SENATOR THE HON PENNY WONG

LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY IN THE SENATE

SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS

LABOR SENATOR FOR SOUTH AUSTRALIA

SPEECH

8 April 2020

RESPONSE TO MINISTERIAL STATEMENT ON COVID-19

SENATE

CANBERRA

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In times of crisis we show who we are.

We demonstrate what we can be

Do we care only about ourselves or do we care about each other?

Because to best face this crisis, we must face it together.

In this we will show who we are and what we can be – Australians together.

We need to care about each other as individuals: by checking in with each other, by maintaining physical distance, by staying home – as hard as that is in so many cases; not being able to see loved ones who may be vulnerable.

And we need to care about each other as a country and as a Parliament, expressed less in the words we speak and more in the decisions we make. In how we support our healthcare professionals, cleaners, and people involved in essential supply chains.

And in how we resolve to support people whose lives have been turned upside-down by this crisis.

The Australians who have lost their jobs.

The Australians whose businesses face collapse.

The Australians stranded overseas.

We need to support each other by maintaining a sense of common purpose, that we are all in this together.

That we help our fellow Australians in times of need.

The fundamental humility and egalitarianism of the Australian spirit that recognises what my neighbour, my friend, my colleague is going through could just as easily be happening to me.

Because none of us is immune to hardship, and this virus – its attack on the powerful and the vulnerable alike – reminds us of that.

This virus reminds us we need to care about each other and find common cause.

Not just in times of crisis, but all the time.

Because in this crisis, as in life, we are all in this together.

This is so poignantly demonstrated by those Australians on the front line – caring for our sick in our hospitals, teaching our children, stacking the shelves and serving us in our supermarkets, transporting the essentials we need, providing the public services we are relying on – and so many more.

You have our thanks. You have our respect.

And in this crisis the trade union movement is again demonstrating that they are the champion of working people.

Amendments to the Fair Work driven by the advocacy of the ACTU will provide further protection for working people.

Some weeks ago, Labor and the trade union movement proposed wage subsidies as a critical means of ensuring that both workers and businesses are looked after during this crisis, and to ensure that we emerge after this crisis stronger than we would have otherwise. Rather than sending more Australians to the unemployment queues, we want employers to be able keep them on.

We want to maintain the relationship between workers and their employer, rather than severing that relationship and creating a new relationship with Centrelink – which experience tells us becomes very hard to break.

Unfortunately there are some key aspects of what Labor and unions have called for that has not been adopted by the Government.

We have placed on record our concern that the structure of the JobKeeper payments will mean that many Australians will miss out.

This is because the payments will be directed on the basis of the structure of the employer, not on the need of the individual worker.

This means that employees in exactly the same circumstances will be treated differently depending on the size and structure of the employer.

There are over 1 million Australians who are casual workers, who will not be eligible for the JobKeeper program.

This fails to recognise that in the modern workforce, any worker defined as casual but who has been stood down, has expectations and financial commitments based upon work and income that has been regular.

Labor believes that no worker should be left behind.

We are also concerned about permanent workers being forced to take their annual leave at this time.

We see people who work in local government, people who work for the NDIS, people who work for our university sector and our private education sector, temporary visa holders – all left out of JobKeeper, which we think is counter to the national interest.

Consistent with this, Labor has been moving Second Reading amendments in the House of Representatives and we will do the same in the Senate.

In the House, we are moving in-detail amendments that outline our major concerns.

If these are not successful in the House of Representatives, we will not be pursuing those amendments nor will we support amendments moved by other political parties in the Senate.

We do not want to see a circumstance where the House and the Senate are at loggerheads, bouncing legislation back and forth, causing delays the Australian people cannot afford.

This package must be passed urgently as possible, and Labor will facilitate that passage by the end of the day.

I would also note that even if our amendments are not accepted, it is within the power of the Government to do the right thing.

With the stroke of a pen, Treasurer Frydenberg can fix issues with JobKeeper, and Minister Ruston can fix issues with JobSeeker.

The legislation already gives them the authority they need.

Whilst we are determined to see the passage of this legislation today, that does not mean we think the Parliament should not be sitting beyond today.

Labor has made clear our preference that Parliament keep sitting, as others are around the world.

That we are here today – at relatively short notice – demonstrates it is possible to do so.

I recognise that there are many Senators who would have preferred to be here today – to advocate for those they represent.

But just as other Australians are being asked to observe social distancing – so too must we.

Some have suggested the Senate alone could keep sitting, but that would be unworkable without the House of Representatives and without a legislative program being brought forward by the government.

In the absence of the Government supporting continued sittings, Labor is moving to establish an appropriate scrutiny committee – a Senate Select Committee to provide appropriate scrutiny of the government’s response.

And Labor will ensure that our representatives on this committee demonstrate the seniority we believe is required for such an important task. It will be chaired by Senator Gallagher, and it will have on it our Deputy Leader, Senator Keneally, and Senator Watt as the third Labor member.

Mr President,

As many have rightly noted, this is an unprecedented crisis. The Government’s domestic response does reflect that even though we may think it should go further – and Labor has supported every measure put forward by the Government.

Whilst the Government’s domestic response reflects the unprecedented nature of this crisis, I regret that its urgency in repatriating stranded Australians does not.

Labor has given the Government a very wide berth to take the steps it deems necessary to protect Australians. And I do want to acknowledge the work of the consular services officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and others.

The reality is, we have thousands of Australians – through no fault of their own – who have found themselves in very distressing situations.

Unfortunately there is not time today to fully document the hundreds of cases that have been raised with my office, and the offices of Labor members and senators, nor to fully catalogue our concerns.

I will simply say this.

It has been clear for weeks that many Australians do not have recourse to commercial options to get home to safety, despite their best efforts and vast sums of money blown on cancelled tickets.

They are concerned about  many things but two stand out:

  • First, they can see what other countries are doing to repatriate their citizens from the locations where Australians too are stranded. Germany alone has arranged 170 flights.
  • Second, many feel the Government’s delays are putting them at risk as the situations where they are deteriorate.

I once again urge the Government to reconsider its blanket refusal to arrange affordable, assisted departures for stranded Australians.

And I urge the Government to ensure that cost is not a barrier to return.

It makes no sense that a UK citizen should pay 250 pounds for a ticket that costs an Australian $5000.

It is simply untenable in this crisis to rule out assisted departures.

And it is unsafe. We must do more.

Just as Labor has offered its support to all the Government’s domestic measures to protect Australians, we once again offer our support to the Government taking whatever steps are necessary to bring safety Australians home to safety.

Mr President,

We have much to be grateful for in our nation’s history.

We have been blessed in so many ways.

But Australians have also known hardship and Australians have also known tragedy.

We have known wars, depression, recessions, we have known terrorist attacks. We have known natural disasters, bushfires, floods and drought.

These and many more we have faced, we have faced them all and we have come through each challenge that history has placed before us and we have done it together.

We have looked to one another, and we have looked out for one another.

And so to, and in the same way, we will come through this.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.