TUESDAY, 12 MAY 2020
In normal times, today would be Budget Day.
Those opposite had already printed the mugs, they had already filmed the ads, and they'd already rehearsed the slogans.
But the economy was already weaker than they wanted us to believe. Even before the fires, even before this Coronavirus, wages and living standards were already stagnant; work was already too precarious and insecure for too many people for too long; growth was already below average and investment was weak. And then the Coronavirus broke out.
So now we gather in very different circumstances, to deal with a diabolical pandemic, with devastating economic consequences; long lines at Centrelink; the prospect of double digit unemployment; a fifth of hours worked, a tenth of economic output, all vanishing in a matter of weeks; synchronised carnage in the global economy, the worst in ninety years.
A long shadow and a patchy recovery.
Yet all Australians get today is a cut and paste of what the Government has already said and what Australians already knew.
If only the Treasurer had coughed up some detail or a plan.
This is a missed opportunity for the Government to bring people into their confidence about where things are going and what the Government intends to do about it.
Not just a reminder of all of the sacrifices that the Australian people are making, but a reminder of why those sacrifices matter, what they can look forward to on the other side, and why we can do better as a nation than to snap back to all of the economic weakness and all the ideological obsessions that governed the years leading up to now.
Deputy Speaker, I’m reminded of the late Denis Healey who once said “I don't come from the Treasury … I come from the battlefront.”
Because we come to Canberra today from the economic battlefront, from the suburbs where the jobs are being lost and where people need a plan, where people are terrified of being left out, and left behind.
Let me give you one example.
On Monday night I was at home in Logan City. The kids had gone to sleep at last, and I was answering emails. Up popped a note from a mum; she wanted to share with me her son’s story. This young man is a ground worker at one of our international airports. This is part of what she wrote:
"Since the Federal Government’s shut down of almost all aviation operations over the last couple of months, his company has had no choice but to stand him down.
They did so under the understanding that they could collect JobKeeper payments for their employees, so they didn’t join the Centrelink queues.
Now my son has been told to join Centrelink queues, knowing that his job and thousands of his co-workers’ jobs are in jeopardy because of a loophole excluding dnata from the scheme.
To my understanding the JobKeeper payments were put in place to help workers stay employed in this unknown time. Yet my son and thousands of his co-workers are now to be left helpless and abandoned by the Australian Government.
As [his] mother and fellow citizen of this country I can’t understand why some citizens are looked after and others are being forgotten and made to feel unimportant like this …
I beg you … to fight on his behalf so he is not put in this position please. Please help him keep his job."
Mr Deputy Speaker, Labor will fight on his behalf and for many caught in his situation. Our principle during this crisis has been to be constructive, supportive and responsible – to put the people before the politics. We do recognise that it isn’t business as usual in the economy and that it can’t be business as usual here either.
When the Government has adopted a good idea we’ve said so. When they rejected our amendments to the JobKeeper legislation, we didn’t hold up the legislation.
But bipartisanship doesn't mean parliamentary groupthink or empty acquiescence. Being constructive doesn't mean being silent. Acting responsibly doesn't mean meekly following along. That might be the Labor Party the Government wants, but it's not the Opposition that the nation needs. And it’s not the Opposition that the workers at dnata and their families and hundreds of thousands of others need either.
We have a responsibility as the party of working people to stand up for all of the wage earners of Australia, permanent and casual. We have a duty, as the architects of the Fair Work Act, to protect the rights and conditions of every worker. We have obligations, as the party of the social safety net, to help ensure it is stitched strongly enough to respond to crises like this one. We have the ability, as the party who ensured that the Australian economy actually grew during the last global recession, to make our voices heard, and as the party of the future, to think ahead.
A thoughtful and constructive Opposition has great value – after all, it was Labor who called for these wage subsidies in the first place.
Just as we made constructive suggestions about unemployment benefits, the partner income test, mutual obligation, supporting students, relief from evictions, childcare, telehealth, charities, access to broadband, and the aviation sector. Just as we cautioned against the Government’s risky, rushed plan for super release. Just as we warned about the faults in the design of the JobKeeper scheme.
It gives us no joy whatsoever to say that the super scheme is a mess and that wage subsidies are a very good idea being very badly implemented.
The Treasurer has just conceded again today that the Morrison Government has undershot its own JobKeeper enrolment targets by hundreds of thousands of Australian workers. This is a stunning admission of failure. This is not a saving to be celebrated. It is hundreds of thousands of breadwinners heading off to Centrelink instead. It made obvious what we already suspected: that this Treasurer and this Government is fumbling the implementation of this crucial program.
