Television Interview – ABC Weekend Breakfast


SUBJECTS: Coronavirus, Queensland Elections, Rent Assistance 

FAUZIAH IBRAHIM: Well, let’s stay with the coronavirus situation within Australia and we’ll turn now to our pollie panel.

JOHANNA NICHOLSON: We’re joined this morning by Liberal MP Andrew Laming who joins us from Cleveland in Queensland and we’re also joined by the Shadow Minister for Housing, Homelessness and Regional Services, Jason Clare. Thank you both for joining us this morning. Good morning to both of you.

Let’s stick with the government flagging details about this third economic stimulus. And we heard the Prime Minister say yesterday that the intention was to put the economy into hibernation. But at this stage we don’t have any details about what that exactly means. Andrew Laming, can you give us here and any people who are watching, particularly those in business any clarity on what hibernating means?

ANDREW LAMING: Well it’s a new concept, it’s the word of 2020.  It’s just replaced social distancing as the word everyone’s using. Look if you don’t need to leave the house then you shouldn’t and anything that can be put off is basically non-essential. So up until now we’ve seen reductions in a few sectors, but people forget that even now, about 80% of our economy is rolling along as normal. Our imports, our exports, pretty much all of our industry outside of major cities. Gotta make sure here, just because cafes are closed, the economy isn’t and what the Prime Minister is doing is very judiciously shutting down the elements of non-essential travel where people are likely to break social distancing. That will be the challenge, nothing else. I think that Australians have really got how serious this is in the last 48 hours, particularly where we’re seeing America leading in cases and we’ve gone over half a million worldwide. There’s been a big shift in the last 48.

IBRAHIM: Jason Clare, I want to pick up on this issue of the word of the year. You know we’ve got hibernating; we’ve got social distancing – it’s confusing. Why aren’t politicians just coming out to say that we’re going to put the economy on hold for now, this is what’s going to happen, you need to keep your distance, physical distance, rather than social distancing?

JASON CLARE: I think people want simple messages and the simple message is stay at home. If you don’t need to go out stay at home. The more people that stay at home the fewer people will die. We’re fighting a virus here that has the potential to kill thousands and thousands of Australians. And Andrew is right, more and more Australians are getting the message. You see it at the shops, you see it in the streets, people are starting to keep their distance. I had to Google what social distancing was a couple of weeks ago. We all know what it is now. But messages need to be short, sharp, and simple. The key message that our leaders need to give to everyone across the country is stay at home. If you don’t need to go out, don’t got out. Because if you do then you run the risk of catching the virus, spreading it to more people, and the risk of more and more people dying.

IBRAHIM: Andrew Laming, you’re in Queensland at the moment. I wonder, though, is the government giving mixed messages here? You know we’re being told keep your distance and yet the Queensland local council is going ahead. Although – you know they say it’s very safe there, people are going to be keeping their distance, bring your own pen. Still New South Wales decided to suspend its own elections here as well, shouldn’t Queensland be doing the same thing?

LAMING: That’s a very good question. There are plenty of public servants being paid to maintain distancing at elections. You’re way safer voting today in Queensland then you are popping down to the supermarket on the way home and buying a litre of milk and pausing at the register. So, I’m reminding everyone, this is just about how close you are to people for how long. For the elections, you’re walking in there, pausing for a few minutes, grabbing a sanitised pen, putting a mark on a bit of paper and then that pen is sterilised and reused. So, there is no concern with voting. What we need to understand here is at the moment in New South Wales, one in 5,000 people have the disease. Queensland, one in 10,000. But I just want to say two things. The first is that eight days ago Queensland had the same number of cases as we had yesterday. This is not exponential but all of our measures do have a one-week lag time before they work. And in answer to Jason’s question, if we shut stuff down, we still have essential services running and we’ve heard these two service providers in the Northern Territory, in an Indigenous community, is exactly why if we shut this economy down, we will still have this disease spreading, and we will still have it at the end of the shutdown. It is not the answer.

NICHOLSON: Although Andrew Laming, you make that comparison with going to the supermarkets, but people actually need to go to the supermarkets to buy the food in order to survive. I’m not sure whether local council elections are a survival issue. And we’ve heard from one Queenslander who says he’s a bad asthmatic, he will not be voting today. Why are we gathering at election booths today during a pandemic? He said, Fine me, it’s just not worth it!”

LAMING: So, there’s a cohort of people who just hate voting right and there going to make this case with glee….

NICHOLSON: I really don’t think you should belittle the person here. He says he is a bad asthmatic. He is not just hating voting. He’s fearful for his health.

