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6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker



Subjects: Coronavirus casual workers; Shayden Thorne  

GARETH PARKER:  The Prime Minister has announced a further $2.4 billion of health spending.  The economic stimulus story is still yet to be told - I get the sense that will be tomorrow, but the health announcement is there.  The impacts are obviously far-reaching. Yesterday, the Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister, Christian Porter, met with union leaders and with business.  I think that casuals are still a big issue here – if there is a situation where schools closed – where large numbers of people are forced into social distancing or isolation I think we’re going to have a problem.  The Industrial Relations Minister is Christian Porter – he is on the line.  Christian good morning.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  Yeah morning Gareth, good morning to your listeners.

GARETH PARKER:  There’s obviously a lot to get through.  I do want to start with the nature of the discussions you were having yesterday…


GARETH PARKER:  Are you serious that you think casually-employed Australians have made good preparations so that they can last two weeks without an income?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  Well casual employment of course is paid a loading in lieu of sick leave and annual leave.  But not everyone is going to be prepared for a period of illness.  But each year casual employees - like permanent and full time employees - will have periods of being unwell during winter – I mean that, that happens.  What we're looking at obviously is a much larger, potentially, number of people in all categories of employment. So casuals could well emerge as an issue that needs a specific response but we're not there yet. And you know some of the calls have been to fundamentally change the industrial relation system and apply sick leave broadly to 3.3 million people where it's never been applied before.  And I don't think that that sort of fundamental restructure before the problem’s become completely clear as to its extent, scale, location is a very wise approach.  But it may be that some extra response is required.

GARETH PARKER:  I can certainly see that a 2 or 3 day absence from work because of a cold in the middle of winter is a regular occurrence for the casually employed but it seems to me that this could be something that is orders of magnitude larger.  If schools close, for example, it’s not like you can put the kids in day care because they’ll be closed too; if they’re school age they’re probably not day-care situations anyway. Single parents, others, are going to face some real challenges that are much bigger than the ordinary winter-sick challenge.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  I think that, that that's a fair observation. And you need to know though before you're able to have a choice between various responses what the scale, location and extent of that is.  Like you can't jump into a response that caters for 3.3 million people in a category of employment without really having a better line of sight as to the extent of the problem. So, I would say that we're aware of all of these potentialities.  There are options that we have worked up and will continue to work up and they can be activated if and when needed. One of the options is through the welfare system - so there's a specific payment called Sickness leave (Allowance) which takes into account people who don't have provision but who become sick and their employment is interrupted without sick leave or other leave that they can take. Now that's obviously a mechanism that already exists to cater for this situation and there's ways in which that can be tweaked to be scaled up if needs be.  So those are all things we're thinking of.  But what I'm kind of disinclined to do is over-respond too early and create entirely new systems without actually seeing the extent of the problem - but we will be prepared for it, even when it arises.

GARETH PARKER:  The Prime Minister’s announced travel bans to Italy - $2.4 billion of health spending.  $200 million for pop-up testing clinics – all of that detail that we’ve heard.  The economic stimulus…

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  Yep. There's also $500 million for the general public health - public hospital system so there’ll be a 50/50 split with the states so I mean that anticipates obviously that we're going to have much higher demand than usual.

GARETH PARKER:  Yep and that was announced last week.  So the economic stimulus aspect of it, the reports are the suggestions are that it’ll be over $10 billion – can we expect to see that detail tomorrow.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  That timing’s up to the Prime Minister but my understanding is it'll be this week.  So, and this is obviously is very different from the GFC which was a financial market shock which had economic consequences. This is a physical problem with what will be Australians’ health. And as you point out, much larger numbers than usual potentially of people will need to be having time off work - will need to be presenting to the health and hospital system. Most people, you know 80% according to our Chief Medical Officer will have very mild symptoms. But nevertheless for that percentage that have more serious symptoms there is going to be a big draw and pressure placed on our health system.  So the immediate response is to look after Australians’ health and safety - to strengthen up and be flexible in our ward system, in ICUs, in GPs with testing. And if we get that response correct which we will, then that is going to limit the economic consequences in Australia.  We will get through this whether that is six or months or longer.  And the better we respond in terms of our health system, our GP system, our hospital system and looking after Australians, the quicker we will get through it and the better we will perform on the other side of it.  But it is now clearly inevitable that this is going to be a major and significant draw on our health system.

GARETH PARKER:  The Prime Minister I thought gave a good speech yesterday – a good message when he said that business needed to hang on to your employees because you’ll need them on the other side of this – if you’re a big business go to your office today and pay your invoices early – I thought they were good messages.  Of course Qantas, for example, have cut their capacity 25% and they say that they’ve got 2,000 more employees than they presently need for their existing route network so the question’s open about what happens to those employees; you’ve got the Australian Retailers Association and Russell Zimmerman suggesting that casuals won’t need to be called into work.  Do you think big business are heeding the call from the PM at this point?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  I think that, like largely speaking both businesses and employee associations - unions - are approaching this in the right frame of mind and sensibly.  The Prime Minister's advice to businesses of all types to keep your staff and cooperate with your staff and organise yourselves as best as you possibly can to maintain your levels of operation and staffing so that when we come out of this, the bounce back is hard and fast - is, is precisely the right advice.

