I call on the Prime Minister to suspend mutual obligation requirements under CDP during coronavirus crisis

March 17, 2020

TRANSCRIPT - DOORSTOP - DARWIN TUESDAY 17 FEBRUARY 2020

 SUBJECT/S: NDIS; Coronavirus; preparation of remote Aboriginal communities; CDP suspension of mutual obligations

MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: Firstly can I just acknowledge that we’re on Larrakia country and to welcome Bill Shorten who’s here with us to listen to people’s concerns around the NDIS and also around the coronavirus in particular with the return of parliament next week. So I’ll hand over to Bill but I do want to welcome him here. 

BILL SHORTEN: Thanks Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, Northern Territory's Labor Senator. Also Luke Gosling and Warren Snowdon apologised for not being in today. We've had a forum to listen to disability organisations, to listen to carers, to listen to people with disabilities, to talk about how they would like to see disability services in the Northern Territory improved from Canberra. But obviously, one of the big issues on people's minds today is what will the coronavirus mean for people with disability and the care they currently receive. There are a lot of Territorians with disabilities and their carers who are scared. They are scared that this virus and the necessary response could leave them isolated. Many people with disabilities have lower immunities, and if their carers aren’t able to get to them because they are in isolation, and they're wondering what will happen to them. So we call upon the federal government in its deliberations to consciously step up. And put people with disability and their carers in the national planning. People with disability and their carers need special attention. This is the group, along with older Australians and people who've got pre-existing illnesses who are most at risk from the coronavirus and the spread.

And I also say to my fellow Australians, I know that some of the social distancing and some of the increasing isolation will cause hardship. But the sooner that we can step up and protect and slow down the rate of infection, then hundreds of thousands of Australians with disability from little children to people in our aged care facilities will be safer. I’m happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: When you talk about stepping up, are we doing enough at the moment?

SHORTEN: I think Australians just want to hear the truth. I think Australians know how to wash their hands and we're happy to be taught again but what we actually want to know is what's the rate of infection, where are the infections occurring? We see in other countries around the world, decisions being made to isolate, to lock down. I just think what we need to hear is straight talk. I'm not making any criticism of the government in particular, but I think that what we want when it comes to people with disabilities, for example, my own portfolio or older carers, they just want to hear it straight. What are we gonna do? What's the best practice around the world? What are they doing in countries where the rate of infection is slowing? And what do we need to do to copy that and make sure that we can protect the vulnerable in Australian society?

JOURNALIST: I understand you’ve decided to keep you kids home. Can you talk us through what was behind that decision, it’s obviously a difficult one for people who may have to leave their kids with grandparents for example.

SHORTEN: Well, first of all, we're in the fortunate position where my wife works part time. So we were lucky to be able to make a choice. I get that for millions of Australian families with both parents working, the choice about having your kids at home may mean the choice about losing income. So it's not an easy choice. The medical authorities are saying at this stage they don’t want to have a blanket closure of schools. But if and when that occurs – and you'd have to say that that seems more likely than less likely based on what we're seeing around the world – what I think the government needs to do is take the financial pressure off families. At some point families are going to have to make the choice – their kids won't be at school. So what then? So rather than simply saying we're going to try and keep the schools open to avoid the question, I think we need to provide compensation for people who lose their income.

Labor's been banging on now for a couple of weeks. We’ve got 3.3 million Australians who are in irregular or casual employment. This isn't a question of giving them a tax incentive to buy a new coffeemaker to get a tax benefit in two years’ time. If you're a casual worker and you can't go to work because your kids need minding at home because the schools shut. Or if you're a casual worker working in the showgrounds industry or working in the travel industry, you have no money. So I think the government does need to look at compensating people. And of course, the other side of that is that one group who I feel has been largely invisible in the government's discussion about the reaction and response to coronavirus are sole traders and small businesses. Small businesses and sole traders in many sectors, from travel to entertainment, to the arts to you name it, their income has just collapsed and if it hasn't collapsed now, it will collapse in a matter of days or weeks.

These people don't need a tax incentive to buy investment equipment two years down the track. They're going to need interest-free loans. They're going to need compensation now. Now, Labor, Jim Chalmers, Anthony Albanese, they've been saying this. I would say to the government, when you've got no money and you have to make a choice about can you mind your kids or do you have to go to work or you should be in isolation or do you work. We should take that pressure off Australians. Never before in the last 100 years have we dealt with this issue. So business as usual and slow incremental decisions, that isn't enough. Australians just want the truth. I'd just say to the Prime Minister, tell the people the truth, the good, the bad and the unvarnished. And I reckon people are pretty sensible. But let's, we've also got to create money flowing to the people and to businesses.

JOURNALIST: If it's inevitable that school is going to close at some point, shouldn’t we just close them right now?

