Thursday, 25 March 2021
Matters of Public Importance
If we're talking about political slogans, I think we're in no doubt what Labor's political slogan will be at the next election—and that's 'On your side'. Today's MPI is about the government listening to the Australian public, and I'm going to talk a lot today about the pandemic and how we listened about what we needed to do and also about people's jobs and what we needed to do. But it has also touched on a very important public discussion that started happening in our country five or six weeks ago now, starting with the allegations that Brittany Higgins made, and very tragic and sad they are. Given that the opposition leader did bring that issue up in the MPI debate, I do want to discuss. I think the best way it's been summarised I saw written the other day: this is not a girl or a woman thing. This is a boy and a man thing. This is not about our daughters. This is not about our wives. This is not about our grandmothers. This is about our sons, our mates, our fathers and our grandfathers. I think the Prime Minister articulated that very emotionally and in a very heartfelt way the other day.
Deputy Speaker O'Brien, I know that in a previous life you were a policeman. I'm sure in that role you would have been called to many domestic violence situations and many other situations that would have been quite horrific for you and obviously the victims involved in that. I think what has happened in this country over the past five or six weeks is a really important and a really necessary public discussion for us to have, because we need to get better. We need to get better not just in this building and within these workplaces; we need to get better in every workplace and in every household across this country. I think that's an important discussion. Obviously as a government here within this workplace and with other Commonwealth offices it will get better. There will be independent processes that can happen when allegations are made. But this is a very important discussion.
I have the great pleasure and great privilege to be the father of two daughters and a son. They all have, I think, the utmost potential to be anyone and anything they want to be, especially my daughters. I've always reinforced that to them. My youngest daughter did say that she sometimes socially does not feel safe. It is not okay when she's in certain places that that is the situation.
I do want to go on as well to talk about, besides this very important public conversation we've had over the last five or six weeks in this country, the fact that over the last 12 months the country has had a conversation about the pandemic and people's job security. That's been the most important thing they've wanted us to listen to them on. I think in this place it's really important that the institution of this chamber, the institution of the opposition and the institution of the press hold the government to account. I applaud the opposition when they hold us to account, when they point out failings or where they think we should do better things. But I'll tell you what: I think sometimes the opposition has to find a happy place. There are some really good things that have happened in this country and in this chamber that we have done on both the pandemic front and the economic front. But you wouldn't know that from the other side at all. They can never find a happy place. They can never say, 'We're doing okay here, but we want you to look there.' It's always an unhappy place with them. I think that's not necessarily healthy.
What have we been listening to? What we were listening to 12 months ago was the Australian public. Our public health officials, nurses and doctors were saying: 'You've got to flatten the curve. We are going to be in a bad place if you don't flatten the curve of this pandemic.' So what did we do? Through the goodwill of the Australian people, through good hand hygiene, social distancing, we did better than flatten the curve. You can't eliminate a virus but we've probably done better than any other country in the world in eliminating this one. We listened, we acted and, with the help of the Australian people, we did very well. We are now up to the vaccine rollout, which is an important part of this process as well.
Not everyone votes for me in my electorate; that probably doesn't surprise anybody! Many people I know are good people who vote for the Labor Party and the Greens and they have congratulated us as a government. They have said, 'You have done a good job. You did a good job on the health front. You have done a good job on the economy,' and they're grateful for that. That is important to acknowledge. Deloitte, a few months ago, said there is no better place in the world to be right now if you look at both the health statistics and economic statistics than Australia. A lot of that is on the goodwill of the Australian people.
Where are we up to with the pandemic? Again, it is not eliminated. You can't eliminate a virus as we see in any country. New Zealand has done very well but every now and then there will be an outbreak—things happen. But with the vaccine rollout, over 300,000 doses have been administered so far. Phase 1a was for those frontline workers, those who work in quarantine centres, or health officials who are exposed to people who have the virus or who will potentially be exposed to the virus and the elderly people in aged-care facilities who are vulnerable. Obviously, the older you are, if you get this virus, the more dangerous it is for you. We have rolled out phase 1a. Over 300,000 people have had that initial vaccine and now even the second dose of that is starting to roll out as well.
Just this week we have stepped into 1b, which is for people over 70 and other frontline health staff. There will be hiccups. We said at the start of this that you can't easily roll out a double vaccine dose for the number of Australians we have with the logistics that are involved with the vaccine being deep frozen. I know the minister next to me has been involved in this for regional Australia and I thank him for his great care and diligence in this part of the rollout. There will be hiccups along the way but so far so good. We are all about making sure Australians are safe.
Australians wanted us to listen. They were really worried. In fact, I would say, probably more Australians were telling me they were worried their job than they were about the virus at certain times during this pandemic. We are aware that eight out of 10 jobs are in the private sector and we have done many things to make sure we protect peoples' business confidence, consumer confidence to make sure they feel as though they have job security and faith in the future.
Business confidence and consumer confidence are up. Just in the last few weeks, Ray Morgan put out their business confidence survey. It was 16.2 points higher than a year ago in February 2020. It was at a multi-year high. Business confidence is higher than it was pre-pandemic. Consumer confidence is the same. Westpac Melbourne Institute was up to 111 in March. Again, it is higher than where it was pre-pandemic. A lot of this is on the back of the fact that we have managed the pandemic so well. Economically, we haven't been hit as hard as many other countries. We have all seen the news reports on countries in Europe, North America, just about every other continent that has been hit very hard on the health front and, therefore, damaged economically.
There has been great news on the jobs front. Just a week or so ago, we saw the unemployment rate fall from 6.3 per cent to 5.8 per cent. This outperformed everyone's projections—the RBA, any economist. Any professional economist who gets paid for a living trying to predict this stuff got it wrong. We are bouncing out of this quicker than what they would have thought. We on this side are being flexible with this too.
The other side have made a lot about JobKeeper more recently. JobKeeper was always temporary. When we initiated it last March/April we designed it to run off in September. Last September, it was obvious that was too early. The economy was vulnerable. There were a lot of people who still couldn't open up and get their businesses back to where they wanted to be, so we extended it and we extended it until the end of March.
This is not a vacuum. While JobKeeper is rolling off, there are lots of other things out there, like the apprenticeship scheme and the job hire making credit. We're going to adjust that because we want that to do better than it is. But there are still a lot of other incentives out there for people to employ. The biggest issue—and it's been anecdotally in my region now for probably six months or so—that small businesses have in my community is they can't get enough staff. So we feel that the economy now has the capability to deal with this. We'll see how that goes, and, if we need to be more flexible or adjust what we're doing, we will. Again, the jobs figures last week surprised everyone and were extremely important. This hasn't happened by mistake. This has happened because the budget we did last year and the stimulus packages we initiated earlier in the year have all been about peoples' jobs and job security and making sure our economy got through this.