Statement - COVID-19

23 Mar 2020
Prime Minister

Mr Morrison: (Cook—Prime Minister and Minister for the Public Service) (10:12): We gather today at a time of great challenge for our nation and, indeed, the world. We are a strong nation and a strong people, but in the months ahead this will put us all to the test, as at no time like this since the Second World War. But together, Australia, we are up to this challenge.

The coronavirus that is sweeping the world will continue to change the way we live, but we must not allow it to change who we are as Australians. I know—we all know—that Australians are very concerned at this difficult time. It is the understandable fear of the unknown, and there is much that is not known about the coronavirus, but we must not let that fear overtake us. We must focus instead on what we do know, what we can control.

We know who we are as a people and the legacy and inspiration that has been given to us from those who have come before us and shown us the way through challenges and tests just like this. So we summon the spirit of the Anzacs, of our Great Depression generation, of those who built the Snowy, of those who won the great peace of the Second World War and defended Australia. That is our legacy that we draw on at this time.

We also know the actions that we can take—the care, compassion and respect we must show from one to another. Whilst some must self-isolate—and they must—and we all must keep a healthy social distance between us, it is important that we do all we can to ensure in the difficult months ahead that no Australian goes through this alone. The responsibility we know we must take for our own actions and our own behaviours—the tests, hardships and sacrifices that will be placed on all of us, on our national character—will undoubtedly break our hearts on many occasions in the months ahead. But we must resolve today as Australians to come together and to pledge to each other across our nation that this coronavirus will not break our Australian spirit.

So, together, and with the rest of the world, we face this unprecedented challenge, a once-in-100-years event, a global health pandemic that has fast become an economic crisis the likes of which we have not seen since the Great Depression. Life is changing in Australia for every Australian. Life is going to continue to change. For many—young and old—2020 will be the toughest year of our lives. Meeting this challenge is bigger than any Australian. It's obviously bigger than politics. It's bigger than any of us who are in this chamber. Prime ministers, leaders of the opposition, ministers, shadow ministers and members of parliament—it is bigger than all us. It is bigger than premiers, chief ministers, captains of industry, leaders of union movements. It is bigger than all of us. I want to thank all of those who have come to this great challenge with such a unity of spirit. It requires every single Australian to do their duty as public citizens.

Again, in that spirit, I want to thank, in particular, the nation's premiers and chief ministers for coming together to form Australia's first ever national cabinet, a cabinet of all Australian governments: five Labor leaders, four coalition leaders. I want to thank the Leader of the Opposition for the cooperation he and his colleagues have afforded us here in this parliament as we battle this dual health and economic crisis. Today, we have some very important work to do to cushion the blow on Australians from the economic whirlwind that is being reaped by this coronavirus. In the months ahead, we will face more issues that none of us even now can imagine. Our job as the Australian government is to work night and day to ensure our great country, our beloved Australia, gets to the other side and emerges stronger, safer and united.

It is our advice that Australians will be living with this virus for at least the next six months. It could be longer. There is no three- or four-week shutdown that makes it all go away. There is no short-term solution to this. We have to steel ourselves for the next six months and work together to slow the spread in order to save lives, to protect the elderly and vulnerable Australians, because they are counting on us. Every extra bit of time we save allows us to better prepare for the challenges that are ahead.

Last night, all the states and territories, through the national cabinet, agreed to an even more stringent set of social distancing rules that will change further how we all live our lives. There will be no more going to the pub after work. There will be no more going to the gym in the morning. There will be no more sitting down for brunch at a cafe. These changes are vital to slow the spread of this virus to save lives.

As the virus spreads, and it will, governments around Australia will not be complacent and may need, and are likely to need, to impose further restrictions on our daily lives. Wherever possible, we will seek to do that to ensure a consistency of approach between all states and territories. It will be absolutely vital that every Australian respects and follows the healthy social distancing measures that all Australian governments have implemented in order to flatten this curve and to save lives. Limits on outdoor and indoor mass gatherings, keeping non-essential indoor gatherings to less than one person per four square metres—wherever possible, keeping 1½ metres between yourself and others—avoiding all non-essential travel and even simply following good hygiene is essential to slowing this virus. Washing your hands thoroughly, coughing and sneezing into your elbow, not touching your face are all practical measures that we can all observe to save lives. I will say this: while you may not be able to go to church, the synagogue, the temple or the mosque, I most certainly call on all people of faith in our nation to pray. I can assure you, my prayer knees are getting a good work out.

As Australia works to flatten the curve and slow this virus, we also face an immense economic challenge. Across Australia today, many thousands of Australians will lose their jobs. They are lining up at Centrelink offices as we speak—something unimaginable at this scale only weeks ago. Many have lost their jobs, and we know many more will. This is the biggest economic shock our nation has faced in generations. Australia, a long and open trading nation, is now closed off, largely, from the world. Internal border restrictions not seen since before Federation are now in place.

Yesterday, the Treasurer and I announced an economic support package, a safety net package, unprecedented in our nation's history in its scale and coverage. Measures announced to date total some, together with the Reserve Bank, $189 billion in economic support, around 10 per cent of the size of our economy. The measures we have announced are focusing on those who are on the frontline, those who will be feeling the first blows of the economic impact of the coronavirus as it wreaks its havoc. So we'll supercharge our safety net—doubling, effectively, the jobseeker payment and allowing Australians to draw on those resources they have put aside for such a time as this—to support the most vulnerable with additional payments to pensioners and carers and the disabled, to provide a lifeline to small and medium-sized businesses. We will be working together with the banks—and I thank them also—to keep those businesses afloat wherever possible, to keep as many employees as they can, but with the pledge in our support to them that when we pass this virus, those businesses that have had to stand people down will stand them back up again on the other side. This will give them that assurance, give them that encouragement, as they have to stand staff down, commit to do all they can on the other side to stand them back up again. This is the unwritten contract that is being undertaken between Australian employees and employers as we speak, to provide also a legal shield to protect both businesses from closures and individuals, to preserve our economy and to boost our recovery on the other side.

To those who have lost their jobs already and will, to those whose incomes are collapsing, to those who are barely holding their businesses together or who have already seen their dream taken from them by this virus, this is devastating and this is heartbreaking. And we will do all we can in this place as a parliament and all we can as a government to help see you through. We will be doing everything we can to protect those most vulnerable to the impacts of this crisis and to preserve the businesses that employ them. There will be more support to come, and it will keep coming for as long as this challenge is before this nation. Even more importantly, when this passes, we will be there to ensure that Australians get back on their feet, that the businesses rebuild, that our economy resurges and that we go on in the great national story of this amazing nation, Australia.

In conclusion, the more Australians work together, the more we share the sacrifice and the burden, the more we do the right thing, the more lives and the more livelihoods we will save. And when the virus passes—and it will—we will be stronger on the other side. This will be a test of all Australians. It is a test of our nation—of our spirit. There are some who believe liberal democracies and free societies cannot cope with these sorts of challenges. We will prove them wrong here in Australia. Today we are saying that we both can do this and will do this, and we will do this together. May God bless us all—all Australians—at this most difficult time.