Dr HAINES (Indi) (18:51): I rise to support this bill, the Treasury Laws Amendment (COVID-19 Economic Response No. 2) Bill 2021, which will allow the government to stay true to its commitment to offer business support payments in communities subject to major COVID breakdowns. This bill is a good one but it could have come much sooner and it doesn’t provide much certainty for businesses and workers about the level of support that they can expect from the Treasurer either.
It took this government over three months after the end of JobKeeper in April to decide on its economic support arrangements for those whose incomes were ripped away overnight by entirely foreseeable lockdowns. Even when they did announce a policy in June, it had holes right through it which left regional Victorians behind. To be eligible for the support payments offered to Victorians back in June you had to be locked down for over seven days and live or work in a Commonwealth designated COVID hotspot. So when the Victorian government lifted the lockdown for regional Victorians early, after seven days, but kept Melbourne in lockdown, the regions totally missed out on any support.
If you lived in my electorate of Indi you’d know that a lockdown in Melbourne has untold impacts on local tourism, hospitality and accommodation services. Many of these small businesses and workers contacted my office in total distress as their balance sheets and bank accounts dwindled, with no federal assistance in sight. One constituent, a casual worker at a boutique hotel near Wangaratta, had lost at least $1,500 in wages in just over a week. I wrote to the Treasurer to urge him to change the rules, and I spoke loudly in this place calling on him to do the same. It’s pretty simple: support should be available to everyone suffering a reduction in income because of the pandemic. That was the rule for JobKeeper and that should be the rule now. The Treasurer has yet to reply to my letter.
The government did nothing after that June lockdown to reassure regional Victorians that it would do better next time. So when Victoria re-entered lockdown 2 weeks ago, the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up. Four months after the end of JobKeeper and six weeks after the government rolled out its hotspot support package, full of holes, absolutely nothing had changed. The communities of Indi were on the edge of their seats during that press conference in July waiting to see how many businesses would close and how many workers would be stood down. We had to wait 24 hours to find out what deal the Treasurer had struck with the Victorian government. That’s no way to treat communities doing everything in their power to fight this pandemic. The impact on their mental health is enormous. That’s no way to promote economic certainty and confidence. That lockdown situation was entirely foreseeable and so was the government’s lack of preparedness.
Thankfully, this time some of the holes have been plugged: $600 a week for all Victorians who lost 20 hours or more; $375 a week for all Victorians who lost between 18 and 20 hours; $3,000 for hospitality venues across the state; $2,000 for small businesses; and up to $15,000 for our precious alpine businesses who are on the verge of losing a second ski season. I was also pleased to see small businesses that don’t have an annual turnover of $75,000 access the individual payments. While $600 isn’t a lot when you’re a little newsagent in Violet Town or a clothing store in Yackandandah, it’s sure better than nothing, which is what these brave businesses got last time. As the Mansfield District Business Association put to me two weeks ago, in an impassioned letter, ‘The initial one-size-fits-all approach through JobKeeper worked very well last year. Our businesses now need a similar level of support and certainty, along with more-targeted industry and regional base support. We’re not getting that right now.’
Local business is built on certainty. There’s nothing in this bill that gives small business and workers certainty about the support they’re likely to receive—and when—from this government should the next lockdown come along, and it will. This bill also leaves the door wide open for the Treasurer to play politics and favourites on a lockdown-by-lockdown basis, and that’s the last thing any government should ever be perceived to be doing. Parts of the regional economy are haemorrhaging—they’re still haemorrhaging. Economic modelling of the last 12-day lockdown shows that our alpine resorts—those of Mount Hotham, Mount Buller and Falls Creek—lost over $112 million in visitor expenditure. The $15,000 from the state government, and zero dollars from the Treasurer, will hardly touch the edges. The impacts stretch right into the north of Indi, too, where new border-bubble restrictions will come in overnight and punish communities like Wodonga all over again. Families who live in Wodonga could meet at the pub for a meal, but if their nanna lives in Albury, well, she’d have to stay home.
Matt Daly from Posh Plonk in Chiltern said that half the bookings for his business last weekend were from Albury. Well, that will now need to be made up for by Victorians. Cyril Cox, who owns The Other Place, a cafe in Rutherglen, says that these new restrictions are just another nail in the coffin for him. He’ll have to reduce staff hours and reduce his expectations for his business. Last lockdown, Cyril lost a $7,000 catering job and had to wait seven weeks to get $2,000 in support. And just this evening a local restaurant owner on the border told me he’ll lose 30 per cent in revenue overnight from lost patronage from New South Wales. This bill does nothing to ease the concerns of cross-border businesses and workers like these, because they’re not in lockdown, but they’re absolutely feeling the economic brunt of public health orders coming out of Melbourne and Sydney alike.
We lived through 138 days of hard border closure last year, and I refuse to let our communities go back to where we were, blocked from crossing the border for critical services like medical appointments and from being alongside their dying loved ones. I, together with my community, fought long and hard to get the border bubble, which kept our communities intact and kept many small businesses alive. They are calling out tonight for more support, right now, particularly on the border. The Treasurer is just not seeing or hearing them, and I call on him to do so.
What’s worse, this bill tells these businesses and workers very little about how the Treasurer will show up and provide support when future lockdowns almost inevitably strike. Our businesses, our community members are incredible. They’re doing everything they can. They’ve supporting each other. They’re getting out. They’re getting vaccinated as best they can. But they can’t live with uncertainty, and the one thing that could be certain in this time of great uncertainty is surety from the government about how they will be supported in future lockdowns — not uncertainty; they need certainty.