24 March 2020

CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Last night the Parliament passed the Government's stimulus package although we no longer talk about stimulus, we're talking about survival for many people. It's the right thing to do to pass the package even though we didn't agree with every element. I note that the United States Congress is still arguing over their stimulus package, bickering about what to do whereas here in this Parliament we provided bipartisan support to make sure that the money starts flowing as soon as possible. We appreciate that the Government accepted some of our suggestions that the payments will now apply to AusStudy and AbStudy which previously was not going to occur. and there were some changes made to the taper rate as well at Labor's suggestion. That's a good thing and it's vital now that the package be implemented and implemented competently.

In that regard I think all Australians would be deeply saddened to see the lines outside Centrelink offices around the country. These are scenes we haven't seen in Australia in 80 years and of course all Australians need to look out for each other in this period. I say the Government should have seen this coming. You can't announce a big package, you can't know that people will be laid off around the country without putting plans in place to manage the stress on Centrelink. It's not good enough frankly for the Government to say Please don't go to Centrelink offices, please go online. Not everybody can go online. For many of these people its the first time they have had to interact with Centrelink as I understand it you need a CRN number which you have to get in person. The Government really needs to get a handle on this urgently this morning. We've got social distancing rules in place which clearly aren't being applied in Centrelink queues. We've got people lining up desperate. We've got the police being called to send people home. This isnt Australia. This is not how we do it. The Government needs to get a handle on this issue and to ensure that Centrelink is properly resourced as a matter of extreme urgency. The MyGov website crashed yesterday. The Government says go to the website, it crashed yesterday today. Stuart Robert claimed it was a cyber attack. That was a lie. It wasn't a cyber-attack. It crashed under the weight of demand. I understand, the Labor Party has consistently said we understand the complexities, the challenges, the constraints. We have given the Government bi partisan support for basically everything they've wanted to do and we've called for them to do more. In that regard. I welcome very much the announcement yesterday of Minister Hunt that he will extend the telehealth rebate to healthcare professionals across the board and all patients as Labor has consistently called for. But I acknowledge his announcement and his work. It's a good one and I welcome it very much. I'm very glad that that suggestion has been taken up.

The Deputy Chief Medical Officer also said last night that the criteria for testing will be changed again. Again, Labor has been calling for that but again we've recognised the constraints on the Government. We know it's not easy. But we've said it should be the objective of national policy that everybody with symptoms are COVID-19 be tested. People with clear and classic symptoms who aren't being tested and as the WHO has said, test, test, test is the answer to this. So if the criteria are changed so that people who have symptoms are tested, nobody who wants to be tested, not everybody who feels like it would be a good idea. You still have got to have a doctor signed off as being valid that you've got symptoms that are relevant but that needs to be changed and is changed as soon as possible. So we look forward to further announcements or details about both of those announcements and make sure that they meet the objectives that Labor has set. But we very much welcome the moves in those directions and recognise the Government for doing so.

Happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST: Mr Bowen we just had Adam Bandt here talking about the closure of Parliament and that t iis not a good idea to have it closed when the nation needs you most. So what would you propose as a solution if you were to keep Parliament open in terms--?

BOWEN: Well I think the Parliament to be fair has worked well over the last 24 hours. It's been very difficult circumstances. And indeed historic circumstances. But the rules that were put in place that would have no more than 100 people in the Parliament at any one time, minimal staff, minimal exposure to staff, have worked. We need to be very careful. We're asking Australians to socially distance, to look out for each other, not to have unnecessary interactions. Were leaders, we have to set examples too. Yes, the place for Parliamentarians is in Parliament. It's also in our communities. I'll be leaving here and going back to my community. We've got plenty of people who've lost their job and need our help and support. So a politician isn't just working when they're in Canberra. Politicians are working when they're in the community as well. And I understand Adam's point. We want to show that the Parliament will continue to work. The arrangements that have been put in place between Christian Porter and Tony Burke with the change to the standing orders last night is that the Parliament can be recalled when the Government needs it to be in a manner and form agreed between the Opposition and Government. We can do this again if necessary. If the Government needs a third or fourth stimulus passed we can come back urgently if necessary. If there are health measures which need to be passed we can come back but also for the health of everyone, we all need to think about our own behaviours and engage in activities which protect the health of the public and having thousands of people in Parliament House at once is not that, is not that.

So there's a balance to be struck and I think with all due respect Adam, the Government and the Opposition are striking that balance. We're happy to be, happy to be here to pass whatever legislation is necessary. That's our job. We're also not going to unnecessarily endanger the health of you, press gallery, staff, Parliamentary attendants, the cleaners and everybody else by being here if it's not necessary.

JOURNALIST: Chris Bowen you're a student of economic history and I understand that we have to do everything we can to fight this disease. But recessions and particularly depressions kill people too. What lies ahead for Australians in terms of the health effects that we are going to see and obviously economic effects that we'll see as the world deals with this at the same time?

