Rebuilding from fires will take time - Transcript, Doorstop

E&OE TRANSCRIPT

DOORSTOP INTERVIEW

NOWRA

TUESDAY, 10 MARCH 2020

SUBJECTS: Charities and bushfire recovery; stimulus.

FIONA PHILLIPS, MEMBER FOR GILMORE:It’s been great today to have Andrew Leigh here, who is the Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities and also the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury. The purpose of the meeting today was to meet with the charities - the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul - and to basically get an update on what's happening with the bushfire crisis and the recovery process. But most importantly, just to make sure that we capture and make sure that our vulnerable people are being looked after through the crisis and recovery. So we've had a good chat today. I was obviously also very concerned about our small businesses, and getting them the support they need, and also our tourism operators that I know we need more funding to help promote local events.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Thanks, Fiona. My name's Andrew Leigh, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Charities. It's been a really good opportunity this morning to speak to some of the key organisations who've been at the forefront of the bushfire response and the reconstruction efforts. We’ve spoken about the challenges of coordination, the importance of ensuring that data is shared with appropriate privacy protections, making sure that we're getting more support in cash rather than unwanted in-kind donations, and how critical it is to ensure that those who are most vulnerable are looked after. People who are homeless, people with disabilities, Indigenous Australians can sometimes be left out of disaster response and the charities we're speaking to today made it absolutely clear that those people are in the forefront of their minds as they're moving towards the reconstruction phase. We think there's important lessons out of the response here for local, state and federal governments. 

We've also now got the federal government looking at a possible stimulus response. I suspect there that they will be looking to learn some of the lessons from the very successful stimulus put in place in 2008-2009 by the Rudd Government. Let's not forget that stimulus saved around 200,000 jobs, tens of thousands of small businesses and ensured that Australia was one of the very few nations that did not go into recession when the Global Financial Crisis hit. That stimulus payment put households first - go early, go hard, go households was the mantra at the time, and one of the lessons that can be learned from that is the importance of not waiting too long - ensuring that money is in people's pockets to support spending before the worst of the crisis comes. We know too that in the case of COVID-19, it'll be important to tailor any stimulus package that's put in place to ensure that it supports appropriate health measures. For example, if you've got workers who don't have sick leave, then making sure that they have the appropriate financial support, to ensure that they can self isolate when they're unwell. That will be not only important in terms of stimulating the economy, but also minimising the risk of the disease spreading further. 

This is an unusual circumstance to be hitting the Australian economy, and it's coming at a time in which the economy has been structurally weak for a number of years. Slow wage growth, productivity going backwards, innovation metrics in decline, growth much slower than it should have been, and unemployment a full percentage point higher than the United States, Britain, New Zealand or Germany means that Australia does not face down this current challenge with the economic strength that we ought to have been able to muster. We’re happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Tell us about what you discussed in there in terms of the charities - what do they need at the moment and what's going on?

PHILLIPS: I think as I said, the focus is on making sure that our vulnerable people are getting access to relief funding. And I think that's one of the challenges that they have, in terms of obviously, it’s - we've heard, this is a massive event that we've had on the South Coast. It covers a huge amount of coastline and further afield, and that's a really big thing to coordinate. So there's definitely some challenges there, but the focus now is definitely on outreach and getting to those vulnerable people. Also that the recovery is going to take years, and it's how we actually plan to support people down the track as they go through that rebuilding process. So it's important that we look at it, I guess, as a whole and just make sure that that support is there moving forward.

JOURNALIST: Are you concerned the money trickling down through the tourism fund is going to be diverted to Queensland for coronavirus?

PHILLIPS: I'm absolutely concerned that the Government is robbing Peter to pay Paul. They've taken, they had an allocation of $76 million for tourism funding and they've redirected $25 million of that. I've got tourism operators on the ground that cannot see the money. I've got literally another tourism operator ringing me this morning. They want access to the funding, and then we find out that there's a pool of funding which amounts to a measly $30,000 per local government area to promote events. That's not going to do anything. I mean, and I think this is the real worry - obviously, the response to coronavirus is so important, but don't take it away from where it's needed. This bushfire recovery is going to go on for years. We've got businesses that are closing down. We've got businesses that don't meet the guidelines - they need help. The government should be providing more help to our small businesses, more help to our local tourism operators, and at the moment we're just not seeing that. 

JOURNALIST: Are you happy with how much money has been spent by charities in the local area and has this been distributed to the right places?

PHILLIPS:  Yeah, I think - I’ve travelled right across from Kangaroo Valley to Batemans Bay and Malua Bay, Rose Bay further south. The thing that I see is that it's been the charities that have been there and actually helping people on the ground. It was actually the charities that actually gave that that first lot of money, and in many cases beat the government to it, which to be quite honest is quite shameful. We've got a government - people were calling me and were saying ‘well, they told us we're not in a bushfire impacted area, you know, to get a measly $1000 payment’. We've seen that the charities, for example Red Cross, give out the $5000 to start with and then of course they doubled the payment. So, that was available early on. I think that's essential. But what we're seeing now is that the recovery will take years, so I understand there's going to be you know, they're looking at expanding guidelines and things like that. I think that that's what we need to do. What we've learned is there's so many different examples, different industry areas that we have to be mindful of that and we do have to have the guidelines so they actually help people.

