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

11:42 am

Photo of Richard MarlesRichard Marles (Corio, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | Hansard source

I remember very clearly the night of 11 September in 2001. Late that night, having just finished watching an episode of West Wing, what came up on our screens was an extraordinary image—smoke coming out of one of the Twin Towers. A plane had hit it, the commentators were saying. There was actually a plane that, in the aftermath of the Second World War, hit the Empire State Building by accident, and so immediately I thought that was what had occurred. But in the time it took me to go from looking at this extraordinary vision, to going to the bathroom and coming back a second plane had hit the other tower, and September 11 had taken place. At that moment our world changed forever. I barely went to sleep that night, like so many Australians as we watched this astonishing event play out on our televisions. From that day until now I have absolutely believed that that would be the most significant historical event that I would live through. But as we look at what's playing out in the world today and we think about what the next few months hold for our country, perhaps, amazingly, a different story is actually going to be written.

There is best and worst practice out there in terms of how the coronavirus has been dealt with, but certainly, looking at the horrifying images coming out of Italy right now, for that country this is undoubtedly the worst crisis it has faced since the Second World War. So whatever else it means, the rhythm, the political rhythm, of this place will change. The claim and counterclaim which tends to be the way we live our lives in here, has stopped. Picking away at political scabs is not what it's about now. It's now about all of us working together to try and deal with this crisis. It doesn't mean that the opposition loses its voice. In fact, in this moment and in the months to come, criticism is going to be fundamentally important, but that criticism is offered in the most constructive of ways. It is essential that in this moment we have a very clear explanation, and national leadership, given to the Australian people which takes the Australian people into the government's confidence about what it is that they are facing, and with that a clear expression of a strategy for how to deal with it, with an identified endgame in mind. That is absolutely essential.

In November last year the coronavirus, COVID-19, jumped species into humanity in a wet market in Wuhan, in Hubei province, China. We don't know the animal from which it transmitted to humans or the person to whom it transmitted. It's understood that the source animal, as it is in so many of these diseases, is the bat. The first case was confirmed in Wuhan on 17 November 2019—just four months ago; all that has occurred has played out in the last four months. Australia had its first case confirmed on 25 January 2020—a person returning from Guangzhou province. Around that time the governments of Australia set up the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which has been meeting every single day since then. Its knowledge about what this disease is and how it will spread is at global best practice.

In Hubei we saw 1,921 new cases reported on 2 February. That peaked on 12 February, when 14,840 new cases were reported. It was around that time that China put in place strict social isolation measures in Hubei to stop the transmission of this virus, because this virus relies on human contact in order to spread. In China they dramatically stopped human contact. Amidst all the difficult stories that we're hearing, one of the most remarkable is that on 11 March this year only eight new cases were reported in Hubei. On 17 March, just a week ago, the number went down to one, and in the last four days of reporting they've not had a single case. Effectively, the rate of new infection in Hubei province right now has been reduced to zero. In South Korea we saw the first cases reported in mid-February. On 3 March it peaked at 851. Again, social isolation was put in place in South Korea. By 16 March new infections were down to 74 for that day.

Now Hubei is reporting 67,800 infections. Even if we were to assume that that is widely underreported, even if we were to assume that there are a million cases in Hubei, it's still less than two per cent of the population of that province. There are 3,144 people reported to have died of coronavirus in Hubei. In South Korea there have been 8,897 cases reported. If we were to assume that it's 50,000, again, we're talking about 0.1 per cent of the population of South Korea. There have been 102 deaths reported in that country. This is global best practice. This is a set of policies which has made a difference.

Then we have the tragedy which is Italy, where social isolation measures took some time to be put in place and the disease was allowed to spread. On 26 February—less than a month ago, just a few weeks ago—Italy reported 147 new cases. To put that in context, 160 new cases were reported in Australia on 19 March. From there, 26 February, through to the last report, which was 21 March, we've seen 6,557 new cases reported in Italy. More than 5,000 people have now died in Italy, 600 in the last 24 hours. That is the tragedy that this virus can be.

Against that best and worst practice, there is the obvious question: what will our story be?

What is our strategy to make sure that we are walking down a pathway which looks like South Korea and not like Italy? Because we cannot allow a significant proportion of our population to get this disease. If half of Australia gets it, that's 12½ million people, and with a one per cent mortality rate, that's 125,000 deaths—a loss of life on a grand scale. It must not be allowed to happen.

There is discussion about a proportionate response, which, I have to say, makes no sense to me. 'Proportionate response' is the language that we use in relation to military strategy. When one country fires on another, you think about a proportionate response: you want to respond in some form so that the firing doesn't keep going, but you don't want to respond too much so as to cause a grievance which then gives rise to a second attack. So you seek to act proportionately; you seek to shape a human adversary's behaviour so they stop. That's a proportionate response. But this is not a human adversary; this is a virus. This is a virus which spreads exponentially. It is a mathematical exponential equation—one right now which is seeing the number of infections in this country double every three days. Please understand what that means. It means that what is 1,000 today will be more than 30,000 in just over two weeks unless we do something to change that. What that requires is for us to act now. So whatever is being contemplated in terms of social isolation in two, three or four weeks from now, do it right now. Do it today. That has to be the strategy which aligns us with global best practice and stops the transmission of this disease. It is not about a proportionate response. It's about doing as much as you possibly can in the context of an exponential graph when the graph is as flat as possible, because every single transmission makes dealing with this problem so much harder in health terms and also in economic terms.

The stimulus which we support today is really important. Obviously, we have made criticisms of the fact—with a similar principle—that payments we would see in April, May or even July are not being made right now. They should be. We should be really careful about how we treat superannuation. This is not the time to be selling in superannuation. We need to be thinking about responses which enable employers to maintain their relationship with their workforce and actually to keep them on. That said, the urgency of the moment requires the supporting of this bill, and so we do. But we also need to understand this: the stimulus package is dealing with a symptom of the disease. If we want to deal with an economic shock which is caused by a virus, then we must deal with the virus itself.

I acknowledge in advance all of those who work in our essential industries—in food distribution, in logistics and in emergency services—and within our Defence Forces, who are going to be called to do much work in the coming weeks and months. I particularly want to acknowledge those who work in our health sector and those who provide services in-home to our most vulnerable—our elderly and our disabled—because it is you who are going to bear the brunt of this crisis over the coming months. The Anzac spirit has been invoked today—rightly so—but it's those who wear the uniform of health who actually carry this spirit forward. Our hearts are absolutely with you at this moment. We think about all of those who are experiencing pain right now: those who have already lost their jobs, those who are queuing up at Centrelink offices and those who have visited loved ones in aged-care centres, perhaps wondering whether they have visited them for the last time. I particularly acknowledge those who work in the aged-care sector: you are looking after the people we care most about.

Not for a moment do we underestimate the complexity of this issue which is facing the government. The Prime Minister, the health minister, the Treasurer and, indeed, the entirety of the government face an enormous burden. Fate has dealt them the fortune of dealing with one of the greatest crises that our country has seen. They wear a very heavy burden—but, actually, all of us do. All of us wear that burden in supporting the government through this.

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We… will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The … trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.

Those words were spoken almost 160 years ago by America's greatest President in the midst of America's greatest ordeal, and they highlight the burden which is upon all of us in dealing with this challenge. Our hearts are heavy with its responsibility. But I know that every person in this chamber pledges themselves to the cause of our nation and seeing Australia through one of the greatest ordeals in our history.


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