Mr PASIN (Barker) (10:41): When we entered this pandemic, we entered it with very clear eyes. The Prime Minister and the leadership team consistently referred to a strategy, and that strategy was about saving lives and preserving livelihoods. As a result, the COVID-19 restrictions we were forced to impose at the beginning of the pandemic were harsh. We weren’t used to those draconian measures. The appropriations bills, Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2020-2021 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2020-2021, are an opportunity to reflect on the year that was, and I want to reflect against that matrix—lives saved and, of course, measures that go to preserving livelihoods.
Mr Deputy Speaker Kevin Andrews, you know that Australians, our community at large, sacrificed a lot. But it was those sacrifices which ensured we saved lives. Compared with comparable jurisdictions around the world, Australia has done exceptionally well. Today we have zero community transmission in the country, and that has a lot to do with the early action taken on our international borders. Our economy today, I would suggest to you, is the envy of the world. According to the OECD, Australia’s economy only contracted 3.8 per cent compared to the 5.5 per cent average across advanced economies. Our economic success was dependent on our success in fighting the health crisis in the first instance. We took action quickly to combat the pandemic. We declared COVID-19 a pandemic well before the World Health Organization; we even received criticism from that organisation for that declaration. We closed our international borders quickly.
On 11 March 2020 the Prime Minister announced that a new body called the national cabinet would be established to ensure a coordinated response across the country. Establishing a national cabinet would have been considered impossible prior to the pandemic, but our government, in conjunction with the states and territories, including a majority of Labor governments, made it happen. Since then, we have supported the states’ hotel quarantine systems, provided increased health funding and, most recently, ensured we have a sovereign vaccine manufacturing program so that we are not dependent on other nations for our health response.
I think we can say the actions taken to save lives were a stunning success but there’s more work to be done. We heard the usual whinges from the member for Solomon, but the vaccine is being rolled out, and I ask people across my electorate to be patient as we do this. It is the largest peace-time undertaking in our nation’s history. Early indications are positive because Australians feel as though they want to do their bit and doing their bit right now is lining up for the vaccine, if you’re in the 1B cohort. As the CSL production facility at Broadmeadows comes on line, and there’s been brilliant and positive news on that front today, we will produce those one million doses a week, which will ensure every Australian has access to the vaccine, should they wish to take it.
I will now move to the government’s response and how we maintained livelihoods during the pandemic. In the early phases of the pandemic, it was perhaps not considered as pressing, but I’m very pleased that equal attention was given to it in the early days because, of course, saving lives was pre-eminent. If we hadn’t gone about saving lives then we would be facing not just an economic crisis right now but a crisis that would visit itself on people’s psychological sequela today much more significantly than it is.
The most significant economic stimulus our government provided was of course a $77 billion JobKeeper payment. It has provided support to businesses and their employees since the beginning of the pandemic. As we heard from the member for Solomon and as we know, it ends at the end of this month. It was always intended to be a temporary measure. It was one that was scalable and provided that soft fall into which businesses could land and it maintained that connection between businesses and their employees. Across my electorate, and I hasten to suggest the other 150 members in this place have the same experience, it’s clear that businesses would have closed without the payment. I’m glad to report many of those businesses once dependent on JobKeeper have not only graduated from that but have thrived in the new economic settings. Had the relationship between employers and employees been severed at that point, I doubt I would be able to say that.
Investment our government provided totals over $267 billion in direct economic and health supports. Of that, $251 billion was in direct economic support and $175 billion has already flowed to Australian households and businesses. Although many of these economic support packages were inconceivable prior to the pandemic, they’ve saved our economy from the negative impacts seen across the world. JobKeeper, JobSeeker, JobMaker programs and many other programs our government introduced all have the same aim: to create jobs by getting more shovels in the grounds.
So speaking of shovels in the ground, particularly those shovels in Barker, I would like to address a few of those programs. I begin with Building Better Regions Fund. It’s one of those programs ensuring that post-pandemic we are getting shovels in the ground. It has seen projects both completed and under construction in my electorate of Barker. Drought-affected regional communities in Barker took a share in millions of dollars under round 4 of that program. Projects approved through round 4 of the Building Better Regions Program are currently under construction, including: the Southern Mallee commercial centre revitalisation project, which received $2.25 million; the Loxton Wellbeing and Community Centre, which received a touch over $1.2 million; Destination Swan Reach received $224,000; the Bordertown Caravan Park received $700,00; Waikerie Age Friendly Community Project received $600,000; and the Murray Bridge Golf Club and Community Clubroom Redevelopment received $339,000.