SHORTEN:  Well, a lot of parents with kids with disabilities are saying to me, Bill, why are the schools still open? Now, I've seen the counterargument. They say that, you know, maybe school's a safer place. But if you're a teacher with a disabled child who's worried about picking up an infection and then taking it home for their child, that's pretty unfair. Listen, I'm not the Chief Medical Officer. There's other people in the system who have more information. I suspect increasingly parents are going to take the choices Chloe and I have as parents where they can, and where they can't, we need to make sure that when a school closes as some definitely will. Whether or not it's all of them remains to be seen, what is going to happen to the income of the parents who've got to give up work to mind their kids? That's the crucial issue. Can I also say, echo, something that Chris Bowen said on Saturday and just repeat it: we need to help our health care workforce. To me, our health sector workers are the equivalent of firefighters in the bushfire season. Our health care workers are the new firies in the corona season. And we want to make sure that our health care workers can keep going to work. The nurses, the doctors, the cleaners, the caterers, they need to make sure that they get help with their childcare, because, frankly, a health care worker is probably amongst the most important Australian today and perhaps more important than they've even ever been in the last 100 years.

JOURNALIST: The Northern Territory doesn't have any Auslan interpreter so all our emergency announcements have been going on without an interpreter. Is that acceptable?

SHORTEN: Yeah, Malarndirri McCarthy has raised this with me, as did the disability groups today. Some people can't hear, they need Auslan. I think the Federal Government needs to find some interpreters who can come here and be available. The other thing is we should have a lot more captioning services, but some people need that Auslan, that sign language, if you're deaf. The Territory deserves to have an Auslan interpreter on hand. I'm not going to get into a debate into why the Federal Government hasn't funded Auslan properly, but now is the time for them to find some money so that citizens in the Territory are not second class Australians.

JOURNALIST: I just have a few questions for Malarndirri. Do you have concerns for Indigenous people with diabetes who generally need to travel to Katherine or Alice for dialysis?

MCCARTHY:  Absolutely, Aneeta, we have significant concerns for our remote regions of the Northern Territory, as we do for all people in the Northern Territory. But we recognise the vulnerability for First Nations people in particular. And it's not just people suffering with diabetes, we're also concerned about our renal patients. We're concerned about people who are suffering from cancer and all other forms of need that is required for First Nations people in our bush communities. So, yes, to answer your question, very concerned.

JOURNALIST: What do you think should be done in community clinics to get them prepared? We've heard this morning that perhaps testing’s only going to take place in Darwin. What do you think about that? What should be done out there in remote communities?

MCCARTHY: All right, I'll take two questions from that one. Firstly, in terms of the testing, I understand that the testing is here in Royal Darwin Hospital. There's also a setting up of testing in Howard Springs. I'd also be calling on the Territory Government if the federal government to look at testing in Alice Springs. We certainly need that in Central Australia. I have voiced that very clearly to both the Northern Territory and certainly to my federal colleagues, Chris Bowen, who’s very aware of that so we’re certainly pushing for testing in Central Australia. In terms of your other question, which was?

JOURNALIST: I guess people are asking about the equipment and the practical capacity of remote clinics, whether that swab test gets sent away for testing, or do people in remote communities have to come to Darwin?

MCCARTHY: I think there’s a couple of things we’ve had to firstly do, and that is to get messaging out in language. It's been really important to explain what coronavirus is, to try to do that in numerous languages: Warlpiri, Pitjantjatjara, obviously Yolngu Matha, are just some of the languages. We’ve done numerous languages here in the Northern Territory to try and get the message out about it. There is enormous concern, obviously, and fear, and we’ve got to allay those fears by making sure the messaging is out there. Now in terms of equipment and in terms of resourcing in the communities, we are also watching that very closely in discussion with the Aboriginal community controlled health organisations, with Congress in Alice Springs, with Tennant Creek with Anyinginyi, and certainly in Katherine with Katherine West and Sunrise and hear in Darwin with Danila Dilba. There is a national focus with Pat Turner as the head of that, looking at it and providing input to the national cabinet in terms of both the Northern Territory and other jurisdictions. We are seriously concerned and we're making sure that those concerns are being heard so we can have the resources reach our communities as well as our main centres.

JOURNALIST: Is it too risky to send people to town centres from community though?

MCCARTHY: I think we have to accept in Australia that there is a risk with everything now. I think that’s something that we all seem to be waking up, it’s a changed world that we’re living in, but we have to also be reasonable. We have to also be mindful of the fact that we have to keep calm and we have to allay the fears of people. I had a phone call this morning just from one of the people from one of the communities. She was concerned about coming into Darwin, who was supposed to come into Darwin just for a look at her legs for prosthetics. She doesn't want to come in because she's fearful of having to come in and she feels safer in the community. So naturally, people have to adjust and think about what it is they need to do. It is difficult times, it is.

