The Australian Greens support the recommendations and the interim findings of the majority report but make the following additional comments and findings.
Time to get over neoliberalism
Many of the shortcomings in the Australian Government’s (government) response to COVID-19 can be traced back to neoliberalism, which has been the dominant ideology in Australian politics for the last forty years. The purported aim has been to free up the potential for markets to generate growth and distribute the benefits. In reality, it has been a cover story for the rise of crony capitalism and the hollowing of the state in favour of corporate interests. Neoliberalism is a great, big con that has been used to justify privatisation and deregulation, the winding back of the social security, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people.
COVID-19 has exposed the void created by neoliberalism and the damage that it has done to the capacity of our nation to govern in the collective interest. The government was slow to respond to the health crisis and slow to respond to the economic crisis. This inertia was because a 180 degree turn was required by the government if it was to listen to the scientists rather than the vested interests, and if it was to put the wellbeing of the Australian people ahead of a budget surplus. Neoliberalism is the doctrine by which this government has lived, and scientists and the public interest are the very things that neoliberalism has systematically and relentlessly attacked for the last forty years.
Neoliberalism explains why the government wasn't adequately prepared for a global pandemic despite repeated warning of the growing potential for one to occur. Neoliberalism explains why casual workers were excluded from a wage's subsidy, why companies receiving government support were allowed to pay dividends, why aged care where there are so many big for-profit providers continues to be poorly regulated, and why the childcare sector remains undervalued and underfunded. And while the government had a moment of clarity in abandoning its fear of borrowing money, it has very quickly snapped back, exalting a 'business led recovery' designed to enrich its corporate mates, and reducing and withdrawing income support while nearly a million people remained unemployed. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures for October 2020 highlighted that unemployment sits at 7.0 per cent and underemployment sits at 10.4 per cent.
COVID-19 presents an opportunity to break from this destructive and selfish ideology and start on the path towards a fairer and more sustainable future. The Australian Greens have developed a Recovery Plan to do just this.
If we can remake our society to protect us from a virus, we can remake it to look after people and our environment. We need to tackle the economic, inequality and climate crises so we can set everyone up to live a good life. A plan to do this isn't just possible, it is necessary.
If we can remake our society to protect us from a virus, we can remake it to look after people and our environment. We need to tackle the economic, inequality and climate crises so we can set everyone up to live a good life. A plan to do this isn't just possible, it is necessary.
The government has rushed to claim that the recession is over to justify the withdrawal of economic support measures. The winding back of support measures is premature and will set back our economic recovery.
Reuniting all families living in Australia
The majority report has raises significant concerns regarding the plights of Australian citizens and permanent residents stranded overseas as a result of the travel bans Australia has put in place in response to the pandemic. The Australian Greens support interim finding 2.5 that 'There remain a number of options that the Australian Government could utilise—including expanding commonwealth-funded quarantine facilities, chartering flights or using the Royal Australian Air Force fleet—to assist stranded Australians in getting home'. The Australian Greens call on the government to fulfil its responsibility and provide additional funding to bring Australians home.
That the Commonwealth, states and territories urgently agree on provision and funding of additional quarantine facilities that are required to enable all stranded Australians to return home within a month of them alerting DFAT of their desire to return.
In addition, however, the plights of temporary residents stranded and isolated by those same travel bans must be addressed.
According to data released by the Australian Border Force, as at October 31 they had received 155 402 travel exemption applications from temporary visa holders wanting to enter Australia, with only 25 394 approved. Anecdotally through media and community support groups we know that there are many more temporary visa holders who have been stranded abroad due to Australia's travel bans that haven't made applications for travel exemption for fear of rejection and how this might affect their ongoing visa status and migration plans.
Many of these temporary visa holders have been stranded overseas, separated from the homes, jobs, and families.
The government and the Department of Home Affairs (including the Australian Border Force) have suggested that if a temporary visa holder has been stranded abroad and separated from their family, their family should leave Australia to join them overseas – to 'go home'. Because according to the government, these people don't actually live here: they are merely visitors.
