Monday, 23 March 2020
Days and Hours of Meeting
I thank the Manager of Opposition Business. The alterations to the sitting calendar that have been proposed this evening relate, in large part, to the fact that last week the Prime Minister noted that putting budgets together at this time, with the enormous uncertainty that exists in predicting, anticipating and estimating economic parameters, is not something that any Commonwealth or state government should be doing. Indeed, those governments have, in effect, decided not to put together budgets at what is the usual time in or about May. The Treasurer has noted that forecasting for budgets is very difficult at the best of times, let alone when we're in the midst of the economic uncertainty that we are experiencing at the moment. As a result, as members would be aware, the government have decided that we will not be handing down a budget until the first Tuesday in October, being 6 October. Earlier today, the House agreed to necessary measures on supply and other continuances to ensure the proper functioning of government services and the continuation of vital programs to ensure the government does not need to pass the budget in May.
I note that I understand there's likely to be a division with respect to the sitting calendar. Something else that has played in the government's mind is that, whilst we've run today's session very efficiently and with great cooperation, some risk attaches to the operation of parliament, particularly during what is anticipated to be the peak point in the transmission of the coronavirus. Obviously, we come from all points in Australia. We've done our level best today, I think, to conduct this session and today's sittings with all of the appropriate social distancing that has been recommended for Australia at large. Nevertheless, some risk attaches to flying in multiple members from every corner in Australia, and some attention to that fact has been had in redesigning the sitting calendar that is now before the House.
The opposition will be opposing the changes to the sitting calendar, while we acknowledge that there are some changes that do need to be made.
Clearly, when the government announces that the budget will be held at a different time then that needs to be reflected in a revised calendar, and the government has done that here. What the government has also done, though, is eliminate any sittings during May and June. It may well be that by the time we get to May and June we find that we can't sit. If that's the case then it is entirely the prerogative of the government to give advice to the Speaker that they believe the sitting needs to be cancelled. We have, previously, cancelled a week of sittings based on the fact that the member for New England at the time was before the High Court. There were two by-elections on, it was going to change the numbers on the floor, and a week of sittings was suddenly cancelled. If we can do it in those circumstances when it needs to happen then we can do it with respect to a pandemic, if we get there, and it needs to happen.
The reason the opposition believes that we shouldn't make that decision today is that, as everyone is acknowledging, we don't know where we will be in May or June, and the presumption should be that the parliament will sit. The presumption should be that we will meet if it is possible for us to sit, because, during this period, during a time of crisis, is when the Australian public needs us to sit. I will be more than surprised if we can go from now until August and find that the legislation we put through the parliament today is all the nation needs for Australia to handle this pandemic, all the nation needs to deal with the crisis of unemployment and recession that we'll be facing. That means we will need to sit, so we shouldn't pretend that we won't. It also means during this period the government will be compelled in the interests of the nation to make some decisions of great magnitude. That will happen. We know that will happen; that's part of the story behind the supply bills that have just passed. To have decisions of that magnitude being made without the parliament convening and without there being a question time and an opportunity for people representing the different corners of Australia to hold the government to account is an unwise course for us to take.
I won't detain the House longer than that, but I will simply remind us: if we find that in some way, for health reasons, there is a difficulty in the parliament meeting, there are resolutions that we will deal with later today to make sure that we are still able to meet as a parliament. And that's all being done with a full level of cooperation and good common sense between me and the Leader of the House. Of all the decisions that have been made procedurally, this is the only one where we have disagreement. Let's not forget, in terms of legislation, some of what we dealt with in legislation today was only announced and determined by the Australian government yesterday. It is unthinkable that we will make it through to 11 August without the nation needing us to convene. It may well be that in addition to May and June we find we're back here in July. It may be that before we even get to when we are meant to sit in May, in April or even later this month we may find there is an emergency reason that we need to sit. I have to say I have no confidence that the plans that have been made in the government's narrative of keeping people in work are going to keep people in work. The apprentices one, for those numbers, as a direct wage subsidy, may well be able to do it, but, for the others—and I said in an earlier speech—I'm just not confident that that's how it's going to unfold. I'm simply not confident.
I hope, we all hope, that what's been announced today and what's gone through the parliament today is enough, but I would be deeply surprised if it is. Therefore, in us opposing the sitting calendar, we're simply saying to the government: keep the presumptions of the dates that we are here in May and June. If we need to meet earlier than that, we will cooperate with that. If the sittings, when we get to those dates, mean that we find the parliament can't sit, then the usual communication between the government and the Speaker will cause those sittings to be cancelled at the time. But to presume that we don't need to be back here until 11 August defies logic, defies common sense and is something that the Labor Party, the opposition, cannot support.
The Greens can't support the cancellation of sitting weeks in advance when we don't know where we're going to be at that stage, we don't know what's going to be required of us as MPs or of the government and we don't know how the government's stimulus package is going to play out. We've just passed, in a very short period of time, with very little scrutiny and very little notice, legislation to give the government the authority to spend an enormous amount of money and to make an enormous amount of changes, and that has happened in this parliament because there is a recognition from everyone in this place that we are confronting a crisis and we are confronting an emergency and urgent steps need to be taken. But it is because it is so unprecedented, because so many changes have been made, because such a large amount of money is going to be spent and because there is so much at stake—so many lives at stake, so many livelihoods at stake, so many jobs at stake and so many people who don't have work so their livelihoods are at stake as well—that we need the capacity to work out whether more changes need to be made, whether we got it right or whether we got it wrong.
