Monday, 23 March 2020
We gather today at a time of great challenge for our nation and, indeed, the world. We are a strong nation and a strong people, but in the months ahead this will put us all to the test, as at no time like this since the Second World War. But together, Australia, we are up to this challenge.
The coronavirus that is sweeping the world will continue to change the way we live, but we must not allow it to change who we are as Australians. I know—we all know—that Australians are very concerned at this difficult time. It is the understandable fear of the unknown, and there is much that is not known about the coronavirus, but we must not let that fear overtake us. We must focus instead on what we do know, what we can control.
We know who we are as a people and the legacy and inspiration that has been given to us from those who have come before us and shown us the way through challenges and tests just like this. So we summon the spirit of the Anzacs, of our Great Depression generation, of those who built the Snowy, of those who won the great peace of the Second World War and defended Australia. That is our legacy that we draw on at this time.
We also know the actions that we can take—the care, compassion and respect we must show from one to another. Whilst some must self-isolate—and they must—and we all must keep a healthy social distance between us, it is important that we do all we can to ensure in the difficult months ahead that no Australian goes through this alone. The responsibility we know we must take for our own actions and our own behaviours—the tests, hardships and sacrifices that will be placed on all of us, on our national character—will undoubtedly break our hearts on many occasions in the months ahead. But we must resolve today as Australians to come together and to pledge to each other across our nation that this coronavirus will not break our Australian spirit.
So, together, and with the rest of the world, we face this unprecedented challenge, a once-in-100-years event, a global health pandemic that has fast become an economic crisis the likes of which we have not seen since the Great Depression. Life is changing in Australia for every Australian. Life is going to continue to change. For many—young and old—2020 will be the toughest year of our lives. Meeting this challenge is bigger than any Australian. It's obviously bigger than politics. It's bigger than any of us who are in this chamber. Prime ministers, leaders of the opposition, ministers, shadow ministers and members of parliament—it is bigger than all us. It is bigger than premiers, chief ministers, captains of industry, leaders of union movements. It is bigger than all of us. I want to thank all of those who have come to this great challenge with such a unity of spirit. It requires every single Australian to do their duty as public citizens.
Again, in that spirit, I want to thank, in particular, the nation's premiers and chief ministers for coming together to form Australia's first ever national cabinet, a cabinet of all Australian governments: five Labor leaders, four coalition leaders. I want to thank the Leader of the Opposition for the cooperation he and his colleagues have afforded us here in this parliament as we battle this dual health and economic crisis. Today, we have some very important work to do to cushion the blow on Australians from the economic whirlwind that is being reaped by this coronavirus. In the months ahead, we will face more issues that none of us even now can imagine. Our job as the Australian government is to work night and day to ensure our great country, our beloved Australia, gets to the other side and emerges stronger, safer and united.
It is our advice that Australians will be living with this virus for at least the next six months. It could be longer. There is no three- or four-week shutdown that makes it all go away. There is no short-term solution to this. We have to steel ourselves for the next six months and work together to slow the spread in order to save lives, to protect the elderly and vulnerable Australians, because they are counting on us. Every extra bit of time we save allows us to better prepare for the challenges that are ahead.
Last night, all the states and territories, through the national cabinet, agreed to an even more stringent set of social distancing rules that will change further how we all live our lives. There will be no more going to the pub after work. There will be no more going to the gym in the morning. There will be no more sitting down for brunch at a cafe. These changes are vital to slow the spread of this virus to save lives.
As the virus spreads, and it will, governments around Australia will not be complacent and may need, and are likely to need, to impose further restrictions on our daily lives. Wherever possible, we will seek to do that to ensure a consistency of approach between all states and territories. It will be absolutely vital that every Australian respects and follows the healthy social distancing measures that all Australian governments have implemented in order to flatten this curve and to save lives. Limits on outdoor and indoor mass gatherings, keeping non-essential indoor gatherings to less than one person per four square metres—wherever possible, keeping 1½ metres between yourself and others—avoiding all non-essential travel and even simply following good hygiene is essential to slowing this virus. Washing your hands thoroughly, coughing and sneezing into your elbow, not touching your face are all practical measures that we can all observe to save lives. I will say this: while you may not be able to go to church, the synagogue, the temple or the mosque, I most certainly call on all people of faith in our nation to pray. I can assure you, my prayer knees are getting a good work out.