LAMING: Yes, well then, he can phone up and ask for an exception on the grounds of health. But everyone else, primarily people who hate voting and are jumping on this bandwagon to derail a perfectly safe process. And you can’t comment on safety unless you have public health training and you’ve been there. Like the tens of thousands of people who went out of their way and spend three minutes on their way home to vote. And at the same time, if going to an IGA is essential, then so is maintaining a democratic process. So, we’ve got to keep our heads screwed on here, the last thing we want is hysteria from comments on social media about people worried about their health, most of whom on social media don’t have a significant health issue at all. So, I’m being quite firm about this, retaining some normality around essential activity is absolutely fine and if we’re worried about supermarkets or voting then we’ve got an alternative to all of those – both home delivery if you want food and voting on the phone if you want to vote.

IBRAHIM: Jason Clare you know recently, we had this thing about the Ruby Princess, we’ve heard this thing about the cruise ships. Passengers disembarking and just being let out into the community, free but being told, very severely, you need to self-isolate, you need to do this. Of course, now we’re seeing more and more cases out of the Ruby Princess and out of the other cruise ships as well. There seems to have been a breakdown in communication. We saw the Australian Border Force blaming the state health department, we saw the port authority saying we had nothing to do with this, we saw airport security saying, well, we weren’t consulted about this sort of stuff as well. Is there a breakdown in communication, are government departments just not coordinating and why?

CLARE: I think that Australians who are watching this don’t really care who’s responsible for this. They just want it fixed. This cruise ship thing is a disaster. 1 in 10 people in New South Wales who have got the virus are linked back to this cruise ship and people being allowed to get off the ship without being tested. Already a number of people that we’re on that cruise ship have died. And there’s a real risk that more people will die because they got the virus from people that were allowed off that ship without being tested.  Now, there’s obviously stresses and strains here between the State Government of NSW and the Federal Government. But I think people who are watching ABC 24 here aren’t interested in a blame game, you know, who’s responsible, which department, which level of government.  They just expect their leaders to fix this. We’ve got to make sure it never happens again. I backed what the Prime Minister did yesterday, putting people into quarantine when they get off a plane or get off a ship, that was the right thing to do, frankly should have happened weeks ago.

NICHOLSON: I also want to touch on with the third stimulus package that we are expecting from the government. Jason, I will get your thoughts in a moment because this is your area. Andrew Laming, are we expecting to see some more rent assistance, whether that be for renters, residential renters, for landlords, or also business owners who are trying to meet their rental repayments?

LAMING: That’s clearly the missing link at the moment isn’t it? Because fundamentally anyone can stop simply stop paying and blame COVID-19 and we’re seeing real uncertainty both for renters but also for those that are leasing commercial areas. This is probably a smaller number of people that are more brutally affected by a common-sense relationship that they need to have with their landlord. And obviously you need two parties to be reasonable in this process and when there’s no laws you can guarantee one of those parties will be more opportunistic. So, I’m encouraged that some shopping centres are simply giving a rent holiday to their tenants for up to 6 months here in Queensland.  But I’m asking everyone to use common sense and good faith negotiations in their conversations. But if we can’t, then it gonna have to be legislation to absolutely make it clear and certain that businesses can start up again, keep in mind, please, that half of the population or more have unchanged income through this process. We’ve got around 20% as public servants, another 20% that are salaried under companies that are continuing to operate. Now those people have no excuse. They’re mugs if they don’t pay their rent. So, we’re expecting that those who can pull their weight should do it and that includes many of us watching today.

NICHOLSON: Jason Clare, you are the Shadow Minister for Housing, Homelessness and Regional Services, what do you make of that answer?

CLARE: Well a lot of what Andrew said is right but there will be some people who can’t. All of those people that are in those queues out the door at Centrelink, snaking around the corner.  These are people who have lost their jobs. They also people that are worried that they may not be able to pay the rent, that they make not be able to keep the home that they live in. Our home is our castle and in the next few months it is going to be our fortress. More and more Australians are being told to stay at home, but you can’t stay at home if you don’t have one, if you get evicted. So, what I think we need to do is what the Poms have done last week, what New Zealand did this week, what Tasmania legislated for on Wednesday night – and that is a freeze on evictions.

If people can pay, of course, they should keep paying. But there will be some people who can’t and in the midst of a health crisis you don’t want to throw people out onto the street. There needs to be flexibility so that they can pay later. But it’s very important that we also protect and look after landlords and homeowners here. They rely on that rent to be able to put food on the table, pay the bills, pay the mortgage. Banks have done the right thing with mortgage deferrals. But we might need more help from governments in terms of land tax relief here, to make sure that we’re all pulling together. We used the term at the start about hibernation, this is more like a coma – the economy is being pushed into a coma. We’ve got to make sure we keep businesses on life support so they can spring back to life afterwards. We’ve also got to make sure that in the midst of all of this we don’t have people thrown onto the street and lose their home that they otherwise would have if not for this virus.

NICHOLSON: Labor’s Jason Clare and Liberal Andrew Laming thank you both for joining us this morning.