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6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker



Subjects: Coronavirus

GARETH PARKER: (greetings omitted) Christian there is a lot going on. Clearly, the economic impact of this is clearly going to be profound and given the decisions that government’s taken to close certain businesses, it means that the unemployment impact has sort of really hit hard and all at once. You're starting to see a strain of commentary and questions emerge that says, why didn’t the government come up with an alternative to Centrelink to try and sustain these jobs. A lot of people are pointing to the British example and Boris Johnson, where 80 per cent of wages were guaranteed by the government. Was that considered and why wasn't that option taken?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah it was considered and a range of options were considered. The Treasury recommendation was heavily against that option. And yes, there are problems with Centrelink and yes they are about high volume. Yes, we are working furiously to fix those. But imagine, and that is a delivery system of greatly enhanced welfare which in a moment if I get a chance I'd like to explain to you exactly how that works.

GARETH PARKER: Yes we will go through that,

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: But that is an option about using an existing delivery mechanism for greatly enhanced welfare directly to people who've been stood down or become unemployed, so that uses government mechanisms, architecture, Centrelink offices, known calculations, application forms and you can see that that is under strain. Having to invent from scratch, an entirely new system of calculation, application, delivery mechanisms, totally outside anything the government’s ever done before was put to us as simply being too difficult and complicated to do in all of the circumstances as a practical measure. The lessons that Treasury and the government's learned during the GFC is that if you step outside the normal realms of delivery mechanisms, you run into all sorts of problems. But keep in mind that, that another issue with that is that you're putting all of your eggs into one very complicated basket. What we have done is go up through the worker and deliver greatly enhanced welfare directly to the worker. We've come down through the business by offering up to $100,000 to eligible small and medium sized businesses which they can use to stay open and obviously it's expected they will use to keep staff on. So, we have had two delivery mechanisms that are known, simple, that will work and pushed enormous amounts of funding into them, to ensure that workers are looked after, not merely if they find themselves out of work but also that the businesses have got every chance in incredibly difficult circumstances to keep workers on, even if it's in slightly modified forms. On which point I also note we had a major breakthrough yesterday with the union and the Australian hotels Association varying a modern award to drive flexibility into it, which will save jobs. So we want to try and keep people connected to their jobs, even when the demand has gone down. If they can't be connected to their jobs, we're pushing massive amounts of welfare into looking after them over this very challenging period.

GARETH PARKER: Okay, we'll come to Centrelink in a moment, but just to explain what you're talking about there, basically the Australian hotels Association and the union, United Voice (United Workers Union), agreed with each other, almost as an emergency measure to set aside some of the provisions of the ordinary award to say hey, it's better to keep some sort of job, rather than no job.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: That's about it, so they agreed to give flexibility by allowing reduced hours to be worked by full and part time employees and obviously demand has dropped down so it's better to have less hours but to be connected to your employer than strictly abide by the award and what it said about the minimum number of hours. It'll allow employees to work across different classifications in an award. It'll allow employees to be directed to take annual leave and in certain circumstances, including at half pay so that they can keep the business going. This was all agreed to between the union, United Workers Union and the Australian Hotels Association, they worked with the Fair Work Commission in record time. It is an excellent outcome. Two organizations that haven't always cooperated perfectly are now cooperating like people's jobs depend on them, cooperating because they do, and it's a great outcome. I think that there'll be more to come, certainly something that we're working to facilitate and encourage and intervening in supporting the Fair Work Commission but we are obviously in the territory of doing things that we've never done before, cooperating with people we've never really cooperated with before, compromising to save jobs.

GARETH PARKER: Centrelink has been smashed by demand. We've all been distressed by the scenes of people lining up outside of Centrelink for two reasons. One because it's distressing to see that many people suddenly lose their jobs but two because it's not particularly compliant with what we're being asked to do with social distancing. Can you talk me and listeners through the latest arrangements to try and speed up the queue? The virtual queue and the physical queue?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, look, the short answer is that we're just pushing as many resources into our usual processes as we can. And, you know, why is the demand higher? Obviously because people are losing their jobs. What has been provided for is a payment for singles of in excess of a thousand, $1124. Partners just over $1000, $1,060 a fortnight. That's available to you if you've been stood down, if you've lost your employment, if you're a sole trader without work, if you're self-employed without work, if you're a casual worker, if you're a contract worker. If you're required to care for people. The ordinary one week waiting period is gone. The cash in the bank waiting period is gone. The newly arrived residents' period is gone. The mutual obligations relax for the time being. So obviously we've had both demand for the payment and then a massive increase in the payment, a total relaxation of all of the, the usual access rules for the payment. Clearly, that is placing strain on the system. That's been worked at by everything and everyone we've got inside the Department of Social Services and Services Australia. You know, we are getting on top of it but there will need to be a slight amount of understanding that the huge influx was something that was very difficult to plan for, even though we were expecting, obviously, a large influx, but it's about resourcing and every resource we've got being pushed into it.

