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
That these bills be now read a second time.
The bills I introduce today represent the most significant set of measures to support the Australian community and the Australian economy outside of wartime.
We confront an enemy without a flag or a face, and we are deploying every weapon in our arsenal to defeat it. This is a Team Australia moment, and we call upon all sections of the Australian community to join in this struggle.
The measures in these bills represent a decisive and unprecedented response to the economic challenges posed by the coronavirus. The global and domestic economic environment has deteriorated. We now expect the economic shock from the coronavirus to be deeper, to be wider and to be longer. Our response, totalling $189 billion, or around 10 per cent of GDP, will provide the hope and support millions of Australians need at this difficult time.
The Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020 is designed to keep Australians in jobs and businesses in business, and build a bridge to the recovery. These measures are consistent with our principles. They are targeted, they are temporary, they are scalable and they are based on our existing tax and transfer system. The measures contained in this package of bills are designed to bolster domestic confidence and household consumption, reduce cashflow pressures for businesses and support investment to lift productivity and to keep people in jobs.
The package targets four key areas:
Enhancing the instant asset write-off: the government will provide immediate additional support for business investment by enhancing the instant asset write-off for small and medium-sized businesses. The threshold for eligible assets will increase from $30,000 to $150,000, allowing businesses to immediately deduct purchases of eligible assets each costing less than $150,000. To be eligible, assets need to be first used or installed ready for use in the period to 30 June 2021. Access to the instant asset write-off will also be expanded during this period to include all businesses with an aggregated annual turnover of less than $500 million, up from $50 million. On top of the 3½ million Australian businesses that were already able to access the instant asset write off, as a result of these changes, an additional 5,300 businesses which employ around 1.9 million Australians will be able to benefit from the instant asset write-off.
Backing business investment: we will provide support for business investment by allowing businesses with an annual aggregated turnover of less than $500 million to access accelerated depreciation reductions. Eligible businesses will be able to bring forward depreciations reductions of 50 per cent of the cost of certain assets they have committed to purchase after 12 March this year, if they are first used or installed by 30 June 2020. Around 3½ million businesses which employ 9.7 million people are eligible to benefit from this measure. The government will support employers to manage cash flow challenges and help businesses and not-for-profits, including charities, retain their employees and keep operating by providing a cash boost payment. This measure will provide at least $20,000 and up to $100,000 back to eligible businesses and not-for-profits, including charities. This will benefit around 690,000 businesses employing around 7.8 million people. Around 30,000 not-for-profits will also benefit.
We will also provide two rounds of economic support payments. In each round, the payment will be $750 for each eligible individual. The first economic support payment will be made to certain recipients of social security and veterans payments, farm household allowance, and holders of certain concession cards eligible in respect of a day in the test period from 12 March 2020 to 13 April 2020 to assist them in a time of economic uncertainty during the coronavirus outbreak. The second round of economic support payments will be delivered to a subcohort of those payment groups who received the first economic support payment. This second payment will not be paid to recipients of the coronavirus supplement on the test date. All other payment groups who are eligible for the first payment will be eligible for the second economic support payment providing they would ordinarily be residing in Australia in respect of the test date of 10 July 2020.
We're also amending the Biosecurity Act 2015 to allow for the Director of Human Biosecurity to delegate any or all of their functions or powers concerning human biosecurity control orders to senior executive officers of the Department of Health who are also human biosecurity officers. This will ensure some of the Commonwealth's key powers for responding to biosecurity threats, including the human biosecurity control order, can be implemented in an efficient manner should it become necessary to use them. It is vitally important that we have a range of qualified medical personnel able to conduct administrative processes such as reviewing control orders to ensure they're being used in a way that is proportionate to the public health risk.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 2019 will also be amended to temporarily waive the environmental management charge for the next nine months. This charge mainly applies to tourism activities, and this waiver is intended to relieve the cost pressures on tourist program operators in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. A number of national park entry fees will also be waived administratively by the Director of National Parks.
The government will also support jobs for apprentices and trainees through this period of economic challenge by providing $1.3 billion 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. This support, which will be in the form of a wage subsidy of 50 per cent for apprentices and trainees, will help ensure the continuing development of the skilled workforce that Australia's employers need.
Australia's aviation industry has been among the first sectors affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The sector is facing an unprecedented and sustained period of falling international and domestic aviation demand. The government will provide $715 million to support the aviation industry as it grapples with these challenges. The bill will refund aviation fuel excise and refund or waive charges levied by Air Services Australia on domestic airline operations. The bill also includes funding to reimburse domestic and regional aviation security charges. The provisions will apply to charges paid by domestic airlines since 1 February 2020, providing an upfront benefit of $159 million to our airlines to provide immediate relief.
The government will amend the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999 and A New Tax System (Family Assistance) (Administration) Act 1999 to allocate extra allowable absence days for child care in addition to the current 42 days. The Minister for Education will have the power to prescribe where a family does not need to provide evidence in relation to additional absences related to coronavirus. The government is also waiving the current obligation of childcare services to enforce payment of gap fees for a particular event or circumstance and the period specified in a minister's rule. This will enable services to provide relief to families where exceptional circumstances require it for limited periods.
We are giving retirees more control over their superannuation. This bill also adjusts the superannuation minimum drawdown rates, reducing them by 50 per cent for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 income years. 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. This measure will help alleviate concerns of retirees regarding selling assets in a loss position, giving them greater control over their capital during a time of increased market volatility and assisting with retirees' confidence in the economy.
We're providing a temporary jobseeker payment and coronavirus supplement. Additional temporary financial support will be provided to working-age income support recipients through a coronavirus supplement of $550 per fortnight. This measure will provide streamlined access to income support and extended eligibility to income support payments for people whose income is significantly reduced by the economic impact of the coronavirus. The Minister for Families and Social Services will have the power to extend the coronavirus supplement in whole or in part to other categories of recipients of social services payments. This measure will also create a new category of crisis payment where a person will qualify for payments if there is a national health emergency such as the coronavirus and delay commencement of the simplifying income reporting act for up to a year to ensure Services Australia can focus on assisting people who require income support as a result of the coronavirus.
We're providing more flexibility in the Corporations Act. Treasury ministers will be given a time limited instrument-making power in the Corporations Act to grant time limited relief from regulatory requirements where these will interfere with the ability of companies to manage their businesses through the impacts of the coronavirus. Each instrument would be effective for up to six months from when the instrument is created.
We're providing additional assistance to business to trade through the crisis. The government will also provide a safety net for businesses to allow them to get through a temporary period of insolvency and recover when economic growth picks up. To do this, we are amending the Corporations Act to temporarily increase the threshold for a creditor to initiate bankruptcy proceedings, to increase the time period for debtors to respond to a bankruptcy notice and to extend the period of protection a debtor receives after making a declaration or intention to present a debtor's petition. There will also be temporary relief for directors from any personal liability for trading while insolvent. For owners or directors of a business that are currently struggling due to the coronavirus, the Australian Taxation Office will tailor solutions for their circumstances, including temporary reduction of payments or deferrals or withholding enforcement actions, including director penalty notices and wind-ups. This will provide directors with additional confidence to continue to trade through this difficult period.
We're allowing early release of superannuation because this is the peoples' money. We're establishing a new temporary compassionate ground of early release of superannuation for individuals and sole traders impacted by the economic consequences of the coronavirus. This will allow impacted individuals to access up to $10,000 of their superannuation, tax free in 2019-20, and up to a further $10,000 in 2021. Applications must be made within six months of royal assent of this legislation and will be able to be made online via the myGov portal.
This bill amends the Medicare Levy Act 1986 and the A New Tax System (Medicare Levy Surcharge—Fringe Benefits) Act 1999, to increase the Medicare levy low-income thresholds, with increases for singles, families, seniors and pensioners to ensure these remain in line with changes to the consumer price index.
During this time of uncertainty, it's extremely difficult to formulate reliable economic and fiscal estimates over the next few months. In line with the government's decision to postpone the budget until later this year, the next intergenerational report will now be released in mid-2021 to ensure there is adequate time to produce long-term projections that are based on robust budget estimates. The government remains committed to producing an intergenerational report that assesses the long-term sustainability of government's finances. The charter will continue to require five-year updates of the IGR from 2021.
Over the coming months, this parliament will quite rightly be focused on responding to the needs of the Australian community. During the next six months, 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 the act or instrument to defer the sunset day by up to six months. This will ensure no gaps occur in our laws during this critical period.
The government understands the need to move quickly to provide support and relief to small and medium-sized enterprises that are under incredible pressure and play such an integral role in the Australian economy. We are providing a guarantee for new short-term loans issued by the authorised deposit-taking institutions, the ADIs, and non-ADI lenders to support SMEs to cover immediate cashflow needs in response to the economic crisis associated with the coronavirus pandemic. Importantly, the guarantee will apply to eligible loans made after the government's announcement of this measure, regardless of whether the loans were made before or after the commencement of the bill. There is an overall cap of $20 billion on the appropriation for meeting liabilities under the guarantee. In the event of a loan default under this measure, government will compensate the lender for an agreed proportion of the losses.
We're also providing additional support for Australia's small and medium-sized enterprises. The Commonwealth will be authorised to participate in forming and acquiring shares in or debentures of the Australian Business Growth Fund and appropriates $100 million for that purpose. The Australian Business Growth Fund's purpose will be to offer growing established companies patient equity capital and strategic support to assist them to reach their growth potential. Business seeking support can be from across Australia and from a range of industries. Established Australian businesses will be eligible for long-term equity capital investments between $5 million and $15 million where they can demonstrate three years of revenue growth and profitability and a clear growth vision.
We are providing support for severely affected regions. This response package will appropriate a further $1 billion from consolidated revenue funds to support those sectors, regions and communities that have been disproportionately affected by the economic effects of the coronavirus. Further plans and measures to support recovery will be designed and delivered in partnership with the affected industries and communities through the funding allocated in this package.
The government is also establishing the $15 billion Structured Finance Support Coronavirus Economic Response Fund and the Structured Finance Support Coronavirus Economic Response Fund Special Account. The fund will ensure continued access to funding markets impacted by the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic and promote competition and consumer and business lending markets. In particular, this will ensure that smaller lenders can maintain access to funding by the government making targeted investments in structured finance markets. To fund this package, the government is appropriating the necessary funds from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. The details of the measures contained in the package are set out in the explanatory memorandum to the bills.
These are extraordinary times demanding extraordinary measures, and I thank the opposition for facilitating the passage of these bills through the parliament. Led by our Prime Minister, with strength and courage, we face a global challenge like this country has never faced before. But, by working together, we will get to the other side of this and we will bounce back as a nation stronger than ever. We know there will be more to do and we will continue to do it to support every Australian in the challenges they face in the period ahead. I commend these bills to the House.
This is a defining test for our country and its leaders, and it's a defining test for our people and their parliament. This is a diabolical health challenge that we as a country are facing up to, and it has cruel and devastating impacts on the economy as well. Lives and livelihoods will be destroyed by the impact of this coronavirus. I think all sides of this House understand, appreciate and acknowledge that Australians are very anxious right now.
There's a lot of anxiety in the community, first and foremost, about our health and the health of the people that we love; anxiety about peoples' jobs, their job security and whether they can earn enough money during this difficult period to put food on the table for those that we care about and care for; anxiety about superannuation balances, particularly for those who are closest to retirement; and anxiety about all aspects of peoples' personal finances. Because of that anxiety, the depth and likely duration of this health crisis and economic crisis, this is no time for half-measures. It is no time for nickel-and-diming our response. It's no time for dithering and delay. We need to approach this crisis with clarity, with urgency and with coordination. It's true in the health challenges and it's true in the related economic challenges as well.
In an earlier time—during the global financial crisis—the defining advice that we received was that Australia and its economic decision-makers needed to go early, go hard and go households. The challenge for us today is to go big, to go fast and to go jobs and incomes. We need to do everything that we can possibly do to protect the lives and livelihoods of the Australians that we represent. I do know that every member of the House on this side appreciates the depth of that challenge and I know that every member of the government and every member of the crossbench appreciates that challenge as well.
As the Leader of the Opposition said in his contribution, responding to the Prime Minister's statement earlier on, we take our responsibilities very seriously on this side of the House and, for some time now, we have committed to being as supportive, responsible and constructive as we possibly can be. We appreciate that every Australian has an interest and a stake in the government getting this right. On this side of the House, since we first heard of this coronavirus and its likely devastating impacts, we have done all that we can to be as responsible, constructive and supportive of what the government is proposing.
I wanted to acknowledge to the Treasurer, who is still at the table, and the Prime Minister and their senior colleagues that we did have the opportunity to discuss some of these matters yesterday in the cabinet room and we appreciate that. We appreciate the opportunity to feed in from time to time. We would like more opportunities for that, but we appreciate the opportunities that have been afforded us. I think that meeting in the cabinet room yesterday was a symbol of what Australians expect from us and expect of us. They expect us to put the political swords down, at least for the time being, and they expect us to do what we can together to get Australian society, Australian communities and the Australian economy through this difficult period. I wanted to acknowledge the shadow health minister who has joined us. Every day of this challenge, he has been doing what he can to make the same kind of responsible contribution to the health response that I just outlined in relation to the economic response as well.
