COVID-19 Legislation Amendment 2021
(Bills - Second Reading Debate, March 16 2021, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
The COVID‑19 Legislation Amendment (Stronger Communities and Health) Bill 2021 extends for six more months some of the emergency and extraordinary powers introduced last year to deal with the pandemic.
It allows a further six‑month extension by regulation. COVID‑19 continues to wreak havoc across the world, with over 2½ million deaths attributed to the disease in just over a year and over 21 million cases currently active. Thankfully, Australia—especially New South Wales under the leadership of the Premier and Minister Hazzard—has avoided a health crisis. However, the need for social‑distancing powers remains as the disease continues to escape hotel quarantine and has the ability to spread quickly through the community. The World Health Organization has warned that the pandemic is unlikely to finish by the end of the year, even with concerted efforts to vaccinate populations, because it will take time to fully vaccinate enough people across the globe to stop infections and to determine the effectiveness of the vaccines in the face of new variants.
Hopefully, for New South Wales another year in the shadow of COVID‑19 will not mean significant health challenges outside of rolling out vaccines, but certainly it will mean more economic pain, with a focus on certain industries and jobs. Industries that rely on tourism, like accommodation and travel; on guaranteed open borders, like touring; and on crowds, like live music, will be hit hard. Last year many businesses managed to stay afloat only because of JobKeeper and grants. JobKeeper is set to disappear at the end of the month, and we risk a wave of business collapses and unemployment. In particular, I worry about businesses in Sydney's central business district that rely on trade from city office workers, such as restaurants, bars, cafes and copy services. The CBD economy is in crisis. More people are returning to the office; however, numbers are still very low. Many office towers are tenanted by multinational companies that have global return‑to‑work policies based on cities with poorer COVID‑19 outcomes.
Maximum CBD occupancy rates are around 25 per cent—far short of pre‑pandemic levels. That is unlikely to change any time soon. At the height of the pandemic trade dropped to as low as 90 per cent for many CBD small businesses. It has not been restored to more than 50 per cent since. Those businesses are trapped in long‑term leases entered into before the pandemic and have not been able to negotiate rent reductions with their landlords that would enable them to survive. If business owners terminate their leases, their landlords can take their large security deposits or pursue them in court for the sale of their homes, which are often used to secure guarantees. When JobKeeker is withdrawn, those businesses will need additional financial assistance to continue operating or protections against losing their security bonds and other guarantees if they cease. I have written to the Treasurer to ask for a recovery package to protect this cohort.
The New South Wales Government has still not provided a package to save the State's dedicated live music venues. Last year I sponsored a petition signed by over 20,000 people in just over 24 hours in support of live music venues. Those venues are the lifeblood of our music industry, fostering the careers of homegrown talent that we export to the world. They also support local industries, like restaurants and bars. Dedicated live music venues suffered prolonged closures and severely reduced audiences, and hired additional staff to comply with health orders. They will not survive the loss of JobKeeper.
I was disappointed to read that Venue 505 will close at the end of the month despite the Government having told me it would work with venues to develop a survival package, as has been done in Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and indeed across the globe. If existing dedicated venues close, recovery in the live music industry will be longer and more challenging and New South Wales will cease to be cultural world leader we are renowned to be. The Government has said it is committed to a vibrant live music industry. I again urge it to work with dedicated live music venues to save them from collapse.
The end of JobKeeper also poses significant risks to workers across the board, particularly low-income workers in the food and beverage, hospitality, entertainment and retail industries for whom work depends on their employer receiving JobKeeper. Without JobKeeper, many will lose their jobs at the same time. The Government must prepare for this new wave of unemployment. I welcome the commitment to extend the moratorium on residential tenancy evictions, but we also need better protections to ensure that landlords and tenants negotiate in good faith. We urgently need to remove no grounds evictions. The need for the bill shows that the pandemic is not over and is going to be with us for at least another six months. Beyond ensuring that social distancing can continue we now need to go to protecting the most vulnerable, including vulnerable small businesses, from economic fallout.