House of Representatives

Just seven weeks ago, I rose in this place to commemorate what I described at the time as a summer that has visited grief upon this nation. The bushfires seem like a lifetime ago now, but it was only weeks ago that the nation was brought to a standstill by that disaster.

Incredibly, we are now in the midst of another national crisis. In my many years as a nurse and a midwife, I’ve been in life-and-death situations, and I know that wrenching feeling in the gut when a birth starts to go wrong or an ambulance arrives at the emergency department with a critically ill car crash victim. I know that, to get through moments where life itself hangs in the balance, you need to muster your composure, do what needs to be done, work as a team and listen to the experts. Australia as a nation is now in such a situation.

The global effort to develop a vaccine is uniting scientists with an urgent shared purpose, and we too as a nation must unite with an urgent and shared purpose to slow the spread. But what began as a health crisis is now a global economic crisis. An already fragile economy is about to get hit for six. In my electorate of Indi right now, my office is inundated with calls, as I’m sure every MP in this House is inundated with calls. The calls in my electorate are coming from people from a bushfire affected electorate.

The bills that are before us—the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020 and related bills—are a sensible and necessary intervention to protect the economy. Of course, they are not perfect, and the government must be prepared to listen and respond when there’s more that we need to do or when there’s a better approach or a different opinion that needs to be considered. We often speak about the economy as if it’s a distinct entity, but it’s about people’s lives, about their livelihoods, and about feeding their families and housing them. It’s about the decisions that they make. The measures announced to date are overwhelmingly targeted at business and the most vulnerable in our community. This is a good thing. It is as it should be.

But today I want to highlight the needs of some particularly vulnerable members of our community, and especially those in my electorate of Indi. Many regional communities are facing a double whammy of bushfires and now COVID-19. For many of us, the bushfires were a gut-punch. The economic rebuild became about tourism events and visiting small businesses with our empty eskies. All those plans are now gone—the Man from Snowy River Bush Festival in Corryong, the Beechworth Golden Horseshoes Festival, the High Country Women’s Cycling Festival in Bright and the Tawonga CFA thank you picnic, to name but some. Right across the nation, there are similar events.

This is an unparalleled natural disaster followed by a once-in-a-century pandemic. For bushfire affected communities, this health crisis comes at the worst possible time. We cannot forget these communities. Because COVID-19 compounds the damage of the bushfires, the bushfire recovery must then accelerate, not slow down. As the Prime Minister said today, more support will come over the weeks and months. He has said that, given the circumstances, we need to change the rules for this period, and so we need this same approach for bushfire recovery.

I hear across my electorate that bushfire grants to small businesses, farmers and individuals are not getting out because of the burden of paperwork and bureaucracy. Today the government introduced bills for unconditional cash transfers to all small businesses in Australia, with no paperwork. Let’s contrast this with the requirements for obtaining bushfire support. These people and businesses are starting well behind scratch in this COVID-19 crisis. The burden of paperwork and difficult eligibility criteria must stop, and I know that collaboratively we can work to make it stop. Let’s make it a national goal to find a job for anybody who needs one. Anyone who loses a job to COVID-19 or the bushfires should rapidly be retrained to support the health system or our critical infrastructure and services at this time of crisis.

I share the concerns of many in this House that the measures are not being implemented quickly enough. The coronavirus supplement won’t be available until 27 April. In our electorate offices, we know that it’s needed right now. Let’s provide direct grants to artists and creatives around the country. They are often among the first to join the Centrelink queues, as by necessity they run multiple part-time and casual jobs. We need these people to help us come through this and to bring us together as only art and culture can. The Prime Minister talks about building a bridge to life on the other side of this virus. We need to have a national conversation about what life on the other side actually looks like.

We are now steeling ourselves for job losses on a huge scale.

The Prime Minister today encouraged businesses that stand down employees to commit to standing them up on the other side. This ‘unwritten contract’, as the Prime Minister described it, is not enough. Our workers need more security than an unwritten contract.

This year has taught us that we are not immune from threats to our way of life. Going forwards, we cannot forget that and we must invest our money accordingly. The impact of social distancing measures for six months will take a huge toll on people’s mental health, and in bushfire-affected electorates such as mine that mental health is already perilously fragile. A post-COVID-19 world must make take adequate investment in mental health seriously. It needs to be serious – serious investment – so that we are stronger when the next crisis hits and, of course, it will hit.

Moreover, the economic and social precarity of so many Australians has been thrown into stark relief. My constituents have written to me about the realities of lockdowns for women experiencing family violence, of vulnerable children dependent on counselling and material support through their school or service provider, of people unable to afford internet connection or mobile phones and how extra isolated they will be, of people with disabilities or elderly people who rely on others for the fundamental supports to their daily living. We cannot forget them and the support they need through this crisis. I welcome the government’s support of the aviation industry. My electorate is serviced by Regional Express Airlines through the airport in Albury alongside Qantas and Virgin, and these airlines are critical to our community.

At the start of January, I wrote that the fire season stretched before us as a perilous path we have no choice but to walk. In those long, hot days of our black summer when it felt like half the country was on fire, it was hard to imagine life on the other side, but the rains came and our skies are now clear. The rebuild is just beginning, not fast enough but it is beginning, and we need to hold on to this idea now as we head into another crisis that is completely different. It too will test our resolve but in different ways and it will touch all of us—make no mistake about that.

Just as we honoured our emergency services fighting the fires, I want to honour our doctors, our nurses, our allied health professionals and those who support them, who are now preparing for the greatest challenge they will ever face. And amongst them are my own daughter, my nephews and my nieces, and my very dear friends, who I have spent more than three decades working with and I salute all of them, and all of those who I do not know, because this is a test of their bravery and their professionalism, and I know they are up to the task. I thank too our biomedical researchers and those in essential support services, whether they’re in food, groceries, logistics, public service, social service. To our teachers: thank you. You are all being called upon to do more and more.

It’s a mighty job that’s in front of us but we will come out the other side of this pandemic. How we will come out, though, will be determined by some of the thinking, some of the courage, the cooperation and the innovation in the decisions that we make here in this place. Let them be wise ones. Let’s make those decisions wise ones. Let them be ones that preserve us for now but ones that take us to a stronger future, a future that has a place for every single one of us in this nation.

[March 23, 2020]

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