Thursday, 14 May 2020
I rise to join many of the colleagues here in these quite extraordinary and historic times to take note of the ministerial statement on the COVID-19 pandemic provided by the Minister for Health and responded to by the shadow minister for health. These are extraordinary and historic times. These are times that few of us could have predicted we would be living through in 2020. It got off to a really devastating start for many Australians, through the bushfires. Only a few months later, Australians find themselves in probably the largest health and economic challenge that we have ever faced in all of our collective lifetimes. It has dramatically changed life as we know it in Australia.
Today there are a few people that I want to say thank you to, and I want to talk about some of the ways we can use this pandemic to improve our country and our society. But, first of all, I think it's worth saying: this is obviously not an easy time to be in government, but it is possibly the most important time to be in government. I know that many members on the other side, including the minister and senior government ministers, would have worked pretty hard over this period. Their staff would have worked pretty hard too, and I haven't heard them being acknowledged enough in this discussion. I'm sure there are a lot of government staff who have put their own lives on pause for the last few months. As someone who's been a government staffer for a period of time, I know it can be a pretty demanding and thankless job at times, and I just want to acknowledge the work that many of them have done.
I also would say that there has been an air and a tone put by the government that they've done a great job, that this is all over and it's all in the past now. But, to be honest, I don't think that could be further from the truth. This pandemic is only just beginning, and we are at the foot of the mountain. Hopefully the number of cases in Australia will remain at a low level, but I fear that that might not be the case. I fear that, as restrictions are now being lifted around the country, we will see an increase in cases, which means we will see people losing their lives to this devastating virus. It also means a prolonged economic hurt, which, as many speakers have outlined before, has a range of other personal and health consequences that we need to acknowledge. One good thing that the Prime Minister did was establish a national cabinet. I think the premiers' contribution to the national cabinet has been profound throughout this whole entire pandemic. I especially want to acknowledge the leadership shown by the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, and the Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, who have had the 'go hard, go early' approach to this. They haven't waited to be right in order to act, and to act decisively, to protect and save as many lives as possible, and that is absolutely the right approach.
I also want to acknowledge the nurses, the doctors, the cleaners, the health workers and the mental health workers—the people who have picked up the phone at Beyond Blue. They are the people on the front line of this health crisis, who, in many ways and on many days, have put their own personal health and wellbeing on the line in order to save other people. We've heard many instances, both in Australia and around the world, of doctors and nurses having to potentially put themselves in harm's way in order to save others. It is a truly remarkable thing to see our health workers fight in the same heroic spirit as our firefighters did during the bushfires, and they should be recognised for such.
Personally, I want to thank David Forbes, a professor of mental health who joined me for a conversation a few weeks ago to talk about some of the ways in which we can all cope with the mental health challenges and the anxiety that people are facing. He, along with many of his colleagues, are doing a fabulous job helping people adapt to the changes of society that we're facing.
Our supermarket workers and our delivery drivers have done their job stoically. They have been turning up to work in the face of probably some of the most difficult days of this pandemic, when people have really been feeling the panic and the anxiety of what it means to be living through this pandemic and have been taking it out on some of our workers, who are literally keeping us alive and keeping the supply chains to people alive. I absolutely want to recognise the job that our supermarket workers, our restaurant workers, our food suppliers and our delivery drivers have done so stoically in Australia. They have fed Australians; they've kept Australians at home safely. They've done a wonderful job, and we thank them.
I'd like to thank our aged-care workers. It's been really hard; we haven't been able to see my grandmother throughout this entire pandemic. Nor have we seen my parents, but we can speak to them on Zoom, which has been far more accessible. But my grandmother has been isolated throughout this entire pandemic. It's been really hard, but I thank all the workers who have been looking after her and all the other residents who are finding themselves in a pretty vulnerable position in aged-care homes, as we've seen.
Our teachers and early educators were right to be nervous at the start. I'm really glad, obviously, to see kids slowly coming back to school, but this is a nervous time for them. As someone who's spent a little bit of time in the classroom, trying to and get four- and five-year-olds to socially distance is akin to herding cats. They can be, at times, unruly. I think many parents have had a new-found sense of appreciation for our teachers throughout this crisis. To parents and kids who are going through this: thank you for all your efforts. Throughout the country it has been a collective experience and a collective effort for us all to get through it.
I think that there are some things to mention before we move on. The No. 1 preventive health measure that we have needed throughout this pandemic has been our housing. We've all been instructed to stay at home in order to protect ourselves and each other throughout this pandemic. But that is simply impossible if you don't have a home, and it's simply impossible if your home is not a safe place to be. This pandemic has shone a spotlight on how important housing is to our society and how important housing is to our individual health and sense of safety and security. To be frank, our housing system was broken before this crisis. Our waiting lists were too long. It took far too long to be able to get into a house if you needed one. There simply isn't enough housing in Australia. One of the things that we can do, coming out of this coronavirus, is to build more homes. We need to build more homes—not just homes that can be bought as investment properties but homes that young people can purchase as their first homes and affordable homes for people to live in in order to protect themselves and society—because this isn't going away.
We're also going to need economic drivers and stimulus inside Australia, and building homes is going to be the perfect thing. That happened after the Great Depression. FDR, the great president, started a huge investment in housing in order to make housing more secure. After World War II, it was Curtin and Chifley who undertook a huge housing construction program. Even after the global financial crisis, the Rudd government embarked on a huge social housing investment program in order to kickstart the economy and provide people with housing.
We need to do better to help people who have casual and insecure work, especially our artists, our hospitality workers and our tourism workers. There are such people in my electorate, and I am so lucky to represent the great parts of St Kilda and Elwood and Port Melbourne. These are some of Melbourne's iconic suburbs, but these are also some of the areas that have been hit hardest in this economic crisis, and that has a whole range of health and economic consequences that we need to recognise and rectify. These are businesses and workers and creative institutions that need our support at this time, and they should be allowed to access JobKeeper. They should be accessing some of the government services, and the government should be doing more to support those industries and those workers.
Finally, I just want to make this point: this has been a really difficult period of government—no doubt. In think the Victorian government has done an outstanding job in focusing on saving Victorian lives. It takes a special kind of self-indulgence to make the focus of a pandemic or a crisis of this nature all about one's own political party. Unfortunately, the Victorian Liberal Party has done just that. Their self-indulgent, late-night tweeting, focused on things like golf and getting bats out of leafy suburbs of Melbourne, has been nothing but schoolyard political games that they should be ashamed of. They only show that they are unfit for government. At the same time, the Victorian government has shown that they are focused on saving Victorian lives.