Senate debates

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Ministerial Statements


2:00 pm

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

At this, one of the most difficult times in our nation's history, we come together to serve the Australian people and guide our nation through this unprecedented challenge. Our focus today, as it has been every day since this crisis began, is to help Australians get safely to the other side. This fast-moving, highly contagious disease is unrelenting and terrifying in scale and nature—a health crisis like no other in living memory. It does not discriminate between young and old, fit and healthy, men and women, factory workers to CEOs—people from all walks of life, including, as we know, politicians. As the experience in the UK has shown, princes and prime ministers are not immune from this virus either. It has impacted many lives around the world and here in Australia, and we know that it will affect many more.

Every Australian has felt the impact of the coronavirus, some very directly, but everyone through its impact on our economy and our daily lives, and 5,956 Australians have tested positive to COVID-19. Tragically, 48 Australians have died from this virus. It is worse, much worse, in some other parts of the world. Our thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones and friends while we continue to support our fellow Australians battling ill health. We are all in this together. This is first and foremost a health crisis, and the government is dealing with the medical battle as our highest priority. But it is not only the health and wellbeing of Australians at risk. Life as we know it has changed in the face of COVID-19.

In dealing with this challenge we had to make changes that have affected the lives of every Australian. Businesses have closed their doors and workers have lost their jobs. It will be sometime before we know the full extent of the economic and social impact of this health crisis. Schools have changed to different modes of learning. A number of community services are no longer operating. Facilities we've come to take for granted—gyms, pool and cinemas—are no longer open to us. Thriving industries have ground to a halt. Strict social restrictions have forced on us a new way of living.

Actions we are taking in responding to this new reality are in the best interests of Australians. They are necessary to save lives. The steps we have taken are slowing down the spread of the virus, to ensure our hospital system, in particular our ICUs, is able to deal with the flow of patients in need of care. Official data shows that we are heading in the right direction. When we last met, new cases were growing at more than 20 per cent per day. In recent days it has averaged two per cent a day. This is, of course, encouraging. We seem to be achieving our mission to flatten the curve, but, while it looks right now like the trend is our friend, we cannot take our foot off the brake in terms of slowing down the spread of this virus. We have to keep at it together, for all of us.

It is important that all Australians continue to heed the advice of our top medical officials, particularly over the Easter break and over winter. The regulations, protocols and advice that federal and state governments have put in place are based on expert medical advice, and we all have a role to play in self-isolating, working from home, practising good hygiene, engaging with friends and family virtually and not physically. We are asking all Australians to follow the health advice that has been issued by the Chief Medical Officer so that they can protect their own health, the health of their families and the health of the whole community. We are asking Australians to stay home as much as they can and to work from home where they can.

We know Australians are asked to accept a lot of changes to save Australian lives, and we need to lead by example. That is why the government moved, during our last sitting, to suspend the previously agreed parliamentary sitting calendar until 11 August 2020. We are a very large continent. The logistics involved in bringing this parliament together ordinarily involves 227 members and senators plus staff and many, many others travelling to Canberra from all corners of our great nation. In the context of the health advice, we expect all Australians to restrict travel and to stay at home where possible. This is not something we should be doing right now unless it is necessary.

We are asking Australians to comply with these restrictions to help us save lives. Where we can, we, of course, also should and must comply with these restrictions. Most states and the Northern Territory have, in fact, closed their state or territory borders and imposed strict quarantine requirements on returned travellers to their jurisdictions. Yes, as federal members of parliament, we do have access to relevant exemptions as essential workers, as we must. We have those exemptions appropriately, even though, without taking all these necessary precautions, we are seen as at a comparatively high risk of contracting the coronavirus disease, given the work we do day in and day out. So on public health grounds it is surely incumbent on us to use that exemption judiciously, to act consistently with the public health advice directed to all other Australians to the largest extent possible and to minimise our travel during this period.

Parliament not sitting for a period does not mean the government is not under scrutiny from the parliament. The government supports the important work of the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation, ably chaired by Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. We will also be supporting the establishment of a dedicated select committee to be chaired by the shadow finance minister, Senator Gallagher, which will be examining and scrutinising the government's response to COVID-19. In fact, our government very much welcomes the establishment of this Senate select committee, which will have as its job to scrutinise and question all of the initiatives and measures taken by our government in responding to the coronavirus crisis. That committee will be supported from the coalition side by Senator James Paterson, a very experienced committee chair across the broader Prime Minister and Cabinet and Finance portfolios, who will be our nominee for Deputy Chair, and Senator Perin Davey, who will bring an important regional perspective to the work of that committee. All interested senators will be able to participate in that long-term inquiry as they see fit.

