Tuesday, 22 June 2021
COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I rise to support the premise of this bill, the COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021, but also to table concerns about its implementation, which has inadvertently hurt regional communities such as mine in Indi. The government's decision to commit to economic relief payments for Australians experiencing extended lockdowns is a good one, but it could have come sooner and it could have been broader. It's almost three months now since the end of JobKeeper, and the government is burying its head in the sand if it thinks that Australian cities won't face further lockdowns as the vaccine rollout trickles along into next year. The government should have been working proactively with state governments through the national cabinet process to anticipate lockdowns, such as the latest one that we have experienced in Victoria, and to ensure that support was ready and available, that it was predictable and immediate, and that it reflected the economic reality on the ground in the hotspots—but beyond the hotspots too.
The current eligibility rules for this payment are short-sighted and do not understand the economic reality of lockdowns when they occur in cities like Melbourne and the impact that they have on the regions that surround Melbourne, or any capital city for that matter—it is, again, just a matter of time, while we wait for the population to slowly, slowly have access to vaccines. That's because item 492 of the Financial Framework (Supplementary Powers) Regulations requires a worker to be subject to a lockdown for more than seven days and reside or work in the Commonwealth designated COVID hotspot to be eligible for the payment. This ignores the interconnected nature of Melbourne, or any capital city, and their regional economies. When Melbourne is locked down this has a significant impact on tourism, hospitality and accommodation in small businesses and the casual workers who work for them in regional Victoria. These businesses are heavily reliant on clientele from Melbourne.
At the start of the latest lockdown the incomes of these small businesses and the workers who work for them were cut off overnight. Many of them contacted my office in distress as their balance sheets and bank accounts dwindled, with no federal assistance in sight. And when federal assistance was finally announced they were excluded. These businesses and workers still face economic hardship, even as regional Victoria reopens. For example—a huge economic impact in the electorate of Indi—the ski fields felt the impact of the Melbourne lockdown long beyond the period when Victoria was more broadly opened up. Right now in order to come to the ski fields skiers need to have a COVID test 72 hours before they get there. Many people see that as a step too far and are not coming to the ski fields. For our hospitality venues, our wineries, there has been huge loss of visitation over the period of the lockdown and beyond. The fantastic, loyal business owners of these businesses have been doing their upmost to look after their employees.
One constituent who comes to mind is a casual worker at a boutique hotel near Wangaratta. This constituent has been stood down since the lockdown in Melbourne began and lost all of her wages. The temporary COVID disaster payment does nothing to help this worker. Workers such as her were hard to recruit. We have a skills shortage right across the region, and it's acute in Indi where business owners—fantastic businesses, great employers—simply can't get the workers they need. To have workers who come out into the regions and take up the opportunities that are there being disadvantaged by government legislation that only enables payment to the hotspot means that those workers may be scratching their head and saying, 'You know what, I think I'd be better off in a capital city where at least I would get some recompense for my loss of work.' I think that's an unintended outcome of this piece of legislation. It's one I've written to the Treasurer about to bring his attention to it.
Maybe a parallel is what happened during the bushfires. There was appalling damage right across my electorate. Huge amounts of areas were burnt. But it wasn't just the areas burnt that suffered economic damage from the bushfires, it was the many, many businesses in the surrounding areas who felt the economic impacts of the lack of tourism and the consistent smoke damage—businesses like grape growers. In working with the government ultimately I was able to convince them that the impact of a bushfire goes beyond the footprint of the burnt area. And it's a bit like this with a COVID lockdown. When Melbourne's locked down the regions feel the pain as well, so support should be available to all workers who are suffering a reduction in income because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That was the rule for JobKeeper and that should be the rule that applies now. If you're impacted you should be eligible for some support.
The lack of fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities and the slow, slow pace of the vaccine rollout means that lockdowns in capital cities around the country are an unfortunate and regrettable but inevitable reality. And even the government's own current budget papers assume recurrent lockdowns.
So while this bill is a good sign from the government that it won't totally abandon small businesses and workers facing lockdowns, it doesn't have the safeguards that the regions surrounding a lockdown area need. Regions like Indi, like regional areas all over Australia, have worked really hard to keep their communities safe and to keep COVID out of those communities. Like our populations in the big cities, much has been sacrificed as a result of outbreaks—including through ad hoc border closures, which my community in the Albury-Wodonga region suffered from so dramatically. There were 138 days of border lockdown; people couldn't cross the border to go to work or to school. They had problems getting to health care, and families were separated in their own nation. We never want to see that again. I want to make it clear to the government that the impact of a lockdown and of a COVID-19 outbreak miles from other people has an impact on those people. We need to recognise that.
The least the government could do in this bill, I think, is to recognise that severe economic impacts are not just contained to a Commonwealth-government-designated hotspot. So I call on the government to amend this new national framework for COVID outbreaks to recognise this and to recognise the impact that it has on regional economies, regional workers, regional businesses and everyday people. We need to make sure that the great gains we achieved through JobKeeper can be replicated short term. It's great if it's short-term; we don't want things to go on forever. But if you're outside a Commonwealth-designated hotspot area and are affected by a lockdown then you too need to have access to support from the federal government. I make this plea tonight: listen to this—talk to people in the regions, and I'm sure you'll hear the same story. I think it's really important. I know that the member for Monash made a similar call when this happened in Melbourne and I join with him to say, 'Please work with us and extend the ability for people affected by a lockdown to access support.