SUBJECTS: The end of COVID Disaster Payments; Borders.

PETER STEFANOVIC, HOST: Joining us for his response now, is the Deputy Labor Leader, Richard Marles. Richard, good to see you this morning. So, as you just heard, the Treasurer is ending COVID disaster payments, they’ll be phased out over a few weeks, and then that will shut off. What’s your reaction to that?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, I think this government has been very quick to act on withdrawing support. I mean, they were making it really clear, it wasn’t a race to get the country vaccinated, but it does seem to be a race to withdraw support. We get that you can’t have support forever, but the support that’s out there needs to relate to what are the economic conditions at hand. And when these various vaccine targets are reached, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to see normality return for a whole lot of businesses and for a whole lot of workers. And so, for them they’re going to end up being left in the lurch. And we shouldn’t forget that we’ve just gone through one of the worst sets of unemployment figures that we’ve seen; 1.2 million Australians are not working at the moment- that’s the highest figure since the pandemic started. We saw a drop of 3.7 per cent in a month in the number of hours being worked in the country. So, we’ve got a real problem on our hands in terms of those who are able to work. And I think this announcement today is going to be a source of enormous concern to those people.

STEFANOVIC: So what are you proposing?  How long should these payments last for?

MARLES: Well, it’s the job of the federal government to make sure that support is at hand until we return back to something which looks like normality. And for a whole lot of businesses, that’s not going to be when these vaccine targets are met. And so, you’ve got workers out there who through no fault of their own, who had been working up until COVID hit but because of the circumstances of the pandemic, because of the circumstances of lock downs, or maybe density restrictions which are still going to be in place, once we get those vaccine targets, they don’t have a job. And as a result, you know, what is going to happen with what’s being proposed by the government is that those people are going to be left behind. And I think that is going to be an enormous source of anxiety for them at a point where, you know, they’re wondering how they’re going to get through to the other side. As I say, this is a government which is very slow in rolling out the vaccine, they didn’t think that was a race. But when it comes to withdrawing support, they are quick out of the blocks-

STEFANOVIC: Labor thought the economy would fall off a cliff, the last time payments were cut off, it didn’t happen. So why can’t there be a quick economic turnaround this time?

MARLES: Well, I don’t think anyone would suggest that the way in which the government handled the end of JobKeeper at the end of March was a success. I mean, at that moment in time, they understood in fact, that there were going to be lockdowns in major capitals, that was what was in the budget that was being prepared at that time. There was no support that was put in place thereafter. And what we’ve seen since is this piecemeal response, which actually hasn’t been very successful, has left workers unattached to their employers. We’re now seeing masses of hours lost in the economy right now, a situation which is as bad as it’s been at any point through the pandemic. So, I actually think when you look at the withdrawal of JobKeeper in March, the speed with which that occurred, but more importantly, the way in which that occurred without any thought about how the future would be met, is exactly the warning that should be in place for the government now in acting too quickly.

STEFANOVIC: We have seen those long queues of people, in Victoria, I’m sure you’ve seen them, people at FoodBanks needing help, so many businesses didn’t make it through this shutdown as well. But by your measure, how long should people be able to receive Disaster Payments for? Because it could, it might take them many, many months to be able to get their feet back on the ground. Do you believe that they should be paid up until that point?

MARLES: There needs to be a realistic assessment about what’s happening in the economy, about what the pathway is to normality, and support should be tailored to that. That is the fundamental proposition here.

STEFANOVIC: Yep, which could take months, into next year.

MARLES: We’ve already seen circumstances that have taken months but the fact of the matter is that we’ve got situations where people, through no fault of their own are out of a job. Businesses through no fault of their own, who had a completely prosperous and profitable business model before COVID-19 hit, are in circumstances where they can’t operate. And the job of the federal government is to be providing support – I mean, this is how they’ve articulated it, and it’s how it should be. Their job is to provide support until we get back to something which looks like normality. Those vaccine targets, for a whole lot of workers in this country, for a whole lot of businesses in this country will not be that moment.

STEFANOVIC: It may or may not put pressure on some of those Premiers to open up their borders, to get their economies going again or reuniting their economy with the rest of Australia. What is your message to those Premiers? I’m talking about Queensland and WA here, who are reneging on the national plan?

MARLES: Well, firstly, Queensland and WA have been very successful in protecting their own populations. Right now, it’s Queensland and WA, who are hosting the NRL Grand Final and have just hosted the AFL Grand Final- that says something about the – their way of life and their ability to go about work, go about business, operate. And this is reflected in the unemployment numbers as well. It’s nowhere near the figures in Queensland and WA as what we’ve seen in Victoria and New South Wales. So, I don’t think you can be blaming WA and Queensland for their success. And you can expect state premiers to be acting in the interests of their states. That’s what they’ve been elected to do. So, I can completely understand where those state premiers are coming from. But a point I’ve made is, as we are thinking about the way in which we navigate the end of lockdowns in New South Wales and Victoria, as we – as we navigate the path to living with COVID, as we now are in Victoria and New South Wales, that’s a difficult path to walk. There are difficult judgments for those Premiers. And we all want to see our kids get back to school, we want to see businesses open. It’s not immediately obvious to me what that’s got to do with the West Australian border-

STEFANOVIC: And travel overseas.

MARLES: And travel overseas. But again, I don’t see why that’s got anything to do, necessarily with the West Australian border. And I can understand why Mark McGowan is taking the decision he is in respect of that border. And indeed, from a national interest point of view, I think there is a national interest in having parts of the country which are COVID-free, it does allow for example, the ability for us to play our grand finals, in front of crowds which is actually important-

STEFANOVIC: Just not go and see loved ones – just not go and see loved ones though, who have spent 18 months apart or whatever it is.

MARLES: It’s difficult and obviously that’s a difficult situation for loved ones across the country who are divided by those borders. But that’s a function of more – of more than anything else, that’s a function of the pandemic. And we do need to, you know, obviously think about how we get to the other side of this. It would be nice to see some national leadership here. But obviously, Scott Morrison has gone completely missing in respect of this whole conversation from the very beginning of the pandemic. But at the end of the day, you know, those premiers are going to govern in the interests of their – the people in their state, which is what they are elected to do, and I can completely understand.

STEFANOVIC: Richard Marles, thanks for your time.

MARLES: Thanks, Pete.

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