Parliamentary speeches

Vaccination, quarantine, and the federal budget

May 26, 2021

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2021-2022 and other bills that accompany the budget just handed down, in support of the second reading amendment moved by my friend the shadow Treasurer, the member for Rankin. In my remarks, I'm going to focus particularly on the things that aren't in the budget but should have been, because that goes to the heart of what is wrong with this government: its failure to take responsibility for things that need to be at the core of the work of a national government at this point in time.

But, before I turn to these issues, I want to reflect on the circumstances back home in Melbourne's northern suburbs, where a number of my constituents are literally fighting the coronavirus right now. The hubris that was on display in question time yesterday from the Prime Minister and the Minister for Home Affairs about their alleged role in this is something that I feel needs to be reflected upon. The Minister for Home Affairs is actually a member of this government whom I have some regard for, but I hope that she reflects on the contribution that she made in question time yesterday—firstly in, frankly, boasting about the success of the vaccination rollout at a time when there is so much anxiety in Melbourne's northern suburbs, as is shown by media reports today and reports I've had from constituents about people who have not yet been vaccinated and their connection to transmission. For her then to go on to accuse the Labor Party of undermining this effort is quite extraordinary, particularly as, just before she made this contribution, Senator Rennick, a member of the government, delivered a profoundly unhelpful message on Sky.

The government should take responsibility for the two fundamental jobs it had to get this country through the pandemic: to deal with the vaccination rollout and, of course, to look after quarantine. If we look at the vaccination rollout issues, we see a series of promises that have been broken from the get-go. We were to have been at the front of the queue. Of course, we weren't; we were pretty close to the back. What makes that even worse is that we have not, seemingly, taken advantage of the experiences we have seen overseas.

We are determined to do everything that we can to encourage every Australian to keep themselves and their communities safe. I urge everyone in the Scullin electorate, and in Melbourne more broadly, in particular to do everything that they can. If they're eligible, they should get vaccinated right away, and they should keep following public health advice, which people have been doing. I'm so proud of the efforts of the people I represent, particularly right now, when people are under strain. I'm so proud of the efforts of all Australians. But they deserve—we deserve—a government that's on our side right now.

When it comes to the vaccination rollout, we have seen failure after failure after failure. I urge government members: it's not too late to redouble your efforts. Think about the sort of positive messaging that we need to do. Let's think about the campaigns that have been rolled out in other countries which have been successful in combating hesitancy. Let's think about effectively targeting all the communities that make up modern multicultural Australia and harnessing their strengths to boost the uptake while, of course, we make every effort to boost the stock that will enable an effective rollout. The government must redouble their efforts. They've got to stop hiding from responsibility and take up their responsibility to keep us all safe, particularly the people I represent in this place, who deserve a little bit more respect than was shown yesterday in question time.

The other issue is, of course, quarantine. It continues to baffle me that our government won't take up its constitutional responsibility. The Prime Minister even now continues to hide behind the leaders of our states and territories. He can't continue to do so. This latest outbreak is evidence of exactly that—of why we need the appropriate facilities. I urge the governments to keep working with the states, who have been so constructive, as we in federal Labor have been, to make sure we all get through this.

It is time for the Prime Minister to step up and take responsibility. Quarantine is self-evidently a national responsibility. The consequences of not having assumed this responsibility are great. They are great today as people in Melbourne are dealing with a state of high anxiety. They are great today because so many Australians are separated from their loved ones. I refer in particular to those people in India right now who have been abandoned by this government, as have so many other strands Australians. Also, we need—and I suspect that in the government ranks there is some sympathy for this point of view—to find ways to safely open up to the world again, and the longer we delay national quarantine arrangements, the more challenging it will be. So I urge the government members here to think about assuming this most fundamental responsibility.

In terms of the appropriations that are contained within the budget, what they demonstrate is that this is a government of tactics and not strategy. It's a government that is resolutely focused on the political problems of today, not the challenges of building a more secure, more prosperous and more equal tomorrow. We see it when we look at some of the significant expenditure items contained in the budget—those that relate to aged care, to child care and quality early learning, and to mental health. In all three of these areas there is a response to a huge real issue. But when we look at aged care we're not seeing an adequate response to the royal commission recommendations. We're not seeing an adequate response to the devastation we've seen. I think about facilities like Epping Gardens, in my own electorate, or St Basil's, not in the Scullin electorate but a place that's so important to the Greek community in the northern suburbs. We need to do justice to what has happened and make sure that every ageing Australian is supported to continue to live their later years in dignity. But what we have seen is indignity upon indignity for vulnerable older Australians and contempt for the good people who work with them. This budget doesn't fix that problem. It applies a bandaid to a political issue, when what we need is fundamental structural reform—reform that does justice to our collective sense of what it means to be an Australian and the responsibility of a national government to look after older Australians and those we engage to look after them.