It also, of course, remains possible for senators to ask ministers questions on notice, and I know a number of colleagues in this chamber take furious advantage of that opportunity. Furthermore, the parliament may well sit again between now and August, if and as required. The motion the Senate agreed to unanimously when we last met allowed for the President to determine the day and time of the next meeting of the Senate at the request of or with the agreement of the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. That is, in fact, precisely how today's sitting of the Senate came about, and I will be moving a motion to the same effect before the Senate adjourns today. To put it simply: the Senate can sit and will sit to ensure measures are implemented that protect Australians and support the economy, jobs and Australians in need of support, in response to the increasing threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus. But, during this period, we will only sit if that is necessary for us to act consistently, as much as we can, with the public health advice directed by medical experts to all Australians.

Mr President, our nation has faced many challenges, and history tells us we will emerge on the other side of this stronger and closer. Through our determination, our strength and our resilience, Australia and all Australians will see this challenge through in our own unique and gritty way. The COVID-19 coronavirus crisis is not just a health crisis. It has rocked the foundation of our economy, and we know many Australian businesses and workers are hurting. As a government, we feel their pain and we are here to help. We want all Australians to have the best possible opportunity to get safely to the other side of all this. We want to help as many businesses as possible to remain in business, and we want as many workers as possible working for those businesses to remain in their jobs. And we want to ensure that those Australians who do lose their jobs receive appropriate support through our temporarily boosted social safety net.

Our $130 billion JobKeeper package—which the parliament, in a very unified fashion, will legislate today—will provide a historic wage subsidy to around six million workers. This flat payment of $1,500 per fortnight, paid through employers, will help keep Australians in jobs as businesses tackle the significant economic impact from the coronavirus. As of this morning, more than 730,000 businesses have registered for this support. It is equivalent to around 70 per cent of the national median wage for workers in the accommodation, hospitality and retail sectors. It will equate to a full median replacement wage. Not since World War II has the government dealt with a piece of legislation as significant and as important as the legislation we are dealing with today. What we as a country are offering to our fellow Australians who are economically impacted by the coronavirus is extraordinary in scale and size. These are extraordinary times.

The JobKeeper package is one piece of the bridge we are building together to the other side of this crisis. It brings the total additional support for the economy to $320 billion or to 16.4 per cent of GDP. We have previously doubled support for welfare recipients and provided greater support for social security and veteran income support recipients and eligible concession card holders. Individuals in financial distress because of the coronavirus crisis can access part of their superannuation now to relieve financial strain. Retirees have more flexibility to manage their superannuation assets, and lower deeming rates will help those under financial pressure. Eligible small- and medium-sized businesses have received a boost to their cash flow and will have easier access to new loans. Rent relief is on the way for commercial and residential tenants. We have injected more money into our domestic violence and mental health support services, which are so valuable to us.

All the while, we have continued to build the National Medical Stockpile. Over 30 million masks have arrived in recent days, with more than 500 million masks on order. Domestic production is also underway. I should advise the Senate that, since we last met, I've made $800 million in additional funding available from the advance to the finance minister legislated during our last sitting. That $800 million in funding has been provided to the Department of Health to fund the further procurement of masks and other emergency health equipment to deal with the impact of COVID-19 in Australia.

We have moved decisively as a nation to address the economic storm confronting us, with an unprecedented economic and fiscal response. We have done what we believe was needed and will not hesitate to do more if required. As a government, we are forging a path through this crisis that will enable us to come out stronger and ready for the recovery that will follow—because follow it will. And we do not want any Australian left behind in the meantime. Our government stands ready to add to these measures as necessary, as this crisis continues to unfold. As a government we know, and the Australian people know, that during this time of serious national challenge, all of us represented in this chamber and in this parliament will continue to pull together in doing what needs to be done in the national interest. I thank the Senate.

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.

