Sky News Interview: AM Agenda: Economic Recovery, Construction Industry, Stranded Australians, Quarantine Facilities



SUBJECTS: Economic recovery, construction industry, stranded Australians, quarantine facilities  

TOM CONNELL, HOST: Joining me live now, my poli-panel; Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman; from the Labor Party, Peter Khalil. Thanks very much for your time. So what do you make of this plan? First of all, Peter Khalil. 

PETER KHALIL MPWell Tom, I don’t know if Josh is watching your program on Sky every week, because I remember a couple of weeks ago I was saying that there has to be some really good ideas for an economic recovery plan to support business, including wage incentives to bring on new employees. But also, I mentioned things like tax relief – particularly for small business – to get through these periods, whether it be on GST or working with the States on payroll tech, but also ideas like a 50% tax offset for example for start-ups to get them going, to provide real incentives for businesses to bring on employees or start new businesses. And we know that the housing market is absolutely a lot of strife because migration has come to come to a halt effectively. 

So things like supporting the industry through funding for public housing, social housing, is really important, and often I hope some of these ideas come through in the budget. Maybe Josh is watching us this morning as well. So I do have question marks about why they would freeze the pension at this particular time, when pensioners aren’t hiding the money in their socks under the bed, they’re spending it. Why would they not extend JobKeeper and JobSeeker, or not cut JobKeeper and JobSeeker? Because that money flows into the economy, it’s not an either/or proposition, we need to ensure that we’re stimulating the economy as much as possible in this recovery phase, or the beginning of this recovery phase. 

HOST: I guess the key question Trent Zimmerman, is will there really be businesses right now willing to hire, when you have other support leaving the economy? How realistic is that? 

TRENT ZIMMERMAN: Well firstly, quite a revelation that Peter Khalil’s’ written the Treasurer’s budget night speech, so congratulations Peter on that contribution. But look, it’s two weeks to budget day and we’re in the usual fervour of a budget speculation, which is probably a little bit unfair to me to try to add too, because you will find that out on budget night. I think what is clear is that the Prime Minister has said that this budget is going to be about increasing aggregate demand, and it’s also very clear that we’re going to be adopting a number of strategies to achieve that – some of which we’re already doing. So the focus on skills, training, and infrastructure, for example, but there’ll be a full suite of measures on budget night that look at increasing demand, and that is all about the one goal of trying to get more people back into work as quickly as possible. 

HOST: When you spoke before as well Peter Khalil, about a construction period, Labor spoke about social housing – you just mentioned there – this would have to only be a partial measure though. We’re talking about possibly more than 300,000 homes over three years not being built. There’s got to be more than just picking up the slack out of some social housing building. What else should happen? 

KHALIL: I think, Tom, there is a huge issue with the housing market because as I mentioned, migration has come to a grinding halt and by the way, that puts paid to this lie that parts of the right say, ‘cut migration cause they’re taking our jobs’ and this and that. Migrants actually contribute to the economy in an enormous way. They create jobs, they spend money in the economy, they buy new houses; they drive that construction and that economic engine, if you like, and that’s been something that’s happening in Australia, been happening for decades. So on your question about what can be done – and I do hope that Josh is stealing our ideas by watching these programs, I wouldn’t put it past him – but I think we certainly have to be investing in infrastructure right across the board, get Local Governments who have ‘shovel-ready’ projects to go. 

I mean this is the same Government who was reluctant to actually bring forward their infrastructure spending. Pre-pandemic there were all these sorts of excuses, now they’re going to bring it forward. It’s almost like they’re coming to these ideas always very slowly, but I will say just on the ideas around the construction industry. Yes, we need public housing infrastructure that will create jobs in the construction industry, it also will address an issue with respect to people who need public housing – I grew up in public housing – we need that level playing field where there’s safe and secure housing for people, particularly those who’ve lost their jobs, who’ve come out of a really terrible economic period, so that they can rebuild their lives. Social housing and public housing is important, doubling the first home owners’ grant, different ideas to actually stimulate the construction sector, and then more infrastructure spending brought forward with Local Government on projects, not just sitting on your hands and on your haunches, waiting for it to happen. 

