SUBJECTS: The Morrison-Joyce Government walking away from small business; state borders; restrictions.
JOE HILDEBRAND, HOST: Well, the Federal Opposition has raised some serious concerns about this. And joining me on the line now is the Shadow Small Business Minister, Richard Marles. Richard, thanks very much for joining us on Afternoons. Surely, this government assistance does have to run out some time doesn’t it?
RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Look, we understand that government assistance isn’t going to be there forever. But government assistance needs to be tailored to the reality of what people are facing. And the simple fact is that once we get to 80 per cent vaccination rates, that doesn’t equal a return to normality for a whole lot of businesses around New South Wales, for a whole lot of businesses around the country. And to withdraw support at that moment in time, both for people- for individuals through the hardship payments, but also through to businesses, as has been announced today, is going to leave a whole lot of people totally stranded, in circumstances where density limits haven’t come back to where they should be if you’re in retail or hospitality, in the context the international border isn’t open, if you’ve got a business which has got any relationship to tourism, for example. I mean, there are a whole lot of parts of the economy, which still aren’t back to normal and won’t be once we hit 80 per cent levels of vaccination.
HILDEBRAND: So is your argument basically saying, okay, you can have that as a headline figure, but there should be exemptions for exceptional circumstances, for example, for particular industries?
MARLES: What we’re really saying is that you’ve got to tailor the economic support to the economic environment that people face. In other words; we’ve got to help people get to a point where we return to some version of normality. And that’s not at the point where 80 per cent of people have been vaccinated, and that’s really the issue. I mean, what we’re seeing with this government is they were – you know, they’re making it clear it was not a race to get people vaccinated, but it certainly seems to be a race to get people off payments. And I think if you go back to March of this year, with the end of JobKeeper, what was clear at that point is that they didn’t have a plan for the future in terms of what would happen if there were more lockdowns, and they were certainly imagining that there would be more lockdowns. As a result, the support for businesses and individuals since then, has been, you know, piecemeal and hasn’t covered the field. And now we’re seeing them repeat the mistake. And I think a lot of Australians are going to be left behind as a result.
HILDEBRAND: Sure. They’re obviously playing hardball, and we saw they found an extra $80 billion in the budget, which was on the front page of The Australian today. But is there not a case also that, for example, we know how messy the Federation is at the moment, we know there are federal and state responsibilities. But if you’re talking about businesses that are affected by border closures, or businesses in the tourism industry that aren’t getting any interstate visitors, surely that is the problem of the state governments, and in particular, Queensland. Obviously the border there is causing all sorts of chaos and stopping people from moving back and forth. And tourism operators there have no certainty. I mean, 80 per cent isn’t even on the horizon for them at the moment. Shouldn’t Federal Labor, maybe leaning on your colleagues, getting in the ear of your, your state Labor colleagues and saying, well, if you really want to help businesses, maybe you could open up the borders, or maybe at least provide a clear timetable or threshold for opening up the borders?
MARLES: Yeah, I think we can get kind of fixated on the borders. And I think issues can get conflated here. I mean, there is a really appropriate conversation that is happening in New South Wales and Victoria, about how we get to a point where we’re living with the virus. And obviously the key to that is making sure that we do have vaccination rates up, at the speed with which we open up, we get on with business, we get kids back to school. It’s not obvious to me why that is connected to State borders.
HILDEBRAND: Because as you say, in certain industries, they’re still going to be impacted by the COVID pandemic, even at 80 per cent. And an obvious example of that is Queensland reaching 80 per cent vaccination at some point, having those federal payments withdrawn as a result of meeting that threshold, but that’s still not being the threshold to open the borders and therefore get all those southerners going in to Queensland for their holidays, that tourism operators are saying they are absolutely relying on for the Christmas holidays. I mean, isn’t that the perfect example of a business or an industry that might still be affected, once 80 per cent thresholds are reached? And they’re affected because of, not just the withdrawal of the federal support, but because the state borders would still be closed under the prospect that Annastacia Palaszczuk, for example, has raised, where 80 per cent is not necessarily a trigger for opening those borders.
MARLES: Like I get that example. But it’s not the mainstream of what we’re talking about in New South Wales and Victoria, which is where, which has been the focus of these payments, because that’s where the lockdowns have been in place.
