Parliamentary speeches

COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill

June 22, 2021

I rise to speak on the COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021. This is the bill that will provide time-limited financial assistance to eligible workers who are unable to earn their usual income as a result of public health restrictions, such as public health orders imposed by state or territory governments, and where the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer has determined the relevant location to be a COVID-19 hotspot for the purposes of this Commonwealth support.

This is a bill that Labor supports. Let me be really clear: these payments are needed and they are needed urgently. But, as well as supporting the bill, I will be moving a second reading amendment. I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes the Government has:

(a) catastrophically failed to address outbreaks in hotel quarantine, which has led to extended lockdowns in states across Australia;

(b) botched the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, which has left all Australians, but particularly aged care workers, vulnerable; and

(c) failed to ensure that workers and businesses received the support needed in the recent Victorian lockdown;

(2) further notes this bill may not have been necessary, if not for the Government's failure on quarantine and vaccines, both national responsibilities; and

(3) calls on the Government to:

(a) build dedicated quarantine facilities and expand existing facilities in every state and territory;

(b) fix the vaccine rollout and expand mobile and mass vaccination clinics;

(c) start a mass public information campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated; and

(d) begin manufacturing mRNA vaccines right here in Australia".

I will be speaking to that second reading amendment as well as demonstrating the support of the opposition for the provisions contained within this bill. The COVID-19 Disaster Payment (Funding Arrangements) Bill 2021 would create a special appropriation with which to draw funds from the Consolidated Revenue Fund for the COVID-19 disaster payment. This payment is set at $500 a week for people who are engaged in paid employment for more than 20 hours per week and $325 per week for people engaged in paid employment but for less than 20 hours per week. According to the explanatory memorandum, the payment would be available to any person who:

is an Australian citizen, permanent resident or the holder of a temporary visa who has the right to work in Australia; and

is aged 17 years or over; and

resides or is employed in a location in Australia that is, or resided or was employed in a location in Australia at a time that it was, subject to a State or Territory public health order restricting the movement of persons for a period of more than seven days …; and

is, or was, unable to earn their usual income because restrictions imposed by the public health order prevent, or prevented, them from being able to work in their usual employment; and

other than annual leave, has, or had, no available leave entitlements to cover the period of the restrictions; and

declares that, during the period of the restrictions, they reside or are employed, or resided or were employed, in the hotspot area and have, or had, liquid assets of less than $10,000; and

is not, or was not, during the period of restrictions, otherwise receiving Commonwealth income support payment or payments of a similar nature …

We believe these principles in the bill are appropriate, but it is relevant to note that these payments are both too little and too late. I say this particularly as a Melbournian, knowing what Melbournians have gone through over the last year and a bit. As the second reading amendment makes very clear, the only reason this legislation is warranted and necessary is this government's many failures to bring the pandemic under control. Whether through the vaccine rollout, hotel quarantine or cutting off income support in the course of a pandemic, the Morrison government has failed Victorian workers, businesses and families.

The Prime Minister has had two jobs during this pandemic and he has botched both. I note that the budget, which was recently handed down, is premised on the assumption that there will be six week-long lockdowns. This of course demonstrates vulnerabilities in the economy and vulnerabilities in the labour market. But it is our obligation to pay attention to what we need to fix. When it comes to vaccination, as we are still at about the three per cent mark of Australians who have been vaccinated, we can't even see the front of the queue. Last year the Prime Minister promised that we would be at the front of the queue when it came to a vaccination rollout. But that is so far from where we are. I note that the Prime Minister made a statement on Facebook in April, in respect of the rollout, where he said that his government had 'not set, nor has any plans to set any new targets for completing first doses'. He said, 'While we would like to see these doses completed before the end of the year, it is not possible to set such targets given the many uncertainties involved.'

This is one of the most important programs the Commonwealth of Australia has had to implement since the Second World War, and the Prime Minister just told the people of Australia via Facebook that he had no plan. It seems that he did this because having a plan means accepting responsibility for the execution of that plan, and we know how this Prime Minister feels about responsibility. Again, instead of owning up to this mistake and then fixing it, he issues a statement on Facebook, hiding away from responsibility. Yesterday we learned from the Sydney Morning Herald that the Prime Minister spent weeks planning a secretive side holiday on his G7 visit, all while arguing that Britain was too risky for Australian travellers. We're in a pandemic, a public health emergency. What are the mixed messages that are being delivered here? It is extraordinary. What message does this send to the 36,000 Australians who are stranded overseas? What does this say, on point to the provisions that we are dealing with today, to the 6.6 million Victorians who have borne the brunt of lockdown restrictions to protect themselves and their fellow Australians?

We see no leadership, no responsibility and no empathy from this Prime Minister—a Prime Minister who, as I've said, had two jobs: a speedy and effective rollout of the vaccination program and of quarantine. He's failed at both. We have been dealing with the pandemic for more than a year and the Prime Minister still can't get quarantine right and still can't get the vaccine rollout right. He said, infamously, that the rollout isn't a race—and he's wrong. It is a race, and it's a race we've got to be much, much more serious about winning, because Australians today, and particularly Melbournians, are paying the price for his failures. Melbournians are paying the price for his failures even now.

Labor was saying last year, through the member for McMahon, Labor's health spokesperson, that we needed to do five or six vaccination deals—something that was recognised by the experts then and is recognised by the experts now as the best-practice approach. The countries we like to compare ourselves to had a plan in case they had trouble with a particular vaccine around supply or any potential adverse effects, so that there would be other deals to fall back on and adequate supply. We now know that Pfizer approached the government as early as June last year for Australia to be one of the first countries to get access to the highly effective mRNA vaccine—an opportunity squandered by the Prime Minister, who put all his eggs in one basket and who has now walked away from the problem.

