Senate debates

Monday, 23 March 2020

Statement by the President


10:01 am

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I will take this opportunity to make a statement. Thank you, and welcome back for maybe the last occasion for awhile and in quite extraordinary circumstances. I'd like to take this opportunity to inform senators of a number of matters relevant to this and coming weeks. At the outset I thank senators and particularly party leaders and whips, officials of the Senate led by the Clerk, and the staff of the Department of Parliamentary Services for their efforts in ensuring that this sitting can go ahead in a safe manner, consistent with the rules, guidelines and recommendations of health officials in what has been a rapidly evolving environment since we last met.

I will not restate the provisions of the statement of the Speaker and myself last Monday. But in terms of basic operations, senators will notice changes in the building to catering and other services, including some closures. These decisions have been taken by the Speaker and I to minimise the risk of transmission. With respect to the galleries, the public, press and President's galleries have been closed, apart from a limited number of photographers determined by the press gallery itself. Provision has been made for members of the parliamentary press gallery to use the glassed-in galleries on the second floor. The Speaker and I have jointly determined these arrangements to apply to both chambers for this sitting.

Regarding the operations of the Senate chamber itself, as senators will know, we are operating with a somewhat reduced Senate today, the product of extensive arrangements between the parties, because two of our colleagues, Senators McDonald and Bragg, have tested positive to coronavirus and several other senators are self-isolating after close contact with Senator Bragg at a committee hearing on 9 March. I also note that several committee staff from the Department of the Senate have been required to self-isolate and take other steps after managing hearings by affected senators. I know that all senators wish all affected senators and senators' staff the very best at this time.

Minor procedural adjustments will apply to sittings this week to enable observance of social distancing and other health advice. I seek the consent of the Senate to the following. It is intended that senators be able to speak from a seat other than their own. Where this occurs, I know there may be some delay before the relevant microphone is turned on by Broadcasting. If required, senators may be counted in a division if they are standing behind the bank of seats on the relevant side of the chamber, but they must remain still. If the Senate is required to resolve into a Committee of the Whole, that committee will be chaired from the President's chair rather than the chair at the Clerk's table. Finally, the doors to the chamber will remain open throughout proceedings. Divisions will be counted with the doors unlocked, with the usual rule that senators may not move from the seat or from where they are standing once the tellers have been appointed. With the concurrence of the Senate, it is so ordered.

Finally, the operations and procedures of the Senate and its committees will be radically different to usual practice over the coming months. I thank senators and the Department of the Senate for their understanding and cooperation. If any senator wishes to raise further related matters, they are of course very welcome to do so with the Clerk and myself. I thank senators.

10:04 am

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—We come together in this place as our nation faces one of the greatest challenges in its history. The COVID-19 coronavirus crisis is evolving so quickly, on so many fronts, that the people of our great nation are quite shell-shocked. Not only are they fearful for their own, their family's and their friends' health but they are uncertain about their very existence in life as they have long known it. And, of course, as active participants in our communities, as family members and as individual Australians with family and friends who are particularly vulnerable to the health threat of coronavirus, we also are not immune from those feelings. Our nation has faced many challenges and, history tells us, Australians have a unique grit, determination, strength and resilience, which allows us to rise to great challenges.

Mr President, I know that I speak for all of us when I say that we can assure the Australian people that we come here today with a steely resolve to do everything humanly possible to help lead this country through this challenging period. Our health mission is very clear. It is to slow down the spread of the virus, to save lives. We will not be able to stop the spread of the virus, but to slow it down will ensure that our health system has the best possible chance to appropriately prioritise treatment and support for our most vulnerable fellow Australians, while providing world-class health treatment to all affected. Our economic mission is to provide support to the economy and to business, to save jobs and to provide appropriate levels of support to those Australians who lose their job through no fault of their own or lose income as a result of the economic impact of the coronavirus. This enemy, in the form of a fast-moving and highly contagious virus, will be defeated but we need all Australians enlisted in the battle.

This is, first and foremost, a health crisis, and the government is dealing with the health battle as its highest priority. But it is, of course, a health crisis with very, very serious economic consequences. I can inform the Senate that as of this morning 1,316 Australians have tested positive to COVID-19. Those people are spread right across our nation in all of our states and territories. So far, seven Australians have died from this virus. Sadly, it will spread to a large proportion of our population in coming weeks and months, and the number of deaths will grow. It is so important that all Australians heed the advice of our country's top medical officials and strictly follow the laws, regulations, protocols and advice the federal government and state and territory governments have put in place to slow the spread of this virus. I say it again—we can't say it often enough—that by slowing the spread of this virus we will save lives.

