Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
I rise to support the premise of this bill, and table concerns about its implementation which have inadvertently hurt regional communities like Indi.
The Government’s decision to commit to economic relief payments for Australians experiencing extended lockdowns is a good one, but it could’ve come sooner.
It’s almost three months since the end of JobKeeper. The Government is burying its head in the sand if it thinks Australian cities won’t face further lockdowns as the vaccine rollout trickles along into next year.
The Government should’ve been working proactively with state governments through the National Cabinet to anticipate lockdowns like the latest one in Victoria and ensure the support it provides in predictable, immediate and reflects the economic reality on the ground beyond hotspots.
The current eligibility rules for this payment, however, are short-sighted and do not understand the economic reality of lockdowns in cities like Melbourne on regions like North East Victoria.
That’s because Item 492 of the Financial Framework Supplementary Powers Regulations requires a worker to be subject to a lockdown for more than seven days and reside or work in the Commonwealth designated COVID Hotspot to be eligible for the payment.
This ignores the interconnected nature of the Melbourne and regional economies. When Melbourne is locked down, this has a significant impact on tourism, hospitality and accommodation small businesses and casual workers in regional Victoria which are heavily reliant on clientele from Melbourne.
At the start of this latest lockdown, their incomes were cut off overnight. Many of them contacted my office in distress as their balance sheets and bank accounts dwindled with no federal assistance in sight. And when federal assistance was finally announced, they were excluded. These businesses and workers still face economic hardship, even as regional Victoria reopens.
One constituent is a casual worker at a boutique hotel near Wangaratta. This constituent has been stood down since the lockdown in Melbourne began, and has lost at least $1500 in wages so far. The Temporary COVID Disaster Payment does nothing to help this constituent.
Support should be available to all workers who are suffering a reduction in income because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That was the rule for JobKeeper, and that should be the rule that applies now.
The lack of fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities and the slow pace of the vaccine rollout means that lockdowns in Melbourne and other capital cities around the country are an unfortunate and inevitable reality. Even the Government’s current budget papers assume recurrent lockdowns.
So, while this bill is a good sign from the Government that it won’t totally abandon workers and small businesses facing those recurrent lockdowns, it doesn’t have the safeguards the regions need.
Regions like Indi have worked so hard to keep COVID out of our communities. We’ve scarified so much as a result of outbreaks in the cities, including ad hoc border closures in Albury-Wodonga, which we never want to see again.
The least the Government could do in this bill is recognise that severe economic impacts are not just contained to a Commonwealth hotspot area, and I call on the Government to amend this new national framework for COVID outbreak to recognise this.