Coronavirus Government Global Briefing: April 23

By Chris Woods

April 23, 2020

Welcome to Coronavirus Government Global Briefing, Mandarin Premium’s morning update on everything in local and global government responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Allegations of solitary confinement and new eviction powers in emergency legislation

The Victorian government will today vote on the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020, which, as the government outlined on Tuesday, will cover housing support, judge-only criminal trials, virtual meetings for state and council politicians, WorkCover extensions and new regulatory powers over justice processes.

While the emergency bill has not, at time of publication, been published online, barrister Greg Barns has flagged concerns that alleged provisions for mandatory quarantine of new prisoners, both in adult and youth detention, could amount to solitary confinement; further, there is no guarantee that the power would not be used for discipline purposes.

Over in Queensland, the state parliament passed their COVID-19 Emergency Response Bill 2020which includes changes to tenancy laws, regulatory powers over court proceedings, legal documents, and Parliament sitting during the pandemic and, interestingly, a Small Business Commissioner to act as a point of contact for small businesses to access information, support and dispute resolution.

However, ahead of the vote, Greens MP Michael Berkman claimed in a Twitter thread that concessions to landlords — seemingly in response to a concerted campaign by the Real Estate Institute of Queensland last week — create new grounds for landlords to evict tenants on fixed-term leases in the event they want to sell a property with vacant possession.

During the vote, Greens MP Berkman noted that, due to time constraints, his proposed amendments were not considered.

The vote came after Queensland parliament passed the Appropriation (COVID-19) Bill 2020, which provides over $4 billion over two years in previously-announced funding for health, household, business, employment, land tax, local government and homelessness support.

Elsewhere, Western Australia has introduced their own bill for an eviction moratorium, Residential Tenancies (COVID-19 Response) Bill 2020, while the Northern Territory will also sit to debate a bill on Friday covering rental protections, quarantine rules, and “legislation to slash power and water prices by 50% for Territory businesses”.

For how all states and territories are handling emergency declarations and powers, check out the Australian government solicitor’s new guide.

Health policy wrap: Testing priorities, patents and the unreliability of antibody surveys

  • Public-health expert and bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel and Nobel-winning economist Paul Romer argue in The Atlantic that considering both the lack of testing supplies and that the lack of targeted treatment in America means “confirming an infection generally does not change the way a patient’s symptoms are treated,” suspected patients should instead be presumed infected and tests instead be prioritised for “all health-care workers and other first responders who directly interact with many people”, followed by essential workers.
  • Director of the Grattan Institute’s Health Program Stephen Duckett has argued in The Conversation that, with elective surgeries to resume next week, Australia has the perfect opportunity to fix long-lasting inconsistencies with assessment, staff and hospitals.
  • James Ward, a Pitjantjatjara and Narungga man who is the Director of the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health and Professor within the School of Public Health at the University of Queensland, has written at Croakey on the work being done by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group for the Communicable Disease Network of Australia, as well as Indigenous communities and organisations, to suppress the spread of the coronavirus.
  • Science unpacks the many, many complications of the first antibody survey — from early declarations to the press to potential bias to a litany of questions of how antibodies to COVID-19 work — and why, most of all, the findings of 2% to 30% of certain populations could have already been infected cannot be taken for granted.
  • While the story is two days old now, health experts at The Conversation have outlined ‘Three simple things Australia should do to secure access to treatments, vaccines, tests and devices during the coronavirus crisis’, which consist of preparing to over-ride patents, reinstate the right to import low-cost medicines, and support Costa Rica’s proposal for a global pool of free information on diagnostic tests, devices, medication or vaccines.

As Labor and NZ Greens push for high speed rail, US grapples with infrastructure in fourth stimulus package

On Sunday, both the federal Australian Labor party and New Zealand’s Green Party called on their national governments to adopt high speed rail projects as a means of post-COVID infrastructure stimulus.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the likely $114b-plus price tag of a Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney-Brisbane link means that Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, while supportive, will instead focus on the government’s 20-year plan for inland rail between major cities and regional centres.

The Greens, who have also stressed the climate benefits of high-speed rail, may have a better shot in New Zealand, with the party in a power-sharing arrangement with Jacinda Ardern’s Labour party; according to Stuff, co-leader James Shaw and Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter are pushing for a link between Timaru and Christchurch, with Genter noting they are discussing the two-stage, $9 billion proposal with the country’s finance minister.

The Herald-Sun reports today reports that while not high-speed, the Victorian government is considering fast-tracking new rail, road and construction projects as part of its economic recovery plan.

Is anyone else building rail now?

Interestingly, both Italy and California have signed off on high-speed rail projects during the pandemic, and the push in Australia and New Zealand to tie them to economic recovery comes as both Donald Trump and US Democrats — who just passed a third, $484 billion response package, most of which, Bloomberg reports, is directed at topping up the now-empty Paycheck Protection Program along with funding for loan programs, hospital and testing — consider infrastructure as part of a fourth stimulus package.

Trump explicitly called for infrastructure after the package was passed, while White & Case explains how Democrats earlier this month expressed interested in tying a pre-existing, five-year, $760 billion infrastructure plan, the ‘Moving Forward Framework’ — which was originally introduced in January 2020, and covers highways, transit, rail, clean energy, clean water, communication and more — into the fourth package.

For an alternative opinion, check out National Review’s “The Case Against an Infrastructure ‘Stimulus'”, which targets the economic, employment and effectiveness arguments for tying infrastructure to spending splash.

On the home front: Support for temporary visa holders, “Jobs for Canberrans”, Home Improvement Scheme rolls out, & a new health portal

It has, again, been a packed week of federal, state and territory funding and program announcements.

