Senate debates

Wednesday, 8 April 2020


Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020, Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus (Measures No. 2) Bill 2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 5) 2019-2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 6) 2019-2020; Second Reading

7:24 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | Hansard source

Well, we learn a lot about ourselves in times of crisis. Earlier this year, Australians responded with enormous generosity to the communities that were devastated by the summer's bushfires. Now we're faced with a new challenge, and Australians have responded once again. Across the country, there's been a recognition of the responsibilities that we owe one another, the collective responsibility we have as members of a community. There's been a willingness to make sacrifices, the necessary sacrifices, to get through this. We're seeing communities organise grassroots groups to ensure vulnerable people get the help that they need. Healthcare workers, cleaners and other essential service workers turn up to work every day, despite the possible risks to their health, to ensure that crucial services continue. Millions of Australians have put their lives and their livelihoods on hold in order to stay home. We have brought our best selves to bear. That is not just a responsibility for the Australian people; it is a clear responsibility for us here in this place. Parliament has a duty to bring the best version of itself to the challenges that lie ahead. This legislation represents that duty, with Labor, acting constructively, making suggestions about how we proceed and working with unions and with the labour movement, and with the government responding. I'm proud to support the legislation before us this evening.

As we move into the next phase of our response to this pandemic, it is appropriate for us to think deeply about what comes next. How do we act, as a parliament, in a way that not only responds to the immediate health challenges and the immediate economic challenges, but leaves our society and our politics better off and better able to respond to future challenges? A core plank of the response must be a shared understanding of how we need to change our own behaviours, as individuals, as communities and in workplaces, to limit the spread of the virus and to save lives. Australians have responded to calls for social distancing. Movement tracking shows that in my hometown of Sydney, for example, movement has fallen from 121 per cent of normal in March to 17 per cent on 5 April. There will always be a role for police in responding to the minority of people who put their interests above everyone else's. However, policing and enforcement should not be the start and the end of our approach. We cannot arrest our way out of a pandemic. Australians deserve a response that recognises the capacity for people to make responsible decisions for themselves, for their families and for their communities. This demands openness and transparency from government. Government should not just communicate decisions and issue directions. Government needs to communicate the reason for decisions. The release of the modelling is a good start. It's a good step to build trust, but much more will be required over the long term. Governments should be thinking creatively about ways to draw on the community to lead local responses.

It is particularly important for young people. We will do much better if we engage rather than scold and hector. Ultimately, restrictions can only be maintained with the ongoing support of Australians. This is not an argument in favour of simply adopting the lightest-touch approach. It is an argument for building and maintaining a sense of shared purpose and allocating the leadership responsibility to all sorts of people right across our community. People want to do the right thing. Young Australians want to do the right thing. We should help them.

Parliament sat through the Spanish flu, and it sat through World War II. Our democratic traditions are not just a luxury for the good times; they are absolutely critical, and arguably all the more important, at a time like this. The contest of ideas produces better outcomes. There is no party, no individual, with a monopoly on good ideas, and we don't hold elections to anoint a dictator for a term. We hold elections to elect 227 people to represent us, and that task of representation is continual and ongoing. Different people in our community will have a very different experience of the pandemic. Our policy response needs to have a mechanism to capture that and respond to it.

Scrutiny is essential for transparency, and transparency is essential to building the trust that is absolutely necessary when we are asking Australians to make real sacrifices, very considerable individual sacrifices, to deal with this pandemic. Now more than ever, we need the parliament to sit. I call on the government to reconsider their glib dismissal of calls for regular sittings of the parliament. It is hard to imagine but we will come out of this eventually, but we will not emerge into a world in which all of our old challenges have gone away. Many of them will have intensified, and we will have to manage those old challenges while also trying to manage our recovery from what looks to be the economic event of the century.

If this crisis has taught us anything, it is that we are all in this together. But some people aren't getting the message. Like a broken record, these people are stuck on the old track. I'm thinking about right-wing think tanks that are calling now, already, for austerity and for spending cuts. I'm talking about Liberal ministers in state parliaments calling for cuts in environment protection. I'm talking about employers who are calling for wage cuts. I've got a very clear message in response: salvation does not lie in austerity. We cannot cut our way back to prosperity. We cannot ask the most vulnerable people in our community to bear the cost, because, aside from anything else, it turns out that these are some of the people who we rely on most to get us through a period of crisis. We shouldn't sow the seeds of a new disaster to pay off the debt of our current crisis. Environment protection is there for a reason, and the warming trends that drove our horror bushfire season will continue to punish our communities unless we can find an enduring and effective global solution. An enormous national and global challenge lies before us. We should meet it with all of the energy, creativity and goodwill that we can muster.


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