House debates

Monday, 23 March 2020


Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020, Guarantee of Lending to Small and Medium Enterprises (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Australian Business Growth Fund (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Assistance for Severely Affected Regions (Special Appropriation) (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Structured Finance Support (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Appropriation (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill (No. 1) 2019-2020, Appropriation (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill (No. 2) 2019-2020, Boosting Cash Flow for Employers (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020; Second Reading

3:19 pm

Photo of Pat ConroyPat Conroy (Shortland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a privilege and my duty to rise and speak to these bills. As the Leader of the Opposition made the point, it's a rare moment in parliamentary history where we're debating bills of this importance and substance. That's because we're facing a crisis of almost unprecedented proportions—a crisis that is having a devastating economic impact and, if we do not manage this properly, will have a devastating health impact.

I wholeheartedly endorse the statements given by the Labor leader and shadow Treasurer earlier today. I think their approach, and Labor's approach in general, has been measured and constructive—an approach where we've pointed out where we have concerns around particular parts of the government's approach but we've worked with them, we've facilitated it and we won't stand in the way.

We do have significant concerns, given the fact that the government has been too slow and too modest in their stimulus packages and in their responses to the health crisis. I won't go into the details, but, for example, the wage subsidy is not a job guarantee. There is not a single guarantee that any business that receives that measure will be required to hold onto staff. At best it supports the cash flow of those businesses, and that is important. That is absolutely vital, but there is no guarantee that they will keep on a single staff member while accessing the scheme. Even if they do, what is the effective subsidy? The effective subsidy, given the average income tax paid by an Australian, is about 25 per cent. So this measure is a 25 per cent wage subsidy at best when you compare it to the 80 per cent tax subsidy that the Johnson conservative government in the United Kingdom has implemented. So, I have, like my Labor colleagues, huge concerns about that aspect of the legislation.

I also have huge concerns around the jobseeker payment and the nature of the administration of that. I applaud the fact that they've waived the waiting period. I applaud the fact that they've waived the liquid assets test so people don't have to run down their assets before accessing it, but they have not waived the spousal income test. That is of huge concern. That means that you could have two workers on about $48,000 a year and, when one loses their job because of the coronavirus, they are precluded from getting a single cent in government assistance because their partner still earns $48,000 a year. It is well below the average income—it's even below the median income. Let me repeat that: we could have a family, a couple, that has gone from, say, $100,000 a year to $48,000 a year—a cut in income of well over half; dire circumstances—but the way in which this payment is constructed means they will not receive a single cent of government assistance. That is a crime that will massively reduce the circumstances of those couples and those families. It is of huge concern and it must be rectified. We must urgently rectify that if this jobseeker payment is to have the outcome that is desired, which is to help families, help couples and help individuals when they lose their job because of the coronavirus.

We've also seen issues around Centrelink. We've seen the 5,000 cut to staff over the last few years leading to massive issues for people accessing the payments. We've seen very long queues at my local Centrelink at Charlestown—that's been reported to me. We have seen the myGov web site crash because this government didn't have the foresight to invest in the appropriate infrastructure. In fact, we had this ridiculous situation where, before question time, the Minister for Government Services was claiming there was a cyberattack. But in question time we heard: 'No, the website crashed because they had 95,000 people trying to get onto a website designed to have 50,000 people at most'. That's a huge concern—the failure to prepare for this—and the implications are that people are queuing up shoulder to shoulder, ignoring self-distancing requirements, to access these payments that they desperately need.

I'll turn briefly to my portfolio responsibilities as the shadow minister for international development and the Pacific. I should report to the House that, sadly, there are 105 cases reported in the Pacific so far and one death. Other nations in this region have made very significant moves. The government of Papua New Guinea has declared a state of emergency. We have movement restrictions in New Caledonia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Hawaii, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. These are extreme moves, particularly from nations who are dependent, generally, on two industries: commercial fishing, which has been devastated by climate change, and tourism. We're going to be doing it tough over the next year—our tourism industry will be decimated—but we are in the relatively fortunate position that we do not rely solely on tourism for our national economy. These Pacific islands are exposed massively because of this. They urgently need more health assistance. I do applaud the government's announcements around providing specific coronavirus assistance to Pacific island nations. But the government does need to explain and justify the 10 per cent cut to health assistance to the Pacific region that they've imposed over the last five years. Our Pacific friends and neighbours are dealing with this crisis from the position where Australian health assistance has been cut by 10 per cent. In some nations it has been much more extreme. The health assistance to Fiji has been cut by 22 per cent, Samoa by 36 per cent, Solomon Islands by 13 per cent and Tuvalu by a massive 75 per cent. This is a very unfortunate starting position for government assistance to these Pacific nations.

We also have to give thought to how we support these nations as they recover from the pandemic. These nations will be looking at who they will partner with for this recovery. We're already seeing that health and infrastructure assistance from other nations is on the rise. For example, 10 Pacific island nations have already signed Belt and Road deals with China. So Australia does need to give due consideration to how we assist our neighbours in the recovery phase, once we get through the crisis.

In my time remaining, I want to turn to the health aspects of this crisis. I want to begin by noting that I have one of the oldest electorates by age in the Commonwealth. We know the coronavirus, while it does impact on young and middle-aged people, will have a disproportionate impact on the more senior Australians. In fact, the fatality rate, I believe, worldwide for those over the age of 70 is eight per cent, and it climbs even higher as you look at 80-year-olds and 90-year-olds. For the electorate of Shortland, we are massively exposed to the health implications of this crisis. That is why it is so important that governments clearly communicate on what is required. That is why it's so clearly important that governments respond to the best health advice possible and, when in doubt, act early. Do not procrastinate. When in doubt, act early. I want to let every person in Shortland know that my thoughts are with them. My electorate office remains open to support them in every possible way, and if there's anything I or my office can do, please give my office a call or email me.