We do welcome substantial elements of the package that the Treasurer just ran through, contained in the bills that we will support today. Obviously, we welcome more support for small and medium-sized businesses going through an extraordinarily difficult period, a period so difficult it would have been almost unfathomable to many of these business people in recent months and recent years. Of course we welcome additional support, particularly for the most vulnerable people in our communities—the pensioners, the unemployed. We welcome that support. We welcome the decisive action taken by the Reserve Bank. We welcome the steps taken by the other banks in making sure that they can do their bit and play their role in getting people through this difficult period. There is much in this package that we welcome, and we want to make it clear to the Australian people outside of this building that when the government proposes something that we support we will say so and we will vote for it. That's what we're doing today.
Part of being a responsible, supportive and constructive opposition means making a contribution where we can to improve what the government has proposed. As I said, there are many welcome elements and we will be voting for the package that the Treasurer just outlined. We will do that today, as soon as possible. We have always said that we will expedite the passage of these bills, because we want to see this money circulating through the economy as soon as possible. But part of being constructive does mean pointing out where we think the package can be improved. In my view, there are at least five primary ways that we should try and do a better job here. The first one, and perhaps the most important, is that we need to find a way to inject more urgency into what is being agreed here today, what's been proposed and what's in the bills. I don't think it's good enough to say to Australian businesses, pensioners, families, communities, workers and others that the package that we will pass today won't flow until the end of April, or until May when it comes to the deeming changes, or until July when it comes to the top-up in the pensioner support. We think it shouldn't be beyond us to agree a way to get this support out the door faster than the government is proposing. I will be moving an amendment which goes to the urgency that I think we can inject into the support that will be agreed today, and that amendment's been circulated in my name.
The second set of concerns that we have around the otherwise welcome support for small and medium-sized businesses is that there is not currently a guarantee that the funds which are being afforded to businesses will guarantee that workers will be kept on or that the money will be used to pay workers' wages. One of the reasons why other countries are investigating other models of wage subsidies is because we want to make sure that there is a link maintained between an employer and an employee. There is nothing in the way that this has been designed to maintain that link. There is nothing to prevent the severance of that link between an employer and their workers. We accept that there will be cashflow assistance for business and we welcome it. We fear that without a guarantee there is not a sufficient incentive for businesses to keep workers on. It may be that the cashflow assistance is probably more likely to be spent on things like rent and other costs of business, and we would prefer it if there was some link between the provision of this assistance and the actual holding onto employees and the paying of their wages throughout this difficult period.
The third set of concerns we have goes to the gaps in the package. There are issues with people who are here on visas, there are issues with students, and there are other issues as well. We've identified those. The fourth set of concerns we have is related. The government said even before the release of the second package that there will be a third package and subsequent packages after that. We do accept that the government will need to come to the table with more assistance as this crisis unfolds, but the point that we would make and the point that the shadow health minister has made in other contexts is: if you know that will be necessary then let's not wait. Let's try and get an additional support agreed and out the door as soon as possible. The reason that's related to the third set of concerns I raised about the gaps in the package is that if we know that there are gaps now then we should be looking to fill them as soon as possible.
So the first set of concerns were urgency, no guarantee of jobs, gaps in the package and, if there is going to be another package, getting it out the door as soon as possible. The fifth one goes to superannuation. We've made it clear publicly and privately, and the shadow minister will make a contribution shortly, that we wouldn't be going down this path of allowing broader early access to superannuation. We've been clear about that. We have concerns that encouraging people to divest right now in a market as weak as it is means that we might be encouraging people to crystallise those losses and that concerns us. We're worried about the impact on the system. We're worried that if people rush to take advantage of this change then that will be bad for the system not only in the near term but also in the long term. We're worried about the difficulties this will create for people in their retirement. We're worried that it's inconsistent to say, on the one hand, 'Here's an encouragement to divest from the share market via your superannuation fund,' at the same time as you're making what we think is a wise argument about the minimum drawdown—the part that we support in the superannuation changes.
We do think there should be relief for retirees in the drawdown phase of superannuation in relation to the changes to the minimum drawdown. That's a good change. We were in the process of proposing it when we heard that those opposite were contemplating it. That's a good thing. We support that. But that argument that you shouldn't be encouraging people to get out of the system at this time when the market is in the condition that it is in is inconsistent with the argument you're making about superannuation when it comes to early access. I think that there is an issue there. Ideally, that wouldn't be part of the package and we'd be finding better ways to support the same cohort of people.
As I have said repeatedly and not just today, and as the Leader of the Opposition said and many of my colleagues have said, we will be supporting these measures despite those concerns that we have. When it's not business as usual in the economy, when it's not business as usual in our society, then it shouldn't be business as usual in our politics either. We are being as accommodating, supportive, responsible and constructive as we can be. Every Australian has a stake in the government getting this right.
The government have at least two tests that they've set for themselves. The first one, which was in the Prime Minister's contribution to the Australian Financial Review summit a couple of weeks ago, we agree with. He said that the test is to prevent job losses and prevent business closures, and that is an important part of the equation. The second part, which the government has been talking about more recently, is to support those people who have found themselves negatively impacted by this crisis and the weakening of the economy that's followed the outbreak. Those are the two tests that the government will be judged on: whether they can prevent job losses and business closures but also what they do to support people in the community, and especially what they do to support people who are displaced by this and people who are especially vulnerable.
I mentioned before the conversations that we have had with the government. We would like there to be more of that. We acknowledge that the Treasurer, in recent days, has agreed to a more regular briefing with Treasury about the economic conditions. We think that's a good thing. I appreciate that, and I want to convey that appreciation to him while he's here.
We also appreciate the engagement that has been happening with the Reserve Bank, with Governor Phil Lowe. I wanted to convey, via the House, to him and to his colleagues at the bank that we think that the package that they announced was decisive and has the capacity to make a genuine difference. I appreciate a great deal the opportunity to discuss and engage on that before it was announced. I'm sure my colleagues appreciate the opportunity for us to be kept in the loop as well.
The same goes for the private banks. I acknowledge that government has been working with the banks on the announcements that they made last week. I appreciate the engagement that we had with them too, to make sure we could be as supportive as we could as soon as we could after that announcement was made. I put that on the record too. The same goes for the peak business groups and the same goes for the union movement. There's been lots of consultation, and that's a very good thing.
I want to shout out to the health workers of this country. It must be an extraordinarily difficult time to be a health worker. My mum was a nurse for almost five decades, and I know the pressures on that industry in normal times, so the pressures now on that industry must just be extraordinary. The whole nation stands with the health workers of this country. We are counting on them—we always do, but especially now —as they do the most incredibly selfless work to try and alleviate the suffering of people who are and will be affected by this diabolical health crisis. To the retail workers who have been under pressure: as the SDA says, nobody deserves a serve. We need to make sure that we are kind to retail workers. They have been under extraordinary pressure.
To the teachers of Australia and the early educators: I assume it is the same for all of us here who are parents—every day, when your young fellow or your daughter says to you, 'Am I putting the uniform on today?' you think about all the decisions that people are making about sending their kids to school. They are very difficult decisions. Think about what that means for the teachers and early educators who go to work each day with 25 or 30 kids and are trying to educate those kids on all the things we need them educated about, at the same time as they're educating them about all the other pressures that are going on right now. It's pretty amazing. My Leo is five. He is in prep. He is a hugger, a bit like his dad. Telling him he can't hug his friends is a big ask.
Mr Frydenberg interjecting—
Reward him with a lolly, the Treasurer says! He gets a bit of that. The point I am making is that I want to acknowledge the parents, teachers, early educators and everyone who works in the education system. They are confronted with some extraordinarily difficult decisions to make.
I said yesterday in the media, and I want to repeat here today, that one of the things we are learning about ourselves, as we reflect on what this crisis is doing to us and to our country, is really that amazing role that grandparents play. They are the unsung heroes of our economy and our community. In my own case, there is the idea that my kids won't see their Nan for a bit. With all the contribution and help that my mum and Laura's mum and dad provide when they're up from Adelaide, we are appreciating just how much grandparents contribute. We should recognise that as well.
I also want to recognise the Treasury officials and other officials—PM&C and Finance—and I would ask the Treasurer to convey from our side of the House our appreciation to that really fine department. The Australian Treasury is one of the best public economic institutions in the developed world. It is a special place, as the member for McMahon says. It is full of patriotic, intelligent, amazing people who are the cream of the crop in the Australian Public Service. We know that from our own experience during the GFC. I had the privilege of working with many of these people for 5½ years. They are amazing people. They work around the clock. We thank you, the Treasury officials and the other officials who have been working on this package and doing your best for Australia to help us get through this period.
We don't know how long this crisis will last. We don't know how many lives will be lost. We don't know how many livelihoods will be lost. But we do know that at some point history will judge what we did here. History will judge the decisions that we took, the timeliness of those decisions and the impact of those decisions in time. We want it written about this period that we approached these challenges in the spirit of bipartisanship, where that's possible; that everybody behaved in a responsible and constructive and supportive way; and that we did what we could to agree on the best steps forward. We want it written about this period that we acted with urgency, with clarity and with coordination, and that we worked together in a way that the Australian people have every right to expect of us. Every Australian right now is anxious. They're worried about what this all means. The onus on us here as we deliberate and decide on some pretty massive proposals in this bill—tens of billions of dollars—is to do that in the right spirit and that a way in which, when the history of this period is written, people can say that these were defining tests for our people and their parliament, for our country and its leaders and that we passed those tests. I move:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give these bills a second reading, the House calls on the Government to more quickly implement the measures it is proposing, noting that under the current proposal:
(1) the Coronavirus supplement will not begin until 27 April 2020;
(2) expanded access to the Jobseeker Payment and Youth Allowance won't begin until 27 April 2020;
(3) most people won't receive the first payment to households until April 2020 or the second payment until July 2020;
(4) pensioners won't see a boost in their income due to the change in deeming rates until 1 May 2020; and
(5) employers won't receive a cash flow boost until 28 April 2020".
It is. The member for Rankin has very eloquently outlined that we support the measures because they are appropriate for these desperate times—desperate measures for desperate times. Despite our reservations about some of them, we will not stand in the way. Of course, the ultimate stimulus is to defeat this disease. The best rescue package for the country is to beat coronavirus. I've heard some people say the government has to balance the economic impact with the health impact. I disagree. The best economic policy in this environment is the best health policy. The sooner we stop the spread of this disease, the better our country is, the better our economy is, the better our society is.
We have to be honest with the Australian people: it's currently not happening. We have to be honest with the Australian people not in a partisan way. If we want the people to trust us, we have to trust them with the facts. And the fact of the matter is that this virus is doubling in reach every three days. If it continues on that trajectory, our health system will be under enormous pressure. Our health system will be stretched beyond the limit. That's why it's incumbent on government to lead on business and community and individuals to cooperate and follow the lead of government to beat the spread of this disease. Hence, we've supported every single measure the government has proposed from the beginning, some of which, looking back, shouldn't have been controversial, knowing what we know now, but were at the time; some of which I had complaints about from Labor Party supporters saying: 'Why are you giving the government so much support? Stop agreeing with them on these things.' I had to respectfully say that this is a time when we need to support the government in an environment which is rapidly changing. But that doesn't mean that we won't also call for more or that we won't also make constructive suggestions about what more can and should be done. We've done so and we'll continue to do so. That's our job as a constructive opposition. I'll just outline a few of those areas. I'm not going to cover them all—I'm going to leave plenty of time for other members to make contributions—but I'll outline a few of the very important ones.
Firstly, in relation to testing, the World Health Organization has made it clear that the key to beating this virus is to test, test, test. That's what other countries have done that are showing success. I want to make it crystal clear that the government and the country have done much better than many other countries. I want to make that clear. What I've seen happening in some countries is mind-boggling—the low level of testing. I don't mind saying here in this chamber that the United States is the key example of that. But we should be the best in the world. Australians deserve nothing less. We're testing 3,300 people per million. That's a good figure. South Korea is testing 5,500. That's a better figure. Again, I want to make it clear that I don't for one second underestimate the complexity of the task facing the minister and the government—the shortage of reagents and other things. We believe it should be the objective of government to test every Australian with symptoms—not everybody who wants a test, not everybody who feels like a test, not everybody who asks for a test but every Australian who presents to their general practitioner with symptoms we believe should get a test. That should be the objective of government. I'm not saying it's easy. It should be the goal, the aim, the hope. The Deputy Chief Medical Officer has made clear the criteria they've recommended to government is based on the number of tests available. He said, 'If we had unlimited tests, we might have different criteria'. Of course, I understand the constraints that the Chief Medical Officer and his state and territory colleagues are working under in this regard, but I stress the view that we should have the objective of having the best testing regime in the world—that is currently South Korea—and we should be able to say that we are testing everybody with symptoms.
The other matter I want to touch on is telehealth. Some Australians at home might not understand what I mean by telehealth. It's very simple: it's being able to ring your doctor, Skype your doctor or in some way communicate with your doctor from home—and not just your doctor but also, ideally, your allied healthcare professional, your dietitian, your psychologist, your counsellor and others. There are some for whom it's not possible—it's pretty hard for a physiotherapist to provide a telehealth consultation, or a podiatrist, in some instances. They're going to be doing it very tough. But where a medical consultation can occur over the phone or over some form of technology, it should be allowed to happen.
The government has expanded the telehealth rebate, but I say not by enough. I can see no reason that the telehealth rebate shouldn't apply to every Australian, every doctor and every allied healthcare professional where appropriate. And, importantly, it should apply to doctors and others working from home. At the moment the rules are that it has to be done from the surgery—the telephone call has to occur in the surgery. That makes no sense to me. If you've got a doctor working from home, for obvious reasons—maybe they're self-isolating; the chances of being exposed to this virus for our medical and healthcare workforce are much higher than for the rest of us, so they may be self-isolating—they should be able to continue their service to their patients over the phone and to provide bulk-billed Medicare service by phone or Skype. This is absolutely essential, in my view. I say, not in a point-scoring way, that I don't understand the reluctance. The government's throwing billions at this problem, as they should. Throw some more at telehealth and provide the support to our healthcare professionals to do the job they do so well.
