Monday, 23 March 2020
Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2019-2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2019-2020; Second Reading
Labor will support Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2019-2020 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2019-2020 before us in the Senate today. These bills provide additional funding for the 2019-20 financial year. Appropriation Bill (No. 3) will appropriate an additional $3.3 billion while Appropriation Bill (No. 4) will appropriate an additional $2.2 billion. The bills incorporate additional funding for measures as listed in the 1920 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook released in December last year, as well as measures relating to the government's response to the bushfires that dominated the Australian summer.
The 2019-20 MYEFO was delivered only three months ago, but it may seem to many that it's like a lifetime ago. We've seen the devastating impact of COVID-19 and it has some way to play out yet. There was an initial economic stimulus package of $17.6 billion followed up by yesterday's announcement of $66 billion, a health package of $2.4 billion and $444 million for the aged-care sector. The stimulus packages will be delivered by the states and territories across the country. I'll have more to say about the response to COVID-19 when that package of legislation arrives in this place later this afternoon.
The impact of COVID-19 has certainly been unprecedented and unexpected and comes on the heels of the devastating bushfires experienced across the country over the summer. We've already seen concerning signs, both in the economy and in the budget. There was weakness in the economy prior to the bushfires and COVID-19. Prior to them, we saw economic growth and wages downgraded, almost two million Australians either looking for work or looking for more work, and wages growth stuck at record lows. In fact, real wages growth in the December quarter went backwards. And now we're faced with significant economic shocks—first from the bushfires and now from COVID-19. In terms of the budget, we saw a deteriorating budget position, with surpluses over the forward estimates decreasing by $20 billion in the MYEFO. Revenue decreased by over $30 billion over the forward estimates. Net debt has more than doubled since September 2013, and, with net debt and gross debt both at record highs based on the latest figure—net debt being over $430 billion and gross debt being over $577 billion—the government that promised to get debt under control and end the debt crisis is now facing an even higher debt situation, having to lift the debt ceiling to $850 billion.
I mentioned earlier that these bills appropriate funding for a number of bushfire response measures that the government announced this year. The appropriation bills contain funding for bushfire related measures, such as funding for the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, funding for measures to support the mental health of Australians affected by the bushfires, $60 million to local government areas for bushfire assistance, $100 million for primary industries, funding for additional emergency relief and financial counselling in bushfire affected communities, and funding for Operation Bushfire Assist—the Defence operation which saw the ADF do amazing work assisting bushfire affected communities.
It's quite pertinent that we're debating these bills in the Senate on the same day the government's responses to COVID-19 are also being debated in the parliament. We'll have more to say about that during the debate, but I do hope that those measures are implemented in a much more effective and timely manner than some of the bushfire response measures. We've heard countless stories of business and communities hit by the bushfires not getting the support they're entitled to in a timely manner. We've also heard stories of businesses that, while not in the areas directly affected, have fallen on hard times because of the indirect impacts. There's also the question of when a fund isn't a fund. Announced with great fanfare, in early January, there was supposed to be a $2 billion national bushfire recovery fund, yet we find out later that it's a notional fund. With the budget being delayed until October this year, let's hope that any further measures to help deal with the aftermath of the bushfires aren't also on a delayed time frame.
Labor will support these bills, but they're not a blank cheque for the economic and fiscal management that we saw prior to the onset of COVID-19, nor are they a tick of approval for how they've dealt with some of the challenges through the response measures to date.