I now want to turn to the impact on the health workforce, because this is a very significant employer in my electorate. I have 3,000 people in my electorate who work in hospitals. I also have another 3,000 healthcare workers who work in non-hospital situations. So the seat of Shortland is at the heart of the workforce issues. I applaud the government's changed policy around telehealth. That is overdue. We need to provide universal access to telehealth, we need to allow GPs to provide telehealth services from home, and we need to make sure that the financial base for general practices is maintained. It would be an absolute travesty—and it would undermine recovery from this crisis—if we were to see swathes of general practitioners go under because of this crisis. So the government needs to look closely at what it's announced so far to make sure that they support the financial health of our general practitioners.

I will turn now to the hospital environment. I have a very large public hospital in my electorate, Belmont Hospital, I have two very large private hospitals in Warners Bay and Lake Macquarie, and I have the John Hunter Hospital one kilometre from my northern boundary. In fact, I used to represent the John Hunter Hospital when I was the member for Charlton. It is the only tertiary level hospital between Sydney and Brisbane. It has, depending on how you measure it, the busiest or second-busiest emergency department in New South Wales. It is on the frontline of this crisis, and its workforce, the healthcare workers at all the hospitals I mentioned—but, in particular, the John Hunter—will bear the brunt of the health aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak. We only have to look at what has occurred in Italy, where nine per cent of cases of coronavirus were health workers. Let me repeat that: nine per cent of total coronavirus infections in Italy were healthcare workers.

I fear we may see something similar in Australia. We must ensure that we have adequate PPE—personal protective equipment—available for our health workforce. And we're already seeing reports of not enough equipment. I have heard reports that hand sanitiser at the John Hunter is clinically unavailable. It is unavailable and they're unable to use it. I've heard reports around nursing homes and other hospitals that PPE, such as masks, is not available. This is something where the federal and state governments have already, clearly, failed. We must rectify this.

I've got the privilege of being married to a nurse who, until about six months ago, worked at the John Hunter Hospital in a very intense clinical environment. So I know, and I'm seeing on my Facebook now the worry, concern and passion for their patients that the nursing and medical staff at the John Hunter and other hospitals are experiencing right now. We must do more to support them. They are on the frontline of this crisis. This is a crisis that is only going to get worse, and the workforce will bear the brunt. At best, these workers will not see their families for months. I know of nurses and doctors who have made arrangements to live with other healthcare workers and not expose their families to the coronavirus. The best-case scenario for these workers is that they won't see their families for months. They are going to be working extremely long hours. Some of them will be infected. Let me repeat that: some of them will be infected while doing their jobs at these hospitals. And without adequate personal protective equipment we are condemning doctors and nurses to die from this virus. And I don't say that lightly.

I'm aware of the need not to sensationalise this debate. I'm aware of the need to take a rational, sensible and level-headed approach to this. But it is a fact that, without adequate personal protective equipment, doctors and nurses will die due to treating patients who are suffering from the coronavirus. And that's something I urge everyone in this place and state parliaments to reflect on. That is not to fling mud. That is not to accuse people of not doing their job, but that is a responsibility every member of this parliament and every member of state parliaments bears on their shoulders. If we do not do our job properly, if we do not do our job with utmost care and responsibility, and if we do not respond in the fastest possible fashion, doctors and nurses will die. Doctors and nurses will die unnecessarily and tragically, if we don't do our job. So, that is my message to people listening. That is my message to my colleagues in this place.

We must fight this crisis. We must pass this stimulus package. We must pass the next stimulus package and the one after that, if that proves necessary. We must make sure that those stimulus packages work, that they're aimed at the right people and they help those people get through this economic crisis. But, primarily, this is a health crisis, and we must make sure that we limit the spread of this contagion, we support the patients and we make sure that as few as possible get infected—and as few as possible of the workers looking after them are exposed to this deadly virus.

3:33 pm

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the COVID-19—or novel coronavirus—health crisis. I know I speak, really, for everyone in the House: we're all worried about this. We're all stressed about it as, indeed, is the Australian population—in fact, the world population. This is not a time for politics. It's not a time to nitpick. It's not a time to be churlish. Whenever I am stressed and worried, I return to some of my old friends. It's important to understand that the world has been through this, or a similar crisis, before and we've survived; we've come out of it. And we will, indeed, come out of this.

Two of my old friends are Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr John Watson. In a Sherlock Holmes His Last Bow story, written in 1914, Holmes says to Watson:

"There's an east wind coming, Watson."

And Watson looks at him and says:

"I think not, Holmes. It is very warm."

Then Holmes says:

"Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared. …"

That's what will happen now. This is a crisis. This is a time when we're all worried, and we all need to work together as a team.

I've worked as a doctor since 1978. I started my private practice in Campbelltown in Camden in 1984, at the time of the HIV-AIDS crisis. I've seen the other viral health emergencies arise, with SARS and MERS, and we've gotten through them. But this is a bigger emergency, a bigger crisis. It's the most significant health emergency for my generation and for several generations of doctors before me. We are facing an impending health disaster and we must all work together to get through it. We must face it together.

Some of our health responses have been slow and not comprehensive enough—my views on the social-distancing policies are well-known. But now is a time that we must all act together, with a sense of urgency, and deal with this in a spirit of community that will benefit us all. It's not a time to blame people. It's a time to explain to people. It's a time to bring people with us. For example, we should not be condemning young people for wanting to have a good time. They've been told for months now that this virus is very mild in young people, so of course they want to go out and have a good time. They need to have explained to them the importance of not spreading the virus, and why we are doing our social-distancing policies.

In the same way, I completely understand why people are panicking and panic-buying. They're stressed, they're worried, and the one thing they can control is providing enough food for themselves and their families. So, of course many people are panic-buying. There is absolutely no need to do it. We need to explain that to people, but we shouldn't condemn them for their behaviour.