The final point I want to make—as I said, I'm not going to cover the field; I'm not going to talk about everything—is a new one. I understand that everybody's focused on physical health. I completely understand that and I agree with it. We also need to begin to focus much more on mental health. Australians are worried and stressed. Children are worried and stressed. If you have an existing mental health issue, that will be exacerbated. Many Australians have stopped going to see their psychologist or their counsellor. Today I'm writing to the Minister for Health with a range of suggestions that should be taken up, in our view: about telehealth, about support for Lifeline in this crisis and their new text service, which provides support for Australians who need help via text. These are sensible suggestions. There's an obligation on all of us to look out for each other—while practising social distancing—to check on your neighbours and your friends and family. There's an obligation on all of us, of course, to do that. There's an obligation on government as well to lead on mental health, and I make the suggestions in good faith.
The final point I will make is that we all understand the seriousness of the task before the House, before the government and before the country. The member for Rankin referred to it. We feel the weight of history on our shoulders here. This has often been compared, including by myself, to the last big national health crisis that our country faced: the pandemic of 1918-19, the Spanish flu as it was called in the day. It's true; this is the biggest crisis since then. I know a little bit about that pandemic. It came in two waves. Australia got through the first wave pretty well. We applied strict quarantine. We applied the best health advice of the day and restrictions on movement, and we got through pretty well. The rest of the world suffered the first wave, the 1918 wave, very badly, and Australia did well.
Then we got complacent. We relaxed. We lifted the quarantine restrictions. The second wave was devastating for Australia: 102,000 Australians gave their lives in the flu pandemic. One of them was my great-grandmother, Magdalene McNally, who died at age 29 a few years after giving birth to my grandmother. Obviously, I never knew her; she died 50 years before I was born. I don't know what her personality was, what she felt about life, what she felt in her dying days—I have no idea. I have one photo of her, her wedding photo. That's all I know about my great-grandmother. But I know this. The impact was long lasting. Eighty years after her death, as my grandmother was dying, and it was obvious to all—to her and to us, her children and grandchildren—that she was dying, we asked her: 'Where would you like to be buried, Nan?' Eighty years after the death of her mother, she said, 'Put me next to mum, please', which is exactly what we did. Eighty years of grief that she went through, not having really known her mother—her mother died when she was an infant. Eighty years later we remedied that the best we could, by burying her next to her mother, burying them together, reuniting them.
May as few Australians as possible have to go through that in this public health crisis. May we minimise the grief and the loss. We cannot accept defeat. We cannot accept that this virus is going to kill Australians. We know the size of the task. We know the enormity of the project. As other countries have arrested the spread of this virus, so must we. It means sacrifices for all of us, sacrifices across the country, but tackle it and beat it we must.
I remember very clearly the night of 11 September in 2001. Late that night, having just finished watching an episode of West Wing, what came up on our screens was an extraordinary image—smoke coming out of one of the Twin Towers. A plane had hit it, the commentators were saying. There was actually a plane that, in the aftermath of the Second World War, hit the Empire State Building by accident, and so immediately I thought that was what had occurred. But in the time it took me to go from looking at this extraordinary vision, to going to the bathroom and coming back a second plane had hit the other tower, and September 11 had taken place. At that moment our world changed forever. I barely went to sleep that night, like so many Australians as we watched this astonishing event play out on our televisions. From that day until now I have absolutely believed that that would be the most significant historical event that I would live through. But as we look at what's playing out in the world today and we think about what the next few months hold for our country, perhaps, amazingly, a different story is actually going to be written.
There is best and worst practice out there in terms of how the coronavirus has been dealt with, but certainly, looking at the horrifying images coming out of Italy right now, for that country this is undoubtedly the worst crisis it has faced since the Second World War. So whatever else it means, the rhythm, the political rhythm, of this place will change. The claim and counterclaim which tends to be the way we live our lives in here, has stopped. Picking away at political scabs is not what it's about now. It's now about all of us working together to try and deal with this crisis. It doesn't mean that the opposition loses its voice. In fact, in this moment and in the months to come, criticism is going to be fundamentally important, but that criticism is offered in the most constructive of ways. It is essential that in this moment we have a very clear explanation, and national leadership, given to the Australian people which takes the Australian people into the government's confidence about what it is that they are facing, and with that a clear expression of a strategy for how to deal with it, with an identified endgame in mind. That is absolutely essential.
In November last year the coronavirus, COVID-19, jumped species into humanity in a wet market in Wuhan, in Hubei province, China. We don't know the animal from which it transmitted to humans or the person to whom it transmitted. It's understood that the source animal, as it is in so many of these diseases, is the bat. The first case was confirmed in Wuhan on 17 November 2019—just four months ago; all that has occurred has played out in the last four months. Australia had its first case confirmed on 25 January 2020—a person returning from Guangzhou province. Around that time the governments of Australia set up the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which has been meeting every single day since then. Its knowledge about what this disease is and how it will spread is at global best practice.
In Hubei we saw 1,921 new cases reported on 2 February. That peaked on 12 February, when 14,840 new cases were reported. It was around that time that China put in place strict social isolation measures in Hubei to stop the transmission of this virus, because this virus relies on human contact in order to spread. In China they dramatically stopped human contact. Amidst all the difficult stories that we're hearing, one of the most remarkable is that on 11 March this year only eight new cases were reported in Hubei. On 17 March, just a week ago, the number went down to one, and in the last four days of reporting they've not had a single case. Effectively, the rate of new infection in Hubei province right now has been reduced to zero. In South Korea we saw the first cases reported in mid-February. On 3 March it peaked at 851. Again, social isolation was put in place in South Korea. By 16 March new infections were down to 74 for that day.
Now Hubei is reporting 67,800 infections. Even if we were to assume that that is widely underreported, even if we were to assume that there are a million cases in Hubei, it's still less than two per cent of the population of that province. There are 3,144 people reported to have died of coronavirus in Hubei. In South Korea there have been 8,897 cases reported. If we were to assume that it's 50,000, again, we're talking about 0.1 per cent of the population of South Korea. There have been 102 deaths reported in that country. This is global best practice. This is a set of policies which has made a difference.
Then we have the tragedy which is Italy, where social isolation measures took some time to be put in place and the disease was allowed to spread. On 26 February—less than a month ago, just a few weeks ago—Italy reported 147 new cases. To put that in context, 160 new cases were reported in Australia on 19 March. From there, 26 February, through to the last report, which was 21 March, we've seen 6,557 new cases reported in Italy. More than 5,000 people have now died in Italy, 600 in the last 24 hours. That is the tragedy that this virus can be.
Against that best and worst practice, there is the obvious question: what will our story be?
What is our strategy to make sure that we are walking down a pathway which looks like South Korea and not like Italy? Because we cannot allow a significant proportion of our population to get this disease. If half of Australia gets it, that's 12½ million people, and with a one per cent mortality rate, that's 125,000 deaths—a loss of life on a grand scale. It must not be allowed to happen.
There is discussion about a proportionate response, which, I have to say, makes no sense to me. 'Proportionate response' is the language that we use in relation to military strategy. When one country fires on another, you think about a proportionate response: you want to respond in some form so that the firing doesn't keep going, but you don't want to respond too much so as to cause a grievance which then gives rise to a second attack. So you seek to act proportionately; you seek to shape a human adversary's behaviour so they stop. That's a proportionate response. But this is not a human adversary; this is a virus. This is a virus which spreads exponentially. It is a mathematical exponential equation—one right now which is seeing the number of infections in this country double every three days. Please understand what that means. It means that what is 1,000 today will be more than 30,000 in just over two weeks unless we do something to change that. What that requires is for us to act now. So whatever is being contemplated in terms of social isolation in two, three or four weeks from now, do it right now. Do it today. That has to be the strategy which aligns us with global best practice and stops the transmission of this disease. It is not about a proportionate response. It's about doing as much as you possibly can in the context of an exponential graph when the graph is as flat as possible, because every single transmission makes dealing with this problem so much harder in health terms and also in economic terms.
The stimulus which we support today is really important. Obviously, we have made criticisms of the fact—with a similar principle—that payments we would see in April, May or even July are not being made right now. They should be. We should be really careful about how we treat superannuation. This is not the time to be selling in superannuation. We need to be thinking about responses which enable employers to maintain their relationship with their workforce and actually to keep them on. That said, the urgency of the moment requires the supporting of this bill, and so we do. But we also need to understand this: the stimulus package is dealing with a symptom of the disease. If we want to deal with an economic shock which is caused by a virus, then we must deal with the virus itself.
I acknowledge in advance all of those who work in our essential industries—in food distribution, in logistics and in emergency services—and within our Defence Forces, who are going to be called to do much work in the coming weeks and months. I particularly want to acknowledge those who work in our health sector and those who provide services in-home to our most vulnerable—our elderly and our disabled—because it is you who are going to bear the brunt of this crisis over the coming months. The Anzac spirit has been invoked today—rightly so—but it's those who wear the uniform of health who actually carry this spirit forward. Our hearts are absolutely with you at this moment. We think about all of those who are experiencing pain right now: those who have already lost their jobs, those who are queuing up at Centrelink offices and those who have visited loved ones in aged-care centres, perhaps wondering whether they have visited them for the last time. I particularly acknowledge those who work in the aged-care sector: you are looking after the people we care most about.
Not for a moment do we underestimate the complexity of this issue which is facing the government. The Prime Minister, the health minister, the Treasurer and, indeed, the entirety of the government face an enormous burden. Fate has dealt them the fortune of dealing with one of the greatest crises that our country has seen. They wear a very heavy burden—but, actually, all of us do. All of us wear that burden in supporting the government through this.
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We… will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The … trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.
Those words were spoken almost 160 years ago by America's greatest President in the midst of America's greatest ordeal, and they highlight the burden which is upon all of us in dealing with this challenge. Our hearts are heavy with its responsibility. But I know that every person in this chamber pledges themselves to the cause of our nation and seeing Australia through one of the greatest ordeals in our history.
In our response to this crisis we must remember, first and foremost, one thing: that it is about people. Sometimes when we talk about the economy we talk about figures and macro numbers. But, at the end of the day, this is about our people—maintaining the health of our people amidst the coronavirus epidemic but also then maintaining their economic health and wellbeing as people. What we know about humanity is the central role that having a job plays, not just in terms of your income but also in terms of your identity—who you are and being able to participate in and contribute to society. That's why Labor has approached this crisis with an eye firmly on just one thing—not on politics, but on one thing: maximising people's health and maximising their economic wellbeing. We have put partisanship aside and we will continue to do so.
That's why we will support the legislation that is before us today, the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020 and related bills. This is not the legislation that a Labor government would introduce. A Labor government would, for a start, be acting with more urgency. A Labor government would have reconvened this parliament last week, not this week. A Labor government would have been making payments not with an eye for the $750 of it kicking in in the next quarter; we would have been putting money into people's pockets to spend immediately we made that announcement.
But this government always has an eye on the politics—always. That's why we on this side haven't been invited to participate in the so-called national cabinet. That's really just COAG phone hook-ups—and I note the rather bizarre spin put out by this government on that in today's newspaper. I certainly don't take it personally. It's the right of the government to determine these matters—and it has, consistent with the approach that this government takes to participation.
Our actions stand in stark contrast to the actions of the then coalition opposition during the global financial crisis. I don't resile from that, because that's all on the record—the dozens of divisions that we had late into the night, with them opposing protecting people's jobs and them opposing economic stimulus, which they said was too great. Well, let me say this: we are all Keynesians now, and the government's rhetoric on Labor's economic record should be consigned to the dustbin of history, as should their nonsense about the impact of what we did to protect jobs, which, yes, did result, therefore, in us not bringing down budget surpluses. Their hubris which said that we were already in surplus, I think, should cause them some embarrassment, but it should also cause them, I would hope, an opportunity to reflect on the damage that that rhetorical position has, because it leads to errors of judgement, which is why last year—when this economy was suffering from stagnant wages, falling consumer demand, three interest rate cuts, cuts to the projections of economic growth, and rising underemployment up to two million—this government did not act throughout that, because it was focused on the politics rather than what the economics required.
We will be supporting this package in spite of the weakness that we see, because, in my electorate of Grayndler in the inner west of Sydney right now, there's something unusual going on that will remind people, in a strange kind of way, of what's happening in our economy. There are people queuing outside Centrelink, which is just down from my electorate office. It goes around the corner to Illawarra Road. There are people queuing in Leichhardt Centrelink office as well. But there's something else happening, which is that there's silence above their heads. If you know Marrickville, where I live and work and which I represent, you'll know that there are normally, at this point in time, 70 movements an hour above people's heads, and every one of them will have an impact on my electorate. But it's pretty quiet. That's the silence of job losses that people can't hear but can feel. It's having an impact right now. We are losing jobs right now with the downturn. So our thoughts go out to the baggage handlers, the flight crews, the cleaners, the check-in staff and the caterers—the airport staff. Sydney Airport is the largest driver of employment in my electorate. There are some in the Greens party and others who say, 'Shut Sydney Airport.' I've always defended it as a creator of jobs, and I've been consistent in that, with regard to economic activity across the board.
