Apr 8, 2020

Ministerial Statements – COVID-19 – Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (10:28): Something we should reflect on when we gather here in the House of Representatives is that last word, ‘Representatives’. We are here to represent people. We are here to deliver policies which protect people’s health. We are here to deliver programs that protect people’s living standards. In the current crisis, statistics and numbers abound, but they are not abstract; they represent people—someone’s mother; someone’s brother; someone’s grandparent; our colleague the member for Cooper Ged Kearney’s father-in-law, Mike, aged 82 years. Our sincere condolences go to Ged, Leigh and all of Mike’s family.

At times like this we must rise to the occasion, whilst recognising the simple principle that looking after people is our core responsibility; that we have a responsibility to look after the sick, the vulnerable and the needy; that we as representatives in this parliament must be as good and compassionate and courageous as the workers who continue to make a difference for their fellow Australians; and that we adhere to the principle of caring and looking after one another—the principle of the fair go, the heart of what it means to be an Australian not just in easy times of peace and prosperity but in the very depths of despair.

While Australians are being forced to be 1.5 metres apart, in so many ways we have never been closer together. We don’t discard our values in hard times; we look to them. We trust in them. We trust one another. We remember what it means to be an Australian: not just the privilege of life in this country, in some abstract sense, but the duty that we all have to look after each other. This is how we will come through this, together.

We owe a debt to all our medical workers. Like our firefighters, so recently, they’ve put themselves on the front line, day in, day out, week in, week out. We owe a debt to our cleaners, unsung heroes, who are putting themselves on the front line; to our public transport workers and other transport workers; to our teachers and our childcare workers; to our supermarket workers; to our police officers and emergency service workers; to everyone who is keeping us going through this. It is an unprecedented situation that is making unprecedented changes to the way that we live our lives, and it is being met with unprecedented government spending, which we are considering today.

Labor has a responsibility to be constructive and to make sure the government gets this right. I’ve continued to say from day one that I want to be known as the Labor leader, not the opposition leader. We come to the parliament with open hearts and open minds. But we owe it to all Australians to keep our eyes open too. The scale of this expenditure that we’ll consider today is without equal in our nation’s history. We are headed for a trillion-dollar debt. It is a bill that will saddle a generation. With this comes a compelling need for scrutiny and forensic oversight.

We have called for a wage subsidy for many weeks. We regard the keeping of a relationship between employers and their employees as essential, to minimise unemployment and ensure that we can transition from this economic downturn as quickly and as strongly as possible. I congratulate the government on changing its view on wage subsidies since we last met.

I recognise that many of the measures being advanced by the government to intervene in the economy stand in direct contravention to their rhetorical position over many years, including, of course, their opposition to much of the economic stimulus program of the Rudd Labor government that protected Australians through the global financial crisis. Australians can feel comfort that the government has been prepared to act in a way which, I’m sure, makes it feel uncomfortable. They deserve credit for listening to the views of Labor, unions and the business community on the wage subsidy issue. Even though we have concerns about some elements of the package and would like to see it improved, and we will make suggestions to improve it, we will support the legislation even if our suggestions are not adopted.

Today, we will move a series of second reading amendments. They go to the issues that we believe would improve the bill. We will then move, in detail, amendments in the House of Representatives. We hope that the government is prepared to consider those and to respond positively, just as we did in the first package of legislation. But we will ensure the speedy package not just through the House of Representatives but also through the Senate.

Our caucus today adopted a position that we will not support any amendments that are not moved by Labor in the Senate later this evening. We do that because of the practical issue that we do not want a stand-off between the two chambers. We want a speedy package of the wage subsidies that will make a difference to people’s lives. We say that well in advance and, indeed, it is consistent with what we did on the first package of legislation and is consistent with my approach to politics: never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And this is good legislation. It will make a difference to people as a result of what we do in this parliament here.

The needs of our nation, I believe, demand unity and a common sense of purpose. I reiterate our concern that the structure of the JobKeeper payments will mean that many needy Australians will miss out. This arises from the principle that the payments will be directed on the basis of the structure of the employer, not the need of the individual worker. This means that employees in exactly the same circumstances may be treated differently, depending on the size and the structure of the company or business that they work for. Payments will be defined not by what has happened to the worker but by who they work for, the structure of the company and the way they deal with their business activity statements.

There are over one million Australians who are casual workers and will not be eligible for the JobKeeper program. This fails to recognise that in the modern workforce many workers defined as casual but who have been stood down have expectations and financial commitments based upon that regular work and income. For every worker who misses out, it means that the relationship between that worker and their employer risks being broken. And when you break this relationship you not only weaken the existing economic position of both the worker and their employer but also the pace of economic recovery coming out of this crisis. We know from bitter experience that, once this relationship is severed, some workers remain unemployed for a very long time.

We are also concerned about permanent workers being forced to take their annual leave at this time. This will not be in their interest or in the long-term interest of the economy, as we seek to revive the tourism sector as we come out of this crisis. The exclusion of temporary visa holders from the JobKeeper arrangements is also of concern. I agree with the Prime Minister that, if a temporary visa worker can go home in the midst of this crisis, they should. But the reality is that most cannot, as borders close and international flights are cancelled. That means there are some one million people who remain in Australia without work, without access to health care and without a means of support. The nature of this pandemic means that that is a health issue not just for the individuals but for the nation, and that’s why it requires a response from the government beyond that which is currently being offered.