As Australia works to flatten the curve and slow this virus, we also face an immense economic challenge. Across Australia today, many thousands of Australians will lose their jobs. They are lining up at Centrelink offices as we speak—something unimaginable at this scale only weeks ago. Many have lost their jobs, and we know many more will. This is the biggest economic shock our nation has faced in generations. Australia, a long and open trading nation, is now closed off, largely, from the world. Internal border restrictions not seen since before Federation are now in place.
Yesterday, the Treasurer and I announced an economic support package, a safety net package, unprecedented in our nation's history in its scale and coverage. Measures announced to date total some, together with the Reserve Bank, $189 billion in economic support, around 10 per cent of the size of our economy. The measures we have announced are focusing on those who are on the frontline, those who will be feeling the first blows of the economic impact of the coronavirus as it wreaks its havoc. So we'll supercharge our safety net—doubling, effectively, the jobseeker payment and allowing Australians to draw on those resources they have put aside for such a time as this—to support the most vulnerable with additional payments to pensioners and carers and the disabled, to provide a lifeline to small and medium-sized businesses. We will be working together with the banks—and I thank them also—to keep those businesses afloat wherever possible, to keep as many employees as they can, but with the pledge in our support to them that when we pass this virus, those businesses that have had to stand people down will stand them back up again on the other side. This will give them that assurance, give them that encouragement, as they have to stand staff down, commit to do all they can on the other side to stand them back up again. This is the unwritten contract that is being undertaken between Australian employees and employers as we speak, to provide also a legal shield to protect both businesses from closures and individuals, to preserve our economy and to boost our recovery on the other side.
To those who have lost their jobs already and will, to those whose incomes are collapsing, to those who are barely holding their businesses together or who have already seen their dream taken from them by this virus, this is devastating and this is heartbreaking. And we will do all we can in this place as a parliament and all we can as a government to help see you through. We will be doing everything we can to protect those most vulnerable to the impacts of this crisis and to preserve the businesses that employ them. There will be more support to come, and it will keep coming for as long as this challenge is before this nation. Even more importantly, when this passes, we will be there to ensure that Australians get back on their feet, that the businesses rebuild, that our economy resurges and that we go on in the great national story of this amazing nation, Australia.
In conclusion, the more Australians work together, the more we share the sacrifice and the burden, the more we do the right thing, the more lives and the more livelihoods we will save. And when the virus passes—and it will—we will be stronger on the other side. This will be a test of all Australians. It is a test of our nation—of our spirit. There are some who believe liberal democracies and free societies cannot cope with these sorts of challenges. We will prove them wrong here in Australia. Today we are saying that we both can do this and will do this, and we will do this together. May God bless us all—all Australians—at this most difficult time.
Yesterday Bondi Beach was empty. On a warm, sunny day, that famous strip of sand was as bare as the sky above it. Barely a few weeks into autumn, sporting fields are falling as silent as our favourite music venues and concert halls. The traffic has thinned out on the roads. Pubs and our restaurants will soon be empty. The sad reality is that people are losing their jobs. And this morning, at places like Frankston Centrelink, when I spoke to Peter Murphy, the queues had formed before that Centrelink was open.
Each day we become more unnerved and uncertain about where this is heading. But this is our new reality in a world partly shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic—a reality that joins us all together while, at the same time, forcing us to be physically apart. And it's a reality growing more confronting by the day. Most of our lives have not been directly affected by war, hunger or financial strife. They were stories our parents and grandparents told us. We listened to those stories and we pictured them in black and white. We thought we were the lucky generations. We now face an enormous threat, and it's in colour. It is happening right now. It is global.
Fear and panic, of course, feed on uncertainty and inconsistency and, at the moment, those ingredients abound. This is a time for national leadership, consistent messages and clear directions. Today parents are concerned about whether to send their kids to school or not. People are anxious, and that is understandable. They know this is a big deal, and, when people feel that they can't control events, they seek comfort in what they can control. We've seen that exhibited around the country—that they have enough essentials such as toilet paper or pasta. That's a signal: seeking control over something in the face of the threat which is difficult for people to understand. They want to go to the footy or go to the beach one last time because they mightn't be able to go next week. These actions might be regrettable, but hectoring will not help. Clear explanations and clarity will.
