House debates

Monday, 23 March 2020


Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020, Guarantee of Lending to Small and Medium Enterprises (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Australian Business Growth Fund (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Assistance for Severely Affected Regions (Special Appropriation) (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Structured Finance Support (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Appropriation (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill (No. 1) 2019-2020, Appropriation (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill (No. 2) 2019-2020, Boosting Cash Flow for Employers (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020; Second Reading

11:07 am

Photo of Jim ChalmersJim Chalmers (Rankin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Treasurer) Share this | Hansard source

This is a defining test for our country and its leaders, and it's a defining test for our people and their parliament. This is a diabolical health challenge that we as a country are facing up to, and it has cruel and devastating impacts on the economy as well. Lives and livelihoods will be destroyed by the impact of this coronavirus. I think all sides of this House understand, appreciate and acknowledge that Australians are very anxious right now.

There's a lot of anxiety in the community, first and foremost, about our health and the health of the people that we love; anxiety about peoples' jobs, their job security and whether they can earn enough money during this difficult period to put food on the table for those that we care about and care for; anxiety about superannuation balances, particularly for those who are closest to retirement; and anxiety about all aspects of peoples' personal finances. Because of that anxiety, the depth and likely duration of this health crisis and economic crisis, this is no time for half-measures. It is no time for nickel-and-diming our response. It's no time for dithering and delay. We need to approach this crisis with clarity, with urgency and with coordination. It's true in the health challenges and it's true in the related economic challenges as well.

In an earlier time—during the global financial crisis—the defining advice that we received was that Australia and its economic decision-makers needed to go early, go hard and go households. The challenge for us today is to go big, to go fast and to go jobs and incomes. We need to do everything that we can possibly do to protect the lives and livelihoods of the Australians that we represent. I do know that every member of the House on this side appreciates the depth of that challenge and I know that every member of the government and every member of the crossbench appreciates that challenge as well.

As the Leader of the Opposition said in his contribution, responding to the Prime Minister's statement earlier on, we take our responsibilities very seriously on this side of the House and, for some time now, we have committed to being as supportive, responsible and constructive as we possibly can be. We appreciate that every Australian has an interest and a stake in the government getting this right. On this side of the House, since we first heard of this coronavirus and its likely devastating impacts, we have done all that we can to be as responsible, constructive and supportive of what the government is proposing.

I wanted to acknowledge to the Treasurer, who is still at the table, and the Prime Minister and their senior colleagues that we did have the opportunity to discuss some of these matters yesterday in the cabinet room and we appreciate that. We appreciate the opportunity to feed in from time to time. We would like more opportunities for that, but we appreciate the opportunities that have been afforded us. I think that meeting in the cabinet room yesterday was a symbol of what Australians expect from us and expect of us. They expect us to put the political swords down, at least for the time being, and they expect us to do what we can together to get Australian society, Australian communities and the Australian economy through this difficult period. I wanted to acknowledge the shadow health minister who has joined us. Every day of this challenge, he has been doing what he can to make the same kind of responsible contribution to the health response that I just outlined in relation to the economic response as well.

We do welcome substantial elements of the package that the Treasurer just ran through, contained in the bills that we will support today. Obviously, we welcome more support for small and medium-sized businesses going through an extraordinarily difficult period, a period so difficult it would have been almost unfathomable to many of these business people in recent months and recent years. Of course we welcome additional support, particularly for the most vulnerable people in our communities—the pensioners, the unemployed. We welcome that support. We welcome the decisive action taken by the Reserve Bank. We welcome the steps taken by the other banks in making sure that they can do their bit and play their role in getting people through this difficult period. There is much in this package that we welcome, and we want to make it clear to the Australian people outside of this building that when the government proposes something that we support we will say so and we will vote for it. That's what we're doing today.

Part of being a responsible, supportive and constructive opposition means making a contribution where we can to improve what the government has proposed. As I said, there are many welcome elements and we will be voting for the package that the Treasurer just outlined. We will do that today, as soon as possible. We have always said that we will expedite the passage of these bills, because we want to see this money circulating through the economy as soon as possible. But part of being constructive does mean pointing out where we think the package can be improved. In my view, there are at least five primary ways that we should try and do a better job here. The first one, and perhaps the most important, is that we need to find a way to inject more urgency into what is being agreed here today, what's been proposed and what's in the bills. I don't think it's good enough to say to Australian businesses, pensioners, families, communities, workers and others that the package that we will pass today won't flow until the end of April, or until May when it comes to the deeming changes, or until July when it comes to the top-up in the pensioner support. We think it shouldn't be beyond us to agree a way to get this support out the door faster than the government is proposing. I will be moving an amendment which goes to the urgency that I think we can inject into the support that will be agreed today, and that amendment's been circulated in my name.

