On his terms
The Morrison government offers conditional lockdown support
After days of refusing, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has caved to pressure to help Victorians facing destitution due to the lockdown – though very much on his own terms. In an afternoon press conference, Morrison announced a “temporary COVID disaster payment” for those who cannot work due to a lockdown that runs beyond a week, with a number of very specific criteria. The weekly payment will be $500 for those who would ordinarily work more than 20 hours a week, and $325 for those who work less. It will only be available for workers who have used up other leave entitlements (though not annual leave), who are aged 17 or over, who have less than $10,000 in liquid assets, who are not getting another form of income support, and who have already spent the first week struggling to get by. Most notably, the payments will only apply to those living in “hotspots” as defined by the Commonwealth’s chief medical officer, and not necessarily anyone living in a state-imposed lockdown. This sets up future showdowns between state and federal health authorities over whether a lockdown is or isn’t required, with the federal government having the final say.
Much of the federal government’s prior reluctance to provide income support for Victorians was believed to be about avoiding setting a precedent that might in any way incentivise states to lock down, something the Commonwealth is rarely in favour of (despite having spent the past few weeks trying to win support by replicating states’ tough-on-COVID approaches). It’s clear that’s something the government took into account in crafting this policy, leaving itself ultimately in charge of deciding whether a particular lockdown is warranted before providing support to those affected by it, regardless of how much they need it.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly is expected to declare Greater Melbourne a hotspot for the next seven days, meaning struggling Melburnians will soon be eligible for the payment. But there are likely to be future scenarios where the more laissez faire federal government disagrees with a state’s choice to continue a lockdown (as it did with the ambitious, virus-extinguishing tail end of Victoria’s major lockdown last year), and it will be able to threaten to withdraw the payment when it no longer considers a city or suburb to be a hotspot. An hour before the Commonwealth announcement, Acting Victorian Premier James Merlino pushed back against the idea that states lock down unnecessarily, or by choice. “We don’t choose to go into lockdown,” he said. “There is no choice.” We’ll see how Scott “I’m not going to take risks with Australian lives” Morrison responds if the current Victorian lockdown goes on longer than he sees fit.
Social services groups, unions, business groups and the federal Opposition have tepidly welcomed the payment, while noting it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The Victorian Council of Social Service has released a statement slamming the narrow eligibility criteria and multiple conditions, but admitted it’s “better than nothing”, while Sacred Heart Mission tweeted that the “much needed” $500 payment is half as much as the $1000 Disaster Recovery Payment it is based on. The Business Council of Australia also welcomed the announcement, but argued the government needed to improve its quarantine systems to prevent the payment from being needed again.
Attempts to have the man who “doesn’t hold a hose, mate” take some responsibility for the current lockdown, and to take some steps to prevent it from happening again, have been in vain. When asked by a reporter whether his announcement was an admission that he was partly responsible for the lockdown, the PM said that it was an admission that the Commonwealth responds to disasters. Almost every single Labor question of this final Question Time for the sitting period opened with the phrase “Does the prime minister take responsibility for…”, whether on the 21 leaks from hotel quarantine (Anthony Albanese), the failure to fully vaccinate aged-care workers (Mark Butler), bungling the aged-care vaccine rollout (Terri Butler), the failure to record how many aged-care workers have been fully vaccinated (Ged Kearney), the failure to manufacture mRNA vaccines in Australia (Ed Husic) and, of course, “the words that came out the prime minister’s own mouth” in declaring the rollout “not a race” (Albanese again). It came as no surprise that Morrison did not.
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After days of refusing, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has caved to pressure to help Victorians facing destitution due to the lockdown – though very much on his own terms. In an afternoon press conference, Morrison announced a “temporary COVID disaster payment” for those who cannot work due to a lockdown that runs beyond a week, with a number of very specific criteria. The weekly payment will be $500 for those who would ordinarily work more than 20 hours a week, and $325 for those who work less. It will only be available for workers who have used up other leave entitlements (though not annual leave), who are aged 17 or over, who have less than $10,000 in liquid assets, who are not getting another form of income support, and who have already spent the first week struggling to get by. Most notably, the...
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