Wednesday, 5 February 2020
Matters of Public Importance
I have received a letter from the honourable the Leader of the Opposition proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The failure of the Government to provide leadership.
I call upon those honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
Everyone knows that this has been a summer of disaster. For the Prime Minister and this government, though, it's been a summer of complacency. It's been one where their arrogance and their hubris has been on full display before the Australian people, one in which the Prime Minister refuses to ever admit that he made a mistake, one in which facts are twisted to suit the Prime Minister's own political position, one in which the Prime Minister has been exposed as an ad man without a plan—without a plan for the nation's economy, without a plan for the bushfire crisis, without a plan for social advancement, without a plan for this nation's future and, certainly, with no plan for energy and no plan to deal with the challenge of climate change.
The fact is that, on this government's watch, economic growth has slowed since the coalition came to office, productivity growth has halved from 2.2 to 1.1 per cent and wages growth is now the worst on record. Those opposite, presiding over an economy that is flatlining, have no strategy to lift the economy, no strategy to boost jobs and no strategy to boost wages. They think that if they just get out of the way the market will sort it out all out. Well, what the market is doing is having more casualisation, less security in the workplace, more fly-in fly-out jobs and fewer secure jobs. People working next door to each other doing the same job are being paid sometimes $50,000 or $60,000 less than the person they're working next to. They have no plan to deal with enterprise bargaining in our wages systems. They have no plan for the country's future. They have no plan to support business. Business investment is down by 20 per cent since the Liberals and the Nationals came to office. It's now at its lowest level since the 1990s recession.
This summer Australians came to realise that the Prime Minister isn't the man he pretends to be. And it's not like he wasn't warned. Way back in 2008, the Garnaut report said:
Recent projections of fire weather suggest that fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020.
We know that the fire chiefs tried to meet with the Prime Minister and that he treated them with contempt. What would they know? Just hundreds of years of experience. We know the Department of Home Affairs produced a national disaster risk reduction framework in 2018 that said:
However, with the driver of a changing climate there is growing potential for some natural hazards to occur at unimagined scales, in unprecedented combinations and in unexpected locations.
They ignored it completely.
In November we wrote to the Prime Minister with eight practical suggestions—not playing politics but putting forward constructive ideas like, 'How about there be a national approach?' Bushfires don't recognise state boundaries, nor should this approach. What we had from the government and from the Prime Minister day after day, week after week, month after month was: 'This is a state issue. It's not our fault.' He said—remember those words?—'I don't hold a fire hose.' We had a circumstance whereby he was simply missing in action when it came to what was required. He was complacent throughout it all. He wrote back saying, 'Don't worry, we'll get COAG to meet should the need arise.' Bear in mind we'd already had Queensland fires, North Coast fires and Mid Coast fires. The Gospers Mountain fire was already off and running. We had fires throughout this country, across different states, and we had no national leadership.
Today in question time we spoke of the measures we called for: the call-out for and support for increased involvement of our Defence Force; increased aerial firefighting, a capacity that we took to the last election in accordance with the recommendations of the experts; a national approach; a disaster plan being updated; climate change mitigation and adaptation measures; the support that we called for on an ecological audit about the impact on our native animals; and the support we called for on mental health. On all of these, it took weeks and months before the government finally acted. The truth is: if Scott Morrison had been captain of the Titanic, he would have been the first person into the lifeboats after it hit the iceberg. And then he would have denied that there was an iceberg! Indeed, if 'Captain Morrison' had been asked by anyone about the iceberg, he would have disagreed with the premise of the question. And then he would have said that the iceberg was unsourced gossip. And then he would have said that it was an editorial. And then he would have said that it wasn't an iceberg; it was just a bubble that you could just go through.
That's what we saw today in question time, whether it was about the bushfire crisis, whether it was about the sorry sports rort saga where we had the corruption of a program—the Auditor-General's report is very, very clear. It says that decisions were based upon the marginality of seats and that they were political decisions not based upon merit. Today in question time we asked the Prime Minister a very simple question—it was asked twice: could he say that the projects were funded based on merit? Instead we got obfuscation—all the usual nonsense. This is a Prime Minister who cannot answer a straight question. He is someone who thinks that Liberal-National party money is the same as taxpayers' money. They have gone out there and thrown Bridget McKenzie under the bus but they are still defending this scheme. The member for Brisbane did quite well out of it, in his seat. The member for Longman announced that the Prime Minister made a strategic decision, along with the secretariat, about the $500,000 that went to the club up in his area that he is a member of. We had Georgina Downer, not even a member of this place, with a big cheque with a photo on it, and her name, as if it was her money. We had the rugby club get money for women's change rooms—they didn't have any women!—and the AFL club down the road, in the member of Kingston electorate, not get money. We had clubs that rated 98 out of 100 not get funding.
