Parliamentary speeches

Budget and COVID-19

October 27, 2020

I'm very pleased to make some remarks on the appropriation bills and in support of the amendment moved by my friend the member for Whitlam. Of course, this is not a normal budget that these bills relate to and these are not normal times. Before I turn to the measures contained in the budget and to alternatives—and perhaps rather more to the alternatives—I want to begin by making some acknowledgements that reflect those circumstances and particularly the circumstances of more recent days of my home state of Victoria and my hometown of Melbourne.

Firstly I want to say thank you to the people of the Scullin electorate—indeed, to all Melburnians and all Victorians. What a couple of days we have had and, of course, what a year we have had. You have been magnificent, and I couldn't be prouder. Of course, there is so much more to do. I think we all acknowledge that this pandemic, this crisis, is far from over. But we have a sound foundation on which to work together and on which to rebuild together.

There are some particular acknowledgements I feel are appropriate right now. Everyone has played their part, every Victorian, every Melburnian, in a successful collective response to what is perhaps the ultimate collective problem, in the nature of this virus. Everyone has made sacrifices. All of this matters. It has all contributed to a couple of days that are really a remarkable success. As many have noted and as many experts have noted, the people of Victoria have come together to do something that is perhaps unmatched in the world. Some have been extraordinary while all have contributed.

There are too many categories of workers to mention—from retail to health care—but all those essential workers who have put themselves at risk to ensure that our communities can continue to function deserve all of our gratitude. I make a particular shout out to the healthcare staff at the Northern Hospital who have done extraordinary work. I can't find the words to fully express my gratitude for the efforts they have made. Also, our teachers have had to adapt to a very different world. As a parent, I know that the work that they have done to keep our kids in school and connected to learning has been something that has been quite remarkable.

I reflect on the work of so many local community organisations—in particular, Whittlesea Community Connections. The challenge of delivering services like emergency relief in an environment of social distancing has been formidable, and I'm amazed that they have been able to overcome that. They have been dealing with different cohorts of people, too. Different groups of people have found themselves in need in the pandemic, particularly international students and people seeking asylum. To make sure that they have been catered for has been a wonderful effort.

I also want to acknowledge my state colleagues, Lily D'Ambrosio, Bronwyn Halfpenny, Colin Brooks and Danielle Green, as consistent and empathetic leaders of a community that responded to their leadership and engagement. The Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, is someone I have known all my adult life, and I'm very proud to call him my friend. But I'm much prouder of everything that he has done for our state and how he has done it—his resolve, his determination and the leadership that he has shown each and every day. I want to put that on the record in this place.

While there's been much discussion about what the pandemic means for politicians, I think it's also appropriate that we should reflect more on what it means for our staff. Their work has never been more important, nor has it been more demanding, and it's often being done in particularly challenging circumstances—working from home with all the distractions that presents without the barrier from work life and home life, when they have often been dealing with people in extraordinary distress. I think particularly of those Australians, my constituents—and I'm sure my friend the member for Lyons has dealt with this too—stranded overseas with no secure pathway home.

I want to say thank you to Lori, to Sally, to Jim, to Nik, to Jonathon, to Alice, to Alex and to Lachlan for the work that they have done. Through this, we have found new ways to talk to our communities and, more importantly, to listen to them. While I can't wait for the chance to be out and about again in the communities I represent, I'm sure these lessons of pandemic communication will enable more people to be more connected with community life, to political life and to the work of this place.

I feel very fortunate as a Melburnian to be standing here today, and for this I thank Jill, my wife, and Daniel and Alice, our children. I have been away for too long, I know. I feel that and I feel a deep sense of gratitude to you for the additional sacrifices you have been making so that I can participate in the work of this place. I thank the Speaker, too, and his counterpart in the other place for the work they have done in strengthening our democracy, at a time when this was needed, and enabling all of our voices to be heard in our national parliament—especially where physical attendance has not been possible. I'm thinking of my friends and neighbours from across the northern suburbs of Melbourne—the members for Calwell, McEwen, Jagajaga and Cooper. I know how much they'd all like to be here, but I have seen through this time how effective they've been in participating remotely, forcefully and thoughtfully speaking for their communities. It's the voices of those we have all been elected to represent—their concerns, their perspectives and their experiences—that matter, not where we get to do our work. I know the people of Melbourne's north have all been well represented by those members.

Turning to these bills, I think it's clear that a couple of weeks ago, in the chamber, the Treasurer presented a budget but the Leader of the Labor Party delivered a vision in his budget reply. There is a big difference here—a fundamental difference—between, on the one hand, a plan from Australia's government to get themselves through to May, to set themselves up for their attempt at re-election, and a plan for the future. Labor is articulating a plan for all of our futures. It is a plan for a more equal Australia, to emerge out of the experiences of the crisis informed by its lessons—in particular the critical role of government and political institutions as a foundation for that vision. It is a vision of a country in which no-one is held back and no-one is left behind, like workers who happen to be over 35 years old or anyone involved in the services sector—a huge chunk of the economy but one that seems to have been forgotten by the government, despite its trillion-dollar debt.

