Government in action as COVID-19 spreads

As the curve for COVID-19 infection rises, governments across Australia have declared a range of measures aimed at reducing transmission and slowing down the spread of the virus. Restrictions on travel, social gatherings and mandatory non-essential services’ venue closures have come into place, while Federal Parliamentarians rushed to Canberra for a day of urgent sitting on Monday 23rd of March to legislate the Coalition’s economic stimulus package designed to keep the nation afloat.

A series of bills, releasing close to $84 billion worth of support from Treasury reserves were introduced, debated, raced through both the lower and upper houses to clear amendments, and passed, all in a matter of hours, a process that can often take days, weeks or months in normal circumstances. Australia’s Parliament is now closed for business until 11th of August, and a budget hand-down not expected until 6th of October. All subject to change.

The effort paves the way for both, the first and second stimulus packages valued at $17.6 billion, and $66 billion respectively, to be ready for use, including a tranche of measures allowing the Government to react to volatile settings without needing further legislation, or MP’s physical return to the corridors of power.

A push from Labor and the Greens has ensured Australia’s social services minister Anne Ruston has increased authority to make changes to already allocated stimulus payments if required. Minister Ruston used her new powers a day later to increase support for students and apprentices already receiving Youth Allowance, enabling them to now also access an extra $550 a fortnight.

The PM had already met with State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers on Sunday 22nd of March at the National Cabinet meeting where it was agreed to implement, through state and territory laws, new Stage 1 restrictions on social gatherings. To be reviewed at least monthly, the restrictions will tighten up if necessary. Scott Morrison has repeatedly indicated that Australians should expect the new measures to be in place for a minimum of six months, building on previous announcements around strict physical distancing measures.

A wide range of social and recreational facilities have been barred from opening as of midday local time on Monday 23rd of March:

  • Pubs and clubs (except for take away bottle shops attached to venues) and hotels (except accommodation)
  • Gyms and indoor sporting venues
  • Cinemas, entertainment venues, casinos and night clubs
  • Religious gatherings, places of worship or funerals (in enclosed spaces and other than very small groups and where the 1 person per 4 square metre rule applies).

The existing list was expanded to include more shutdowns and physical distancing riles starting from midnight on Wednesday 25th of March, such as:

  • Shopping centre food courts (take-away option still allowed)
  • Auction houses, real estate auctions & open house inspections
  • Markets (indoor and outdoor, but excluding food markets)
  • Beauty therapy, tanning, waxing, nail salons, massage and tattoo parlours
  • Amusement parks and arcades, play centres, community and recreation centres (indoor and outdoor)
  • Personal training, or any social and sporting-based activities (limited to 10 people and social distancing strictly enforced)
  • Galleries, museums, libraries and community halls, RSLs
  • Weddings (no more than five people)
  • Funerals (no more than 10 people)
  • Hairdressers / barber shops open, but with social distancing in place and time restricted to no more than 30 minutes, preferably less.
  • Shopping centres open, except for retail premises included in the list of restrictions already

Schools remain open but encouraged to provide access to online and distance learning as soon as practicable, however subsequent announcements from Premiers and Chief Ministers have indicated a variety of approaches, including immediate closures of school premises to students in some locations. Advice may also change as of Wednesday 25th of March following a meeting between the PM and education ministers and unions.

Expecting a minimum of 6-month requirement for economic and social support to soften the shock from the coronavirus over the course of 2020, the Government has announced around $189 billion dollars in support so far already, or around 10 per cent of the size of the national economy.

The Opposition backed the necessary legislation to realise the stimulus package but expressed reservations about delays in implementation. In its contributions to debate on the bills, Labor noted that:

(1) the Coronavirus supplement will not begin until 27 April 2020;

(2) expanded access to the Jobseeker Payment and Youth Allowance won’t begin until 27 April 2020;

(3) most people won’t receive the first payment to households until April 2020 or the second payment until July 2020;

(4) pensioners won’t see a boost in their income due to the change in deeming rates until 1 May 2020; and

(5) employers won’t receive a cash flow boost until 28 April 2020.

The Coalition Government has not yet made it clear why these payments are to be delayed for a month, while it is also saying that the need for economic stimulus and social support is urgent and ongoing.

