Sky News Interview: AM Agenda: Coronavirus, JobKeeper and JobSeeker, Beirut Explosion



SUBJECTS: Coronavirus, Jobkeeper and Jobseeker, Beirut Explosion  

TOM CONNELL, HOST: Those numbers first of all, Peter Khalil, as I said, I mean we’re going to have unfortunately I think, quite a few number of days with deaths probably still increasing, even from 19. The good news is that number of 322, not an established pattern, but maybe these restrictions finally having an impact.  

PETER KHALIL: I think they are Tom, because the numbers you’ll start to see, the number of new cases come down over the last couple of days from a very high point of around over 700, a couple of times last week, so that is relatively good news that it’s plateauing. You’re not seeing a doubling of new cases and the spread really getting out of control. But unfortunately the deaths are high, and that I think is also partly because of the fact that the virus has ripped through the aged care sector, and obviously there’s a higher number of vulnerable patients there who have caught coronavirus and your mortality rates are higher, the higher the age group. So we’re going through a pretty difficult period here in Victoria. As you can imagine it’s pretty grim, but I think we all have to do this to get these numbers down to a level of control if you like, so we can actually get on top of it. 

HOSTWe know unfortunately Victoria really is the epicentre in Australia right now for COVID-19. Trent Zimmerman, interesting to note a few of your colleagues at a high level, including the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, no longer holding back on Victoria and criticising the government saying, well they need to be held to account. Is that a view you share? 

TRENT ZIMMERMAN: Well firstly, I want to say that it is obviously encouraging news today, and it’s interesting because we’re probably still seeing the lag of the Stage Three lockdowns, with the full impact of the benefits of the Stage Four lockdowns yet to arrive. So it is an encouraging trend and let’s hope it continues. I think that the focus has to be on saving lives and saving livelihoods, and that’s what I know the Prime Minister is very focused on and that guides everything in his relationship with the States, including the Victorian State Government. I can only imagine what it’s like to be living in Victoria under Stage Four lockdown at the moment, so I get the frustration that Victorians will be feeling, and I know there’ll be a time for the community to seek answers from the State Government about any errors that have occurred. But I really think our focus has to remain on the cooperative action, which has really been the hallmark of the State and Federal response to this pandemic. 

HOST: Obviously plenty of focus as well on JobKeeper in that rate, the door left open by Mathias Cormann yesterday on the tapering off, the reducing of the rate kicking in, in September and beyond. What should the government be open to here? I mean, Victoria, for example, looks like a dire economic situation for a long time. Is there any case for perhaps businesses in Victoria to be able to get a little bit more of a payment, not have the reduction kick in, and really smash that economy even further in September, October, Trent? 

ZIMMERMAN: Well, I think that Mathias’s comments weren’t really that surprising because they reflected the approach of the Federal Government over the last six months. And that’s obviously not to put in place a monolithic program, which never changes, but to instead have a program that adjusts to the great unknowns in a once-in-a-century pandemic. And so the Government has shown the flexibility, I think quite correctly, that’s been really important in tackling the economic consequences of this. So just last week we obviously made further changes to JobKeeper, which is seeing hundreds of thousands of not just additional Victorians, but Australians potentially eligible for the JobKeeper program. So as we see things like the Victorian outbreak happen, we do need to preserve that flexibility and I’m sure that’s what the Government will continue to do. 

HOST: Is there a case, do you think, Peter, for additional assistance for Victoria, Victorian businesses, and workers as well, or is it fair enough to go across the board if you’re affected badly and more businesses and people would be able to qualify in Victoria, then you get more, but you can’t almost reward a state for doing a lot worse at handling the pandemic? 

KHALIL: Well, I think it’s a national response Tom, and I agree on that. And we welcome the tweak to the eligibility criteria of JobKeeper made by the Government. We’ve always said, Labor federally has always said, JobKeeper should be tailored to the economic conditions, and that remains our view. But you know, a tweak to JobKeeper is really not a jobs plan, and I know that the Government is thinking or talking about having to move away or eventually move away from fiscal assistance to job creation. That’s fine as a strategy, but where is the job plan? Where are the job creation policies? Where are the plans? And, the other point I would want to make is that on JobSeeker, this position that they would reduce JobSeeker would mean something like 326 million spend per fortnight would go begging. And people, I’ve said this before, people receiving JobSeeker, and there are almost over a million Australians now receiving JobSeeker, they’re not hiding their money in a sock, they’re spending it in the economy. And on those figures that some 95.8 Million would not be spending New South Wales, up there where Trent is, and 80 million would not be spending Victoria. And that spending in retail services is actually critical for economic recovery. And so it’s kind of short-sighted to think about it that way. I know they want to reflexively go to that austerity mode, but you’ve got to think about how the fiscal stimulus actually helps recovery and actually creates jobs as well. 