Too many Australians are left out and left behind. Some accidentally but many deliberately.
In recent weeks, thousands of businesses have expressed confusion about their eligibility, are uncertain about their obligations to their employees, and struggled to access vital bridging finance made necessary by the scheme’s design and its late rollout. Many of them have given up as a consequence.
That’s why when unemployment spikes even higher than necessary, this Treasurer’s fingerprints will be all over it. The fewer people he signs up to the JobKeeper program now, the longer the unemployment queues will be, and the harder the recovery. The jobless will pay the highest price, but the whole community will suffer as a consequence.
We know from the bitter experience of previous recessions just how hard it is for people who lose their jobs in times like these to find another one down the track. Many of them are excluded from the labour market for far too long, and there's human wreckage, wasted lives and sometimes that cascades down the generations. This needs to be avoided at all costs.
Mr Deputy Speaker, we can agree that this crisis has brought out some of the best in our country. There is a spirit of cooperation and adaptability that we will need to build on.
We acknowledge the hard calls all governments have had to make as they try to support an economy while shutting most of it down.
We don’t pretend this Government has got everything wrong – they haven’t – but nor should they pretend they’ve got everything exactly right.
Last Friday the Prime Minister gave one of those long press conferences in the Prime Ministerial Courtyard. He said the last few months have done two things – given us a reminder of some things, and given us a lesson of some other things.
True enough, I guess - but we need to be clear; this side of the House didn’t need to be reminded how important public health is - of course it is. We didn't need to be reminded that “every job matters” - we’ve believed that all along as well. Or that Australians at their best “can focus on something bigger than just ourselves …” That's what being Australian is all about.
Those opposite might need reminding of all of this, but these are things Labor’s never forgotten.
So Mr Deputy Speaker, what have the people really been reminded of during the crisis?
Well, we’ve been reminded of this: the Australian economy was not strong enough before, and it wasn’t working well enough for ordinary people. Maybe the long tail years of the long growth decades really did obscure this truth – but it is very plain to all of us now.
Thankfully we’re not America. Thankfully we’re not Spain or Italy. But thankfully that’s not the standard we set for ourselves. Thankfully we can aspire to something much, much better.
How did we get to this point in 2020, where after a generation of growth, our economic cupboard was so bare and our defences so thin?
The short story is this: seven years – three Treasurers – but one big gamble.
They punted that ordinary Australians could keep calm and carry the economy, while a Liberal Government in Canberra could get away with indulging their usual narrow ideological obsessions. They bet that ordinary people would keep working, spending, saving, raising kids, settling in Australia, starting and growing businesses, while they could keep attacking trade unions, undermining super, cutting penalty rates and essential services, redistributing wealth in the wrong direction.
When Mr Hockey became Treasurer, the Australian economy was strengthening. When he handed over to Mr Morrison, the Australian economy was weaker, but still fairly resilient. By the time Mr Morrison handed it over to Mr Frydenberg, the Australian economy was fragile indeed.
Three different Liberal Treasurers – but they all took the same risk. They all took the risk that the economy would take care of itself while they took care of their mates in marginal seats.
So by the end of last year, what did we have?
Slowing quarterly growth; below trend annual growth; and an economy barely growing faster than the population. Record high underemployment; an unemployment rate higher than the US, UK and New Zealand; almost two million Australians looking for work or more work. The worst run of wages growth on record, missing almost every budget and mid-year update forecast. Multifactor productivity declining for the first time in eight years; annual labour productivity negative for the first time on record; business investment in decline and at its lowest levels since the 1990s recession; the private domestic economy going backwards. Record household debt; slowest annual consumption growth since the GFC; childcare costs up more than 30 per cent. A budget already heaving with the debt that had more than doubled under those opposite.
And don’t forget the record deficits forecast by Deloitte this week wouldn’t be the first, second or third deficits recorded by this Government, but the seventh, eighth and ninth.
These are the facts that the Treasurer fails to mention in his Ministerial Statement.
So Mr Deputy Speaker, this is not just about the last seven weeks; it’s also about the past seven years, and to understand where we’re going we need to understand where we’ve been.
Be clear: the pandemic may have arrived without warning, but weakness in the economy certainly did not. The Reserve Bank had already downgraded Australia’s growth forecasts three times. The IMF had already downgraded Australia’s forecasts by more than global growth, by four times as much as the other advanced economies. The OECD had also slashed its expectations for Australian growth before the crisis by twice as much as the G20 economies as a whole.