The fact is that this government, wherever they are, just act on politics. We asked today about the political advertisement that was done at the height of the bushfire crisis. The Prime Minister made an announcement—and what were the instincts of his office? 'Let's do an ad. Let's use all the military facilities that we can. Let's have photos of warships. Let's have music. And let's link it to a donation box for the Liberal Party!' And on that day the Prime Minister couldn't pick up the phone to Shane Fitzsimmons and tell him that this was happening—the same person who could pick up the phone to the New South Wales Police Commissioner over his mate Angus Taylor, who remains on the front bench. And Bridget McKenzie must wonder how she is not on the front bench but the member for Hume is still there.
This is a government that is characterised by its arrogance. It is characterised by its sole purpose being to look after its own interest, not the national interest. This government is always behind even when it does something good like it has done today on the issue of veterans affairs months after Labor called for just such an initiative and for action in this area. This is a government that is arrogant and complacent. It has been involved in a victory tour since May last year. They don't have a plan for the economy. They don't have a plan for climate change. They don't have a plan for the ongoing bushfire crisis. They just have a plan for day-to-day internal management of their crises. And that's why they can't act on climate change. You've got a Deputy Prime Minister who just today has done an interview in which he once again denies the human link with climate change. So they can't act. This is a government that is not worthy of staying in office. (Time expired)
How bizarre it is that those opposite come into this place and lecture this House on leadership. These are the same people who took an uncosted emissions policy to the last federal election. These are the same people who carried out a shameless attack on the retirees of this nation and tried to spirit away their savings. These are the same people who sold working Australians down the river in a naive bid to pander to inner-city voters while turning their backs on working Australians and working families. You turned your backs on the mining communities and told them you wanted to put them all out of a job. You turned your backs on the power workers of Australia. And you dare to come into this place and lecture us on leadership!
There is one thing on which I do agree with the Leader of the Opposition, and that is that this has been a very uncertain time for our nation. We've had the tragedy and destruction of these bushfires, the coronavirus and, of course, the debilitating and devastating effects of this drought. On all of these issues, this government and the Prime Minister have shown leadership.
Many parts of my electorate of Calare are reeling under the effects of these bushfires. They have swept from Clarence to Lithgow, up the Castlereagh Highway, through to Ilford, Running Stream into the Bylong Valley. We've seen large amounts of federal funding go into the bushfire fight and the relief effort; and there has been state and community funding as well, which has been gratefully received. But one form of assistance that has been particularly well received has been the involvement of the Australian Defence Force. I'll elaborate on what they're doing in my part of the world shortly, but I just want to give the House a bit of background about how they came to be in our area and many others around Australia. Before Christmas it became clear to me and others in our area that, as this emergency continued and resources became increasingly stretched, more help was going to be needed in terms of logistics and also actual firefighting, because we were asking so much of our volunteers and they were stretched to breaking point. I was at the Ilford hall one night during the RFS shift change. The fireys were there having a meal and I was having a coffee, and we were talking about what was needed. It was a pretty long list. It included things like more hazard reduction burning in national parks. They were talking about having to wade through leaf litter that was knee-high. They wanted the national parks opened up. At the moment they're all padlocked; you can't get into them. The fireys want fire trails cleared and maintained, which is not happening at the moment.
But they also said that you can see how tired our volunteers are, and wouldn't it be great to have some ADF assistance out here? They wanted it in terms of logistics but also for the firefighting role, and I'll come to that in a minute. As I sat there in the Ilford hall, amongst our wonderful volunteers, I asked, 'Would you like me to invite the PM to look at it?' And they said, 'Yes, we'd like to talk to him.' I told them they could tell him firsthand what they needed, and they said that would be great. So, I did. I contacted the PM's office and asked his staff if they could please invite the PM to Ilford, because we'd like to see him. I also spoke to Captain Matthew Maude, who is the captain out at Ilford, and he was very keen to get the ADF involved in all manner of assistance in our area. Matthew Maude personified leadership through this crisis. He worked himself to the point of exhaustion. He led his team. He led his community. If those opposite want an example of leadership, well, Matthew Maude is your man there.
The Prime Minister did turn up, to his credit. He came to Ilford and he spoke directly to Captain Matthew Maude, and we both said to him, 'Prime Minister, we do really need the ADF out here, not only for logistical support but also for firefighting.' Matthew Maude could not have made it clearer. We both knew—we all knew—that there was an issue with New South Wales actually requesting ADF assistance. I was aware of that, and so were the RFS members. And Matthew Maude and I both said to the Prime Minister, 'Can you have a chat to New South Wales and get them to agree, because we really need some help out here as this thing goes on and on and on.' The Prime Minister listened, and do you know what happened then?
