Wednesday, 8 April 2020
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Minister Cormann, representing the Prime Minister, about some of the people left behind in the government's COVID support packages. The government have bent over backwards to ensure that commercial tenancies can be renegotiated to continue, but why have you continually pushed residential tenants to the bottom of the national cabinet agenda? Where is the action on the earlier commitment to prevent residential evictions, and with half a million young casual workers getting no support from JobKeeper how do you expect them to cover rent?
We are providing a significantly enhanced social safety net through the jobseeker program, and we are about to legislate a $130 billion JobKeeper program. Beyond that, of course we do recognise the challenges that many tenants in residential tenancies face. The issue of tenancy is fairly and squarely a matter for state and territory governments, which they recognise.
The industries that have been most affected are the same industries that have the highest numbers of casuals employed for less than 12 months: hospitality, retail, accommodation, tourism, and the arts and entertainment industries. We are talking here about one million people, with half a million of those under the age of 24. Why did you exclude them? Was it just budget-saving reasons, or because young people don't vote for your party?
Government senators interjecting—
Thank you very much, Mr President. Let me just, firstly, utterly reject the offensive suggestion that any partisan or electoral considerations are involved in any of this. That is just objectionable. It's very disappointing that you would choose to lower the tone of the national conversation in this context to that extent. You've raised some legitimate issues of inquiry, and you've let yourself down, quite frankly, by adding that snarky little bit at the end. You should reflect on that.
We are providing JobKeeper support to six million Australians. We will be providing jobseeker support to well over one million Australians. More than half the Australian working population will be on some form of government payment to support them through this crisis. And, yes, we did use the long-term casual worker definition under the Fair Work Act. The whole objective is to keep workers connected to the businesses that they have been in employment relationships with, and the definition of an employment relationship for casual workers is that they have worked for that business for at least 12 months. But it's not as if casual workers who have worked for that business for less time can't get assistance.
Order! I didn't think I would need the standing orders today, but can I remind senators of standing orders 73, which says that questions shall not contain imputations, amongst other things. I would say that was getting a bit too specific, Senator Waters. A final supplementary question?
The increased costs for disabled people and carers as a result of needing to self-isolate are greater than for the general population. Private transport, food deliveries, health care and personal protective equipment are all basic needs now. Will you extend the coronavirus supplement to DSP and carer payment recipients to acknowledge their higher living costs and not leave them behind?
The Minister for Families and Social Services just confirmed for me that pensioners are already on the highest income support payment. On top of that, of course, we are making two $750 additional contributions. The first has gone out from the end of March to the middle of April, and the second will go out in July. We are recognising that there are additional challenges, of course, which is why we've made these additional contributions.
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and Regional Development, Senator Cash. Can the minister update the Senate on how the Liberal and Nationals government is protecting and supporting rural and regional Australians through the coronavirus pandemic?
I thank Senator McKenzie for the question and acknowledge her deep commitment to those in rural and regional Australia. Senator McKenzie, as you would know, we are supporting our rural and regional Australians affected by the COVID-19 crisis with a $1 billion recovery and relief fund. Senator McKenzie, to confirm the words you have used: 'We are in this together. Regional Australia is not immune.'
The Liberal-National government will provide fast, targeted support through our recovery and relief fund to address emerging needs of specifically affected sectors, industries and communities and to immediately reduce pressures in regional Australia. This includes further support under the Regional Air Network Assistance Package, to maintain the air network across regional Australia, and support for the agricultural and fisheries sector to continue export of their high-quality produce into overseas markets, complemented by the waiving of fishery levies for Commonwealth fishers.
We also know that disruption to labour supply and the agricultural food supply chain have been key issues for the agricultural sector in managing the effects of COVID-19. We're committed to ensuring agriculture is well supported so Australia remains in a position to produce the food we need and continue to provide food for the world. We're also responding to calls from farmers across the country. As Senator McKenzie has already referred to, we've made temporary visa changes to allow those in the Pacific Labour Scheme, the Seasonal Worker Program and the Working Holiday Maker program to continue working in agriculture and food processing. We're also keeping regional Australians connected, with changes to how schooling and work are being carried out during this crisis. We have new initiatives from NBN Co that will provide more broadband data for Sky Muster satellite customers living in rural and remote Australia. And we also have, as you know, Senator McKenzie, a $2.4 billion health package. (Time expired)
Yes, I can. Despite the current crisis, our government stands with drought and bushfire affected regional communities. Again, Senator McKenzie, as you know, we have not forgotten them. There are a range of programs available to immediately support those affected by the drought conditions, including the Farm Household Allowance, which gives farming families the assistance they need to put food on the table and has recently been given a boost due to the government's COVID-19 supplement. We also have the recently expanded Rural Financial Counselling Service and the Drought Community Support Initiative. The mental health and wellbeing support has been boosted. Concessional loans and generous taxation measures continue to be available.