Police to be banned from accessing tracing data: Porter

According to The Age, Attorney-General Christian Porter has announced police will not be able to access metadata from the new contract tracing app.

TAS, QLD and SA target temporary visa holders and international students

Yesterday, the Tasmanian government outlined a $3 million support package for temporary visa holders, who are excluded from the national JobSeeker program. This will include:

  • Immediately extending eligibility for Pandemic Isolation Assistance Grants, meaning that, if people can demonstrate genuine financial hardship as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, that can access an immediate payment of $250 per individual or up to $1000 per family;
  • Additional funding to non-government organisations to provide additional emergency relief and assistance where required.
  • For visa holders whose country is safe to return to, the government will assist with travel advice, and “if necessary due to genuine financial hardship we will on a case by case basis assist with financial support to do so”; and
  • A pledge to work with industry sectors or employers who want to retain employees because of specialist skills for when their business is able to start up again.

Up north, Queensland has announced $2.2 million in funding support for international students, which provides both:

  • a new online hub, to be built by local EdTech firm Vygo and run by Multicultural Australia, to link case workers with students and guide them through mental health, visa, crisis accommodation and other essential needs; and
  • tuition support, laptops, isolation care-packs, pre-prepared meals and other living expense payments to students.

The news comes after the South Australian government announced the $13.8 million ‘International Student Support Package‘ on Tuesday, to include:

  • a $10 million fund for university students significantly impacted by COVID-19 restrictions at the University of Adelaide, Flinders University and University of South Australia, to be distributed to their pathway and international students.
  • A $500 emergency cash grant to other international students significantly impacted by the restrictions who are currently enrolled in a course, living in South Australia, and who meet the criteria; and
  • A one-off $200 assistance payment per student living with South Australian families provided to homestay families.

ACT launches “Jobs for Canberrans”

On Monday, the ACT government announced 150 new short-term public service jobs had been created under a $20 million ‘Jobs for Canberrans’ fund, to cover the following areas:

  • Access Canberra customer service
  • city cleaning
  • garden and tree maintenance
  • environmental recovery following bushfires
  • administrative support

Since launch, the website notes that, to be eligible to apply for roles, people must have lost their job, or have been significantly impacted as a result of COVID-19, and that highest priority will be given to people ineligible for any Australian government support.

Additionally, Transport Minister Chris Steel yesterday announced a series of projects to be fast-tracked for local businesses ahead of a completion data of 30 June 2020:

  • Upgrades and extensions to footpaths and cycleway networks
    • New and improved cycleways and footpaths across the city, adding missing links to the current network and expanding the network in new suburbs
  • Roads
    • New pedestrian crossings in Narrabundah and Belconnen, as well as the installation of traffic calming measures in Weston
  • Building improvements packages waste and transport facilities
    • Improving facilities for staff at Transport Canberra depots
    • Deep cleaning and repainting bus shelters across the Territory
  • Open Space landscaping improvements
    • Refreshing pergolas, shade structures and seating
    • Replacement of ageing bollards with new ones made of recycled plastic
    • Mulching around trees and garden beds

135 Home Improvement Scheme vouchers hit the NT over two days

The Northern Territory government yesterday announced that 135 Home Improvement Scheme vouchers have been rolled out over just two days, with “thousands more in the pipeline” amidst a total of 19,584 applications.

The $30 million scheme, which closed applications for this round on 17 April, offers home owners either of the following:

  • a voucher worth $4,000 if they contribute at least $1,000 of their own money, or
  • a voucher worth $6,000 if they contribute at least $2,000 of their own money.

Applications have been assessed on a first-come, first-served basis, and will be approved in stages so that the works last for about a year. Projects cover the following areas:

  • Air conditioning installation
  • Bathroom renovations
  • Kitchen renovations
  • Painting
  • Joinery
  • Plumbing
  • Carports
  • Concreting
  • Roofing
  • Electrical
  • Windows and glazing
  • Shade structures
  • Fencing

The government announced earlier this week that some regulations associated with the planning approval process — specifically the need to lodge an application under the Planning Act 1999 before seeking a building permit to start construction — have been temporarily suspended for works undertaken in association with the Jobs Rescue and Recovery Plan.

While building approvals may still be required, the government believes the temporary change may shave two-to-eight weeks off gaining a planning approval and save residents a minimum $181 on costs.

Victoria to announce new family service package

Today, The Age reports that Victoria will announce a $77.5 million new model family services package that focuses on early-intervention in child protection, to include:

  • $46 million to bolster the capacity of family service providers such as Berry Street and Anglicare, to provide outreach support to children at risk of harm.
  • $11 million for carers who are in financial distress, including a one-off $600 payment for foster parents and kinship carers, for each child in their care.
  • An expansion of the Home Stretch program to support all young people in care who are due to turn 18 before December this year; this will reportedly allow them to maintain their foster or kinship care living arrangements or support as they transition to independence.
  • More than $15 million to residential care providers to bolster staff and carry out cleaning to stop the spread of the virus.
  • Workplace supports so that department and agencies can replace frontline workers if they become ill with coronavirus.

Queensland launches new data website

Finally, the Queensland government has unveiled a new state COVID-19 data website, which includes, amongst other updates, information on cases by Local Government Area and source of infection, COVID-10 mapping and cumulative graphs, and self-quarantine statistics

Queensland’s cases by Local Government Area, as of 21 April. Source: Queensland COVID-19 statistics.

For health department updates: Federal, NSW, Victoria, QueenslandACTSouth AustraliaTasmaniaNorthern Territory and Western Australia.

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