Be clear about this too: when our country woke up on New Year’s Day 2020 we had a literal burning platform for change. No summer has ever shown more that what Australia needs is leaders who listen and have empathy and compassion, governments which cooperate, scientists who are heard, businesses who invest, and workers who have the skills they need to turn aspiration into opportunity.
But our summer of ashes couldn’t teach the Liberals what modern Australia’s economy needs. And our autumn of isolation and anxiety hasn’t either.
If there is a plan, it risks being the same approach that got us into this mess in the first place. A double-down on trickledown.
Just last Friday, the Prime Minister in his courtyard read out a focus group report about how every Australian matters, on the same day that we learn what? That his plan for super, his smash-and-grab raid on the future, has been hacked and compromised in predictable – and predicted – ways. That making Australians spend their retirement savings now has left the door open for fraudsters to rob ordinary people.
He talks about Team Australia, but what he really wants is a team with separate two dressing rooms. One where a few make all the decisions, and the rest are just the players who have to take all the wickets and score all the runs.
They say we are all in this together. But not if you work at dnata. Not if you’re a casual worker moving from one company to another. Not if you work in hospitality or entertainment, or at councils, or universities, or as a relief teacher in our schools.
They say every job matters – but they don’t think every ‘Job’ is a ‘Keeper’.
Mr Deputy Speaker, “we are all in this together” is more than a matter of saying we are all at risk from coronavirus, or that we all have a responsibility to follow the rules – we are, and we do. As the Labor Leader pointed out yesterday, "we are all in this together" is also about what happens next. It’s about the Australia we want to live in when life is normal again.
Unfortunately instead of the vision the Labor Leader displayed yesterday, we get Budget Day without a Budget.
Delaying a Budget is forgivable, delaying a plan is not.
The Treasurer had a big opportunity today and he missed it. When Australians wanted a policy program or a detailed economic outlook all he gave them was a speech cobbled together from old press releases. But when the IMF, RBA, and private sector forecasters have released expectations for Australia’s recovery, the Treasurer has no excuse.
In the past week alone, the Reserve Bank and Deloitte provided detailed economic and budget forecasts that span several years. The Reserve Bank went even further than usual to describe three potential scenarios, giving definition to the uncertainty that confronts us. We should expect no less from the Government.
Dribbling out a number here or there to one newspaper or another is no substitute for the sort of information that Australians had a right to expect from the Treasurer today. At a time of acute uncertainty, clarity around the Government’s expectations and assumptions is more important than ever, because decisions made in the coming weeks, months and beyond will have life-altering consequences for many Australians.
We’re not out of the woods when the restrictions ease; the Government’s economic choices will remain as crucial as they were during the worst days of this crisis and every Australian needs them to get it right.
Mr Deputy Speaker, this is where “snap back” comes into it. We all want the economy to recover as quickly as possible and for people to go back to work as soon as it’s safe. But hoping for the best is not a strategy.
Especially when the Reserve Bank, IMF and Deloitte Access Economics all expect higher unemployment for longer. Every informed commentator expects the recovery will be patchy and long and that different industries will come back slower than others.
Yet we get this commentary from the Prime Minister about "snap back". The Treasurer couldn’t have been clearer when he told Paul Kelly this: “The Prime Minister was very strong on how there would be a snap back. They were his words. The economy would ‘snap back’.”
We read today that the Government wants to walk away from the language of “snap back” at the same time as they contemplate pulling some of this welcome support out of the economy.
This is not about the slogans the Prime Minister abandons; it’s about the workers he abandons if he withdraws this support too soon or without factoring in the long tail of this recovery.
So Mr Deputy Speaker, Australia needs an economic plan.
A plan for when the economy doesn’t snap back on the Prime Minister’s political timetable.
A plan that doesn’t withdraw support from the economy too early or too suddenly, in a way that cruels the recovery.
A plan that doesn’t just learn the lessons of 2009 but 2014 as well - a plan that doesn’t ask the most vulnerable to pay the heaviest price for the money that's been borrowed here.
A plan for jobs, wages and living standards; for investment, productivity and cleaner, cheaper energy.
A plan that deals with the most pressing aspects of this crisis while we plan for the New Australia which arises from it.
We got none of that today from the Treasurer. We’ve seen none of that from this Government.
We didn’t get a Budget. We didn’t get a plan. We got a mug.
Australians have sacrificed so much to combat this virus. They’ve worked together and stayed apart, but all they got today for their efforts was a speech from the Treasurer.
If they are to get through this crisis and get back to work, they need and deserve much better than that.