On 4 January, the compulsory call-out occurred. This is what appeared on the New South Wales RFS Ilford/Running Stream Brigade website after the call-out: 'Well, he did listen, and look what is happening. Great to see. Even if our fire is now contained, it now is set in history, so for anything moving forward, this will happen.' And they were grateful for that announcement. Then, two days after that, the Army arrived on the ground at Ilford. So the Prime Minister, to his credit, came to Ilford and listened and delivered the ADF. It's fair to say that we don't often get Black Hawks at Ilford—or anywhere else in our area. So, that was an experience, but it was great to see the Prime Minister there and listening.
They've been clearing fence lines in the Ilford and Running Stream area. We've lost so much in terms of pastures and fence lines, and the ADF's been there clearing fence lines so that farmers can get the stock back inside the fences and off the roads. They've also been clearing trees on private property. Up at Clarence and Dargan, the community said very clearly at a bushfire recovery meeting that they need the ADF to get involved in tree clearing, because these trees are burnt out and there's a danger that they're going to fall down and kill people. It's a huge issue, besides the fencing. And the ADF got up there to Clarence and Dargan, and we had community members organising these lists of people who need the assistance. They've been out there felling those trees. The local councils have been working with them. They send in a team of arborists to identify what trees need to come down and then they go around and take down the trees that are in danger of falling on fence lines and also buildings. That work has been crucial. So that's leadership: getting the help to where it's needed.
The fireys in my area—and I put out the call myself. I put it out on social media before Christmas: 'We need the ADF out here.' To his credit, the Prime Minister not only came out but listened in the heat, the dust and the wind of Ilford. He took on board what they were saying and he delivered the ADF. And that's leadership. I was very pleased to hear that we've got the royal commission that has been announced. That's leadership too. I want that royal commission to look at all the causes of these fires. Did we get the fireys in there early enough to put them out when they started, like at Gospers Mountain? We want it to look at things like hazard reduction. We want it to look at all aspects of the emergency, like how we can make things better and the things that went right. Getting that royal commission in here is leadership. We're talking about a very serious issue here, and yet it's all about the politics for them.
I'd like to see that royal commission come to our area, because I want the royal commission to hear our stories from our people who are out there on the front lines. I want them to hear the experiences of those fireys—Matthew Maude and Captain Richardson from Glen Alice. I want the royal commission to hear those stories so that we don't have to go through this again. In terms of the ADF, wouldn't it be great if we could get a recommendation that ADF personnel be trained in firefighting so that our senior fireys, some of whom are probably in their 80s, don't have to go day in, day out, knocking themselves out in goat-and-goanna country, fighting fires for the rest of the community? Wouldn't it be great if we could get them some relief? That's leadership, and it was delivered by the Prime Minister on both counts. He got the ADF here—he knocked the heads together and got them here—and also has that royal commission.
We've also had the Prime Minister out in Blayney recently on the drought, and we can't overlook that. We need to make sure that, despite this national effort on the bushfire emergency and recovery, our drought-hit communities are not overlooked. The Prime Minister came to Blayney just a few days ago and he heard firsthand from farmers what they are experiencing. He listened to them. He was out there delivering more help for local councils, looking at our Drought Communities Program and the great work that's happening.
If those opposite want an example of leadership, look to those who are delivering it, but don't come into this place with phony and bogus arguments about who is doing what or who isn't doing what when their track record is absolutely appalling. (Time expired)
It's clear that the member is just continuing his very moving condolence motion from yesterday. It was a very weak defence of the Prime Minister. He didn't focus on the MPI at all. The MPI concerns the government's failure to provide leadership. It's a failure which permeates this government and it's a failure which comes from the top, from the man who occupies the office of Prime Minister but who does not understand the responsibilities of that office—a man who has not displayed any of the characteristics of leadership, like honesty, empathy, respect or integrity. It is a failure of leadership that is no more evident than in the Prime Minister's approach to the bushfire crisis and his approach to the wider climate change crisis.
Australians know a failure of leadership when they see it. That's why Australians had such a visceral reaction when this Prime Minister was missing in action when it came to the bushfires. Prime Minister Morrison said aloha to Australia at the height of one of its biggest peacetime emergencies. He said aloha to leadership and aloha to the responsibilities of his office. Australians were fighting to protect their homes, their neighbours and their communities, and that's why they responded so angrily when this Prime Minister finally came home with the demeanour of a petulant toddler: resentful, belligerent, complaining and clearly begrudging the responsibilities of his office.