All of my friends and relatives who work in the health system are working as one to try to get us through this. I say to them all: thank you for your service. I know how hard everyone has been working to prepare. I have great confidence in my colleagues, the wardsmen, the ward clerks, the ambos, the nurses, the administrators and the doctors. They will provide us with the best care possible. I'd like to thank the New South Wales health minister, the Honourable Brad Hazzard, and New South Wales Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerry Chant, for the work they've done to prepare us. Locally, I'd like to thank the CEO of South Western Sydney Local Health District, Amanda Larkin, for the work she has done to help prepare. Thanks to Alison Derrett, the head of our hospital service in Campbelltown, for the work she's done to prepare our hospital, and to the Director of Medical Services, Sellappa Prahalath, for the work that he's done to prepare us. We need to slow the rapidity of spread of this virus, and it's vital. Social-distancing policies need to be strict and they need to be hard. People will suffer—I know that. There's much pain. But, together, we will get through this.

I understand why we must get through this together. At the end of this crisis our society will be there, strong and flourishing. I'm sure of that. I thank everyone for the support they've given in these really trying times for all of us. I'm gratified by the unity of purpose the entire parliament has given to this. We will get through it. Thank you.

3:39 pm

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Just seven weeks ago, I rose in this place to commemorate what I described at the time as a summer that has visited grief upon this nation. The bushfires seem like a lifetime ago now, but it was only weeks ago that the nation was brought to a standstill by that disaster. Incredibly, we are now in the midst of another national crisis. In my many years as a nurse and a midwife, I've been in life-and-death situations, and I know that gut-wrenching feeling when a birth starts to go wrong or an ambulance arrives at the emergency department with a critically ill car-crash victim. I know that, to get through moments where life itself hangs in the balance, you need to muster your composure, do what needs to be done, work as a team and listen to the experts. Australia as a nation is now in such a situation.

The global effort to develop a vaccine is uniting scientists in an urgent shared purpose, and we too as a nation must unite in an urgent and shared purpose to slow the spread. But what began as a health crisis is now a global economic crisis. An already fragile economy is about to get hit for six. In my electorate of Indi right now, my office is inundated with calls, as I'm sure every MP in this House is inundated with calls. The calls in my electorate are coming from people from a bushfire affected electorate.

The bills that are before us—the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020 and related bills—are a sensible and necessary intervention to protect the economy. Of course they are not perfect, and the government must be prepared to listen and respond when there's more that we need to do, or when there's a better approach or a different opinion that needs to be considered. We often speak about the economy as if it's a distinct entity, but it's about people's lives, about their livelihoods, and about feeding their families and housing them. It's about the decisions that they make. The measures announced to date are overwhelmingly targeted at business and the most vulnerable in our community. This is a good thing. It is as it should be.

But today I want to highlight the needs of some particularly vulnerable members of our community, and especially those in my electorate of Indi. Many regional communities are facing a double whammy of bushfires and now COVID-19. For many of us, the bushfires were a gut-punch. The economic rebuild became about tourism events and visiting small businesses with our empty eskies. All those plans are now gone—the Man from Snowy River Bush Festival in Corryong, the Beechworth Golden Horseshoes Festival, the High Country Women's Cycling Festival in Bright and the Tawonga CFA thankyou picnic, to name but some. Right across the nation, there are similar events.

This is an unparalleled natural disaster followed by a once-in-a-century pandemic. For bushfire affected communities, this health crisis comes at the worst possible time. We cannot forget these communities. Because COVID-19 compounds the damage of the bushfires, the bushfire recovery must then accelerate, not slow down. As the Prime Minister said today, more support will come over the next weeks and months. He has said that, given the circumstances, we need to change the rules for this period, and so we need this same approach for bushfire recovery.

I hear across my electorate that bushfire grants to small businesses, farmers and individuals are not getting out to them because of the burden of paperwork and bureaucracy. Today the government introduced bills for unconditional cash transfers to all small businesses in Australia, with no paperwork. Let's contrast this with the requirements for obtaining bushfire support. These people and businesses are starting well behind scratch in this COVID-19 crisis. The burden of paperwork and difficult eligibility criteria must stop, and I know that collaboratively we can work to make it stop. Let's make it a national goal to find a job for anybody who needs one. Anyone who loses a job to COVID-19 or the bushfires should rapidly be retrained to support the health system or our critical infrastructure and services at this time of crisis.

I share the concerns of many in this House that the measures are not being implemented quickly enough. The coronavirus supplement won't be available until 27 April. In our electorate offices, we know that it's needed right now. Let's provide direct grants to artists and creatives around the country. They are often among the first to join the Centrelink queues, as by necessity they run multiple part-time and casual jobs. We need these people to help us come through this and to bring us together as only art and culture can. The Prime Minister talks about building a bridge to life on the other side of this virus; we need to have a national conversation about what life on the other side actually looks like.

We are now steeling ourselves for job losses on a huge scale. The Prime Minister today encouraged businesses that stand down employees to commit to standing them up on the other side. This 'unwritten contract', as the Prime Minister described it, is not enough. Our workers need more security than an unwritten contract.

This year has taught us that we are not immune from threats to our way of life. Going forwards, we cannot forget that and we must invest our money accordingly. The impact of social distancing measures for six months will take a huge toll on people's mental health, and in bushfire affected electorates such as mine that mental health is already perilously fragile. A post COVID-19 world must take adequate investment in mental health seriously. It needs to be serious, serious investment, so that we are stronger when the next crisis hits, and, of course, it will hit.

Moreover, the economic and social precarity of so many Australians has been thrown into stark relief. My constituents have written to me about the realities of lockdowns for women experiencing family violence; for vulnerable children dependent on counselling and material support through their school or service provider; for people unable to afford internet connection or mobile phones and how extra isolated they will be; and for people with disabilities or elderly people who rely on others for the fundamental supports to their daily living. We cannot forget them and the support they need through this crisis. I welcome the government's support of the aviation industry. My electorate is serviced by Regional Express Airlines through the airport in Albury alongside Qantas and Virgin, and these airlines are critical to our community.

At the start of January, I wrote that the fire season stretched before us as a perilous path we have no choice but to walk. In those long, hot days of our black summer, when it felt like half the country was on fire, it was hard to imagine life on the other side. But the rains came, and our skies are now clear. The rebuild is just beginning. It is not fast enough, but it is beginning, and we need to hold on to this idea now as we head into another crisis that is completely different. It too will test our resolve, but in different ways, and it will touch all of us—make no mistake about that.

