House debates

Wednesday, 8 April 2020


Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020, Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus (Measures No. 2) Bill 2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 5) 2019-2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 6) 2019-2020; Second Reading

11:29 am

Photo of Chris BowenChris Bowen (McMahon, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Health) Share this | Hansard source

Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Labor Party of course supports this very necessary legislation, as the member for Rankin has very well pointed out. This is necessary legislation to keep as many Australians as possible in their jobs. Whether they are actually fulfilling that job on a day-to-day basis or fulfilling it in a very different way or not able to fulfil it, we need as many Australians as possible to maintain their connection with their employer. We need to provide every support to those who have lost their job and every support to those whom we can keep in a job.

The Prime Minister outlined the objectives of any government action. This is an objective which we agree with: to keep people in work and to keep businesses open. That needs to be the test. Does this legislation keep people in work? Does it keep businesses open? We believe it does, and we believe it fulfils the objectives we set out when we called on the government to introduce a job subsidy. This is a radical policy for radical times. We do not make the call lightly. Job subsidies are necessary to keep as many businesses open and as people employed as possible. So the message to the community from this House, as one, must be clear: 'We are with you, we have your back. We will support you through this time. We will do whatever it takes to keep you in work.' That is a message from this House, as one, today. As the member for Rankin, the shadow Treasurer, rightly said, we thank the government for taking on board our feedback. We don't think this legislation is perfect. We've made it very clear—this amendment I am seconding makes it clear—that it could be much better. But we will not let that stand in the way of our support.

Just as our message to the people of Australia is that we are with you, my message to the people of McMahon is that we will do and I will do whatever it takes. Whether you live in Fairfield, Minchinbury, St Clair, Greystanes, Smithfield, Kemps Creek or Horsley Park, people are doing it tough, people are losing their jobs. This parliament should be here for you and I am here for you. We are doing business differently; we are doing more over the phone and by email and by Skype. But, if you need help, your member of parliament is there for you. I'm there for the people of McMahon. That message must be clear.

As I said in the last sitting, the best economic response is actually the best health response. I'm seeing this talked about around the country more and more, and I see some people are arguing that we should be lifting the restrictions—that it's all okay now. Now, of course everybody wants to see the restrictions lifted as soon as they sensibly can be; that is a given. But let us not make the mistake of lifting the restrictions too soon. I don't accept—we have never accepted—that somehow this is a trade-off between a good health outcome and a good economic outcome, because the best way to get through this crisis as quickly as possible is to have the best health policy as quickly as possible. That's why we called for more to be done. That's why we called for clearer action. That's why we made suggestions to improve the health policy response.

I've seen some other commentary on this. Some people are suggesting the Labor Party should be silent—that the Labor Party shouldn't have a role to play. I fundamentally disagree with that. We have backed every piece of government legislation we have been asked to back, including these bills today. We've backed every government health initiative. We've agreed to every request the government has made of us. But at this time, more than ever, scrutiny is important. At this time, more than ever, we need every Australian working together, and that includes the Labor Party—the opposition—making suggestions about what could be done better. We've seen that take place with telehealth, with mental health. We've seen the government adjust its health response.

So the role of the Labor Party is to avoid politics for politics' sake. It's to avoid opposition for opposition's sake. But it is not to be struck dumb. It is to provide constructive suggestions and feedback, and to provide a constructive policy addition—not an alternative. We normally provide an alternative. In this environment, we don't provide an alternative; we provide complementary action. We suggest how what has already been done can be built upon. That is the role of a constructive opposition. And it is also the role of the opposition to provide support to the government in keeping the current restrictions in place. We called for them earlier. We called for stronger action. But we also provide our support to the government to keep them in place.

