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
This is an historic and poignant day for our national parliament. In my 24 years here I've never seen anything like it. The seating arrangements and the sanitiser on the bar table in themselves indicate that something very unusual is happening here. I think of the apology to the Stolen Generations. I think of the day we sat on a Saturday to complete the necessary Wik legislation. They were big occasions, but even those momentous events cannot match what we are doing here today. It is highly unusual.
When I was appointed defence minister our Australian Defence Force was at a very high level of operational tempo. The toughest part of the job is the weight of responsibility it brings: talking to the parents of fallen soldiers and attending ramp ceremonies and, of course, funerals. They are things that really weigh upon you when you carry that responsibility. Today, as a member of the opposition, I feel that weight of responsibility again. It might sound a little unusual, because those of us on this side face the reality that we don't have a lot of influence over the events that are taking place across our nation as we speak. But I do feel that responsibility—absolutely. I suppose it's the spirit of Westminster coming into its own, as we all try so hard to reach across the table and work as one.
People are dying, and more Australians will die. Too many are getting sick. Our economy is drifting into a coma. People are losing their jobs as we speak—many, many people. Sadly, we are teetering on the brink of civil unrest. I hope not, but we've seen signs of it. We've seen lots of irrational behaviour, and I think we can expect more if we as a parliament don't get this right.
The opposition, as the Leader of the Opposition and others indicated, will be supporting this package, but we do so through somewhat gritted teeth, for three reasons. First, we were not afforded the same courtesy more than 10 years ago during the global financial crisis. That was a very big event, not as big as the event we're dealing with today, but very, very big indeed. That's a matter of great regret for me and probably, I hope, great regret for the parliament more generally.
Second, the measures are late—too late for some. Some businesses won't survive this crisis because this assistance has come too late. You'll recall, Mr Deputy Speaker Hogan, that when needles were found in strawberries—a serious matter in itself—the government passed legislation if not the same day as the revelations then the second day. It was certainly very, very quickly. Yet here we are, maybe eight weeks on from the revelation of this virus being present in Australia, and we're only just now dealing with measures to support the economy and to support the people who rely upon our economy. It's been too slow, and that's what Australians are saying.
The third point is: the package isn't perfect. It's not the package the Labor Party would be delivering in opposition. There are many flaws. Many have spoken already about superannuation issues. I won't revisit them. Suffice to say I didn't believe I'd ever be standing in this place supporting an arrangement which allowed people to access their superannuation early. It's been suggested many, many times before. We've had parliamentary inquiries into this, and thankfully all the propositions that have gone before this one have been rejected. But here we are, and it just demonstrates again how extraordinary these circumstances are.
I'm really concerned about the spousal income test for those who'll be looking for support under the new jobseeker allowance, or the rebadged allowance. This is a very big mistake, and it has to be fixed. Very few people who are losing their jobs through no fault of their own are going to be successful in securing the jobseeker allowance if their modest spousal income is taken into account. It just won't happen. The hairdresser working casually who now loses her job but has a husband earning a modest income will not be able to access the support unless this matter is addressed, and it must be addressed. We regret the fact that so many of the initiatives won't come into force for many months to come. It will be too late for many; you can be sure about that.
I also regret the confusion and anxiety in our communities caused by poor leadership, slow decision-making and poor communication. No wonder people are doing irrational things. Poor and inconsistent messaging has caused anxiety amongst teachers and parents alike in particular. The small-business operators I spoke to today still don't know where they stand, still don't know what they are allowed to do and not allowed to do. It's not good enough. It simply isn't good enough. It makes it hard for members on this side in particular who know the importance of bipartisanship at this dark time in our nation's history. We understand the importance of bipartisanship, but the confusion and inadequacies of this package and the government's messaging are making it challenging to maintain bipartisanship. But we remain determined to deliver it, and we'll also continue to provide constructive criticism where we believe it is warranted. Australia needs us all working as one right now.
I won't go into all the details of the bill, because the opposition leader, the shadow Treasurer and others have spoken much of them and I know my time is limited. But I will say a couple of things very quickly. Anyone who believes the small-business measures—or the business measures more generally—are going to save all of our businesses is an optimist. They won't. I'm not saying they're not sufficiently generous in their funding, but they won't. This is going to be very, very tough for our small-business community.
I'd rather use my limited time to say a few things about rural and regional Australia. First, I'm concerned people living in rural and regional Australia aren't taking COVID-19 sufficiently seriously. Capital cities have been the epicentre of the virus, and somehow we've been shielded, in relative terms at least. The nonhandshake is a bit of a joke still for country people, but it's no joke. This virus is as deadly for those of us living in rural and regional Australia as it is for our city cousins, and we need to take it very, very seriously.
Our regions provide our food and power. Governments will need to ensure our coal and power generation sectors are supported, as all essential services will need to be. That doesn't just mean keeping them running; it's also about making sure they have the support they need, including measures to maintain their workforces. I congratulate both of those sectors because both of them have put protocols very quickly in place.
Our food sector will need support too, with measures specific to it. I've been overwhelmed by appeals from various players in the food and fibre sectors who don't feel they're getting the information or the support they need, and we need to act quickly. In the Hunter we are a visitor economy in part. Our wine country is doing it tough. Our visitor economy is doing it tough. They are in trouble and will need more help.
In relation to our pubs and clubs everywhere, we understand the decision, but this is a crisis for our pubs and our clubs. These are not all wealthy businessmen or businesswomen. Often these are small family hotels, and we've just pulled the rug out from under them. They will need help. Think about all the support that clubs in particular give in our communities in rural and regional Australia. Rural and regional Australia survives on the support of our clubs. The clubs are our venues for most community events, and they've closed their doors. That's going to cause big problems for many not-for-profit organisations in our communities and for our community more generally.
I'm concerned about the lack of representation for rural and regional Australia in the national cabinet. I might stand corrected, but I understand the Deputy Prime Minister is not sitting in the cabinet. I haven't seen him there. I think that's a mistake. I've got respect for the Deputy Prime Minister. We need someone who breathes and lives rural and regional Australia at the decision-making table. It seems to me the Deputy Prime Minister is the obvious person, and I appeal to the Prime Minister to consider that. Rural and regional Australia is a different place, and it needs to be at that table.
I believe our local councils could be resourced better to allow them to be the real enablers in rural and regional communities. They have the skills, the people, the data and the facilities. They just need the resourcing, and the government should consider giving it to them.
I close by thanking our doctors and other health professionals, our first responders, our teachers and all of those people who are under enormous pressure as a result of this crisis—and there are many of them. We're all in this together, so let's take care of one another and let's get to the other side of this crisis in relatively good shape.