We also know that drought just doesn't stop at the farm gate, which is why there are also a range of programs for communities doing it tough. The Drought Communities Program gives $1 million stimulus to councils, which allows them to boost tourism or provide additional employment through infrastructure projects. There is also additional funding for road infrastructure and more support available for schools and childcare centres that have taken a financial— (Time expired)
Senator McKenzie, you actually raise a very good point, and you've already referred to it in your ministerial statement. It has been sent out via Australia.gov.au and many of us will have received it on our mobile telephones—that is, this Easter over the holiday break the message is to stay at home. Don't travel to the coast. Don't travel to the country over Easter. Don't go and visit family and friends in the region. Don't go and visit your favourite holiday destination this season. You may think you are doing the right thing, but you will not be. Continue doing what you have been doing for the past few weeks. Stay at home. That is what is going to see us all collectively as a nation through this crisis.
At this time, as Senator McKenzie acknowledged, regional Australia need our support, but the support we can give them over the Easter long weekend is to stay at home. The message is clear: stay at home; don't travel. (Time expired)
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture, Drought, and Emergency Management, Senator Ruston. The Biosecurity Act 2015 requires cruise vessels to report any passengers who show symptoms of infectious diseases to the Department of Agriculture's biosecurity officers before arrival in Australia. According to a COVID-19 fact sheet entitled 'Information for the cruise industry' released by the Australian government on 6 March, if an ill traveller is reported 'a biosecurity officer will liaise with the vessel to screen for COVID-19'. The Ruby Princess reported 158 ill passengers, including 17 with high fevers. How many federal biosecurity officers met the Ruby Princess's 2,700 passengers when it docked in Sydney on 17 March? What actions did these officers take to screen for COVID-19?
I thank Senator Keneally for her question. In relation to the specific questions that you've asked, I will take those on notice and will get you an answer from the minister for agriculture. But can I absolutely assure the chamber that the Australian government is totally committed to protecting Australians from COVID-19, including through its biosecurity measures that operate through the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, and that it is working very closely with the Department of Health, which is obviously leading the national health response to COVID-19. As you rightly point out, biosecurity plays an extraordinarily critical role, particularly at our borders, in making sure we continue to protect Australian citizens, because, as we all know, much of the identified transmission of COVID-19 has come from overseas.
As of 1 February 2020, all travellers arriving from, or who have been in, mainland China, regardless of nationality, have been subject to control measures. Subsequent to that time, other countries have also been subject to control measures, as we've seen in recent days when those who have been brought home by the extraordinary work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, through the work of Minister Payne to bring Australians home to Australia. So, I thank the senator for her question, and I will get the details of her question on notice.
The same COVID-19 fact sheet states that disembarking cruise ship passengers with no signs or symptoms of COVID-19 'must wear a surgical mask' when travelling domestically or on public transport or in taxis in Australia to reach their home. Did federal biosecurity officers direct the 2,700 disembarking passengers from the Ruby Princessto wear a surgical mask to travel home?
Once again, I thank Senator Keneally for her question and continued interest. I will take the specific nature of your question on notice and I will make sure that I provide you with a very timely response. But there is absolutely no doubt that cruise ships have posed a very unique issue to manage during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it be cruise ships in Australia or Australians on cruise ships that have been around the world. Obviously, we took very strong action to ban international cruise vessels from docking in Australia some weeks ago. However, we have had some vessels that were already on their way here. That ban is to make sure that Australians who were on board many of these vessels are protected and also to make sure that we can continue to protect Australians from this disease that is ravaging the world. Australia has been working extremely hard to make sure that our transmission levels have been kept at the absolute lowest through the very strong management of the—
The Prime Minister said on 15 March, 'The Australian government will also ban cruise ships from foreign ports from arriving at Australian ports.' On 19 March, the Ruby Princessarrived and disembarked 2,700 passengers. That ship is now linked to 600 COVID-19 cases, 13 deaths and 19 cases of community transmission in Australia. Does the government take any responsibility for failing to stop the one ship that mattered?
I thank Senator Keneally for her follow-up question. Can I say that, first of all, there is an investigation, obviously, being undertaken around this particular ship that you referred to, and it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment. I have already undertaken to take on notice any specifics of the questions you have asked. But could I also take the opportunity to acknowledge that there are a number of people who had some very tragic circumstances on the Ruby Princess and express our condolences to the families of those people.