Australians know a lack of leadership when they see it. They know it wasn't leadership to refuse to even meet with the coalition of emergency leaders last year to listen to their advice about the risk of catastrophic bushfires. It is not leadership to force a young pregnant woman to shake your hand at Cobargo. It's not leadership to stand by as your National Party crony assaults that young woman. It's not leadership to then claim you had a conversation with the young woman in question. It is not leadership to force an exhausted firefighter to shake your hand. It is not leadership to politicise the ADF in a Liberal Party ad. It's certainly not leadership to fundraise for the Liberal Party off the tragedies of the fire. What a grubby, grubby effort. It's not leadership to go to Kangaroo Island and claim that no-one died when two people tragically died fighting those fires. It's not leadership to background against state governments while the nation is on fire. It's certainly not leadership to let the National Party conduct a public brawl on a day of national commemoration for the bushfires. It is not leadership to allow your party room to again push for inaction on climate change. It is not leadership to allow senators like Jim Molan to deny the science of climate change on national television. It's certainly not leadership to claim that we'll meet our emissions reduction targets when we'll only be 0.3 per cent below 2000 levels this year and only 4.7 per cent below 2000 levels in 2030.
The truth is that the Prime Minister hasn't got the courage to fight the climate deniers in his own party room. He hasn't got the courage to fight for action on climate change and to provide leadership on this critical issue, because he stands for nothing but himself. He is the ultimate chameleon of politics, lacking in values, honesty, integrity and courage, and only standing up for his own narrow interests. You've seen that in the sports rorts affair, an affair we saw on display today, where he refused to admit that he handed out money for purely political gains, where 73 per cent of the projects approved in round 3 were not recommended by Sports Australia. You've seen that in the disgraceful Building Better Regions program, where 94 per cent of the projects went to coalition seats or coalition targeted seats. As a regional MP, as a member with councils who are desperate for capital finance to support projects, I say: shame! What a disgrace.
We have a leader who will change electorates to get a seat. We've got a leader who will change footy teams for political advantage. We've got a leader who was sacked from Tourism Australia. We've got a leader who will blow up at any opportunity. No wonder this government lacks leadership. What was the lesson he said he learnt during his press conference today? That he needed to show up. That was the one lesson he had learnt from this entire crisis, that a leader needs to show up. We'd get that answer out of a four-year-old, let alone the Prime Minister. What a farce. What an empty suit. When we needed a national leader during an unprecedented crisis, we instead got Scotty from marketing. What a disgrace.
When I looked at this matter of public importance, I thought to myself: what is going through the minds of the opposition? They're literally consulting Twitter based arguments now; opposition via Twitter is their approach. They literally had someone in their leader's office who was such a genius that they turned around and thought, 'We'll do a motion saying they don't show any leadership.' They thought it was so brilliant, so clever. It went through the brains trust of stupidity. It was exactly the same sort of behaviour that Speaker Pelosi demonstrated in the US House of Representatives today in tearing up the State of the Union speech. In the end, what they actually showed was not strength, credibility or even their best arguments. What they actually showed was the juvenile nature that governs this opposition. They have no sense of understanding what matters to the Australian people or the issues that affect them, except for juvenile games.
Let's look at the leadership that this government provides. Look at the resilience of the Australian economy. It doesn't happen by accident and it certainly doesn't happen under a Labor government. It happens because you have leaders in positions of responsibility—the Prime Minister and the Treasurer—leading the economic debate to make sure we are in the best position to steward the Australian economy to deliver for the Australian people. We know the context that we're now in. We've obviously had a significant drought that continues to put great pressure on one of our chief primary industry exports, the agriculture sector. Yes, we've had fires, and we know every day that that's having an impact on small and regional towns, on the tourism sector, on forestry and on retail as well as many of the other important and critical industries that support our country. And, of course, we have the coronavirus at the same time, which, again, is impacting our tourism and our education sectors.
Against all of those challenges, the Australian economy remains strong because we have come to this parliament, and over the term of this government and in previous terms of government in this parliament—
Dr Mulino interjecting—
and provided the budget strength that this country needs. We've done so not by accident, but because we've done exactly the opposite of what the opposition has put forward to the Australian people. We have gone to the Australian people and said, 'We want to cut taxes, so we can put money in people's hip pockets, so they can go and spend, so they can create jobs in small businesses across our great country, because we have an economy built from the citizen and the enterprise up.' What was their alternative? Their alternative was to turn around to Australians and say the solution to the economy was themselves: 'I know! We'll just hoard more money in our hip pockets and we'll spend it because we in Canberra somehow have a better idea how to govern this country and run business and grow jobs.' That is the fallacy at the heart of the opposition and their policy agenda. It's the exact opposite of how you build a strong economy. It's a type of leadership—I won't argue it—but it's a leadership to wreck an economy, and wreck the opportunities and prosperity of this great nation.
Now, the fundamentals of the Australian economy are strong. We have high employment levels. We have low welfare dependency. We've done an enormous amount in making sure we have an export oriented and competitive economy. But these things do not happen by accident. The strength and the opportunity that comes from that is that we have a budget position where we're able to turn around in times of crisis, just like we have now, and put money on the table for those who are in need and to assist today those regional and rural communities that are doing it tough. We'll help them rebuild, stimulate the local businesses and create the jobs that have been lost.