My friend the member for Lyons refers to the arts. The arts sector has been completely forgotten. Something that is vitally important is rebuilding our urban economies. It is something I am passionate about but something that has been absent from the work of the Deputy Prime Minister and the minister for infrastructure, and his minister for cities—no understanding of how our cities can be rebuilt. There is lots of rhetoric but no action.

Again, I turn to the contribution of the Leader of the Labor Party in his budget reply. There are a few points that I need to highlight in speaking in this debate on the budget. His speech, unlike that of the Treasurer, had as its centrepiece genuine economic reform: a genuine productivity boost for the Australian economy and a participation boost for our workforce—always two critical goals, but particularly so in this time. I'm incredibly proud of the work that he has done and that our shadow minister for early childhood education, the member for Kingston, has done to take a big step forward for more equal parenting, to boost participation in the workforce, to support Australian women in particular to have more choices and to take a big step towards recognising that early-years education and child care should be something that is universal. It is a fundamental building block to the sort of society we should aspire to live in, to the sort of social compact that will underpin that vision of a more equal Australia into the future and, in the shorter term, to our economic recovery in which everyone has a stake.

Some of the other aspects of that budget reply—things that could have and should have been included in the Treasurer's statement—are a real plan for manufacturing. The minister for industry talks a good story but it's almost like she hasn't been here for the past seven years, as manufacturing jobs have been chased away. I was in the parliament when a former Treasurer, the former member for North Sydney, goaded our automotive industries to leave the country, leading to horrendous job losses—particularly in places like the northern suburbs of Melbourne.

Mr Falinski interjecting

Giles: You'll have a chance to make a contribution. If you want to talk about the auto industry, I encourage you to do so.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member for Scullin!

Giles: Sorry, Deputy Speaker; I will return to my remarks. Thank you for your guidance. I shouldn't have been provoked.

Of course, there is the skills guarantee. Again, it's a building block to the sort of workforce that can underpin a high-wage, high-skill, future oriented economy. Another thing that would do that is our rewiring the nation initiative—again, a fundamental reshaping of our energy network, recognising the differences in technology and the differences in need that should underpin our recovery, including for manufacturing of course.

The last element I want to touch on in the budget reply is the opposition's commitment to social housing. There's no better way, as just about every economist has said, to kickstart a jobs boom in the short term and to deliver a much-needed social dividend in the medium term. On the other hand, we have the Prime Minister, who simply says, when so many Australians are out of work and so many more are likely to be out of work, if you are good at your job, you'll get a job.

An opposition member: A disgrace!

Yes, it's a disgrace and it's extraordinary hubris—and hubris is always followed by nemesis, I remind members opposite.

In terms of my electorate, the electorate of Scullin, the budget papers revealed very little other than in the negative, such as the impact of cuts to JobKeeper; particularly the impact which we've already seen on the universities, which are such important employers—La Trobe and RMIT; and the impact we've seen of the cuts to JobSeeker. There's a tiny amount of money for the E6, but that really is it. That's it. There's nothing for the northern suburbs of Melbourne. And I remember the excitement in the communities that greeted the talk by the minister for cities of the North and West Melbourne City Deal. Enormous work has gone into realising what the deal could be, but the federal government is not engaging with this conversation at all. It's just not engaging at all. The groups that have come together with the Northern Horizons' vision for infrastructure, the people who've been thinking about the manufacturing opportunities in food are not getting the support they need and deserve from the federal government. They're not paying attention. There is no evidence of any plan for local jobs.

When I think about the budget and Scullin, I think about some of the things that took place over the pandemic that have stayed with me as a local member—in particular, the tragedies that I saw at the Epping Gardens Aged Care Facility. This is an exemplar of how we should not treat vulnerable older Australians. What they are entitled to is so much more dignity and so much more support. We've got a way to go in terms of the royal commission, but its findings so far should have delivered more to those people and their families.

In my portfolio areas, in particular of cities and urban infrastructure, we see a budget which underdelivers, building on a long record of overpromising and underdelivering when it comes to infrastructure from this government.

In multicultural affairs, this budget does not sufficiently address the needs of migrant and CALD communities, continuing a trend through the pandemic. There are some budget measures which relate to multicultural affairs that are worthy in the social cohesion space, and I acknowledge that. I also acknowledge the reforms that have been announced to the AMEP program, but what we are seeing here is a government that's much better at talking at multicultural communities than listening to them. We see that in the announcements over the increase in the partner visa intake for the next year in particular and in the introduction of what was initially described as an English language test, a discriminatory test, with various justifications, which demonstrate that this is policymaking on the run.

That really sums up this budget and this government in a nutshell: policymaking on the run. The Treasurer, like the Prime Minister, is so much more interested in the politics of the moment than building a vision for the future. Everything is about the announcement, not about the delivery. On that, we have a great opportunity here. At the moment, trust in politics is going up for the first time in decades, but that's at risk because of a litany of scandals and the failure of the government to introduce a national integrity commission. If they can change one thing about their direction, they should commit to that now.