We think of those people who are really doing it tough today. Qantas's decision to stand down 20,000 workers from one company in one day had an enormous impact. If you reflect on what that human impact does and multiply it—be conservative and say each one of them has a dependent partner and one child—you're talking about 60,000 people impacted by that decision, with one company. You need to think of all the hospitality workers who will struggle to keep their jobs. We need to think of all those people. I have a big representation of the arts community—all those musos, producers and people working in theatre and film who will not be able to perform. We think of those teachers who are doing their best—with uncertain messages coming through, it's got to be said, but who are absolutely devoted to making the lives of the young people they teach better in the future. We think of every cafe owner who's suddenly got a whole lot of bills but no customers, and every older Australian who's already very anxious because they know that this disease can impact anyone and can cause significant health impact for anyone—including young people, but we know that older people are particularly vulnerable. And now they have been denied even the consolation of a cuddle with their grandkids. I note the very moving comments by my friend and colleague Jim Chalmers on Insiders yesterday about the measures he's had to take with his own very young children and their respective grandparents.
This is having just an enormous impact, and that's why we in Labor won't stand in the way of this legislation. But we do say that throughout this period we've sought to point out the gaps and inconsistencies. We note there's been some change from the government since yesterday—I think in part because of our advocacy about when some of the payments will be made available—but not enough. We need to get this money out the door. Just like for the health impacts, the sooner we act the better it is, the more effective it is. We know that occurred in our response to the global financial crisis. Those $900 cheques, much derided by those opposite, were successful in creating that confidence in the economy. We know there are no guarantees that the business support mechanisms will ensure that people are kept in work. We know, in fact, there are no incentives to keep people on because of the way that it's been designed. We know that, as a proportion of peoples' wages, it's far less than what comparable industrialised nations are doing. In the UK, there is an 80 per cent subsidy; here, effectively, there is a 20 per cent subsidy but with no guarantee at all that that 20 per cent will flow through to any employee being kept on, so we know that's a weak strategy. At the same time, the government are incentivising people to diminish their future retirement incomes by drawing down on their super at the worst possible time for that to occur. Once again, the government never miss an opportunity to undermine our compulsory superannuation system that they opposed when it was introduced and have sought to undermine at every opportunity.
We know that during the recent bushfire crisis, we saw the best of Australia—friend helping friend, neighbour helping neighbour, stranger helping stranger. We know that people in the rural fire services, in particular the volunteers, went out of their way to help. As I went around the country, when I was with Susan in the electorate of Macquarie, her brigades had been up in Tenterfield, up on the North Coast and then afterwards were also down the South Coast. Throughout the country, we saw the best of Australia, and I hope that's what we see here as well.
I also say to the government that one of the things put to me last week when I had a business roundtable with the member for Eden-Monaro, Mike Kelly, in Bega and the mayor of Bega Valley, Christie McBain, was that businesses were very concerned that they would be forgotten. These communities have suffered so much since last year for a prolonged period of time. We know the government budgeted its support package for just one-quarter of the notional $2 billion to go out in this financial year. It's beyond my comprehension why that one-quarter remains the case, in spite of the fact that we have such a substantial stimulus package before us that we're supporting today. It is beyond my comprehension how that can be acceptable—that three-quarters of it is put off into the never-never. These communities have suffered now a double whammy. They're now affected by the coronavirus just as much as anyone else, and I'd say that the government needs to—and I know there will be more packages—have a look at those measures.
But we will support this. We will be moving amendments that are constructive, that would improve the package and help government to get it right. We know that we need to act with the greatest urgency. Time is not on our side. We can't take anything for granted. But I am confident that we can come through this. We can come through this together, but I'd urge the government to listen to our constructive proposals, amend their package to improve their package, and Australia will be better off for it—our health will be better but our economy will be better as well.
I'd start by moving an amendment to the second reading amendment that was moved by the member for Rankin. I move:
That the following words be added:
''(6) there is no conditionality on assistance measures to business to keep workers employed; and
(7) calls on the Government to legislate for a mechanism that provides sufficient incentive for employers to keep employees in work''
A few weeks ago we were talking about the need to make sure that casuals self-isolated. We knew there was a risk at that exact point, prior to the government providing the enhanced Newstart payment, that a very large number of people in insecure work were going to be faced with the decision to either protect the health of their fellow workers, if they were told to self-isolate, or hide their symptoms because they needed to make sure they could pay the bills. We've been making the case for that for weeks. We called for parliament to sit last week.
In that time countless casuals have faced the choice and an unknown number of them went to work anyway. It's not just casuals. It's gig workers. It's people with insecure work. It's freelancers. It's sole traders who are in a situation of having to choose between the health of their fellow workers and making sure that they could pay the bills. This is why the opposition has been saying we need to move quickly, because today we're making a decision about the Newstart payment where we would have had a better public health situation had that decision been made in this parliament a week or two weeks ago. And in the gap we don't know the impact that it's had on the spread of this virus, but we know it was one of the factors that was determined early, that was pointed out early, to which there was a fix and we have waited until today for that to occur.
Today, given the spread, we are now in a situation where we are facing something much graver than whether or not people get two weeks leave. We are now in a circumstance where we are watching people on a mass scale lose their jobs and we are facing a very different period of unemployment to how unemployment has previously hit Australia during periods of downturn.
Normally you've got a broad economic downturn and you can try to keep people in jobs. But if the company is not going to make it, it's not going to make it. Here we have a downturn caused by deliberate conscious decisions of government. Now we don't argue with those decisions. We argue that some of them should have been made earlier, but the fact that those decisions have been made is not something we object to. But that has meant that businesses are now folding not because they weren't viable but because there's been a government decision that they must close their doors, and more of those decisions are coming. That means, instead of the normal situation of saying, 'Okay, more people are going to be on unemployment benefits and we'll try to stimulate,' this is a situation where, at the end of this, we want people to return to the same job with the same employer in the same business and, during this period, to have been able to stay in their own home. That's what we're wanting to do. If people simply move from work to welfare, they won't be in a situation where they've retained the relationship with their employer, and a whole lot of people won't be in a situation where they've been able to maintain the payment of those bills.
If you look at what the government has designed, they keep explaining it by saying that, because it's based on withholding tax, they have linked assistance to business to whether or not they are employing people, but that's not how they've designed it. The way it has been designed is that a business gets paid this quarter based on their payroll last quarter. If you have two businesses with the same withholding tax but one of them sacks all its workforce this quarter and the other keeps all of its workforce on, they get the same payment. That's not a way of keeping people in work. Yes, we acknowledge that businesses need the support right now, and we welcome that, but let's not pretend that that's a policy that will keep people in work. If a business has been told that they have to close their doors because of social isolation—and we are all getting calls from these businesses right now working on what on earth they're going to do—if they've no money coming in and they're told, 'The government will provide a small percentage subsidy of their workforce', a 20 per cent subsidy doesn't do the trick. Why do we say a 20 per cent subsidy? This is the other bit of messaging that the government uses—which, I've got to say, is great messaging but doesn't help with understanding—'They will now provide back 100 per cent of the withholding tax.' But what does 100 per cent mean for a payroll? If you're a high-wage earner, that's probably still only 40 per cent of your overall income. For the median wage, it's only 20 per cent of the income. Places like the United Kingdom right now are saying to employers, 'We will provide an 80 per cent wage subsidy so that workers stay with you and so that you can keep them on even in your most difficult hours', while Australia is saying, 'We'll provide a 20 per cent subsidy for people on the median wage, and, in fact we'll pay it based on who you used to employ, not on who you employ now.'
The government may come back and fix this in a few weeks time, but every day we are seeing livelihoods destroyed. The Prime Minister has settled on a mantra of 'We're not going to panic', but we're not saying panic; we're just saying act. The businesses that have been told to shut down are not going to wait a few weeks before they make a decision as to whether or not they keep on their workforce. The Centrelink queues today around Australia show that.
The other part of this, to try to keep people on at this time, is what the government's doing with respect to compulsory superannuation. They're encouraging people to sell at the bottom of the market, knowing full well that those individuals, who are the ultimate in-distress sellers, are being forced into that situation because not enough other support is forthcoming from the government. They're in a situation where their retirement will be permanently damaged by decisions made today.
I've heard those opposite talk about sending the bill to future generations. There is no greater example of sending the bill to future generations than encouraging people to take out their super at a time when they're distressed, when they're at the bottom of the market. That's before you get to the knock-on impacts it has on investment across industry.
I also, in the time remaining, want to say a little bit about my portfolio with respect to the arts. The arts and entertainment industries feed into the hospitality industry and, combined, are worth about $50 billion to the Australian economy. These are people who work gig to gig. They work event to event. They work festival to festival. In the course of one half-hour media conference, they watched their next six months of income disappear—that is, half a year's income gone in a half-hour media conference. They need a focused package and the government does not yet have one. When times are tough, we turn to them. And, I'll tell you, at the bushfire concerts that were held, the artists were all asked to perform for free, and they did. Pretty much a whole series of people working that day were still paid. We all just accept that we have to pay the technical people and we have to pay the security people, but let's ask the artists to work for free. We ask them to and they do. They stand up when we need them. Right now, they are relying on us to stand up for them, and we don't yet have a package that does that.
In a letter that I received, someone raised with me this very simple situation: she has a dependent son, she has $1,000 to her name, she has no work for the next six months and the rent where she's living is $560 a week. Do the maths and try to work out how that individual is going to now get by. We need something specific for this sector. And we need to focus on the mental health issues for that sector and the entire country. I am yet to hear a large mental health package coming out of this, at least for the arts sector. Please, if something happens, don't go past the organisation Support Act. Work with organisations that workers are used to dealing with and that are tailored. The mental health challenges of the mass unemployment that we are now facing are extraordinary.
Finally—this leads into the whole story—we've heard the shadow Treasurer say many times that we entered this crisis with less resilience than we should have because of softness in the economy. The arts sector entered this crisis with less resilience than it should have had because of years of cuts. Our aged-care system has entered this with a lack of resilience; that's why we're having a royal commission. The high levels of casualisation, gig workers, insecure workers and people who have no entitlement to leave mean we are entering this with less resilience than we should have. And the habit that has developed in this government of rejecting facts that are demonstrably true is without a doubt part of the story of Australians not taking this as seriously when we need them to. We have entered this with less resilience than we should have. We now need the government to come forward with something stronger than what we have right now, because, if this is it, then the Australian economy and Australian lives are about to go through a period that nobody should wish for, and for many of them there are many aspects of it that we can avoid.
We know that this is an unprecedented health crisis. Tragically, seven Australians have lost their lives, and more will do so before this ends. The number of positive cases is doubling every three days. We have a lot to do to contain this outbreak.
From the outset, Labor has sought to take a constructive approach to our engagement on both the health and the economic response. The health response must lead, but they are inextricably linked. That includes highlighting the deficiencies in the government's approach and injecting a sense of urgency that, frankly, has been lacking for too long. We will maintain the spirit of bipartisanship, but, as the alternate government, we must urge the government to do more and to do better.
On the health response, I urge the government to increase the level of testing of suspected COVID-19 cases, in line with the World Health Organization advice. Test, test, test! We should be testing every symptomatic person, quarantining positive cases in our hospital system, isolating all traceable contacts and introducing more and more social distancing measures. We absolutely have to do this, and we need to do it urgently.
I also urge the government to work with suppliers and our freight industry to improve the stocks of personal protective equipment, and to get these out to our health clinics as a matter of priority. The fever clinics being facilitated by the primary health networks need to be set up by next week—not May, as the government initially indicated. It is pleasing that the government has taken onboard Labor's calls to extend telehealth, but its response still falls far short of making sure that everyone can access health consultations by phone or video. The key response to the health crisis revolves around the rapid increases in social distancing and in travel restrictions to limit the spread of this virus. Everyone should be able to access medical advice from home at this time. People's lives depend on the government getting this right.
It is equally important that the government improves its communication with the Australian people. The mixed messages over the past fortnight have left Australians confused at this time of heightened stress and uncertainty. We know that, to limit the spread and to give us the best chance of getting through this, Australians must follow advice and limit their social contact. It is vital that the Australian government provide clear, consistent and simple advice. There have been times when this advice has not been consistent; the issue with schools is a clear case in point.
We know that the travel restrictions and social distancing measures so necessary for public health will have, and are having, a devastating impact on our economy and the livelihoods of so many Australian workers. For so many regional communities, this comes off the back of the devastating bushfires of this summer. Cruelly, these local communities had just started their long path to recovery. But, unlike a typical natural disaster, the COVID-19 outbreak and the necessary travel restrictions are not limited by geography.
Some of our biggest service sectors, including aviation, tourism, hospitality and the arts, have effectively shut down—not just this past week, when the government quite rightly intervened to take further social distancing measures; they had slowed down because of the lack of people travelling and the lack of people coming into our country to visit our tourism sectors, sectors that employ so many Australian workers both in our major cities and right across our regions. Casual workers have been told simply not to go back to work tomorrow, as there is no work for them. Permanent workers have been stood down without pay and asked to take all of their leave entitlements, with no guarantee that they will have any pay. Sole traders and small businesses have been left with absolutely nothing but rent and other bills to pay. Every one of these workers performs an important role in our economy and in our society. They put food on their families' tables, they help educate their children and they help keep other Australians employed as their wages and funds recycle through the economy and employ other people.
The priority for everyone in this place must be to support all of those Australian workers, to make sure that they still have work when we get through this. That's why yesterday's announcements are welcome. But they are clearly insufficient on a number of fronts. Firstly, they don't do enough to protect jobs and to support continuity of employment through this crisis. There is no guarantee that the cash provided to businesses will go to retaining staff or to their wages, maintaining that critical connection with employment and their employer. We have to contrast it with what the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has done, in terms of wage subsidies, and—I never thought I would be saying this of a Tory prime minister—the determination he has had to ensure that connection to employment and that people get paid. When we contrast that with this package, we know that this government is falling far short of where it needs to be.
