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
I rise to speak in favour of the amendments and to bring a couple of perspectives from my particular portfolio areas to the coronavirus challenge which Australia faces. But, first of all, going to the discussion about superannuation and accessing that, I think this is a bad idea. I get that people are doing it hard. There are hardship provisions currently available under the law. But I think that encouraging the tackling and the use of the superannuation when it's at the bottom of the market and when people will have no chance to replace what they take out of their superannuation is robbing the future to pay for the present when there are other mechanisms available to help people experiencing income shortage, which can be done directly from the government. The raiding of superannuation, I feel, is an unwise measure. But my concern about that shouldn't therefore mean that we oppose the whole of the legislation, because there is more good in the proposals than there is bad, but the amendment is important.
Indeed talking about how we support Australians in this time of the coronavirus, the coming months will tell us what sort of people we are and what sort of nation we are. One of the things which will define this response, the parliament's response and the nation's response, is how we treat those most in need. Amongst those most in need I speak of are people living with disability and their carers. Perhaps, for once, people with disability will be the first in the queue. There is no doubt in my mind that disability services in this pandemic are essential services.
In an ordinary time, the bravery and courage of people with disability and their carers is something that we're all witness to. It can be the patience and endurance of an excellent brain trapped in a body contorted by muscular dystrophy. It can be the tenacity of a mother loving her son with a profound disability, exhausted but sending emails in the middle of the night trying to get the best equipment and services for her precious child. I think that this quiet heroism will be an example to us all as many of us are asked to make comparatively small sacrifices in the months ahead. We cannot forget, therefore, the most vulnerable, their carers and loved ones. Given that the coronavirus is so dangerous and lethal to older people, it's natural that our focus should be, as it is, on the elderly and the aged-care sector, but we cannot forget people with disability. The international media coverage of the coronavirus has been strangely lacking in its coverage of people with disability. It is because people with disability and their carers all too often are simply invisible, are just simply forgotten. This is why this nation, in their time of need, should be there with our help and our protection.
Specifically, the government has pledged virus tests for all aged-care workers, which is excellent. The same must be made available for all disability workers. If a disability worker in the only service in a mid-sized regional town is all of a sudden unable, because of a COVID-19 diagnosis, to attend, this means that the whole service could be shut down and many, many of our fellow Australians at home could be isolated with no carer to come. So the virus tests should be made available for all disability workers. The reason for saying this, other than the obvious, is that this virus is, at its heart, a public health emergency. It is then an economic problem, but, at its heart, we must treat this as a public health emergency. Therefore, tests for disability care workers should not be viewed as a nice idea but optional. It is an essential service and should be mandatory.
The second immediate proposal to make sure Australians with disability and their families can cope with the coronavirus is to maintain cash flow for all the businesses providing disability services. There are 13,000 disability services, roughly, providing services to 315,000 people on the NDIS and many Australians with a disability who don't qualify for the NDIS. Many of them were doing it hard before the coronavirus arrived on our shores; they need cash flow so they don't collapse. We've learnt that already many providers are waiting on the payment of invoices in the millions of dollars because the NDIA has a backlog, which the CEO has conceded is up to 15,000 invoices. This lack of cash flow will spell market failure in regional, remote and, indeed, suburban services, especially where there's only one provider. We cannot have people with disabilities stranded without services. Furthermore, on this second point about cash flow for disability organisations, it is good that the government has said NDIS plans can go for 24 months, but they should be rolled over. NDIS officials will not be attending meetings, but we shouldn't be making the participants leap through hoops to get reports and prepare. We should be rolling over the packages except where the participant is seeking a variation.
The third thing we need to do is have a proper workforce plan for when people with disability, their individual carers and disability workers have to self-isolate. We cannot have the situation—and this concerns me greatly—where carers can't attend and there are people in their homes with no-one to see to them. Leaving people stranded, unaided, in their own homes will be a disaster. If these people have to go into the hospital system, it will further crowd and complicate the delivery of hospital services. To that end, we need to support the workforce on an ongoing basis. When an NDIS plan has a cancellation from the participant, the funding should still be there to keep the worker in place.
The fourth of the immediate issues is that it's now time to consider creating an army reserve of carers, to be filled by displaced workers swung in from other industries. If we can teach people displaced from other industries the basics of infection control, we can have a surge workforce which will protect people. When someone with a disability has to go to a hospital, the process will be further complicated. Let's draft some of the people who are displaced from other industries and give them the basics so that we can have a surge workforce in disability.
These are four propositions which are fundamental: workforce, cash flow, creating an army reserve of extra workers and, of course, making sure that at all times we have tests for disability carers. But there is a further challenge which disability providers are alerting me to. They tell me of their struggle to get disability related equipment, such as continence pads, catheters and equipment needed for PEG feeding. When relatively healthy people panic buy ventolin, this has a massive flow-on effect on those who live with cystic fibrosis and other disabilities. We desperately need to gather all available equipment for people with disability and PPE—personal protective equipment, such as face masks—for the disability carers who work with them. I've been inundated with calls from people in regional Queensland, right up and down the east coast and in Western Australia concerned that people working with people with disabilities cannot get basic PPE. Masks, gloves and sanitiser need to be distributed to registered and non-registered NDIS providers and people with disability as soon as possible to prevent transmission amongst vulnerable individuals so that our hospitals do not become overwhelmed or forced to look after people with complex needs, which they don't really have the capacity to do. It is, indeed, this shortage of PPE and medical equipment which has exposed a vulnerability in an otherwise great society like Australia's.