The second set of concerns that we have around the otherwise welcome support for small and medium-sized businesses is that there is not currently a guarantee that the funds which are being afforded to businesses will guarantee that workers will be kept on or that the money will be used to pay workers' wages. One of the reasons why other countries are investigating other models of wage subsidies is because we want to make sure that there is a link maintained between an employer and an employee. There is nothing in the way that this has been designed to maintain that link. There is nothing to prevent the severance of that link between an employer and their workers. We accept that there will be cashflow assistance for business and we welcome it. We fear that without a guarantee there is not a sufficient incentive for businesses to keep workers on. It may be that the cashflow assistance is probably more likely to be spent on things like rent and other costs of business, and we would prefer it if there was some link between the provision of this assistance and the actual holding onto employees and the paying of their wages throughout this difficult period.

The third set of concerns we have goes to the gaps in the package. There are issues with people who are here on visas, there are issues with students, and there are other issues as well. We've identified those. The fourth set of concerns we have is related. The government said even before the release of the second package that there will be a third package and subsequent packages after that. We do accept that the government will need to come to the table with more assistance as this crisis unfolds, but the point that we would make and the point that the shadow health minister has made in other contexts is: if you know that will be necessary then let's not wait. Let's try and get an additional support agreed and out the door as soon as possible. The reason that's related to the third set of concerns I raised about the gaps in the package is that if we know that there are gaps now then we should be looking to fill them as soon as possible.

So the first set of concerns were urgency, no guarantee of jobs, gaps in the package and, if there is going to be another package, getting it out the door as soon as possible. The fifth one goes to superannuation. We've made it clear publicly and privately, and the shadow minister will make a contribution shortly, that we wouldn't be going down this path of allowing broader early access to superannuation. We've been clear about that. We have concerns that encouraging people to divest right now in a market as weak as it is means that we might be encouraging people to crystallise those losses and that concerns us. We're worried about the impact on the system. We're worried that if people rush to take advantage of this change then that will be bad for the system not only in the near term but also in the long term. We're worried about the difficulties this will create for people in their retirement. We're worried that it's inconsistent to say, on the one hand, 'Here's an encouragement to divest from the share market via your superannuation fund,' at the same time as you're making what we think is a wise argument about the minimum drawdown—the part that we support in the superannuation changes.

We do think there should be relief for retirees in the drawdown phase of superannuation in relation to the changes to the minimum drawdown. That's a good change. We were in the process of proposing it when we heard that those opposite were contemplating it. That's a good thing. We support that. But that argument that you shouldn't be encouraging people to get out of the system at this time when the market is in the condition that it is in is inconsistent with the argument you're making about superannuation when it comes to early access. I think that there is an issue there. Ideally, that wouldn't be part of the package and we'd be finding better ways to support the same cohort of people.

As I have said repeatedly and not just today, and as the Leader of the Opposition said and many of my colleagues have said, we will be supporting these measures despite those concerns that we have. When it's not business as usual in the economy, when it's not business as usual in our society, then it shouldn't be business as usual in our politics either. We are being as accommodating, supportive, responsible and constructive as we can be. Every Australian has a stake in the government getting this right.

The government have at least two tests that they've set for themselves. The first one, which was in the Prime Minister's contribution to the Australian Financial Review summit a couple of weeks ago, we agree with. He said that the test is to prevent job losses and prevent business closures, and that is an important part of the equation. The second part, which the government has been talking about more recently, is to support those people who have found themselves negatively impacted by this crisis and the weakening of the economy that's followed the outbreak. Those are the two tests that the government will be judged on: whether they can prevent job losses and business closures but also what they do to support people in the community, and especially what they do to support people who are displaced by this and people who are especially vulnerable.

I mentioned before the conversations that we have had with the government. We would like there to be more of that. We acknowledge that the Treasurer, in recent days, has agreed to a more regular briefing with Treasury about the economic conditions. We think that's a good thing. I appreciate that, and I want to convey that appreciation to him while he's here.