GARETH PARKER: I think a critical point that would give people some comfort is that even if you can't get onto the Centrelink website until today or tomorrow or Friday or next week, Centrelink will be back-paying to Monday, like, three days ago won’t they?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: That's right, so that the notice of intention period if you like, as soon as you get on. That's correct. So, even if it's taking you a while to get on online and it's preferable to come through the online portal to being physically out there waiting in a queue for the obvious reasons that you've pointed out about social distancing. This will get done. But obviously, the volume has been utterly extraordinary and we're pushing every resource we have got into it. We're moving people who’ve lost their job in other call enters into our call centres and retraining them as quickly as we possibly can.  It is obviously a system under strain. But back to your original point. Imagine if that was a system trying to cope with an entirely new delivery mechanism for welfare, pinning it to a percentage of often hundreds of employees individualized wages in a particular business. That would have been just an astonishingly difficult organizational task.

GARETH PARKER: What we're witnessing at the moment. And I think the Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has alluded to this, and what's coming down the pipe this morning. But what we're basically doing at the moment is a staged shutdown of the economy to try and control the pandemic risk. What's the inflection point at which, you know, which we start to unwind these measures? Is it, is it a measure of virus progression, is it a calculation by national and state and territory governments that the economic pain is becoming too much to bear? What's the endgame for this? What are the sorts of considerations and inputs that go on to that decision?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well they all start with health advice and the best possible advice through our Chief Medical Officer through our Department of Health for the chief medical officers of each of the states and territories working collectively about the epidemiology and spread of the disease. What we are doing in terms of restrictions on economic activity are all designed to slow the spread, to flatten the curve, to allow us to best prepare and be totally hardened for the increased demand that we know will come into the medical system. And yes, you're right, there'll be points in time, in which advice will change about the nature of restrictions, but that will be advice that has as its first point of call, and its first intended outcome, health outcomes. So, you know that advice has been updated on a literally daily basis. We through the various subcommittees of the Federal Cabinet, the National Cabinet, the National Coordination Mechanism, they are being run multiply, over, over a single day. But ultimately, the key issue is preserving the best possible health outcomes in all of this. So what is happening in terms of staged restrictions to movement and to enterprise, as tragic and difficult as they are, they are designed based on the best medical advice as the most necessary measures to save lives in the longer run.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. I know this is outside your portfolio, but you're in all the meetings. The issue that is causing I think most consternation among parents, and among teachers is the advice on schools. Can you as succinctly as you can relay to people what the health advice is on the decision to keep schools open because a lot of people are looking at it I'm getting feedback and they're saying, we think this is incongruous with everything else that's going on.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well there was a question asked of the Prime Minister last night by a journalist where he describes schools in a, in a way, which was totally against the best medical advice that we are getting.

GARETH PARKER: I agree. For people who don't know, well maybe I won’t repeat it…

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well you can say it but I won’t…

GARETH PARKER: Okay, well look, the journalist described schools basically as a petri dish of infections, I thought it was ridiculous. I know the journalist personally and consider him a friend but it's the wrong thing to say.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well that description, that is a, a laboratory solution, specifically designed by medical scientists to hyper spread a disease. That as a description to schools is totally against all the medical advice that we've got. And what Brendan Murphy I think has said repeatedly, is that children, first of all, don't seem to be getting this disease in the same numbers as adults. Secondly, do not seem to be affected to anywhere near the degree, which thirdly means that they're not coughing and spluttering if they get it. So, being asymptomatic, they spread the disease less. So schools are a safe place. In terms of striking that balance that you described earlier about having the best health outcomes, but also not unnecessarily and prematurely damaging the economy and the ability of our health services to provide the services that we are needing and will further need to deliver good outcomes in terms of lives saved, schools for the moment, based on all the advice that we have, should remain open. Now obviously parents will make their own decisions and school should be making their best efforts to educate children if they are not in school, but that ultimately is a responsibility that rests on parents. And finally there's an education issue here. You can't let, whether it's a five year old with preschool education, or someone in at high school just lose large chunks of their education. So, like all these things we're making decisions about when you restrict economic activity or educational activity only when we need to, only based on the best advice, and only for the purposes of securing a better health outcome for all of us in the long run and we're not there yet with schools.

GARETH PARKER: The only thing I'll add to that is I think that teachers in particular needs to be supported and communicated to by all levels of government at this time because that's where I'm seeing the anxiety rising and I understand it completely.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah, and look there is anxiety and some of that anxiety is caused by injudicious, excessive comments, whether it's from commentators or people on Twitter and miss information. The best information is coming from the Health website, is coming through the Prime Minister and the Health Minister and Premiers and state health ministers on a daily basis. So take information from official sources, and teachers are doing a remarkable job, and they're doing a great job for kids, they're doing a great job for their education, they're doing a great job for our economy and society, and they're doing a great job for our ability to plan and strengthen our health response. So, they're just doing a remarkable job and schools should stay open.

GARETH PARKER: Christian, thank you for your time.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Okay, thanks very much Gareth. Cheers.