2:24 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise on behalf of the Australian Greens in reply to the ministerial statement. COVID-19 is transforming the world and our country. It's exposing a lot about how we've structured our societies and about what's really important when it really matters. It's exposed that many of the jobs that have long been undervalued will in fact be essential to get us through this crisis and to help the country recover. On behalf of the Australian Greens I acknowledge and commend the immense efforts of our nurses, doctors, paramedics, cleaners, pharmacists, aged-care workers, teachers, early childhood educators and supermarket staff, many of whom are putting themselves at personal risk to save others and to support our community during this crisis. My heart goes out to all of those who have lost loved ones; to people who have the virus or whose family members or friends are unwell; to the families and friends who are separated by isolation; to parents struggling with work from home, homeschooling and caring for elderly relatives; and to those struggling without the social networks that usually sustain them. What you are doing is saving lives. It's been said repeatedly, but we are indeed in this together, and we need to make sure that no-one is left behind.

The Greens will be supporting the bills and helping to pass them today, but we owe it to those who will miss out to propose amendments to make this package better and to make sure that no-one is left behind. We owe it to the one million casual workers who will miss out on the JobKeeper payment, those for whom an arbitrary cut-off date means the difference between keeping their job and being left out. We owe it to those in the arts and entertainment sector, to whom we turned to raise funds during the bushfire crisis and whose films, books, games and shows we are now relying on to keep us sane during isolation. We owe it to the renters, who have been hit hard by this crisis but still have no national plan in place to protect them. Keeping a roof over people's heads during this crisis is surely one of the most fundamental things that this parliament should do. We owe it to those receiving disability support and carers pension, who are currently excluded from the COVID-19 supplement despite the significant additional costs that isolation is imposing upon them. We owe it to the million international workers currently here working under a visa, those who've been contributing—some for many years—in our communities but who this government is now telling to go home. We owe it to the more than 500,000 international students that we wooed to our country, whose university fees we accepted, but that we now ask to fend for themselves.

The Greens will not give up on these people. We will propose a suite of amendments today to plug the gaps in the government's safety net and make sure no-one is left behind. We'll also push to ensure that there is appropriate oversight throughout this crisis. The scale of this crisis and the response that's required mean we need more transparency, more democracy, not less. We're giving away extraordinary powers under this legislation—quite possibly the most powers conferred on an executive since World War II. It is necessary, but we shouldn't be abdicating our constitutional role as a house of review and of scrutiny. We will ultimately be supporting the proposed Senate select committee to oversee the COVID-19 response, and we will be ably represented by our whip, Senator Siewert, but we will also push for parliament to continue sitting to provide those checks and balances that this situation demands.

This crisis has exposed the extent to which Australia's safety net has been picked away at for 30 years, but it's also showing the potential to rebuild it. It's my hope that the structures that we're rapidly rebuilding in this crisis will be retained. It's a chance to think about how we want this country to go forward and to dare to dream of a fairer, happier and more ecologically sustainable future.

2:28 pm

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

As Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, I stand to associate our party with the comments from Senator Cormann, particularly his references to the indiscriminate nature of this virus with regard to its victims—and regional Australia is not immune. It's a crisis that, as Senator Wong so eloquently stated, is something that we will get through together, as one. We have faced seemingly insurmountable challenges in our past as a nation and, when we come together, we can do great things. As we look across the federation, I think it's been really heartening to see how Australians have really embraced, at very much a community and organisational level, the leadership, through the work of the national cabinet, of our premiers and our Prime Minister and have adopted very tough measures around socially isolating et cetera. We're learning new ways of connecting, and, hopefully, some of them will stay with us once we get through this.

Out in regional Australia, we are socially isolating. We're doing the right thing. We're also producing a lot of fresh food. This unprecedented government response from the national cabinet in the face of this unique health challenge is so significant. I think the legislation we've been called to parliament to pass today will help us stem some of the more devastating impacts on our economy and our workforce going forward.

Regional Australians know about resilience and compassion in adversity. I would also like to associate the Nationals with Senator Wong's commentary around the community response and the need to connect at a personal level. I thought hers were very apt words. Our nation, when you look around the globe, has actually chosen quite a unique approach to deal with this crisis. I think we need to be proud of our premiers and our Prime Minister and of the way we're all working across all party lines to find a solution that's right for us.

To our families living in the bush: we have your back and we're making sure that any response that our government puts forward recognises the challenges for rural and regional communities and our industries. On the issue of telecommunication concerns, we welcomed the NBN Sky Muster program's support and the increase in data, as rural and regional Australians, businesses and families struggling to educate children at home need that additional data. We have a health package that recognises the unique aspects of health provision out in regional and rural areas. There are specific measures for remote community preparedness in our Indigenous communities. There has been the establishment of respiratory health clinics. We've seen one open in Mildura this week and one up in Emerald, and there will be more rolled out in regional communities over the coming weeks. There has been an increase to telehealth services. It has been a real boon for regional Australians to be able to stay on their property or in their community and still access specialist health services. We've also put forward specific measures for rural aged-care services. We've also invested money to support remote communities, to minimise the impact and to have specific evacuation strategies available to them, because we know that if this virus gets into some of our more remote Indigenous communities it will have a devastating impact.

