Doorstop Interview – Canberra – Thursday, 23 April 2020




SUBJECTS: Coronavirus; trades jobs at risk; social housing investment during COVID-19; economic implications of COVID-19; construction sector impacts due to COVID-19; JobKeeper; Parliamentary sittings; World Health Organization; wet markets.

ANDREW LEIGH, MEMBER FOR FENNER: Thanks very much for coming along today. And welcome to Holts in the wonderful Fenner electorate. My name’s Andrew Leigh. And it’s a great pleasure to be here with our Labor Leader, Anthony Albanese, Jason Clare and Dave Smith. I want to thank today also, George, Chris and Dave, for showing us around this building site. We know two things about the building industry. First of all, it’s had a lean couple of years. Last year building construction fell. Part of the general weakness that we’ve seen in the Australian economy, slow growth, sluggish productivity, wage growth down, all of these things hitting Australia hard before COVID-19 came along. We know too that the building industry is the most cyclical industry. Construction goes up and down with the economy. So, when times are tough, construction gets hit pretty hard. But that is no reason the construction sector should suffer at a time like this. Australia needs a lot more houses. And when you look at how Australia has responded in past economic downturns, the construction sector has been essential to that. We came out of World War Two, we didn’t just say, ‘Let’s put things back the way they were’. We said, ‘Let’s do it better’. And a huge construction boom followed the end of World War Two. Labor is strongly committed to the building industry and the construction sector, to building more houses that Australia needs, and to the thousands of jobs the construction sector supports. And that’s why we’re here listening to the stories of these builders today. Let me hand over now to Anthony.

ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, thanks very much, Andrew. And it’s great to be here in Canberra with yourself and Dave. But also, good to be here with my parliamentary colleague, Jason Clare, who’s the Shadow Minister for Housing. And thank you to George for welcoming us onto the site here. And we’ll hear from some of the young employees very soon. The fact is that we are going through a crisis. But the other fact is that the economy was soft before this crisis. Last year, we saw a decline in consumer demand. We saw productivity going backwards. We saw wages not keeping up with the cost of living. We’d seen interest rates decreased by the Reserve Bank on multiple occasions because of the softness that was there in the economy. We saw a doubling of our debt under this Government, before the bushfire crisis, and before the extraordinary expenditure we’ve seen due to the COVID-19 response. Labor has been constructive during this period. We have made constructive suggestions, many of which have been taken up by the Government, most significantly of which is wage subsidies, that have kept relationships between employers and employees.

But coming out of this crisis, we need to do better. We need to not just return to what we had before. We’ve been reminded of the importance of our interaction. That we’re all dependent on each other as a community and as a society. And the fact is that the Australian people deserve credit for the way that they’ve responded to the COVID-19 crisis. Out of this, we need an economy that works for people, not the other way around. And what that means is making sure that we keep people in employment. The Master Builders have reported a 40 per cent decline in the number of builds that are anticipated into the future, that are currently on the books. What that means is that hundreds of thousands of jobs, particularly new apprentices and skilled work, is under threat as we come out of this crisis.

The Prime Minister has said that we’ll have snapback. The truth is that that won’t occur. We won’t wake up one morning and be through this crisis and be back to where we were. It needs Government support. And we’ve been reminded during this crisis that Government intervention is an essential component of how we deal with our economy. So, what we don’t need is a Government that says, ‘After this crisis is over, we’ll just let the market rip’. What we need is a Government that’s prepared to invest in people, in skills. We made an announcement about Jobs and Skills Australia, making sure that we actually identify the jobs of the future, including in the traditional trades, that will require and that we train people such as the young apprentices we’ve met here today on site.

We also need to look at significant investment in social housing. One of the issues that we’ve confronted during this crisis is how we deal with the issue of homelessness, how we deal with the issue of people at risk, and we’ve had to engage in extraordinary measures. During the last Global Financial Crisis, Labor invested in 20,000 new or upgraded social housing units. That made a substantial difference to the quality of people’s lives. And what we need to do, arising out of this crisis, is focus on people. Focus on their jobs. Focus on their quality of life. Focus on the skills that are required. I’m very pleased that Jason has been doing such strong work preparing a very strong housing policy. I grew up in public housing in the inner city of Sydney. I’m very focused on the difference that security of a roof over your head can make to people’s lives. One of the things arising out of this crisis as well that we need to consider is our security. Our security in terms of work. Our security in terms of housing. Our security in terms of our standard of living. All of those issues have to characterise the post-COVID-19 response of the Government. We’ll be constructive as we move forward. But we’ll be determined as well, that it is people who will be the focus of our attention. We want an economy that works for them, not the other way around. I’ll ask Jason to make a few comments.