JOURNALIST: Do you think there is enough information at the moment in community?

MCCARTHY: Look, it can always be more information and there’s changing times every day, but there certainly needs to be constant information going out to our communities. But can I also say to media, I have to say this, that when I read the different headlines across the country this morning about 150,000 people to die from this virus, I mean I was horrified to see that, because what it does is create greater fear and panic to people who are already afraid in this country. And we have to be responsible even in our reporting on this issue. And when I hear that from communities really frightened to come in, I know that that kind of reporting and that kind of wording across the country is not helping a situation which is already fraught with much fear.

JOURNALIST: Didn’t Bill just say – I mean doesn’t that go at odds with what Bill said about people just wanting the truth. I mean that 150,000 figure just came from what the deputy chief health officer said.

MCCARTHY: But does it have to be the front page of the newspaper?

JOURNALIST: I mean you worked in the media Malarndirri, you know how it works.

MCCARTHY: Does it have to be the front page of the newspaper? I mean, seriously, that does it have to be the front page of a newspaper? We are dealing with people who are terrified of coming here, even into Darwin, into Katharine, into Alice Springs. I mean, let's remember and I'm talking about the First Nations people in this country who the Prime Minister has even said are the most vulnerable in relation to this disease. And I will say that we have to be very careful in that kind of wording.

JOURNALIST: Do you think this fear that you’ve spoken about – we’ve heard before this began, the fear of going to hospital in the first place for various diseases so it’s very hard to get people to come to Darwin for treatment, do you think this has really bedded that down even more?

MCCARTHY: Well naturally, you know, it's a changing world that we're living in and the risk is there and the fear is very evident. But I think it's important to also point out that here in the Northern Territory, we've had experience with emergency evacuations, we saw the people of Borroloola evacuated last year with the cyclones. We are very equipped, we are very capable in the Northern Territory for crises, we deal with it on an annual basis. We saw it with the fact that the Northern Territory was the base for all of those hundreds of people from China and other jurisdictions who had to come here first from the Diamond Princess, in order to pass their quarantining. They came here, they was sent here because the people of the Northern Territory are experts in dealing with these particular kinds of crisis, and I think we have to recognise that whilst coronavirus is new, gathering people in an emergency situation is not for the people of the Northern Territory.

JOURNALIST: Just in regards to the CDP, people are still being made to go to group activities, what are your thoughts on that?

MCCARTHY: Well, look, in terms of CDP, can I call on the Prime Minister and can I call on the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in this country that you must allow people on CDP, right across, there’s 33,000 people, to not have to hold on to the mutual obligations. We have had providers refuse to go and provide activities, refuse to go and do any kind of programs in our communities, and rightfully so because they're concerned about their own staff. But what happens is that if those programs are not provided, then all of those 33,000 participants will be breached. There will be no funding, no money coming in. And it is not the ideal circumstance in a situation where there is already risk when people are wanting food and wanting to feel safe. So I call on the Prime Minister and the Indigenous Affairs Minister to make sure those mutual obligations do not have to be met during this time of crisis with the coronavirus.

JOURNALIST: Do you agree with Pat Turner that there’s a shortage of equipment in remote communities?

MCCARTHY: Well I think it’s a fact isn’t it that, in term of equipment coming into Australia, in terms of equipment going out to respective jurisdictions, we know there is an issue there. But I'm incredibly confident that we have people in the health care system and right up the ladder to our medical offices across Australia trying to do their best to make sure it does get out.

JOURNALIST: Is there a risk if you remove mutual obligation and people getting the $750 stimulus payments, that those two things combined will see more people moved into place like Darwin, Katherine and Alice Springs perhaps in search of alcohol and other things and then potentially take the virus back with them?

MCCARTHY: Well as I said, it's a changed society. There is greater risk everywhere and everything that occurs, there is all kinds of risk that can come with it. I think perhaps where I'm coming from is the risk to people going hungry, is the risk to people being so afraid that they will do things that they would not normally do in these circumstances. So we have to look after them. What I would say to the people of the Northern Territory and indeed Australia is that we have to stick together. We have to make sure that we do not leave anyone behind.

JOURNALIST: Bill, is there a bit of a mixed message coming here because you seem to be saying Australians need to be told the truth, the whole truth, give us the whole lot. Malarndirri seems to be saying, you know, don't give it to us.

MCCARTHY: No that’s not what I said and you know that. It was front page. I said it was about the front page. And I said that that did not need to be on the front page.

