House debates

Monday, 23 March 2020

Bills

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

1:47 pm

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure) Share this | Hansard source

All Australians are facing the consequences of COVID-19. This is a health emergency, and it is so much more than a health emergency. Its consequences are vast, and so too are the responsibilities of all of us in this place. As with all of us who have the opportunity to contribute to this debate, the weight of that responsibility weighs very heavily on my shoulders.

In making a very brief contribution to the debate on these important measures in the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020 and related bills, I'll try to confine myself to those matters that are most essential, but I want to make clear that, in supporting the thrust of the measures contained in these bills and the government's proposals, I echo the concerns of my colleagues—the Leader of the Labor Party, the shadow Treasurer and the shadow minister for health in particular—in a couple of critical respects—firstly, in terms of the delay. I think it would have been better to have brought this place back last week so that we could have brought forward action then. Indeed, that concern goes to some of the substantive measures which are contained in these bills. Action that can take place today should take place today, not in the future. We see the evidence of that all around us in the communities we represent and in the media as well. I have particular concerns, obviously, about superannuation, and I put those on the record. I support the amendment moved by the member for Rankin, the shadow Treasurer, and the amendments to that which have been moved by the member for Whitlam and the member for Watson.

In making my personal remarks, can I say this: we all need to acknowledge our shared responsibility to protect our health and the health of our communities, particularly the elderly and those most vulnerable. The spread of this virus is forcing us all to change our ways and for many Australians, including many I represent, this is incredibly hard—I get that. But we simply must act now, not least to ensure that our health system and the wonderful people who work in it can do their jobs.

As I stand here, people are losing their jobs. Businesses and entire sectors of our economy are facing shutdown and, at best, periods of prolonged uncertainty. The long lines at Centrelink in Epping and Scullin and right around our country conjure images of the Great Depression. As I said, this is a health crisis but it's also having a dramatic effect on our society and on all of our livelihoods. We can be doing more to support people and we should be doing more. We should be doing this now, not in a month's time or later, so I urge the government and all members of it to give consideration to any immediate one-off payment that can be made in a simple fashion, because people can't wait to go through burdensome processes to get support from Centrelink. We shouldn't be forcing people to congregate around Centrelink offices. We shouldn't be exposing the hardworking staff in those offices.

I acknowledge the announcement today about additional support but, in any event, we shouldn't be forcing those staff into the challenges and indeed the threats they have been facing in this environment. Centrelink is clearly overwhelmed in my electorate today. My thoughts and my empathy are with the hardworking staff there for the challenges they are facing and, indeed, for those anxious people trying to get support they so desperately need in circumstances of which no-one could have conceived. This is no time for half measures. Australians need support now. There's not a minute to waste.

I'm going to touch briefly on my responsibilities as a member of the Labor shadow ministry. At this time, we need to think about Australia's multicultural communities. Twenty-one per cent of Australians speak a language other than English at home, yet the public information so far provided by the government has not been readily translated into enough other languages. I have raised this matter with the acting minister, but action has not been fast enough to enable many Australians, particularly older Australians from CALD backgrounds, to take steps to protect themselves and to protect their communities. This needs to improve and it needs to improve fast. I'd urge members to have a look at the Victorian DHHS website, which shows a more comprehensive approach to providing this information. This is a matter of some urgency. I urge government members, particularly those who do represent multicultural communities, to act to enable people in those communities to do the right thing by themselves and by those around them.

We can't ignore in this debate the ugly presence of racism. Racism did not begin with the coronavirus but it raises new challenges in this context. We've seen the awful incidence early on in this journey of racism directed at Chinese Australians and Asian Australians more generally. It continues to undermine our efforts to bring people together in our shared endeavours to keep us safe and hold our society and our economy together as well, as does its general corrosive effect. We need to send a clear signal in this place that there is no tolerance for racism in Australia and that we all stand together.