Most likely, we know, most of the money going to business is going to be spent on rent. We know that because we are hearing that every single hour, through our electorate offices, as people with small businesses are ringing up, saying: 'What do I do? I want to keep my staff on but I've also got all of these other expenses, and there is no relief for this.' But the amount of money provided in this package is clearly inadequate for people in small business to be able to both pay their rent and their outgoings and also continue to keep their workers connected to their business.
Unlike in other developed countries, very little of this direct support flows straight to households and to workers, and when it does, in fact, it's often too late. Business support does not kick in until April. The second supplement for pensioners is not paid until July. It's only after Labor raised this point that the income support measures will now kick in, as we understand it, on royal assent to these bills, not in late April as the government was saying yesterday and as originally planned. How on earth they thought the people who are queuing up today in their droves at Centrelink offices could wait for any money until April is absolutely beyond me. Many struggling households could miss out on support, particularly given that there has been no change to the income support test for Newstart, or the new jobseeker payment as it's called. Where one partner loses employment but the other is just above the income test, the family will not receive any assistance through the jobseeker payment at all.
Instead, the government's answer for many of these workers is to access funds from their superannuation accounts. Labor is particularly concerned about the government's approach here. In the same announcement yesterday, the government acknowledged that withdrawing superannuation now will crystallise losses with its reduction to the minimum draw-down requirements for retirees, not to mention that the average superannuation balance for someone in their early 30s was recently as low as $33,000 for women and $43,000 for men, before the recent market slump. These workers will lose half or more of the current balance of their retirement savings if they have to bail themselves out. Such a withdrawal not only crystallises losses from the current market slump but reduces an individual's retirement savings by many thousands of dollars as a result of lost interest earnings over the coming decades. Young people who have to resort to this measure will be paying for this in their retirement. They will absolutely be doing so.
Moving into the specifics of my portfolio, particularly our transport sector and in our regions: over the past week, our airlines have grounded most of their fleets in response to the rolling increases in travel restrictions, social distancing measures and the slump in tourism. Further capacity reductions will be announced as a result of the Prime Minister's announcements yesterday. Qantas has stood down 20,000 workers, two-thirds of its workforce. Virgin is likely to take similarly drastic steps, and regional carriers, led by Rex but including many other smaller carriers, are reducing capacity and have publicly expressed concerns about cash flow and that they may well go to the wall. Our airports, which rely on passenger movement for their financial viability and employ more than 200,000 Australians, are also being affected dramatically by the slowdown.
To those workers in our aviation industry facing an uncertain time: we hear you. We want you to be supported through this period so you can play your role in rebuilding this vital industry once travel restrictions are lifted. The current structure of two major airlines with budget partners and sustainable regional carriers is critical for hundreds of thousands of jobs in our airlines, airports and associated industries. It is critical for competition for consumers. We cannot make any guarantees from opposition, but I can assure everyone in this sector that we will maintain pressure on the government to better support you and your industry.
I have twice written to the Deputy Prime Minister and minister for transport requesting sector-specific support for the aviation sector. While Labor welcomed the government's aviation package worth up to $715 million announced last week, we note that it is not enough. With fleets grounded, waiving fees and charges incurred when flying is clearly not going to help with cash flow constraints, because airlines are not flying. As a major employer, the aviation sector need sufficient access to cash over coming months to continue their scaled-back services for essential travel and freight and to maintain employment for as many of their staff as possible.
The government's small-business package announced yesterday will provide assistance for cash flow for some of the smaller regional airlines. While the economy-wide loan limit of $250,000 is a good start for some of the smaller regional airlines, frankly, when you look at the scale of some of the larger airlines, they're obviously not going to be eligible, nor will it be sufficient. Our aviation industry has connected regional Australians to our cities and our country to the world for over 100 years. It has gone through many changes in this time. We know that the government needs to redouble its efforts and work with our airlines to ensure that the current structure of the aviation industry is maintained beyond this aviation crisis.
Our freight and logistics supply chain sectors, both on land and sea, are also playing a really critical role in this time of crisis. There have been significant decreases in container freight out of China, impacting on jobs and supply chains from stevedores to ground transport. While reports are this is beginning to turn around, and there's been an increase in home deliveries, the downturn is hurting many owner-drivers and, of course, casuals. Again, the government must ensure that this sector is absolutely looked after.
On the area of regional development, so many of our regions have been deeply affected over the past fortnight. Increases in social distancing taking effect today will shut down many of our businesses. I note that yesterday the government quietly moved the $1 billion fund for disproportionately affected regions and communities from the trade portfolio to the regional development portfolio. The fund was created in the first stimulus package 10 days ago. I understand that the guidelines are yet to be finalised and that just 10 per cent of the fund is set to flow this financial year. The fund could and should help support the livelihoods of many Australians right now across regional Australia. I ask the government, particularly the Deputy Prime Minister, to urgently clarify the purpose of the fund and outline transparent decision-making processes for the allocation of this $1 billion fairly across affected regions. Regional economies, from my home town of Ballarat to Cairns in Far North Queensland, could benefit from this funding immediately and urgently. We cannot leave it too late, and it must be allocated fairly and transparently.
Over the next few months, as the crisis continues, we will face very, very tough times. People will feel alone, uncertain and afraid. These times will be easier and they will pass sooner if we look out for each other, support those in need and stand by all members of the community. I say to the people of Ballarat: my office will remain open for as long as it is safe to do so, regardless of whether we are there physically. We will be available by telephone and email to assist anybody who needs it. We will be particularly reaching out to the vulnerable in our community.
I want to conclude by thanking particularly the teachers in my community. I'm here today, being able to do my job, because you are doing yours looking after my 11-year-old son. Your dedication to our children as we get through this is so very, very much appreciated. To the healthcare workers across the community: we cannot thank you enough. In the days, weeks and months ahead you're at the front line of dealing with this pandemic. We must give you the space and the support to do so. (Time expired)
I rise to speak to the second reading amendment. First and foremost I want to reiterate the comments made by the Leader of the Opposition and fellow colleagues that Labor is supportive of the government's economic response in the two major packages which are being legislated in the bills before the House. From the outset of this health and economic crisis Labor has sought to, and will continue to, work responsibly and constructively with the government, including the passage of this legislation before the parliament. Labor will facilitate the passage of the bills to implement the measures that require legislation. While there are some welcome provisions in this package, as we've made clear, Labor is concerned that this response lacks urgency, leaves gaps in support and does not go far enough to protect jobs.
A key concern for Labor is that there is no guarantee that the support announced by the government for small and medium enterprises will actually get to workers. No measure announced today guarantees that support will be used to keep workers on, as outlined earlier by the Manager of Opposition Business. We are also concerned that the measure to boost cash flow for employers does not offer a substantive incentive and is not sufficiently linked to retain workers. Everyone in this place knows how important maintaining the link between employers and employees is, particularly during this unprecedented crisis, so that when it is finally over work can continue and businesses can build back up. It is a connection that is vital for society and indeed for economic growth.
What we are seeing at the present moment is businesses being told to shut down by governments to rightly contain the outbreak, but I don't believe the flow-on impact of that closure instruction has been sufficiently thought through. Businesses that are being told to shut down will immediately lose cash flow. These businesses have no idea how long they will be ordered to shut down for. How can they possibly budget for the future when they don't know how long they will be affected for?
In contrast to Australia, comparable countries are maintaining the link between the incentive and indeed the retention of employees. As other speakers have already said, in the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister announced that wages would be subsidised up to 80 per cent of median wages and conditional on the business maintaining the employment of those workers. I also understand that the wage subsidy will apply to firms where employers have already laid off workers due to the coronavirus as long as they are brought back into the workforce instead of being granted a leave of absence.
In New Zealand, our near neighbour, the government is offering COVID-19 affected businesses a subsidy of $585.80 per week for full-time employees who have 20 hours or more, and $350 a week for part-time employees. Businesses receiving the grant must make their best effort to retain employees and pay them a minimum of 80 per cent of their normal income for the subsidised period. However, Australia's approach—the government's approach—appears to fall much shorter in many instances. Look at a basic example: if a small or medium enterprise is employing staff at roughly around the median employee income of $50,000—meaning each year that employer will withhold about $7,800 in income tax—that is about $1,950 a quarter, or per BAS statement per employee. But that withholding is only 15.5 per cent—well below the UK's 80 per cent subsidy—and, in many instances, especially with the type of SME hit by the crisis, such as hospitality and tourism, wages of casuals and part-time workers may be much lower and therefore have a much lower effective tax rate. The government is yet to clarify what incentive is in the measure to retain employees the day after the March quarter BAS statement is reported. I'm concerned that as early as 1 April some marginal businesses may receive a cashflow measure but, because the subsidy is so low, will retrench their staff.
Labor notes that the cashflow measure is based on lodging BAS statements and the information about pay-as-you-go withholding for employees. This will result in cashflow funds not getting paid mid- to late April—possibly a month or more after the initial measure proposed. Again, frankly: too little, too slow. In addition, we hold concerns that cashflow assistance to business will arrive too late and will not help otherwise viable businesses most at risk of collapse. We need this government to learn from the mistakes made in getting cash to businesses during the bushfires. The money for bushfire affected businesses is not getting out the door. When cash flow is king, the need for speed is critical.
One of our key concerns is that there's a lack of urgency in the rollout of these otherwise welcome measures. Businesses, workers, families and pensioners need support right now, not in a month's time or in four months time. Too many of these measures don't even kick in until the end of April. Some of them don't kick in until May and others, like the second support payment for pensioners, until July. Just two weeks ago, I was on Kangaroo Island for my second visit, talking to local businesses severely directly and indirectly affected by the fires, and what was abundantly clear was they were still struggling because the support, although promised, had not reached them. This cannot happen again. This cannot happen now and not on this scale across the nation. I'm also concerned about the package lacking more substantial support for sole traders and the self-employed to help them stay in business. Sole traders appear to be forced into seeking the jobseeker payment or seek an early release of superannuation. Those who are eligible to receive the coronavirus supplement or who have had their income or hours significantly reduced as a sole trader are eligible to withdraw from their superannuation $10,000 in this financial year and a further $10,000 in the next financial year. This risks undermining retirement incomes and compromising financial system stability and should have only been used as a last resort.
I am concerned about the lack of sufficient support and planning for essential and strategic industries. That includes but is not limited to the airline industry—as the member for Ballarat just talked about—the childcare sector, the arts and others. In fact, I think the government may need to consider planning in several areas that will support industry specific measures, and that might be something the government is considering. I'm talking to industry stakeholders about what their specific needs are and I'm very happy to talk to my counterparts in government—the minister for industry, the minister for employment and other ministers if need be—about those industry specific matters that may have to be considered in light of the huge challenge that confronts the nation.
I think over the coming weeks the government will need to consider buying equity as a form of crisis business support in key businesses and industries, with conditionality. It is something that should be on the table. It should be considered. The merits of it should be considered, but it should be something that the government is open to considering. Although Australians understand the severity of the crisis, in-kind transfers and cash bailouts are unlikely to be popular and are less likely to align the incentives of that firm and their shareholders with broader economic outcomes such as income support for workers. As such, I call on the government to consider equity in exchange for any bailouts for large and medium enterprises as something that should be part of the fiscal weaponry that the government considers, depending upon the nature of each industry and the need at the time. But it is something the government needs to remain open to.
I also think the government will need to detail how Crown use of patents may be invoked, particularly for use for repurposed manufacturing businesses, to address shortages of essential goods impacted by disrupted supply chains. This really is a very important matter. Chapter 17 of the Patents Act allows exploitation of patent for government services in a crisis. These provisions were recently strengthened in a bill that received bipartisan support. These provisions include compensation for patent holders and an ability to override compensation if necessitated by an emergency. I have written to the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology inquiring as to whether the government had explored using this provision, particularly for urgent manufacturing of suppliers, such as facial masks or goods in short supply due to disrupted supply chains. With a high degree of uncertainty about the supply of certain goods and a potentially drawn-out disruption to supply chains, Labor publicly wants to raise this issue as a matter that should be properly considered.
To meet the scale of this challenge, the government's response must be large enough, must be deployed more quickly than it has been to date and must be targeted enough to support livelihoods and prevent more job losses, business failures and a more serious economic downturn. Indeed, Labor are concerned that the federal government's latest response has not substantially addressed some gaps we identified in the original stimulus and has raised additional concerns which we will work through with the government, including dealing with these very important matters that I have just touched on. This unfolding economic crisis demands urgency, scale and coordination, but the government's initial—and subsequent—response has come too slowly and wasn't large enough.
As the Leader of the Opposition, the Labor leader, said at this dispatch box today: 'We will work closely with the government. We will not impede the passage of any legislation.' But the government, in turn, should work cooperatively with us and should consider the propositions that we are putting in this place to the government. They are put in good faith, and the government should consider them in that manner and should accept, in part or whole, some of those propositions, if they believe they are merit worthy—if they believe that they will add to and improve upon the package the government is considering.
These issues that go to strategic support for certain industries—really reconsidering the incentive to businesses to retain staff, because we believe that is a fundamental deficiency—are vital matters that the government would do well to consider in this debate and, hopefully, they will accept the amendments that we're moving today. It may well be the case they choose not to do that, but I'm afraid that if that is the case we may well be back here again quicker than we think.
