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January 13, 2021

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT: Well, thanks very much for coming. I just wanted to respond to the ABS job vacancies data for the November quarter of last year. Labor welcomes any improvement of vacancies. It's a sign that there's some improvement to the economy and any new job, any additional job, is welcomed by Labor. However, there are still important things that we need to reflect upon.

Firstly, we have a very strong view that if you cut JobKeeper at the end of March, as is promised by the Prime Minister, we will see businesses falter, businesses possibly hit the wall, and jobs lost as a result.

We are concerned that the government does not have sufficient fiscal investment in the labour market to replace JobKeeper. It's clear that JobMaker is not sufficient to replace JobKeeper in the economy. And for that reason, Labor continues to say to the government that given there are real issues about potential restrictions on our economy, we do need to ensure that we do not leave people behind, we don't leave businesses behind, we don't leave workers behind. And for that reason, we call on the government to reassess its position in terms of cutting JobKeeper, and indeed slashing JobSeeker as they have already done.

On that note, given the many insulting and ignorant comments by the acting Prime Minister this week, among them was the insulting attack on job seekers by attacking them suggesting that all they want to do is watch Netflix and Stan. Well the reality is for every vacancy in the labour market, for every job vacancy in the labour market, there are six applicants. So even if everyone's looking for work, five out of six applicants are unlikely to receive employment in the current situation.

So it is not acceptable for the acting Prime Minister to attack job seekers who are genuinely looking for work, suggesting they are not. That's the typical approach we expect from this government. And we've asked the acting Prime Minister to desist from insulting Australians who were thrown out of work through no fault of their own, are looking for work, and yet all they have from the government is insults. And I think the government should stop and desist in acting that way and attacking job seekers in that manner.

It's also, I think, important to note the deliberations that the government's making in relation to superannuation. Now it's clear that Scott Morrison went to the last election promising an increase to universal super. He now seems to want to walk away from his election commitment, thereby dishonouring his promise to the Australian people, that there'll be an increase to super.

Now, some people think it may be reasonable to have a voluntary opt in approach to super. Well Labor's view is that is not acceptable. That is completely contrary to the election promise that Scott Morrison made. And therefore he would be breaching that and dishonouring that commitment and therefore it is not acceptable.

Further to that a voluntary opt in arrangement will mean that the universal scheme that was established under a Labor government will actually be damaged economically. It will actually mean that there will be people missing out at the end of their working life. At retirement they'll have far less retirement savings as a result. And we've watched the government plunder the universal super accounts of workers by encouraging them to take out money not for exceptional reasons, not for urgent reasons, but actually for almost any reason at all.

That has been said that many, many workers will find themselves very much short of retirement savings at the end of their working life and that's an absolute shame. But the government has used the pandemic as an excuse to attack the universal super scheme. And this idea of voluntary opt in approach would also undermine universal super as we know it. I say this to Scott Morrison you just make sure you honour your commitments to the Australian people with respect to super. And so that's, I think, a very important point.

I’m happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Do share concerns that the AstraZeneca vaccine won’t be effective enough to achieve herd immunity?

O’CONNOR: Well, I think we are concerned that we have sufficient vaccinations and sufficient vaccines to protect the Australian people. Right from the beginning, Labor has called upon the government to enter into contracts as early as possible in order to have up to five or six options available to us.

Now, it’s true to say comparable countries were entering into arrangements with pharmaceutical companies as early as March last year. And yet our first agreement was as late as September. And we do have, it seems to me, and it seems to Labor, we do seem to have put too many eggs in one basket. AstraZeneca, ultimately, its effectiveness, its efficacy and effectiveness will be determined by the TGA. And of course, in the end, we'll listen to the medical experts in relation to these matters. But it's certainly the case that there are some signs that this is not the certainly not the optimal vaccine. And we need also to see what else we can do.

Now at the moment, the government says we're at the front of the queue, that's utterly untrue. We have a commitment to getting 10 million doses of Pfizer. The fact that you need two doses means that that's only 20 per cent of the Australian population who would be covered under that current contract. And so for that reason, as Chris Bowen has said, as the Labor leader has said from the beginning, we need to have more options available for the TGA to affirm their efficacy so that we can roll out the vaccine as soon as possible.