But many of these temporary visa holders have lived here for many years, working their way through various student and skilled visas on a pathway to permanent residency. Once a temporary resident is eligible for permanent residency, an application for a permanent resident visa can take well over a year to process.
This means that many of the temporary visa holders the government has chosen to consider as foreigners have in fact lived in Australia for over a decade; built homes, careers, families, and communities here. These are people who have built lives here, strengthened our economy, paid their taxes, contributed to our rich cultural diversity, and made huge commitments to Australia. They are, for all intents and purposes, Australian.
The Australian Government's policies and practices regarding travel bans on temporary visa holders are unfairly creating distress and uncertainty.
Criteria for travel ban exemptions to be considered on grounds such as 'compassionate and compelling' or 'critical skills' have been absent, unavailable, or unclear.
Applications that clearly meet the critical skills criteria, and those which a reasonable person would consider compassionate and compelling, have been rejected by the Commissioner for the Australia Border Force.
An ad hoc application of travel ban policies and practices has severed people from their incomes, possessions, homes, communities, and families in their greatest times of need, which has led to deep and widespread physical, mental, and economic stress for temporary visa holders.
Immigration detention centres
Immigration detention centres are spaces created for control, not hygiene, and implementing social distancing in these environments is difficult or impossible.
All evidence and experience shows detention facilities run the risk of becoming disease incubators that will spill over into broader communities through staff and contracted moving between the two. That is why many other countries around the world released low-risk people from prisons and detention centres in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases and Australasian College for Infection Prevention and Control, along with 1100 doctors, psychiatrists and other healthcare professionals, supported this measure and publicly called for the release of detainees into suitable housing in the community if they did not pose a significant security or health risk.
The Australian Government should have released all low-risk detainees from immigration detention into community detention, as per best medical advice and practice. Keeping low-risk detainees in immigration detention presented unnecessary and avoidable health risks to detainees, staff, contractors, and broader communities.
One of the fundamental flaws with the JobKeeper program was the payment of the wage subsidy through employers. This saw employers underpaying workers by not passing on the full payment, and picking and choosing which workers were offered the payment. It also meant workers whose employer opted out of the scheme missed out on the payment altogether.
The government's explanation for this approach was that it was required to enable the wage subsidy system to be established as quickly as possible, and that it would have taken too long to establish a system that paid employees directly. The Australian Greens do not accept this. All employers were required to use the Australian Taxation Office’s (ATO) Single Touch Payroll as of July 2019. This system means that the ATO is in possession of information in real time on every employee's salary, and is able to match this to their employer and employee records. It wouldn't appear to be too much of a stretch for the ATO to have used information from the Single Touch Payroll to subsidise employees directly.
JobKeeper would have been better administered as a wage subsidy paid directly to employees.
Another major flaw with JobKeeper is that no limitation was placed upon the business activities of corporations who accessed the scheme. In particular, corporations who receive JobKeeper were able to continue to pay dividends to shareholders.
This is simply unacceptable. One of the fundamentals of the market system—that this government supposedly adheres to—is that shareholders carry the greatest risk. When times are good, they reap the reward. When times are not so good, they wear the losses. The design of JobKeeper has subverted this and created a system where the public is effectively subsidising shareholders while millions are left unemployed or in insecure work.
JobKeeper eligibility should have been tied to a suspension of the payment of dividends to shareholders and bonuses to executives.
In March and April 2020, the government made important, albeit temporary, changes to the social security system to support the growing number of Australians who were suddenly unemployed as a result of the pandemic. The Coronavirus Supplement, originally provided at the rate of $550 a fortnight for six months, lifted millions of Australians on income support payments out of poverty. It was the first time in decades that the effective rate of Jobseeker was above the poverty line.
The government also made other important changes to our social security system including bringing on additional Services Australia staff, suspending the liquid assets waiting test period and the assets test, increasing the partner income test and suspending mutual obligations.
The Australian Greens are deeply concerned that the government's reduction of the Coronavirus Supplement to $250 a fortnight in September 2020 and $150 a fortnight in January 2021 will have devastating consequences for people on income support payments. These cuts have been made in an ad-hoc fashion and in the absence of any hard evidence or data. People on income support payments deserve better. The winding back of the Coronavirus Supplement is premature and the government has willingly chosen to condemn millions of unemployed Australians to live below the poverty line.