Meanwhile, the states and territories are each taking their own approache to dealing with the pandemic, with most announcing stringent border controls, mandatory 14-day self-isolation for non-essential arrivals, and closure of non-essential services.

Tasmania led the way, with Premier Peter Gutwein announcing mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arrivals to the state as early as March 19. Tasmania Police and Biosecurity Tasmania will ensure compliance with the quarantine measures, helping people to access support and follow up to ensure the process is adhered to.

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall launched a multi-agency COVID-19 Command Centre to coordinate its whole-of-government response to the pandemic on Friday 20 March. On Sunday 22nd of March, the Premier announced a shutdown of the state, with strict border controls and mandatory 14-day self-isolation for all arrivals.

The ACT Government announced a stimulus package of its own on Friday 20th of March. Chief Minister Andrew Barr said stage one economic survival package would pump $137 million into the local economy. Measures include rebates of $150 on residential rates, as well as a freeze on a number of ACT Government fees and charges, including the fire and emergency services levy, public transport, vehicle registration and parking fees. New health spending will include funding for respiratory assessment clinics, an increase in inpatient beds and ICU capacity across the Territory, maintenance of COVID-19 testing capacity and the purchase of additional medical equipment and supplies. There will also be support for SMEs, including a rebate on commercial property rates, a waiver of payroll tax for the hospitality, creative arts and entertainment industries and interest free deferrals of payroll tax commencing 1 July 2020 for all businesses up to a payroll threshold of $10 million. $7 million has been allocated to non-government organisations to meet increased service demand for emergency relief.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian made a short announcement regarding the state’s shutdown of non-essential services on Sunday 22nd of March, noting that supermarkets, petrol stations, pharmacies, convenience stores, freight and logistics, and home delivery would remain in operation. Ms Berejiklian said that schools would remain open but has encouraged parents to keep their children at home. “Because nearly 30 per cent of children are already being kept out of school, for practical reasons NSW is encouraging parents to keep their children at home,” she said. On Tuesday 24th of March however the NSW Parliament, now also adjourned until 15th of September, sat for a day to consider three bills, including the emergency measures bill, which amends close to 20 existing acts, and contains a provision to allow regulations to be made which override a raft of existing criminal justice laws. "Regulation making powers in the COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020 allow many of the most fundamental rules relating to the criminal justice system including laws relating to trials, evidence, bail, sentencing, parole and AVOs to be overridden by regulation," Greens Justice spokesperson David Shoebridge said insisting Parliament should not be suspended for such a long time.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced a 48-hour phased shutdown of non-essential activity. Victoria has brought forward its school holidays, to start on Tuesday 24 March, and will take the advice of the state’s Chief Health Officer as to whether to re-open schools after the break. Mr Andrews also announced that Victoria Police has established a coronavirus enforcement squad of 500 officers to ensure containment measures that have been put in place are followed. The officers will be conducting spot checks on returning travellers who are in 14-day isolation, as well as enforcing the bans on indoor and outdoor gatherings. "Containment measures are meaningless if Victorians don’t take them seriously or don’t think they will be caught if they flout the rules," Mr Andrews said. "Such thinking is wrong and the new coronavirus enforcement squad at Victoria Police will take action against anyone caught doing the wrong thing."

Western Australia has instituted a lockdown of the state, with strict border controls for all access points - by road, rail, air and sea – to come into force from 1:30pm (WST) on Tuesday March 24. Premier Mark McGowan said exemptions will apply to essential services and workers, including health and emergency services, defence and policing, mining industry workforces, flight crews and freight of essential goods, via ports and trucks - with strict guidelines in place to monitor and manage this. Non-exempt arrivals will be required to self-isolate for 14 days. This new direction, made under the Emergency Management Act, will be enforceable by law with penalties of up to $50,000 for individuals.

Queensland has been somewhat slower to move. Although Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk joined Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt to announce a $17 million package to fast-track a vaccine for coronavirus developed in Queensland, her Government had not yet announced an economic stimulus package by midday on Monday 23 March. Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington said that Queensland was the only state yet to announce a stimulus package and called on the Premier to “ stop doing nothing and start protecting Queensland jobs”. Ms Frecklington called on the State Government to exempt small and medium businesses from for payroll tax for at least 6 months, speed up payments to government suppliers, fast-track $500 million of new road projects and freeze electricity, water and car registration fees and charges.

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