HOST: What about the plan of the Government? I mean, there’s obviously the HomeBuilders scheme that might make up about 10% of the overall loss if you’re lucky. Trent Zimmerman, there’s got to be something else doesn’t there, how do you redeploy this workforce? 

ZIMMERMAN: Well, that’s why we will be looking at the full suite of measures that we can, to stimulate the economy and particular sections of the economy, like the construction industry. You mentioned one program that we’ve already implemented. I disagree vehemently with Peter’s suggestion that we’ve been slow on infrastructure, in fact additional money has already been flowing to local councils as a case in point to support infrastructure spending. And I remember vividly early in this pandemic, the deputy Prime Minister writing to all local councils – including my own – asking for them to nominate projects that were ‘shovel-ready’. We are bringing forward infrastructure spending, and my guess is more of that in the budget, which will obviously be a big boom for the construction industry. 

HOST: Alright, well we won’t play the guessing game; we’ll see what’s in there and perhaps debate it after then. Just finally, bringing Australians back from overseas. Trent, why has the Government not gone down the path of perhaps some of the regional facilities, perhaps some of the ones that previously been used for detention and so on? It would be a pretty safe way to do this wouldn’t it, in terms of people not being in the community and the risk of an outbreak that we saw in Melbourne? 

ZIMMERMAN: Well, a couple of points. Firstly, I do welcome the fact that National Cabinet has agreed to increase the cap, so the next couple of weeks, but the scale of the task that’s facing Governments and the number of Australians that are caught overseas exceeds, I think, even the caps that are now being put in place. And I really think the Premiers should be working harder at increasing those caps. Remembering that before the Victorian outbreak – which caused some understandable nervousness about hotel quarantines – we were seeing States bringing back their citizens without the type of restrictions currently in place. I would hope that the States can go further because there is somewhere north of 20,000 Australians that do desperately want to come home, and that desperation is rising, as I’m seeing in cases that are contacting me in my own electorate. 

But in relation to regional facilities, firstly, the Commonwealth does not control much of Australia’s land mass, it’s either State or Territory, it’s really facilities like Christmas Island that we directly control. But to give you two cases in point, people have mentioned the facility that was used for the couple hundred people that we brought back from Wuhan that is now being used by the Northern Territory Government for domestic quarantine. Christmas Island is being used to house people often with criminal records that are awaiting transferal out of Australia, but in either case we’re talking about, even if they were available, it’s a solution for a couple of hundred, not the tens of thousands that we do need to bring home. 

HOST: Peter, what about the question? Now a few people sticking up their hand and saying what about Melbourne re-starting its hotel quarantine program, perhaps in a couple of weeks? We’ve got 11 people today, the total number of cases. Do this very carefully and do it well, but should that be on the table soon? 

KHALIL: The news is good Tom that the numbers are going down, and I think all States need to be doing everything they can to increase their capacity, to take in Australians coming back from overseas. But I’m sorry; I’ve got to call out Trent on this ‘state, state, state, state’ kind of answer. The Commonwealth Government, his Government, last I checked the Constitution, is responsible for international borders and people coming in and going out, right? So it’s your responsibility, it’s no good to just outsource this to the States entirely, and it’s not beyond the Federal Government’s wit to set up a program where they can actually have facilities in place to take and quarantine people. It’s called doing a contract with some of the hotels at the airports, the international airports in all the major cities. It’s about setting up those facilities. If they can set up Christmas Island at the click of a finger for two refugees for political reasons, they can set up some hotels and quarantine arrangements. They’ve got the ADF, they’ve got personnel to do it, and they’ve offered that support to the States in fact, so I think it’s a pretty poor excuse. 

HOST: Alright, Trent, Peter, thank you. We’ll talk again soon.