Just as we honoured our emergency services fighting the fires, I want to honour our doctors, our nurses, our allied health professionals and those who support them, who are now preparing for the greatest challenge they will ever face. And amongst them are my own daughter, my nephews and my nieces, and my very dear friends, who I have spent more than three decades working with. I salute all of them, and all of those who I do not know, because this is a test of their bravery and their professionalism. I know they are up to the task. I thank too our biomedical researchers and those in essential support services, whether they're in food, groceries, logistics, public service, social service. To our teachers: thank you. You are all being called upon to do more and more.

It's a mighty job that's in front of us, but we will come out the other side of this pandemic. How we will come out, though, will be determined by some of the thinking, some of the courage, the cooperation and the innovation in the decisions that we make here in this place. Let them be wise ones. Let's make those decisions wise ones. Let them be ones that preserve us for now but ones that take us to a stronger future, a future that has a place for every single one of us in this nation.

3:48 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

We are living in extraordinary circumstances and at a time of tremendous concern for many in our communities. Not in the living memory of many, if any, Australians have we experienced such a health crisis and an economic crisis in one event. Time is of the essence, and I will not take up too much time of this House, but I think it's important that I briefly speak as a member of the crossbench and also as the only member of Centre Alliance to speak on this bill, both here and in the other place.

I would first like to commend to the government. This is an enormous package of legislation pulled together in a short time. It is comprehensive in outlook. I would also like to mention the government's fact sheets on the website, They are detailed and in a clear format, outlining assistance available for individuals, families, retirees and self-funded retirees, and veterans. The website also provides information on early access to limited superannuation, cash flow assistance for small businesses, temporary financial relief for distressed businesses, support for small-business investment and the increase and expansion of the instant tax write-off. I know many people are discovering they no longer have employment, and this is crushing. Many businesses are operating differently or are required to close their doors. It is my hope that, with the support package available, the closure of those doors will indeed be a temporary measure.

Sadly, every one of us will be impacted by coronavirus in some way. As my colleague Senator Stirling Griff said in the other place this morning, 'If we stick together, and with the right support, we will get through this.' We know that there is an extra $22 billion in the supply bills for government to spend as they deem necessary in the coming months. This is, I believe, a sensible measure. As we close borders in many states, returning here to allow government to release more funds will not be an easy thing to arrange. Transparency on this spending, however, is important.

I would like to mention that where I think there is a gap in support that needs to be addressed is in community wellbeing assistance. Arriving here last night I had the opportunity to chat to the former member for Indi, Cathy McGowan. Perhaps it is because we are both regional women, but our conversation immediately went to our concerns on how we can lift up our regional communities. Who will keep people connected? When we look at those who already do this, those who are best providing support to those based in our community, the answer, I believe, is simple: it is local government. So I would urge the government to again look at providing financial assistance to our local governments. I know my regional local governments do extraordinary community work. It worked so well with drought funding, where there was $1 million provided to each local government area, and more recently with bushfire assistance, with funding again directly provided to local government. Like the member for Indi's area, my community has also experienced huge devastation over summer and coronavirus is just compounding our loss and devastation.

Local government know who are vulnerable and isolated and they work closely with small NGOs if they are not providing the service delivery themselves, such as social wellbeing programs. I'm deeply concerned that, without the community wellbeing support that will need to be delivered in different ways than it currently is, we will lose more people to mental health issues, exacerbated by loneliness and isolation, than potentially to coronavirus. The singing on the balconies that we saw from Italy, that lifted everyone's spirits and built solidarity and camaraderie, was driven by their local government network. We need to support ours to create similar initiatives.

We have been through so much—bushfires, on the back of drought. So I have a call to action for my Mayo community: we all need to do random acts of kindness. Make phone calls to the elderly. Join a group on Facebook. There's one that I know of in our community called Caremongering Adelaide Hills. These Facebook groups are spreading all across our community. This will be what will get us through. Assist an elderly person over the phone on how they can make Facebook calls and how they can talk to each other. Talk to them about Zoom. Get them on Facebook or other social media platforms, where they can share and connect and still have videoconferencing calls with their grandchild who they can't see at the moment.

I'd like to say thank you to our healthcare workers, the doctors, the nurses, the teachers, the childcare workers, the supermarket workers, the truck drivers and the bus drivers. They are all working so hard in our community. They are all keeping Australia going, and we are all indebted to them for their service. And can I ask all Australians to please be kind to the Centrelink operators—the people who answer your phone calls when you're ringing them and when you're calling your bank. Also, I'd like to give a shout-out to my staff. The phone calls started very early this morning, as I'm sure they have in every member's office. We understand many people are deeply, deeply stressed, and we want to help every one of you. But, please, just remember they are humans too. I know my staff are doing an extraordinary job.

I'd also like to make the point that we need to care for our young people. While young people may not be as susceptible from a health perspective as older people are to coronavirus, and certainly to complications from coronavirus, they are vulnerable in other ways. I'm particularly concerned about young people and disruption to their education, whether that be high school or university. They are incredibly vulnerable in their mental health, and we need to make sure that we can still support them. They are social beings, and we need to make sure that they are with us for generations.

As a student of history, I've recently reflected on how decision-makers and the community responded to the Spanish flu pandemic between 1918 and December 1920. It was actually called the Spanish influenza because Spain was the only country that was reporting on the deaths and giving information. It actually started in Kansas. In another century, students will judge us on the decisions we make today. In the near future, we will be judged on how we support each other and our most vulnerable. It is my great hope that we will be looked upon in a favourable light. We must remember, at every turn, that we are a community and we are all in this together. I commend this bill to the House.

3:56 pm

Photo of Zali SteggallZali Steggall (Warringah, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I commend the government for the measures being taken in such haste that are before the House today. There is no blueprint on how to deal with a crisis of this scale. We must all work together in finding solutions. I urge the government to consult broadly and be inclusive in its decision-making. This is not a time for party partisanship, but a time to come together to find the solutions. Many are worried about the health risk to themselves and to their loved ones. They fear losing their jobs, having hours scaled back, seeing family businesses fold. The measures in this package of bills will assist in alleviating some of the financial hardship. However, I urge the government: if there are further measures being considered, please do not delay.