LEIGH: I think one of the other things that came to me was the importance of people understanding how long the rebuild is going to take and not just in a physical sense, but in an emotional and mental health sense. We're being told about students returning to school and teachers now starting to see the early signs of mental health problems, particularly in communities that have been evacuated multiple times. Working with kids who've been traumatised by multiple evacuations and by the trauma of the bushfires will take significant time, and that means that those resources will need to continue to flow not just for months, but for years.

JOURNALIST: So Fiona, what are the disadvantaged and the homeless telling you on the street? What do they want the money for?

PHILLIPS: Well, I mean people need help-

JOURNALIST: Yeah, but what do they want the money for? What are they telling you? What do they want money for? If you're going up to a homeless person, you say you need money, what do they say?

PHILLIPS: To buy food. It’s to buy food, to put food on the table, to have accommodation and things like that. The basic needs. So what we're finding is for example that, you know, the government has a thousand dollar relief payment for them and that's not enough. It doesn't matter if it's individuals or if it's small businesses. We know particularly the small businesses that are not directly impacted by fire, they have lost in some cases as much as 80 per cent of their income over the summer period. These are the people that it's hard to see, but they've been impacted so much. That's why I've met with the head of the National Bushfire Disaster Recovery Agency last week, to let him know about what our small businesses are facing. I've met with the Minister for Disaster and Emergency Services. We have to make sure that the guidelines are adjusted to make sure that our small businesses and people get the help they need.

JOURNALIST: What’s the magic number then? What’s, what’s, what's Fiona Phillips’ number? What are we looking at? What do you want? If you had an endless bucket of money, what would you put on it?

PHILLIPS: Well, I think they should for example certainly adopt what we've proposed in terms of wage subsidies for employers. That's to keep on staff, because at the moment we've seen employers have to lay off staff. So you know, that would be a good start if they did that. But I think the reality is the government has a $2 billion fund, they’ve spent a fraction of that. I mean, that's not good enough. We need to see that money getting to the small businesses, getting to the people that need it.

JOURNALIST: Scott Morrison said today that small business owners need to support their employees through this tough time. What does the stimulus package need to have to support small businesses win Gilmore?

PHILLIPS: Well, I think as I said before, I'd like to see those wage subsidies to help our employers keep our, definitely keep our casual staff and staff on. That's one of the big things that we're finding, and through this crisis we've seen that time and time again. For example, a contract cleaner doesn't have any work when there's nobody that comes to the area for holidays and to clean for the house. So, there's a whole range of things we need. But I mean, I want to see infrastructure spending in our local area. I mean, we've got the Princess Highway. We've got our small villages with one way in and one way out. I mean, we've seen the impact of that through the bushfire crisis. I mean, we've got a Princess Highway Corridor Strategy - where’s the money? We've got so many small bridges in our local LGA, over hundreds of them that are going to need replacing. We've got community group after community group that have lost their physical home. We're talking about places like woodworking groups and community groups that depend on that for their own mental health as well. So we need to make sure that that funding is coming through. So when we talk about stimulus, that's what it is. It's things like the Eurobodalla Hospital, that needs to be fast tracked. We're calling for a mental health inpatient beds as part of that development. If we're talking about stimulus, we need that money to come here for all of those projects.

LEIGH: Just on the impact of stimulus. One of the things Labor did during the Global Financial Crisis was to put in place the instant asset write off, making it easier for firms to deduct the cost of investment straight away. That's now become an ongoing feature of the tax code, and one of the things we took to the last election was a call for an Australian Investment Guarantee, essentially allowing quicker expensing of investment by firms. What the government has done though now is to say they might put in place some sort of accelerated depreciation measure in the next budget. That has the worst possible effect - it causes firms to put off investment in the hope that the tax situation will be better in May. We don't need that. We need action straight away, and allowing accelerated depreciation has been shown to be a very effective way of increasing business investment.

JOURNALIST: Now we've heard about a Navy person being turned away from Shoalhaven Hospital for coronavirus testing. Does the Shoalhaven Hospital have the capacity to deal with the coronavirus outbreak?

PHILLIPS: Well, certainly. We’ll look, obviously rely on the department's guidelines for that. I think that we do have bipartisan support for our health system in dealing with the coronavirus.

JOURNALIST: Andrew, we’ve recently had a man charged for fraudulently applying for $20,000 from the Red Cross. Speaking to charities, is that a problem? Is there a concern that people are getting the money that shouldn’t?

LEIGH: It’s not a major issue, but it's certainly something that arises from time to time. I think it's appropriate that charities do the appropriate checks to ensure that money is going to those who really need it. That's vital for them, but it's also very important in keeping faith with their donors. Any charity that is disbursing money to people who are putting in fraudulent claims is ultimately going to struggle to raise money from donors. So it's right that they do those checks while at the same time looking to ensure that they're minimising the paperwork burden on people at a time of trauma. 

ENDS

Authorised by  Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | Andrew.Leigh.MP@aph.gov.au | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.