BACKSLAPPING AND BIG ANNOUNCEMENTS – NO REFORM AGENDA

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (16:30): I rise to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2021-2022 and other bills. I want to firstly talk about a bit of overall context and then go to some very specific issues around the budget, the challenges facing the nation and how they are playing out in my own electorate. There are two great challenges facing the nation and have been for 18 months now. One, of course, has been the COVID pandemic and, along with that, the health response required of the nation—of governments, of the population, of businesses—as we dealt with the global pandemic. There is also the economic challenge, and the budget that was unveiled by the government the last time we were here should be an opportunity to address the economic challenges that we face and to set a forward plan for how we come out of what was a hit to our economy—there is no doubt about it—and build a stronger future for families and communities.

I have—unsurprisingly, probably to this chamber—some serious concerns about both of those strands of challenge in front of our nation. I want to acknowledge that they don't sit separately. They actually are intimately intertwined. How well we get the health response in place will have a direct effect on how the economy performs and so these are very, very significant issues. Just on the response to the COVID pandemic, I want to say first of all that I think this government really needs to step its game up. The mixed messaging that has been a consistent feature of this government's response to the COVID pandemic is causing confusion and hesitancy about vaccines in our community. It is not uncommon in any week, whether or not parliament is sitting, to see media conferences with different government ministers, including the Prime Minister, giving different messages to people about what the current situation is. People are saying to me in my community, 'What exactly am I supposed to be doing about vaccination?' because there is no consistent media information campaign running. There are no consistent, reliable.ads on the TV and so forth. People are uncertain and then they see these mixed messages. Only in the last week, there have been mixed messages about the rollout and about what the new orders of Pfizer vaccines at the end of the year mean for people who are over 50. Then we're told, 'Oh, no, you heard wrong. The media reported wrong.' The amateur hour mixed messaging has a cost and that cost is the increasing hesitancy we are seeing in our communities about taking up the vaccine. We know that getting the mass vaccination of our population is one of the most significant things we can do, not only for our health but also for our economy. When I look over the record of the government—I have to say every now and then I get a notification on my phone saying the COVID app has updated itself—I wonder what the point is and how much was expended on that particular little project?

We really need to step up our game as a federal government in response to the challenges that COVID related health issues continue to put before us. I call on the government—the Prime Minister and the relevant ministers—to do exactly that.

On the economic side, it is a touch bemusing to see speaker after speaker from the government side get up and say, 'We've been so fantastic. JobKeeper was the saviour of jobs and economies in this country,' when we well remember the fact that we were told that it was a ridiculous notion. When Labor was first raising the idea of wage subsidies we were told that it was ludicrous, that there was no way that we were going to be doing anything like that. It was really only when we saw the huge lines outside Centrelink offices, and the government suddenly had a bit of a panic attack and thought that this would be very problematic for them, that we saw the formation of the national gathering of business, government and unions. Full credit to the ACTU, I have to say, who were the real ones who pushed for a wage-subsidy-based program. It was great. At the end of the day, I love a government that learns from its mistakes—

An opposition member interjecting-

Ms BIRD: It is a steep learning path indeed, as my colleague says—but it is a touch bemusing to see the JobKeeper initiative used time and time again by members of the government as an example of how competent they were in responding to the economic pressures of the COVID pandemic, when we know full well that if it hadn't been for Labor and then the business and union communities calling for a wage subsidy they would never have gone down that track at all. I would also make the point that, even when they did introduce JobKeeper, they knocked down amendments Labor put up, and we've been constantly campaigning to them, about the sectors and the workers that they left out. Now they think they deserve a pat on the back because they've sustained so many jobs. That is true, and that is good for those sectors where that happened, but in my area—as in so many other people's areas, I know—we lost a lot of people out of our universities. We had a lot of people in casual work who weren't eligible for any income support. I personally met workers in the travel industry who subsequent to the end of JobKeeper lost their jobs. There were women in their 50s, who will really struggle to get another job. So I think it's a miscall by the government to be demanding that they get a pat on the back. It is disrespectful to those sectors of our economy and communities who haven't come through stronger as a result of the government's intervention. Perhaps the government should be looking at more-specific and more-targeted programs and support. I will come back to one local business that I met last week to indicate that.

