Too little too late?
The feds provide more support, but the delay has made this lockdown longer and more expensive
The prime minister – who in March insisted federal income support must come to an end, well before the pandemic did; who repeatedly pushed back against calls for lockdown relief; who begrudgingly offered a meagre disaster payment to casual workers but only from their second week of lockdown, while making it intentionally hard to access – has admitted that the nation needs more federal assistance, now that Sydney has been plunged into an extended lockdown. Coming forward with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian this afternoon, Scott Morrison announced a new COVID-19 support package, offering additional help for individuals, businesses and mental health services in an “upgraded set of arrangements” for when lockdowns enter into “more protracted situations”. There will be cash payments of up to $10,000 per week for small businesses, with costs to be shared equally between state and federal governments. Further changes, meanwhile, have been made to the COVID-19 Disaster Payment for workers, which Morrison already amended last week (prompting cries of “PM for Sydney”). The payment has now gone from $500 to $600 per week for casual workers who lose more than 20 hours of work, and from $325 to $375 for those who lose fewer hours, with individuals no longer required to reapply for the payment each week. The support will also be available statewide, rather than just in designated hotspots. The changes are necessary and welcome, even if they represent a galling double standard, with Morrison justifying it by noting that Sydney is entering a “protracted” lockdown. But why is it entering one? Could it be because the NSW state government held off too long, egged on by a federal government that did everything it could to disincentivise lockdowns?
Speaking to the media this afternoon, Morrison claimed that the Commonwealth has followed “key principles” in deciding when and how to provide support, including ensuring it is targeted, timely, proportionate and scalable. But this latest support, coming so late in Sydney’s outbreak, is anything but “timely”, and instead arrives at a point when cases have spiralled out of control. For months Morrison pushed back on providing support to states, arguing they locked down too quickly, while praising NSW for its more risk-happy approach, encouraging the state to keep going with the “gold-standard” method. The Commonwealth’s refusal to provide financial support made locking down an expensive and painful endeavour for states, essentially discouraging them from doing so. When NSW did eventually lock down, its measures were seen as “lockdown lite”, with Berejiklian defending them on the basis of not wanting to cause unnecessary suffering to workers left without income support. Morrison’s stubborn, unconscionable delay has likely made this lockdown longer, and his efforts to avoid shelling out funds has made it more expensive – for the state, for the country and for his own government.
Not only is it not timely, it’s also not quite as targeted as people would have liked. Today’s announcement comes after the NSW treasurer, Labor, unions and economists all called for the return of a JobKeeper-style income support program, one that would keep workers tied to their employers (and after the desperate NSW government weighed up implementing its own version of the program). The cash payments to businesses are not JobKeeper 2.0, something the federal government has repeatedly insisted would not be returning, though they do contain elements of it, with NSW treasurer Dominic Perrottet pointing out that businesses who access the payment will be required not to reduce their head count. But the payment is not designed to go directly to paying workers’ salaries – instead, workers are still relying on the disaster payments to get by.
Morrison insisted that the rules were suddenly changing not because it was Sydney locking down but because circumstances warranted it. “COVID-19 will set those rules,” said the man who has always been responsible for setting the rules. He’s right in saying that Sydney is now in a far worse situation than any other state has been this year. Truly timely, targeted assistance could have seen this state of affairs avoided. The prime minister so badly wanted to avoid paying for a lockdown that he made it as hard as possible for states to enact tough restrictions, even though economic modelling shows waiting or going lightly costs more. Sydney is now paying the price, but so will his government – a far larger one than it needed to be.
Nationals senator Matt Canavan continues his crusade against the Sydney lockdown, apparently unable to see the justification for locking down a widely unvaccinated city that has seen two recent COVID-related deaths.
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The prime minister – who in March insisted federal income support must come to an end, well before the pandemic did; who repeatedly pushed back against calls for lockdown relief; who begrudgingly offered a meagre disaster payment to casual workers but only from their second week of lockdown, while making it intentionally hard to access – has admitted that the nation needs more federal assistance, now that Sydney has been plunged into an extended lockdown. Coming forward with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian this afternoon, Scott Morrison announced a new COVID-19 support package, offering...
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