MARLES: And what has driven these payments is, in effect, parts of the country being in lockdown. And sure, I understand the point in relation to the state borders. I’m not about to criticize state premiers for acting in the interest of their own states and for protecting their own state population. And certainly, Annastacia Palaszczuk, Mark McGowan have done a really good job of doing that. But what we’re really talking about here is how is support provided – particularly in the southeast corner in New South Wales, the ACT and Victoria – as we get to a point where those states open up on the basis of getting to various levels of vaccination. And the point really that I’m making is that, yes, vaccination is obviously the key to getting us to the other side, but it’s not as though at that moment, that 80 per cent of vaccination rates, we return to normality-
HILDEBRAND: Everything becomes-
MARLES: Economic normality for a whole lot of businesses comes beyond that. And there’s something that, Joe, that is really, I think, tone deaf about where the government is at here. I mean, the last round of unemployment figures that we had, were as bad as any that we’ve had since the beginning of the pandemic. If you look at hours worked in New South Wales, there has been a drop of 12 per cent of hours worked since May.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah. It has been absolutely brutal, there is no question.
MARLES: And it is at this moment we’re talking about withdrawing support. I mean, it just doesn’t deal with the reality.
HILDEBRAND: Is there an argument, the ACT Chief Minister, surprisingly, to me, anyway, has said he’s comfortable with the support being withdrawn, he thinks the territory will be fine. Are they an outlier in this? Or is it possible that perhaps you’re being overly pessimistic and that these businesses are more resilient, and this might- I think Paul Keating coined the phrase – might unleash their sort of animal spirits. If you say, alright, there’s no more safety net, you’ve got to go out there, this will actually sort of give the economy a bit of a kick in the arse.
MARLES: Look, we get the point that it can’t be there forever, we obviously understand that. But there’s also a point, which is that for a whole lot of businesses, they don’t get a choice here. You know, their business model, which was very prosperous and profitable before COVID-19 hit, and will be again in the future, just won’t return at a point where the 80 per cent vaccination rate is reached. As I say, there is still going to be density limits, which apply to a whole lot of businesses. And that’s going to prevent them getting back to where they can be in the position of making money. There are a whole lot of businesses associated with tourism, which can be international tourism, not necessarily about the state borders, that just aren’t going to get back to the point that we’re talking about, where – when the 80 per cent mark is reached. And so the point really here is that for the lack of pace, and intent and will that was shown by Scott Morrison in terms of getting the country vaccinated, that has been turned on its head now with the speed with which they are withdrawing this support. And I think it’s going to prove to be too early.
HILDEBRAND: I think, obviously, you’ve certainly and Labor’s certainly been proven right, that the vaccine rollout was too slow, certainly to start with. Is there also an argument that perhaps this is, you know, rather than prolonging federal support, that this is, in fact, an argument for states being more bullish in opening up? I mean, we know that New South Wales is actually hitting and exceeding the expectations for vaccination rates, and therefore has been able to open up earlier and earlier, and there are calls for things like schools, for example, to be able to open up even earlier still, and that this would provide more support, and would allow parents to get out there and go back to work. And this will actually be better for the economy. Is there an argument for opening up earlier and sooner do you think?
MARLES: Well, I think that the argument for opening up and the pace at which that occurs, has to be driven by what’s safe. I mean, yeah, we do need to get on with life, we all get that. And we do need to open up, no one wants to be in lockdown for a day longer than we have to. But we also need to do that in a manner which is safe, and that’s principally got to be driven by the rates of vaccination. So, if the government were putting forward that this support is somehow going to be an incentive for the states, I think that’s getting the question the wrong way about. I mean, we need to do this in a manner which is safe, first and foremost, and then get on with life. And from there, economic support should be tailored to meet the reality of those circumstances. And the reality of those circumstances is that normality doesn’t return on the day that we get to 80 per cent. It’s an important milestone along the path to normality, but for a whole lot of businesses, normality is still a fair way off. And those businesses are going to need support to get to that other side and it’s really important that they do.
HILDEBRAND: Well it is great to see Labor sticking up for small businesses. And Richard Marles, thank you very much for joining us on Afternoons.
MARLES: It’s a pleasure, Joe. Nice to talk to you.