House of Representatives

I rise to support the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Bill 2020.

I’ve always seen my role as an Independent as one of being a constructive critic, congratulating the government on good work where it is done or calling for more where it is needed. I see my job as being to help the government succeed, because the people of Indi and Australia need the government to succeed in this crisis.

But in turn it’s important not to succumb to the temptation to silence, to wave through whatever the government proposes with no questions asked. That’s why last week I wrote to the Prime Minister outlining 11 specific and practical recommendations to help enhance the local economic and health response to this twin crisis. I am pleased that the government has picked up on a number of those recommendations, including supporting our regional newspapers, which are so important outside metropolitan areas.

That spirit of practical and constructive criticism and of wanting the government to succeed is what I bring to the legislation before us today.When I rose to speak about the previous coronavirus economic response package I noted that it did not go far enough in supporting businesses to retain their staff. The package before us now with the JobKeeper payment as its centrepiece is a giant leap forward. This legislation should go down as a marker of what this parliament can achieve when all voices are listened to—businesses, unions, government, opposition and crossbench.

Since the JobKeeper payment was announced I’ve been inundated by constituents saying, ‘Yes, this is what we need.’ However, I’ve also heard equally from many people telling me where it falls short.

It has been widely pointed out the JobKeeper payment doesn’t go far enough to support casuals who have been employed for less than 12 months. In Indi, 20 per cent of workers are casuals; many of these people will miss out on this payment. Many of the people who will miss out are the lifeblood of the hospitality and tourism sector—chefs, cleaners, waiting staff and cellar door workers—some are artists, musicians, film makers and event planners. The last time I spoke in this place I called on the government to support these people. I do that again today.

The second part of the government’s latest economic response is the early childhood education and care relief package, and I welcome the government’s committing to providing free child care to all Australian parents. High-quality child care and early childhood education accessible to all is one of the most important inputs for long-term educational outcomes and wellbeing, and it’s crucial that these stay open for essential workers at this time.

However, I have some real concerns about the design of this package and what it means for the viability of childcare providers, especially in rural and regional Australia, where in-home care, family day care and local-council run services are common.

The system was announced last Thursday and came into effect on Monday. I understand that haste was required, but with that haste came considerable confusion. Since the announcement, I have been flooded by extremely concerned providers from across the sector in Indi. Many childcare centres in my electorate hadn’t been severely affected by the coronavirus—some still had 100 per cent attendance—yet this announcement throws their finances into disarray, with fears their revenue will halve and their staff will be forced on to JobKeeper.

Many local governments run childcare centres. The rural city of Wangaratta and Alpine and Murrindindi shires have all contacted me, alarmed at the change. They report that the policy change will have an immediate negative impact on their capacity to maintain services, unintended consequences of a policy intended to keep childcare centres open. Further, councils aren’t eligible for the JobKeeper payment.

The new policy does have provision for providers to be given additional funding if they can demonstrate exceptional circumstances, but applications for that funding don’t open until tomorrow and so far the government has published no advice as to what qualifies for exceptional circumstances, who will receive additional funding and how much they will receive.

As a constructive critic I am laying out these concerns because I want the government’s package to succeed, and I fear it will not.

The government must immediately remedy the fears of small providers, and it could do so by offering two simple guarantees. Firstly, guarantee that all childcare providers will be eligible for the JobKeeper payment and, secondly, guarantee that through the exceptional circumstances funding no provider will be worse off than they were prior to the onset of the crisis.

If the government could provide these two guarantees they would plug these holes in the policy and achieve the objectives which we are all seeking.

Finally, governance: the issues of the childcare package underscore important questions about the governance of our coronavirus response. Yes, we need the government to move fast, but moving fast in an environment where parliament is adjourned till 11 August needs a robust mechanism to ask questions and to scrutinise. The government cannot be expected to have all the answers to every issue in Australia, but unless they invite diverse voices into the room when they’re making and scrutinising these decisions they’re setting themselves an impossible challenge.

We need to establish a mechanism for this parliament to scrutinise the measures. We need this because it’s the best way to ensure the government can succeed, and we all want the government to succeed.

That’s why, along with my crossbench colleagues, I drafted two motions for two joint select committees to look into the government’s health response and into their economic response. These were supported by the entire crossbench and 10 Senate crossbenchers. The crossbench offered them in good faith. The Labor Party and the government have instead decided that a Senate select committee be established to perform the critical role of scrutinising the government’s pandemic response.

However, I believe this proposal is insufficient for the task at hand. Joint committees provide a way for all parliamentarians to assist in enhancing our response. The Senate select committee is a lesser outcome for three reasons. Firstly, only a joint committee is able to compel ministers to both houses. Secondly, in this difficult time we should draw on the expertise of all our parliamentarians, of members of the House on all sides with deep experience in both health and economic policy representing all the diversity of our electorates.

Thirdly and most importantly, creating joint committees of both houses supported by the government, opposition and crossbench would have been a powerful act of unity and leadership to build trust in the government’s response.

The greatest disservice any parliamentarian could do right now would be to sit silently and fail to offer information to the government that could help them respond to the crisis, so I will continue to play my part, as all Australians have been called on to play theirs, and constructively work to achieve the best possible outcomes for all of us in this time of health and economic crises.

[April 8, 2020]

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