JASON CLARE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS: Thanks, Albo. About a million Aussies are involved in building houses for other Aussies. But as construction on houses like this wraps up over the next few months, the construction pipeline for new work is drying up. And that means there’s a real risk that, for a lot of electricians and plumbers and carpenters around Australia, they could be out of work. When the Coronavirus first hit, lots of Aussies lost their jobs. On the construction sites around the country, people have been able to continue to work and that’s a good thing. But there’s a real risk for lots of tradies around the country, people like Dave, who you’ll meet in a moment, that that might change, that they might lose works in the months ahead. And this is not a small industry. As I said, more than a million Aussies work in building houses for other Aussies. Plumbers, carpenters, tilers, the businesses that produce the concrete for the slabs, the timber companies that produce the frames for the houses here. And most of the businesses that are involved in building houses are small Aussies businesses, mum-and-dad businesses, that work on small margins. And everyone we’re talking to in the housing game are telling us the same thing. And that is that future orders have gone like this over the last few weeks, they’ve gone off a cliff. They’ve got work now, you can see the work behind me. But there’s not a lot of work in the pipeline ahead and when you think about it, that makes sense. For people that have lost their jobs in the last few weeks or lost confidence, the last thing you’re going to think about doing is signing a contract for $1 million to build a new house. The result is, according to people in the housing industry, that instead of building 160,000 homes this year, that they were predicting they’d do, they might be building as few as 100,000 homes this year. Now, if that happens, thousands of Australians who work in the housing industry could lose their job. That’s bad for them, it’s bad for their families, it’s bad for the whole country. And it’s bad for the economy. As Andrew said, housing is an important way to crawl our way out of this crisis. Whenever we’ve had a crisis, after the war or the Great Depression, building houses helps to build a way out of the crisis. We can do that again.

The Prime Minister talks about snapback, but the economy is not going to snap back if these small mum-and-dad businesses snap. And that’s why we’re saying today that the next priority for the Federal Government and for the National Cabinet needs to be working on a plan for these people and these small mum-and-dad businesses, to make sure that in the months ahead, we don’t have hundreds of thousands of Aussies and tradies losing their jobs. The last thing we need is, as Australia goes back to work in the second half of this year, that we’ve got hundreds of thousands of tradies out of work. That’s why it’s important that the Federal Government makes this a priority right now. Let me introduce Dave, who is an electrician working on the site here, to say a few words.

DAVID, MARIC BROTHERS ELECTRICAL EMPLOYEE: Thank you. I’m David from Maric Brothers Electrical. I’ve been in the industry for the past 20 years and definitely our biggest concern, although we have work for the foreseeable future, we’re not sure of the long-term effects of how this virus will play out. You know, with businesses slowing down, we can’t see much commercial jobs coming up, along with residential, with people slowing down with buying. I guess that’s our biggest concern, the long-term effects of this all. Thank you.

ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Dave. And thanks for joining us here today. We wish you the best wishes. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).

ALBANESE: Well, businesses such as this should be eligible for JobKeeper. And what that’s doing is keeping that relationship between employers and employees in place. But the concern here is that with the Government’s approach of snapback, at the same time as you will have JobKeeper and, in terms of that important $1,500-a-fortnight payment, which is adding stimulus to the economy, plus providing a basis for that relationship being kept intact, that at the same time, if the Government thinks that, at that point in time, they just have to withdraw, then that will potentially have a prolonging of the downturn. And what we need is a plan to actually lift the economy up. And one of the things that we’re saying is to look at housing and construction as one of the areas that we need to concentrate on. It’s a major employer. It produces infrastructure that helps in terms of the long-term structure of the national economy. We need also to make sure that we give consideration to social housing, because that’s one of the issues that we’ve confronted during this crisis, which is the real problem that’s there with the failure to invest in social housing.

JOURNALIST: So, would you like it to be a targeted stimulus package? Or what would you like it to be like?

ALBANESE: What we’re saying is that the Government needs a plan that doesn’t say that on day X there is a COVID-19 crisis and that there’s an immediate snapback, that we need a plan that includes investment. We need a plan that looks after people and the employment. This will be a transition out of COVID-19. It won’t be a snapback. The Government needs to acknowledge that and needs to put in place policies that deliver an appropriate outcome, that look after people. One of the things that we’ve had during this crisis is that governments have worked in Opposition, and we’ve had two parliamentary sittings, whereby we’ve had, I think, a very cooperative approach and it’s been Parliament working at its best, but the real credit goes to the Australian people. Those working people in essential industries like nurses, teachers, supermarket workers, transport workers, who’ve kept the economy going. But also, workers on sites like this who’ve kept the economy going, who’ve kept the activity going. What we need to make sure is that arising out of this crisis, we don’t have the Government go to the bottom drawer and say, ‘What we need is labour market deregulation. What we need is more tax cuts for people who don’t necessarily need it.’ What we need to do is to make sure that we continue to support those working people who’ve provided support for our national economy at this critical time.

JOURNALIST: On a similar note, some of the changes we have seen to IR, would they have to (inaudible) for a lot longer after this crisis to help businesses?