It is up to all of us to play our part. By doing the right thing you might be able to save a life. It could be the life of a total stranger or it could be the life of someone close to you, a grandparent or elderly neighbour. If you fall into the category of someone who has to go into self-isolation, then follow those rules to the letter. All Australians must follow the rules regarding social distancing, non-essential travel and hygiene. Regretfully, we have had to move to more widespread restrictions on social gatherings, restricting the operation of facilities like restaurants, cafes, pubs, clubs, gyms, cinemas and a range of other places where Australians gather. Those latest restrictions announced after a national cabinet meeting late yesterday add to measures that were already in place and will change the way we live for some time to come. Unfortunately, there will likely be more restrictions to come.

By working together we can pull through to the other side of this. This challenge has also hit hard at the foundations of our economy. That is why this government has put in place an unprecedented package to support the businesses and workers of our nation. Yesterday we announced the second part of that package, bringing total support to the economy to $189 billion or almost 10 per cent of GDP.

Mr President, may I say that we are very grateful for the support from the opposition and other parties represented in the parliament for the package that we're putting forward, because Australians really are relying on us working as a united team to defeat the challenge in front of us. We're here today to deliver the support to the nation that will build a bridge to the other side of this crisis, which will allow us to come out stronger and ready for the recovery that will follow. The further economic response to coronavirus announced yesterday delivers $66 billion in support to the Australian economy. I'm not going to hold up the Senate by going through the details of it; it has been widely circulated.

The latest economic measures we're putting in place to help our country through this unprecedented crisis will not be the last. We will have to make further decisions in the weeks and months to come. We want to keep as many businesses in business, and as many workers in jobs, as possible. For those who we can't save or whose job we can't save, we want to ensure that the appropriate levels of support and a safety net are in place. We stand ready to add to those measures as necessary as this crisis unfolds. We want to ensure Australia can bounce back strongly when this crisis has passed. That is why we return to this place today. It is so that the government's economic stimulus measures pass the parliament and reach those affected as soon as possible.

Our government is committed to ensuring that, through this coronavirus crisis, we not only protect Australians' health and save lives but secure their jobs and livelihoods for the period beyond this crisis. This crisis will get worse before it gets better. But it will get better. Together, we will come through this.

10:11 am

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—Before I begin, I'd like to acknowledge to the chamber that Senator Wong has issued a public statement that, this morning, she woke feeling unwell and, consistent with advice to all Australians and recognising that her parliamentary colleagues will soon return home to their own communities, she has—as a responsible precaution—sought to self-isolate, pending medical advice, and will not be attending the Senate today.

You only have to watch the news for a handful of minutes to hear one word to describe the times we're currently living in: unprecedented. You only have to look at this chamber to know that this is not a normal parliamentary sitting. People across Australia are adapting to new routines, new ways of life and new rules. We thank the Australians who have chosen to stay home, who have avoided shaking hands or hugging, or who have had to cancel weddings, birthdays or even miss out on spending time with grandparents and other loved ones. We acknowledge this is not normal. And because it isn't normal, it's understandable that Australians are feeling anxious right now. At times, I have—and I'm sure we all have—felt concern, worry or even fear for our communities and for our families.

Parents are waking up this morning concerned about whether they should be sending their children to school—whether it is safe to do so. We understand this fear. Australians are concerned for their health and the health of their families, especially their mothers and fathers, their grandparents, their children, and those who are particularly vulnerable. People who are self-isolating right now are concerned about whether essentials like food will be able to be delivered to their home. Organisations like Foodbank are concerned about running out of staples. Australians across the country are worried about their jobs and what it means for their way of life. This is exactly why we, as the parliament, are here today, even in this slightly different-looking fashion. We acknowledge the government's stimulus package, its support package. In many ways, we need to move beyond the idea of 'stimulus'. We are moving into basic support for one another.

