LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY
MEMBER FOR GRAYNDLER
CHRIS BOWEN MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH
MEMBER FOR MCMAHON
JASON CLARE MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS
MEMBER FOR BLAXLAND
THURSDAY, 26 MARCH 2020
SUBJECTS: Housing issues coming out of the coronavirus crisis; health implications of coronavirus; stimulus package; casualisation of the workforce; Artania cruise ship; confusion around clear messaging during the coronavirus issue.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks for joining me. I’m on Pyrmont Bridge Road in Camperdown. This is the house where I was born, and I lived for more than 20 of my first years. This is the house where my mum was born in and where she died. Living all of her 65 years in this one premises. To me, housing is absolutely critical. (Inaudible). My first political campaign was as a teenager. Stopping the privatisations of these homes. My home. My mum’s home. The homes where my grandparents lived. We were successful. We had a rent strike and mobilised the community in its support of maintaining this asset in public hands. I was very proud of the outcome and so was mum.
Housing is critical. At the moment, there are so many Australians who feel that they are vulnerable. They are vulnerable because of the economic circumstance of which they haven’t played a part. They are the innocent victims. We need to make sure that there’s protection put in place. And today, Labor’s calling for some clear action. One, we need as New Zealand and the UK have done, put in place an eviction moratorium, making sure that people aren’t thrown out of their homes. There also needs to be support from the banks and others and the Government for landlords. It’s understandable that landlords rely upon some income coming in from the investments that they have made. It’s also the case that we need to have more payment flexibility in place. Making sure that we have an understanding of the particular circumstances which are there. And we also need governments, in particular, and private sector bodies to have compassion when it comes to the payment of utility bills that make such an enormous difference to people’s lives.
It’s urgent that the COAG meetings that are taking place deal with the issue of housing and homelessness. Because also, it’s important that we provide support for those organisations that are providing support for the homeless and the needy. Be they food organisations, like Foodbank, organisations like the Addison Road Community Centre that deals with food for needy people, or be they organisations like women’s shelters, providing support and direct access for people who need somewhere to sleep at night. You can’t maintain social distance and maintain your health at a time like this if you don’t have somewhere safe and secure to put your head down at night.
We put forward this constructively. We’ve put it forward in the spirit in which we’ve engaged over this health emergency, which has economic consequences. We say again that you need to deal with the health emergency first, because by doing that, you will have less economic consequences of the health crisis. It’s not either/or. It is a matter of making sure that we get it right. I would ask Jason Clare, our spokesperson on housing, to make comments. And then Chris Bowen, our health spokesperson.
JASON CLARE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS: Thanks, Albo. A lot of Australians are scared at the moment. I can see that in the eyes of the people lining up out the front of my local Centrelink in Bankstown. People are worried that they might lose their job but might lose their home. We can’t afford to let that happen. We are still waiting on the Government to come forward with a package to make sure that people don’t get kicked out of their home, because they can’t afford to pay the rent. Other countries have already announced measures to make sure that doesn’t happen. This is urgent. So, we use this opportunity again to call on the Federal Government and the National Cabinet to take action as quickly as possible.
Our home is our castle. In the next few months, it’s 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. You can’t stay at home if you have been evicted. That’s why we’re saying we need a freeze on evictions, just like we’ve seen in the UK or in New Zealand, or for that matter in Tasmania. Tasmania announced just yesterday that they are taking steps to stop evictions for the next few months. That’s the sort of practical, common-sense measure, to make sure that we protect people. This is a health measure, as much as an economic measure. When people are being told to stay at home, we need to make sure we’re not kicking people out on to the street. And as Albo said, we’ve also got to protect landlords. We have to protect the home owners. We have to protect the people who rely on that money, that rent, to pay the bills, put food on the table or to pay their mortgage. That is why it is important that the big four banks have done what they have already promised to do, and that is defer mortgages to give people relief there. We have to make sure that all banks, all building societies, all financial institutions that provide that finance to home owners provide the same sort of relief. Because we’re all in this together. We have to make sure that we look after each other.