We put these further suggestions to the government in the spirit of bipartisanship. Bipartisanship does not imply unilateralism; it also does not imply silence. What it implies is goodwill, constructive relationships on both sides and a capacity to work through issues. I acknowledge that many issues have been worked through in a cooperative way, and I say that we on this side are prepared to continue to do so. For example, we acknowledge that under the existing legislation the Treasurer has a capacity to make changes to who is eligible for JobKeeper payments on an ongoing basis, and we say to him that we will continue, if we are not successful today, to argue the case, because I think it is a good one. It is one that is argued not in partisan interests; it is one that is argued in the national interest, because we all have an interest in coming out of this as strong as we possibly can.

We believe that there should be a capacity to consider the practical way in which this legislation is making a difference in this parliament between now and August. We should continue to sit on a regular basis. I don’t see that it’s consistent that we are saying to our health workers, to our teachers, to our police officers, to our supermarket workers, to our cleaners and to others, ‘Thank you for continuing to work and do your job,’ but we’re not going to sit in this parliament until August. I believe today will be a day in which we can all be collectively proud of our efforts in this parliament—both those members and senators who are here and those who have done the right thing because of social distancing and being part of caring arrangements. But I say that the government should, as it has the power to do, continue to meet at regular intervals. It is in their interest, it is in the nation’s interests, and I think the public expect it.

It is a good thing—and I congratulate the government on agreeing to it—that we will have the Senate select committee that will be chaired by Senator Gallagher, the shadow finance minister. We on this side, will be ably represented as well by Senator Keneally and Senator Watt, and there will be a representative of the Greens political party, as well as Senator Lambie and two government members. This will have an important role in scrutinising, in detail, the implementation of the package that will be passed through the parliament.

We’re very proud that Labor advanced the need for wage subsidies as an essential component of coming through this crisis, and we recognise that millions of Australians will benefit directly from this package. We recognise that businesses that would have collapsed and disappeared, never to be seen again, will be able to continue as a result of this package and that that capital—both physical capital and social capital—will continue as a result of this package. On top of support for JobKeeper, we are heartened by the government’s adoption of other constructive suggestions that we have advanced in recent weeks. They include: an increase in testing and stronger action for those who arrive on international flights; increased use of telehealth, including for mental health; a moratorium on evictions from residential properties, so a young family with a baby won’t get forced out onto the street; interest rate relief for landlords on properties where their tenants have no income, meaning a landlord who has lost their job doesn’t have to pass the pain on to a young family; and support for child care to ensure the system can survive the downturn.

When parliament last met, changes were agreed that extended the jobseeker payment to 230,000 recipients of Austudy, Abstudy and the youth allowance. We agreed to adjusting the income threshold for couples when one partner loses their job and, since then, that has been implemented by the minister, and I thank Minister Ruston for that.

We also agreed to increase the discretionary power of the finance minister to $40 billion. While I speak about the government being out of its comfort zone, it certainly wouldn’t have been in my reckoning when I became Labor leader that we would increase that discretionary payment capacity of the finance minister from $1.2 billion to $40 billion, but it is conjunction with the shadow finance minister.

All of these measures are making a difference. So too are the social-distancing measures. As we have learnt from overseas experience and we are confirming here, these measures, while difficult, are both effective and necessary. The precautionary principle must apply. With all of them, we need to bring politics back to being all about people, and it is people that are making a difference by agreeing to stay at home, including over the Easter period. It is encouraging that one possible casualty of this pandemic is the politics where partisan interests trump the national interest, where vilifying your opponents and impugning their motives replaces a contest of ideas. That sort of politics undermines faith in our democracy.

One day we will conquer this disease. The pandemic will be a Wikipedia entry with a start date and a finish date, but its effects will be with us for a very long time. Each day has us reflecting on what really counts. Each day in this changing world is changing us. What sort of society will we be after this? There will be changes to the way we live, work and travel. As we rebuild, we must be guided by the principle of an economy that works for people, not the other way around—that we need greater work security; that we need essential government services, such as that provided by Centrelink, to be done by people, not robots; and that contracting out of core functions needs to end. It is a good sign that this is recognised across the parliament by the abandonment of the visa privatisation proposal.

We must ensure greater self-reliance and self-protection. That means support for manufacturing and producing products that we need in times of crisis. This extends beyond medical products to food and other essential supplies. It means recognising our fortune in that being an island continent provides us with some advantages. We should ensure that our maritime sector, whether carrying people on cruise ships or freight on cargo ships, is revitalised by the Australian flag being present around our coastline, which would give us more control over our national interests.

We should reflect on the fact that so many of those frontline workers—think about it: cleaners, childcare workers, teachers, health workers, nurses—are, in so many cases, defined not just by being in primarily though certainly not exclusively female occupations, but also by being our poorest paid. They are the people we are relying upon. That’s market failure, because price does not represent value, because their value has been shown to be absolutely essential to literally keeping us alive during this period.

We should also reflect on being reminded that there is a common interest between trade unions and the business community. They have worked together so effectively. The common interest between business and unions doesn’t just exist in a crisis; it was there before and it will be there after, and this parliament must recognise that. This crisis has been a potent reminder that there is indeed such a thing as society—that we are not just individuals; that we rely on each other. We will come through this together.

This crisis will change Australia forever. That’s the nature of human history. We evolve. We have been reminded that it is our human relationships that are central to our quality of life. We need to emerge from this crisis with confidence that we are stronger when we work together and with confidence in the principles that no-one held back and no-one was left behind. If we do that, if we continue to work together across this parliament and as unions, business, community leaders and workers, we will emerge from this stronger and more united and with a greater sense of confidence in who we are. I’m certain we can do that together.

I thank the House and I thank my colleagues for the work that they’ve done in going through a difficult process, in caucus and with the whole Labor Party being prepared to work in such a constructive way. I pledge to continue to play a constructive role with the government during this crisis to ensure that we overcome both the health and the economic challenges ahead.