With child care, similarly, we see a fundamental distinction between the vision on our side of the House for a society that's fair and productive and a business-as-usual approach on the other. After the government denied there was a problem, the budget response acknowledges the problem but does not offer a solution. To compare the two approaches is to do a great injustice to the fantastic work of the shadow minister, the member for Kingston, and the entire Labor team, who are focused on building a society that is both equal and productive. We are focused on boosting employment participation, particularly amongst those with caring responsibilities, and recognising the extraordinary benefits of high-quality early learning for our children. We want to make sure that every Australian child has the benefit of the best start in life and that every Australian parent has the opportunity to participate, on their own terms, in the workforce and be a present parent with their children. It is beyond disappointing that this is not something that is recognised by members opposite, who, again, see a political problem to be fixed rather than an economic opportunity and a great social transformation to get on board with. I say to members opposite: it's not too late; you can join us on this.

In terms of mental health, similarly, I'll say that there are welcome investments here but they are incomplete. One thing the budget could have done was to acknowledge loneliness as a fundamental issue that we need to talk more about in our national politics, and I acknowledge that there is bipartisan interest in responding to this. Other governments, including the Conservative government in the UK, have done so. Throughout the pandemic we have seen an increase in the prevalence of loneliness amongst Australians and an increase in our understanding of how it damages individuals and our communities—the mental health impacts and the physical wellbeing impacts. There is a great cost to individuals through failing to acknowledge that loneliness is a crisis, and there is a cost to our society as well.

In terms of my portfolio responsibilities, this budget provides no answers to the questions Australians are asking. In his second reading speech introducing the budget, the Treasurer didn't say the word 'cities'. He didn't say the word 'suburbs' either. Yet these will be the engine rooms of our economic recovery, and they are, of course, the places where the vast majority of Australians live and work. We've seen revelations as to how our cities function and how they might continue to function through the experiences of lockdown restrictions. There is a huge challenge to get them moving again effectively and a huge challenge, which should be embraced by all sides of politics, to use the experience of last year and the opportunity we are presented with to build cities and suburbs that are more productive, that are more livable, that are more sustainable and, fundamentally, that are also more resilient to future shocks. This is a missed opportunity in the budget, to the cost of millions of Australians.

The previous speaker mentioned the Adelaide City Deal. In Labor, we have been very interested in city deals or city partnerships as the way to drive growth in our cities and make them more livable and sustainable too. What this budget shows, though, is a government that's walking away from city deals. It's a government that's walking away from a national urban policy; it's a government that's walking away from the vast majority of Australians who live and work in our cities and suburbs. Instead of this sort of framework, which has been embraced by some on the conservative side of politics, we are seeing a recourse to slush funds—slush fund after slush fund—in terms of the sort of approach that joins local and state governments with national government, community groups and the private sector in pursuit of shared objectives. This is a fundamental dividing line between the two sides of politics that needn't be. We should have a bipartisan focus on supporting genuine city partnerships, not squirrelling billions of dollars away in funds that, frankly, are there to be rorted.

We think about the Commuter Car Park Fund, in particular, and the Urban Congestion Fund. The Urban Congestion Fund pushed millions of dollars out the door in advertising long before a single project was underway. It is going to consume so much of the work of the Auditor-General, instead of dealing with real issues in our communities, fundamental issues that affected the quality of individuals' lives and that should be addressing the biggest handbrake on productivity growth in Australia right now, which is congestion. But, instead, it's always cheap politics. In the rush towards the last election so many projects were announced that were never going to be built, including in my electorate, but right around Melbourne, in particular—projects that the government are now walking away from because they were just shameless bids for votes.

I also want to touch on how this budget sees multicultural affairs. The short answer is that the government are carrying on as they have been. Throughout the pandemic we were unusual—indeed, almost unique amongst OECD nations—in how we treated people who were trapped here. International students were told to go home, and people on temporary visas were denied any support. A decent society constructs a safety net that catches everyone. We learnt during the pandemic how leaving people to fend for themselves isn't just morally bad and isn't just bad for them; it impacts the whole society if it forces people to engage in dangerous work in the midst of a global pandemic. The government have doubled down on this, because the only big saving in the budget is the forecast saving of more than $600 million in terms of extending the waiting period for newly arrived migrants.

Lastly, I will turn to one thing that's missing in the budget, and I reflect on this particularly. We have a reckoning going on about gender and a reckoning about race that we will respond to on this side of the House. We will take seriously the recommendations of the [email protected] report and commit to them in full, as Anthony Albanese did. We will take racism seriously and respond to the movement of change that is Black Lives Matter. Today, on Sorry Day, I say this again: we are the only party committed to implementing, in full, the generous offer that's the Statement from the Heart, as we must.