Mar 23, 2020

Ministerial Statements – Coronavirus – Monday, 23 March 2020

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (10:26): Yesterday Bondi Beach was empty. On a warm, sunny day, that famous strip of sand was as bare as the sky above it. Barely a few weeks into autumn, sporting fields are falling as silent as our favourite music venues and concert halls. The traffic has thinned out on the roads. Pubs and our restaurants will soon be empty. The sad reality is that people are losing their jobs. And this morning, at places like Frankston Centrelink, when I spoke to Peta Murphy, the queues had formed before that Centrelink was open.

Each day we become more unnerved and uncertain about where this is heading. But this is our new reality in a world partly shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic—a reality that joins us all together while, at the same time, forcing us to be physically apart. And it’s a reality growing more confronting by the day. Most of our lives have not been directly affected by war, hunger or financial strife. They were stories our parents and grandparents told us. We listened to those stories and we pictured them in black and white. We thought we were the lucky generations. We now face an enormous threat, and it’s in colour. It is happening right now. It is global.

Fear and panic, of course, feed on uncertainty and inconsistency and, at the moment, those ingredients abound. This is a time for national leadership, consistent messages and clear directions. Today parents are concerned about whether to send their kids to school or not. People are anxious, and that is understandable. They know this is a big deal, and, when people feel that they can’t control events, they seek comfort in what they can control. We’ve seen that exhibited around the country—that they have enough essentials such as toilet paper or pasta. That’s a signal: seeking control over something in the face of the threat which is difficult for people to understand. They want to go to the footy or go to the beach one last time because they mightn’t be able to go next week. These actions might be regrettable, but hectoring will not help. Clear explanations and clarity will.

For our part, Labor has added to certainty. We’ve indicated publicly, each and every day, that we would be supportive of any bring-forward of health measures and we would support any economic stimulus legislation. This is in spite of not being included in the COAG process described by the government as a national cabinet. But it’s also prior to seeing legislation. We have provided the government with the absolute certainty that, at the end of the process, we would put forward our suggestions and our views to try and improve the legislation but that we would not stand in the way of economic stimulus or the bringing forward of any proposed health measures. That is the responsible thing to do. That is consistent with the view that I put when my caucus colleagues and party members gave me the great honour of leading this party, which is 130 years old next year. It is the responsible thing to do. We will continue to be responsible and we will act today in a responsible and constructive manner, because I want to be known as the Labor leader, not the opposition leader.

The legislation today is not perfect. We would do more and do it sooner, but we will advance our arguments. This is not a time to prevent measures which, however imperfect, are necessary to be implemented. We do need unity and, above all, we need resolute action. We cannot succumb to the illusion that time is on our side. It is not. We will get to tomorrow only if we respect the urgency for action today. We need to be clear and unequivocal. You’ve heard all the messages: stay home, keep calm and wash your hands. Make no mistake: anything that feels like an overreaction right now isn’t. Let this be our rule: if we think we’re going to take action next week, we should take that action today. The last thing we want to do is to be looking back on this time in the near future and saying, ‘If only we had done more and done it sooner.’ Clearly more can be done and more should be done.

We outlined our views on the health response in my address to the nation last Sunday 15 March. At a time where so much is changing from day to day, I think, more than a week on, it stands the test of that time. The six points I made then were:

More consistent advice—such as when to self-isolate and when to get tested

Getting more people tested more quickly

The fast tracking of fever clinics

Expanding Medicare to allow people to call or Skype their GP

A serious reduction in large gatherings of people

Timely and comprehensive travel advice and restrictions that are updated more frequently.

We stand by that statement of just a week ago. We must listen to our smartest minds—our scientists, our doctors, our immunologists. Now is the time to listen, to learn and to act without delay.

This is about people’s lives and then, of course, consequentially, their livelihoods, particularly the lives of many of our vulnerable people—our parents and grandparents, the disadvantaged and the First Australians. We owe them our best. It’s pretty hard to self-isolate if you’re homeless. This is also about our economy. We will support both stimulus packages not because they are perfect but because they are urgent. We want this package to work and to work quickly. People’s lives are at stake. We’re concerned about the lack of direct support that would keep people in their jobs. The business measures do not guarantee support for workers because it’s calculated on people being in work in February not now or in the future. Youth allowance, Abstudy and Austudy recipients do not receive the coronavirus supplement. Various visa holders also aren’t getting the support we believe they need.

There are sectors that I think could be given more support. Today, of all days, we think of our teachers—what remarkable people! They’re certainly not childminders. They’re people who, each and every day, whether they work in the public system, the Catholic system or the independent system, create future Australians with their knowledge and their commitment, and we respect them for the work that they are doing.

We also think of other sectors that haven’t got specific support at this point. The arts and entertainment industry—so important for the quality of our lives—needs, in my view, direct support in order to be sustained into the future so that, as we come out of this diabolical circumstance, we recognise that the quality of our lives isn’t just about money; it’s about culture and experience and community and belonging. And we will need that more than ever as we come out of this process.

We of course have expressed concerns about the early accessing of superannuation. Selling your super at the bottom of the market will risk squandering people’s hard-earned retirement savings. It’s also the case that if the superannuation industry is forced to sell assets at the bottom of the market that is not sensible economics.

We say to the government that we have been as supportive as possible and we will not be moving amendments where there is any doubt. We will give the benefit to the government. We are not looking for arguments; we are looking for solutions. But, on some of these measures, please listen to the arguments. Recognise that we, on this side of the parliament, do represent, by the way, the largest political party in this parliament—the largest. Our views should be taken into account even though we will, as we’ve said, vote for the package if our amendments are not successful. We’ve given that commitment. But I believe we are right on that issue, and the government should consider alternative measures to put dollars in the pockets of low-income workers other than by doing it at the expense of the quality of life in their retirement.

In today’s emergency session of parliament there are few of us here, but our actions today will be felt and measured for a very long time. We’re elected to this place to serve the Australian people. Today we feel the weight of our nation’s need. Never has our duty been so urgent. I lead a Labor team determined to be constructive, and Labor stand ready to play our role. We want to help the government to get it right and this parliament to get it right—all of us. We find ourselves in a time like no other. We, the Australian people, must in our isolation come together and remember who we are: we are the people who came together selflessly in the recent bushfire crisis. Now is not a time for ‘me’; now is a time for ‘us’. Let’s spread kindness and humanity, not coronavirus. The months ahead will be difficult. There will be pain and suffering. Our country, our world, has changed, but this will not last forever. Things will be different after this.

I am an optimist. I have faith in the people of Australia, faith in our people’s courage, faith in our people’s sense of community and faith in our people’s compassion for one another. That gives me the faith that we will get through this together.

The SPEAKER: On behalf of the House, I thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. We will now move to the legislation.