Labor will support the government's package because Australians need help, and they need it right now. The government does talk about building a bridge to the other side of this crisis, but the construction of that bridge should not wait, and it definitely shouldn't be delayed by politics or grandstanding. All along, Labor has been supportive of the government's measures that have been announced during this crisis—decisions made on best available medical advice. We have worked in the spirit of bipartisanship because we're only going to get through this crisis as Australians by working together. However, bipartisanship does not mean the government has been given a blank cheque. We have raised concerns with the government. Many of those discussions have happened between shadow ministers and ministers. Many have happened in good faith, and we acknowledge that. Shadow ministers have called or written to their counterparts. The government has heard them out and has acted, knowing that we all have the same purpose: to keep Australians safe, protect their health, safeguard the economy and save our society from coronavirus. I thank the government for picking up the phone and for listening when they've done so. In fact, I encourage all Australians to do the same—that is, to reach out to your colleagues, to your families, to your neighbours. Self-isolation does not need to mean social isolation. Send a Facebook message or a text to your mate who you think might have lost their job. The people in our lives need support now more than ever, just like the Australians need the support of their government and the parliament. This is exactly why we are here today.

Labor will raise our concerns about this stimulus package, this economic support package. It isn't perfect, and we acknowledge it may not ever be. It may not be as Labor would have implemented it had we been in government. We will look at additional methods of accountability and scrutiny to ensure this stimulus is getting into people's pockets as quickly as possible. When it comes to both our health response and our economic response, we need to be asking ourselves as a parliament: if we know we are going to need to do something in a week or two weeks time, wouldn't it be better to do it as soon as possible? Wouldn't it be better to take action as soon as possible to save lives and livelihoods? We will do what all of us have been elected to do to protect Australians and our Australian way of life: we will be constructive as we work through this evolving and complex crisis. Australia now, more than ever, needs leadership and clear messaging. We need to support Australian families and we need to support one another, because we're only going to get through this health and economic crisis together.

10:16 am

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—To state the obvious, we are all in this together. Whether it be those of us in this chamber, those of us in this parliament or those of us right around the country or, for that matter, the world, we are all in this together and we need to remember that that is the case. The Greens will approach this debate constructively, whether it be in this chamber or in the broader community, but we will speak up for those who have been left behind or will be left behind if the government's response is not changed and improved. The government's response is not big enough, it's not fast enough and it's not fair enough. Of course we need to focus, as a priority, on things in our health system that can save lives, ICU beds and ventilators being the classic example. But, more broadly in our response to coronavirus, we need to not be scared to make difficult decisions and to make them early. We need to go hard and we need to go early. It is far better for us to make the tough calls and then later on say, 'Well, perhaps we didn't need to go that far,' than it is to be afraid to make the tough calls and end up counting the cost in human lives. Support for business needs to be linked to job and wages guarantees. We should be looking at taking an equity stake if we're bailing out big corporations. We need to make sure that no-one is left behind—no students, no carers, no people with disability and no creative economy workers, none of whom are receiving the supports that they need in the government's current proposal.

When this crisis is over here in Australia and around the world, the world is never going to be the same again. There will be no return to normal, as the Prime Minister claimed yesterday. We need to use this crisis to make permanent changes to the way we do business, to make sure that governments take a more active, hands-on role supporting people in our community, increasing taxes on those who can best afford it, so that we can fund proper public services in this country: our health services, our education services, our public transport services and the supports that we provide to people who really need it.

We in the Greens hope that this crisis becomes an opportunity—an opportunity for us all to understand that governments should be playing a far more significant role in our economy and that governments should be playing a far more significant role in looking after people who desperately need it. Colleagues, those are the challenges, and the opportunities, before us here today, and the Greens are ready to work constructively with you all to respond to them. Finally, can I say: please, stay safe, do all the sensible things, look after yourselves, look after your families, look after your communities, and we look forward to working with you to respond to this crisis.

10:20 am

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—The Nationals associate ourselves with and support the comments of the Leader of the Government in this place, Senator Mathias Cormann. We won't be seeking to politicise what is absolutely a crisis for our nation, and indeed the globe. For regional Australians, we stand ready to do our bit in responding to the crisis. Keeping food supply chains open at this point in time is incredibly important. Australians will have access to clean, green, fabulous food produced by our farmers right across this nation. Our government stands willing to make sure that those supply chains remain open and that our farmers can produce that food—so, there is no need to panic-buy—to make sure that the very vulnerable in our community can have access to the food they need to keep their families fed in a nutritious way.

We are going to find new ways to exhibit the Australian spirit. Our resilience as a people, our compassion as a people are things that we Australians somehow find very deep within ourselves, in our communities and as individuals, when we're faced with global crises. We're very good at it. Our regional communities have exhibited it through the drought and through the bushfires over summer. I know that we'll do the same through this crisis.

