House debates

Tuesday, 22 June 2021


Treasury Laws Amendment (COVID-19 Economic Response) Bill 2021; Second Reading

7:16 pm

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House recognises that Australia's economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis has been hurt by the Government's failure to:

(1) roll out the vaccine

(2) deliver an effective national quarantine system; and

(3) promote wage growth".

The Treasury Laws Amendment (COVID-19 Economic Response) Bill 2021 is a bill with a grandiose title but very small ambition. It makes some minor technical changes to facilitate COVID-19 disaster payments. It's the absolute bare minimum the government should be doing. We will support it, but we do so in the knowledge that much more needs to be done.

Schedule 1 of the bill extends the operation of an existing power that allows the Treasurer to declare that eligible state and territory COVID-19 business support payments be exempt from income tax for the next financial year. This means that grants paid by state and territory governments during COVID-19 lockdowns in the 2021-22 financial year can be covered by the same exemption provisions that this parliament passed last year. Labor support the measure, but, I've got to say, we had hoped it would not be necessary.

This government has had two principal jobs in the last 18 months—the vaccine rollout and quarantine. This modest measure contained within the bill will do nothing to paper over the government's manifest failure to do either of those two jobs properly. I want to paint a picture. In Madison Square Garden last night something like normalcy returned to New York City. The Foo Fighters performed to a capacity crowd. Every single person in the audience had had a vaccination. This, to us, is what success looks like—not only watching the Foo Fighters but ensuring that everyone in attendance had had the vaccine. If you look at the American population, a full half of the population has been fully vaccinated. Here, less than three per cent of people are fully vaccinated. Lockdowns are still happening every fortnight or so. Family events and trips are having to be cancelled. Businesses face uncertainty and disruption. The virus has escaped quarantine more than 20 times. Every failure means Australian lives are at risk. Every failure costs millions of dollars in business earnings.

Rather than accept responsibility for these failures, we see the opposite—a government ducking for cover. First came the humiliating backdown on the vaccine rollout deadlines; now we don't have a deadline at all. Then came the warnings from independent experts, including their own expert on the whole vaccine and pandemic management, Jane Halton, about the failure to build a proper quarantine system. There is still no national quarantine network. Instead of focusing on fixing these problems, instead of looking at the problems that Australians are facing—the vaccine rollout, hotel quarantine—they're focused on themselves. If only they would put as much time into rolling out the vaccine as they did rolling the former Deputy Prime Minister we'd be a lot further down the path!

Schedule 2 of the bill allows the Australian tax office to share taxpayer information with Services Australia to assist Services Australia with administering the COVID-19 disaster payment. Again, we support the measure, but it's worth remembering just how measly the government support has actually been. While the government have poured millions of dollars—billions of dollars, in fact—into profitable companies and executive bonuses through JobKeeper, their support for Victorians during the latest lockdown amounts to as little as $325, if you meet the complicated eligibility requirements. Contrast that with the position of Gerry Harvey. He got $22 million on top of the record bumper profits that he received in the last 12 months. But if you're a part-time restaurant worker in Melbourne who's out of work you get $325, and that's only if you meet the strict eligibility criteria. And it gets worse than that. At least Gerry Harvey and his Harvey Norman businesses do something useful. They sell TVs and lounges and washing machines to Australians who need them. But the Australian Club got $2 million in JobKeeper. I want you to think about that, Mr Deputy Speaker: the Australian Club got $2 million in JobKeeper. This is a club that excludes fully half of the Australian population. Some people can't afford to join, but women can't join. It's an anachronism, yet this is a business that the government has seen fit to support throughout the pandemic.

There is so much more that needs to be done. I'd like to spend a few moments focusing on the manifest failures of the vaccine rollout and hotel quarantine. All people in class 1a were supposed to be vaccinated by Easter. We know that as of today only one-third of aged-care workers have been fully vaccinated, but 84 per cent of COVID cases in aged-care homes originated from the workers. It's wasn't their fault, but the fact that quarantine is leaky and vaccines haven't been rolled out is putting people at risk. Four million people were supposed to be vaccinated by the end of March, six million were supposed to be vaccinated by 10 May, and everyone is supposed to be fully vaccinated by October. We know there is not going to be a hope of meeting those deadlines. As we stand today, the vaccine rollout is a complete and utter shambles.

