Speeches

CORONAVIRUS ECONOMIC RESPONSE PACKAGE

March 23, 2020

It is a privilege and my duty to rise and speak to these bills. As the Leader of the Opposition made the point, it's a rare moment in parliamentary history where we're debating bills of this importance and substance. That's because we're facing a crisis of almost unprecedented proportions—a crisis that is having a devastating economic impact and, if we do not manage this properly, will have a devastating health impact.

I wholeheartedly endorse the statements given by the Labor leader and shadow Treasurer earlier today. I think their approach, and Labor's approach in general, has been measured and constructive—an approach where we've pointed out where we have concerns around particular parts of the government's approach but we've worked with them, we've facilitated it and we won't stand in the way.

We do have significant concerns, given the fact that the government has been too slow and too modest in their stimulus packages and in their responses to the health crisis. I won't go into the details, but, for example, the wage subsidy is not a job guarantee. There is not a single guarantee that any business that receives that measure will be required to hold onto staff. At best it supports the cash flow of those businesses, and that is important. That is absolutely vital, but there is no guarantee that they will keep on a single staff member while accessing the scheme. Even if they do, what is the effective subsidy? The effective subsidy, given the average income tax paid by an Australian, is about 25 per cent. So this measure is a 25 per cent wage subsidy at best when you compare it to the 80 per cent tax subsidy that the Johnson conservative government in the United Kingdom has implemented. So, I have, like my Labor colleagues, huge concerns about that aspect of the legislation.

I also have huge concerns around the jobseeker payment and the nature of the administration of that. I applaud the fact that they've waived the waiting period. I applaud the fact that they've waived the liquid assets test so people don't have to run down their assets before accessing it, but they have not waived the spousal income test. That is of huge concern. That means that you could have two workers on about $48,000 a year and, when one loses their job because of the coronavirus, they are precluded from getting a single cent in government assistance because their partner still earns $48,000 a year. It is well below the average income—it's even below the median income. Let me repeat that: we could have a family, a couple, that has gone from, say, $100,000 a year to $48,000 a year—a cut in income of well over half; dire circumstances—but the way in which this payment is constructed means they will not receive a single cent of government assistance. That is a crime that will massively reduce the circumstances of those couples and those families. It is of huge concern and it must be rectified. We must urgently rectify that if this jobseeker payment is to have the outcome that is desired, which is to help families, help couples and help individuals when they lose their job because of the coronavirus.

We've also seen issues around Centrelink. We've seen the 5,000 cut to staff over the last few years leading to massive issues for people accessing the payments. We've seen very long queues at my local Centrelink at Charlestown—that's been reported to me. We have seen the myGov web site crash because this government didn't have the foresight to invest in the appropriate infrastructure. In fact, we had this ridiculous situation where, before question time, the Minister for Government Services was claiming there was a cyberattack. But in question time we heard: 'No, the website crashed because they had 95,000 people trying to get onto a website designed to have 50,000 people at most'. That's a huge concern—the failure to prepare for this—and the implications are that people are queuing up shoulder to shoulder, ignoring self-distancing requirements, to access these payments that they desperately need.

I'll turn briefly to my portfolio responsibilities as the shadow minister for international development and the Pacific. I should report to the House that, sadly, there are 105 cases reported in the Pacific so far and one death. Other nations in this region have made very significant moves. The government of Papua New Guinea has declared a state of emergency. We have movement restrictions in New Caledonia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Hawaii, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. These are extreme moves, particularly from nations who are dependent, generally, on two industries: commercial fishing, which has been devastated by climate change, and tourism. We're going to be doing it tough over the next year—our tourism industry will be decimated—but we are in the relatively fortunate position that we do not rely solely on tourism for our national economy. These Pacific islands are exposed massively because of this. They urgently need more health assistance. I do applaud the government's announcements around providing specific coronavirus assistance to Pacific island nations. But the government does need to explain and justify the 10 per cent cut to health assistance to the Pacific region that they've imposed over the last five years. Our Pacific friends and neighbours are dealing with this crisis from the position where Australian health assistance has been cut by 10 per cent. In some nations it has been much more extreme. The health assistance to Fiji has been cut by 22 per cent, Samoa by 36 per cent, Solomon Islands by 13 per cent and Tuvalu by a massive 75 per cent. This is a very unfortunate starting position for government assistance to these Pacific nations.

We also have to give thought to how we support these nations as they recover from the pandemic. These nations will be looking at who they will partner with for this recovery. We're already seeing that health and infrastructure assistance from other nations is on the rise. For example, 10 Pacific island nations have already signed Belt and Road deals with China. So Australia does need to give due consideration to how we assist our neighbours in the recovery phase, once we get through the crisis.

