The fierce urgency of now

Australians are anxious. They’re worried. Many are panicked and frightened. I see that in my own local area. I see it in the tussle over toilet paper at Coles and Woolworths. I see it in the fight that broke out at Bass Hill Woolworths only a week or so ago. But it’s important to note that it’s not all Australians. Most people that I run into at the shops are calm and kind and polite. They know what they have to do and they’re doing it. What they need from us here is information. Clear and consistent information. What they need from us, what they need from all of us, is leadership. I know that the government is under a lot of pressure. The decisions that they’ve already made and that they will make in the weeks ahead will determine how bad this crisis gets and how many Australians this virus kills.


When this is all over, we’ll be judged not by how many people lose their jobs, but by how many people lose their lives. That’s the ultimate test that we all face. This economic package that we’re debating here is important. If it works it will help to keep a lot of businesses on life support over the next few months, but there’s something even more important here, and that’s the number of Australians that end up in hospital on life support. The fact is that the faster this virus runs through the community; the more people will die. It’s as simple as that. At the moment the number of people infected is doubling every three days. If too many people get it too quickly, the hospital system will get overrun, we’ll run out of respirators and other life support equipment and more people will die. That’s why it’s important to get the big calls right: the lives of Australians depend on us. It’s important we as members of parliament support the government when they get those calls right, that we provide constructive help to the government on how to make the decisions that they’ve already made better and that we urge the government to take more action where we think it is needed. If we do that, we’ll make a more important contribution as an opposition than almost any opposition in the history of this parliament. And that’s what we are doing every day.


That’s what we’re doing with this legislation. We’re supporting it not because we think it is perfect but because it’s urgent. Our main concern is that it doesn’t go far enough and that it doesn’t get the money to the people who need it quick enough. The assistance for business isn’t available for another month. The changes to deeming rates don’t come into effect until May. There are payments for pensioners and veterans and others that won’t arrive until the middle of July. It’s too long. This crisis is happening now, and it requires the fierce urgency of now. So we urge the government to get this help to the people who need it faster.


There’s also a bit of confusion over who gets access to this financial support. The finance minister said this morning that, if someone loses their job and their partner earns $70,000, they’ll still get access to the jobseeker payment. That’s not right. Under these laws, if your partner earns more than $1,858.50 a fortnight, or about $48,000 a year, you’re not eligible for the payment. That’s just one example of one of the problems that we think need to get fixed. There are lots of people that are going to lose their job. A lot of them work in pubs and clubs, and the decision made last night is going to force a lot of them into Centrelink queues. For example, at Bankstown Sports Club in the heart of my electorate, 500 people were stood down today and another 120 have been made redundant. That doesn’t count the 300 cleaners and restaurant staff and security workers that are contractors there. That’s just one club. Multiply that right across the country. As I speak now, the line at Bankstown Centrelink is already around the corner and getting longer. I think about all of those people today.


I said last week that Coles put an ad online for 5,000 jobs and the next day they got applications from 36,000 people. In one day. They normally get 800 applications a day. In that day they got 36,000. I can only imagine how many more applications they got today. All of these people are going to struggle to pay their bills, and we’ve got to give them all the support we can. That means money to put food on the table now—not tomorrow, not in another week, not in another month but now.


It also includes passing laws to stop people who rent from being evicted now. I called for this last week and I’m glad to hear that the national cabinet is working on this and that the states are going to pass laws to make sure that people aren’t thrown out on the street because they’ve lost their job and they can’t pay the rent. This is urgent. It has to happen fast. No-one should lose the home that they own or rent because of the virus. The same thing has to happen with utility bills. No-one should have their electricity cut off or their gas cut off or their water cut off or their phone cut off when they can’t pay the bill because of the virus.


More also needs to be done to help specific industries. There are obvious ones that have been mentioned already in this debate, like tourism and hospitality, but there are also ones that are not so obvious. Let me give you one example, pathology services. It’s counterintuitive. You’d think that pathology services across Australia would be flat out right now doing coronavirus testing and they are. But they’re not run off their feet. Why? Because people who usually go to the doctor to get a blood test aren’t going. The only people who are going to the doctor at the moment are the people who think they have COVID-19. Last week, pathology businesses right across Australia were down 30 or 40 per cent. That risks two things: (1) people in Australia that are already sick will get sicker, and (2) these businesses—the pathology services that we’re going to rely on in the months ahead to test and find out who has the coronavirus—risk going under unless they get help from the government. I know talks on this front are going on. It’s important that they do, because we can’t let our pathology services go under at any time, let alone now, with everything that’s going on.


The Prime Minister describes this as a war and he’s right. It is a war; it’s a world war. We’re fighting an invisible army marching relentlessly across the globe. Every country will be affected, every country will be infected, and after this is all over there’ll be two types of countries: the quick and the dead. The faster countries react, the fewer of their citizens will die. I worry that we’re not acting quickly enough. That we weren’t quick enough to shut down our borders. We weren’t quick enough to test people getting off planes and getting off cruise ships. That we weren’t quick enough to stop large gatherings of people. That we haven’t got the emergency fever clinics up quickly enough. That we haven’t got enough clear information on TV, in every ad break quick enough. I hope I’m wrong about all of that but ultimately, history will be the judge. In the meantime, I want to thank the people who are really on the front line of this—the doctors and nurses, the scientists, the specialists, and all of the allied health workers—who can see this invisible wave coming at them and are getting ready for it. They are burdened with one of most important tasks in the history of this country. What they do in the next few months, more than anything that we do here, will determine how many lives we save. Knowing that, I want to thank them now and implore them, when it gets hard, when it gets really hard, to keep going.


I also want to thank the people who work in our schools, the people who work in our aged-care centres, the people who work with disabled Australians, and the people who help homeless Australians—people who don’t have a home to self-isolate in—the people who deliver food to people in need. Many of them are volunteers, like my friend Hilton Harmer. He has been a volunteer with the Salvation Army for over 40 or 50 years. He’s in his 80s now and his health is not the best, but he’s out there every day providing food to the underprivileged—providing beds, furniture, clothing and help where it’s needed. He tells me that this isn’t going to stop him, that he’s not going to give up. All of these people are on the front line too. So are the workers at Woolies and the worker at Coles, at Chullora and Bass Hill, and in supermarkets right across the country. They deserve our thanks today and every day, and they deserve our kindness and our calmness. That’s ultimately what will get us through this. Washing our hands, keeping our distance from each other, listening to what the people with the stethoscopes around their neck tell us to do, and being kind to each other and being our best selves here in this place and right across the country.