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Monday, 23 March 2020
Page: 2885


Mr THISTLETHWAITE (Kingsford Smith) (18:15): I rise to speak on the Supply Bill (No. 1) 2020-2021 and related bills. The coronavirus poses an unprecedented challenge for Australians, for local communities and for our nation, but we will get through this if we all work together and we all do our bit to stop the spread of the virus. This is an enormous challenge to our healthcare system and those who work in it. And I want to give a very big thank you to all of those, every single person, working in the Australian healthcare sector at the moment—in particular, those who are working at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick, in my community, which has a coronavirus testing centre. Thank you for your courage and for your commitment to helping others and saving lives. I want to particularly pay tribute to those on the front line, especially our doctors and our nurses who are triaging, testing and treating patients for coronavirus. Thank you to the cleaners who are making sure that our hospitals and our GP centres are clean and are saving lives as well. All of those who are risking their health to save others are true heroes, and we thank you.

I want to call on the government to ensure that all healthcare professionals have the resources they need to do their job, particularly testing kits, telehealth measures—and I know the government announced something on that today, which is welcomed—adequate thermometers for testing of temperatures, particularly in hospitals and, of course, personal protective equipment.

Many Australians are confused by the government's response to this pandemic because of the situation with schools. This morning there was mass confusion amongst parents and teachers about the situation relating to Australian schools, because there is no consistent position from Australian government on the issue at the moment—and it's simply not good enough. Last night, in his press conference, the Prime Minister said that schools would remain open. This morning, the Victorian Premier came out and said that Victorian schools would close from tomorrow. Then, literally half an hour after that press conference, the New South Wales Premier did a press conference indicating that, if you could, you should keep your kids at home but schools would be open and students would be able to go there but they won't be taught; they'll just be supervised in online activities.

Our teachers are not babysitters. They deserve better. Parents deserve better from this government in a time of crisis. They deserve a consistent message, and I call on the Prime Minister and the state and territory leaders and those advising them to work together on a unified, consistent message when it comes to schools. The same goes for childcare centres. Many childcare centres are confused about whether or not they should close or whether or not they should remain open and, indeed, what that means for payments into the future. Many parents are wondering whether or not they should voluntarily keep their kids out of childcare centres, and there is uncertainty about payments in respect of support that goes to parents for child care as well. We need to sort these issues out, and sort them out quickly in respect of schools and childcare centres.

This virus will, of course, have a dramatic affect on the Australian economy—on workers and their families and on businesses, particularly small businesses and sole traders. I've spoken to many workers who have been stood down or sacked and to small businesses who are finding it almost impossible to keep staff on and to keep the doors open. To them: I know that you are deeply worried and concerned, I know that you are hurting and I want you to know that my office, my staff and I are here to help you. If you have any issues relating to the economic package that's been announced by the government, please feel free to call my office.

The government has announced a series of stimulus measures aimed at supporting workers, businesses and welfare recipients. In the interests of the nation, to ensure that these measures pass the parliament, Labor will immediately work to ensure that the funds flow to Australians as quickly as possible by voting to support these bills. So Labor will be supporting these bills. Are they adequate? No, they are not. Do they start soon enough? No, they do not. Would Labor have done things differently? Absolutely, yes, we would. But, in the interests of getting this money out the door and ensuring that Australian workers and businesses get the support they need, we will support these bills.

We have concerns with some of the elements of these bills. For instance, they don't start early enough. The $550-per-fortnight coronavirus supplement that was announced yesterday doesn't begin until 27 April—next month! That is too late. It is not soon enough for people who need support immediately. The income test for the jobseeker allowance is still in place, meaning that many Australian workers, sole traders and contractors who are stood down or have lost their jobs will not be eligible, particularly if their partner maintains an income. This will leave millions of Australian households struggling to pay their bills and to make ends meet.

These are unique circumstances. This is not a situation that Australia has ever found itself in before. The government should be relaxing such tests that restrict Australians whose jobs and family incomes are at risk and who will suffer because of coronavirus. Labor did a similar thing in relaxing those restrictions during the global financial crisis, and it worked. We call on the government to do a similar thing now.

Today we are seeing, as a result of the mass layoffs and standdown of employees, queues outside Centrelink offices. Unfortunately, many of those queuing are going to be disappointed because of some of those restrictions that have been put in place by this government and that remain, the lifting of which should be looked at. I want to thank all of the Centrelink workers who are doing an amazing job today, who have been under very difficult circumstances, working through and ensuring that people get the support they need. But we should be supporting them, and the government should be providing personal protective equipment for those workers as well.

As a result of many workers being stood down or losing their jobs, there will be many who will be unable to pay their mortgage or their rent. I note that the Australian Banking Association made some announcements last week about mortgages, particularly on the major banks offering mortgage deferrals and hardship arrangements. I welcome those announcements. But the critical issue with respect to mortgage deferrals will be whether or not the banks continue to charge interest during that deferral period. If they do, and a person who gets back to making repayments at some stage, when this virus passes, faces the prospect of increases in their repayments, they are again going to struggle to get back on their feet. I call on the banks to clarify this position for many Australian workers and those with mortgages into the future.

The same goes for renters. Many people who are renting who are stood down or lose their jobs will be unable to pay the rent and will face eviction. No-one should be evicted or potentially homeless because of coronavirus. The state and territory governments, I believe, should look at doing what the United Kingdom government has done, and ensure that tenants are protected and that landlords cannot evict tenants during a period into the future until coronavirus passes.

In conclusion, these are challenging times for our nation but we must all work together to ensure that we all do our bit, to make sure that we minimise the spread of this virus. But the government must come up with a consistent message that reflects leadership to ensure that the Australian people can do their bit, to make sure that this virus does not spread.