We're also focused on supporting Australia's regional airline network, because many of our regional communities rely on air services for urgent and essential transport, medical supplies and personnel. We've been really focused on keeping Australia's supply chain open so our food producers can get our crops harvested and to market, wherever that happens to be. That has been critical in keeping our shelves stocked at supermarkets. Our farmers, across every state and territory, have been very committed to ensuring we will not run out of food in this country—so please don't panic buy! They're working very, very hard.

We've got a $110 million export initiative to help our agricultural and fishery sectors get that produce on planes and into key overseas markets, because that means securing regional jobs and making the recovery quicker once we're through this. It also means keeping the trucks on the road. When I was driving up from Wodonga yesterday, there was barely a car in sight, but there were trucks on both sides. Ferrying essential medical supplies, food et cetera has been really, really key. Keeping the roadside service stations, the roadhouses and the truck driver lounges open so that our truckies can get the rest, food and personal care that they need whilst doing this very, very critical task of keeping those supply chains open has been something that governments have been very, very focused on.

Nationals senators have been fierce advocates, on behalf of our growers, of extending the working holiday-maker visas—the seasonal and Pacific islander visa classes—because agriculture needs these workers on farms to ensure that we can have a fresh, domestic food supply in our supermarkets. Whether it's Senator McMahon, for our melon growers in the NT, Senators Canavan and McDonald, for the mango growers in Queensland, or Senator Davey and me, for the apple and pear growers in the southern area, we can't underestimate what that particular measure by the government means to so many of our primary producers.

We've brought forward measures to keep regional media strong so that we can be kept informed out in regional and rural Australia. Small businesses are the cornerstone of our communities, so we've cut red tape. We're also bringing forward these supplements that offer an extra boost for rural businesses, and I think the JobKeeper wage subsidy, which will keep employees and businesses connected through this crisis, is an absolute milestone achievement. I congratulate everyone, from Porter to McManus, for getting this done.

As the Senate team, we're at home, wherever we are out in the regions, working to support our communities, not just through drought and bushfire response and recovery, which is ongoing, but also by making sure our communities can access this much-needed government support—from the trophy shop operator in Central Queensland to the work that's being done, particularly by Senators McMahon and McDonald, to make sure supermarkets, which won't let you bulk-buy anything, revise those measures for people who live out on stations, where a round trip to the supermarket could be upwards of 800 kilometres. That has been essential work and a commonsense approach in a time of crisis.

I want to inform the Senate of a good news story that's happening out there in the regions. Senator McMahon informed me of Gary Frost, who runs the Dunmarra roadhouse on the Stuart Highway, halfway between Darwin and Alice Springs. People can't dine in, so he has a plane and he actually drops pizza and beer out to stations at no additional delivery charge. So there you go! Thank you very much, Gary. It's typical of the can-do attitude and commitment of communities right across Australia in a time of crisis.

Honourable Senator:

An honourable senator interjecting

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

Yes, we should put his name forward. I'll take that interjection, Senator; thank you. It is a story that's repeated right across the country. There are unique stories of compassion, of resilience and of supporting the most vulnerable. We are really at our best in a time of crisis. I commend individuals and organisations that are being their very, very best selves at the moment.

The Nationals back our health response, particularly those on the front line. We don't underestimate how hard this will be. Millions have lost their jobs, 48 Australians have lost their lives, and we haven't seen the end of it. But, in adversity, through droughts, floods and fire, we've stood together.

Finally, as we head into Easter, we know that we made a big bang-on about heading out into the bush so that you could support our businesses as they recover from drought and bushfire—and that all beckoned—but, today and in the coming period over Easter, please do not visit your favourite regional Australian destination. We're not immune. Do the right thing: stay at home. When the time's right, we will look forward to welcoming you all with open arms to celebrate our beautiful flora and fauna.