My question is to the Minister for Families and Social Services, Senator Ruston. Can the minister advise the Senate how the Morrison government is protecting and supporting individual Australians who are being impacted by the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic?
Thank you very much, Senator Scarr, for the opportunity to be able to inform this place of some of the most important legislation and changes to our work environment and our social services system and also the impact of the changes that will hopefully pass through today in this place. I acknowledge the acknowledgement of those in this place that these measures will pass with the $130 billion JobKeeper payment, which is a support to businesses and to workers to make sure that they remain connected through what is an absolutely unprecedented situation that we find ourselves in in Australia. But, equally, people who are not eligible for the JobKeeper payment—Australians who are unable to access the payment—will in many instances, and in most instances, be able to access the jobseeker payment. We've moved very quickly to supercharge our social security system to make sure that Australians who have lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus will be able to get quick and easy access to support to get them through.
This very, very quick but time limited response is supported by the coronavirus supplement, which is a $550-per-fortnight increase in the amount of money that people are able to receive when they are on the jobseeker payment. This has also been extended to the youth allowance, parenting payments, the farm household allowance, special benefits and also students. Anybody who is eligible for the base payment will receive the $550-per-fortnight supplement. But, in addition to that, there are a number of things that have changed, including the waiving of many of the conditions for access to make sure that many people who would not otherwise be able to get access to this payment will be able to. This includes changing eligibility, waiving waiting periods and asset testing, both liquid and other assets. I want to ensure that everyone—
The government has made a commitment in recent days of an additional $200 million to go towards emergency relief. This urgent funding will be distributed through a very complex and comprehensive charities network that works around Australia. I say a huge thank you to our emergency relief providers, to our food relief providers, to our financial counsellors and to those people who have taken on this enormous role: the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul, Anglicare, Uniting Care, and Wesley Mission. I could go on all day about the number of amazing organisations that are out there supporting vulnerable Australians and, at the same time, administering the additional $200 million that we have made available to support them. Emergency relief and food relief remain an absolute priority for this government to make sure that people have access to the absolutely basic things that they need for everyday life—
As has been mentioned, this is a very comprehensive group of packages that has been put through this place to assist Australians as they face the consequences of the catastrophic impact of the coronavirus. One of those measures is an additional $750 payment. Most of the 6.5 million Australians who were eligible for the first payment would have already received that. In fact, my understanding is that nearly $5 billion has already gone out the door in the last week to people who are eligible for the $750 payment.
In addition to that, there will be another $750 payment made to the same group of people, with the exclusion of those that will now be able to access the COVID supplement. This will include age pensioners, carers, people on family tax benefits, disability pensioners, veterans and the like.
My question is to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Payne. Through no fault of their own, many Australians are stranded overseas, unable to follow the advice of the government to return home, because governments abroad have implemented lockdowns and commercial options for flights have dried up. Germany has arranged some 170 flights, the UK has partnered with airlines to repatriate its citizens, and Canada has organised well over a dozen flights from different locations. The Australian government's communications to Australians on the ground say: 'The Australian government's policy precludes assisted departures.' Why is the government ruling out assisted departures to get Australians home to safety?
I thank Senator Wong for her question. I think it is very important to be quite clear about this, because the government has made our position very clear. We are considering, on a case-by-case basis, supporting our airlines to operate non-scheduled services to less-central locations to bring Australians home. We will do that, where it is feasible, where all other commercial options have been exhausted and where local authorities will permit such flights. That last point is particularly relevant.
We don't have plans for assisted departures in the same way that we, for example, conducted flights to what was then the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, Wuhan—and secondly to Japan—because those flights were unique; those were complex medical exercises to the epicentres of the virus at the beginning of this crisis in Wuhan. The situation of Australians at the moment is quite different from that. I have been through that context in the chamber today and on many other occasions. We are considering, on a case-by-case basis, supporting our airlines to operate non-scheduled services to less-central locations to bring Australians home. Some of those decision-making processes in parts of South America and in other countries are well underway.
As I explained to the Senate, in response to Senator Smith's excellent question, in places like Nepal, where we have been able to work with a commercial operator, we have brought Australians from very remote parts of Nepal—from Pokhara, Chitwan and Lukla, for example—to Kathmandu to make sure that we could put as many Australians as possible on that flight, and New Zealanders, to bring them to Australia.