As other speakers have said, as the Prime Minister and the opposition leader have said, we're in unprecedented times. I know every member in this place is dealing with the anxiety of their electorate, and I'm in no different a position to that. I want to thank, as others have done, the frontline staff in my electorate and, indeed, across the country: the remarkable health workers who go on and get to work each day to administer health for people who are at risk or, indeed, contagious. They are, of course, doing an heroic thing, and we should applaud them and, indeed, other workers, too: essential service workers; truck drivers, who are bringing wholesale goods to retailers; retail staff, who are sometimes dealing with angry and anxious shoppers, and having to do that and at the same time be worried about their own health; those who work in aged care—a very vulnerable cohort of people, as we know; and those teachers who look after our children. Again, I'd like to thank the teachers in my electorate in all of the schools. I'd like to personally thank Nicole Camilleri, who looks after my daughter when I come here to parliament in the evenings. She does that every week I'm in parliament, but I particularly want to thank her and her family for helping me personally.
These are difficult times and difficult measures. We ask the government to consider what we're putting sincerely. I think that if they do we'll have a better package that will protect the interests of this nation—its economic and health wellbeing.
Australians are anxious. They're worried. Many are panicked and frightened. I see that in my own local area. I see it in the tussle over toilet paper at Coles and Woolworths. I see it in the fight that broke out at Bass Hill Woolworths only a week or so ago. But it's important to note that it's not all Australians. Most people that I run into at the shops are calm and kind and polite. They know what they have to do and they're doing it. What they need from us here is information: clear and consistent information. What they need from us, what they need from all of us, is leadership. I know that the government is under a lot of pressure. The decisions that they've already made and that they will make in the weeks ahead will determine how bad this crisis gets and how many Australians this virus kills.
When this is all over, we'll be judged not by how many people lose their jobs but by how many people lose their lives. That's the ultimate test that we all face. This economic package that we're debating here is important. If it works it will help to keep a lot of businesses on life support over the next few months, but there's something even more important here, and that's the number of Australians who end up in hospital on life support. The fact is that the faster this virus runs through the community, the more people will die. It's as simple as that. At the moment, the number of people infected is doubling every three days. If too many people get it too quickly, the hospital system will get overrun, we'll run out of respirators and other life support equipment and more people will die. That's why it's important to get the big calls right: the lives of Australians depend on us. It's important we as members of parliament support the government when they get those calls right, that we provide constructive help to the government on how to make the decisions that they've already made better and that we urge the government to take more action where we think it is needed. If we do that, we'll make a more important contribution as an opposition than almost any opposition in the history of this parliament. And that's what we are doing every day.
That's what we're doing with this legislation. We're supporting it not because we think it is perfect but because it's urgent. Our main concern is that it doesn't go far enough and that it doesn't get the money to the people who need it quickly enough. The assistance for business isn't available for another month. The changes to deeming rates won't come into effect until May. There are payments for pensioners and veterans and others that won't arrive until the middle of July. It's too long. This crisis is happening now, and it requires the fierce urgency of now. So we urge the government to get this help to the people who need it faster.
There's also a bit of confusion over who gets access to this financial support. The finance minister said this morning that, if someone loses their job and their partner earns $70,000, they'll still get access to the jobseeker payment. That's not right. Under these laws, if your partner earns more than $1,858.50 a fortnight, or about $48,000 a year, you're not eligible for the payment. That's just one example of one of the problems that we think need to get fixed. There are lots of people who are going to lose their job. A lot of them work in pubs and clubs, and the decision made last night is going to force a lot of them into Centrelink queues. For example, at Bankstown Sports Club, in the heart of my electorate, 500 people were stood down today and another 120 have been made redundant. That doesn't count the 300 cleaners and restaurant staff and security workers who are contractors there. That's just one club. Multiply that right across the country. As I speak now, the line at Bankstown Centrelink is already around the corner and getting longer. I'll think about all of those people today.
I said last week that Coles put an ad online for 5,000 jobs and the next day they got applications from 36,000 people. That's in one day. They normally get 800 applications a day. That day they got 36,000. I can only imagine how many more applications they get today. All of these people are going to struggle to pay their bills, and we've got to give them all the support we can. That means money to put food on the table now—not tomorrow, not in another week, not in another month, but now.
It also includes passing laws to stop people who rent from being evicted now. I called for this last week and I'm glad to hear that the national cabinet is working on this and that the states are going to pass laws to make sure people aren't thrown out on the street because they've lost their job and they can't pay the rent. This is urgent. It has to happen fast. No-one should lose the home that they own or rent because of the virus. The same thing has to happen with utility bills: no-one should have their electricity cut off or their gas cut off or their water cut off or their phone cut off when they can't pay the bill because of the virus.
More also needs to be done to help specific industries. There are obvious ones that have been mentioned already in this debate, like tourism and hospitality, but there are also ones that are not so obvious. Let me give you one example: pathology services. It's counterintuitive. You'd think that pathology services across Australia would be flat out right now doing coronavirus testing, and they are. But they're not run off their feet. Why? Because people who usually go to the doctor to get a blood test aren't going. The only people who are going to the doctor at the moment are the people who think they have COVID-19. Last week, pathology businesses right across Australia were down 30 or 40 per cent. That risks two things: (1) people in Australia that are already sick will get sicker, and (2) these businesses—the pathology services that we're going to rely on in the months ahead to test and find out who has the coronavirus—risk going under unless they get help from the government. I know talks on this front are going on. It's important that they do, because we can't let our pathology services go under at any time, let alone now, with everything that's going on.
The Prime Minister describes this as a war' and he's right. It is a war; it's a world war. We're fighting an invisible army marching relentlessly across the globe. Every country will be affected, every country will be infected, and after it is all over there'll be two types of countries: the quick and the dead. The faster countries react, the fewer the citizens who will die. I worry that we're not acting quickly enough: that we weren't quick enough to shut down our borders, to test people getting off planes and cruise ships, and to stop large gatherings of people; that we haven't set up the emergency fever clinics quickly enough; and that we haven't had enough clear information on TV, in every ad break, quickly enough. I hope I'm wrong about all of that but, ultimately, history will be the judge. In the meantime, I want to thank the people who are really on the front line of this—the doctors and nurses, the scientists, the specialists, and all of the allied health workers—who can see this invisible wave coming at them and are getting ready for it. They are burdened with one of most important tasks in the history of this country. What they do in the next few months, more than anything that we do here, will determine how many lives we save. Knowing that, I want to thank them now and implore them, when it gets hard, when it gets really hard, to keep going.
I also want to thank the people who work in our schools, the people who work in our aged-care centres, the people who work with disabled Australians, and the people who help homeless Australians—people who don't have a home to self-isolate in—delivering food to people in need. Many of them are volunteers, like my friend Hilton Harmer. He has been a volunteer with the Salvation Army for over 40 or 50 years. He's in his 80s now and his health is not the best, but he's out there every day providing to the underprivileged—providing food, beds, furniture, clothing and help where it's needed. He told me that this isn't going to stop him, that he's not going to give up. All of these people are on the front line too. So are the workers at Woolies and Coles, at Bass Hill and Chullora and in supermarkets right across the country. They deserve our thanks today and every day, and they deserve our kindness and our calmness. Ultimately, that's what will get us through this: washing our hands, keeping our distance from each other, listening to what the people with the stethoscopes around their neck tell us to do, and being kind to each other and being our best selves here in this place and right across the country.
I should start by saying that I wish to move an amendment that has been circulated in my name. I move:
That the following words be added after paragraph (7):
"(8)(a) every Australian deserves a dignified retirement;
(b) Australians are proud of our world-class superannuation system;
(c) drawing down on superannuation when the market is at historic lows will have negative implications for most Australians, and should only be an option of last resort; and
(d) the administrative arrangements specified in Schedule 13 of the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020 will not ensure that Australians in genuine hardship receive prompt payment from their superannuation fund;
(9) calls on the Government to:
(a) ensure that ordinary Australians have access to the right information and advice in times of hardship by increasing funding for financial counselling and the Centrelink Financial Information Service; and
(b) closely monitor the financial advice industry to ensure that early release claimants are not provided with inaccurate advice; and
(10) asks the Government to:
(a) table a letter from the Chair of the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, certifying that the implementation of Schedule 13 will have no systemic impacts on the superannuation system; and
(b) consult with industry, unions, and representatives of other political parties before the implementation of the measures in Schedule 13, noting the potentially significant, negative impact on the retirement outcomes of ordinary Australians".
This bill—the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020—is about money. It's about facilitating payments, but it's about much more than that. We come here today in absolutely extraordinary circumstances. It's about how we respond as a government on behalf of the people that we represent to face the greatest challenge that any of us have experienced in our lifetime. It's about how we as a community respond to an existential threat, a disease that was discovered less than six months ago but has now spread to every continent.
As I came into the chamber today, I checked the number of people who had been infected. In Australia, the number today stands at 1,550, growing at about 22 per cent a day. Globally, it is 335,972. Tragically, seven Australians have already lost their lives from this terrible disease. Globally, in excess of 14,500 people have lost their lives, with that number growing by multiple thousands every day. This is real. If nothing changes, if that growth rate continues, by the time New South Wales schoolchildren are scheduled to go on holidays there will be 55,000 infections. I just want to repeat that: we are at 1,550 today, but by the time New South Wales schoolchildren are scheduled to go on holidays, if we keep growing at the same rate, it will be around 55,000. By the time they come back off holidays, there will be in excess of two million infections, if we continue to grow at the same rate.
Business as usual is not good enough. Despite the ubiquity of the disease, the response globally and even locally has been anything but ubiquitous. I have to say some countries have been better prepared in this than others. Those who had the more recent experience of responding to the SARS epidemic were well briefed and well prepared on the steps that they needed to take. They appear to have had a better response with their public health initiatives. Others have been slower to move. History may prove me wrong on this, as things are moving very, very rapidly, but it appears the drastic response in the Chinese province of Hubei has been the most successful in slowing down the spread of the epidemic. It sends a very clear message to us as policymakers about the sorts of responses that are going to be necessary. If I leave one message on behalf of the people that I represent in this parliament today, it is that we have to move faster. Business as usual is not going to cut it.
I want to give a shout-out to the locals who are already hurting. Thousands and thousands of people throughout the Illawarra are losing their jobs, losing their businesses and losing their livelihoods. To you today, I say: I acknowledge your pain. We can't do everything to ameliorate that, but it behoves us to do everything that is possible.
I want to acknowledge the people who are already on the front line fighting in our communities in the first wave of this response: the health workers, the doctors, the nurses and the clinicians who are on the front line in some of the most difficult positions, putting themselves at risk as they help to save lives in our communities. They need our support and they need our acknowledgement. They certainly do not need our hostility. We should be doing everything we can to ensure that they have all of the tools, all of the resources and all of the funding that are going to be necessary over the very difficult months ahead.
I turn to the matters considered in the bill. The minister has described the bill as a stimulus. It's not. It's about maintenance, and I mean no criticism of the minister or the government when I make this observation. It's not about stimulus; it's about maintenance—about maintaining the vestiges of the economy and the community until a health recovery occurs. A part of the problem is that, in most respects, you've got a health policy and an economic policy pulling in different directions. Let me explain. The health imperative—social isolation and social distancing—of its necessity requires people to stay at home and reduce the amount of contact that they have with others. When you compare that to the traditional economic response in times of an economic downturn, it's almost the very opposite: we try to lift aggregate demand by providing households, consumers and businesses with money and encouraging them to get out there and spend it.
Clearly, an economic response which is built around getting out there and spending it is not really going to work when the health response is about telling people, 'Actually, we need you to stay indoors; we need you to stay at home; and we need you to reduce the contact that you're having with other people.' Before others jump to contradict, I know that there is lots of economic activity that doesn't involve direct face-to-face contact with others. But so much of our economy, particularly our services economy, does. So those people who are in the front line of the services economy—people in the hospitality industry, in the services industry, and in health and personal care—are going to do it really hard over the coming months, and they deserve every bit of support that we can give them.
It also means that we have to be very careful about the economic policies that we deploy to fight the economic consequences of what is a health pandemic. It's why our economic policies need to be well thought through. If they are, they will work, and we will get to the other side of this thing. We will be able to rebuild our economy and rebuild our livelihoods and put communities, businesses and households back together again. But, if they aren't well crafted, they'll have the opposite effect.
I want to turn my attention to schedule 3 of the bill that is before the House. Schedule 3 proposes to amend the SI(S) Act, amongst other instruments, to allow the early cash-out of superannuation on the grounds of hardship. The law already allows for the cash-out of superannuation on the ground of hardship. These amendments will expand those provisions. I want to make it quite clear that Labor understands the tough positions that many households are in. But the simple fact of the matter is that, in normal times, cashing out your superannuation is an incredibly bad decision. That's why the best advice should be available to households as they make their tough decisions on these new arrangements.
For most fund members in most circumstances it is not in their financial interest to do this. For example, as a general rule, an employee on average wages their late 20s who withdraws $20,000 from their superannuation account will be somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000 worse off over their lifetime as a result of that one decision—$20,000 today; $80,000 to $100,000 worse off in their retirement accounts. In the first 10 minutes of the stock market opening today, the Australian Stock Exchange, the ASX 200, lost eight per cent in value. It's lost 38 per cent in value since the coronavirus began to emerge as an economic issue at the end of February—38 per cent. I make this point because it is hard to think of a worse time in the last 30 years, since occupational superannuation has existed, for a fund member to draw money out of their account. It's 38 per cent down since the end of February. If we draw money out now as an individual or as collectives, we are crystallising that loss. I know households are struggling with a lot of difficult decisions: this is one of them.
