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
These are unprecedented times. Those of us who serve in this place have a vague knowledge that one day we may be called on to make decisions such as these, but that doesn't make the moment feel any the less grave. I thought that the days of total mobilisation of our population on the scale that we saw during the Second World War were something for the history books, but coronavirus is the greatest threat the world has faced since the war, and it requires a total war response.
Over 1.4 million people have contracted coronavirus worldwide, and over 82,000 people, including almost 50 Australians, have died. Of 5,956 Australians who have contracted coronavirus, 2,547 have recovered and 294 are in hospital, including 92 in intensive care and 36 on respirators. Over 310,000 Australians have been tested for coronavirus, one of the highest rates of testing in the world.
The coronavirus is not just a health issue, though its potential to test the health system is unprecedented, and I want to thank the frontline health workers in our hospitals, clinics and pharmacies for all they do. I particularly want to acknowledge the work of the Minister for Health and the Chief Medical Officer in meeting this challenge.
The coronavirus will change our country in ways we haven't yet fully understood or imagined. Coronavirus is already challenging the way we live, the way we work, the way we commute or don't commute, the way we consume, the way we educate our children, the way we gather in community and the way we relate to each other. I particularly want to acknowledge the churches and the not-for-profit service providers that are helping our communities get through with a great sense of cheerfulness.
I particularly want to acknowledge the schools and make a special note of the year 12s, many of whom will feel that they are missing out on a year they were so looking forward to: the culmination of their education, the chance to lead and the bittersweet experience of doing things for the last time. I want to say to those students: hard as it is to believe right now, there are opportunities in this that you have never thought of. You have the chance to be creative and lead in ways no-one else before you will have done. In the years ahead, you will tell stories of this time, and you'll see how it strengthened and shaped you. In fact, I hope we all will.
The way we live now, despite all its challenges, is a return to home and hearth and to place, suburb and community. The privations of the present make us grateful for the things that we have: our family, the beauty of our neighbourhood, and the acts of kindness of our neighbours and people doing essential work in our local shops and government services, making our lives easier. But we cannot ignore the darker side of what coronavirus is doing to our society. The challenge of COVID-19 is putting a great strain on the mental health of many Australians, and they understandably but wrongly question their sense of self-worth. Can I say to Australians who are struggling: you matter, your lives matter, we will all get through this together and prevail just as earlier generations of Australians have prevailed.
One of the religious leaders in my community at Galston Uniting Church is taking the time to ask all of his parishioners, 'Is there anything you need?' and doing it quietly, because many people who really need help at this time are people who are proud and people who are perhaps too proud to ask for help at other times. That's why the government's mental health package, with more support for the Beyond Blue's coronavirus hotline as well as funding for Lifeline and Kids Helpline are vital, as is the important extra funding we're giving to keep people safe from domestic violence.
I think I will never forget seeing the Centrelink queue at Hornsby in recent weeks, stretching more than a block and a half, with many Australians who had good jobs, who would never in their lives have imagined themselves standing in a Centrelink queue, Australians for whom their very identity is tied up in the work they do when that work is no longer available. That is why I applaud the government's jobseeker package and the coronavirus supplement for those who have lost their job.
The coronavirus is an unprecedented economic challenge, and that challenge calls for an unprecedented response. I didn't come to this place to increase the size of government nor did I come here to see more Australians come to depend on Centrelink. We've been making decisions over recent weeks to spend $320 billion, of which today's bills represent $130 billion, because we have pressed the pause button on business and industry. If we ever needed a reminder that the true engine room of our economy and society isn't government but small and medium business community groups and not-for-profits, these past few weeks have been that reminder. Normally our job is to get out of their way and let them do their work, but at the moment we are having to get in their way and it isn't easy to get used to. Nonetheless, we're right to do this.
I want to congratulate the Treasurer and Prime Minister for the ingenious concept at the heart of this bill, the JobKeeper payment. Anyone who has ever employed people knows how hard it is to find and retain good people. And anyone who has ever done a job they love knows the great privilege they feel in working for an organisation that values them. In times of crisis, people are just pleased to have jobs and workers to keep their businesses going.
This bill maintains the relationship between employer and employee by having the government make payments to business and not-for-profits affected by a downturn as a result of coronavirus, to support those organisations in keeping those employees and making it easier for those businesses to snap back on the other side. This payment of $1,500 per fortnight per eligible employee has been warmly welcomed as a lifesaver across my electorate and around the country.
Finally, I want to say a thank you to the people of Berowra. It is easy to forget how good people can be. I want to acknowledge the people in my electorate and across Australia who are inspiring us every day with their acts of selflessness and resolve. For this, I say thank you.