I've mentioned that I have seen some commentary that the restrictions should be lifted. I saw a businessperson in the Financial Review yesterday argue that the restrictions should be lifted, and I must say I was shocked to read his comments. I'm not going to name him, but I was shocked to read his comments. He was named in the newspaper; I'm not going to give him the benefit of giving his name. He was reported as saying:

"I wonder how many of the global deaths that will be attributed to COVID-19 would have occurred within the next year or two anyway? It’s time for our political leaders to take a reality pill before it’s too late," …

He was saying that these deaths would've occurred anyway, and therefore it's time to reduce the restrictions. I have not heard a more tone deaf, or insensitive or, frankly, wrong contribution in this entire debate. It is just utterly wrong.

So my main message today is: we support this legislation. We think it could be better. The Prime Minister said in his remarks—and they were fine remarks—'We're all in this together, and we'll get through this if we all work together.' Well, there are a million Australians who, frankly, are not in this as much as they should be with our support: a million casuals—a million people who have been left out by the government's legislation. We think they should be in. The amendment that I'm seconding reflects the fact that they should be in. All our contributions, I hazard a guess, will say that they should be in. That is our view. That is our constructive advice. And we call on the government to listen to that today.

But if they don't listen today, we also note—and it's a good thing that the Treasurer is at the table—that the Treasurer has the power and the Treasurer has the authority, a rather remarkable authority, but one he should have, to expand the available support, the jobseeker support. And we say to him: 'If you don't want to do it today, if you don't want to do it in parliament, if you don't want to change the legislation, please take it away with you. Please do it in the future. Please do it tomorrow, or next week if that's what you want to do. Expand the jobseeker support to reflect casuals, for Australia.' That would be the best economic policy. It would be the best social policy. It would be the best health policy. It would be the best policy for our country, to expand the support to those casuals who've got unavoidable expenses. They deserve to have that support.

The government says this is a health crisis and it's an economic crisis. But really they're the same crisis. Really it's the same phenomenon that we're dealing with. We need to avoid avoidable deaths, and today we pay tribute and our condolences to the 50 Australians who have so far lost their lives. We note, and we extend our support to, those 6,000 Australians who have, or have had, COVID-19 during this crisis. And there will be more to come.

While we welcome any encouraging signs—and there are some—we have a long, long way to go. We need to ensure that we're testing for community transmission. We're doing that more and more. We need to ensure that we're providing every support to our intensive care units, who will still come under great pressure and who will still have much to do. We need to be—and I acknowledge the efforts of the Minister for Health—doing everything we can to ensure personal protective equipment is provided to healthcare workers. This is the No. 1 issue that gets raised with me. I reflect the challenges that the minister has and I acknowledge the international supply chain issues and the challenges that they're facing. We simply say this: we've had our first healthcare worker diagnosed with COVID-19. Too many healthcare workers overseas have died in treating people with COVID-19. It must be our national objective that no Australian healthcare worker dies. Therefore, we must have every effort in place to have personal protective equipment for all healthcare workers as appropriate.

Again, I'm not critical of the minister's efforts. The government, I know, has steps in place. But, simply, it's important for every healthcare worker to know that our objective is that no healthcare worker dies in Australia treating COVID-19. They are doing their best. They are doing their bit. I was shocked to learn from the nurses and midwives association and the Health Services Union that healthcare workers are being abused on public transport, in some instances for apparently bringing the virus onto public transport. These are our heroes. They deserve our applause, yes, but they deserve more than that. They deserve our support. They deserve the personal protective equipment that they need to do their job. They are the front line, and they need to know that we, in this House, support their efforts every step of the way.

Again, we've made constructive suggestions, some of which have been taken up: about free car parking, so that they don't have to take public transport, and about accommodation, so that they don't have to worry about taking the virus home to their families—I think three states have now taken up that suggestion, which we welcome very much. Labor and Liberal states, equally, have taken up that suggestion.

We say we're all in this together. We are all in this together. We need to make sure that that is a reality, not just rhetoric. Our amendments bring all Australians into this together. We support the legislation. We think it should be better. But we will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We will pass this legislation, just as we've given our support to every health initiative the government has proposed, because that is the right thing to do, and, under the member for Grayndler's leadership, we will continue to do the right thing at every turn during this crisis.


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