We also appreciate the engagement that has been happening with the Reserve Bank, with Governor Phil Lowe. I wanted to convey, via the House, to him and to his colleagues at the bank that we think that the package that they announced was decisive and has the capacity to make a genuine difference. I appreciate a great deal the opportunity to discuss and engage on that before it was announced. I'm sure my colleagues appreciate the opportunity for us to be kept in the loop as well.

The same goes for the private banks. I acknowledge that government has been working with the banks on the announcements that they made last week. I appreciate the engagement that we had with them too, to make sure we could be as supportive as we could as soon as we could after that announcement was made. I put that on the record too. The same goes for the peak business groups and the same goes for the union movement. There's been lots of consultation, and that's a very good thing.

I want to shout out to the health workers of this country. It must be an extraordinarily difficult time to be a health worker. My mum was a nurse for almost five decades, and I know the pressures on that industry in normal times, so the pressures now on that industry must just be extraordinary. The whole nation stands with the health workers of this country. We are counting on them—we always do, but especially now —as they do the most incredibly selfless work to try and alleviate the suffering of people who are and will be affected by this diabolical health crisis. To the retail workers who have been under pressure: as the SDA says, nobody deserves a serve. We need to make sure that we are kind to retail workers. They have been under extraordinary pressure.

To the teachers of Australia and the early educators: I assume it is the same for all of us here who are parents—every day, when your young fellow or your daughter says to you, 'Am I putting the uniform on today?' you think about all the decisions that people are making about sending their kids to school. They are very difficult decisions. Think about what that means for the teachers and early educators who go to work each day with 25 or 30 kids and are trying to educate those kids on all the things we need them educated about, at the same time as they're educating them about all the other pressures that are going on right now. It's pretty amazing. My Leo is five. He is in prep. He is a hugger, a bit like his dad. Telling him he can't hug his friends is a big ask.

Mr Frydenberg interjecting

Reward him with a lolly, the Treasurer says! He gets a bit of that. The point I am making is that I want to acknowledge the parents, teachers, early educators and everyone who works in the education system. They are confronted with some extraordinarily difficult decisions to make.

I said yesterday in the media, and I want to repeat here today, that one of the things we are learning about ourselves, as we reflect on what this crisis is doing to us and to our country, is really that amazing role that grandparents play. They are the unsung heroes of our economy and our community. In my own case, there is the idea that my kids won't see their Nan for a bit. With all the contribution and help that my mum and Laura's mum and dad provide when they're up from Adelaide, we are appreciating just how much grandparents contribute. We should recognise that as well.

I also want to recognise the Treasury officials and other officials—PM&C and Finance—and I would ask the Treasurer to convey from our side of the House our appreciation to that really fine department. The Australian Treasury is one of the best public economic institutions in the developed world. It is a special place, as the member for McMahon says. It is full of patriotic, intelligent, amazing people who are the cream of the crop in the Australian Public Service. We know that from our own experience during the GFC. I had the privilege of working with many of these people for 5½ years. They are amazing people. They work around the clock. We thank you, the Treasury officials and the other officials who have been working on this package and doing your best for Australia to help us get through this period.

We don't know how long this crisis will last. We don't know how many lives will be lost. We don't know how many livelihoods will be lost. But we do know that at some point history will judge what we did here. History will judge the decisions that we took, the timeliness of those decisions and the impact of those decisions in time. We want it written about this period that we approached these challenges in the spirit of bipartisanship, where that's possible; that everybody behaved in a responsible and constructive and supportive way; and that we did what we could to agree on the best steps forward. We want it written about this period that we acted with urgency, with clarity and with coordination, and that we worked together in a way that the Australian people have every right to expect of us. Every Australian right now is anxious. They're worried about what this all means. The onus on us here as we deliberate and decide on some pretty massive proposals in this bill—tens of billions of dollars—is to do that in the right spirit and that a way in which, when the history of this period is written, people can say that these were defining tests for our people and their parliament, for our country and its leaders and that we passed those tests. I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give these bills a second reading, the House calls on the Government to more quickly implement the measures it is proposing, noting that under the current proposal:

(1) the Coronavirus supplement will not begin until 27 April 2020;

(2) expanded access to the Jobseeker Payment and Youth Allowance won't begin until 27 April 2020;

(3) most people won't receive the first payment to households until April 2020 or the second payment until July 2020;

(4) pensioners won't see a boost in their income due to the change in deeming rates until 1 May 2020; and

(5) employers won't receive a cash flow boost until 28 April 2020".


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