The bottom line is that no-one should lose their home, whether they own it or rent it, because of this virus. And just to extend that point, one thing we also need to do is make sure that no-one gets their electricity cut off. No-one gets their water cut off. No-one cuts their gas cut off. No-one gets their phone cut off over the next few months because of this virus. When people are being told to stay at home, those things are now more important than ever. We need to make sure that those state utilities or the private organisations that provide those services understand that and provide relief and support for all Australians at this very, very crucial time. I will hand over to Chris.
CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks, Albo. Thanks, Jason. A few comments to update on the health situation. As you know, Labor believes more needs to be done. Done harder and done earlier. We support stricter restrictions. We have made the point that the message needs to be very clear to the Australian people. It isn’t good for the Prime Minister to blame Australians for not following the rules, when the rules are so complex and confusing. Just this morning the Government had to change the rules in relation to hairdressers, just 48 hours after they were announced. This just adds to the complexity. So, again, we renew our call for clearer, simpler and stronger restrictions. To ensure that we deal with this crisis as well and as soon as possible.
As Anthony said, the best economic policy is the best health policy. The harder we are earlier, the sooner we will come out of this on the other side, as difficult as that message is, providing, as Anthony and Jason said, we are giving Australians the support they need as we go through this process. Just while I’ve been speaking, Queensland has announced that their schools will go pupil-free. What we need is more being done nationally with national leadership. Just a couple of other quick issues. In relation to respiratory clinics as you know, Labor has called for the ADF to be deployed to ensure that we have our respiratory clinics up and running as soon as possible. The minister says there’s 170 operating. All except for two of those are run by the state or the private sector. Government has said there will be 100 federally arranged respiratory clinics, we have two. We have two. Now while it’s good that the states and the private sector are doing their bit, the Commonwealth, recognising all the complexities, really needs to be moving faster to ensure that we’re ready for when COVID-19 reaches its peak. The final point I would like to make is this. As you know, elective surgery has been delayed. In both the public and the private sector. We support that. It is a move that we think is the sensible one for now. It is having real implications for private hospitals who are having to potentially lay-off staff, hence the decision this morning to delay the implementation of that by a week. It’s vital that there’s a national workforce plan in place to ensure that no capacity is lost from the private hospital system. That the private hospital system is playing a strong role in the COVID-19 response in the coming weeks. We can’t have a situation where the sensible delay of elective surgery is seeing medical resources, doctors and nurses lost in the health system when we need them more than ever before. Thanks very much.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Jason and Chris. We’re all happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: How is Labor feeling about the quick changes on government policy re hairdressers and as well, private hospitals. We saw the delay back to April 1 today, but also hairdressers now being allowed to extend beyond 30 minutes.
ALBANESE: This is an example of ensuring that we get it right the first time. It’s very clear that there was considerable confusion following the Prime Minister’s press conference on Monday night. My electorate office, and I know Jason and Chris’ as well, was inundated by people who were hairdressers or clients, particularly women who just said it’s just not possible to operate. Certainly, it is easier to do my hair in 30 minutes, I’ve got to say, than for some. But the place where I get my hair cut says that they would rather shut than to have a 30-minute limit. The Government clearly has listened to that. But it will be better if we got the messages out there much more clearly. I think the five people at a wedding and ten people at a funeral, different numbers, different timings, we need far clearer clarity of message from the Government. We support the need to respond to the appropriate authorities. We’ve done that very clearly, any announcements that are made. But in order for the people to trust those authorities, the authorities have to trust the people. They have to actually listen to what’s going on there, come out with practical suggestions. And I’m pleased the change has been made. But it would be better if we just got it right at the beginning. And that we could avoid the different messages each day.
JOURNALIST: Just with the Artania cruise ship, obviously. Is Labor happy with Government action there? Their response there?
ALBANESE: Well, the Government is now responding appropriately. We’ve had the debacle, frankly, of 2,700 people being left off the ship in the middle of Sydney Harbour. And we know that something like 10 per cent of those people who’ve tested positive can be directly traced to people leaving that cruise ship. We need to make sure that we get these issues right. It is the case that the Commonwealth and the states continue to squabble over who was responsible for it. Well, that is not really the point. It shouldn’t have happened. There will be a time to assess how it happened. Now the time is to minimise the damage and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
JOURNALIST: What about the 3,000 Australians who are still on cruise ships at the moment? Do you think enough is being done to get them home or to look after their welfare?
