The role of government has rarely been more important than in 2020, when a global pandemic forced rapid action.
It was also Bass Liberal MHR Bridget Archer's first full year as the local MP, where she had to navigate the needs of her constituents and the political realities of government.
The Examiner journalist ADAM HOLMES sat down with her in December.
Part 1 of this interview covers:
- issues raised in Bass during COVID
- getting Australians "back to work"
- industrial relations reform
- the COVID Supplement/JobSeeker
- the first part of a discussion on the cashless welfare decision
AH: It was a year like no other, and as a federal MP, you had a unique position to assist Northern Tasmanians. What were the main issues brought to you by your constituents this year?
Obviously the most pressing issue for most people was around the sudden shutdowns. And often, there wasn't a lot of warning, and businesses having to close suddenly and initially not knowing what that was going to mean for employees, for continuity of the business.
There was a really high amount of stress at that point.
I think JobKeeper has really been a lifeline for businesses here in Northern Tasmania. Now, when I go around the past few months, a lot of businesses are saying they don't know what they would have done without JobKeeper.
We had our Morning Tea yesterday with the Chamber of Commerce and Andrew Pitt was saying that Neil Pitt's had just put on a young guy in February who had been unemployed for a long time, had just got a start, and then everything fell apart and he was able to keep him connected to the business with JobKeeper.
Those sort of stories are really heartening in the year that we've had to be able to help people to stay connected to work.
The other issue that has been raised with us a number of times is temporary visa holders. I think it's been an incredibly difficult time for temporary visa holders in Australia. Our community has really rallied around to try to support temporary visa holders, and of course the state government has assisted with them as well.
As we've come through it, I think the challenge partly was that I don't think anybody really appreciated the magnitude of it, or also how long, how protracted it might be. That was before we saw what happened with Melbourne. That's the story that we're hearing now is people who are still stuck overseas, for example. They didn't come back when we closed the border because they thought, well, I've got a job here, I'm on a contract, or whatever is going on.
I don't think people really appreciated that it was going to go on for a year or longer. Those real challenges now are getting people back from overseas, doing that safely so that we don't have quarantine challenges.
But also, visa workers, and trying to get crops harvested. I'm on a farm and even shearers often come in and out of the state or the country. So there's a lot of moving parts.
AH: As we look ahead to 2021, the government has repeatedly said it wants to "get Australians back to work". But we're clearly not out of the economic woods yet. For those out of work, what should they do to "get back to work", and what industries will actually be hiring?
As I move around and I talk to businesses, I think there are some opportunities in Northern Tasmania. There are some skills and training opportunities as well if that's something that people want to pursue.
Talking to local engineering firms recently, for example, one local engineering firm has got three jobs available that they haven't been able to fill at the moment. Two for qualified trades, one for an apprentice.
I'm hearing a little bit that there's a bit of opportunity around for apprentices, but where once upon a time these guys would get a bunch of unsolicited applications from Year 10 school leavers, this year they didn't get any.
Something has shifted, but there are some opportunities particularly in the trades.
The other area where I think there is a really high opportunity here in Tasmania is in any of the caring industries. Very thin markets. With the NDIS for example, high demand, but very thin market in terms of availability of staff and skilled workers.
Also, aged care, the same.
And then we had a community consultation session last night around the adult mental health facility in Launceston and in some of those other Allied Health areas, there are a lot of opportunities. I know UTAS is turning their mind to that issue. The Migrant Resource Centre has had some great partnerships with StGiles around skills and training for migrant communities.
There are some opportunities there, and for some people that may require some additional training and skills development.
There's a lot of opportunities available for that too.
AH: The government released its industrial relations plans recently, and some of that involved weakening the Better Off Overall Test and expanding on the definition of casual work. Do you think that could give fewer rights to workers, move it too far in the direction of employers, or is there a balance?
There has to be a balance.
I certainly wouldn't support any erosion of workers' rights.
Prior to being an elected member, I've only ever had casual or contract work. I'm very familiar with the uncertainty. It brings a level of flexibility as well. A lot of people, including me when I was younger, it's great - you can travel around. You can work in hospitality, you can work the hours that suit you.