Regarding sole traders and casuals, in Warringah we have 22.8 per cent of the workforce as casual. That's approximately 22,500 people. In Australia as a whole, non-employing businesses, or sole traders, account for 62.8 per cent of all businesses. Many of these will be in dire circumstances well before 28 April, when they will receive government assistance under these bills. I urge the government to accelerate delivery of support, where possible, to these individuals.

I'm concerned about those in the arts and entertainment industry—those musicians, actors, artists and performers who have brought so much joy to our communities: the drama, the delight and the unity over the years. During the recent bushfires, it was the arts and entertainment community that were leaders in stepping forward to contribute their time and skills to help those in need. They now need us, and I encourage the government to implement policy and programs to assist this group. Other areas are also going to be decimated, like the fitness industry, who play a huge part in the ultimate health outcomes of our nation, and professional sports, all the way down to grassroots-level sports. They will also need help.

Most of the measures introduced are dependent upon businesses being open and trading, therefore keeping workers employed. I ask the government to consider additional measures, like direct capped wage subsidies for employees in businesses that are closed, as currently endorsed by the UK, Germany and New Zealand. Healthcare and all essential service workers need special consideration—and the rest of the community—as they continue to keep Australia running.

Those with disabilities need more support too. NDIS participants need services to ensure that food is delivered to them, that their plans are enhanced to accommodate the additional expenditure and that they are prioritised for personal protective equipment. As more and more Australians are physically isolated, there will be a growing demand upon community services, charities and mental health services. Please ensure these vital services receive additional resources and funding.

I also wish to raise the issue of travellers, of Australians stranded overseas. My office has been approached by numerous families and friends extremely concerned for their loved ones that are stranded on ships. They're stuck in Peru, in Singapore, in Spain, all trying to get home. DFAT staff are working incredibly hard in unbelievable circumstances trying to make sure this happens. I ask the government to get our fellow Australians home safely by whatever means necessary.

With regard to messaging and communication, it's concerning that there are still some in the media who are not reflecting the urgency and seriousness of this crisis. This is negligent and unacceptable and should be called out by the government. The government needs to be clearer with its messaging. This crisis is moving rapidly. Australians are confused and anxious. Clarity and consistency are needed. Australians want the facts. We need to do better on communication.

The most important thing to say is thank you to the teachers, the scientists, the cleaners, the people on production lines and delivery services, the bus drivers, the Centrelink staff, the mental health workers and, of course, all the health professionals and everyone who is working diligently to keep Australia going. Thank you for putting yourselves at risk but continuing on. But I do urge the government to encourage everyone else, if they are able to, to work from home or permit their staff to work from home, please. It's time for the government to encourage and urge everyone who can to work from home. The more we minimise how many people are out and about, the more chance we have to flatten the curve.

We were warned weeks ago that this threat was coming. We saw what happened in other countries. So many are horrified to see the escalation of the health crisis in Italy and Spain. We must do everything possible to avoid that path here in Australia. These are complicated and confusing times. No-one has all the answers, but it is incumbent upon us in this place to do our very best to ensure that all Australians are taken care of. Every life lost to coronavirus will be one too many.

Finally, I call on everyone. Each and every one of you has a role to play. You can impact the outcome of this crisis by being informed and by following the hygiene recommendations—and, please, please, stay home unless absolutely necessary. Thank you.

4:03 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

We are living through a critical moment in our country's history and in the history of the world. We are facing an invisible enemy that requires every one of us to change how we live and what we do. It's turning our economy upside down and it threatens to supercharge the enormous structural inequalities and economic problems that we're already living with. It looks like many thousands of people are going to die. Our economy will go into recession and possibly a depression. Hundreds of thousands of people are going to join the unemployment line, and many have already. Our social fabric risks being torn apart.

Now, more than ever, this parliament, all political parties and our country's leaders must remember that the first duty of government—just like a doctor's—is to protect lives. If we're to pull through and protect as many lives as possible, it will be in large part thanks to our public health system; because we listened to experts and scientists; and because we put human life ahead of a budget surplus. But our world-class public health workforce is telling us they may soon be overwhelmed by the coronavirus, and nowhere is this clearer than in the state of our intensive care beds. The Deputy Chief Medical Officer has flagged that Australia is facing, possibly, up to 150,000 deaths in the worse-case scenario, and some analysts suggest at present infection rates we may run out of intensive care beds just for the worse cases of coronavirus by early April—and this assumes no other demand from heart attacks or car crashes. If we end up on a trajectory like that of other nations, our intensive care facilities will not be able to cope.

Medical experts have warned that the number of intensive care beds needs to at least double if we're even to have a chance of managing this epidemic, and the Prime Minister must urgently detail a plan to at least double the number of ICUs, if not much more. As we've seen in Italy, access to an ICU will literally determine who lives and who dies. We also want to see an undertaking that beds and medical equipment in the private health system will be made available to everyone as part of the public health system so that the neediest get intensive care hospital beds, not just the wealthiest. We also need to hear more detail of the government's plan to secure the supply of ventilators and other medical equipment that's in short supply. If we're at the back of the global queue for acquiring ventilating medical equipment, then we must start manufacturing them right here ourselves. We need a plan to ensure that we do not let people die from the imminent danger of overloaded hospitals.

At this moment, we need to be able to trust our leaders and our institutions because lives depend on it. We are blessed to still have so many scientists and experts who will speak out fearlessly in the public interest on the basis of facts and evidence, and we are lucky that some leaders will listen to them. But it's at moments like this that we start to see the cost of what happens when politicians erode trust for their own narrow purposes. Every time science is described as a hoax or a minister forges a document or public services are attacked and privatised or a budget surplus is prioritised over looking after each other, we eat away the very foundation of trust that is needed to get through crises like these. As a result, our collective anxiety is turned up. And it's not helped by mixed messaging about whether you can shake hands or go to the football. Although there has been terrible behaviour, like the stockpiling of essentials which leaves too many people behind, people are generally doing their best to work out what they should do, sifting through inconsistent and late messages from political leaders. The Prime Minister has no right to criticise people who are just trying to do their best to decipher inconsistent and unclear messages.