The President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Karen Price, said new targeted advertising campaigns were desperately needed to tackle vaccine hesitancy, as Australians of all ages were confused and suffering from information overload. She said that we need 'targeted advertisements to specific cohorts to talk about this risk benefit of vaccination, because it's just become a real mess of messages'—a 'real mess of messages'. That just isn't good enough. Every Australian deserves to be safe and to get adequate information to make themselves safe and to keep their community safe. If that isn't the case, it is a core responsibility of government to fix this problem.

Last Friday, the Morrison government did announce that they'd provide $1.2 million in funding to multicultural organisations to deliver targeted health information about the rollout. But why has it taken so long for the Prime Minister to commit to this? This is almost a year after Labor specifically called for a communications grant program to multicultural communities so that we could better use the network, so that we could recognise the strengths within those communities to communicate vital public health information and so that we could demonstrate that we have learnt the lessons of some of the challenges we found in implementing an effective public health response for all Australians last year. But this government won't learn those lessons. This government won't recognise the great strengths that are in communities and harness these strengths in the interests of those communities and in the interests of the wider community.

As all this is going on, we have seen the damage that has been done and continues to be done by the likes of the member for Hughes, spreading misinformation and disinformation, and of course Clive Palmer, who has put the most appalling material into letterboxes in my electorate—and electorates around the country, it would appear—building on his earlier efforts to spread misinformation and disinformation by other means. Well, if Clive Palmer can be so assiduous at getting this misleading, divisive and damaging information out, we need to do so much better at countering it with an effective public health campaign. We learnt yesterday that one of the reasons that the government has delayed pushing harder on a public health campaign is concerns about supply. This is absolutely extraordinary. I really don't think you could make it up—that all of these problems have compounded and still, it seems, we don't have a plan. And that's before we get to the issues of quarantine.

As of this week, there have now been 24 breaches of hotel quarantine. Yet we still have a government that refuses to implement a dedicated national quarantine approach that is fit for purpose. Jane Halton, handpicked by the government to look into this issue last year, delivered her report to government in October. That's nearly 10 months ago. That report recommended the establishment of a national facility for quarantine to be used in emergency situations. That report, of course, has sat there gathering dust. When Victoria first came up with a proactive proposal to deal with this issue—as Queensland has also done and as other states are urging the Commonwealth to consider and support—the defence minister denounced this as smoke and mirrors. Well, no, Minister for Defence. The smoke and mirrors is the response of this government to this critical question. Perhaps the defence minister might pay particular attention to page 31 of Ms Halton's report. Perhaps he could put away the red carpet that seems to be rolled out at defence facilities for ministers in this government and get on with any plan to get stranded Australians home.

This government has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to provide support for people in Victoria. It has been shamed into doing its job. As a proud Melburnian, I've rarely felt more distressed than when members of this government—members from Victoria but not for Victorians—engaged in the most divisive scaremongering over the course of last year. I'm glad that stopped, but I'd like to see a recognition of the damage that it did to people under pressure, to social cohesion and to the vital sense through this pandemic that we are, in fact, all in it together. I am pleased at the belated recognition on the part of this government of the responsibility to do the right thing, but we can't forget the history that led us to this point. We can't forget the neglect, the poor decisions, the indecision and the failure to make decisions that led this to be a requirement of this government.

As the Treasurer of Victoria said of members opposite, they like making speeches, but they are not a tangible partner. We need them to step up to the plate. Workers need them. The community needs them. He also urged them to stop the empty gestures, because it is far too late for that. Acting Premier James Merlino made clear, as should be clear to any member of this place who's serious about doing their job, that delivering income support is solely the preserve of the Commonwealth. It is solely the responsibility of the Commonwealth. People who work casually, people in hospitality, people in retail and businesses in those sectors have taken a huge hit, and a general sense of anxiety lingers across the community in Victoria, particularly in Melbourne. Who's to say that other states and cities won't be affected, having regard, as I said earlier, to the assumptions that underpin this government's budget?

The analysis of the cost of these lockdowns by KPMG chief economist Brendan Rynne has shown that the state final demand can be hit by $125 million a day. I note that that's approximately half the cost of building a fully operational 500-person quarantine facility. If ever there was a statement of the wrong priorities and of the failure to invest in the future by this government—something that my friend the member for Rankin makes clear every time he stands up in this House, and often when he stands up out of it—it's that. The failure to make decisions like these is having a real cost today. It's a drag on the economy, it's damaging people's lives and it's leaving people behind. Again, while we welcome the appropriations that are provided for here—they are urgently needed; finally the government has come to the table—we can't forget about the context. Perhaps members opposite might think about the second reading amendment that is before the House in conjunction with this bill.

Lastly, on the second reading amendment, I just want to remind members opposite and the Australian public that Labor, unlike the government, has a clear four-point plan to deal with this ongoing crisis. It is to build purpose-built quarantine facilities, to fix the vaccination rollout, to deliver a thoughtful and considered campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated, and to build the manufacturing capacity to secure the delivery of mRNA vaccines. In commending the bill to the House and in ensuring that people in need in my home town and, in the future, in other home towns, get income support that will enable them to get through this, let's not let the government off the hook. Let's remember how they were dragged kicking and screaming to this when they should have been there assuming their constitutional responsibility in the first place—when, in fact, they should have taken decisions that would have removed the need for these payments in the first place and when this Prime Minister, in particular, still fails to front up and take responsibility for doing his job.