is not on our side. We can’t take anything for granted. But I am confident that we can come through this. We can come through this together, but I’d urge the government to listen to our constructive proposals, amend their package to improve their package, and Australia will be better off for it—our health will be better but our economy will be better as well.