The Coronavirus Supplement should have been originally put in place for 12 months given the magnitude of the unemployment and underemployment crisis as a result of the pandemic.
The government's decision not to extend the Coronavirus Supplement to Disability Support Payment and Carer Payment recipients was mean-spirited and lacked evidence. People on the Disability Support Pension and Carer Payment have experienced greater costs as a result of lockdowns and were one of the first groups to lose work.
The Coronavirus Supplement should have been provided to people on the Disability Support Pension and Carer Payment.
The pandemic quickly exposed the perversity of linking income-support payments to conditionality and compliance. The Australian Greens were deeply disappointed to see the re-introduction of mutual obligations in August 2020. This was premature and has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Australians having their income support payments suspended. A punitive approach to income support will not support Australia's economic recovery or help Australians back into jobs.
Mutual obligation requirements should have been suspended for the life of the pandemic and this period used to reform jobactive to put in place an individualised approach to employment services.
Older workers have particularly suffered as a result of the pandemic and recession. Many older Australians who have lost work may never re-enter the workforce. The government's move to re-introduce the Liquid Asset Waiting Period test is premature and will particularly hurt older Australians who are forced to wear down their savings. Some people who have withdrawn super now have to serve the waiting period and have to use their super for the daily costs of living, this is unacceptable.
The Liquid Assets Waiting Period test should have been suspended for the life of the pandemic to ensure people on income support payments weren't forced to use up their savings before accessing support.
That the Australian Government immediately announces a permanent and ongoing increase to Jobseeker Payment and Youth Allowance
That the Australian Government carefully monitors the recovery for older workers who are at risk of never working again.
The government has now secured multiple deals for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines in Australia. The Australian Greens acknowledge there is a significant amount of work that needs to be undertaken in rolling out COVID-19 vaccines. We may be close to finding a vaccine that is safe and effective, yet Australians have no clarity on what goal the government is trying to achieve when a vaccine becomes available.
The Australian Greens strongly believe that a primary goal for vaccine implementation should be the protection of the health system, including through the prioritisation of older people, healthcare workers, essential workers, First Nations peoples, and people with co-morbidities. There needs to be a genuine consultation process with members of the public about vaccination rollout, as well as urgent education and information campaigns.
That the Australian Government immediately clarifies its goal relating to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines in Australia.
Rapid and decisive action undertaken by the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Sector undoubtedly prevented widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 in First Nations communities. COVID-19 represents a serious public health risk for First Nations peoples. As at 13 October 2020, there were 146 COVID-19 cases reported in First Nations peoples. However, the number of cases among First Nations peoples is six times lower than if the population was affected at the same rate as the rest of Australia. The Australian Greens acknowledge the significant efforts of the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Sector in keeping COVID-19 out of First Nations communities.
The government did not adequately consult and engage culturally and linguistically diverse communities when devising health messaging around COVID-19. This was a missed opportunity and a major gap in the public health response. The government should have engaged culturally and linguistically diverse communities in the planning, prevention and recovery efforts around COVID-19.
The temporary extension of telehealth services to allow access to additional maternal health and midwifery services and early medical abortions was a welcome response. The extension allowed women, particularly those in rural and regional areas or otherwise impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, improved access to reproductive health care.
However, many maternity consumers reported their local maternity services reduced access to community-based care, physiological birth support, water birth, and continuity of midwifery care services during COVID-19, citing public health restrictions. While interest in home births increased significantly during COVID-19, without action taken to make home births more affordable through inclusion in the MBS many families remain unable to pursue that option.
The extension of telehealth services to early medical abortion and midwifery services improved reproductive healthcare for women across Australia. More needs to be done to ensure that ongoing public health restrictions do not unduly impact on the availability of midwifery care.
