Prime Minister Scott Morrison has talked up the swift decisions that spared Australia from tens of thousands more virus deaths as he previewed the next stage of the nation’s recovery.
Speaking at the Business Council of Australia’s annual dinner on Monday night, Mr Morrison said Australia was “leading the world out of the COVID-19 pandemic” after having escaped the worst of the health crisis and global recession still gripping most other nations.
And tough action — including being among the first countries to slam the door on China in the early days of the pandemic — helped get us there, the prime minister said.
There have been 910 Australian deaths due to COVID-19, but Mr Morrison warned had Australia’s fatality rate been as high as the rest of the OECD, “more than 30,000 lives would have been lost” in this country.
“This wasn’t luck,” he said.
“It was not luck that meant we entered this unprecedented crisis from a position of fiscal strength, with the Budget back in balance for the first time in 11 years.
“It wasn’t luck that saw Australia be among the first countries to close our border to mainland China.
“It wasn’t luck that saw Australia call the pandemic early, two weeks before the rest of the world.”
The federal government banned foreign arrivals from China in February 2020, as the virus that originated in Wuhan took hold globally.
At the time, China blasted Australia’s decision an “extreme measure” which was “an over-reaction indeed”.
In his speech, Mr Morrison also pointed to the work of state and territory leaders in national cabinet and the federal JobKeeper scheme as examples of why Australia had handled the COVID-19 crisis better than most nations.
He said Australia’s economy had recovered 85 per cent from the expected slump caused by the pandemic, “six months earlier and twice as fast as we expected in last year’s October budget”.
The unemployment rate stands at 5.6 per cent, down from 7.5 per cent in July, and jobs were above the level they were before the pandemic.
“There are more Australians in work than before COVID hit,” Mr Morrison said.
“JobKeeper, the coronavirus supplement, the CashFlow Boost, support payments to millions of pensioners and others on income support, have helped cushion the blow and seen Australia’s economy outperform virtually all major advanced economies in 2020.
“Importantly, the fiscal support we have provided will not end suddenly. It has a long tail.
“But the pandemic has not changed our view that the private sector should remain the primary engine of growth in our economy.”
Mr Morrison previewed the second stage of the federal government’s economic recovery plan that will be unveiled by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in May.
He said it would focus on lower taxes, deregulation and open trade, investment in workers and new technologies, and strengthening businesses and the private sector.
Mr Morrison said the federal government would be committed to meeting its climate change targets but they would not be achieved “through punishing taxes”, rather through commercialising low emissions technology.
He said the country needed to “change our energy mix” over the next three decades to achieve zero emissions.
“We will not achieve net zero in the cafes, dinner parties and wine bars of our inner cities. It will not be achieved by taxing our industries that provide livelihoods for millions of Australians off the planet, as our political opponents sort to do, when they were given the chance,” the prime minister said.
“It will be achieved by the pioneering entrepreneurialism and innovation of Australia’s industrial workhorses, farmers and scientists.
“It will be won in places like the Pilbara, the Hunter, Gladstone, Portland, Whyalla, Bell Bay, and the Riverina. In the factories of our regional towns and outer suburbs. In the labs of our best research institutes and scientists. It will be won in our energy sector. In our industrial sector. In our agricultural sector. In our manufacturing sector.
“This is where the road to net zero is being paved in Australia. And those industries and all who work in them, will reap the benefits of the changes they are making and pioneering.”
In his speech, the prime minister announced a new red tape reduction measures expected to save businesses, charities and individuals about $430 million in compliance costs each year.
The prime minister also recapped Monday’s discussions in national cabinet about the country’s vaccine rollout scheme, which risks falling behind the rest of the world after changed health advice about the AstraZeneca vaccine to Australians aged under 50 threw out the timeline out of whack.
On Monday state and territory leaders agreed to discuss mass vaccination hubs and a fast-tracking of vaccine delivery to under-50s to get the rollout back on track.
“Our vaccination strategy is being delivered at the same time, we continue to implement our national health response and our successful suppression strategy – these have and continue to keep Australians safe during this unprecedented global pandemic,” Mr Morrison said.