Australian government coronavirus response package infiltrates many corners of Australian law
Exactly where the saying “desperate times call for desperate measures” comes from no-one is entirely sure, although a possible source is the Greek father of medicine, Hippocrates, who evidently said that extreme diseases require extreme methods of cure. The Australian government coronavirus response package may be one such extreme cure.
Coronavirus response package affects many pieces of legislation
The medical reference is more than superficial. A couple of weeks ago we were talking about whether people could leave their homes, or whether the hairdresser would be open.
Now, spreading exponentially in the manner of a virus, the Federal government’s response package has infiltrated many pieces of legislation (including regulations as well as acts of parliament), changing dollar amounts, deferring deadlines, changing eligibility rules and extending due dates.
Some measures are simply intended to cut red tape, allowing the fast-tracking of the payment of existing benefits.
Speedy introduction of emergency measures of paramount importance
Almost everyone is struggling to understand the fine detail. Will they qualify to receive some benefit, or for a moratorium or freeze on having to make some regular payment, or to repay a debt? How do they apply, and to whom? What kind of evidence do they need?
It is perhaps inevitable, given the necessary haste with which governments have moved, that some of these questions haven’t yet been completely answered.
It is not impossible, given the sweeping nature of the measures, that there will be some circumstances in which the interaction between two different aspects of the package may not be clear. However, few people are likely to quibble with this, in light of the benefit of getting a package in place sooner rather than later.
The place to start, however, is with an overall picture of the response package.
Response package enacted by Australian parliament
In this item we use the word “response” rather than the equally common “stimulus” to describe the package; in part because that’s what the legislature has called it, and in part because not everything in it can sensibly be called a “stimulus”.
The legislation is the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Act 2020, an enactment of the Australian parliament. It is sometimes described using the additional word “appropriation” because the bill was a “money” bill in the same way as is the budget, (“Omnibus” is a term sometimes used to describe legislation which has a range of different and unrelated subject matters.)
The Act is close to 100 pages in length, although it might be more sensible to say that the main body of the Act only occupies a handful of pages, with the details being contained in 16 Schedules.
It is a common practice in legislative drafting for the contents of the main body of an Act to focus on brief statements which create rights or obligations, with other provisions “giving effect” to the fine detail contained in schedules at the bottom of the main body of the Act.
So let’s look briefly at what’s in the response package, schedule by schedule.
Schedules 1, 2 and 3
These are mainly taxation measures aimed at assisting business, including large increases in asset write-offs, changing the frequency of BAS reporting to allow quicker refunds, and cash flow boosts. The cash flow boosts are delivered through social security and veterans’ affairs Acts, as well as through taxation legislation.
This provides for stimulus payments to households, again through taxation, social security and veterans’ affairs legislation.
Schedules 5 and 6
These make amendments to environmental legislation, allowing a wider range of people to carry out human biosecurity functions, and including abolition of some Great Barrier Reef tourism charges from now until the end of 2020.
This gives financial assistance to employers of apprentices, and to the aviation industry.
Schedules 8 and 9
These are concerned with lessening impacts on people whose lives have been unavoidably disrupted by the coronavirus or by measures aimed at containing its spread.
Schedule 8 provides the relevant minister with sweeping powers to exempt certain people from various requirements of the Corporations Act 2001, if it appears to the minister that it would be unreasonable to expect compliance from a person or group of people in light of the disruption caused by the coronavirus or response measures.
Schedule 9 is similar, but applying to childcare when parents need to withdraw their children in circumstances which would otherwise attract financial penalties.
Schedules 10, 11, 12 and 13
These are aimed at giving access to, or giving additional funds to, respectively, superannuation account holders (by drawdowns or early release of funds), welfare recipients, and financially distressed individuals and businesses.
This applies to Medicare, changing phase-in limits and threshold amounts.
Schedules 15 and 16
Demonstrating the wide ambit of the package, Schedule 15 defers the due date for an “intergenerational report” under the Charter of Budget Honesty Act 1998; and Schedule 16 defers “sunsetting”.
This gives a relevant minister, in relation to a provision of an act which was due to cease having effect between now and October 2020, the power to defer this “sunset date” to some later time.
Legislation and the needs of individuals
There is now on the internet an abundance of information providing details of each of these measures.
However, we have provided an overview because, especially as announcement of these measures tends to be by politicians focusing on one or two specific initiatives, it’s not easy to understand exactly what is available and best suited to the needs of individuals.