Telehealth services continue to include early medical abortion and reproductive health counselling
The recommendations of the MBS Review of Participating Midwives should be urgently acted upon
Aged care response
The government, and many aged care providers, did not respond quickly enough to the risks COVID-19 poses in aged care settings. The Australian Greens are deeply concerned that the aged care sector continues to be poorly prepared and inadequately equipped to deal with future outbreaks of
COVID-19 in aged care settings. We still don't have adequate plans in place to deal with future outbreaks. The pandemic has exposed significant problems with private companies making profits from the provision of essential services such as aged care.
COVID-19 has exposed the cracks in the casualisation of the aged care workforce, the inadequate level of personal and clinical care, and insufficient staffing levels. The government has not adequately addressed the risk of all aged care workers working across multiple facilities. Further the government's decision to not provide the retention bonus to all aged care workers was unfair and did not make sense from an infection prevention perspective.
The Australian Government should have supported all aged care workers in residential aged care facilities to move to working in a single site to prevent outbreaks.
The use of online training, as opposed to face-to-face training, especially on infection prevention and control procedures probably exacerbated COVID-19 outbreaks in aged care facilities.
It is clear that aged care workers, who are on the frontline of this pandemic, deserve better pay, better conditions and better training.
That the Australian Government urgently boosts funding to increase hours of care and quality of clinical care provided to residents in residential aged care facilities.
As outlined in the majority report, Australia faces significant economic headwinds, with slowing growth, stagnant wages and unemployed expected to remain high. As interim finding 6.3 notes, the government's response presents opportunities to create jobs and make strategic investments, including in renewable energy. In addition, the government's response to the COVID-19 crisis presents clear opportunities for investment in public transport and active transport infrastructure. These projects not only create construction jobs and improve our productivity, but they can also kick start Australia's green steel industry and help re-establish Australia's manufacturing sector.
Construction of cycling and walking infrastructure has the additional benefit of having short lead times for many strategic 'shovel-ready' projects that form part of local government transport strategies. They are generally built with local labour and materials and do not require complex machinery to proceed.
In addition, investment in public transport and active transport infrastructure has significant environmental benefits through reduced transport emissions, and health benefits by making it easier for people to walk, ride, or catch public transport rather than driving.
Unfortunately, much of the government's response has focussed on roads funding, often for large scale projects, which will not deliver these benefits.
The Australian Government's infrastructure investment stimulus has focussed on provision of infrastructure for private vehicle transport, rather than public transport and active transport investment. Smaller projects supporting active transport, as well as greater investment in public transport, could have provided a greater economic benefit more quickly, with greater long term benefits for the community in terms of health, wellbeing and environmental impacts.
Domestic and family violence
From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic and family violence services warned that the combination of economic insecurity, lockdowns, and the attendant separation from family and other supports would exacerbate existing risks of violence in the home. The women's safety sector warned that demand would exceed the capacity of existing accommodation, technology and security, counselling, legal and health advice services, putting women and children at significant risk of harm.
Unfortunately, those warnings were well-founded. Services have reported an increase in demand, and in the complexity of abuse throughout the pandemic. The Australian Institute of Criminology found that 1 in 10 women in a relationship has experienced violence during the pandemic, many for the first time or with increased severity.
Women on temporary visas and from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds were particularly vulnerable, given their exclusion from
COVID-19 specific support and restrictions on access to crisis accommodation and services.
Social distancing meant that these already stretched services were also required to implement new, innovative ways to provide support. The Family Court also introduced a COVID-19 list in recognition of the heightened need for timely interventions during the pandemic.
The government's initial investment of $150 million was welcome, but took far too long to be distributed to the states, and fell well short of what was needed. The women's safety sector have called for a quantum of $1 billion per year, for 12 years, to ensure that everyone who seeks help as they flee domestic and family violence can be assisted. Despite the $150 million being just a fraction of what the sector says is required, there was no additional commitment in the Budget to augment the initial investment.
That the Australian Government immediately increase funding to frontline domestic and family violence support services to fully meet demand, and to increase investment in primary prevention strategies.