I thank the government for their response in this ever-evolving, ever-changing current space. I think we have to use the best evidence available to us and trust our chief medical officers in what is an ever-evolving incidence. I applaud the Prime Minister's decision to hold a national cabinet where we, as one—Labor, Liberal and Nationals—are sitting around the same table focusing on how we can best support our communities and our nation through this unprecedented time.

From The Nationals' perspective, we look forward to our community supplying fabulous food, but don't rush out and buy it all at once—it'll still be there tomorrow. The trucks are on the road at this time. I know that our government, along with the opposition and the state premiers, will be working towards making sure we're as healthy and safe as possible. I ask us all to stand together to ensure that we get through this as best as we can as a nation.

10:23 am

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—We applaud Senator Cormann's opening comments, and also Senator Keneally's opening comments. This is, as Senator Cormann said, a huge threat to our nation, to people's health, to our security, and to our economics. COVID-19, as Senator Cormann said, is moving so quickly and on so many fronts. Yet, Senator Cormann, when we went shopping yesterday to get some food in Canberra, I saw business as usual. People are not aware of what is happening—not aware of the threats of this. We need to work on that. One Nation will work with the government to serve the people. What we want to do is not just slow down the virus but shut it down, in order to save lives and minimise the economic impact. Saving jobs will require restoring the productive capacity of our country. As many people around the world have said, this is now a war, and we're on a war footing. That's why it's so important to have our productive capacity restored.

Italy has an excuse for the mess in which it finds itself—open borders and ignorance in dealing with a very new threat. South Korea made the same mistake initially but has rebounded remarkably, through rigorous testing, isolating key people and then getting back to normal. It's reported that it has had minimal disruptions. As Senator Cormann said, we need to heed the advice of the top medical people. I ask everyone in this chamber to look at the data and the facts around the world. We now have the data and facts that Italy and Korea initially didn't have. South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and even mainland China are showing how to deal with this.

The third point I'd like to make is that history shows that some entities during such crises and challenging times take advantage of others. We in One Nation will make sure we protect our taxpayers and protect people's health. We will join with the government in doing that. We need though to remember to look to the future and to restore the productive capacity of our country after 20 years of neglect. We need to restore freedoms as soon as possible because economics depends on interaction of people. Once we cut that interaction there's minimal economic trading.

I ask everyone in Australia to cooperate with the government. We elected the government. Whether you voted for it or not, it is the government. We need to go beyond that to ensure the virus is stopped. Everyone in Australia has a role in stopping this virus.

10:26 am

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—These are unusual times and frightening times. It's a time when we all need to pull together to support each other and very much not play political games. We will all be impacted by COVID-19. Over time we will all know friends, family, business associates and others who very much succumbed to it. Some will have few symptoms, others will struggle through and some will die. Life will very much be put on hold. But with the right support we will all get through this. We're all in it together.

Small business in particular is very much suffering. You can see the worry on proprietors' faces and hear it in their voices. They might not be across the latest numbers—and everything is moving incredibly quickly—but the falling number of customers through their doors, the falling store sales and very much the dwindling balances of their cash reserves show what the true state of play is. Their employees know it too. They can see the strain on the faces of their bosses and managers. They know that they might not have a job for long, but, fortunately, this package the government has put forward is going to be a big help for them and others. They're cutting back and keeping spending to the essentials just in case their worst fears are realised.

Everyone is affected—every business, every industry and every state. Alongside the public health crisis is a crisis of confidence that is very much stalling spending and investment. It's a crisis that threatens to cripple our economy long after the coronavirus has passed and a crisis that needs our attention and resolve at a time when we should be completely focused on the health of those we care about. Centre Alliance very much welcomes the government's economic response. We recognise that it has two objectives: to provide relief to the individuals who will find themselves in difficulty in the coming months and to provide relief to the businesses that will depend on it after the crisis to get back to normal.

There are measures in this package which in normal times we would seek to amend. We have a preference for policy measures to be well targeted, for rules to be in primary legislation rather than in delegated legislation and for legislative instruments to be disallowable. We believe this enables more scrutiny and provides a parliamentary check on government power. But we are not in normal times. This is a crisis and perhaps the most challenging situation for an Australian government since the war, so we recognise that the situation demands a timely response rather than a perfect response. We believe it's better for us to provide constructive suggestions and criticisms in private rather than through amendments and to hold off on formal scrutiny until the crisis has passed. This is very much the responsible thing to do.