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Monday, 23 March 2020
Page: 2878


Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (17:43): I rise to speak on Supply Bill (No. 1) 2020-2021 and related bills. Australia, along with the rest of the world, is facing a global health crisis. It's a deadly pandemic that has already taken several thousand lives. Our first priority of course should be, and must be, to save lives. There will be an economic fallout, because of it. This package that's been brought to the parliament attempts to deal with that. The most effective economic action we can take is to control and eliminate COVID-19.

If Australia ever needed leadership, it is now. Across the world and here in Australia, people are facing uncertainty, turmoil and life-threatening risks which create fear and panic—and we have seen that and spoken about it in debates today. Most people have never experienced anything like this or close to it in their lifetime. Without warning, normality as we have come to know it—simple things we took for granted—has abruptly come to an end at least for now, and in some cases possibly forever.

COVID-19 will change how we live and how we think into the future. Very few, if any, parts of society will not be affected in one way or another. In some cases it will be drastically affected. Some sectors will fare better than others. However, in a globalised world, the fallout will indeed be far and wide. People are therefore looking to governments for leadership. This should be a time when political differences are set aside and we work for the betterment of the people that we all represent. This should be a time when opinions, regardless of where they come from, are respectfully debated and new ideas are candidly and openly considered; when, for example, work and study for home may become a way of life for people into the future; when Australia's reliance on overseas countries for basic needs is no longer acceptable and greater effort is made to rebuild our manufacturing sector; and when identified gaps in our health system are rectified.

This should also be a time that as a nation we reassess our strengths, our vulnerabilities and our place in a global future. The stimulus package before us and other government COVID-19 response measures should not solely be measures to minimise the damage, care for the immediate needs and restore normality. The package should simultaneously better prepare Australia for a more secure future. While for years the spotlight and the public debate has been on climate change, the rising influence of China or perhaps another global financial recession, the world ignored the obvious and profound global risks of a world overly connected and overly interdependent. COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of globalisation and open borders that the global free market advocates and power hungry transnationals have relentlessly pursued for decades.

COVID-19 has made a difference to the thinking of people right around the world. I note that, in the midst of COVID-19, many of the big corporates are now showing compassion and social responsibility that was previously unseen. I welcome that. However, the rich and powerful also know that their own survival depends on the survival of the masses from whom their wealth is generated. Self-interest is a powerful force.

COVID-19 brings home many realities, now acknowledged in the stimulus package and other government response measures. It's also an opportunity to rethink longstanding societal norms and open doorways to innovation. The financial stimulus measures acknowledge that economies are indeed much stronger when poorer or low-income people have more to spend; that governments and, in Australia's case, the Reserve Bank, should rightfully be in the banking business; and that Newstart is and has been inadequate and it makes economic sense to increase it. The kinds of measures that the government has brought forward in all of its packages are measures that some of us in this place have been calling for for a long time because it's in the national interest to do so. It's good and heartening to see that the government has embraced those ideas for the very same reason that it now understands that it is good and it is in the national interest and it is in the economic interest of the nation to do all those things. It always has been, but, for reasons I could never fathom, the government chose to do differently.

This issue also exposes that we, as a nation, need to stop continuing to be reliant on overseas countries for basic, everyday needs. The loss of manufacturing in this country is a great example, where, here and now, we have short supplies of many things that are essential to our needs but which we have to rely on overseas countries for and which should otherwise have been produced here in Australia. We need to get back to being a country that makes things so that at times like this we can indeed do that, just as we did in the World War II years with our manufacturing sector. It applies right across the board, to everything we need. It doesn't make sense to leave yourself vulnerable to other countries when, for one reason or another, you can't get those products immediately you need them.

This is the time when, had we the capacity, we might have been able to innovate. In respect of that, I certainly commend the health researchers we have in this country. They have always shown leadership and continue to do so with respect to the work that is going on to look for some solutions and perhaps some medicines that will assist with the COVID-19 problem, not just here but across the world. But, again, that's the kind of thing that every country should be getting prepared to do.