In previous rounds, this program has provided enormous benefits to the community, not only building social infrastructure but also creating jobs, both in the construction and post-construction phases. Applications for round 5 recently closed. I’m looking forward to those determinations being made and announcements being made shortly. It’s a $200 million fund, and of course colleagues would know that $100 million of that is dedicated—hypothecated, if you like—to tourism related infrastructure, which is the right investment at the right time. Barker has some of South Australia’s, indeed our nation’s, prime tourism offerings: the Barossa Valley, the Coorong, the Riverland and the Limestone Coast, meaning our local regions will benefit from this increased domestic tourism and the diversity of the tourism offer. More local jobs, better community infrastructure, a boost to the local economy: that’s exactly what the Building Better Regions Fund is about.
Another fund which has operated positively in my electorate during the pandemic is the response fashioned for local governments through the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program. It’s led to better infrastructure and better facilities. It’s allowed councils to keep building and keep employing Australians through the pandemic. The first round of the LRCI program provided $500 million and brought forward $1.3 million in financial assistance. That’s nationwide. Across Barker, that meant $30 million for local councils in round 1. This unprecedented economic support allowed councils to not only get on with the job of providing services but get to those projects they were unlikely to fund in the short term or even in the medium or longer term. The success and sheer number of these projects submitted through round 1 of the program led, with the assistance of many colleagues, to the establishment of a second round, and that provided to my electorate an additional $10.5 million. I could spend the remaining time I have listing these projects but let me simply say these projects included playground projects, footpath projects, road resheeting projects, reconstruction projects, lighting projects, sporting infrastructure upgrades, stormwater projects, community hall projects as well as some larger applications where councils took this injection of funding and parlayed it with existing funds to get about doing very significant works.
It’s important to remember that prior to the pandemic many regional communities were suffering from the implications of a prolonged drought and, indeed, in many places around Australia, the effects of bushfire. Our government understands the effects of long-term droughts don’t end when the rain starts, just like the floods being experienced in New South Wales today—their impacts don’t end just because New South Welshmen in affected areas woke up this morning to sunshine. That’s why the government’s Drought Communities Program was so important to regional communities, another program that rolled out during the pandemic, another program that put shovels in the ground. Eleven councils in my electorate were eligible for $1 million, 10 of them were eligible for $2 million. The councils that benefited from this program included the District Council of Loxton Waikerie; the District Council of Karoonda East Murray; the Southern Mallee District Council; the Mid Murray Council; the Berri Barmera Council; the Light Regional Council; the Rural City of Murray Bridge; the Renmark Paringa Council; the Coorong District Council; the Tatiara District Council; and, of course, the Barossa Council. As I travel around my electorate, I’m seeing the rollout of projects across that program, which is raising the spirits of people who live in these communities who’ve dealt with prolonged drought—24 months of drought—effectively doubled down with the pandemic. Not only is it raising their spirits; we’re seeing local employment stimulating the local economy and improving services and amenities for those regional communities.
Preserving community and social needs through the pandemic has been, I think you’d accept Mr Deputy Speaker Andrews, a priority of our government. I know that people who are connected and engaged with their community have much better outcomes than those who are isolated. That’s why every year I attend most agricultural shows and field days across my electorate. Last year, almost all of them were cancelled, and their future was put in jeopardy because, of course, the profit earnt from this year’s show is invested in making sure that show societies can run next year’s show, meaning: no show, no profit. No profit, potentially no show. That’s why our government had shows’ and field days’ backs. We offered $34 million worth of agricultural show grants to make sure the agricultural shows and field days bounced back. I’m here to tell you that they have bounced back.
In the last four weeks I have attended shows at Angaston and Tanunda in the Barossa, Mount Pleasant and Mannum. The one thing that was common, aside from the joy on people’s faces because they were back at community events, was the very significant crowds. I’ve never seen crowds of that size at those shows. I thought I might have been unusually optimistic, although I think I’m the parliament’s pessimist. I confirmed it with the show societies. They said, ‘Tony, we have never seen this many people through the gates.’
There’s a silver lining to the dark COVID cloud. I think we had come to a place in life where we took many of the things we love for granted—’I won’t go to the Angaston show this year. I’ll go next year. I won’t do that thing at the Mount Pleasant show because I’ll do it next year.’ People have had 18 months to remember. One of the things it has done is shocked them to realise that the things they love might not always be there, so they better go and experience them. I’m very pleased to say that but for the agricultural show grants program those shows, those events, wouldn’t have been there. It was the injection of that funding—that smart, targeted assistance—that meant that the things that constituents love doing were there to do post pandemic.
It has been a very tough year. I’m incredibly grateful to the executive members of our government who have worked day in and day out to negotiate the need to save lives and livelihoods. I congratulate them on their efforts. There’s more work to be done, but we’re in a very good place.