Can I also say, as a result of legislation that the government passed through this parliament a few months ago which changes the life insurance arrangement in superannuation funds, if fund members draw their account down below $6,000 or they remain inactive, as many will, for more than six months they will lose their life insurance. I wager life insurance is not something that most Australians were thinking about two months ago, but I'm quite certain that today it is something that they ought to be thinking about.
We're also concerned about the behaviour of unscrupulous financial advisers. As late as December last year, the Australian tax office was warning about scheme promoters that promise to allow you to withdraw your superannuation early. That was in December last year. We're deeply concerned that this becomes another avenue for unscrupulous advisers—an absolute minority, but, by God, that minority can do a lot of damage in a short period of time. We call on the government and the regulators to ensure that this does not occur. Unscrupulous advisers should not be capitalising on the anxiety and the risky positions that vulnerable Australians are in to earn fees off early cash-out schemes. That is untenable.
Of course there is also a community and a collective risk in this. I've talked about the state of the stock market. The government assumes that 1.65 million Australians will seek access to this scheme: $7,800 in the first year and $8,500 in year 2. We are asking the government to give us weekly reports on the access to this scheme because it will only take a small variance on those assumptions to have a massive effect not just on the individuals, not just on the administrative capacity of the funds and the government bodies administering it but the liquidity positions of funds as well. We need accurate and updated information, all the more because parliament is unlikely to be sitting during the very time when there is a rush on these applications being made.
The only thing worse than a bad idea is a bad idea implemented badly. As we came into the chamber this morning, we learnt that the myGov portal had crashed as thousands and thousands of Australians had rushed online, having lost their job, to make an application for unemployment benefits. Most members in this place would not be aware that it is the myGov portal that is the gateway through which people are going to exercise the provisions of this bill. They don't apply to their fund; they apply through myGov. MyGov hands that application onto the ATO who processes it and then sends it on to the fund as a request for payment. There are so many links in this chain that can go wrong, and that most likely will go wrong, that we urge the government to rethink some of these arrangements. At the very least, they should be staffing the ATO to ensure that they can process these claims properly and they should be ensuring their systems have the rigour.
In addition to that, the funds that are going to have the obligation to pay the fund member once authorised by the ATO do not have the information that is going to be required. The ATO is going to be saying to the fund: 'Make this payment into this member's bank account.' But the funds don't have the member's bank account. This can take weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks to resolve. That's why Labor is calling on the government to look in good faith at the amendments that we are putting before the House today. They are designed to take some of the rough edges off something that we say is a bad idea, but the only thing worse than a bad idea is a bad idea poorly implemented. Unless these issues are dealt with—the issues around financial advice, the issues around information available to the fund and the administration of this—many Australians will suffer. (Time expired)
The amendment is seconded. The original question was that the bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Rankin moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to submitting other words. The honourable member for Watson moved an amendment to that amendment adding words. The honourable member for Whitlam has now moved as an amendment to that amendment that certain other words be added. The question now is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Whitlam to the amendment moved by the member for Watson be agreed to.
I rise to speak in favour of the amendments and to bring a couple of perspectives from my particular portfolio areas to the coronavirus challenge which Australia faces. But, first of all, going to the discussion about superannuation and accessing that, I think this is a bad idea. I get that people are doing it hard. There are hardship provisions currently available under the law. But I think that encouraging the tackling and the use of the superannuation when it's at the bottom of the market and when people will have no chance to replace what they take out of their superannuation is robbing the future to pay for the present when there are other mechanisms available to help people experiencing income shortage, which can be done directly from the government. The raiding of superannuation, I feel, is an unwise measure. But my concern about that shouldn't therefore mean that we oppose the whole of the legislation, because there is more good in the proposals than there is bad, but the amendment is important.
Indeed talking about how we support Australians in this time of the coronavirus, the coming months will tell us what sort of people we are and what sort of nation we are. One of the things which will define this response, the parliament's response and the nation's response, is how we treat those most in need. Amongst those most in need I speak of are people living with disability and their carers. Perhaps, for once, people with disability will be the first in the queue. There is no doubt in my mind that disability services in this pandemic are essential services.
In an ordinary time, the bravery and courage of people with disability and their carers is something that we're all witness to. It can be the patience and endurance of an excellent brain trapped in a body contorted by muscular dystrophy. It can be the tenacity of a mother loving her son with a profound disability, exhausted but sending emails in the middle of the night trying to get the best equipment and services for her precious child. I think that this quiet heroism will be an example to us all as many of us are asked to make comparatively small sacrifices in the months ahead. We cannot forget, therefore, the most vulnerable, their carers and loved ones. Given that the coronavirus is so dangerous and lethal to older people, it's natural that our focus should be, as it is, on the elderly and the aged-care sector, but we cannot forget people with disability. The international media coverage of the coronavirus has been strangely lacking in its coverage of people with disability. It is because people with disability and their carers all too often are simply invisible, are just simply forgotten. This is why this nation, in their time of need, should be there with our help and our protection.
Specifically, the government has pledged virus tests for all aged-care workers, which is excellent. The same must be made available for all disability workers. If a disability worker in the only service in a mid-sized regional town is all of a sudden unable, because of a COVID-19 diagnosis, to attend, this means that the whole service could be shut down and many, many of our fellow Australians at home could be isolated with no carer to come. So the virus tests should be made available for all disability workers. The reason for saying this, other than the obvious, is that this virus is, at its heart, a public health emergency. It is then an economic problem, but, at its heart, we must treat this as a public health emergency. Therefore, tests for disability care workers should not be viewed as a nice idea but optional. It is an essential service and should be mandatory.
The second immediate proposal to make sure Australians with disability and their families can cope with the coronavirus is to maintain cash flow for all the businesses providing disability services. There are 13,000 disability services, roughly, providing services to 315,000 people on the NDIS and many Australians with a disability who don't qualify for the NDIS. Many of them were doing it hard before the coronavirus arrived on our shores; they need cash flow so they don't collapse. We've learnt that already many providers are waiting on the payment of invoices in the millions of dollars because the NDIA has a backlog, which the CEO has conceded is up to 15,000 invoices. This lack of cash flow will spell market failure in regional, remote and, indeed, suburban services, especially where there's only one provider. We cannot have people with disabilities stranded without services. Furthermore, on this second point about cash flow for disability organisations, it is good that the government has said NDIS plans can go for 24 months, but they should be rolled over. NDIS officials will not be attending meetings, but we shouldn't be making the participants leap through hoops to get reports and prepare. We should be rolling over the packages except where the participant is seeking a variation.
The third thing we need to do is have a proper workforce plan for when people with disability, their individual carers and disability workers have to self-isolate. We cannot have the situation—and this concerns me greatly—where carers can't attend and there are people in their homes with no-one to see to them. Leaving people stranded, unaided, in their own homes will be a disaster. If these people have to go into the hospital system, it will further crowd and complicate the delivery of hospital services. To that end, we need to support the workforce on an ongoing basis. When an NDIS plan has a cancellation from the participant, the funding should still be there to keep the worker in place.
The fourth of the immediate issues is that it's now time to consider creating an army reserve of carers, to be filled by displaced workers swung in from other industries. If we can teach people displaced from other industries the basics of infection control, we can have a surge workforce which will protect people. When someone with a disability has to go to a hospital, the process will be further complicated. Let's draft some of the people who are displaced from other industries and give them the basics so that we can have a surge workforce in disability.
These are four propositions which are fundamental: workforce, cash flow, creating an army reserve of extra workers and, of course, making sure that at all times we have tests for disability carers. But there is a further challenge which disability providers are alerting me to. They tell me of their struggle to get disability related equipment, such as continence pads, catheters and equipment needed for PEG feeding. When relatively healthy people panic buy ventolin, this has a massive flow-on effect on those who live with cystic fibrosis and other disabilities. We desperately need to gather all available equipment for people with disability and PPE—personal protective equipment, such as face masks—for the disability carers who work with them. I've been inundated with calls from people in regional Queensland, right up and down the east coast and in Western Australia concerned that people working with people with disabilities cannot get basic PPE. Masks, gloves and sanitiser need to be distributed to registered and non-registered NDIS providers and people with disability as soon as possible to prevent transmission amongst vulnerable individuals so that our hospitals do not become overwhelmed or forced to look after people with complex needs, which they don't really have the capacity to do. It is, indeed, this shortage of PPE and medical equipment which has exposed a vulnerability in an otherwise great society like Australia's.
We have at least six months left to travel through the clear and present danger presented by the coronavirus. I've got no doubt that during this crisis we will look after each other; we will listen to the better angels of our nature. We certainly hear the stories of hoarding, but there are thousands of stories of kindness, of a helping hand being extended. We will listen to the better angels of our nature; of this I am confident. We will, as Labor has always advocated, act in the interests of the group to make sure that no-one is left behind. We will, to a large extent, have to retreat to our homes. We will have to make some of the necessary sacrifices to slow down the rate of infection. After this storm has passed, we will re-emerge. We will rebuild our businesses, our social lives, our community and our economy. We will hopefully learn the lessons of this crisis so that people with disability and older Australians—indeed, all Australians—don't have to face this again, not just lessons of a medical sense but lessons across our society.
We are a trading nation, advanced in the world, with a good population size and diversified industries. Our people are dexterous, ingenious and inventive. We're an island nation and our fate should be in our own hands—the hands of regular, sensible Australians. But the virus has made it painfully clear to me and thousands of Australians just how clearly we are exposed when we act as a colonial branch office of a global supply chain instead of as an independent economic nation. It is painfully clear now that Australia needs to make its own face masks at scale, its own ventilators at scale and its own guarantees of pharmaceutical access at scale. Most ventilators used in Australian hospitals are imported from Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and North America, with smaller suppliers located in China and South Korea. Whatever the international fantasies which have been hoarded by pursuers and advocates of particular ideological views, when the chips are down we organise ourselves as nations.
This virus has shown that we need sovereign capability. For example, nations all around the world are discovering that they do not have enough ventilators to cope with coronavirus. They do not have enough and there are not enough to buy. The story of Italy ordering 4,000 ventilators last month and having 400 ventilators to purchase highlights the vulnerability which is not just a feature of Italy but a feature of nations. We intuitively know we need sovereign capability in relation to our defence forces. I've spoken before of our need for sovereign capability in relation to energy sources and fuel supplies. There are obvious virtues in having sovereign capability when it comes to steel and areas of manufacturing. But, to this list of sovereign capability, we are learning we need to have sovereign capability in medical equipment and medical supplies. What we now require is a form of wartime-like mobilisation to build our own equipment. I, like many members of this House, am being inundated with offers from manufacturers saying: 'We have got the people. We have the skills. We have the desire, the ingenuity and the knowledge to build equipment.'
Coronavirus is inherently an antisocial disease. It forces us not to congregate en masse, not to cluster together and not to go to concerts or football. Old industries, however, have gone in Australia. Our new economy is built around things that cannot be outsourced or automated—in other words, service industries. What we need to do now is congregate around our manufacturing. This global supply chain situation means that nations will insert themselves to protect their own interests. Coronavirus, which attacks people's lungs, needs ventilators and computerised bedside machines, which can cost as much as $50,000. These are complex pieces of machinery and cannot be made simply. They are made up of hundreds of smaller parts produced by companies all over the world. These ventilators will keep alive people who will otherwise not survive.
It takes a while to move to the start of production that I'm talking about, but the lesson for me in all of this is that this nation should be capable of making personal protective equipment and medical equipment. We need to convert some of our factories from existing work to coronavirus needs. We need to allocate scarce materials and priorities in the distribution of materials and services to build medical equipment. I have no doubt, as others have said, that we will see it through together. Our manufacturers have ingenuity, dexterity and resourcefulness. There will not be just one point of view on how to solve the problems we face.
We have a common goal: this is a health emergency, and keeping people alive is our fundamental mission. There will be many approaches. There will be overlapping considerations and much shared values. But, along with making sure that people with disability are not invisible, along with making sure that our frontline carers have personal protective equipment, along with making sure that we have cash flow to this sector, along with making sure that packages of support are available and that the usual bureaucratic red tape is dispensed with in the national interest, along with making sure that we have a surge workforce and an army reserve of carers distributed from other industries, we must accelerate production. Some of the premiers and leaders have used the language of war. All I would say is that we need to have mobilisation to get our factories churning out more ventilators, masks and PPE. We need to make sure we're not inadvertently exporting health supplies which our own people require.
We can get through this. We will rebuild. What we are seeing is what happens when a virulently antisocial disease is let loose on a social services based economy. We are starting to see now how logical solutions will also have to be nation based and home grown. If we do everything we can in the face of this challenge; if we can maintain the physical distance while being there in spirit and on the phone for those who need us; if we can take the drastic measures now, I predict that we will be talking about getting our manufacturers to tool up and create sovereign capability in our health supplies going forward. If we know that's what we have to do, then the sooner we do it, the better we serve the people of our nation and the most vulnerable, who depend on us most particularly.
This is an historic and poignant day for our national parliament. In my 24 years here I've never seen anything like it. The seating arrangements and the sanitiser on the bar table in themselves indicate that something very unusual is happening here. I think of the apology to the Stolen Generations. I think of the day we sat on a Saturday to complete the necessary Wik legislation. They were big occasions, but even those momentous events cannot match what we are doing here today. It is highly unusual.