Arts and entertainment
The arts and entertainment industry was effectively shut down overnight when social distancing restrictions were implemented in March and has been one of the hardest hit by COVID-19 restrictions. ABS statistics released in June showed that 23.9 per cent of arts and recreation payroll jobs had been lost in comparison to just 5 per cent over the same period in the construction sector. Despite the $112 billion contribution that the sector makes to the economy, the government was slow to announce a support package for arts and entertainment businesses and workers, and even slower getting the money out the door.
Government support offered to the sector under to JobMaker banner is insufficient and has only just started to reach those who need it. The Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 (committee) heard in June that it would take several months for the $75 million Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand Fund (RISE Fund) to be set up and in a position to be able to provide funding to organisations. In October Estimates hearings it was revealed that no money from the RISE Fund had been spent yet. Funding for RISE is capped at $75 million which is expected to fall short of the need for support in the arts and entertainment sector. To provide adequate support to the arts and entertainment industry, funding for the RISE program should be uncapped and demand driven.
Many arts and entertainment workers are on short term contracts, in casual roles or work gig to gig. The nature of employment in this sector meant that many workers were not eligible for JobKeeper payments and as a result either lost their job or were stood down without pay. While many arts workers and organisations were unable to claim JobKeeper, the committee heard that for organisations that were able to claim it, Jobkeeper was important to keeping organisations afloat and the sector has called for it to be extended as the arts and entertainment sector will still be heavily affected by COVID-19 well beyond the current end date for JobKeeper in March.
The arts and entertainment sector continues to be severely impacted by COVID-19 shut downs and social distancing requirements. It will take the sector a long time to recover and rebuild from the losses of 2020. The sector will continue to be heavily impacted until a vaccine is able to be rolled out across Australia and social distancing requirements are able to be relaxed. The committee has heard from the sector that they are looking for ongoing government support that will allow organisations to be able to take the risk of planning events such as theatre and festivals and have government support if they are required to cancel performances or events due to COVID-19 outbreaks or shutdowns. Such support could be provided by the government through the introduction of an industry interruption fund to provide arts and entertainment organisations with the certainty to plan live events without major financial risk during these uncertain times.
COVID‑19 has had a significant impact on the Australian media industry. Media organisations have played an important role in keeping the public informed of important public health information.
During this time the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has been especially important in providing information to the Australian public. The committee heard that the 7.30 program has experienced a 20 per cent growth in audience since last year. News Breakfast is up 34 per cent from last year. The ABC 24 channel reached 2.8 million people a week, which is up 33 per cent from last year. Despite the significant increase in users across all of their platforms, the ABC has not received any additional financial support from the government.
Although the public broadcasters were given an increase in funding to support their work during the COVID-19 pandemic, the committee heard that Foxtel was given an extra $10 million as part of the COVID-19 recovery package to fund the broadcast of underrepresented sport. It was later revealed in October Estimates the ABC also pays Foxtel to broadcast some women's sporting events on the public broadcaster, meaning taxpayers pay Foxtel twice.
The government did provide some support to public interest journalism through the Public Interest News Gathering Fund. This fund has provided support to commercial television, newspaper, and radio businesses in regional Australia and notably was used to provide $5 million in funding to secure the financial viability of the AAP newswire service.
The National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board
The National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board (NCCAB) is a publicly funded, hand-picked body that has been responsible for coordinating advice to the government on non-health aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's no wonder the NCCAB has recommended a gas-led recovery given it and its advisory bodies (including the Industrial Relations Working Group; Manufacturing Taskforce; and Charity, Philanthropy and Fundraising Advisory Group) has been stacked with representatives from the gas sector.
The Australian Greens continue to hold serious concerns about the NCCAB's governance and structures. The NCCAB lacks transparency and accountability. Since the NCCAB became part of cabinet deliberative processes in July, it has been able to avoid proper scrutiny by this committee and other bodies. There are continuing concerns that the details of its work may be difficult to obtain under freedom of information laws now that it is working within government. We continue to hold strong concerns about the adequacy of the NCCAB's process for managing real or perceived conflicts of interest, and concerns about its lack of integrity and transparency safeguards compared to other commissions.
The National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board is a hand-picked body focussed on the interests of the fossil fuel industry, and it is not focussed on industries and jobs of the future. It lacks transparency and accountability and poorly serves the Australian community.