So ultimately, it's not for politicians to decide the efficacy of a particular vaccine. But there are some concerning signs. And that's why we do need as many options available to us as quickly as possible. Otherwise, we're going to be left behind. We're not at the front of the queue, we seem to be at the back of the queue when it comes to getting a vaccine that will respond to this global pandemic.

JOURNALIST: I’ve just got another matter here, what do you make of the government's move to block a Chinese bid for construction company ProBuild?

O’CONNOR: Look, that's a decision that's been made by the Treasurer. We haven't been briefed on that particular matter. We accept that there may well be some issues that we would need to obviously be briefed upon. So at the moment, we'll take the government on its word that there's a there's an issue. But we would want, if an invitation hasn't been extended yet, we would want a briefing, a full briefing from the government about the reasons the Treasurer has decided not to allow that matter to proceed.

There's a mechanism in place for good reason. It's okay to invoke national security. But there needs to be some transparency. And certainly there needs to be some bipartisanship insofar as Labor being briefed on these matters so we understand why the decision was made to not allow that commercial contract, a commercial decision of an investment to proceed.

Any other questions?

JOURNALIST: When it comes to businesses you say that they need more support with JobKeeper, isn’t one of the main impediments to businesses, especially in tourism and hospitality at the moment, the fact that state borders keep closing? Why don’t you press the state premiers to relax some of those restrictions or not go so hard when it comes to shutting borders?

O’CONNOR: Well, I think the reason why Australia is probably one of the best countries in responding to the pandemic is that hard decisions have been made by state premiers. Liberal premiers and Labor premiers have made decisions in order to make sure that we suppress the virus so that we can open the economy.

If you look around the world, and look at the worst cases in Europe, in the United Kingdom, in the United States, you can certainly look at look at the dreadful situation they find themselves in and realise the main reason for that is they did not restrict movement. They did not maintain social distancing, they did not put in place sufficient protect protections to stop the spread of the virus.

So Labor applauds state premiers taking the medical advice that has led to us being one of the very few countries that's managed to maintain a very low level of virus across the across the land. So I don't think it's fair to say that the state should be told to remain open or remove restrictions if that’s not the advice.

It's those countries who have chosen not to accept the medical advice find themselves in a terrible situation where their economies are shrinking, and they have thousands upon thousands of dead citizens. That is not the approach and anyone who suggests it's better for us to open up and see how we go, then frankly they're not taking the medical advice provided to those state colleagues.

Any further questions?

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask you a question about Craig Kelly. Neither Michael McCormack nor Greg Hunt have directly criticised his Facebook posts about covid-19. What action do you think the federal government should take in relation to his comments?

O’CONNOR: Well, the first thing the Prime Minister should do is to talk to Craig Kelly and tell him to desist spreading misinformation, spreading lies about the pandemic. He has been effectively disseminating conspiracy theories, disseminating misinformation about particular drugs contrary to medical advice. He is not a doctor, he is not an expert and his misinformation could lead to terrible health outcomes for fellow Australians.

So the Prime Minister doesn't get to hide behind freedom of speech to say it's okay for one of his government MPs to spread lies about a global pandemic. And that's not just with respect to the global pandemic, Craig Kelly should be sacked as chair of the law enforcement committee of Parliament because he has also spread misinformation. He told lies about the attempted insurrection, and the riots that occurred on Capitol Hill in the United States that led to the death of at least five people including a police officer.

His misinformation there shows he has no respect for Law and Order. The fact that he hasn't extended any sympathy to the family of the police officer or others that were killed on that day shows he has an absolute disregard for Law and Order. And for that reason, Scott Morrison should show some ticker and sack his good friend Craig Kelly who effectively is spreading lies about the pandemic and spreading lies about what happened in Washington some days ago.

But it's not just Craig Kelly, you've seen the acting Prime Minister effectively making comments that will upset I would contend the incoming administration in the United States. He has made one bad comment after the other and he's also been defending Craig Kelly, and for that matter, George Christensen.

So there are government MPs that are spreading lies and there's been no rebuke by the health minister, the Prime Minister, or by any member of the cabinet of this government. And that speaks volumes for the inability of Scott Morrison to control these dishonest and dishonourable MPs.

Any further questions? Thanks very much.