Senate debates

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Ministerial Statements


2:14 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I join with my colleague Senator Cormann in his remarks and rise to reply to the ministerial statement on behalf of the opposition. Colleagues, in times of crisis we show who we are and we demonstrate what we can be. Do we care only about ourselves or do we care about each other? To best face this crisis we must face it together, and, in this, we show who we are and what we can be: Australians together. We need to care about each other as individuals: checking in with each other, maintaining physical distance and staying home, as hard as that can be in so many cases, such as not being able to see loved ones who may be vulnerable. And we need to care about each other as a country and as a parliament. That care should be expressed less in the words we speak and more in the decisions we make and in how we support our healthcare professionals, our cleaners, our people in the essential supply chains, and how we resolve to support people whose lives have been turned upside down by this crisis: Australians who have lost their jobs, Australians whose businesses face collapse, Australians stranded overseas and many more.

We need to support each other by maintaining a sense of common purpose that we are all in this together and that we help our fellow Australians in times of need. This is the fundamental humility and egalitarianism of the Australian spirit, the spirit which recognises that what my neighbour, my friend or my colleague is going through could just as easily happen to me, because none of us are immune to hardship, and this virus, with its attack on the powerful and the vulnerable alike, reminds us of that. It reminds us we need to care about each other and to find common cause—not just in times of crisis but all the time, because at this time when this crisis presents itself, as in life, we are all in this together. This is so poignantly demonstrated by those Australians on the front line: those who care for our sick, those who work in our hospitals, those who clean our workplaces, those who teach our children, those who stack the shelves and serve us in our supermarkets, those who transport the essentials we need, those providing the public services we rely on and so many more. You have our thanks and you have our respect.

In this crisis, the trade union movement is again demonstrating that it is the champion of working people. Reforms driven by the advocacy of the trade union movement provide further protection for working people. Of course, some weeks ago, the labour movement and the opposition—the Labor Party—proposed wage subsidies as a critical means of ensuring that both workers and businesses are looked after during this crisis and to ensure that we emerge stronger than we would have otherwise. Rather than sending more Australians to the unemployment queues, we want employers to be able to keep them on. We want to maintain the relationship between workers and their employer, rather than severing that relationship and creating a new relationship with Centrelink. We know how hard that is to break.

Unfortunately, there are some key aspects of what Labor and the trade union movement have called for that have not been adopted by the government. We have placed on record our concern that the structure of the JobKeeper payments will mean Australians will miss out. This is because the payments are directed on the basis of the structure of the employer, not on the need of the individual worker. The reality of the government's policy is that employees in exactly the same circumstances may be treated differently, depending on the size and structure of their employer. We've spoken of the over one million Australians who are casual workers who will not be eligible for the JobKeeper program—a program which we think fails to recognise that, in any modern workforce, any worker defined as casual but who has been stood down has financial commitments and expectations based on work and income that has been regular. Labor believes that no worker should be left behind. We are also concerned about permanent workers being forced to take annual leave at this time. We see left out of JobKeeper people who work in local government, who work for the NDIS, who work in the university sector and who work in the private education sector, as well as temporary visa holders. We think that is counter to the national interest.

Consistent with this, Labor has been and will be moving second reading amendments in the House of Representatives and we will do the same in the Senate. In the House we will move amendments in the consideration in detail stage that outline our major concerns. If these are not successful in the House of Representatives, we will not be pursuing those amendments, nor will we support amendments moved by other political parties in the Senate. We do not want to see the circumstance where the House and the Senate are at loggerheads, bouncing legislation back and forth and causing delays the Australian people cannot afford, because this package must be passed as urgently as possible. Labor will facilitate passage by the end of this day. I would also note that, even if Labor's amendments are not accepted, it is within the power of the government to do the right thing. With the stroke of a pen, Treasurer Frydenberg can fix issues with JobKeeper and Minister Ruston can fix issues with the jobseeker payment. The legislation already gives them the authority they need.

Whilst we are determined to see the passage of this legislation today, this does not mean we think the parliament shouldn't be sitting beyond today. We've made clear our preference that the parliament keep sitting, as so many others are around the world. That we are here today at relatively short notice demonstrates it is possible to do so. I do want to recognise that there are many senators who would have preferred to have been here today to advocate for those they represent, but, just as others Australians are being asked to observe social distancing, so too must we. There are some in this place who have suggested the Senate alone could keep sitting, but, of course, we know that would be unworkable without the House and, as importantly, without a legislative program being brought forward by the government. In the absence of the government supporting continued sittings, Labor is moving to establish a Senate select committee to provide scrutiny of the government's response. Labor will ensure that our representatives on this committee demonstrate the seniority we believe is required for such an important task. It will be chaired by Senator Katy Gallagher and will have on it the deputy leader, Senator Keneally, and Senator Murray Watt as the third Labor member.

As many have rightly noted, this is an unprecedented crisis. The government's domestic response does reflect that, even though we may think it should go further. Labor has supported every measure put forward by this government. However, whilst the government's domestic response reflects the unprecedented nature of this crisis, I regret that its urgency in repatriating stranded Australians has not. We have given the government a very wide berth to take the steps it deems necessary to protect Australians.

I want to acknowledge the work of the consular services and officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and others. The reality is that we have thousands of Australians who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves in very distressing situations. I do not have the time today to fully document the hundreds of cases raised with my office and the offices of my colleagues—Labor members and senators—nor to fully catalogue our concerns. I will simply say this: it has been clear for weeks that many Australians do not have recourse to commercial options to get home to safety, despite their best efforts and vast amounts of money blown on cancelled tickets. They are concerned about many things, but two stand out. First, many can see what other countries are doing to repatriate their citizens from locations where Australians too are stranded—Germany alone has arranged 170 flights. Second, many feel that the government's delays are simply putting more of them at risk as their situations deteriorate.

So I once again urge the government to reconsider its blanket refusal to arrange affordable assisted departures for stranded Australians and I urge the government to ensure that cost is not a barrier to return. It makes no sense that a UK citizen should pay 250 pounds for a ticket that costs an Australian $5,000. It is untenable in this crisis to rule out assisted departures, and it is unsafe. We must do more. I say to the minister: just as Labor has offered its support to all the government's domestic measures to protect Australians, we again offer our support to the government taking whatever steps are necessary to bring Australians home to safety.

We have much to be grateful for in our nation's history. We have been blessed in so many ways. But Australians have also known hardship, and Australians have also known tragedy. We have known wars, depression and recessions. We have known terrorist attacks. We have known natural disasters—bushfires, floods and drought. These and many more we have faced. We have faced them all and we have come through each challenge that history has placed before us and we have done it together. We have looked to one another and we have looked out for one another. So too, and in the same way, we will come through this.


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