In the early stages of COVID-19 in Australia, Federal Parliament was pretty much closed down. Executive government has ruled, modified to some extent by the existence of a National Cabinet (albeit one without Opposition representation).
The Senate responded by establishing a Select Committee on COVID-19 to inquire into the Australian Government’s response. Its members are Katy Gallagher (chair, ALP, ACT), James Patterson (Lib, Vic), Perin Davey (Nat, NSW), Kristina Keneally (ALP, NSW), Jacquie Lambie (Jacquie Lambie Network – fantastic name for a party – Tas), Rachel Siewert (Greens, WA), Murray Watt (ALP, Qld).
It has received 118 public submissions and held 14 public hearings. Submissions closed on 28 May 2020, and the committee is due to present its final report on or before 30 June 2020.
Here’s a brief selection of the submissions and evidence. Other articles are based on submissions from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research and from a group led by the Human Rights Law Centre.
Apologies that we can’t adequately reflect the enormous efforts people have gone to.
The Wesley Place, Geelong: extend the safety net
“Since the Covid-19 pandemic:
- The number of households requiring food support each week has increased by 188%
- The number of individual adults relying on our food support has increased by 165%
- The number of individual children relying on our food support has increased by 100%
- As well as parcels of non-perishable food and groceries, the Welcome Place has been distributing over $2000 a week in supermarket vouchers, and our capacity to continue this is entirely dependent on continued donations from the wider Geelong community
- The frequency of referrals made by the Welcome Place to other community support services for bill relief and rent relief, along with requests for support to negotiate with landlords, has grown considerably.
“Surely if, as our Prime Minister and our politicians tell us, ‘we are all in this together’, then we cannot draw a line between those who will receive safety-net payments and those who will be left out. Surely, we cannot abandon people in this devastating time of fear and stress.
“These people are our friends, our neighbours, and contributing members of our local community. To discriminate at a time like this is unthinkable. In this extraordinary time, we need to know that everyone is equal, and a safety-net needs to be in place for all who need it. We need to know that we are all indeed ‘in this together’.”
Bruce Parr, volunteer: support refugees
“Congratulations to the National Cabinet (& Federal Government) for its Job Seeker initiatives. However, several groups that are unable to access this program include:
- The more than 35,000 persons on Bridging Visas, awaiting decisions on their application for protection visas;
- Persons in Australia temporarily on student and working visas who have recently lost their jobs;
- More than 1400 asylum seekers and refugees are currently held in detention in Australia, and also the Australian prison population.
“I volunteer with the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre (ASRC) in Footscray and I am aware that many of these people have been in casual work in hospitality, cleaning and transport / courier services. These people require basic income support and their family housing, health and welfare are at risk. I understand that NGOs such as ASRC are finding it impossible to support all the calls on their services. Without Government support, the financial problems of those on Bridging and Temporary visas will worsen. There is then an incentive for those denied income support to save on rental costs and share accommodation with others in similar circumstances. Crowded living conditions are not conducive to the National Cabinet’s policies on the COVID-19 virus.
Risk of overcrowding
“I also note that some asylum seekers living in the community have had their Status Resolution Support Services payments removed by Commonwealth authorities. This further increases the risk of these people crowding into small dwellings with friends and relatives, increasing the risk of outbreaks of COVID-19.
“The crowded living conditions of those currently detained in Australia, either asylum seekers or the wider prison population are also a significant risk factor, both for service providers and the detainees and inmates. It is pleasing that consideration has being given to some relief to remand prisoners, but this should be extended to the detainees and those near the end of their prison terms.
“It is pleasing that Tasmania is able to find $3 million to fund temporary visa holders. If Tasmania can do this, why not the National Cabinet?
“As a matter of urgency, could you please include persons on Bridging Visas and those on temporary visas in the Job Seeker program, while also ensuring that asylum seeker detainees and the prison population are provided with more appropriate accommodation options to reduce the risk to them and their service providers.”
UNSW: Privacy concerns
“We recognise that the COVIDSafe app scheme pursues a legitimate objective (the protection of public health and individuals’ rights to health) and that the government has taken steps to provide significant privacy protections. However, we consider that its impact on the right to privacy of individuals is potentially greater than is required to achieve the purposes of the scheme. There are less intrusive alternatives which would provide more extensive protections, are practicable and will not impede the achievement of the overall goals of the scheme… We urge the government to ensure that the [Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020] is amended”
Amnesty International: recommendations
“1. The Australian Government must ensure that human rights must be at the centre of all prevention, preparedness, containment, and treatment efforts in order to best protect public health and support the groups and people who are most at risk.