2:37 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak briefly in response to the minister's statement. COVID-19 does indeed present a significant challenge for Australians. But I would also like us to consider, in particular, some of our regional neighbours—places like Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and, indeed, the South Pacific. We should keep an eye on those jurisdictions and look to help and assist those jurisdictions if we can, even if it's only in spirit in some instances. The government has been successful: the trend is looking good in respect of flattening the curve. The responses haven't been perfect. No doubt the Senate will deal with that in time, and I will say a few words on that a little bit later.

Centre Alliance will be supporting the government's bills today, but we will also be moving amendments to fill cracks. I haven't seen all of the Greens amendments. I suspect some of them may be the same, but I would just address this to Senator Wong and the opposition as we move these amendments: we may have some good ideas—we may have some ideas that fill cracks in the legislation—and they should be considered. Our aim here is not to get the legislation quickly through the parliament; it's to properly scrutinise it and get a better outcome, and if that takes a little bit more time then so be it. I encourage you to look closely at those amendments.

I am glad that there is support for a Senate committee that will look at COVID-19 and the government's response; however, I will point out that the Senate committee doesn't provide opportunity for debate on issues. It does not allow for disallowances, as the Treasurer makes changes to the rules that we are set to agree upon—or at least the shell legislation that will enable the Treasurer to make rules. Because of comity principles, it does not allow for the Senate to call ministers from the other place—or at least to require them. There is an issue with that and I will be putting a question to Minister Cormann in relation to that at question time.

Of course, the business of government is continuing. We must recognise and acknowledge that there are a number of public servants around Australia who are continuing to do their work. They're continuing to make sure that the arms of government are working. The parliament should, of course, be examining what they're doing and, if necessary, criticising and seeking changes to the way they might be doing things, and a Senate select committee that is examining COVID-19 cannot do that. For that reason, it is my very strong view that the parliament should continue sitting. Of course, it's clear that we won't have the numbers to force that to happen, so I would like to remind all senators of standing order 55(2), which allows that:

The President, at the request of an absolute majority of the whole number of senators that the Senate meet at a certain time, shall fix a time of meeting in accordance with that request, and the time of meeting shall be notified to each senator.

So there is, in fact, a mechanism, and I extend an offer to Senator Wong, Senator Waters and others: if indeed there is a problem that requires—

Honourable Senator:

An honourable senator interjecting

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

And, indeed, Senator Cormann. If there is a measure that is implemented through the rules that is unacceptable, or if there is something that is happening that requires attention, we have the ability to recall the parliament. That is not my preference, but I just want to make sure all senators are aware of that option. Once again, it is my strong view that we should continue sitting.

2:42 pm

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

I seek to make a statement in response to the minister's statement. We acknowledge that there is no manual for dealing with this virus and we empathise with the government's challenge. That is, though, all the more reason for the government to openly share data, future projections and information with the people. As pressures mount regarding personal security, as well as emotionally and financially, on people across our nation, any shortage of data is being seen as an absence of trust by the government in the people, and that, in turn, will make it difficult for Australians to trust government and the parliament. Government honesty and trust in the people will be met with trust from the people.

At this time, One Nation would also like to thank everyone who is caring for us and keeping us safe, including healthcare workers, police, defence and emergency workers, and everyone serving others, including those helping to supply and feed us, teach our children, generate electricity, collect garbage, clean, supply water and much more. They are people who are keeping services working for us all.

COVID-19 has exposed as severely lacking in our current economic and industrial structures the productive capacity and economic resilience that were once part of Australian culture and history. We need to take this opportunity to take stock and then rebuild our society on the values, systems and cultures that ensure a return to personal enterprise, instead of the creeping dead hand and suffocating blanket of a large and ever-growing central government. History shows that the secret of human happiness and human progress is nothing new and has been discovered, lost and rediscovered for millennia—and, more recently, lost in our country. We need to bring back Australia's economic sovereignty, productive capacity and economic resilience, based on restoring personal enterprise and compliance with a constitution that enshrines competitive federalism and individual liberty. We all need, as representatives of the people and servants to the people, to ensure that the people's government is held accountable for what it does and does not do during this emergency.

We are giving the government a blank cheque, and rightly so, because there are many uncertainties in this. There is such a complex system that we are already trying to amend. But ministers have the power to make these changes through regulations, and that is given to ensure that cracks in the legislation are closed quickly to ensure people are covered fairly right across our country. It is a blank cheque, but we must do our job as senators to make sure that we review that and the progress of it. What many Australians, looking beyond our health and financial safety, want is to make sure that we leave COVID-19 behind us, and that we are left with better freedoms and liberties and a stronger, freer economy than before.