I want to talk about hotel quarantine. Since August last year the World Health Organization has been telling Australia that hotel quarantine—shared spaces and inadequate ventilation systems—is inherently risky. Let's have a look at the breaches. In November last year it was Adelaide. In December it was Sydney. In January it was Brisbane. In February it was Perth. In May it was Melbourne. In June it was Sydney and Brisbane. Since March 2020 there have been three outbreaks in Queensland, eight in New South Wales, two in South Australia, five in Victoria and three in Western Australia. In fact, for every 204 infected travellers in hotel quarantine in Australia there is one leak. There have been 21 breaches between April 2020 and June 2021 in Australia. Those are the breaches that we know about; there may be others that we don't know about. There were 17 breaches in the six months to June this year alone. Enough is enough. What is it going to take for this government to acknowledge that its approach to hotel quarantine is an abject failure? In February this year Professor Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist at the University of South Australia, said:

It's critically important to stop these leaks, because we're now starting to see that not only are these variants more contagious, but they're potentially also more lethal. Furthermore, we're seeing that vaccines don't do quite as well against them.

The answer is not hotel quarantine.

While these problems continue, we've got the Deputy Prime Minister of this country more interested in creating infighting and disruption and disunity and instability within the government, instead of addressing the issues that are putting Australian lives at risk.

I want to talk about the South Australian breach. Melbourne is now emerging from its fourth round of restrictions. It's instructive to look at the source of the virus that threatens lives in Melbourne. The source is a traveller who returned to Australia and quarantined in Adelaide for two full weeks—14 days—from 19 April. He was released into the community on 4 May. He then returned home to Melbourne. He was tested in Melbourne, and returned a positive result on 11 May—22 days after coming back to Australia and entering hotel quarantine. The problem? This man wasn't sick when he went into hotel quarantine; he caught the virus there. Can you imagine if he was an elderly or vulnerable person? He could have died from the disease.

What is it going to take for this government to realise that it is presiding over an abject failure? Dr Norman Swan, who has done so much to keep Australians informed over the course of this pandemic, absolutely nailed it when he said:

That's not because South Australia is bad at hotel quarantine—it's that hotel quarantine is bad at COVID …

What is it going to take for the government to realise that enough is enough, that we have to have purpose-built quarantine systems in every place in the country where we have an international airport that travellers are coming back to Australia through. It is the Commonwealth's responsibility. You cannot 'shmirk' your way out of this pandemic. It is the Prime Minister's responsibility, and it's time he took control. You can't outsource all of the tough decisions to the states. You can't be the guy who is always there for trophy night, but who never turns up to work the next day—which is exactly what this Prime Minister is doing. He's always there to take the accolades; he's never there to take responsibility. We are seeing, on average, one outbreak from hotel quarantine once a month. Lives are at risk because of low levels of vaccination. We cannot continue with this mismanagement.

Do you want to know what is at risk here? I ask you to consider this. Of the new strains, the UK variant is twice as contagious as the original strain. The Indian variant is 40 to 50 times as contagious as the original strain. We are now seeing variants from the spread in Brazil that are less responsive to vaccines and that are also reinfecting the population. As epidemiologist Professor Mike Toole of the Burnet Institute has said, 'It is only a matter of time before these variants arrive in Australia.' Hotel quarantine is not the answer. We cannot smirk our way out of this pandemic. It's time that the Prime Minister stood up to his responsibility. It's time the government started focusing on the issues which are of concern and of need to the people of Australia. Internal party games, rolling a decent bloke, a bloke who I don't agree with on so many issues—how can it be that the National Party is so focused on its own issues instead of these issues that I'm talking about here today? One leak from hotel quarantine every month, putting Australian lives at risk. It's simply not good enough. The Prime Minister must step up to his responsibility.

Photo of Ian GoodenoughIan Goodenough (Moore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Shayne NeumannShayne Neumann (Blair, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Ian GoodenoughIan Goodenough (Moore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Whitlam has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House I will state the question in the form that the amendment be disagreed to.

7:28 pm

Photo of Bert Van ManenBert Van Manen (Forde, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In the brief time we have before the adjournment, I'd just like to say that the Treasury Laws Amendment (COVID-19 Economic Response) Bill 2021 is another example of the myriad of supports that the government is providing to small and medium business right around this country. I know that across the electorate of Forde some 5,900 businesses have been able to take advantage of the extended loss carry back measures to invest more in their local economy and support jobs.

We've also seen significant support for apprentices and trainees across the electorate of Forde, and a range of other measures. Whether it's building new infrastructure or whether it's providing support like JobKeeper to keep businesses open, many of the businesses across my electorate have taken advantage of these opportunities provided to restructure their businesses, keep their doors open and keep Australians employed, and that is what has been so important through COVID. The Morrison government is delivering for people right across my electorate of Forde, and right across this country. This is just another example, and I commend the bill to the House.