Thursday, 14 May 2020
There is widespread acknowledgement that Australia has managed the COVID-19 outbreak better than most other countries. That's the result of a nation led by the federal government—and I acknowledge that—acting on the advice of experts, working as one with state government jurisdictions, with opposition parties across Australia, and working constructively in the national interest. In looking forward, we must continue to put the national interest first, because we are not in the clear yet, nor have all of the economic impacts surfaced and hit home.
I begin my remarks by expressing my sincere sympathies to those families that have been hit particularly hard—families of the 98 people who have already lost their lives, others who faced life-threatening moments in their lives, those who were unable to visit their elderly parents in nursing homes and the like, and those who weren't able to attend weddings and, even worse, funerals of loved ones. These are significant defining moments in a person's life that these people have missed out on, and I'm sure it will be part of their life as they go into the future.
One of the consoling reminders about all of this is that it could have been worse for Australia. I believe it wasn't worse, because this nation worked together as one. But it could have been worse had it not been for all of the health workers, the aged-care workers, the childcare workers, the teachers, the police, the emergency service workers, the people that work at Centrelink and the tax office, the people that work in the supermarkets, and wherever else they worked to keep the economy and this country ticking over. To all of those people—and I can't list them all individually—I say thank you, because it was as a result of your input that this nation got through to this point in the way that it has.
As I reflect on the past three months, there are some issues that I want to briefly touch on. First is the issue of racism. COVID-19 has seen a worldwide flare-up of racism against Asian people in particular. It has been fuelled by constant reference, including by US President Trump, to 'the Chinese virus'. I simply say this: racism exists and it always has. But, when it leads to violence against innocent people because of their skin colour or their appearance, it is simply not acceptable and it should be condemned.
Secondly, I turn to the support measures, and I commend the government for the measures that it brought in. They were necessary and well intentioned. This side of politics has supported them every step of the way. However, there are too many Australians that have fallen through the gaps. Over a million people were not entitled to the JobKeeper support for trivial reasons such as being in casual employment or part-time employment and not quite meeting the 12-month employment criterion and things such as that. They missed out. Students, council workers, over 5,000 dnata workers, people in the arts sector, people in charities and people in universities have missed out on a legitimate entitlement in line with what others were getting, all because of unintended consequences. The government could easily close those gaps, and they have the opportunity and the ability to do so. My understanding is that the government predicted that some six million Australians would be supported by the JobKeeper package. It's unlikely that we'll get to that six million figure; therefore, there is capacity for the government to extend the program to those who I believe it unintentionally left out and to give them the same support. Australia prides itself on being a nation of a fair go, and it is simply not fair that so many deserving people are missing out.
I now turn to child care. Again, the government's package was well intentioned, and I accept that, but it was poorly thought through. My view is that, again, it could be rectified, and we could ensure that the childcare sector is supported in an even and balanced way so that childcare centres and staff from those centres are not forced to miss out because the package was not structured appropriately. It is not a criticism of government, because I accept that everything had to be done with a degree of urgency. It is simply an observation that, having brought in a package, we could make it better, and I ask the government to do so.
That also includes those people who are here from overseas and can't leave the country, even if they want to. People might have been here on work visas or simply on visitors visas, but they are here. Many of them have no work rights, no income and no assistance. In fact, in many cases, their visas are about to expire. They can't leave, so they have to apply for an extension to their visa. That comes at a cost of several hundred dollars. It's a penalty in addition to what they currently face. I don't believe it would be unreasonable for the government to waive the fees in this instance under these circumstances. So, again, I ask the government to do that. But I also ask the government to look at how else it might be able to assist those people who we allowed into the country—they came here either as tourists or to help as workers in our economy—and who now find themselves in the situation that they do.
Another matter I will briefly touch on, which doesn't concern this nation directly, relates to Taiwan. If there is a shining light and a shining example of how well this COVID-19 pandemic can be managed, it's the country of Taiwan. Up until the last report I read, they had 440-odd cases and seven deaths. That's in a population of 24 million—almost the size of Australia. I believe we could learn from what Taiwan did, and yet Taiwan are not a member of the World Health Organization. They have been barred from it as observers. I would like to think that our government might support them in at least being observers to the next World Health Organization meeting.
The last issue I'm going to turn to is how COVID-19 has exposed many of the weaknesses that we have in Australia, in particular the weakness that we now face as a result of having allowed our manufacturing sector to decline to the extent that it has. In the fifties and sixties, the manufacturing sector in this country accounted for about 28 per cent of GDP and 28 per cent of employment. Today it accounts for less than six per cent of GDP and probably around seven per cent of employment. It is not just the jobs that we have lost, which is important in itself, but the loss of capacity and ability to do things and make things at a time of critical need. And we saw that with COVID-19, with so many of the health products that we needed in short supply. I have to commend the number of companies who quickly tried to adjust so that they could make them. But the reality is that it is times like this that the importance of the manufacturing sector is exposed, as it was during World War II. And yet this country has allowed manufacturing to go backwards.
I believe that it would be in the national interest for us, once again, to look at the importance of manufacturing with the research and development it provides, the innovation it provides, the jobs it provides, the security it provides and the benefits to the economy that it provides, and re-invest in it and try to rebuild manufacturing across Australia.
In closing, I thank people across Australia who have, in one way or another, come together to respond to COVID-19. It is something that our world, at least in my lifetime, has never experienced before. I accept that we are dealing with a matter with which there is no textbook we can look to as to how it was dealt with in the past and what we should do. I accept that mistakes might be made—they will probably be made because people will be acting in good faith. Having said that, if we realise that things are not going as planned, let's work together and correct the problems that arise as they do, because there will be more problems arising, particularly as we get the economic fallout hitting us in the months ahead, so that we can ensure that the people of this country get the best support from government that they can.