I also want to talk about the nearly two million people in Australia currently on temporary visas of various types and make the obvious point that COVID-19 does not recognise different visa statuses. We need to all be protected through this time. In this, I recognise the many New Zealanders who call Australia home, who have made their home in Australia over the last decade-and-a-half or so in particular. We can't and we won't forget you in this crisis. In Labor, we understand that you need support, just as we know you will also play your roles in keeping our country safe from this virus and its consequences. I note that temporary migrants also account for five per cent of general practitioners and resident medical officers in Australia and close to 10 per cent of the nursing support and personal care workforce. These are people who are doing extraordinarily important work at risk to themselves, in difficult circumstances. They deserve us as a society to also recognise the challenges that they are facing. We can't forget also about the people in our country who have sought asylum here, who are some of the most vulnerable in our community. We have to recognise their interest in being supported and the wonderful organisations that are supporting them as well as the critical importance of supporting them in the interests of all of our public health needs. In this crisis, at this time, we are all in this together. It is that simple.

More generally, I want to briefly touch on my responsibility as our spokesperson for cities. Cities are wonderful machines that bring people together. Cities are devices for connection. That is being fundamentally challenged right now, but, as we push—as we must—for social distancing generally and social isolation where necessary, we cannot allow our friends and neighbours to become isolated. I've spoken often in this place about loneliness and the challenge it presents to our society—the damage it does to individuals and the damage it does to all of us. It's something that we need to think harder about right now. We need to think differently about how we maintain connections and how we maintain a sense of community through these challenging times. I think it's a responsibility for all of us in this place to lead by example as well as by our words, because the stakes couldn't be higher.

I reflect, as others have done, on my deep appreciation of and the need for greater support for those who are at the very front line of this crisis: our healthcare workers. I'm in awe of the work that they do at the Northern Hospital and at general practices and, I'm sure, right around our country. We need to ensure that they get the support they need through flattening the curve and, more generally, the individual support they need to keep doing the work they are doing for all of us.

The stakes couldn't be higher. This is literally a matter of life and death for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Australians today. As Daniel Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, said this morning:

If we have a situation where this virus fundamentally gets away from us, we will have thousands of people who will only survive if they can breathe with the assistance of a machine and we will not have enough machines, nurses and doctors to provide that care.

That is why taking such drastic action to shut down and lock down entire sections of our economy and our society are necessary, though difficult. And that is why we have to be absolutely clear about this imperative now and going forward.

We need to protect Australians from this virus. We also need to protect their livelihoods. That is why my colleagues have been so clear in setting out our concern about the lack of a connection between important stimulus measures and the protection of income and work. These are things which have been attended to elsewhere. I urge government members to think about how they can be done here. This is about protecting our society as well as individuals' incomes and individuals' capacity to look after themselves and their communities. This isn't a time for panic. It's a time for action and, where we're not ready for action, for preparation. It is a time for leadership, for resolution and for clarity, fundamentally, recognising the great anxiety and confusion that there is abroad in all of our communities.

Let's think again about the small things we can all do and the impact doing the right thing can have if we all wash our hands regularly, if we all not only practise social distancing but are clear to Australians—in English and in appropriate languages—on what social distancing means, if we can tell people to literally avoid all non-essential contact with others outside of our homes and if we can stay at home and only get groceries once a week. If we can be clear in giving instructions, Prime Minister, I would personally be very grateful. I'm sure all of us and the communities we represent will be grateful. If we don't gather in large groups, then we might avert the worst health catastrophe imaginable, but it is up to all of us to do the right thing. It is for all of us who are in this place and have the privilege to lead to give clear, consistent and constructive leadership.

To the people whom I represent in the Scullin electorate, let me be clear: through this time I will keep working for you, although the nature of that work will change. I will be doing my best to keep all of you informed and engaged. I'm still listening to you, and my staff will find ways to work for you and to reflect your concerns and your needs. We can get through this if we come together, work together and always look out for each other.

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