People are often out ahead of the government. People understand we are facing a health crisis the likes of which they've never lived through, so many people are rising to face the crisis upon us. I want to particularly thank our incredible allied health workers for their service at the forefront of this crisis. I want to thank the teachers and childcare workers who are educating our kid. And I want to thank the thousands of supermarket workers who are keeping our shelves stocked and looking out for the most vulnerable. These supermarket workers have faced years of attacks on their rights and now they are at the frontline of the fight providing a truly essential service. I also thank everyday people across the country who are doing their bit to flatten the curve. Many are going above and beyond what the government is asking. On the weekend, I took my daughter to a birthday party online as another family shifted their five-year-old's party to what is going to be, I'm sure, one of the first of many online children's birthday parties. I want to thank the people who are leafletting their neighbours offering support and organising deliveries of care packages. It's truly heartening, and I thank you all. I call on our leaders to match the leadership of everyday Australians and provide more transparent and consistent advice in this time of crisis. Confusion breeds anxiety, but now is the time that we need clarity.

I said at the start our priority here must be to protect life. To protect life, we have to have a clear-eyed look at the multiple threats that we are facing. As we attempt to flatten out the curve of the coronavirus cases, we must remember that there are other exponential curves that threaten to overwhelm us, and the climate emergency is only one of them. We still have to flatten the emissions curve as well as the corona curve. Poverty, inequality and economic depression all kill too. Economic misery is also a destroyer of people's physical and mental health. The destruction of our biosphere is literally wrecking the fabric that underpins our life as a species.

With coronavirus we are all about to go through a kind of hell that we wouldn't wish on anyone, so it's incumbent on us to fight just as hard against any other threat to life that is around the corner and the threats that the coronavirus will multiply. We need government action to tackle this health and economic crisis in a way that will also set us on a path to dealing with these other crises as well. If we don't, we will be back here again and again and lives will be at threat. At this moment, all of us need to be able to look every person in this country in the eye, whoever they are, and say, 'We will not leave you behind.' This has to be a response not just to keep big corporations going but for everyone on a minimum wage or who doesn't have a job; not just for people with top-shelf private health insurance but for everyone in this country. Just last week, my office assisted two or three women who are pregnant, who are going to give birth in the next few months and who do not have homes. Imagine, at the best of times, giving birth while you're homeless, and then imagine doing it as the coronavirus crisis is beating down on us. There are people that we must reach out to and look after. It is the government's responsibility to make sure no-one is left behind.

Government priorities in the years leading up to this moment have been about budget savings from public services instead of advancing the wellbeing of people, but now the government have thrown out the economic rule book to deal with this crisis, and I applaud them for that. What we're finding out is that the things that will get us through this crisis are the very things that for 30 years we've been hearing are impossible—like a strong and expanded public health system, governments acting urgently by relying on scientific advice, and human life and wellbeing put ahead of a budget surplus. It will be public trust in our public institutions that will get us through this. We are all in this together. Everyone, from all walks of life, including the Prime Minister, has been saying this, and it is absolutely right. Let's make sure that our economic system reflects this reality so that we no longer put lives at risk and we don't leave anyone behind again—not people living with disabilities, not people living in housing stress, not First Nations people, no-one.

There is a need to stimulate the economy because we are heading towards, certainly, a recession and, potentially, a depression. The Greens want to do everything we possibly can to make sure that does not happen. It is our job today to pass a package of bills that will not only stimulate our economy but make sure no-one is left behind. This package of bills is a start, but right now I'm extremely concerned that it leaves behind students, people on the disability support pension and carers, who will be unable to access the additional COVID-19 stimulus payment. It is simply callous to exclude from this extra payment students and DSP recipients, many of whom have just lost the casual shifts they were relying on to make ends meet. And there is nothing in this package for people with disabilities who are reliant on a care workforce—which involves a great deal of trust—that needs protection. We have still not suspended the mutual obligation requirements fully and across the board, something that could increase the risk of this virus spreading.

We want to see more support for renters and those experiencing homelessness, with rent holidays and a ban on evictions. And we're concerned that some of the sectors hardest hit in this crisis—in particular, arts and culture, tourism and hospitality—still don't have the necessary package to ensure they can survive the coming months. We're worried that the changes to superannuation won't protect people in retirement and could further entrench the gender pay gap. We won't stand in the way of this package passing, but we're committed to filling in the gaps and making sure no-one is left behind.

We're pleased to see that the government have listened to our concerns, which we've raised directly with them over the past couple of weeks, about the inadequate rate of Newstart and the failure to extend the original stimulus package to the not-for-profit sector. I'm pleased the government have agreed to address both those matters that have been raised by the Greens. Just as they listened to our proposals on Newstart and extending the package to the not-for-profit sector, they should listen to the Greens and other people about the people and sectors that are being left behind by this package. Outside of those health workers dealing directly with COVID-19 infections, one group who are vulnerable right now are the 37 per cent of our workforce who have no paid leave. Casual and gig economy workers have been forgotten. They'll get support only when they sign up with Centrelink. They'll have to wait a long time for that payment, and, when it comes, it won't necessarily cover their losses. It's the same for those workers who were looking forward to gigs at festivals and events over the coming months, only to find themselves cut adrift.

But there is a bigger problem. The lion's share of this stimulus package is going to banks and businesses, and there is no requirement that the money find its way to the workers and people who need it. Taxpayer money should be used to bail out people, not just corporations. Seven hundred and fifteen million dollars has been gifted to the airlines to service their debt, for example; they say thanks and, in the next breath, stand down 20,000 staff. All this money for business needs to come with a guarantee that businesses will keep their staff on board while we are in lockdown. We need wage guarantees and job guarantees to be the strings attached to this. They've managed to do it in the UK. I don't find myself agreeing with Boris Johnson on many matters, but, if Boris Johnson can say, 'We can guarantee 80 per cent of wages to ensure people remain employed,' yet the government can find only 15 to 20 per cent, then I hope they consider scaling up the package over the coming weeks. If we can keep people employed now, that is one less job we are going to have to create when this crisis is over.

