House debates

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Ministerial Statements

Covid-19

10:38 am

Photo of Luke HowarthLuke Howarth (Petrie, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services) Share this | Hansard source

It's great to rise today and speak about Australia's health response to COVID-19. What we've seen over the last few months, not just here in Australia but around the world, has been unprecedented. We've never seen anything like this in our lifetimes, and governments right around the world have tried to deal with this health crisis, this pandemic, in the interests of their citizens and to make sure that they're kept healthy. Australia has done extremely well. We've had a low death rate, a low infection rate and high testing rates, and that's great, but I know that the government wants to ensure that we maintain that great health record and ensure that the economy opens up again.

I spoke to some of my constituents recently about how they're feeling about these issues. I've been working hard in my office talking to people on the phone and I've had a bit of feedback from local people online as well. Jules Lawrence said: 'I think our Prime Minister is doing an amazing job.' Jules, thank you for that. Quite a few people 'liked' that comment. It's pretty clear that the Prime Minister has led by example, and Australians do appreciate it. I have passed that on to him. Kelly Logan said: 'Thanks for the opportunity to answer. I think the long-term economic downturn caused by the virus will be much deadlier than the virus itself. Stress, suicide—we will not learn the true effect for a few years yet, although not entirely our government's fault, they were following orders or recommendations from the top.' Kelly, you're absolutely right. Mental health is a big issue. One of the biggest contributing factors is employment outcomes. If people lose their job or lose their business, that can have a huge impact on people's mental health. I note that the Prime Minister and our health minister, Greg Hunt, made a statement yesterday. Simon Benson wrote an article with the headline, 'PM puts mental health at top of medical agenda'. The article says:

Scott Morrison will appoint the country’s first deputy chief medical officer for mental health to steer a new pandemic plan for a feared second wave of the COVID-19 crisis.

The Australian can reveal the role—to be discussed by national cabinet on Friday—will sit alongside the Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, who has been leading the country’s response to the pandemic and has recommended mental health be elevated to a tier one issue.

So, Kelly, I want you to know that the Australian government recognises that mental health is a big issue. There has been lots of mental health support, and not just in this week's announcement, which will be discussed at national cabinet on Friday. The Morrison government has announced some $1.1 billion to support more mental health services, Medicare and domestic violence services. More help will be given to millions of Australians battling the devastating impacts of coronavirus with a $1.1 billion package which boosts mental health services, Kelly, as well as domestic violence support, Medicare assistance for people at home and emergency food relief. There are a whole lot of different supports. One is the 1800RESPECT number, the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service, which already answers around 160,000 calls a year. There is MensLine Australia, a line specifically for men who want to discuss how they're feeling. There are programs to support trafficked people, and there is support for women and children.

In my role as assistant minister in social services, we're building some $60 million worth of new housing for safe places to support 6,500 women and children a year. So there is a lot happening around mental health. The other thing that really affects people's mental health, of course, is housing. If people lose their home, often that can have a big impact on their mental health. Safe and secure housing has been a key defence in the fight against coronavirus. Obviously the Morrison Government, in partnership with state and territory governments, is making sure Australians struggling to put a roof over their heads continue to get the support they need, and more than $1.3 billion of housing loans, through the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation, is delivering more than 1,500 new social and affordable dwellings right now and refinancing a further 5,000 existing dwellings. Housing, of course, is a prime responsibility of state and territory governments, and I've been working closely with state housing ministers on what they're doing and how they're investing the more than $1.6 billion that the federal government gives them each year through the NAHA agreement. We also invest another $4½ billion a year to community housing organisations and the private sector with Commonwealth rent assistance, just to mention a few things that we're doing in this area.

Bradley Husband, a constituent, said: 'I get giving extra money to those who are forced onto unemployment because of the government shutdown, but I'm disappointed that we are throwing money at the long-term unemployed. Their circumstances haven't changed, so they did not need to be given extra money. I pay my taxes, because at the end of the day, the taxpayers who go to work every day are the ones paying it back,' and so forth. Bradley, I hear what you're saying, but, not everyone who has found themselves unemployed has done so through their own choosing. Lots of people are actively looking for work. We've seen, through the coronavirus crisis, literally tens of thousands of new people on the jobseeker payment.

I was speaking to someone this morning online who has worked with Virgin, or a company affiliated with Virgin, who's now found herself on jobseeker. She just lives down the road from me. She's a hardworking person. Many people I've come across in my own role and in my electorate are actively looking for work. That's why I run jobseeker boot camps in my electorate to connect people who are actively looking for work with employers who hire people and give them the skills and knowledge on what to do. So please be assured that people before this coronavirus impact was in place, people on Newstart—and we had some of the lowest numbers in the country ever, so our unemployment rate before coming in was in the very low fives, about 5.1 per cent nationally. So not everyone that finds themselves on Newstart is not actively looking for work, I can assure you of that.

Michelle Scalan says on Australian ownership and manufacturing that government needs to lead by example and purchase manufacture in Australia rather than buying cheaper overseas. The reason it's cheaper overseas is because their minimum wage is lower. With the advantages of workers' rights here in Australia come the disadvantages of higher costs. We all need to be buying Australian and the government needs to prioritise this and incentivise and support local manufacturing.

This is coming through very clearly to me from people in my constituencies in my electorate of Petrie that they want to see more local manufacturing, they want to see Australians supporting Australian manufacturing. I have a bit of manufacturing in our electorate. The minister for science yesterday, Karen Andrews, spoke in the parliament about Packer Leather that employs more than 100 people in my electorate. I've got other people like East Coast Bullbars in Clontarf that manufacture bullbars, and I've spoken before about the Evolve Group that are reshoring products from China back here.

Manufacturing can be done. Obviously, we need to make sure that with innovation and new advancement in technology that we take advantage of that to make more companies in Australia manufacture here. Some of the boundaries, as you said, Michelle, are higher wage costs and of course higher electricity costs and the government has focused on higher electricity costs.

I think all members in this place, in the opposition, the government and the crossbench, need to find common ground when it comes to manufacturing. So often the opposition will accuse the government:' Oh, you want to have more flexibility in business. Therefore you want to reduce workers' rights.' The fact is that that's what small businesses say to us—they do need a little bit of flexibility, and if they don't get that through the Fair Work Commission that's why more casuals are hired.

We've also seen the government dealing well with and listening to unions. I think as a parliament we can learn from this. We need to be working together to support more manufacturing here. Ministers and everyone, I think we also need to look at government procurement and get more of that in place where we can.

There are a whole lot more messages, and I only have 30 seconds to go so I can't get to everyone. Don Anderson spoke about easing restrictions in relation to restaurants. National cabinet have said that 10, 20 and 100 people are the stages. Obviously, 10 people in a small cafe or 10 people in a pub and club is hugely different. That was put in place mainly around the waiter, not the social distancing, but a waiter dealing with 10 people, then 50. State governments have the power in this place and obviously the states need to move as quickly as possible to get places open.

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