We're looking to the future for what we can do in expanding our trade opportunities to the world. Under the UK free trade agreement that we're going to negotiate with a post-Brexit Britain—a great moment for all countries around the world—we're going to create the opportunities that have been lost in the past because of the UK's absorption into the European Union.
When I saw this motion was the matter of public importance for today, I just shook my head. When you think about the intellectual thought that went on behind it—it reminded me of a moment in the debate between Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan in 1984. They threw out all sorts of attacks, and Reagan just had to turn around and make the simple point: in endorsing his strategic defence plan, his long track record was to vote against it at every step of the way and Mondale would be standing in the sea. That's where the opposition stands—in the sea of irrelevance and absent ideas.
It's the job of the opposition to hold the government to account; that's what this democracy is all about. There is no more important issue to keep accountable than the issue of leadership, particularly the role of the Prime Minister. Obviously the Prime Minister has control over the fates of the Australian Defence Force, for example—men and women whom we expect to spend months and years, over the course of a career, away from their families—and so it was particularly shocking when we saw the way that this disaster season has been handled in that respect.
The position of the Prime Minister is to set moral standards, to set the technical leadership that the country needs. All of us in this place are elected to challenge the bullshit artists and the ratbags out there who misguide, mislead and misinform the public, particularly in this day and age when all the forms of social media make that such a difficult challenge.
I withdraw. The bottom line is that there is a challenge out there right now to make sure that the right information is out there, and not to pile on the garbage we've heard about arson attacks. The fire that started in Eden-Monaro on 26 November, at the North Black Range, was started by dry lightning, and the firestorms that are generated in these megadisasters create their own thunderstorms and further dry lightning, which light further fires. It is not arson attacks and it is not hazard reduction that have created this megadisaster. Hazard reduction has a role to play. It's issues like that that the Prime Minister needs to take a lead on in making sure that the right information is out there.
I've been greatly disappointed by what we've seen in the regional joint infrastructure program rorts. I had to write to the Audit Office to get that looked into and their report was scathing. Of course, that's been followed up now by the community sports rorts report from the Audit Office, and added to that is what we've seen in the council drought assistance program. For a long time now I've been saying just look up the New South Wales DPI map on the website. Most of Eden-Monaro is in severe drought. And now I can't get Yass Valley, I can't get Queanbeyan, I can't get Palerang and I can't get Eurobodalla that assistance which they richly deserve. Why not? Why are we ignoring the standards that New South Wales DPI has set? It has to be the basis of this political decision-making that we've seen in these other programs.
What I'm deeply disappointed about, going to the fire response situation, is it seems to have been treated as a marketing exercise and not a disaster response. I can't imagine the John Curtin cabinet in 1941 when Pearl Harbour was attacked saying, 'Quick, grab Russel Howcroft.' This is a situation where you had fireys and experts out there wanting to talk to the Prime Minister and being stiff-armed. We needed to talk to the experts. We needed an earlier fire response. We needed the Prime Minister, the defence minister and the emergency minister of New South Wales. We needed them here.
I've known since I first came into this parliament in 2007 that in Eden-Monaro I can't leave the borders during the disaster season. I never go on leave during that period. We needed the Prime Minister to be on deck and he responded too slowly.
We also saw a disgraceful politicisation of the ADF in using that political video. You don't have to listen to us. You don't have to take our word for it. The Australia Defence Association—not exactly a hotbed of communism—said:
… milking ADF support to civil agencies fighting bushfires is a clear breach of the (reciprocal) non-partisanship convention applying to both the ADF & Ministers/MPs.
This was clearly for party political advantage.
Of course we've had the reference to the manhandling, effectively, of Zoey Salucci-McDermott. She refused her consent to shake hands. The Prime Minister grabbed her arm and shook her hand, and then to compound that he turned his back and walked away. I know all the members in this House deal with tough moments with their constituents and you have to stand there and cop it. You have to stand there and listen. I was just shocked that he turned his back on her and walked away. That's going to be the emblem.
I make these points because the Prime Minister can either have the rest of his time categorised, classified and defined by those images in this disaster or he can change the narrative. He can show the leadership we need on issues like climate change. He can get out there and recast himself and respond to my request to reach out across this chamber, or he will forever be captured by those photographs, forever be condemned for his attitude and for the leadership that he didn't show. I'd just ask him to look across the seas to Jacinda Ardern, who during this very week that he exercised this failure was passing bipartisan legislation setting zero carbon emissions targets for 2050— (Time expired)
The opposition today have chosen a rather childish topic. It is quite disappointing. The member for Shortland got up earlier and just sprayed the chamber with utterings from Twitter like a malfunctioning Russian bot. It was disappointing to listen to, but given his limitations, and the limitations of those of those opposite, we can't be too hard on them. They have, after all, raised the important subject of leadership. So it gives me and my colleagues great pleasure this afternoon to discuss the leadership shown by this government, particularly in veterans and defence policy.