This morning the Prime Minister talked about the Great Depression. The original new deal was a government-led program in the United States that supported people, created jobs where they were needed and encouraged businesses to help the government pull the country out of the crisis of the Great Depression. It was a spectacular success and led us to what is now seen as the golden age of equality with the lowest-ever rates of wealth disparity.

When I first became Leader of the Australian Greens, I talked about how we needed a Green New Deal to solve the three challenges of a jobs crisis, economic inequality and the climate emergency—a program of government action and investment at a time when it has never been cheaper for government to borrow to invest in a clean society and a caring economy. The reality of the coronavirus only reinforces the need for such action. Now we need it more than ever because the kinds of shortages that we are seeing now, the distress people are living through and the threats to life we are witnessing will be exacerbated if we don't get the other crises under control as well.

This time of restriction and anxiety that we are all living through will get worse, unless we fight the climate crises and the inequality crisis as well. I don't want my kids to have to live through this kind of fear and threat to life but, unless we respond to this terrible threat by getting all the terrible threats under control, that is what is going to happen to our children. That is why we need not just a new deal depression-era response as the Prime Minister was indicating but a Green New Deal to tackle the coronavirus crisis right now but also the other crises hammering our life in public health. I suspect this will be only the first of several rounds of economic stimulus that the government brings to parliament for approval.

The Greens call to the government is constructive and simple. You've already listened to us in implementing a couple of measures and now go the next step. Implement a Green New Deal. Help people, not just corporations. Fund public services, create jobs that society needs and that the market hasn't yet provided. Invest in the infrastructure that we need to avoid the rolling series of crises that we are on track for as we tackle the immediate priority of the deadly coronavirus. This is our opportunity to make sure no-one is left behind and that we tackle the immediate threats by creating a society that we can all be proud of.

4:17 pm

Photo of Michael SukkarMichael Sukkar (Deakin, Liberal Party, Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

Firstly, I want to thank all of the members who have contributed to this debate and contributed in such a fine way. As the Treasurer outlined, these are unprecedented times. Australia's not faced a crisis like this before, and strong and decisive action is required to protect Australians and the economy from the coronavirus. The measures contained in the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020 and the other bills in this package provide critical support for the Australian economy to protect jobs and put Australia in the best possible position to bounce back strongly after this crisis. The measures include additional household income to give a boost to those that need it most and business support that will help see businesses through this tough time and keep more people in jobs.

Schedule 1 to the bill supports business investment by increasing the instant asset write-off threshold from $30,000 to $150,000 and expanding access to businesses with an aggregate annual turnover of less than $500 million, up from $50 million. The enhanced instant asset write-off applies to assets first used or installed ready for use in the period from 12 March 2020 to 30 June 2020.

Schedule 2 to the bill supports business investment by enabling businesses with aggregated turnover below $500 million to bring forward deductions of 50 per cent of the cost of certain assets that they have committed to purchase after 12 March 2020, if they are first used or installed by 30 June 2021.

Schedule 3 to the bill will support employers to manage cash flow challenges and help businesses and not-for-profits, including charities, importantly, retain their employees and keep operating by providing a cash flow boost payment. The bill will provide at least $20,000 and up to $100,000 to back eligible businesses and not-for-profits, again, including charities. This will benefit around 690,000 businesses employing around 7.8 million Australians. Around 30,000 not-for-profits—again, important to note—will also benefit. These businesses will be able to keep selling their products, and not-for-profits will be able to keep delivering their important services to the Australian community.

Schedule 4 to the bill provides for the payment of the first economic support payment of $750 to approximately 6.6 million social security and veterans income support recipients, farm household allowance recipients, family tax benefit recipients and holders of a pensioner concession card, Commonwealth seniors health card or Commonwealth gold card. This schedule also provides for the payment of a second economic support payment of $750 to social security and veterans income support recipients, family tax benefit recipients and holders of a pensioner concession card, Commonwealth seniors health card or Commonwealth gold card who receive a qualifying payment or hold a qualifying concession card on 10 July 2020. This second payment will not be paid to a person who receives on 10 July 2020 the new coronavirus supplement established by this bill.

Schedule 5 to the bill amends the Biosecurity Act 2015 to ensure that Australia continues to have a world-class biosecurity system that is flexible and responsive to public health threats, such as those obviously posed by the coronavirus.

Schedule 6 to the bill makes amendments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 2019 to temporarily waive the environmental management charge. This forms part of the $1 billion allocation the government has set aside to support regions and communities that have been disproportionately affected by the economic impacts of the coronavirus.

Schedule 7 to the bill provides assistance for up to 70,000 small businesses, including those using a group training organisation, to support the retention of around 117,000 apprentices and trainees. It also provides a $715 million relief package to help put Australia's aviation industry in the best possible position to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

Schedule 8 to the bill creates a temporary instrument-making power in the Corporations Act 2001 for the Treasurer to grant time limited relief from regulatory requirements where these would interfere with the ability of companies to manage their business through the impacts of the coronavirus. This will be used judiciously and only in cases of absolute need.

Schedule 9 provides flexibility for approved childcare providers and families who depend on the childcare subsidy to manage absences and be able to continue to access care for their children.

Schedule 10 to the bill reduces the superannuation minimum drawdown rates for the 2019-20 income year by 50 per cent. These rates prescribe the amount that an individual in the retirement phase must withdraw from an account based pension or similar product, depending on their age.

Schedule 11 provides temporary financial support through a COVID-19 supplement of $550 per fortnight to new and existing income support recipients receiving a working age payment. It will also provide streamlined access and extended eligibility to income support for an initial period of six months from 14 April 2020. As has been noted, this may be extended. The schedule also creates a new category of crisis payment and delays commencement of the simplifying income reporting act for up to a year.

Schedule 12 to the bill provides a safety net for businesses to allow them to get through a temporary period of insolvency and to recover when economic growth picks up.

