Australia's COVID-19 Health Response - 10/06/2020

10 June 2020



As we meet here in parliament, already halfway through 2020, it's hard to really come to terms with what a difficult year it has been so far and how much our community has been through. So much the same in my community of Canberra; it has been a really difficult year for our businesses, our community organisations, our environment and our people.

Of course the year began with the unprecedented bushfires around Australia. For Canberra, a big part of that was a really significant health crisis in its own right: the smoke haze. We had many days where it was the worst air quality in the world, and also many days that were classified as hazardous and people were advised not to leave their homes. After that, we had a freak hailstorm which caused really widespread damage across Canberra. It damaged thousands of cars and buildings, including priceless long-term research which was housed in glasshouses at the CSIRO, which was another devastating loss as part of that. And then, obviously, after that, we've had COVID-19 and our response to that and the restrictions there.

Canberra has dealt with this relatively well. Obviously, as a nation, we've done well at flattening the curve. I want to again take this opportunity to thank the healthcare workers in Canberra for everything that they've done to get us through this crisis; also the ACT government for the things that they have done locally to get our community through; and all the other workers I will again take the opportunity to thank, from our supermarket workers to cleaners and public transport and everyone that has kept us going through this crisis.

Last week I hosted a business forum with our shadow minister assisting for small and family business, Matt Keogh, who is the member for Burt. I want to thank the Canberra businesses that attended that forum and our Canberra Business Chamber for helping to facilitate that forum. Obviously the main focus was how businesses are coping with COVID-19 and looking towards coming out of restrictions in coming weeks. Something that was really clear from that meeting and the concerns is that Canberra businesses have really gone through an extremely difficult time. I'm not sure that people around the country realise just how hard Canberra has been hit by the cumulative impacts of these crises this year. It's something that, as the member for Canberra, I feel a responsibility to make known in this place. Whilst Canberra is often viewed as a bubble and a wealthy community, we have struggles like other parts of the community as well and, with that, an impact on our businesses. Whilst we thankfully, of course, didn't have the fires in Canberra that communities in our region had, that smoke did really have a huge impact, because people were not leaving their homes for weeks. People weren't going out, places were closed, our airport was closed several times. Unlike other communities that had the fires, Canberra businesses were unable to receive any assistance. So they really are in need of support at this time. Whilst JobKeeper has been a huge help to businesses, there are obviously gaps in that, and many people have been left out of the assistance package. We've been talking about that a lot on this side of the House today and in the last few weeks.

Now is certainly a time to maintain and grow jobs, not to cut jobs and destroy jobs. I want to talk about two examples of that now, as we come out of this pandemic, or as we begin to adjust. Throughout 2020—first of all, the bushfires and then, of course, COVID-19—the ABC has been a critical source of information for so many Australians, yet the government will force the ABC to cut 250 jobs to meet a $41 million annual budget shortfall. The ABC has lost $783 million in funding since the coalition came to power in 2014. During the fires, 81 per cent of Australians used the ABC as their main source of information, and 60 per cent of people in bushfire affected areas said the information helped ensure their safety. There is no doubt that the ABC's work to disseminate information about COVID-19 and the restrictions in place have helped ensure our safety during this pandemic too, and some of our success in where we've got to now. So why the government would continue to cut the budget of the ABC now is not clear to me. This is a critical information source and an independent media that should be supported and is vital to Australia—not just to our health and safety but to our democracy.

Another example is Australia Post. So many Canberrans are writing to me about this at the moment. Many Canberrans are very concerned about the government's proposed regulatory changes to Australia Post, which could see services scaled back and the post delivered less regularly with, no doubt, jobs and wages cut in the process. The government has halved the frequency of postal delivery rounds, leaving the jobs of up to one in four posties, and many other indirect jobs already, in limbo. Labor is concerned these measures, although apparently temporary during the pandemic, will remain in place. I'm proud to say that Labor is going to oppose these changes, and we'll do our best to disallow them through the parliament.

As we do come out of this unprecedented crisis, it really is a time for big ideas and there are opportunities. Our leader, Anthony Albanese, has talked about this—that we actually have a really special moment in history now where we can take this opportunity to review and rethink and rebuild an economy that is stronger, more sustainable and more inclusive. But, unfortunately, we're seeing some of these opportunities completely missed by this government. One example is on climate change; this is another issue close to the hearts of so many Canberrans who write to me about it. Ross Garnaut has written in his book Superpower not only about how Australia can embrace a low-carbon future but also about how a low-carbon future will transform our economy and bring in the equivalent of a second mining boom. Exporting clean energy and producing green steel using hydrogen are some of the opportunities that are presented. Transforming our electricity grid to run on renewables is also something that is happening despite this government's inaction. So imagine if we got behind those things as a nation and invested in a recovery from this crisis that transformed our economy and our future as a planet.

Another opportunity that's being missed is on housing. The government's HomeBuilder scheme is devoid of funding to improve public housing, reduce homelessness and respond to the massive strain on remote housing for First Nations communities. HomeBuilder has had zero applications a week after it was announced. Clearly there aren't many Australians earning less than $125,000 per year who have $150,000 lying around to spend on a renovation during a pandemic. It is a long way off the 7,000 anticipated to take it up, so Labor has called on the government to put this money into social housing or affordable housing. We've called on the government to build more affordable housing stock for our essential workers and to expand the First Home Loan Deposit Scheme. It's really a question of priorities, because all these measures will stimulate the economy, but we should be investing in those who need it most and in those who don't have somewhere to live or can't invest in their own home without some of this help, rather than in renovations for people who can afford it anyway.

Lastly, the pandemic has again really demonstrated the critical importance of a strong social safety net. In doubling the jobseeker—formerly Newstart—amount, the government has acknowledged that people cannot live on the $40-a-day amount that it was previously, and we cannot return to that. I wish that the government would accept that. We on this side have been calling on the government to take this opportunity to reset that rate. But it's also an opportunity to look at the whole system. We have an excellent structure there to deliver a highly targeted and strong social safety net, but it has been neglected and cut over many years. At the moment, we have one-in-six Australian children living in poverty. So it is time to look at our social security system, which is one of the most powerful tools governments have to lift people out of poverty. I would urge the government to do that and take that opportunity, as we come out of this pandemic, to look at the positives and to think about the type of economy and society we could be building as we return to normal.