Leadership is ultimately defined by what you do, and today was the announcement of a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, the announcement of an independent review of past Defence Force and veteran suicides—tragically 419 lives have been lost between 2001 and 2017—and the announcement of a veteran family advocate to consult with the veteran community and always keep veteran families at the centre of the policy that we make in this place.
The Prime Minister today referred to the words that adorn many RSLs across this great country. He said, in question time, 'eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.' They are beautiful words and they are a reminder to all of us here that we can't take our security or our freedom for granted, particularly when so many Australians lives have been lost in previous wars—60,000 in World War I. We need to remember this truth. But the PM extended its meaning beyond the direct meaning of always being ready to defend ourselves with violence if necessary. He meant also the threats within our society. Suicide is an enduring challenge and threat to many young Australians. I've been touched by suicide myself. I lost my cousin three years ago to it. It's a terrible, terrible thing and it is incredibly damaging to families. Too many veterans have taken their lives over the last 20 years and beyond.
So this government is acting. After a long period of consultation with members of this government and the opposition, the Prime Minister today announced those three things that I mentioned earlier. But the process itself has demonstrated a high calibre of leadership. The Prime Minister, the defence minister and the Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel have been consultative, they have listened and they have sought to understand perspectives from the bottom up. I recall the Prime Minister's roundtable where the relevant ministers were present, numerous members of our backbench, the CDF, people from the department. We even had family members affected by suicide sitting around the table discussing this very important issue. Now in the new year, we've come to a point where we've found a policy solution and we're moving forward.
So the national commissioner with the authority, powers similar to that of a standing royal commission, including the power to compel evidence and summon witnesses, is a great change. That national commissioner will act as an unblinking eye, a check and balance against the failings of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. All of us here have had emails from veterans who've been deeply frustrated by their experience, so I welcome this. It is all good and well to have a royal commission but this is an enduring, institutional change. Everyone here should be welcoming that on behalf of our veteran community. I also welcome the review. We do need understand the data. We do need to understand why young veterans and serving members are taking their lives, so a comprehensive look at the last 400 or so suicides and understanding why people have taken that tragic step of taking their lives is very, very important.
Finally, the veteran family advocate is really important and I welcome it. Defence does a great job of looking after their families. My family was once a Defence family and I can recall, happily, my time in Defence and particularly the way Defence cared for our family. But once you leave Defence, it can't just stop there. That's why the addition of a veteran family advocate who will undertake engagement, liaison and advocacy across the veteran sector is such a welcome addition to this government response.
In closing, the Prime Minister has demonstrated leadership, the Minister for Defence has demonstrated leadership, the Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel has demonstrated leadership, and this government has demonstrated leadership.
If ever there was a time for someone to step up and lead this nation it was the spring and summer of 2019-20. In fact, that is exactly what happened. But it wasn't the Prime Minister who led. The Prime Minister created a vacuum and that was even before he decided to escape the smoke and disappear to Hawaii. He left the vacuum. We all know that there is a vacuum, someone will fill it and they did. Let's look at a few of them. Greg Mullins, the former New South Wales fire chief and other fire chiefs, with their hundreds of years of experience, stepped up. They stepped up nearly a year ago. They had used their perspective to identify that we may have been under-prepared for a potentially dangerous and disastrous fire season. They were concerned about the capacity of emergency services to cope. They were concerned about the number of firefighting aerial facilities that we had. And they were concerned about our reliance on volunteers. They saw there was a need for things to change. They showed leadership.
I heard my colleague the member for Eden-Monaro yesterday acknowledge that during these fires the Leader of the National Party reached out to him and I have to say that the new National Party deputy stepped up and reached out to me. I think leadership means being willing to set aside self-interest and partisan politics to be able to address the very real issues that people face. Now, I'm not going to pretend that those problems have been solved yet, but the member for Maranoa was able to do something the Prime Minister and others have been incapable of, and that was to rise above party politics. That's leadership. Equally, our own leader, the member for Grayndler, ditched the politics and stood side by side with people to hear about their experiences with these fires, as firefighters and as survivors. It would have been easy—so easy—to simply attack the Prime Minister for his failures. But instead we had a consistent, constructive voice. Our leader offered workable solutions and a willingness to welcome positive steps by the government, slow and small as they were. Yet that was never acknowledged. I was very grateful that he understood, joined me and stood side by side with people as they went through possibly the most horrific fire season of their lives. That's leadership.
At a local level, many others showed leadership. Mayors and state and federal members of parliament in fire-affected areas joined together, irrespective of politics, to support their communities. Many of them did this while their homes were under threat or their family members were facing their own personal fire traumas. They put their communities' interests ahead of their own. That's leadership. Our emergency services personnel showed leadership. They focused on the job and they did not seek to glorify their role. That's leadership.