Schedule 13 to the bill establishes a new temporary compassionate ground of early release of superannuation, allowing impacted individuals to access up to $10,000 of their superannuation tax free in 2019-20 and up to a further $10,000 tax free in 2020-21. This initiative builds on existing provisions allowing early access to superannuation in the event of hardship or on compassionate grounds. It is estimated to put up to $27 billion of superannuation back into the pockets of working Australians.

Schedule 14 to the bill amends the Medicare Levy Act 1986 and the A New Tax New System (Medicare Levy Surcharge-Fringe Benefits) Act 1999 to increase the Medicare levy low-income thresholds for singles, families and seniors, and of course pensioners, in line with increases in CPI.

Schedule 15 to the bill amends the Charter of Budget Honesty to delay the next Intergenerational report from 2020 to mid-2021 to ensure that there is adequate time to produce long-term projections that are again based on robust budget estimates.

Schedule 16 to the bill, finally, will allow responsible ministers to defer sunsetting dates. Over the coming months this parliament will, quite rightly, be focused on responding to the needs of the Australian community. During this time, a number of acts passed by this parliament and a large number of legislative instruments are scheduled to sunset. Where an act or legislative instrument is scheduled to sunset on or before 15 October 2020, the bill will allow the minister responsible for that act or instrument to defer the sunset day by up to six months. This will ensure that no gaps occur in our laws during this extraordinarily critical time.

At this time I would also like to table a correction to the explanatory memorandum, which corrects a typographical error. Finally, on behalf of the government I want to take this opportunity to thank the opposition, in particular, and, of course, members of the crossbench for their very constructive engagement on this legislation. I commend the bill to the House.

4:25 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Speaker, I have a point of order that then becomes a question to you. Obviously, this is an unusual sitting and I wish to raise an issue that I have privately raised with you and, in turn, raised with the Leader of the House, and the Leader of the House is of the same mind on the points I'm about to raise . We have an objective as a parliament to be showing the public that the rules that apply to them also apply to us. That means we have an objective to make sure we avoid common touch points and things like that. We are about to have a number of votes on a second-reading amendment. In the ordinary course we could go back to what we did 10 years ago, because the objective is to be able to conduct the vote without people having to swap from one side to the other. Given that I moved one of these amendments, that could mean I have a chance of getting it over the line. But if we work on the basis that the government will oppose all three of the second-reading amendments, which is a reasonable bet—it was only once we got them to support one—what I suggest is that, for the second-reading amendment that was moved by the member for Rankin, we do what we used to do 10 years ago, which is, instead of asking whether or not the amendment be agreed with, we use the old formulation: 'that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question'. That means the government would vote on that side and we would vote on this side in support of the second reading amendment, and the crossbench has allocated seats, whichever way they want to go.

The problem this time—and I'm to blame for this—is that we have two amendments, one of them moved by me, that are amendments to the amendment and so the old formulation won't work for them.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

That's right.

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

So, what I would put forward to you is whether or not, as Speaker, to suit the convenience of the House, you could put the question on those two amendments that the amendment be disagreed with and, in that way, the government, in voting 'yes', would be saying they don't think my amendment is very good at all and we, in voting 'no', would be supporting it. We will get the same outcome but be able to do it in a way that allows us to show that we are keeping to all the health and safety rules, not just as a public demonstration of it but also because it is just important that we do it. We all are about to return to different corners of the country and we want to make sure that all of those hygiene rules are followed to the letter.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the Manager of Opposition Business. I had the opportunity to discuss this with him a couple of days ago—in fact, on Saturday, when we were here in the chamber making the preparations that you now are experiencing. I think that is a very good suggestion. What it essentially means, as the Manager of Opposition Business pointed out, is that normally you're asked whether you support a proposition, but essentially the reverse will be the case—you're being asked whether you disagree with a proposition. In that circumstance, as he said, we have an amendment on an amendment to the second reading amendment. We now have to deal with them in reverse order. We'll deal with the amendment to the amendment and then we'll deal with the amendment to the second-reading amendment. I say this for the benefit of the crossbench: particularly on both of those, normally it would be that the amendment be agreed to. The government, in voting no, would cross. As the manager of opposition pointed out, instead, by voting with the ayes, the government would be disagreeing to the amendment. The opposition, in voting no, would be voting that they disagree with the proposition that is put before the House. Whilst I think we can predict which way government members will vote and which way opposition members will also vote, particularly for the crossbench, if any of you do need to move to the other side of the chamber, you would be the only ones doing so. There are allocated seats for you that have your names on them up the very back there and the word 'division' under your names. That's been arranged in the event that any of you need to move from one side to the other. I hope that's clear. It will mean that we don't have members crossing from one side to the other in close proximity and in that choke point down there, which is near the end of the horseshoe. What I'll do now is move through some of these procedures. We can expect to do the disagreed twice and then the other formulation that the Manager of Opposition Business outlined, and we'll go from there.

The original question was that these bills be read a second time, to which the honourable member for Rankin moved as an amendment that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The honourable member for Watson moved, as an amendment to that amendment, that certain words be added. The honourable member for Whitlam has moved, as an amendment to that amendment, that other words be added. So the immediate question would normally be that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Whitlam be agreed to, but, as I said, I'm proposing that, if there's no objection, I'll put the question in the form 'that the amendment be disagreed to'. The immediate question is, that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Whitlam be disagreed to.

For the benefit of members who have just entered the chamber, we've determined to put questions, essentially, in an opposite way so that members don't need to move from one side of the chamber to the other. Normally I would be saying that the question before the House is that the amendment moved by the member for Whitlam be agreed to, but on this occasion, with the consent of the House, I'm moving that the amendment moved by the member for Whitlam be disagreed to, so the ayes will pass to the right of the chair, the noes to the left.

4:41 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

If it suits the House, I will treat the amendment moved by the honourable member for Watson in the same way. The question now is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Watson be disagreed to.

4:45 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

In accordance with the resolution agreed earlier, I will now put the question on the second reading of all of the bills. The question is that these bills be now read a second time.

Question agreed to.

Bills read a second time.