Treasury Laws Amendment (COVID-19 Economic Response No. 2) Bill 2021

04 August 2021

Before I begin my remarks on the Treasury Laws Amendment (COVID-19 Economic Response No. 2) Bill 2021, I want to acknowledge the millions of Australians who are currently in lockdown around our country and the millions more who have only just been released from a lockdown in their state. We know that the delta variant makes lockdowns a necessary tool in our arsenal against COVID-19, but the necessity of these lockdowns doesn't make them any easier for those living in them. Indeed, there are huge costs for Australians living in lockdown: the economic cost of lost hours of work, of lost business; the social cost of the disconnection from friends, family and loved ones; the health cost; and, especially, the cost to the wellbeing and mental wellness of too many Australians.

Australian families in lockdown are doing it incredibly tough around our country, just as they done in South Australia and Victoria recently. I want Australians to know that, when we are here talking today about the economic cost of lockdowns, we haven't forgotten the other ways in which this pandemic is hurting you, the other costs it is bearing down on you—socially, in terms of your health and in terms of your wellbeing. And I want to say to South Australians, in my state, that I am as desperate as you are to see Australia return to business as usual as quickly and as safely as possible.

This bill goes to the immediate economic impacts of the lockdown and it provides the administrative support arrangements necessary to ensure that the Commonwealth can deliver support to those Australians who need it the most. This support is desperately needed. It was desperately needed in South Australia, and I know it's desperately needed by individuals around our country who are also experiencing lockdown. That's why Labor will be supporting the bill. We know it's our responsibility to support Australians when they need our help the most.

We are 18 months into this pandemic and, in too many ways, it feels like we're right back in 2020. With bated breath, Australians across the country are tuning in to their premiers' press conferences each morning wondering what the numbers will mean in their state. The Prime Minister, in his morning press conferences, says a lot but is helping little. Our parliament is operating remotely, as we are doing today. Businesses are struggling to understand and implement the rules. Shops are open, shops are closed. Masks are on, masks are off. In the last month alone, we have seen half the country put into snap lockdowns in response to outbreaks of the delta variant. In New South Wales, we've had weeks of it and we've got weeks to go, without a clear end in sight. We've got uncertainty about what the future holds in Queensland, and, of course, all of us live with uncertainty every day about when the next outbreak might occur, what that might mean and whether we're back in lockdown, whether we're back in those conditions: locking down, shutting up shop, stopping work.

And let's be clear, until the government get the vaccine rollout right and until the government get a handle on quarantine, which is their responsibility, until they get that right, lockdowns for the Delta variant will be a way of life. People's lives will be disrupted; hours will be lost at work; businesses will be closed, suffering through no fault of their own. Stock will be thrown out. Staff will be stood down. There are still rents to pay, but with reduced income. There will be reduced support and reduced viability. There will be confusion and fear. Kids will be forced to do home learning. We're yet to know the impact of being away from school for so many of these children—particularly vulnerable kids, kids with poorer internet connections, kids who suffer more than others when things like this happen. And, of course, there are parents struggling to work full time at home and home school their kids, feeling great fear and great uncertainty about what the future holds.

Initial estimates suggested that the most recent South Australian lockdown could come with a $200 million hit to our local economy. That is horrendous. The economic impact of this in my state is horrendous. It's horrendous at the broader scale, in terms of the impact on our state, and it's horrendous at the micro scale—the small businesses throwing milk down the drain because they're not serving coffees this weekend; standing staff down; not knowing how to stock their fridge for the weekend trade ahead; not knowing whether staff are going to be needed or necessary, whether they can survive doing things like takeaway or whether they can even open their doors. How do they keep their staff safe if they do open their doors? Wages are lost from the pockets of workers, of employees whose employers have been forced to stand them down.

And for those employees, those workers in casual work and in insecure work, these challenges are even greater. For those workers who live pay cheque to pay cheque, who find it hard to wait even a week for a disaster payment to kick in, losing just a few hours of work can mean the difference between paying their rent and paying their grocery bill, paying their electricity bill and feeding their family. For these workers this is especially tough. These workers have no choice to work at home. These workers, when their employer shuts their business and these workers are stood down with no means of supporting themselves and their families—over and over again we have seen Australians put in this position during lockdown, this position of vulnerability, this position of fear. It's unacceptable. Yes, it is a necessary tool in our lockdown arsenal against the Delta variant, but we shouldn't be here. Our ticket out of this is better quarantine; our ticket out of this is a better, effective vaccine rollout. And on these two fronts—these two fronts that are the Commonwealth's responsibilities—we have seen failure after failure from the Commonwealth government.