But the Prime Minister failed on every one of these measures. It extends to his inability to take responsibility for anything, his lack of judgement, his errors and his ignorance. The sort of thing we teach our children is that you have to own your mistakes. You have to accept responsibility and you have to be honest about it. The Prime Minister has failed on all those measures.
I think one of the saddest things was the day the ad came out, when finally we had some action from the government to support our firefighters with ADF support and with additional firefighting capacity. But the first thing that we saw of that was a flash ad linked to the Liberal Party donations page—that on a day when many people were facing catastrophic conditions, when ember maps were showing huge swathes of New South Wales potentially under attack. We got an ad; that really says it all.
The sad thing is of course that we need leadership from the Prime Minister urgently. We can't afford to sit around and wait for another leader to come along—although, who knows, we may not be waiting that long! Our need for leadership by this Prime Minister is urgent, and the thing he needs to lead on is action on climate change. He and Australia could show the world that we have learned from this summer. So let's be clear: this Prime Minister hasn't been missing in action just over spring and summer; he was missing long before then. It's his character that has failed us. It's who he is, and we really shouldn't expect— (Time expired)
Well, it's a new year, isn't it, but it's not a new approach from the Australian Labor Party. It's a new parliamentary sitting week, but still they are focused on themselves. We know that this summer has been a season of challenges and crisis, but the Labor opposition opposite can't get over their own crisis, which was their loss in May. Still they are trying to re-litigate it. Still they are trying to delegitimise the decision that was made by Australians just last May.
What the government did in its response and continues to do in the bushfire crisis and in the coronavirus issue was all about supporting our fellow Australians—protecting our fellow Australians. It's being there in their time of need. Nobody seeks to take these actions to get credit or to grandstand on them. But, given the attacks of the Labor opposition, I'm not going to stand here and allow them to rewrite history. I'm not going to stand here and allow the crass and political characterisations that they are trying to make. Leadership is about this—
Opposition members interjecting—
Australians know that leadership is doing everything it takes to support their fellow Australians in their time of need. That's exactly what the Prime Minister and this government have done over the summer, what we have done since May and what we will continue to do. The Labor members opposite referenced some Twitter moments, because that's where they get their leadership from. What policy would they have done differently? I haven't heard them mention any of that.
Ms Thwaites interjecting—
Would they not have offered the $50 million in immediate assistance for bushfire victims like the PM did? Would they not have made our first national compulsory call out of reservists to help bushfire affected communities like the PM did? Would they not be now working with the states to get the learnings of the last summer exactly as the PM is doing? In fact, what they tried to do during question time today was take retrospective credit for those decisions. We know that it was the PM and this government that showed the leadership to take those actions during the summer.
It has been a time when there have been issues which have challenged our fellow Australians. It has been a time when the government was focused on getting Australians who were doing it tough the assistance and support they needed. In fact, it was only today that we announced a national and permanent rolling commission into the issue of veterans' suicide, a heartbreaking issue affecting veterans, their families and their communities. There are so many issues, including the drought and others, that require the full attention of this House and the full attention of every member of the House. What was Labor focused on today in the face of these issues? It was focused on politicising the bushfire crisis we've just had. That's what we saw from the Leader of the Opposition today in question time. He tried to take credit retrospectively for the decisions and the leadership that the PM and the government have made over the last few months.
Not only are the PM and the government showing leadership when it comes to issues where we need to support our fellow Australians, they're doing it on economic management too. We as a government know that if you don't show leadership on economic resilience then you can't be there to support your fellow Australians when they really need it. That is where it is chalk and cheese between this government and the Labor opposition. Employment growth is more than three times what we inherited from Labor. We are one of only 10 developed nations in the world to retain a AAA credit rating. There have been more than 1.5 million jobs created for our fellow Australians, above and beyond what Labor ever managed to achieve. There has been a balanced budget after years of Labor deficit so that when our fellow Australians needed our support, we could be there with the financial assistance that they needed.
I don't know what the Prime Minister is talking about. He does not care about Gilmore. He flew into Nowra to do a press conference and then he flew right out again. He is a fly-in fly-out PM. He didn't even take the time to visit my fire impacted communities. I've spent every day since early December talking with people impacted by fire in my electorate. They have many stories to tell, and the common theme in all of these stories is that this government has plain and simply failed to provide the leadership, the guidance and, most important of all, the help that people need to recover from this crisis.
