How Canberra contained the pandemic

| February 9, 2021

This is an edited summary of Attorney-General Christian Porter’s keynote address presented at the ‘A Vision for Australia 2020’: GAP Virtual Summit on National Resilience.’

Attorney-General Christian Porter recalled the government’s realisation of the pandemic’s potential scale in February 2020, and its concern that public awareness fell short of this reality. The government therefore agreed the need for spokespeople to prepare the country for potentially unprecedented measures over the months ahead, including the orders imposed through the 2015 Biosecurity Act.

Initial measures to quarantine schools, aged care centres and suburbs were met with much criticism on social media, underlining the need to explain the situation to the public.

Four crucial decisions were made from April to the start of July which helped Australia navigate the pandemic, beginning with the border closure with China.

This seems an obvious decision in retrospect, but was difficult at the time and based on modelling with a range of uncertain predictions. The international situation was still unclear, and the banning of Chinese students cost the tertiary education sector $9 billion, but health was chosen as the priority.

The Prime Minister’s creation of the National Cabinet was the second important decision, and, while not perfect, it has worked remarkably well in terms of organisation, planning and administration compared to previous decision-making bodies at this level.

The Cabinet supported the right of States to impose their own travel restrictions, but the Federal government now backs the removal of state border controls.

The third decision was the national coordination of social and economic lockdowns in affected States and Territories. The latter saw the Prime Minister persuade State Premiers to move from a ‘whitelist’ to a ‘blacklist’ model in terms of closures.

This approach was more proportionate to the problem at hand and meant that States had to nominate particular sectors to shut down, with the assumption that all other activity would remain open, rather than closing down everything and offering exceptions to this blanket rule.

This change allowed the vital construction and mining industries to remain largely unaffected by the crisis, maintaining jobs and economic continuity, while closing the hospitality and leisure facilities which might help the virus spread.

The fourth and final crucial decision addressed the 450,000 spike in unemployment caused by COVID-19 restrictions. JobKeeper was designed and implemented quickly to help people to pay their mortgages and provide for their families while staying connected to their jobs.

These $1,500 payments required rapid amendment of the Industrial Relations Framework, the Modern Award system, the enterprise agreements system, and the Fair Work Act 2009.

Industrial relations agreements threatened to constrain businesses’ ability to cope during the pandemic, as they limited the duties, hours and locations of work. This bureaucratic system works adequately in normal situations but was ill-suited to the emergency situation.

The Federal government therefore took the risky decision to allow businesses using JobKeeper to employ its workers in more flexible ways. Relaxation of the ‘span of hours’ allowed white-collar employees to lawfully work for blocks of hours at home, for example, maintaining productivity while reducing social interaction and allowing for childcare when schools were shut down.

A range of awards and enterprise agreements which prevented workers from being asked to undertake other duties, such as a chef pivoting to deliveries rather than in-restaurant serving, also had to be relaxed. Much of this new flexibility will be retained as businesses are weaned off JobKeeper and begin to recover.

JobKeeper has supported 3.3 million employees at a cost of $70 billion, with 900,000 businesses receiving $3.3 billion in all. Half a million of these firms report the subsidy has been very important or vital to their survival.

These arrangements were all amended on a timely and cooperative basis with industry and union groups, raising hope that longer-term solutions could be negotiated in this way. The government’s Industrial Relations Working Group is now looking at Greenfields agreements, the enterprise bargaining system, award complexity, compliance and enforcement, as well as the absence of ‘casuals’ from the Fair Work Act.

One long-standing problem for permanent part-time employees who work 16 hours over a standard weekly or fortnight rotation, is that employers will not offer them overtime – even if work needs to be done – because their industry’s award agreement would trigger an additional rate of pay which the employer is unwilling to offer.

Greater flexibility for such workers could allow them to work more hours at the same rate, increasing their income while strengthening business growth and the economy.