Suppressing coronavirus and delivering the vaccine, creating jobs, guaranteeing essential services, national security, and caring for the country were priorities for the year ahead, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, speaking at the National Press Club on Monday.
“Australia stands out across the world in our response to the pandemic,” Mr Morrison said. It had the third lowest mortality rate among G20 nations, and its economic recovery had outperformed other advanced nations.
The next stage was the rollout of free vaccines – the largest logistics exercise in Australia, he said. The Therapeutic Goods Administration had approved the Pfizer vaccine; starting in February, the government aimed to vaccinate more than 25 million people by mid-October, beginning with the most vulnerable, and frontline health and care workers.
Australia would, Mr Morrison hoped, manufacture the vaccine in Melbourne, and supply it both to Australians and to Pacific and South-East Asian countries.
Unemployment rates had fallen – 90% of the jobs lost to COVID-19 had returned, and almost 800,000 jobs had been created since July – and consumer and business confidence had recovered, Mr Morrison said. The government had invested an unprecedented $251 billion in direct economic support, including $74 billion for JobMaker and $177 billion for JobKeeper and increased unemployment benefits.
Although JobKeeper had saved livelihoods and lives, Mr Morrison stressed these emergency measures were only temporary.
“You can’t run the Australian economy on taxpayers’ money forever,” he said. Fiscal discipline was necessary to ensure future generations were not overburdened. “We’re not running a blank cheque budget.”
Labor and Green politicians have criticised the federal government’s stance. JobKeeper was reduced by $100 per fortnight at the start of the year, and will end in March.
“Too many people are struggling to get by, but Mr Morrison is determined to slash income support back down to levels that are impossible to live on,” ACT Greens federal candidate Tim Hollo said.
Dr Andrew Leigh, Labor Member for Fenner, and Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury, objected that some big businesses – including Lend Lease, Collins Foods, Carsales, and Star Farmer – had taken JobKeeper payments and paid out big CEO bonuses and dividends worth millions of dollars. (Dr Leigh noted that other companies – Toyota Australia, Super Retail Group, Domino’s and Iluka – have voluntarily returned payments to the taxpayer.) Labor has asked the Treasurer to initiate an inquiry into profits by JobKeeper recipients; the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) will audit JobKeeper following Dr Leigh’s concerns.
“Scott Morrison himself designed RoboDebt to harass people receiving social security,” Dr Leigh said.
This year, the government intends to put more people back into work. 2021 would be “a year of generational change in our skills and vocational education sector”, Mr Morrison announced. The government would offset tax for low and middle income earners, and offer tax cuts of 25 to 26% for small and medium businesses; offer financial incentives for apprenticeships; and provide more training places, university places, and short courses.
Guaranteeing essential services
“Guaranteeing the essential services Australians rely on has always been a passion of mine,” Mr Morrison said. “The economy is for something and it provides the services Australians rely on.”
Essential services – such as health, disability, aged care, social services, and education – had successfully adapted to the new COVID operating environment, Mr Morrison said, thanking workers in those sectors.
This year, the government would continue its additional funding for hospitals and schools; to invest in Medicare; and to roll out the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It would reform aged care and mental health. The government would create more than 59,000 extra in-home care places, and grow and upskill the aged care workforce. A new National Agreement on Mental Health and Suicide Prevention would provide the foundation for a mental health and suicide prevention system. Following last year’s National Agreement on Closing the Gap, the government would release implementation plans.
“Australia must use its agency to shape the world in our interests,” Mr Morrison stated – through co-operation with other liberal democracies, market economy nations in the OECD; through diplomatic engagement with Pacific and Asian neighbours; and through its alliance with the USA.
Engagement with China was also vital, the Prime Minister argued.
“Our peoples have benefited greatly, both ways, from the depth of our economic ties. But it’s not surprising that there will be differences between two nations with such different economic and political systems.
“Our task is to ensure that such differences do not deny Australia and China from realising the mutual benefits of that partnership, consistent with our own respective national sovereign interests.”
Caring for the country
Affordable and reliable energy would position Australia to be successful in the lower – and ultimately net zero – emissions global economy of the future, Mr Morrison said.
Although his goal was to reach net zero emissions “as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050”, doing so would depend on advances in science and technology to transform both advanced and developed nations.
“In Australia, my government will not tax our way to net zero emissions. I will not put that cost on Australians, and I will particularly not ask regional Australians to carry that burden.
“In Australia, we’re not waiting on this, we’re getting on with it.”
Among other measures, this year, the government would begin its $18 billion roadmap to invest in low emissions technologies, including clean hydrogen, energy storage, low carbon materials, carbon capture and storage, and soil carbon measurement, working with other OECD nations. The Climate Council has, however, criticised the roadmap for serving the interests of the fossil fuel lobby.
The government, Mr Morrison continued, would implement a multi-billion-dollar energy and emissions reduction agreement with NSW and other states; accelerate major electricity transmission projects in four states; build Snowy 2.0, the largest renewable energy project in Australia; and build new diesel storage facilities.
Indigenous Australian principles of caring for country must underpin the government’s environmental stewardship, Mr Morrison said. In addition to emissions reduction; climate resilience; an export ban on waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres; and improving recycling facilities, this year the government would focus on agriculture and the environment (soils, water, oceans).
Greens candidate Tim Hollo said the Prime Minister’s speech did not address the issues Australia faced.
“That is because this government has no interest in addressing these issues. The fact that his speech doesn’t even mention climate change, inequality or housing affordability is case in point.”
Mr Hollo said the Greens did not consider new gas projects – such as the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo sub-basin, or improving the pipeline market and the liquidity of the Wallumbilla gas hub – as discussion of climate change or a genuine commitment to climate action.
“The Prime Minister’s priorities will be a disaster for the ACT,” Mr Hollo said.
“The university sector is in desperate straits, yet the government is more concerned with subsidising fossil fuels.
“Rental prices are now the highest in the country, and the Prime Minister is failing to use this moment to invest in much-needed affordable housing.
“He had to be prompted by journalists to respond to the climate crisis, and once again pushed it out to the distant future when we need to act immediately.”
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