Canberra Doorstop 23/03/20

March 22, 2020


SUBJECTS: Impact of Coronavirus on the economy; Additional economic stimulus measures; Support for small and medium sized business; Concerns about workers.

JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: We need clarity, urgency and coordination. Now is not the time for mixed messages, half measures or more delays. This is an extraordinary health crisis with cruel economic consequences and the onus is on all of us in this Parliament and around Australia to make good decisions in the midst of these very challenging times.

This morning I'll be recommending to our party room and to our Shadow Cabinet that Labor support in the Parliament the measures that the Government has announced to try and support workers, businesses, families, pensioners and communities with their economic stimulus package. We do that not because we think that every element of the Government's stimulus packages is perfect, but we welcome the support for businesses and for workers. We want to see that support out the door as soon as possible.

From the very beginning, Labor has played a responsible, constructive and supportive role and people will see that again in the Parliament today. The Parliament today has an opportunity to pass these stimulus measures, to get them into the economy, circulating in our shops and businesses right around Australia. We should take that opportunity.

Being a responsible, constructive and supportive Opposition also means pointing out where the Government can do an even better job supporting the economy in this difficult time. One of our key concerns is that there is a lack of urgency in the rollout of these otherwise welcome measures. Businesses, workers, families and pensioners need support right now, not in a month's time or in four months' time. Too many of these measures don't even kick in until the end of April. Some of them don't kick in until May and others like the second support payment for pensioners, not until July. Our task in this Parliament today is to support these measures, but to also see if we can work with the Government to speed them up because what we desperately need right now is urgency. We need urgency when it comes to the economy. We need urgency when it comes to dealing with the health aspects of this crisis as well.

JOURNALIST: How long do you expect Parliament to be sitting this week?

CHALMERS: It remains to be seen but certainly our intention is to support these measures as soon as we can. Whether that takes a day or two days, it's not clear yet. The Australian people can be reassured that it's not our intention in the Labor Party to hold these measures up in any way. We want to see them passed quickly. We want to see them implemented urgently. We'll play our part in ensuring both of those things.

JOURNALIST: What do you think the delay is for? Some of these measures being as you say delayed, is that a bureaucratic bog down or deliberate action by the Government?

CHALMERS: Unfortunately, the Government was a bit slow out of the blocks when it came to these stimulus packages. The need has been obvious for some time. As we've said all along in a constructive way, and we don't want to play politics here with these measures, we've been very constructive and said let's work together to find a way to get this support out the door quicker. It's not clear to me why pensioners need to wait until July for the extra payment. It's not clear to me why the Government hasn't come up with a way to get the business support out the door. Workers are losing their jobs as we speak. Businesses are closing their doors as we speak. They need the support right now, not in a month, not in three months or four months' time. There should be an opportunity for the Parliament to speed some of these measures up.

JOURNALIST: The Council of Social Services has expressed concern that some of these boosts to payments won't go to everyone and some people won't be eligible, for example, foreign visa holders who are stuck in Australia anyway. Are you concerned by that as well?

CHALMERS: We are concerned that there are still gaps in what the Government is proposing and that some key groups will miss out. We've said in a constructive way for some time now that in the first package there was a failure to deal with casuals and sole traders. We said after the release yesterday that there are a number of gaps there as well. There are concerns and groups that are missing out. The Government is no doubt looking at ways to try and fill some of those gaps which have become obvious. One of the issues that the Government flagged yesterday was that there needs to be a third stimulus package from the Government. If that is already clear, then again, we need some urgency from the Government. If they know that that will be necessary they should come forward and let the Australian people in on what they intend to do.

JOURNALIST: You're backing this bill. What's the likelihood that these packages that are going to businesses actually flow on to workers?

CHALMERS: This is a really key concern for us. We welcome support for small and medium businesses who are doing it very tough at this challenging time but there are no guarantees for workers in the business assistance package. The assistance is calculated on the workers that they had in the first quarter of the year and not necessarily the workers that they will hang onto going forward and that is a key concern for us. There are mechanisms being announced around the world which encourage employers to maintain that link with their workforce. That's not a feature of what the Government is proposing. We've made our concerns about that clear. We won't stand in the way of support for small or medium sized businesses but that's a key concern that there are no guarantees that that money will necessarily flow to keeping workers on and keep more money in workers' pockets.

JOURNALIST: The Government says it will do whatever it takes. So is their [inaudible] fiscal restraint [inaudible]. Could we possibly have the Government spend $500 billion, half a billion dollars to keep the economy [inaudible], and would you support that?

CHALMERS: This is no time for half measures. Everything that can be done should be done to support workers, families, businesses, pensioners and communities around Australia. We've been very supportive of additional spending in this regard and we will continue to be supportive where the Government comes to the table with efforts to boost the economy or at least to try and protect jobs in a difficult time like this.

JOURNALIST: When we come out the other side and been dealt with this massive big deficit, it's going to be incumbent upon your Government if you get into government or the Liberals to then deal with this massive, big black hole of money that we have to find again.

CHALMERS: A lot of the challenges which were obvious even before the virus showed up will be around after the virus is dealt with. Net debt, for example, in the Budget had already more than doubled before the virus outbreak. We already had issues with record gross debt. We already had issues in the budget. Obviously this virus will turbocharge those challenges. The Budget, the economy, the country will look very different after this virus is dealt with. We don't know how long it will take to deal with the virus, but the country will look different afterwards. We will have a series of very serious economic challenges to deal with and that will require our best efforts to deal with them like the obvious implications for debt.

JOURNALIST: Just on the rollout of this, you've mentioned that some of these measures, you're saying that they need to happen faster. But isn't it also important that throughout this crisis, which is going to be a long one, that there are top-ups that come along throughout the ways? Is that not in defence of the Government?

CHALMERS: The Government very quickly realised that their first stimulus package was insufficient and they wanted to top it up. As I've said repeatedly, we support that. But when it comes to the individual measures, we think that there is a problem for businesses who are right now looking at their spreadsheets and trying to work out how they can hang on to people, how they can keep operating or how they can operate once the various shutdowns have ended. For a lot of those businesses, and I've spoken to a lot of them, the idea that they have to wait for another five weeks before they get some assistance is very troubling for them. It's our responsibility as the Opposition to point out where some of this support may arrive too late to save some businesses and some jobs.

JOURNALIST: Just on businesses, if you've got a business which employs four people, five people, and the Government's offering you up to $100,000, it might be $50,000, well that's hardly an incentive to keep the doors open because four people are going to cost you half a million dollars. $50,000 isn't going to cut it. That's just one month. So a lot of these businesses [inaudible] who will be going, actually that's not enough, I'm sacking people.

CHALMERS: Yes I think there's a real risk that the assistance is not sufficient to keep people on. The Government has sold this measure as some kind of wage subsidy, but it's not that. It's cash flow assistance for business. That's welcome on one level but we don't have any guarantees that people will hang onto their workers because of this assistance. One of the bits of feedback that I'm receiving is that it's more likely that businesses use this cash flow assistance to pay rent, even while the doors might be closed and that they will still find it very difficult to hold on to workers. And that's a very big concern for us. Thanks very much.