ALBANESE: Well, with what we’ve seen during this crisis as well is the trade union of this country engaged in cooperation. There isn’t a single example that the Government can point to of an opportunistic behaviour by a union on any work site. What we’ve seen is trade unions putting the national interest first, working people being prepared to make sacrifices, to give things up in the short term. What we need to make sure is arising out of this, we don’t return to the rhetoric that we’ve already seen the start of from this Government, of labour market deregulation, of freeing up the labour market, which really means driving down wages and conditions further. We know that wages have already been too low. And the Reserve Bank identified that as one of the weaknesses in the national economy.

JOURNALIST: Considering some of the successes in flattening the curve, especially here in the ACT, is it time for Parliament to go back to its full parliamentary sitting calendar?

ALBANESE: Parliament should return to its full calendar. Parliamentarians, we’ve all expected nurses to go to work, teachers to go to work, supermarket workers to be there serving the essential supplies, which are there. Childcare workers to be looking after children, so that essential workers can continue to contribute. We’ve seen public transport workers still continuing to work, our trucks being driven around the country, delivering essential supplies to supermarkets, to building sites, such as this. And what we shouldn’t expect is that politicians give up sitting at Parliament until August, which is the Government’s proposition. Now, Parliament will sit in the second week of May. We should be sitting with the normal timetable in May and June. We’ve said that. We had scheduled a 5-week sitting during that period. In my view, there’s no reason why, with appropriate restrictions, we’ve offered to have pairing arrangements, so that we can have any social distancing measures that are required. But the Parliament has work to do. There are two issues. One is the scrutiny of this extraordinarily large amount of government expenditure. But the business of our economy, our society, our environment goes on as well. The Government didn’t have much agenda at the beginning of this year and that was obvious from the parliamentary sittings. What we need to do is to make sure that we actually operate in a way so that Parliament can do its job. There’s nothing in my view to stop it. And that’s a view that we put to Scott Morrison last Thursday. It’s a view we put in the Parliament when we opposed the changes to the sitting schedule, that, quite frankly, were very premature for the Government, in my view, just seized the opportunity that was there to knock off parliamentary sittings, because they don’t like scrutiny. We know Scott Morrison doesn’t like scrutiny. That’s why he keeps shutting down debate in the Parliament at every opportunity.

JOURNALIST: Do we need another big tax review? For company taxes, GST, and so on?

ALBANESE: Well, look, what we need to do is to make sure, of course, that our tax system is fair. And we always need to be vigilant about that. What we don’t need is more assistance for those people who don’t need it. And more crunching down on the working people who have seen Australia through this crisis. Happy to take questions on line too.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible). France and Britain say now’s not the right time. What do you think?

ALBANESE: Well, I support the calls of the Federal Government. I think that one of the suggestions that I think is very sensible is that we have an international body, the World Health Organization is the obvious body, to be able to be given the same power that weapons inspectors have to go into a country and make sure that practices aren’t endangering health. One of the things we know from this pandemic is that inappropriate practices that endanger the health of a community in a particular area can spread to endanger health, regardless of where people live on this planet. And therefore, we do need to have an appropriate response to this. I’m supportive of that. We need to know precisely the details of the origins of this pandemic. And not just as an academic exercise but so that we can avoid it ever happening again.

JOURNALIST: The point that France and Britain have been making is that we should be fighting the Coronavirus pandemic as opposed to focussing on blame. Do you think the Australian Government is focusing on the right issue at the moment?

ALBANESE: Look, I think we’re all focused on fighting this pandemic. And certainly, that’s the focus of the Federal Government and Opposition, state governments, business, unions, community organisations, and most importantly, the Australian people. So, I have no issue. But I don’t see that there’s a problem with raising these issues just as I think David Littleproud, I heard his interview this morning. I think it was quite right to raise issues at the G20 agricultural ministers’ discussion that was held last night. We can look to the future while dealing with the present. And I think there is a need to do that.

JOURNALIST: On Mr Littleproud’s comments this morning, the investigation into wet markets (inaudible)?

ALBANESE: Well, I think quite clearly there’s an issue there. So, having an investigation, be clear in terms of wet markets, there are wet markets Sydney, they’re called the Sydney Fish Markets. There’s wet markets everywhere. What we’re talking about here is the specific circumstances around this Wuhan market where it’s suggested I think that is where this problem originated. And I think that having a proper examination of the health implications just makes common sense. And I support Minister Littleproud in the comments that he’s made in this. He speaks on behalf of not just his own position, I think he speaks on behalf of the Australian people. We want to know what the facts are here. We want to make sure that there’s appropriate regulations around markets. If it’s a case of the particular exotic species that can lead to the sort of circumstances that we have now, then it is appropriate that the world have this examination and the appropriate regulatory controls be put in place. Thanks very much.