The federal government will support a new temporary ‘disaster payment’ for Victorian workers unable to earn an income due to the latest lockdowns.
But, even as he unveiled the payment on Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a firm message to the Victorian government that he expected COVID restrictions to be lifted as soon as possible.
Mr Morrison attached numerous strings to the package, which will provide $350 or $500 for people unable to work, as Canberra sticks to its belief that the federal government should step in only after states fund their own short periods of restrictions.
“We don’t have to fear this virus. We haven’t got where we are now by fearing this virus,” he said, in a pointed statement after the Victorian government extended Melbourne’s lockdown by another week.
The payment was immediately slammed as “too little, too late” and “tokenistic” by trade unions, which noted the amount was a third less than the national minimum wage.
The federal government had been under increasing pressure to stump up support for the state, with businesses shuttered and workers furloughed. Hundreds of thousands of casual workers in Melbourne, especially in sectors such as hospitality and retail, face a second week without any income.
Mr Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have shrugged off calls to revive the JobKeeper wage subsidy, and resisted initial calls for widespread cash grants for Victoria. There were reports the federal government didn’t want to been seen as encouraging states to go into lockdown for small numbers of COVID cases.
Mr Morrison and Mr Frydenberg had said states should be able to provide for themselves during short lockdowns, like those in Brisbane or Perth in recent months.
On Thursday, the Liberal leaders and Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud announced a new ‘temporary COVID disaster payment’. It will provide $500 a week to workers who would normally work at least 20 hours a week, and $325 for those working fewer hours.
The payments will take effect in the coming week. No compensation is proposed for Victorians hit by this week’s statewide lockdown.
The plan will go before national cabinet on Friday, with Mr Morrison emphasising that “costs should be shared” between the different levels of government.
People will be able to call a 1800 phone number to apply, with applications to open on Tuesday.
However, in a sign that the Morrison government has come to this table reluctantly, there are numerous strings to the payment. Notably, it will kick in only after eight days of a state lockdown, with the federal government stressing that premiers should be able to look after themselves for the first week.
Applicants will have to declare that they have less than $10,000 in liquid assets, and prove they have used up other leave entitlements – including pandemic leave if offered – to receive the money.
Payments will also available only to people in declared Commonwealth “hotspots”, under a determination by the federal chief medical officer. This means a lockdown imposed by a state government might not necessarily qualify.
Commonwealth hotspots, according to federal guidelines, are declared when a metropolitan area exceeds a rolling three-day average of 10 cases a day, or when a regional area exceeds a three-day average of three cases a day.
The payments, Mr Morrison said, might be available to any Australian area that goes into lockdown. For now, it’s targeted at Victoria.
“Victoria, more than anywhere, has suffered greater than any other part of the country. That is a simple fact,” the PM said.
Earlier, Acting Victorian Premier James Merlino said income support for workers in lockdown was “a responsibility of the federal government”. He said the state government had already stumped up half a billion dollars in its lockdown assistance package for businesses.
Mr Morrison did not explicitly question Victoria’s decision to continue the lockdown in Melbourne – even with only three new virus cases to report on Thursday – but mentioned several times his wish to see lockdowns end “as soon as possible”. He also noted state lockdowns were the responsibility of state governments, with federal politicians previously copping criticism from premiers when they tried to intervene or encourage against restrictions.
“I have no part in the decisions made by state governments and they can choose to do – as they remind me regularly – what they like to do,” Mr Morrison said.
He said decisions about lockdowns must be “commensurate with the risks” to “avoid any unnecessary hardship on Australians”.
The federal opposition savaged Mr Morrison’s response, unhappy that it took a week for the government to announce the payments.
“How pathetic and cruel and out of touch this Prime Minister is to think that communities will lock themselves down as some kind of cash grab,” shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said.
“They have been dragged kicking and screaming to this outcome today.”
Michele O’Neil, president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, was concerned the payment would not keep workers connected to their employers, fearing they may be let go over the next week or in future.
“The payment that has been announced is no replacement for a wage subsidy available fast to everyone effected which would keep working people attached to their jobs through a lockdown,” she said.