Thursday, 14 May 2020
Every day, decisions taken in this building determine the direction of our country, but in recent weeks there's been immediacy to the consequences of our decisions. Over the weeks, I've listened to people describe the decisions they are trying to take in their own lives about whether to take on more debt for a business whose future cannot be certain. Do they cut their losses and find a new path, or do they defend what they've spent years building even if it costs them in retirement? I've listened to the sighs of relief when JobKeeper was announced as people said they could finally see beyond the next few weeks. I've known that the frameworks that we set in place for childcare funding would not only make a difference to family budgets but also mean the viability of businesses, the survival of careers and the wellbeing of our youngest Australians. I've spoken to doctors desperately trying to serve patients over the telephone, worried about the mental health of those living alone. Personally, I've watched my wife's grandmother peer over the gate at her great-grandson, desperate to catch just a glimpse of him even though he didn't understand why he had to be held back and couldn't run to her.
Being a representative of a community at this time means feeling the weight of each person's circumstances and doing the best we can to act on their behalf. It's meant speaking to ministers' offices and departments to try to work out how to give the 120,000 people of Berowra whatever lifeline we can. It's also meant helping Australians who are caught abroad to find avenues home. It's been humbling and a great honour, as it is every day in this job.
It's also been humbling to watch our community respond. On Anzac Day this year, I was more hopeful than ever about the compact between the generations of Australians, as young people honoured those who have served in our armed services, not at a majestic march or a solemn service but quietly in front of their homes. Watching online as Evie Morrison from Northholm Grammar School played the Last Post on the flute against the backdrop of a cloud-clad Hawkesbury River is a moment etched on my mind. I will never forget the moving, unique Anzac Day Dawn Service, standing at the front of our home, watching as our neighbours came out one by one into their driveways to create a small, silent, simple ceremony which underscored the bonds between our fellow Australians, which seem stronger today than at any time that I can remember.
Community organisations in my electorate are doing amazing work. Meals on Wheels have adapted how they operate to make sure the service wouldn't need to shut down if someone were infected and to broaden the range of people they serve to cater for those in isolation. Churches like Berowra Baptist, Thornleigh Community Baptist and Normanhurst Uniting are shopping for people who are isolated, calling people who may need help and, in the case of Berowra Baptist, adopting single people into their families to be the one visitor a household could have. Lifeline Harbour to Hawkesbury has answered more than 19,000 calls over the past two months. Fusion, The Dish and Hornsby Connect have expanded their food services to continue to feed people facing hardship. Parents Beyond Breakup took their meetings online and found that it opened up support to many people who wouldn't otherwise have attended but who are feeling particularly helpless. Their meeting attendance has doubled.
Childcare centres have continued to provide safe and secure places so critical workers can keep doing their work and are offering children a nurturing and educational environment when the world outside their doors seems uncertain. Schools have demonstrated extraordinary resilience not only in adapting to online learning with incredible speed but in going above and beyond to show care and support to their students, and parents challenged by trying to educate their children at home have a new respect for teachers.
This has also been a time of grief. Funerals with limited attendance have been a particular hardship, and I think of many people who have had to grieve at a distance, who have been unable to say goodbye and for whom the loss of a loved one has been made so much more complex. There has been a gripping fear for some who have not known whether financial obligations can be met and whether everything that has been worked for will be lost. For some there has been enormous endurance to spend time in close quarters with people who are difficult to be with, and fraught relationships have not had an easy release valve.
This has also been a time of learning. Lots of sentences have begun with 'All I really want is', followed by the listing of simple things which we often take for granted: the health of our families, a barbecue at the park with friends, the smell of coffee brewed by a good barista, the chance to drop children off at the school gate. We've paid fresh attention to the simple parts of our lives and we've realised that the things that matter to us most sometimes don't get much room on our to-do lists. We've been reminded how much we love our elderly family and friends, we've had time to teach our children to tie their shoes or ride their bikes and we've learnt that we can adapt faster than we thought. We have sped up the processes that will serve us well going forward. Telehealth services were expanded out of necessity, but the service makes so much sense that we should look at holding onto it. Similarly, we've learned how to work in more flexible ways and to focus on the things that matter, not just the busyness itself.
