• Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: $130 billion coronavirus lifeline, Easter celebrations
10 April 2020

Deb Knight: Now, it’s been a massive week in Australian politics. Of course the landmark JobKeeper scheme passing Parliament, that $130 billion lifeline – huge amount of money, millions going to Australians who are in need.

Alex Cullen: And to take a closer look at that and this Easter like no other, we’re joined by Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles and Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Simon Birmingham. Good morning to both of you.

Richard Marles: Good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning.

Alex Cullen: Simon, let’s start with you. The payment will see businesses affected by COVID-19 receive 1500 bucks per employee – wonderful stuff. It’s a significant promise from the government – huge. But is it enough given just how many Aussies are hurting right now?

Simon Birmingham: Well this is the most significant intervention that a Government’s ever undertaken to address a crisis like we face. So- and this is about supporting some six million estimated Australians, and to be able to stay connected to their employer, and to be able to receive the support they need during the economic downturn that we’re seeing as a consequence of COVID-19.

So you can’t get any bigger than what’s being done. It’s been targeted carefully to make sure that the support is going to keep those permanent employees, those long-term employees, connected with the workplace, whilst ensuring we also have the JobSeeker payment that is there to provide support for those who may have been more short-term employees to make sure that they also get the financial support they need.

But it’s partly about delivering support to households, to individuals to get them through it. And also significantly, about keeping businesses as intact as possible with their longer term work force – those who’ve been there more than 12 months, their permanents – so when the crisis is over they can start up again effectively.

Deb Knight:  And Simon, we know all along, we’ve heard from the Prime Minister that these figures, these announcements, are saleable – that’s the term that’s being used – that they can be extended. But this monster amount of money – the biggest we’ve ever seen in an announcement, $130 billion – it’s for a six month period. Is there scope to extend it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll look at that if it comes to it. Our hope is of course that it doesn’t come to that. Australia is doing an incredible job so far in terms of flattening the curve and following a trajectory around COVID-19, and it is more like the countries that have dodged the type of disaster that you were just talking about with your previous guest, that we’re seeing unfold in the United States and also around the world – we’ve got be vigilant to maintain that. And the price of that does mean that the economic consequences might spread out a bit longer, but that means we’re saving lives and that’s the really important outcome.

Alex Cullen: Yeah, I want to bring Richard in here. Your party, the Labor Party, pushed for greater inclusion of casual workers – rightly so – but that ultimately failed. The government dealt directly with the unions, Labor was cut out of the picture here. Are you pushing for other policies to support those casual workers?

Richard Marles: Well we would have liked to have seen the supply to about a million casuals who will miss out under the current arrangements. But I wouldn’t want to be too churlish about this, it is an incredible thing that is being done here and we were very pleased to be a part of it during the week.

Simon is right in what he says, that a wage subsidy – which we have been calling for some time – does enable that connection between employees and employers to be maintained – it’s a really critical, when we get to the other end of it. It is, as you have been saying, a very significant form of relief that has been put forward – it’s a lot of money and, ultimately, this is something that we were very pleased to support. And while we would have liked to have seen the casuals as a part of it, I think right now we should be saying how important this step was during the week.

Alex Cullen: Richard, can you find it within yourself to say to the Government – good job?

Richard Marles: Of course, and we absolutely are saying that. I mean, we’ve been saying to the Government that we are very pleased that they’ve come down this path, this is a really important step to take. And this isn’t a time for partisan politics.

I actually think that the sort of different colours that we wear – Labor and Liberal – have faded over the last few weeks and we’ve just been trying to do everything that we can as Members of Parliament to get this country through this crisis. And the sitting that we had during the week was absolutely historic and I was very pleased to be a part of it. And I think all of us, Labor and Liberal, feel very proud of what we have done.

Deborah Knight: Yeah. Let’s have more of that, please, beyond this crisis period.

But the other big issue bubbling away – Foreign Affairs Minister, Marise Payne, announcing Qantas is going to help facilitate rescue flights for the Aussies stranded all around the globe, many parts of the world. And Simon, passengers, we understand, will have to likely pay thousands of dollars per person to access these flights. Have we been urging Australians to come home? How frustrating is it that you’re still having to organise these chartered rescue flights in a time when the warnings were there?

Simon Birmingham: There are frustrations, no doubt about that, that we were one of the early countries in the world to urge Australians to reconsider their need to travel and to urge them to come home and ultimately, to urge them to- or to tell them that travel was not to be undertaken and to enforce quite strict arrangements in place. And so there’s a degree of frustration there about.

Our diplomats have been working day and night around the world to come up with solutions to help Australians be able to safely get home. That’s why we’ve stepped in to make sure there are some regular flights still available over the next few weeks. We can’t guarantee they’ll go on beyond that but you can get home from places if you can connect into London or Hong Kong because we’ve put in place those regular flights.

We are also looking at exceptional circumstances where we do need to work to get aviation capacity into places such as Peru where there’s a flight that has come in overnight. That’s the second one that has come out of there in a space of about a week. We have circumstances in Uruguay that we’re working through – in South Africa, in the Philippines.

These are incredibly complex arrangements given the travel restrictions other countries have imposed, given the collapse in international aviation. It’s not unreasonable that Australians who are overseas – some of whom will have ignored the travel warnings given – have to make a contribution to their return. But we do want to do what we can, where we can to get them home safely.

Alex Cullen: Well that’s right. Especially now, there’s no place like home, is there? And just quickly, it’s an Easter weekend like no other. Family get together, of course, cancelled and church services are now being forced online. Simon, how is it- how important is it to check in with family members, even if we can’t really spend the weekend with them this year?

Simon Birmingham: It’s really important to stay in touch this weekend. I feel very much for people of faith for whom Easter is the most important celebration for those Christians on the religious calendar. And I urge those people to be in touch with their churches, to watch the online services that are available and to tune in to the television services that have been broadcast. And, indeed, that perhaps they can reach out to other parishioners so that they maintain that connection. And for families generally, this is definitely a time to get on Skype, to get on FaceTime, to make the phone calls [indistinct] where you can.

Deborah Knight: Stay connected. We still have to stay connected, don’t we?

Simon Birmingham: But still to stay home. Because staying home, you’re doing your bit to keep
yourself safe and to keep other Aussies safe too.

Deborah Knight: Yeah. Really important. And Richard, how about you? How will you be spending this very unusual Easter long weekend?

Richard Marles: Well I’ll also be at home. I agree with what Simon said. I think, you know, for people of faith it is in a sense heartbreaking that the normal rituals will not be able to be fulfilled. But we are learning how to make community happen through the internet and online and churches are reaching out to do that.

I’ve assured the children who are living in my house that the travel restrictions do not apply to the Easter Bunny and I remain hopeful that the Easter Bunny will be visiting our place in the middle of the night on Saturday night.

Deborah Knight: Don’t be hopeful. It’s happening, Richard. It’s happening. The Easter Bunny is coming.

Richard Marles: It’s happening, good. Well that’s what I’ve assured everyone. So the COVID virus doesn’t apply to bunnies. So we’ll be doing all our rituals at home but that’s the place to do them.

Deborah Knight: And we wish you both a very happy Easter to you and your families as well Fellas, thanks so much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys.

Alex Cullen: Happy Easter guys.