Some people choose a level of flexibility.
But for a lot of people, it's uncertain. And of course, in my own experience, I had an accident at work. Six weeks in hospital. Things get a bit dire when you have no sick leave.
It was interesting to me that there was really no formal definition of what a casual was, and what we've seen is that the pathways from translating casual employment into part-time or full-time has been difficult
Having come out of many years in hospitality, both employers and employees need a degree of flexibility but things have changed - the nature of work and the nature of industries have changed over time - so I think we have to be able to be adaptable to do that
I do think we have to maintain rights for the workers as well. We don't want people to be worse off
AH: You've made your position on the COVID supplement clear for some time, that you wouldn't like Newstart/JobSeeker to return to pre-COVID levels. If the government proposed to end the COVID supplement from March, is this something you would vote against?
It depends whether there is an opportunity to vote against it is the other thing. My understanding of the legislation is that it could be done by regulatory instrument.
As individual members of the government it's important to make our views known and it's important that of course we represent our electorate and we're speaking to our electorate, but sometimes when we speak - and I think cashless welfare is another example of that - that the message we're sending is very clearly to our government, to our own team.
I have taken every opportunity that I possibly can to make my views known to the minister, to the prime minister, to the treasurer, to anyone that's prepared to listen that we just can't see it go back to those levels.
There'll be consequences for people. There's consequences for people's lives if we do.
AH: So you would take a similar stance where, if you couldn't use your vote on that one, you would make a speech again like with cashless welfare?
There's always opportunities to make speeches, but they're not always connected to a vote either. If there was an opportunity to vote then I certainly would be making my view clear.
I think it was a good outcome in the end.
There are a lot of moving parts to this.
The timing of the vote that was taken could have influenced what the outcome of that was in a number of different ways.
My position didn't change. But if that vote had been taken a week earlier, before the Member for Groom was sworn in, there would have been a different result.
AH: So you wouldn't have minded being the MP that voted to end your own government's policy?
The challenge would have been then - I spoke to this in my speech, and my concern was - what happens then? So we switch it off on the 31st of December, that would have been the result.
Logic would say, well the government will have to do something, but we don't know what that would have been, what they would have been able to achieve, whether that's going to inconvenience or disadvantage people even further.
We've also got to come back to, across the range of views, people disagree about the solution. But there's not many people who disagree on what the problem is.
When these measures were put in place, rightly or wrongly, some well-intentioned person has designed that to address a problem. I don't agree that that's the right way to address the problem, but I absolutely understand that we're talking about levels of disadvantage that I think many of us would fail to understand or comprehend.
These measures have been in place for a long time, and it would be irresponsible in my view to just walk away and leave people unsupported.
The outcome where we've landed - with an extension of the trial sites - and what I understand, I'm not sure if this has been announced yet, part of the support that was gathered by Centra Alliance that influenced the way that they voted, was that the trial is extended, it doesn't become permanent, but there would be additional wrap around supports put in place. So there'll be jobs and training packages, and drug and alcohol programs actually delivered into those areas.
That's a good outcome, in my view. I said in my speech I would keep advocating to move away from it in those trial sites, but my point was always that the trial sites are very complex because of the levels of complex disadvantage there, the length of time they've been place, some community leaders want them, some community leaders don't.
That was very influential in me trying to decide what to do.
AH: Jacqui Lambie appeared to have a similar view, where she wanted it gone within six months?
Jacqui failed to get those amendments through the Senate too, so that speaks to the difficulty of the challenge as well.
Jacqui has long been a supporter of cashless welfare. I'm not sure that she would have necessarily been persuaded by the words that I said, but I have no doubt that she was swayed by the massive raining of hell that came down on me.
Part 2 of this interview will be published in Saturday's Examiner in print and online, and covers:
- political fallout from the cashless welfare card vote
- Ms Archer's opposition to other government policies
- integrity/anti-corruption commission
- access to GPs
- the City Deal
- social housing