Don't even get me started on skills. If you want to talk about promising and massively under-delivering, look at the record of this government, since the Abbott government, on skills. They love to say they're a big supporter of apprentices: 'Come and let me get a photo with a tradie. Let me pretend I'm laying bricks with an apprentice.' They just love doing this stuff. Then they make these huge announcements and they never deliver. Every time we get the quarterly and then annual reports of the number of people in apprenticeships it's going backwards. It's the absolute epitome of what is so wrong with this government in terms of its great joy in making big announcements and splashing large amounts of money' and then having the capacity to rebank that money and re-announce it because they didn't actually deliver what it was they announced in the first place. I will remain extraordinarily cynical about the government's announcements in the skills area.

I do welcome the aged-care additional funding.

There's no doubt, after the royal commission—which, I will say, they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to hold—that it is a blight on each and every one of us until we address how our most elderly citizens are being cared for in our aged-care system, whether that's in home care or in residential care. So I do welcome the additional support for that. But, again, we know that there are over 120,000 people on the waiting list for home-care packages, for example. People will continue to get older and become eligible, so the demand will continue to rise. The government has allocated 80,000, leaving a structured undersupply in there, and that's having real effects. I had a family in my office just last week. Mum is in hospital and rehab after a serious operation and 91-year-old Dad is at home, and that family is really struggling to continue to provide him with the support that he needs. So there's a big gap, as is always the case.

There's been a lot of backslapping and big announcements: 'We're throwing all this money at it. There's no problem with $1 trillion anymore. This is all really good.' In actual fact, the budget was a list of: where are our political pain points, what are our political problems and how can we throw something at each of them to tick it off to try and take the heat out of it? There was no structured reform agenda in that whatsoever. It's $1 trillion spent without a vision for any structured reforms to see us well into the future, post COVID.

In the few minutes that are left to me, in line with what I've been outlining in my general comments, I want to talk about a local business. This local business, sadly, as I said to them, are not alone in the concerns that they came to me with. I've had a number of local businesses in the travel and tourism sector in my local area who are still really struggling. Brad and Kylie Fussell from my area run Wanderers Australia. They run a program where they get young people from around the country into a sports team and take them overseas. They play sports against schools and other junior teams in whatever place they go, and then they also incorporate into that an educational program. For example, they go to France, play some games with local school teams and juniors teams, visit the battlefields and learn about the Australian participation in the war. It's a really great initiative, and they're passionate about what they do. They just love it. They love the ties and the friendships that they're creating and the knowledge that is such an important part of that program for young people.

Twenty-five years they've been doing this. Obviously, the COVID international closures had real implications for them. They said to me they wanted to acknowledge that they got JobKeeper, so that did provide some assistance. Of course, as a partnership, they weren't both entitled to JobKeeper. Only one of them was eligible for JobKeeper. They wanted me to pass on to the government that, although the payment has ended, the circumstance hasn't changed for them. They can't pivot to a domestic option. Young people are already playing their local teams locally and can travel in Australia with their families, so they can't pivot the business. They are still really struggling to keep their heads above water. The response of the government to say, 'We've dealt with all these issues, we don't need JobKeeper anymore, and Labor is ridiculous to be saying there are ongoing issues'—there actually are.

Members opposite must have businesses like this in the travel and tourism sector in their own electorates that still haven't been able to get back on their feet. They really do need some form of continued targeted assistance. The previous speaker talked about the loss-carryback tax option to support businesses.

Well, a small business like this is not eligible for that either. So, I do think there are these really very small family businesses that I would encourage the government to have a look at, because, as I said, in the travel and tourism sector in my area, I continue to meet with local businesses, just like Brad and Kylie from Wanderers Australia, who are still really struggling. I know all of my colleagues would be like me: if you met this couple and saw their passion for education and their passion for the work they've done for 25 years, it would break your heart to think that that business is going to fall over when, I think, a government could look at some sensible, targeted programs that would support small businesses like theirs.

In the context of the budget, I've acknowledged locally some good initiatives. I've said to my local community that I'm going to watch this closely because there is always such a big gap between announcement-and-promise and actual delivery, and I do think there are areas the government could look to do better in still.

Watch Sharon’s speech here.