HOST: Just on JobKeeper, Trent Zimmerman, so you’ve got the approach right now with Queensland on its borders. No one from New South Wales allowed in, despite very low case numbers, no one from the ACT allowed in, zero active cases, and yet they’re keeping the borders up for Annastacia Palaszczuk, for some of these tourism businesses, for example, hit very hard by this. Well, she figures they’ll get JobKeeper anyway, and it’s not coming from the Queensland taxpayer, so it doesn’t really affect her. Is there a problem with that incentive structure? 

ZIMMERMAN: Well, I think what’s important is the governments at all levels are acting in accordance to the health advice that they’re receiving, and I do think it would be very helpful for the Queensland Government to be very transparent about the health advice it has received in relation to border closures. I understand that States will, particularly when they’ve got such low cases right… 

HOST: Well what does that mean, they should release it? You’re suspicious about them blocking out New South Wales and the ACT in particular? 

ZIMMERMAN: Well, no, I think it would help public understanding if that health advice is received and give confidence that the decisions are being made for the right reasons. I think that type of transparency is the least we could expect, but it does strike me as curious that those borders zones in the ACT are excluded from traveling to Queensland. And I would say that as we move forward, remembering that it could be some considerable months and months and months before we have anything like a vaccine or a treatment available that it is going to be important that all of these measures really are commensurate with the risk, rather than the decisions that could be an overreaction. 

HOST: Peter, what do you think of that? 

KHALIL: Oh well look, I’m a bit lost for words, really, in some respects Tom, I mean you know the focus that we’ve had down here in Victoria is kind of overwhelming to be honest with you, and it’s been so difficult that it’s hard to think about some of those state border issues for the North. What I’d give just to be able to even go to Queensland for holiday right now when we’re stuck down in Victoria. So my focus, as you can imagine is the difficulty down here of dealing with people who are really struggling in Melbourne and more broadly, in Victoria, people who really need assistance, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do every day with my constituents. And I do want to say something to my fellow Victorians very quickly, if you’d give me the indulgence. I know how difficult this is for everyone. We’re really struggling. Mental health is a real issue, and we are doing our best to try and assist as many people as possible, for my community, and you can call my office to get that assistance. But we’ll get through this because the second effort that we’re making is always harder because we anticipate the difficulty, but we have to get through it because as Trent said, and I agree with Trent, this is about saving lives and Australian Government, both Federal and State, there’s plenty mistakes, but we, relatively speaking when we compare ourselves to other parts of the world, have done a very good job in saving lives. 

HOST: The tough part right now, of course, for so many Victorians in Melbourne, not really knowing when Stage Four necessarily will end and of course having to go through all this again. So yeah, a fair point to make there from you, Peter Khalil. Just finally, assistance for Lebanon and this horrific situation in Beirut. Of course, Trent Zimmerman, some more money from the Federal Government is being announced today. So I think it was another 2 million, bringing the total to 5 million. I mean, I guess it’s not a lot in the scheme of this rebuild. Is this going to the last of the situation? Do you think this is going to be a progressive, continual sort of increasing of assistance? 

ZIMMERMAN: Well I think that firstly, this is a continuation of the Government’s efforts to save lives in this case, in those very tragic circumstances faced by the residents of Beirut. And it’s a disaster close to many Australians because I know for example, in Sydney, there’s a large Lebanese community, Australian Lebanese community that will have lots of relatives that have been caught up and now homeless, some even more direly affected. So I think it is a very appropriate response, and this additional 3 million as a result of the meeting that President Macron convened last night I’m sure will be welcomed by those in Lebanon. But I think what is really important is that this funding and assurance from the Australian community, that this funding is going through established agencies like UNICEF and the Red Cross, not to the Lebanese Government because what this has exposed is obviously the dire state of Lebanese politics and really the strong case for root and branch reform of the Lebanese political system. 

HOST: Alright, very short on time. Your thoughts on that final point there, Peter? 

KHALIL: Yeah, and President Macron has been very strong on that, in making sure that the funding goes to the charitable organisations that can be distributed directly to the people of Lebanon. I have a very large Lebanese Australian community in my electorate, their families and friends have been affected, they have family obviously and friends in Beirut. It is a very traumatic time for them on top of COVID-19, and on top of the fact that there’s been that political instability in Lebanon for a period of time as well, they are really struggling and have got the double whammy, so anything we can do as an Australian Government to support their family and friends in Beirut is very, very welcome, and we’ll continue to do that. 

HOST: Peter, Trent, thank you. Talk soon.