“2. The Australian Government must base all decisions related to COVID-19 on scientific evidence and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, and be, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, subject to independent review, and proportionate to achieve the objective.”
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance: huge impact
“A recent survey of more than 1000 MEAA members the majority of whom worked in the arts and entertainment sector, conducted from late-April to the middle of May, found:
- 3 per cent currently had no work because of COVID-19 restrictions
- 9 per cent had no significant income
- 25 per cent still had paid work but had hours and work opportunities reduced
- 28 per cent who had sought JobKeeper had been successful
- 38 per cent of respondents had JobKeeper applications denied
- 33 per cent had JobKeeper applications pending
- Due to the JobKeeper restrictive eligibility rules, a significant proportion of respondents had instead secured Job Seeker payments.”
Arts on the Move: Hear us
“We implore the Senate Inquiry into the Government’s Response to COVID-19 pandemic to devote one full day to arts and culture hearings. Give us this voice and we will use it wisely through an industry wide co-ordinated response.”
That didn’t happen.
Human Rights Law Centre: recommendations
- “The Government should reduce the population in detention facilities in Australia (including alternative places of detention), to the lowest possible number, by transferring people into safe housing where they can comply with public health advice.
- “The Government should transfer people held in offshore detention in Nauru and Papua New Guinea to Australia before there is a widespread outbreak in places poorly equipped to respond.”
Justice for Refugees SA: extend support to refugees
“We are asking that the Government:
- Extend JobSeeker to people on bridging visas currently ineligible for income support.
- Extend JobKeeper to temporary visa holders so that businesses employing them can continue to operate with a secure workforce.
- Removing penalties for Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) holders accessing Special Benefit and relaxing SHEV pathway criteria for the duration of the Australian Government’s Pandemic Declaration.
- Prevent people from losing legal status and provide adequate access to immigration status processing and support during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
- Urgently move refugees and people seeking asylum out of immigration detention facilities.
- Ensure Medicare access or adequate alternative health services for all in Australia, including people seeking asylum, refugees and those on temporary visas.”
Dr Peter Sainsbury: where is parliament?
“I was extremely concerned, indeed outraged, when it was announced that parliament would not sit for almost five months. I understand that it is now planned for parliament to resume for two weeks in June, which I am pleased to hear, but does not change my basic concern.
“Frankly, I can see no reason whatsoever why parliament should have been suspended at all. On the contrary, democracy would have been much better served if parliament had continued to sit on the dates planned throughout the COVID pandemic, possibly even more dates than had been planned. I fully appreciate that COVID presented challenges that needed to be tackled and that this would take, and has taken, a considerable amount of time and effort by the executive and administrative arms of government.
“However, notwithstanding the time and effort required to tackle the challenges, it is also essential that essential democratic processes are not curtailed – not at any time but especially not when decisions are being made about a whole range of issues that are ’novel’ and limit people’s freedoms. One of these essential democratic processes is that the actions of the executive and administrative arms of government be as transparent as possible and subject to scrutiny by parliament, the media and the general public.”
Civil Liberties Australia: need parliament to resume
“Australians were surprised to discover that, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, parliaments at both the federal and state/territory levels were suspending sittings and in other ways reducing their normal functions. Businesses and service organisations around the country were quickly able to activate business continuity plans and maintain essential services. Yet, despite two decades of passing a raft of national security laws to deal with the threat of terrorism and other catastrophes, parliaments had seemingly given little thought to the continuity of their own work. They were apparently taken by surprise and had little by way of back-up plans.
“More than ever, Australia needs fully functioning parliaments in times of national emergency. Federal and state/territory governments were immediately able to constitute an emergency ‘National Cabinet’ to ramp up consultation and policy coordination. Similarly, parliaments needed to ramp up their role in scrutinising legislation, examining the evidence base for government actions and questioning public officials about policy implementation. But, at just this time, parliaments were ramping down their functions.”
Australian Medical Association: broadly supportive
“The AMA is broadly very supportive of the measures, policies, and programs implemented by the Federal Government and the National Cabinet to manage the impact of the global pandemic in this country.
“Through the leadership of the National Cabinet, Australia’s low rate of infection and mortality (to date) indicates that Australia should be considered a world-leader in combating COVID-19. The success of the National Cabinet in managing the COVID-19 crisis provides a very strong case for it to become a permanent feature of Australian politics. The Government, Opposition, and minor parties have played an important role in depoliticising the response to COVID-19.
“The early and decisions to declare a biosecurity emergency, and the closure of international borders (in particular, flights from China) reduced the rates of infection that we might otherwise have experienced.