In the course of the last few weeks, my office has been contacted by many, many people with all kinds of suggestions and, in some cases, problems. I want to touch briefly on some of those issues, because they haven't all been addressed within this package. The first relates to one of the ironies of this package—that is, the very businesses and enterprises we are trying to assist by way of a stimulus package will not be assisted because, on the other hand, we have set in place regulations which close them down. The very small businesses that would otherwise have looked forward to a stimulus package—and that were very much supported by the stimulus package of the Rudd-Gillard years—will not be able to benefit from it because they are no longer able to trade, because of the restrictions, across the country, of people's movements. That happens to be something that concerns me. I would have thought one of the things we're trying to do is keep those businesses afloat, yet at the same time we're telling them they have to close down. It's for good reason, I understand that, but they will miss out on the benefits of the stimulus package. Amongst them are sole traders and many small and family business operators, particularly in the tourism and hospitality sectors. We've seen, through the announcement last night, that many of them will have to close their doors. Many of those small business operators will be hit extremely hard. And, as I say, whilst they might be able to access other government support—and I'm not sure just who will be and who won't be, because there are obviously qualifications with respect to that—the fact is the stimulus won't help them, because their doors are shut.

Along with that, I've also had representation made to me by several people with respect to heartless landlords who will not show any compassion at a time when they should and who continue to charge full rental rates. The reality is it's in their own long-term interest to show a little bit of goodwill at this time and perhaps lower their rental charges. I urge landlords across Australia who haven't—and I know that many have, and I commend them for doing so—to rethink their position and assist their tenants by doing so.

I've been contacted by several people, who are either overseas or have family members overseas, who are trying desperately to get back home. Those people are stuck in countries where the borders, even within those countries, particularly some of the South American countries, have been closed, and they cannot get out. I urge the government to do what it can to assist them and facilitate their return to Australia. I'm sure that if they were family members of any one of us in this parliament we would want to see them brought home as quickly as possible. I realise it's a big task. I realise that at any one time there are hundreds of thousands of people overseas. But, for those who are caught in a country where they can't get out and who have asked for consular and government assistance, I urge the government to do whatever it can.

Along with that, one of the issues that truly concerns me—and I know it concerns everyone else in this place—is the panic buying that we have seen. Whilst it's unnecessary, the reality is that fear causes people to do it. When people walk into grocery stores and see the shelves empty, if they can buy something they think they will need the following week and the week after then of course they will do so. The problem, however, is that people who are not panic buying, who need essential goods and items, then go into the grocery stores. I had one case where, on four different occasions, a person went into all the stores in his locality and wasn't able to buy essential supplies for his household. I am talking about an elderly couple. So my request to the government is to look at what other measures it can bring in to try to ensure that panic buying is controlled. It will be in everyone's interest if we are able to do that.

In respect of the issues that could be looked at even further, my view is that local governments across the country could do a little more as well. Local government is one level of government that has a very secure income stream. At times like this, when they can borrow at very low interest rates, local governments should be doing that and bringing forward their capital works to keep people employed. With the interest rates at which they can borrow, it makes sense for them to do works that they know have to be done down the track at any event, even if it means they have to borrow the money. If they're borrowing at literally no interest, there's no reason they shouldn't be doing it, and I urge local governments to do so. I also urge local governments to consider how they might provide rate relief to some of the businesses that are going to find things difficult in the weeks and months ahead.

Lastly, I too want to thank the many people out there who over the last few weeks have worked tirelessly to assist the community to get through this. I'm referring to the health workers, wherever they might be; the pharmacists, who I know have been put under incredible pressure to provide assistance; the retail grocery workers, who in some cases are dealing every day with unhappy customers and the like but are doing their best to provide services; the aged-care workers, who others have spoken about; and of course the teachers, who have been working through this in a way that perhaps others haven't. Sometimes, it seems to me, we take teachers for granted. We treat them as nothing more than babysitters or child minders, when the truth is that they are educators. Their first and foremost responsibility is to be educators. They have been working, in many cases, with uncertainty hanging over their head but also in conditions in which others might have said, 'I don't want to work in those conditions.'

Labor have made it clear: we will support this package. Regardless of any criticisms I and others have made about its shortfalls and regardless of whether we could do more, the fact is that we need to provide support as soon as possible, and we will be supporting these measures.