We have at least six months left to travel through the clear and present danger presented by the coronavirus. I've got no doubt that during this crisis we will look after each other; we will listen to the better angels of our nature. We certainly hear the stories of hoarding, but there are thousands of stories of kindness, of a helping hand being extended. We will listen to the better angels of our nature; of this I am confident. We will, as Labor has always advocated, act in the interests of the group to make sure that no-one is left behind. We will, to a large extent, have to retreat to our homes. We will have to make some of the necessary sacrifices to slow down the rate of infection. After this storm has passed, we will re-emerge. We will rebuild our businesses, our social lives, our community and our economy. We will hopefully learn the lessons of this crisis so that people with disability and older Australians—indeed, all Australians—don't have to face this again, not just lessons of a medical sense but lessons across our society.
We are a trading nation, advanced in the world, with a good population size and diversified industries. Our people are dexterous, ingenious and inventive. We're an island nation and our fate should be in our own hands—the hands of regular, sensible Australians. But the virus has made it painfully clear to me and thousands of Australians just how clearly we are exposed when we act as a colonial branch office of a global supply chain instead of as an independent economic nation. It is painfully clear now that Australia needs to make its own face masks at scale, its own ventilators at scale and its own guarantees of pharmaceutical access at scale. Most ventilators used in Australian hospitals are imported from Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and North America, with smaller suppliers located in China and South Korea. Whatever the international fantasies which have been hoarded by pursuers and advocates of particular ideological views, when the chips are down we organise ourselves as nations.
This virus has shown that we need sovereign capability. For example, nations all around the world are discovering that they do not have enough ventilators to cope with coronavirus. They do not have enough and there are not enough to buy. The story of Italy ordering 4,000 ventilators last month and having 400 ventilators to purchase highlights the vulnerability which is not just a feature of Italy but a feature of nations. We intuitively know we need sovereign capability in relation to our defence forces. I've spoken before of our need for sovereign capability in relation to energy sources and fuel supplies. There are obvious virtues in having sovereign capability when it comes to steel and areas of manufacturing. But, to this list of sovereign capability, we are learning we need to have sovereign capability in medical equipment and medical supplies. What we now require is a form of wartime-like mobilisation to build our own equipment. I, like many members of this House, am being inundated with offers from manufacturers saying: 'We have got the people. We have the skills. We have the desire, the ingenuity and the knowledge to build equipment.'
Coronavirus is inherently an antisocial disease. It forces us not to congregate en masse, not to cluster together and not to go to concerts or football. Old industries, however, have gone in Australia. Our new economy is built around things that cannot be outsourced or automated—in other words, service industries. What we need to do now is congregate around our manufacturing. This global supply chain situation means that nations will insert themselves to protect their own interests. Coronavirus, which attacks people's lungs, needs ventilators and computerised bedside machines, which can cost as much as $50,000. These are complex pieces of machinery and cannot be made simply. They are made up of hundreds of smaller parts produced by companies all over the world. These ventilators will keep alive people who will otherwise not survive.
It takes a while to move to the start of production that I'm talking about, but the lesson for me in all of this is that this nation should be capable of making personal protective equipment and medical equipment. We need to convert some of our factories from existing work to coronavirus needs. We need to allocate scarce materials and priorities in the distribution of materials and services to build medical equipment. I have no doubt, as others have said, that we will see it through together. Our manufacturers have ingenuity, dexterity and resourcefulness. There will not be just one point of view on how to solve the problems we face.
We have a common goal: this is a health emergency, and keeping people alive is our fundamental mission. There will be many approaches. There will be overlapping considerations and much shared values. But, along with making sure that people with disability are not invisible, along with making sure that our frontline carers have personal protective equipment, along with making sure that we have cash flow to this sector, along with making sure that packages of support are available and that the usual bureaucratic red tape is dispensed with in the national interest, along with making sure that we have a surge workforce and an army reserve of carers distributed from other industries, we must accelerate production. Some of the premiers and leaders have used the language of war. All I would say is that we need to have mobilisation to get our factories churning out more ventilators, masks and PPE. We need to make sure we're not inadvertently exporting health supplies which our own people require.
We can get through this. We will rebuild. What we are seeing is what happens when a virulently antisocial disease is let loose on a social services based economy. We are starting to see now how logical solutions will also have to be nation based and home grown. If we do everything we can in the face of this challenge; if we can maintain the physical distance while being there in spirit and on the phone for those who need us; if we can take the drastic measures now, I predict that we will be talking about getting our manufacturers to tool up and create sovereign capability in our health supplies going forward. If we know that's what we have to do, then the sooner we do it, the better we serve the people of our nation and the most vulnerable, who depend on us most particularly.