When I was appointed defence minister our Australian Defence Force was at a very high level of operational tempo. The toughest part of the job is the weight of responsibility it brings: talking to the parents of fallen soldiers and attending ramp ceremonies and, of course, funerals. They are things that really weigh upon you when you carry that responsibility. Today, as a member of the opposition, I feel that weight of responsibility again. It might sound a little unusual, because those of us on this side face the reality that we don't have a lot of influence over the events that are taking place across our nation as we speak. But I do feel that responsibility—absolutely. I suppose it's the spirit of Westminster coming into its own, as we all try so hard to reach across the table and work as one.
People are dying, and more Australians will die. Too many are getting sick. Our economy is drifting into a coma. People are losing their jobs as we speak—many, many people. Sadly, we are teetering on the brink of civil unrest. I hope not, but we've seen signs of it. We've seen lots of irrational behaviour, and I think we can expect more if we as a parliament don't get this right.
The opposition, as the Leader of the Opposition and others indicated, will be supporting this package, but we do so through somewhat gritted teeth, for three reasons. First, we were not afforded the same courtesy more than 10 years ago during the global financial crisis. That was a very big event, not as big as the event we're dealing with today, but very, very big indeed. That's a matter of great regret for me and probably, I hope, great regret for the parliament more generally.
Second, the measures are late—too late for some. Some businesses won't survive this crisis because this assistance has come too late. You'll recall, Mr Deputy Speaker Hogan, that when needles were found in strawberries—a serious matter in itself—the government passed legislation if not the same day as the revelations then the second day. It was certainly very, very quickly. Yet here we are, maybe eight weeks on from the revelation of this virus being present in Australia, and we're only just now dealing with measures to support the economy and to support the people who rely upon our economy. It's been too slow, and that's what Australians are saying.
The third point is: the package isn't perfect. It's not the package the Labor Party would be delivering in opposition. There are many flaws. Many have spoken already about superannuation issues. I won't revisit them. Suffice to say I didn't believe I'd ever be standing in this place supporting an arrangement which allowed people to access their superannuation early. It's been suggested many, many times before. We've had parliamentary inquiries into this, and thankfully all the propositions that have gone before this one have been rejected. But here we are, and it just demonstrates again how extraordinary these circumstances are.
I'm really concerned about the spousal income test for those who'll be looking for support under the new jobseeker allowance, or the rebadged allowance. This is a very big mistake, and it has to be fixed. Very few people who are losing their jobs through no fault of their own are going to be successful in securing the jobseeker allowance if their modest spousal income is taken into account. It just won't happen. The hairdresser working casually who now loses her job but has a husband earning a modest income will not be able to access the support unless this matter is addressed, and it must be addressed. We regret the fact that so many of the initiatives won't come into force for many months to come. It will be too late for many; you can be sure about that.
I also regret the confusion and anxiety in our communities caused by poor leadership, slow decision-making and poor communication. No wonder people are doing irrational things. Poor and inconsistent messaging has caused anxiety amongst teachers and parents alike in particular. The small-business operators I spoke to today still don't know where they stand, still don't know what they are allowed to do and not allowed to do. It's not good enough. It simply isn't good enough. It makes it hard for members on this side in particular who know the importance of bipartisanship at this dark time in our nation's history. We understand the importance of bipartisanship, but the confusion and inadequacies of this package and the government's messaging are making it challenging to maintain bipartisanship. But we remain determined to deliver it, and we'll also continue to provide constructive criticism where we believe it is warranted. Australia needs us all working as one right now.
I won't go into all the details of the bill, because the opposition leader, the shadow Treasurer and others have spoken much of them and I know my time is limited. But I will say a couple of things very quickly. Anyone who believes the small-business measures—or the business measures more generally—are going to save all of our businesses is an optimist. They won't. I'm not saying they're not sufficiently generous in their funding, but they won't. This is going to be very, very tough for our small-business community.
I'd rather use my limited time to say a few things about rural and regional Australia. First, I'm concerned people living in rural and regional Australia aren't taking COVID-19 sufficiently seriously. Capital cities have been the epicentre of the virus, and somehow we've been shielded, in relative terms at least. The nonhandshake is a bit of a joke still for country people, but it's no joke. This virus is as deadly for those of us living in rural and regional Australia as it is for our city cousins, and we need to take it very, very seriously.
Our regions provide our food and power. Governments will need to ensure our coal and power generation sectors are supported, as all essential services will need to be. That doesn't just mean keeping them running; it's also about making sure they have the support they need, including measures to maintain their workforces. I congratulate both of those sectors because both of them have put protocols very quickly in place.
Our food sector will need support too, with measures specific to it. I've been overwhelmed by appeals from various players in the food and fibre sectors who don't feel they're getting the information or the support they need, and we need to act quickly. In the Hunter we are a visitor economy in part. Our wine country is doing it tough. Our visitor economy is doing it tough. They are in trouble and will need more help.
In relation to our pubs and clubs everywhere, we understand the decision, but this is a crisis for our pubs and our clubs. These are not all wealthy businessmen or businesswomen. Often these are small family hotels, and we've just pulled the rug out from under them. They will need help. Think about all the support that clubs in particular give in our communities in rural and regional Australia. Rural and regional Australia survives on the support of our clubs. The clubs are our venues for most community events, and they've closed their doors. That's going to cause big problems for many not-for-profit organisations in our communities and for our community more generally.
I'm concerned about the lack of representation for rural and regional Australia in the national cabinet. I might stand corrected, but I understand the Deputy Prime Minister is not sitting in the cabinet. I haven't seen him there. I think that's a mistake. I've got respect for the Deputy Prime Minister. We need someone who breathes and lives rural and regional Australia at the decision-making table. It seems to me the Deputy Prime Minister is the obvious person, and I appeal to the Prime Minister to consider that. Rural and regional Australia is a different place, and it needs to be at that table.
I believe our local councils could be resourced better to allow them to be the real enablers in rural and regional communities. They have the skills, the people, the data and the facilities. They just need the resourcing, and the government should consider giving it to them.
I close by thanking our doctors and other health professionals, our first responders, our teachers and all of those people who are under enormous pressure as a result of this crisis—and there are many of them. We're all in this together, so let's take care of one another and let's get to the other side of this crisis in relatively good shape.
All Australians are facing the consequences of COVID-19. This is a health emergency, and it is so much more than a health emergency. Its consequences are vast, and so too are the responsibilities of all of us in this place. As with all of us who have the opportunity to contribute to this debate, the weight of that responsibility weighs very heavily on my shoulders.
In making a very brief contribution to the debate on these important measures in the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020 and related bills, I'll try to confine myself to those matters that are most essential, but I want to make clear that, in supporting the thrust of the measures contained in these bills and the government's proposals, I echo the concerns of my colleagues—the Leader of the Labor Party, the shadow Treasurer and the shadow minister for health in particular—in a couple of critical respects—firstly, in terms of the delay. I think it would have been better to have brought this place back last week so that we could have brought forward action then. Indeed, that concern goes to some of the substantive measures which are contained in these bills. Action that can take place today should take place today, not in the future. We see the evidence of that all around us in the communities we represent and in the media as well. I have particular concerns, obviously, about superannuation, and I put those on the record. I support the amendment moved by the member for Rankin, the shadow Treasurer, and the amendments to that which have been moved by the member for Whitlam and the member for Watson.
In making my personal remarks, can I say this: we all need to acknowledge our shared responsibility to protect our health and the health of our communities, particularly the elderly and those most vulnerable. The spread of this virus is forcing us all to change our ways and for many Australians, including many I represent, this is incredibly hard—I get that. But we simply must act now, not least to ensure that our health system and the wonderful people who work in it can do their jobs.
As I stand here, people are losing their jobs. Businesses and entire sectors of our economy are facing shutdown and, at best, periods of prolonged uncertainty. The long lines at Centrelink in Epping and Scullin and right around our country conjure images of the Great Depression. As I said, this is a health crisis but it's also having a dramatic effect on our society and on all of our livelihoods. We can be doing more to support people and we should be doing more. We should be doing this now, not in a month's time or later, so I urge the government and all members of it to give consideration to any immediate one-off payment that can be made in a simple fashion, because people can't wait to go through burdensome processes to get support from Centrelink. We shouldn't be forcing people to congregate around Centrelink offices. We shouldn't be exposing the hardworking staff in those offices.
I acknowledge the announcement today about additional support but, in any event, we shouldn't be forcing those staff into the challenges and indeed the threats they have been facing in this environment. Centrelink is clearly overwhelmed in my electorate today. My thoughts and my empathy are with the hardworking staff there for the challenges they are facing and, indeed, for those anxious people trying to get support they so desperately need in circumstances of which no-one could have conceived. This is no time for half measures. Australians need support now. There's not a minute to waste.
I'm going to touch briefly on my responsibilities as a member of the Labor shadow ministry. At this time, we need to think about Australia's multicultural communities. Twenty-one per cent of Australians speak a language other than English at home, yet the public information so far provided by the government has not been readily translated into enough other languages. I have raised this matter with the acting minister, but action has not been fast enough to enable many Australians, particularly older Australians from CALD backgrounds, to take steps to protect themselves and to protect their communities. This needs to improve and it needs to improve fast. I'd urge members to have a look at the Victorian DHHS website, which shows a more comprehensive approach to providing this information. This is a matter of some urgency. I urge government members, particularly those who do represent multicultural communities, to act to enable people in those communities to do the right thing by themselves and by those around them.
We can't ignore in this debate the ugly presence of racism. Racism did not begin with the coronavirus but it raises new challenges in this context. We've seen the awful incidence early on in this journey of racism directed at Chinese Australians and Asian Australians more generally. It continues to undermine our efforts to bring people together in our shared endeavours to keep us safe and hold our society and our economy together as well, as does its general corrosive effect. We need to send a clear signal in this place that there is no tolerance for racism in Australia and that we all stand together.
I also want to talk about the nearly two million people in Australia currently on temporary visas of various types and make the obvious point that COVID-19 does not recognise different visa statuses. We need to all be protected through this time. In this, I recognise the many New Zealanders who call Australia home, who have made their home in Australia over the last decade-and-a-half or so in particular. We can't and we won't forget you in this crisis. In Labor, we understand that you need support, just as we know you will also play your roles in keeping our country safe from this virus and its consequences. I note that temporary migrants also account for five per cent of general practitioners and resident medical officers in Australia and close to 10 per cent of the nursing support and personal care workforce. These are people who are doing extraordinarily important work at risk to themselves, in difficult circumstances. They deserve us as a society to also recognise the challenges that they are facing. We can't forget also about the people in our country who have sought asylum here, who are some of the most vulnerable in our community. We have to recognise their interest in being supported and the wonderful organisations that are supporting them as well as the critical importance of supporting them in the interests of all of our public health needs. In this crisis, at this time, we are all in this together. It is that simple.
More generally, I want to briefly touch on my responsibility as our spokesperson for cities. Cities are wonderful machines that bring people together. Cities are devices for connection. That is being fundamentally challenged right now, but, as we push—as we must—for social distancing generally and social isolation where necessary, we cannot allow our friends and neighbours to become isolated. I've spoken often in this place about loneliness and the challenge it presents to our society—the damage it does to individuals and the damage it does to all of us. It's something that we need to think harder about right now. We need to think differently about how we maintain connections and how we maintain a sense of community through these challenging times. I think it's a responsibility for all of us in this place to lead by example as well as by our words, because the stakes couldn't be higher.
I reflect, as others have done, on my deep appreciation of and the need for greater support for those who are at the very front line of this crisis: our healthcare workers. I'm in awe of the work that they do at the Northern Hospital and at general practices and, I'm sure, right around our country. We need to ensure that they get the support they need through flattening the curve and, more generally, the individual support they need to keep doing the work they are doing for all of us.
The stakes couldn't be higher. This is literally a matter of life and death for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Australians today. As Daniel Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, said this morning:
If we have a situation where this virus fundamentally gets away from us, we will have thousands of people who will only survive if they can breathe with the assistance of a machine and we will not have enough machines, nurses and doctors to provide that care.
That is why taking such drastic action to shut down and lock down entire sections of our economy and our society are necessary, though difficult. And that is why we have to be absolutely clear about this imperative now and going forward.
We need to protect Australians from this virus. We also need to protect their livelihoods. That is why my colleagues have been so clear in setting out our concern about the lack of a connection between important stimulus measures and the protection of income and work. These are things which have been attended to elsewhere. I urge government members to think about how they can be done here. This is about protecting our society as well as individuals' incomes and individuals' capacity to look after themselves and their communities. This isn't a time for panic. It's a time for action and, where we're not ready for action, for preparation. It is a time for leadership, for resolution and for clarity, fundamentally, recognising the great anxiety and confusion that there is abroad in all of our communities.
Let's think again about the small things we can all do and the impact doing the right thing can have if we all wash our hands regularly, if we all not only practise social distancing but are clear to Australians—in English and in appropriate languages—on what social distancing means, if we can tell people to literally avoid all non-essential contact with others outside of our homes and if we can stay at home and only get groceries once a week. If we can be clear in giving instructions, Prime Minister, I would personally be very grateful. I'm sure all of us and the communities we represent will be grateful. If we don't gather in large groups, then we might avert the worst health catastrophe imaginable, but it is up to all of us to do the right thing. It is for all of us who are in this place and have the privilege to lead to give clear, consistent and constructive leadership.
To the people whom I represent in the Scullin electorate, let me be clear: through this time I will keep working for you, although the nature of that work will change. I will be doing my best to keep all of you informed and engaged. I'm still listening to you, and my staff will find ways to work for you and to reflect your concerns and your needs. We can get through this if we come together, work together and always look out for each other.