Last week, when I was in Batemans Bay, I stopped in to speak to Joe in Batehaven. Joe is a well-known local real estate agent. People know Joe and they rely on Joe. For weeks people have relied on Joe to navigate the complex system of assistance that has dripped through over the last few months. Joe told me how people have been going into his office because they are so afraid of Centrelink that they come in shaking. People who, as I said yesterday, have been through hell on earth are left shaking at the thought of calling Centrelink. One 87-year-old lady was told by the staff at the call centre that she wasn't eligible for any help and that she would need to 'go up a ladder' to take down her curtains if they were so smoked damaged. This poor lady was so distressed she was convinced the police were going to come after her just for asking. So Joe has sat by their side and helped walk them through the process so they can access their thousand-dollar payment from the government. Joe has heard their stories and knows how much they are all suffering. They have already been through hell and now they're dealing with the second round. Joe's rental manager, Michelle, told me how she had spent her entire day refunding holiday rentals because of cancellations—hundreds of cancellations worth thousands of dollars. When all day long you see people coming in, shaking and crying and telling you heartbreaking stories and then you have to process hundreds of cancelled bookings knowing this will only make things worse—that is a tough pill to swallow.
When Senator Murray Watt, shadow minister for disaster and emergency management, came to the South Coast recently, we met with a group of local tourism operators. They were from places like Berry, Kangaroo Valley and Jervis Bay, areas that were not necessarily directly impacted by fire, at least by the government's definition, but who have seen a 70 to 80 per cent decrease in their income since December. What some people may not be aware of is that, during the height of the bushfire crisis, a tourist leave zone was issued. It was absolutely necessary and appropriate for the situation, no question there. But the leave zone extended from Nowra all the way to the Victorian border—14,000 square kilometres off limits at the height of the tourism season. The key thing that these tourism operators had to say was this: 'The government told people very loudly to leave, but they're not telling them very loudly to come back. And if they don't start we will not survive.'
That day, while in Burrill Lake with Murray, we enjoyed some amazing fish and chips from the famous fish shop—something I highly recommend. And I have been spreading that message far and wide ever since. But, to put it bluntly, this simply will not be enough to stop local businesses from going under. It has already started. When I was in Batemans Bay I was told about six stores that had closed their doors. Where is the government? What action are they taking to stop these businesses from going under and to help people who have been through the trauma of the bushfires only to be left broke and broken?
Businesses in my electorate did not have the 16 days it took for this government to open applications for their small business loans. They need more help than a loan can provide, and they need it now. Where is the tourism campaign? Where are the grants and stimulus to get people back to the South Coast? Where is the leadership from the Prime Minister to respond quickly to this crisis? The fly-in fly-out Prime Minister needs to come and meet with local businesses on the South Coast, but he'd better do it soon because, if he waits too long, there may not be any left.
I would like to thank the member for Grayndler for giving us the opportunity to speak about the government's leadership on the issues that matter to everyday Australians. This government is leading the way on many important issues. This government shows leadership on the economy, fire and drought. But I would like to speak about the Morrison government's world-leading response to the coronavirus.
One of the privileges of being a member of this government is seeing firsthand the tireless work of the Prime Minister and his ministerial team. I would like to thank the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. In these difficult times he has shown exemplary leadership. The first job of any Prime Minister is to ensure that Australians are safe, and this is exactly what the Prime Minister has done. He has taken advice from our top health officers and has made decisive decisions to ensure that every Australian is kept safe. He is responsive when I send him a text about this coronavirus issue; he calls me within minutes. He listened when I told him that people coming back from China would self-isolate and that other people would deliver essential food and other things. He cares, he listens, and he praises them. And he wants me to pass this message to them. He cares so much that he wants to make sure that people affected by the virus know what's going on. He has regular WeChat updates to let people know that they don't need to panic: Australians are in good and safe hands. Australians can go about their day freely, knowing that they are safe from the coronavirus because of the decisions of this government.
I would also like to acknowledge the leadership shown by the Australian foreign minister, Senator the Hon. Marise Payne. Without her tireless work 243 Australians would still be in China, in lockdown. Her actions have made sure that a pregnant woman is safely here with her partner in Australia. I would also like to acknowledge the leadership that Minister Payne has shown in negotiating with the Chinese government to ensure the safe return and the safe assisted departure of people who are locked down in China. I understand that she is also doing the negotiation to help the second lot of people to come back to Australia.
I would not be able to speak on leadership without acknowledging the health minister, the Hon. Greg Hunt. His leadership in these difficult times has been outstanding. He has kept me up to date about the coronavirus on a regular basis, and I want to thank him for that. Not only that, he has also been updating the public through media conferences. People would know exactly what is happening and would know that they don't need to panic. It is a global emergency on health, but Australia is ready.
I would also like to mention the leadership shown by the Minister for Education, the Hon. Dan Tehan. He has been dealing with this matter by helping international students know exactly what they can do. And this is not to mention the work that the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs and his department have been doing, handling hundreds and thousands of inquiries from visa holders—whether student visas, temporary visas or working visas. There are many concerned people and their families, and these are handled very well by the department.
I just want to say that the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and his leadership team have ensured that Australia is well equipped—