This week marks a particularly significant return to recovery. In New South Wales our schools are up and running, family visits have resumed and on the weekend I will be able to sit down for a moment at my local cafe to read the news and have some food. Activity that's been on hold is just starting to resume. While I don't want to understate the difficulties that Australians face, as a society we need to take stock of the pace of our lives before COVID-19, reflect on the opportunities we've had to slow things down and work out how we'll spend more time on the important rather than forever chasing the urgent. We now have a chance to address some of the challenges that we've had in the too-hard basket and to move into the recovery with fresh perspective.
I want to say three things about the recovery phase. First, we've been reminded that the economic fundamentals of Australia are very good. In particular, the crisis has reminded us about the importance of having a free, open, modern economy. When we talk about the economy, we're not talking about a nebulous concept. We're talking about every exchange we make with our neighbours, every pipe laid by a plumber, every plant propagated by a nursery, every necklace made by a jeweller, every haircut at the barber. It's the great activity of life and culture that we want to restore. A strong economy means all this activity is free to happen, accessing the capital it needs to get going, seeing return on that investment, exchanging and trading as it should. It means farmers sending food to other parts of the world and it means supplies coming here to let us build machines to make our work more efficient.
We've spent the last two months getting used to the government telling us what to do. This should not last. As with postwar reconstruction, the government will need to do a lot by way of planning and managing—more than it would need to in usual times—but this must always be in the service of free industry and activity of the Australian people. History tells us that governments that hold onto controls too long inevitably face the backlash of a free people. Ultimately, governments can never plan or manage the incredibly vibrant, creative, diverse and versatile activity that the free market can produce. Every decision we take, even those to plan and manage our way out of the crisis, must have as the ultimate goal placing responsibility back into the hands of all of us to keep our economy and communities strong.
Second, we've seen some of the fault lines in our services and infrastructure in recent weeks, and it's time to sort them out. Telecommunications has been absolutely inadequate in my community and no doubt in other places too. We cannot afford to keep ignoring this. I believe Telstra has a particular responsibility in this regard, as their service is absolutely woeful in my electorate. It is time they stepped up. Telcos should be like turning on the tap and getting water, and yet these last two months have shown us how essential it is for modern life. I will not let this issue go.
Transport also needs to be improved. The average commute in Sydney is well over an hour every day. The time people have had back in their lives without sitting in traffic has made a major difference to the wellbeing of everyone. We have to continue to improve Sydney's transport by investing significantly in infrastructure projects like NorthConnex.
Third and finally, I want to say something about immigration. The shadow immigration minister made some injudicious comments recently about immigration and overseas workers in this country. As chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, let me be clear. Migration should be part of Australia's future. Skilled migration creates jobs. When people want to commit to Australia as their home, when they want to integrate, work and serve this community and be part of building our future, and when that desire matches the needs and interests of the Australian community, we should celebrate it. In my committee work, I recently met a business in Mount Gambier that has been able to employ 50 local people, including people with disabilities, because of the migration of two skilled pastry chefs from the Philippines to do a job in a location that no Australian was willing or qualified to do. Those migrants came to Australia, shared their skills and trained five apprentices, who then in turn trained others and grew the business. To play cheap politics with immigration ultimately puts our economic wellbeing at risk.
In recent weeks Australia has been tested. We've demonstrated that this is the best place on Earth. In Australia, things work. COVID-19 has reminded us how much we have that is good. Outstanding political leadership; a well-functioning government and institutions that can rise to the challenge; the world's best health care system; dedication to the value of every life and every person, no matter how old or how sick; a culture of responsibility and social concern. It is these things that I'm committed to defending and these things that are worth fighting for as we move into the next phase of this recovery.