In the short period of time that we've had, we've already been able to identify a number of areas where the government has left people behind. We've already found that carers, for example, are not going to get the coronavirus supplement. The people on disability support pension are not going to get it and the people who are studying are not going to get it. I asked the government earlier what's the rationale for that and they didn't have one; the minister just sat there in silence. They didn't have one and that is probably because there isn't one and probably because this has been rushed. I understand the circumstances for rushing it but, in rushing things, governments can make mistakes. We've already been able to identify people who have been left behind in sectors like hospitality and tourism. There are no specific packages for them. There are big gaps, for example, in the continued requirements around mutual obligation for people receiving social security payments. We just haven't had the time, because we've all agreed to come here in good faith and work on this on an urgent basis, to work out exactly who's been left behind and what more will be needed.
A part of the reason, certainly from our perspective, that we were willing to engage in this in good faith and say to the government, 'Yes, we accept this needs to be done and done quickly,'—even though we would do it differently—was there were further sitting weeks scheduled in the not-too-distant future that could give us a chance, after being with our constituents and seeing how this is playing out, to come back and say, 'Look, some changes are needed. We need to look after students and give them the coronavirus supplement because too many of them have now lost so much money they can't afford their rent; they're in dire straits.' We thought we would have the chance to come back to argue, to plug some of the gaps and, I suspect, to have to massively increase the level of stimulus that will be required.
If it turns out that in a few weeks' time it is not safe for parliament to sit then it must be within our wit to be able to work out alternative ways of making such decisions if we need to. There's been a good deal of goodwill and co-operation here today, people's safety has been a priority as well and we've been able to balance that. If further urgent decisions need to be made then, surely, we should be able to work out how to make them if parliament has to be cancelled. But the starting point in an emergency is to have more democracy, not less. The presumption that simply because there is a crisis we should cancel parliament is a worrying one. Yes, we should definitely impose restrictions if safety requires it. If it is putting people at risk for us all to come here and meet again because that is what the health advice says then, of course, let's listen to the health advice. But that's not the basis on which this is being put forward, so we can't support a change that automatically removes another several months of opportunity to debate and improve the package, scrutinise the government spending and hold the government to account. The fact that the government's already made mistakes and left people behind does not give us that requisite confidence. We thought we'd have the opportunity to come back after talking to our constituents and tidy up gaps. The removal of that opportunity is not one that we can support. And it is, I must say, concerning that one of the first responses of the government in this is to cancel the opportunity for scrutiny. Yes, by all means let's cancel parliament on a week-by-week basis if that turns out to be the medical advice, but the Greens cannot support the cancellation of parliament in advance, especially at a time of emergency.
Thank you for the opportunity to add to the compelling points made by the member for Melbourne and also especially those made by the member for Watson before him. Clearly the idea that we know now that the parliament won't need to sit until August is absurd. When you think about the rapidly evolving nature of this health crisis, when you think about the rapidly deteriorating economy, which is coming as a consequence of that diabolical challenge to our health system, to think that we won't need to agree new measures or we won't need to, as the member for Melbourne said, scrutinise the measures which were only announced yesterday and legislated today, the idea that the government has just perfectly nailed every aspect of this $66 billion in new spending is absurd.
As others have pointed out, it would be one thing if the government came to us and said, 'On the basis of health advice'—or some other reason—'we think that the parliament shouldn't sit on a rolling fortnightly basis,' but the idea that we can just assume that the parliament need not sit until August just doesn't make sense. If those opposite can say to us that they have every aspect of this package right or that they know, in every way, how this economic crisis is going to unfold, that's another thing. But they can't do that, for obvious and understandable reasons.
The other point I wanted to make is that it's not the Labor Party on its own that is saying that there will be more that will need to be done. Yesterday, before the government even released its second package of stimulus, the finance minister was on early morning TV saying, 'We will need a third wave of stimulus.' By the time the Treasurer and the Prime Minister stood up in the Prime Minister's courtyard later that day, they weren't just talking about a third wave of stimulus but a fourth and a fifth and subsequent waves of stimulus. We've made our views on that well known—that we also think that additional support will be necessary. If we know now that that additional support is necessary, then let's get cracking on it. The parliament will not be sitting for much longer in this session. So if there are to be subsequent waves of stimulus, for good, well-founded reasons—that the economy deteriorates further and that more lives and livelihoods are destroyed—then we need to have the capacity for the parliament to sit and agree, as we have today, on the necessary measures to support the economy and to support people, in particular, in that deteriorating economy. So, for all of the reasons that the member for Watson identified and all of the reasons that the member for Melbourne identified, it makes no sense for us not to sit until August in terms of the economic considerations.
There will be problems with what the government has proposed. From the announcement of the package until the passage through this place, it has only been 27 or 28 hours. There was $66 billion outlaid, plus the original $17 billion. So $83 billion of taxpayer money was outlaid with very little notice. We've done our best to work through the legislation that we were provided and we've done our best to come to a good, sound judgement on that legislation. We support it and we want to get it out the door as soon as possible. But the idea that there is nothing in there that might need to be fixed or tweaked doesn't make a lot of sense to us.
The economy is in serious strife, for all of the reasons that we in this place know and have spent today talking about. As a democracy, as the people's house of the Australian parliament, we need to give ourselves the capacity to do more and to fix, improve and tweak what has already been done. If we agree here that we are not going to sit until August, we rob ourselves of that opportunity to do the right thing by the people who sent us here.