Anthony Albanese resists growing pressure to extend pandemic leave payments

by Paul Karp
Ministers have suggested states should pick up the cost of Covid leave payments as calls grow for support to continue

Anthony Albanese has continued to dig in against calls to extend pandemic leave payments, while his ministers have argued states should take up the slack from the federal government.

But Albanese is facing a chorus of calls from both the states, and within his own party, to extend the payments. On Friday, the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, said that he would “absolutely” push for the payments to be reinstated at Monday’s national cabinet meeting.

Albanese was due to leave the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji on Friday, flying back into a storm of controversy, with unions, many states and some Labor MPs calling to extend pandemic payments to help casual workers self-isolate and prevent the spread of Covid.

Albanese has agreed to a request from the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, for a national cabinet meeting which will be held on Monday, with pandemic leave and the end to free federal rapid antigen tests for concession card-holders key agenda items.

On Friday, the prime minister opened the door to possible changes by noting “we’ll give consideration to all of these issues”, but repeated his defence that Labor “inherited these decisions” along with $1tn of debt.

“There was enormous waste there in the budget; had, for example, the government not given literally tens of billions of dollars to companies that were increasing their profits, there would have been more space in the budget to make the decisions that we would want to make,” Albanese told reporters in Fiji.

Albanese argued that “a range of companies who are good employers are providing those systems [of leave]”.

“The idea that no one is getting any sick leave at the moment, it’s just not the case,” he said.

Albanese also suggested that “good employers are recognising that people are continuing to work from home whilst they have Covid and are receiving, therefore, payments through that”.

While Perrottet acknowledged the budget pressures from continued pandemic measures – he indicated his government was open to splitting the cost 50-50 with the commonwealth – he said it was “unfair” not to continue the payments for casual workers while isolation requirements remained in place.

“I’m very open to doing everything we can at the state level to support our people through this next phase of the pandemic,” he said.

“I think it is unfair that [that when] the state imposes public health orders on people to restrict their liberty and their capacity to work for the government to not provide financial support.”

The health minister, Mark Butler, told Radio National the public “wants the country to move to a new phase in confronting this pandemic”.

Butler said that “inevitably” after the government withdrew “mandates around people’s behaviour” it had to reconsider “very large emergency payments”.

Pandemic leave support payments were not included in the chief medical officer’s advice about limiting the spread of Covid, he said.

On Wednesday Butler said “millions” of Australians would contract
in coming weeks. Already there are 4,000 people in hospital and several hundred deaths every week.

On Friday the assistant treasurer, Stephen Jones, said the commonwealth wanted “to work with all the state and territory leaders to ensure that we can provide all the available support to Australian workers and businesses who are doing it tough”.

“We’re going to try and solve the issues that are pressing upon Australian workers and businesses, but we’ve got some real economic realities facing us,” he told ABC News Breakfast.

Jones said Albanese would be “looking for solutions” and noted that many of the states and territories calling for pandemic leave payments to be extended “have actually got less debt and healthier balance sheets and healthier budgets – some of them are approaching a surplus, something that the Commonwealth won’t be doing any time in the next couple of years”.

Some states and territories have moved to plug the gap created by the commonwealth ending its free rapid antigen test scheme for concession card holders from 31 July. New South Wales has extended access to free rapid tests to 31 October.

The Tasmanian premier, Jeremy Rockliff, and Labor opposition leader in NSW, Chris Minns, have joined unions in calling for the pandemic leave payment to be extended.

On Thursday, Labor MPs Mike Freelander and Michelle Ananda-Rajah, both doctors, called for the payments to be extended.

On Friday the shadow health minister, Anne Ruston, defended the Coalition’s decision to put an expiry date on temporary supports, by arguing the Morrison government had responded to conditions at the time but was always guided by health advice.

“What we’re questioning is the timing of the removal of these Covid supports as we’re just heading into what the medical experts are saying is a very dangerous wave,” she told Radio National.

Ruston called on the government to explain “why it’s a good idea now to remove these supports” at the same time as it was warning of more infections.

“Is the decision being made by the government based on the health advice?”