For our part, Labor has added to certainty. We've indicated publicly, each and every day, that we would be supportive of any bring-forward of health measures and we would support any economic stimulus legislation. This is in spite of not being included in the COAG process described by the government as a national cabinet. But it's also prior to seeing legislation. We have provided the government with the absolute certainty that, at the end of the process, we would put forward our suggestions and our views to try and improve the legislation but that we would not stand in the way of economic stimulus or the bringing forward of any proposed health measures. That is the responsible thing to do. That is consistent with the view that I put when my caucus colleagues and party members gave me the great honour of leading this party, which is 130 years old next year. It is the responsible thing to do. We will continue to be responsible and we will act today in a responsible and constructive manner, because I want to be known as the Labor leader, not the opposition leader.
The legislation today is not perfect. We would do more and do it sooner, but we will advance our arguments. This is not a time to prevent measures which, however imperfect, are necessary to be implemented. We do need unity and, above all, we need resolute action. We cannot succumb to the illusion that time is on our side. It is not. We will get to tomorrow only if we respect the urgency for action today. We need to be clear and unequivocal. You've heard all the messages: stay home, keep calm and wash your hands. Make no mistake: anything that feels like an overreaction right now isn't. Let this be our rule: if we think we're going to take action next week, we should take that action today. The last thing we want to do is to be looking back on this time in the near future and saying, 'If only we had done more and done it sooner.' Clearly more can be done and more should be done.
We outlined our views on the health response in my address to the nation last Sunday 15 March. At a time where so much is changing from day to day, I think, more than a week on, it stands the test of that time. The six points I made then were:
We stand by that statement of just a week ago. We must listen to our smartest minds—our scientists, our doctors, our immunologists. Now is the time to listen, to learn and to act without delay.
This is about people's lives and then, of course, consequentially, their livelihoods, particularly the lives of many of our vulnerable people—our parents and grandparents, the disadvantaged and the First Australians. We owe them our best. It's pretty hard to self-isolate if you're homeless. This is also about our economy. We will support both stimulus packages not because they are perfect but because they are urgent. We want this package to work and to work quickly. People's lives are at stake. We're concerned about the lack of direct support that would keep people in their jobs. The business measures do not guarantee support for workers because it's calculated on people being in work in February not now or in the future. Youth allowance, Abstudy and Austudy recipients do not receive the coronavirus supplement. Various visa holders also aren't getting the support we believe they need.
There are sectors that I think could be given more support. Today, of all days, we think of our teachers—what remarkable people! They're certainly not childminders. They're people who, each and every day, whether they work in the public system, the Catholic system or the independent system, create future Australians with their knowledge and their commitment, and we respect them for the work that they are doing.
We also think of other sectors that haven't got specific support at this point. The arts and entertainment industry—so important for the quality of our lives—needs, in my view, direct support in order to be sustained into the future so that, as we come out of this diabolical circumstance, we recognise that the quality of our lives isn't just about money; it's about culture and experience and community and belonging. And we will need that more than ever as we come out of this process.
We of course have expressed concerns about the early accessing of superannuation. Selling your super at the bottom of the market will risk squandering people's hard-earned retirement savings. It's also the case that if the superannuation industry is forced to sell assets at the bottom of the market that is not sensible economics.
We say to the government that we have been as supportive as possible and we will not be moving amendments where there is any doubt. We will give the benefit to the government. We are not looking for arguments; we are looking for solutions. But, on some of these measures, please listen to the arguments. Recognise that we, on this side of the parliament, do represent, by the way, the largest political party in this parliament—the largest. Our views should be taken into account even though we will, as we've said, vote for the package if our amendments are not successful. We've given that commitment. But I believe we are right on that issue, and the government should consider alternative measures to put dollars in the pockets of low-income workers other than by doing it at the expense of the quality of life in their retirement.
In today's emergency session of parliament there are few of us here, but our actions today will be felt and measured for a very long time. We're elected to this place to serve the Australian people. Today we feel the weight of our nation's need. Never has our duty been so urgent. I lead a Labor team determined to be constructive, and Labor stand ready to play our role. We want to help the government to get it right and this parliament to get it right—all of us. We find ourselves in a time like no other. We, the Australian people, must in our isolation come together and remember who we are: we are the people who came together selflessly in the recent bushfire crisis. Now is not a time for 'me'; now is a time for 'us'. Let's spread kindness and humanity, not coronavirus. The months ahead will be difficult. There will be pain and suffering. Our country, our world, has changed, but this will not last forever. Things will be different after this.
I am an optimist. I have faith in the people of Australia, faith in our people's courage, faith in our people's sense of community and faith in our people's compassion for one another. That gives me the faith that we will get through this together.