14 May 2020

COVID19 - Adjournment Speech

I'm very grateful for the opportunity to be back here in the Senate this week, having originally been told that I wouldn't get the opportunity until August. If there's one thing this week has shown us it is how important it is that we continue our scrutiny of the government and we continue our legislative work in this place. I'm pleased that the government has come on board with Labor's plan to return the parliament to a more regular sitting and I'm very pleased that we are able to support that today and announce it today.

These have been absolutely extraordinary times. We are living in the midst of a heartbreaking and life-changing crisis. We are told that COVID-19 represents a one-in-100-year pandemic. For many South Australians it represents the stuff of nightmares. Almost overnight we've seen our health system under strain, our economy devastated, small businesses closed, workers stood down, too many left behind, South Australian lives lost and fear, dismay and despair. These have been dark times and lonely times for many in my community. But they are not the end of times, they are not the end of opportunity, the end of hope, the end of growth or the end of the things that we hold dear. If we in this place respond in the right manner, these times could represent a new beginning, a chance to reset, to rebuild and to work towards a fairer and more just Australia. That is my hope, but it is a fair way into our future.

On the health front, SA has fared better than our neighbours, but we have not been immune to the health impacts of this crisis and nor should we be under any illusion that the health crisis is over. Whilst we haven't seen the complete run on our health system that we feared, that's not to say it's been without challenge or anxiety. Early on in this crisis I heard directly from doctors on the front line of SA's response who were frightened to go to work, frightened of the risks that going to work presented to them, frightened of what they could bring home to their families, frightened of what they might see at work, frightened because they didn't have enough access to PPE or to swabs, and terrified of the God-like choices they may have to make at work that they were seeing their colleagues in places like Italy and the UK having to make. For their dedication, for the burden of anxiety and fear that they shouldered on our behalf, for the sacrifices they made and were prepared to make for us, we can never thank them enough.

Nor can we offer enough thanks to our frontline workers. For too long, those in frontline roles have been underpaid and undervalued, and we should let this continue no longer. In this crisis, it's our supermarket workers; truck drivers; police officers; fast-food workers; cleaners; bus, train and tram drivers; warehousing staff; teachers; early childhood workers; aged-care workers—among so many other essential workers who have turned up to work every day to keep us safe, at risk to themselves and their families. To those workers: I see you, I value you, and I will keep fighting in this place with my Labor colleagues so that your value is recognised in how you are paid and how you are treated in your workplace.

To our teachers and early childhood educators, if your work wasn't valued by parents before, I can assure you there is not a single parent in Australia who does not value you now. Our teachers and early childhood workers do the most important job in our community: they hold our productivity and our prosperity, our future, in their hands. These have been tough and anxious times, and the government's childcare changes have made it very uncertain for a lot of you. Thank you for your service.

Of course, not everyone who has wanted to go to work in the past months has been able to, so we give our thanks to those who stayed home, working away from their workplace to keep our community safe. But, more importantly, to those who have been stood down and can't go to work because the workplace has closed or has ceased to exist: we haven't forgotten you. These are deeply stressful and troubling times, but I assure you we will fight for your workplace too. We want you back at work; we want our community back. Many of you have benefited from the wage subsidy JobKeeper—a subsidy we fought for and proposed, and we welcome the government adopting it—but we know that far too many people have been left behind, including our arts workers. Almost a million casuals have been left behind. The Treasurer could fix it with the stroke of a pen, but he hasn't. Workers at firms like dnata were told they were entitled to JobKeeper, but a change of mind changed their lives.

There is a long road ahead. The unemployment figures today, especially in my state, don't tell the whole story. Whether we're speaking about our health or our economy, there are likely to be many more dark and difficult days ahead of us. More than ever, we need to care for those close to us, value those supporting us and fight for those who cannot afford to be left behind.