While the UK government ensured their citizens could come home from Peru for some 250 pounds, Australians in Peru were forced to pay $5,000 for a privately arranged charter option, and Australians are being surveyed by this government about how much they would be willing to pay to be repatriated to safety. Does the government agree that cost should not be a barrier to Australians getting home safely?
Every single one of these cases is different. Every single country has different circumstances. Every single flight is different. In some cases, there are able to be commercial flights on scheduled arrangements. In some cases, they are charters. In other cases, they are a commercial venture—which was the one that Senator Wong referred to, organised by Chimu Travel, not by the government—supported by the government so that it could occur. We provided important indemnity and underwriting for that flight and for the flight of Australians from the Ocean Atlantic in Montevideo, which was also organised by Chimu Travel. But every single one of those is the same. We have not been involved in setting up those prices. So, although there are Australians literally everywhere, we are endeavouring to work with those— (Time expired)
As more time passes, health systems overseas are becoming more stretched and the situation in some locations is deteriorating. There are reports to my office that locals are arming themselves in some locations to prevent foreigners leaving their accommodation. Will the minister commit to providing assisted departures where this is necessary to get Australians to safety?
I think it is perhaps a question of nomenclature more than anything else that Senator Wong is raising. We are talking about doing flights on a case-by-case basis—as I have clearly outlined to the Senate—as will support Australians to return home. Indeed, I have also outlined the many Australians who have been able to return home in recent weeks. The government has been explicitly clear in relation to our travel advice. I think that is also a very important aspect of the information we have consistently provided to Australians. On 9 March, for example, we advised Australians to reconsider taking a cruise. On 13 March, we advised all Australians to reconsider the need to travel overseas. On 17 March, we advised Australians overseas who wanted to return home to do so as soon as possible. On 18 March, we raised our travel advice to level 4: 'Do not travel'.
My question is to Senator Cash, the minister representing the Minister for Health. Can the minister please update the Senate on how the Liberals and Nationals in government are protecting Australians in responding to the coronavirus pandemic?
I thank Senator Davey for the question. In Australia, as at 10.30 am this morning there are 5,977 confirmed cases of coronavirus and, sadly, as at 6.30 am this morning there have now been 49 deaths. Globally we have seen over 1.4 million confirmed cases, and over 81,865 lives have now been lost.
Our priority as a government is to flatten the curve and to reduce the number of cases. Australia's health emergency responses are flexible and scalable so that we can respond effectively to the evolving situation. We are well placed to respond to ill travellers and those at risk of contracting infection, with border isolation, surveillance and contact-tracing mechanisms already in place.
We have one of the world's leading testing programs, with just over 313,000 tests conducted in Australia—one of the highest per capita rates of testing in the world. The national cabinet, on receipt of the expert medical advice, is continuing to coordinate a national response, working with the states and territories. We have taken further steps to enforce social-distancing measures, we have implemented further travel restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus and we have more than 220 fever clinics up and running around the country.
The rates of new cases in Australia have been declining over the past few weeks, which is an encouraging sign. However, as we all know, now is not the time for complacency, and Australians must continue to practise social-distancing measures. Again, as we approach the Easter long weekend, the message to all of us is clear: stay at home this Easter and help save lives.
As we are all aware, Australia isn't immune to COVID-19, but we're as well prepared as any country in the world. The government recently announced $1.1 billion worth of initiatives, including $669 million to expand Medicare subsidised telehealth services for all Australians, with extra incentives for GPs and other health practitioners also delivered. An initial $150 million will be provided—and I commend the Minister for Women and the Minister for Families and Social Services—to support Australians experiencing domestic, family and sexual violence due to the fallout of coronavirus. An extra $74 million will be provided to support the mental health and wellbeing of all Australians. An additional $200 million will be provided to support charities and other community organisations which provide emergency and food relief as demand surges as a result of coronavirus. This, of course, builds on the $2.4 billion of measures we've already announced.
As the spread of coronavirus increases in the community, it's important that Australians know the practical things that they can do to protect their own health, the health of their families and the health of the community as a whole. The Chief Medical Officer advises—as we all know—of these five simple actions that we should practise on a daily basis: be at least 1.5 metres away from everyone, wherever this is possible; wash your hands—do it often and do it properly—for at least 20 seconds; cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hands; do not touch your face at all, even if it itches; and if you're sick, of course the very obvious advice is to stay at home. The reason we are undertaking all of these very simple actions is that we need to work together. We need to work together to protect the elderly, to protect the vulnerable and to protect those who have lung conditions. All of our advice is that this will be for around a six-month period. (Time expired)