So while we welcome this bill—we welcome the measures within it, we welcome the ability for the Commonwealth to provide this level of financial support—we need to actually get the policy levers right, which would ensure we don't have these lockdowns, we're not in this position over and over again. If we do that, we give that certainty and that security to Australians. We protect them. We keep them safe. That is the key role of the Commonwealth government here. That is what they should be delivering, and that is what they have failed to do over and over again.

This bill enables government to make those policy decisions to provide for that financial support, and we welcome that. I note the payments are tax free, although the government seem to be in a bit of kerfuffle and confused about whether that was the case and whether it would be so, but we welcome that. We welcome that it means more support into the hands of Australians and into the hands of Australian families who need it. But, the fact remains that until the Commonwealth gets those two policy levers right, those two policy levers we know they are responsible for—vaccinations and proper quarantine facilities to replace hotel quarantine—and which we know would keep Australians safer from these variants entering Australia, then we are going to continue to live with bandaid solutions—solutions which fix the impact of these failures rather than address the heart of the failures, which is what the Commonwealth needs to be doing.

I want to see us through this as quickly as possible. I don't want to be here talking about economic and financial support, because the fact that we have to means that those costs have already been borne by Australians. That difficulty, challenge and heartache has already been borne by South Australians. I don't want to be here discussing this. So we support it, but the best we in this place and in this chamber can do is get to the heart of the reason why we're here and fix the policy failures of the Commonwealth.

This vaccine rollout is failing—it's failing to get the take-up it needs, we're failing with supply and we're failing with communication—which has left Australians feeling anxious and uncertain. We need Australians to get vaccinated. Vaccination is the key to get out of this mess. Vaccination is the key to get back to a life that is more normal, to being able to live alongside COVID. The Commonwealth have failed. They have failed in the rollout. They have failed in supply. They have failed in the messaging. Is it any wonder that Australians feel the way they do about this rollout?

Today I want to mention young Australians as well because they have suffered tremendously at the heart of these lockdowns and throughout this pandemic in so many different ways. They have borne the brunt of the economic impacts of COVID. Their jobs are among the most insecure and are often the first to be axed. Their super accounts were the lowest before they were forced to raid them during the pandemic last year, because that's what government policy forced them to do. It's their future that's affected in terms of the fiscal implications of this and the burden they have to bear going forward.

For every missed target, disappearing horizon and unmet deadline younger Australians face the prospect of their workplaces being closed, of missing out and of suffering in terms of their economic wellbeing, their social wellbeing and their mental health. Overwhelmingly, young Australians have suffered very hard at the hands of this pandemic. They've been forgotten and looked over by too many in government. It's not acceptable for those young Australians. They have borne the brunt of this pandemic. They have borne the brunt of the economic impact, and they will continue to bear the brunt of it going forward.

The lockdown in South Australia recently was incredibly hard. I want to acknowledge every South Australian who found it challenging and tough. Mums and dads were home schooling their kids. They were trying to work at home and do the best they could. It was a tough situation. Of course there are also families and workers in our community who didn't have the choice to work from home. They were stood down because of the lockdown. They didn't have a choice to go to work and do their job there. Their job could only happen when the business they work for is open.

Of course, our essential workers did go to work every day. They worked in the supermarkets and drove our buses. They put their health on the line to make sure our community and economy could continue to run and function. We owe these workers an enormous debt of gratitude. They had to go to work each day knowing the risks and the potential impacts. They have done a tremendous job. Some employees working in these essential sectors have been some of the most undervalued in our society. I hope that, if anything changes from this pandemic, it's that we value them properly now. Our supermarket workers, our childcare workers, our public transport workers and our cleaners have carried so much of the burden of this pandemic and yet in many ways they have continued to be underpaid and undervalued.

In closing, Labor of course support this legislation. We support measures being taken to limit and ease the economic burden on Australian citizens because of these lockdowns. Of course we support that, but let us not just support Australians with these sorts of systems; let's support them with policy that goes to the heart of the failures that mean lockdowns are essential in the first place—failed vaccination rollout and failed quarantine. If the Commonwealth gets those two things right, admits and acknowledges its failure and just does better then perhaps we won't need to sit here discussing these measures. Perhaps we could get back to business as usual in Australia. Perhaps we could start to see an end to the incredibly burdensome economic, social and human costs this pandemic is having on South Australians and Australians more broadly. That's what I want to see. That's what I'm fighting for in here. So, whilst we welcome and acknowledge these measures, let's actually see from the government, please, an earnest attempt to fix the failures they are responsible for, which would mean we wouldn't require these measures in the first place.