But going to your earlier point. Yes, there are going to be some sectors of the Australian economy where demand drops off.  Tourism, retail, we might find some schools close at some points in time. And in those industries at particular points in time you're going to have a surplus of workers without the demand for the work.  In other industries - health, aged care and a whole range of allied health services you're going to have much elevated demand and a demand for people to do the work and perhaps at time shortages that we need to accommodate.  So what needs to occur is for both businesses to be mindful of cooperating and keeping staff, but also the fact that at certain points during this there's going to need to be adaptability and flexibility and casual workforces will probably find themselves in high demand in areas different from the areas that they have been working in previously - and that might be short lived but filling those positions is going to be very very important.  So that's another area where we have a range of contingency plans for the ways in which government can help activate workforces in different industries.  But you know we're about to encounter a set of circumstances which we will get through, but which will be very unusual and which we haven't encountered really before in most of our lifetimes.

GARETH PARKER:  The Government’s now closed travel to Italy.  Was that decision taken too slowly?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  No, I mean we've been we've been acting on the best medical advice around travel bans.  And what we did as between South Korea and Italy was preferably at that point in time we made the decision which was last week, we would have had higher intensity screening on both countries which the medical advice is completely sufficient.  But we simply didn't have the resources to do that - there's about 16,000 people that come in from South Korea - a much smaller number that come from Italy and we were high-screening them.  But it's clear now that there is no downside in closing the borders with Italy because the traffic is basically stopped itself, because of the fact that in Italy they are preventing travel. So we look at each of these on a case by case basis and we're always trying to balance the effect of this on the Australian community and on the Australian economy with the overarching necessity and goal of protecting peoples’ health.  So we're not jumping into to knee jerk reactions - everything's based on medical advice and as Brendan Murphy, the CMO, said today we are still in a containment phase for the disease - at some point in time that will move to a control phase - but we are still in containment.  There are a pocket of human-to-human transmission in New South Wales, but otherwise we are well behind the bell curve of a lot of other countries because we've taken, I think strategically, the right-balanced decisions but always favouring public health outcomes.

GARETH PARKER:  OK, the Italia situation.  Is there any reason to believe that we will avoid that or is this just the trajectory of the virus; it’s not that we’ve done anything particularly well to combat it – we’ve done what everyone else is doing - it’s just that it’s arrived in Italy and South Korea earlier than it’s arrived in Australia? Could we see an Italian situation here in Australia?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  Well I think the Italian situation is sobering but I would put to all of your listeners that Australia, our governments, our health system, our public service at a federal level - at a state level - is better placed than any other country on earth to deal with this.  The planning goes back many years to the last pandemic.  Legislation was changed in 2015, a pandemic plan for effectively severe flu was developed many years ago - we've been able to activate that – modify it.  What's known as the National Coordination Mechanism is now activated and that allows for intimate cooperation, like literally on an hourly basis between the federal government, state government, the heads of the important departments at state level – health, police, Home Affairs at the federal level and health. So, you know, our system is very very robust and government at all levels has, has to be recognised as pouring enormous energy and resources into preparing.  So you know I guess the advice that I put frankly is that we are going to be better prepared, more resilient and more robust in our response to this than countries that we've seen experience it. And part of that is the reason that we have had extra time to plan and prepare for this because we have been able to slow down the transmission and onset of the pathology of the disease in Australia.  And this Gareth, for your listeners, is all about the fact that there is an inevitability of human to human transmission just like the flu in Australia.  But if we can keep the the bell curve of presentations flat and spread the presentations into the health system at lower levels, over a longer period of time than might otherwise be the case if you didn't take serious mitigation responses in Australia - then that is going to be a situation where there's less pressure on the health system and our response is, is more stable and better than it's been in other countries.

GARETH PARKER:  Just before I let you go, I need to raise this with you.  Shayden Thorne, convicted Islamic terrorist, released from prison; you and I have spoken before about the challenges that we’re about to face with convicted terrorists reaching the end of their sentences.  Are West Australians entitled to be angry that he is walking around our community potentially, without electronic monitoring?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  There's two things that can happen.  So the AFP make these decisions and provide advice to the Home Affairs Minister. But the two things that can happen is the decision can be made to apply for continuing detention - so they stay in jail past the end of their term, which is obviously a very serious matter - but where the circumstances are right, that application is made. The other thing is that someone is released with a range of control orders. Now I must say that, you know I can understand why people view Shayden Thorne as they do. The AFP is an organisation that in my experience gets these things right.  They were very strong in their views and advice that there would be unlikely to be a successful application for continuing detention to keep the person in jail past their, their sentence – that the control order was the appropriate application – and that what they did in that case was apply for 11 out of 12 possible categories of control. He, Shayden Thorne has 20 different aspects to his control order on him. So the AFP are the experts.  I tend not to want to see Ministers getting involved in telling the experts how they should handle people like Shayden Thorne.  But what I would say to all your listeners is that he is released from prison with 20 different categories of control on him and obviously many of those categories of control go to the observation and interface from the AFP to that individual when he's in the community.  So they have acted in a way that they think is the absolute best and most appropriate way to act in all the circumstances.