ALBANESE: Look, this is a really difficult issue. And those people are deserving of support, but it needs to be done in a way which doesn’t endanger others as well. So, there’s issues with regard to Australian citizens being allowed to disembark. But also making sure that people who need that acute healthcare receive it.
JOURNALIST: Would you like to see people potentially holed-up in hotel rooms to avoid potentially breaking the quarantine?
ALBANESE: Well, look, the Government should be looking at all options. And the key principle here is just making sure that we minimise the health consequences of this virus. And nothing should be off-limits.
JOURNALIST: Just on housing as well. Apparently, there’s going to be an announcement on that tomorrow. Do you think the Government’s been dragging their feet on this?
CLARE: Well, the sooner the better. We want to be constructive. Last week, we urged the Government to act here. The United Kingdom announced measures to protect tenants as well as homeowners, I think it was last Wednesday, their time. The New Zealand Government put measures into place Monday this week. We were promised last week that this would be discussed in the national cabinet on Monday night. It was deferred. And I think there was an initial discussion last night. More work can be done this week. This is urgent. Please work on this as quickly as you can to provide certainty to people. Those Australians that are in those queues today, they’re worried not just about losing their job, about losing their home. They need money now, to be able to pay the rent. You know, the average rent here in Sydney is about $520-$530. That’s about the equivalent of the special payment that’s now been made available in Australia. But a lot of people pay more rent than that. If they lose their job, they’re going to struggle to keep up with their payments. So, that’s why we need a bit of flexibility here with a common-sense of help from governments around the country. Tasmania has already acted. They announced yesterday that they’re going to freeze evictions. That provides a little bit of confidence and security to people that are sitting at home at the moment, being told to stay at home, that they’re not going to get a knock on the door and told to get out. That’s the last thing we need at a time like this, where people have been trying to hunker down. When people know, because everyone watching today, know that a home is not just their castle anymore. It’s their fortress. A bit of common-sense and a bit of fast action from the Government will help to provide that security for all Australians to know that they’re not going to get that knock on the door anytime soon.
JOURNALIST: Does that extend, you mentioned special payments? Does the Opposition have any view on whether or not those special payments should be extended to non-citizens within Australia, international students, asylum seekers, the likes of that?
BOWEN: Our colleague, Kristina Keneally, has actually written to Minister Tudge about that very matter. About how we deal with temporary migrants in Australia. It’s both an issue for them, and frankly, for our broader public health, that they get access to necessary support. Because if they don’t have access to health treatment, testing, then that’s going to have health implications for all of us. So, Kristina has been dealing with that, and she can update you on any further correspondence she has had with Minister Tudge about it.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much. I’ll just make a couple of concluding comments. One of the things about this virus and its impact on the health of Australians and the economy is that it will change our society forever. And we’re going to have to have some serious debates once we get through this process. And this today, I think highlights a third one. I’ve already said that we’ll need to look at the nature of work and the casualisation of the workforce and what it’s doing in terms of adding to people’s insecurity at work. I think we will need to really have a discussion as a society about that. We’ll need to look at the contracting out of workforce, particular public-sector jobs. The fact that Centrelink has been in a position of not being able to cope whatsoever with the demand on its services is a product in part of the contracting out, the use of Robodebt rather than actually using people, all of those consequences, I think, have been seen. The third is attitudes towards housing. When I appointed Jason as our housing spokesperson, I said I really wanted to take this issue seriously. We need a massive expansion of social housing in this country. Social housing is important as a stabiliser in terms of communities run around Australia. We need to make sure that we have a comprehensive examination of why is it that at a time where people for many decades have been able to make money out of investing in housing, at that very time, governments have withdrawn from investing in housing. We have seen social housing in decline. So, whether it’s public housing directly, or community-based housing, this is something that we’re going to have to really look at as we come out of the crisis that we’re in, and we start to shape what Australia will look like going ahead in coming years and decades. Thanks very much.