SHORTEN: What Malarndirri is saying very clearly is let's not sensationalise. The Australian people are smarter than I think they're being treated sometimes. I do think we've got to tell them the truth. But I also think that you've got to tell them there's a plan. This is a health emergency, you know, the old, this talk of stimulus, it might have cut it a month ago. It doesn't cut it anymore. People are losing their livelihoods, their businesses, which are facing the prospect of collapse. There's millions of Australians facing the prospect of not having income. Let's have a health plan. Let's make the hard decisions early. Then let's have a plan to compensate people. Then we can talk about recovery in months to come. But the other thing is you want to look at what's been successful, have a look at Singapore. They tell you when by app, they tell you when someone is sick and where they are sick or been infected. So it’s about giving people facts, you’ve got to trust the people with the facts and they’ll do the rest. But I do agree with Malarndirri that –

JOURNALIST: But you’re suggesting not to give people the facts.

MCCARTHY: No I’m not, I said it could be --

SHORTEN: Anyway we’ve answered. You mightn’t like our answer.

MCCARTHY: You’re being cheeky

JOURNALIST: No I’m not.

MCCARTHY: You are being cheeky

JOURNALIST: I’m not being cheeky. I’m asking the question. You’re saying [inaudible]

MCCARTHY: No, you know what I said. I said not on the front page.

JOURNALIST: There’s a language gap. We’ve got 30% Indigenous population, more than 60% speak a language other than English.That creates an additional barrier for understanding the facts [inaudible] would you say?

MCCARTHY: As I said at the beginning, we know that we've got certainly over 100 Aboriginal languages here so it was important to get messaging out in languages. We’ve been able to do that, I think there’s at least nine languages at count, but let me check that for you. Just to try and get it out to some of the larger language groups to get it out in terms of explaining what the coronavirus is, in terms of explaining what it means to go to your health clinic, where to go to call someone if you need some assistance in in understanding that. So these were the things we needed to get out immediately in language to communities across the Territory. 

JOURNALIST: This is for Andrew Probyn, he’s just interested in what ways, practical things could be done to help business shedding workers.

SHORTEN: Well, I think it's gonna be tough. I'm concerned about the cash flow of businesses. So I think it's not enough just to say they'll be able to claim a tax deduction. If you are a hospitality business in a tourism precinct, it's not that you need a tax deduction to buy your next coffee maker, you need some customers, need some cash flow. So, you know, our economic team will have more to say, but we're going to have to, you know, look at interest free loans to businesses and don't chase them for the repayment for ages. Companies are out of cash or they're facing the prospect being out of cash. And then, of course, not only do we really need to support business, but we need to support those workers who are displaced. You know, I oversight what the government's doing in Centrelink. Man, Centrelink is not up to it at the moment. That's not a reflection on the people. But these Centrelink staff in the last few years under this government have had their job numbers slashed, they've been contracted out, they've had to do the bushfires. They've got to do the clean up on robodebt. Now they have to process payments. I mean, one good idea the government could do is look at getting some of the people who used to work at Centrelink who are retired and draft the grey army of volunteers and to get them in to help process the payments. But at the end of the day, the government is going to have to spend some taxpayer money helping Australia through an unprecedented crisis in scale and dimension. People have to know they're financially, you know, there's something coming in each week and that's when, the government’s going to need big thinking because we are in new territory. We'll get through it. We got the best health staff in the world. You know, we're a good and generous people. But, you know, from the disabled to the aged, they're not going to thank us for taking small, tiny decisions which subsequently jeopardise their health and families. 

JOURNALIST: You still think we're a generous people, despite all that selfish hoarding that's been going on around the country?

SHORTEN: I'm not going to, listen, to those people who are collecting toilet paper, you know, for the ages, that’s just dumb. But having said that, I do the shopping in the family, I'm not going to stop bagging the vast bulk of Australians for buying frozen veggies, buying the mince, getting the paper towels, getting the cans of baked beans, because, frankly, most of them are making sensible decisions. Most of them are not buying vast hordes of it. I think what people want to know is how long is this going to go for. They want to know where people are getting infected. We just need some more information. We don't need spin, just straight talk. Thanks, everybody. 

JOURNALIST: Just lastly, do you agree with Malarndirri that mutual obligations should be suspended for CDP and for all welfare Newstart recipients?

SHORTEN: Oh yeah. It would be ironic when we're telling you know, we're encouraging kids and uni students not to go to uni or school, when we're telling people not to travel except for essential purposes. When we're telling people that they can work from home, but to the people on welfare, we're telling them you got to be here, you've got to be there. You know, I know the government's addicted to kicking the poor. But in this case, maybe we’re just going to say to them too, for the duration of the crisis, we're all in this together and we’re not going to ask of the poor and the vulnerable and the needy, higher standards than we're setting for other people. Thanks, everybody.