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Josh Frydenberg tested for coronavirus after coughing fit during economic update | Australia news


The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, is in isolation in Canberra and has been tested for Covid-19 after enduring a protracted coughing fit while delivering an economic update to parliament.

In a short statement, the treasurer said he sought medical advice and the deputy chief medical officer advised that he be tested “out of an abundance of caution” because he had experienced a dry mouth and a cough. The results of the test are expected on Wednesday.

The statement was delivered shortly after noon. Frydenberg remained in the chamber for much of Tuesday, including during question time, which largely focused on the economic statement he made earlier in the day.

MPs in the parliamentary chambers are spaced so they are socially distant from one another, but Frydenberg’s coughing episode happened at the dispatch box, where frontbenchers from the prime minister down stand to deliver answers to questions, and make speeches.

The test will be Frydenberg’s second. He was tested previously for coronavirus after returning from an overseas trip. Peter Dutton is the only senior member of the government to have returned a positive test after returning from a visit to Washington in March.

Tuesday’s economic update was delivered on what was originally scheduled to be budget day in Canberra. With the budget delayed until October and the normal parliamentary sitting schedule suspended, the government now proposes to provide an updated fiscal and economic outlook in June, after the release of the March quarter national accounts.

Frydenberg told parliament Treasury is forecasting gross domestic product will fall by over 10% in the June quarter – which would be the biggest plunge on record – and unemployment could hit 10%. He said household consumption is expected to be around 16% lower and business investment is expected to fall by 18%.

Labor used the delivery of the statement as a cue to press the government about when economic conditions would revert to pre-pandemic levels.

Frydenberg told parliament he was unable to say when unemployment will return to the levels seen before Covid-19, or nominate a year when gross debt will start to decline, because “there’s great uncertainty in the economic environment”.

Labor pressed the government for more specifics about when the economy would turn the corner. The treasurer told parliament that was very difficult to predict. The Reserve Bank had noted in its most recent statement on monetary policy that “beyond the next few months the speed and timing of the economic recovery is very uncertain”.

“This uncertainty makes it extremely difficult to formulate reliable economic and fiscal estimates over the next few months,” Frydenberg said.

The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, asked Scott Morrison whether he regretted declaring prematurely that the budget was “back in black” before a surplus had been achieved.

Morrison brushed off the question. “The leader of the opposition may have an ability that I don’t have, Mr Speaker, and that is a crystal ball to see into the future and see that the coronavirus was going to impact on the Australian economy.”

The prime minister said every time the government had spoken about the economy “we have done it on the basis of the knowledge that we have and the certainties that are present at that time”.

Morrison was also pressed about his “snap back” language from early April. The prime minister said he had never said the economy would “snap back” to normal after the crisis had passed. His point was fiscal support would have a limited lifespan.

He said thinking about how the economy would respond to the shock of the pandemic had evolved significantly since April. “So the opposition is at liberty to go back and refer to comments made back in April, and that is fine. But they cannot do so without adding the further contexts of the actions taken to the government, taking into account more recent information”.

The finance minister, Mathias Cormann, said the government’s temporary measures to support businesses and the unemployed would not put a long-term burden on the budget.

Taking Frydenberg’s place for a scheduled interview with ABC’s 7.30 program on Tuesday evening, Cormann said: “I think that all of us are perhaps a bit exhausted after weeks and months of very intensive work. I spoke to the treasurer about an hour or so ago and he sounded perfectly fine.”



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