“The AMA strongly supported the COVID Safe App and the Government’s communications campaign encouraging the population to download it.
“The calibre of medical leadership is one of the main reasons Australia has been a world leader in managing COVID-19. In particular, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, along with Professor Paul Kelly, Professor Michael Kidd and Dr Nick Coatsworth, have provided the authoritative medical expertise needed to guide Australia. They have been ably supported by State and Territory Medical Officers and Departments.
“The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) has operated efficiently, provided expert advice and made key decisions quickly to guide Australia through the crisis.
“Any areas of concern for the AMA will likely be apparent post-pandemic, when the situation confronting the health sector, in particular the physical and mental health of the population, and the financial impact, will be better understood.”
Professor Cat Hope: music industry desperate
“The [music] industry has been united and clear in outlining the specific impacts as well as the industry interdependencies across tourism, accommodation and hospitality, each relying on musicians performing at their events and venues for their success. Musicians have lost concert, touring and recording opportunities. Composers have had premieres cancelled. DJs can no longer work in clubs. Cafes, pubs and other gathering places where musicians are often featured have been closed for weeks. Festivals have been cancelled – seeing not only musicians out of work, but the workers supporting these events with technical, managerial and marketing activity without work. Choirs around the country have been the subject of great concern for spread of the virus, a concern shared by singers of all styles. Conductors, of our choirs, professional and training orchestras, have lost all their work. This list goes on and on. It is almost impossible to comprehend the damage done to the Australian music industry, its exports, workers and audiences by the COVID 19 pandemic and the lack of support for this industry from the Federal government. This is the industry music students aspire to.
“The Government response has not reflected understanding of impacts on the music industry and has not met industry needs. For example, the Australian Government’s decision to suspend content quotas for Australian drama, documentaries and children’s programming on free-to-air and subscription TV cuts composers’ royalty incomes at a time when their selfgenerated income is already gone. Worksafe recommendations do not take into consideration many conditions of music performance: especially choirs, wind and brass instruments, where the standard 1.5 m social distancing guide is not sufficient for them, leading to an expectation that it is not safe to start music making for singers or mixed groups any time in the near future.
States and territories have responded
“The states, territories and capital cities have responded to the priorities of the creative industries, recognising the great value of musicians and composers work for audiences. This has included grants programs; rent relief; donations to disaster support programs such as the Artists’ Benevolent Fund and direct stimulus payments to artists and organisations seeing around $85m in new money announced across the country.
“However, the music industry remains particularly vulnerable. Music businesses are in crisis, with business continuity at risk. The JobKeeper eligibility for casual workers set at 12 months employment is disadvantaging thousands of musicians and related workers whose professional practice is based on a diverse range of short-term roles, compounded when they lose university work as the result of lower student numbers. Neither JobKeeper nor JobSeeker payments are available to Australian musicians stranded whilst touring or working overseas. Given high level musicians tour considerably, and undertake long running shows overseas, they are disproportionally represented in this group. This has left them with no other source of income support during this crisis, jeopardising their livelihoods. These are the livelihoods our students aspire to, and our these are the livelihoods and the careers on which the entire music industry depends for its own viability.”
Grandmothers for refugees: duty of care
“Our concerns relate to failures by Government during the pandemic to address the health and income security risks to refugees and people seeking asylum – a highly vulnerable segment of people for whom Government (and its agents) has a duty of care.”
National Council of Churches in Australia: kindness needed
“We believe that everyone in Australia should have access to Medicare, income support if they can’t find work and a valid visa to ensure they maintain a legal status and access to basic rights. The health and wellbeing of everyone must be the priority with no exceptions.
“We know, from our community work and that of other services working with refugees and asylum seekers, how these folk have been supported by Church and other local welfare agencies for quite some time. Numbers seeking assistance grew as international students and others on temporary visas lost their mostly low paid, part-time or casual work and used up any savings on food, rent and utility bills. At the same time, the support we were offering was less possible during the pandemic. The consequence was that people in Australia on temporary visas were even more vulnerable and many faced destitution. Extending support to temporary visa holders would be an expression, internationally, of “unusual kindness“ (Acts 28:2).
“We believe that there needs to be a stronger form of direct income support for all in Australia. During the pandemic we advocated for extending Centrelink emergency relief and JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments to those on temporary visas for a three-four month period until employment options are realistically available for example. In these cases, the money would definitely be spent by the direct beneficiaries and thus have its macroeconomic multiplier effect.”
Environmental Action Group: sustainability
“We urge a move away from growth or GNP as a measure of prosperity, replacing it with measures which respect the limits of environmental sustainability and direct us towards a fair sharing of resources across the community.”