Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says he will “hear out” requests from the Victorian government for renewed federal support as Melbourne faces another week in COVID lockdown.
State ministers have pleaded with the Morrison government to revive “JobKeeper-style” payments for businesses forced remain closed during the extended lockdown, announced on Wednesday.
But the Treasurer insisted he would talk to Victorian officials about why they felt the need to extend the shutdown before committing to any more help. He said Victoria had spent far longer in lockdown than any other Australian jurisdiction – and the federal government expected states to pay for their own short shutdowns.
“If you take the period, since the end of that first national lockdown … Victorians have been subject to 140 days of lockdowns, if you take stage three and stage four – whereas the average across the other states is just six days,” said Mr Frydenberg, who holds the inner-Melbourne seat of Kooyong.
“That is an incredible contrast … as a Victorian, it has been devastating for our state.”
‘Clear expectation’ for federal help: Merlino
With Victoria’s government extending its week-long “circuit breaker” lockdown in Melbourne by an extra seven days, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is under pressure on multiple fronts to chip in.
Acting Victorian Premier James Merlino said he and state Treasurer Tim Pallas had renewed earlier pleas to the federal government for extra support for businesses and workers affected by the lockdown.
On Sunday, Mr Merlino and Mr Pallas savaged the government for “refusing” to help, calling it “disgraceful”. The state government has already extended $250 million in payments to businesses, and pledged another $200 million on Wednesday – but wants Mr Morrison to come to the rescue.
“We also renewed our request to the Commonwealth to activate a JobKeeper-style support for Victorians who have been impacted by these restrictions,” Mr Merlino said.
“I do hope that the Commonwealth will swiftly confirm that they will step
up and provide that support.”
Mr Merlino threatened to raise the matter at Friday’s national cabinet meeting if the request was denied, and said Victoria had a “clear expectation” of federal support.
Later, Mr Morrison told Parliament that the extended lockdown was “disappointing news”, and that he would speak to Mr Merlino later on Wednesday. At a briefing, Mr Frydenberg said the Morrison government was open to considering further federal support, but stopped short of making any firm commitment.
“I want to speak to the [Victorian] Treasurer first, I want to understand what his plans are for support through the state,” Mr Frydenberg said.
“Our health officials wanted to understand the various reasons and the thinking behind it.”
Calls for Victoria JobKeeper revival
Federal Greens leader Adam Bandt, from the seat of Melbourne, called for a $3000 emergency payment for people unable to work during the lockdown.
The Australian Council of Social Service has demanded new “disaster recovery payments”, a “targeted reintroduction” of JobKeeper, and increases to JobSeeker.
Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers told the federal government to “do the right thing”.
“We call on the federal government to take those requests seriously, to extend JobKeeper or if they have a better idea, let’s hear it,” he said.
“It’s time now for the federal government to step in and to let Victorians know what they are going to do to help them get through a very difficult period.”
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese blamed the federal government for the Victorian lockdown.
Treasury officials told Senate estimates this week that May’s federal budget had assumed several short COVID lockdowns Australia-wide in the next 12 months. Mr Frydenberg said the government expected states to look after themselves in such “snap” lockdowns.
The lockdown in Victoria is a direct result of the Morrison Government's failures in the rollout and their failures in quarantine.
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) June 2, 2021
“Our support for Victoria has been there. This is a very difficult time for Victorian businesses and families. These are decisions the Victorian government makes,” he said.
“Our position in relation to the first week of lockdown was very clear. Namely, that a short lockdown, the state have the capacity to provide that response, as they did, and we welcome that.”
JobKeeper extension unlikely
But Mr Frydenberg – while stopping short of criticising the Victorian government, questioned why regional areas like Mildura – which he said “haven’t had a case for 13 months” – faced similar strict lockdown rules as Melbourne.
In fact, virus rules will ease considerably in regional Victoria from midnight on Thursday as a reflection of the lack of coronavirus cases in country areas. Most businesses will be able to reopen, albeit with strict limits on customers.
It is only in Melbourne where the strictest lockdown measures will remain for at least another seven days.
Mr Frydenberg said JobKeeper’s specific provisions as a national wage subsidy might not be applicable for a lockdown in just one state.
Mr Frydenberg again pointed to federal spending figures of $45 billion in COVID support to Victoria, the most per capita of any state.
He said there were “a series of supports, including our welfare system”, noting that waiting periods and mutual obligation requirements for JobSeeker had been waived in Victoria.