In my time remaining, I want to turn to the health aspects of this crisis. I want to begin by noting that I have one of the oldest electorates by age in the Commonwealth. We know the coronavirus, while it does impact on young and middle-aged people, will have a disproportionate impact on the more senior Australians. In fact, the fatality rate, I believe, worldwide for those over the age of 70 is eight per cent, and it climbs even higher as you look at 80-year-olds and 90-year-olds. For the electorate of Shortland, we are massively exposed to the health implications of this crisis. That is why it is so important that governments clearly communicate on what is required. That is why it's so clearly important that governments respond to the best health advice possible and, when in doubt, act early. Do not procrastinate. When in doubt, act early. I want to let every person in Shortland know that my thoughts are with them. My electorate office remains open to support them in every possible way, and if there's anything I or my office can do, please give my office a call or email me.

I now want to turn to the impact on the health workforce, because this is a very significant employer in my electorate. I have 3,000 people in my electorate who work in hospitals. I also have another 3,000 healthcare workers who work in non-hospital situations. So the seat of Shortland is at the heart of the workforce issues. I applaud the government's changed policy around telehealth. That is overdue. We need to provide universal access to telehealth, we need to allow GPs to provide telehealth services from home, and we need to make sure that the financial base for general practices is maintained. It would be an absolute travesty—and it would undermine recovery from this crisis—if we were to see swathes of general practitioners go under because of this crisis. So the government needs to look closely at what it's announced so far to make sure that they support the financial health of our general practitioners.

I will turn now to the hospital environment. I have a very large public hospital in my electorate, Belmont Hospital, I have two very large private hospitals in Warners Bay and Lake Macquarie, and I have the John Hunter Hospital one kilometre from my northern boundary. In fact, I used to represent the John Hunter Hospital when I was the member for Charlton. It is the only tertiary level hospital between Sydney and Brisbane. It has, depending on how you measure it, the busiest or second-busiest emergency department in New South Wales. It is on the frontline of this crisis, and its workforce, the healthcare workers at all the hospitals I mentioned—but, in particular, the John Hunter—will bear the brunt of the health aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak. We only have to look at what has occurred in Italy, where nine per cent of cases of coronavirus were health workers. Let me repeat that: nine per cent of total coronavirus infections in Italy were healthcare workers.

I fear we may see something similar in Australia. We must ensure that we have adequate PPE—personal protective equipment—available for our health workforce. And we're already seeing reports of not enough equipment. I have heard reports that hand sanitiser at the John Hunter is clinically unavailable. It is unavailable and they're unable to use it. I've heard reports around nursing homes and other hospitals that PPE, such as masks, is not available. This is something where the federal and state governments have already, clearly, failed. We must rectify this.

I've got the privilege of being married to a nurse who, until about six months ago, worked at the John Hunter Hospital in a very intense clinical environment. So I know, and I'm seeing on my Facebook now the worry, concern and passion for their patients that the nursing and medical staff at the John Hunter and other hospitals are experiencing right now. We must do more to support them. They are on the frontline of this crisis. This is a crisis that is only going to get worse, and the workforce will bear the brunt. At best, these workers will not see their families for months. I know of nurses and doctors who have made arrangements to live with other healthcare workers and not expose their families to the coronavirus. The best-case scenario for these workers is that they won't see their families for months. They are going to be working extremely long hours. Some of them will be infected. Let me repeat that: some of them will be infected while doing their jobs at these hospitals. And without adequate personal protective equipment we are condemning doctors and nurses to die from this virus. And I don't say that lightly.

I'm aware of the need not to sensationalise this debate. I'm aware of the need to take a rational, sensible and level-headed approach to this. But it is a fact that, without adequate personal protective equipment, doctors and nurses will die due to treating patients who are suffering from the coronavirus. And that's something I urge everyone in this place and state parliaments to reflect on. That is not to fling mud. That is not to accuse people of not doing their job, but that is a responsibility every member of this parliament and every member of state parliaments bears on their shoulders. If we do not do our job properly, if we do not do our job with utmost care and responsibility, and if we do not respond in the fastest possible fashion, doctors and nurses will die. Doctors and nurses will die unnecessarily and tragically, if we don't do our job. So, that is my message to people listening. That is my message to my colleagues in this place.

We must fight this crisis. We must pass this stimulus package. We must pass the next stimulus package and the one after that, if that proves necessary. We must make sure that those stimulus packages work, that they're aimed at the right people and they help those people get through this economic crisis. But, primarily, this is a health crisis, and we must make sure that we limit the spread of this contagion, we support the patients and we make sure that as few as possible get infected—and as few as possible of the workers looking after them are exposed to this deadly virus.

View my full speech here.

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