BOWEN: Well Chris we're in uncharted territory but I'll say this; the best economic response to this crisis is a health response. No stimulus is as beneficial as beating this disease. The disease is currently doubling in terms of numbers of Australians impacted, diagnosed every two days, two to three days. That will put enormous pressure on our health system. That's why we've supported every single step taken. That's why we call for more to be done. Because if that trajectory continues we have to be honest with the Australian people; This is a very serious situation. If that continues this will get worse before it gets better. So that's why I don't accept some people say there's a balance the Government got to strike between the economy and the health policy. The best economic policy is the best health policy. I reject that somehow there's a balance to be struck. The best policy for the Australian economy is the one which gets this disease under control as soon as possible. The sooner we do that, not only will we save more lives, but the sooner that happens, the easier it will be to eventually return to a more normal arrangement.

JOURNALIST: Mr Bowen I could just ask; Do you think that a line in the sand should be drawn on the whole Centrelink website fiasco with Stuart Robert? He said this morning on radio that he jumped the gun and that he shouldn't have done that press conference that he did yesterday. Saying that he jumped the gun, is that fair enough?

BOWEN: Well Bill Shorten his Shadow Minister of course will examine what he said this morning. I havent seen what he said this morning. And look I accept that people make mistakes. I accept that. It's a pretty serious mistake to make, to mislead the Australian people either deliberately or unintentionally. It's a serious mistake at a time of great urgency. If he's accepted responsibility for that well then I understand that that's a good thing. But we all have to be very careful. This is a fast moving situation. We all have to be very careful to ensurethere is a responsibility on all of us to ensure that our statements are factual.

JOURNALIST: And also this morning Tony Abbott was on with Alan Jones and he suggested that this should be a lockdown of the Australian economy that it should be put into a coma, they were his words, at least for a short period of time to try because he's saying by doing that we will be able to deal with things a lot more..

BOWEN: They're not words that I would have used but the principle is; if you think something is going to happen in a couple of weeks, do it now. Any steps we take now will probably impact on the number of people being diagnosed in a fortnight not tomorrow not next week in a fortnight. The figures we're seeing today the hundreds of people who've been diagnosed over the last 24 hours, probably got the disease sometime in the last fortnight, not yesterday, not the day before. So we need to take urgent steps. That's why we've supported the steps that have been taken.

JOURNALIST: Does that mean a complete lockdown to the economy?

BOWEN: We haven't been overly prescriptive. We made suggestions and some of which have been taken up, some which haven't. States and the Commonwealth need to work together and I say this: have a consistent message. And the confusion and stress in the community is in no small part due to the inconsistent messages that we seeing. We need national leadership to get that consistent message.


BOWEN: Well clearly people and Governments and business need to remove any non-essential activity. All of it. That's what that's what-- non-essential activity. Now we've also got to look after the mental health of the nation and if you go for a walk , walk your dogs and you know check on your elderly neighbor. That's pretty essential. That's pretty essential for you and for society. So what needs to happen is that we need consistent leadership. If there is-- if there are further steps to be taken. This is my point Johnno, tell the Australian people what theyre likely to be. And tell the Australian people what trigger points will lead to further decisions so that people can factored it into their conversations and their planning. Part of the problem has been-- again we understand it is fast moving. Part of the problem has been people don't know what's coming next. Now Jacinda Ardern said we will close schools when we have community transition. She signalled it early. Gave parents a chance to think about Well this is coming, what steps we're going to be putting in place how we're going to deal with it. Clear and consistent messages. That's not what we're having in Australia. So if the Government thinks that further steps are going to be necessary: one, take them sooner rather than later and two, tell the Australian-- level with the Australian people what are they and what will lead to them. What has to happen for further restrictions to be put in place. What would be the trigger points for that to be considered so that people can then have a bit of a little bit more certainty in their lives. It's an uncertain period. That's inevitable. But give the Australian people as much certainty as they can.

JOURNALIST: What's the magic number? Say three weeks and youre tempted to put your foot off the break and the disease breaks out again like in 1919. By the way, the Spanish Flu came in two waves.

BOWEN: I said that in Parliament yesterday Chris, the second wave killed my great grandmother. A tragic event for Australia. I agree with the Prime Minister on this point; any steps being put in place don't assume that they're here for a couple of weeks. Don't assume that theyre here for a couple of weeks. Now steps need to be taken carefully but if in doubt do more. It is impossible to overreact to this crisis. If in doubt do more and do it quickly. But to my point you know if you think more will be necessary signal it now and give the Australian people an indication as to what it will be, when it's likely to happen and what will lead to that decision.

JOURNALIST: And how long?

BOWEN: Well I understand that we don't know that. I mean the Australian people do need to know that this, we don't know how long this will last. We have our best estimates and our best guesses. So as I said I give the Prime Minister this; he's right when he says don't assume that any measures that are being put in place will be here for a few weeks because this will take time. Thanks guys.