Prime Minister Scott Morrison was talking rubbish, as usual. “Resilience, strength, character, determination. That’s what beats a virus”, he declared at yesterday’s press conference.
Um, no: strict public health measures such as lockdowns have beaten the virus in Australia. Morrison hates this fact. He and the cabal of business owners, big and small, who sing in his choir hate the idea that public health (or public anything else) might interrupt the smooth running of business, and profits, as usual.
Political expediency, shaped by the fact that most people very sensibly think that death on a colossal scale should be avoided, means that Morrison has avoided openly denouncing the Victorian lockdown. It was left to the Australian Financial Review to spell out that the PM “is resisting demands for substantial support like a revised JobKeeper scheme in the belief it would act as an incentive for more widespread lockdowns”.
So to discourage the most effective proven measure for stopping the virus, the federal government is keen to ensure that the economic costs of lockdowns are borne by individuals. Hence the spectacle of Morrison (salary: $549,250 per year, or $10,562 per week) announcing that people with zero income due to the lockdown in Victoria will get nothing for the past seven days. For a second week of lockdown, they may be eligible for up to $500—so $250 per week to survive a two-week lockdown.
For people who work fewer than twenty hours per week, the payment is capped at $325, or $162.50 per week for a two-week lockdown—1.5 percent of Morrison’s weekly salary. The payment isn’t available to people who get any amount of the pathetic JobSeeker payment (a maximum of $310.40 per week for a single person with no dependants). There’s nothing for anyone in regional Victoria who has lost shifts, because technically they are out of lockdown.
And no-one can apply for anything until Tuesday, after the Queen’s Birthday long weekend. Perhaps resilience, strength, character and determination are meant to suffice in the meantime. Those unable to survive on these qualities alone have joined lines at food banks, which have surged to record levels in Melbourne this week.
There’s a catch as well. The Commonwealth gets to define which areas are “COVID-19 hotspots”, and therefore decides where and when workers will become eligible for support. Under pressure to do something, Morrison indicated that metropolitan Melbourne is indeed a “hotspot”. But there’s no guarantee that such a designation will be made in the case of future outbreaks. Melbourne hasn’t, in fact, met the threshold of an average of ten locally acquired cases per day over three consecutive days, which is listed as one of the triggers for consideration as a “hotspot” by the Department of Health.
Oh, and another catch. No-one can get a COVID-19 disaster payment unless they have less than $10,000 in liquid assets. This restriction never applied to the retail billionaires who stashed federal government cash via the JobKeeper scheme. Solomon Lew’s retail companies received $69 million worth of JobKeeper subsidies last year. Since November, his wealth has increased by $650 million (that’s $25 million per week) to $4.37 billion.
Of course, no day of a COVID-19 outbreak in Australia would be complete without a highly paid parasite having a mighty sook. On Thursday, it was the turn of Wesfarmers CEO Rob Scott (2020 salary $7,762,781, or $149,284 per week) using an interview in the Age to denounce lockdowns as “very damaging economically and also from a health and well-being point of view”.
How the heart breaks! This is the same Wesfarmers which, as the former owner of Coles, showed its concern for health and well-being by ripping an estimated $70 million per year off its workers, for decades, by paying illegally low wages under a sweetheart deal with the right-wing Shop Distributive and Allied union.
Labor has been critical of Morrison’s miserly payment, but it’s not like Labor offers much either. The Victorian government has, in the current outbreak, thrown nearly half a billion dollars in relief to businesses, but nothing to workers.
It was clear that Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19 last year was fuelled in part by insecure work arrangements with no sick pay (and in many cases, for migrant workers, zero income support whatsoever). In response, Premier Daniel Andrews, amid a mighty blast of trumpets, declared:
“The global pandemic has shone a bright light on some of the darkest cracks in our nation’s economy and our society—none more so than insecure work. Too often, workers are being forced to choose between a day’s pay and their health—and the health of every Victorian. Over the past eight months, we’ve seen just how dangerous, and unfair, that can be.”
The fine print was underwhelming though: a “secure work pilot scheme” to provide five days of sick leave for casual workers “in priority industries”. And don’t hold your breath. Consultation is ongoing, with the pilot scheme not scheduled to commence until 2022.
Meanwhile, Australia’s richest 200 have shown their resilience, strength, character and determination by stacking up $137 billion in extra wealth since May 2019.
Billions for the billionaires, poverty for the poor, and perhaps a spot in a line for donated noodles for migrant workers. A kick in the teeth from the Liberals, and a small scale pilot program, commencing perhaps sometime next year, from Labor. Welcome to Australia’s COVID-19 “normal”.