Thursday, 14 May 2020
The people of the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury have had a hell of a 2020. The smoke from bushfires had barely cleared, allowing us to breathe again, allowing businesses to open and tourists to return, when coronavirus hit. At times the Blue Mountains has been considered a hot spot of the COVID-19, with people urged to be tested for even the slightest symptom. Our distilleries ditched gin for sanitiser. Hawkesbury's Karu Distillery supplied as much high-proof spirit to be used as a sanitiser as they could to essential services such as charities, police and food services. Owners Nick and Ally Ayres wanted to help out any way they could. And Lee Etherington from Wild Hibiscus Flower Company also confessed to me at one point that he had sacrificed a thousand litres of his best crafted gin into sanitiser. He just wanted to help. This sacrifice was being repeated in small and medium businesses all over my electorate. Small business has shown enormous innovation and creativity. I hope that my Macquarie Marketplace map has been a help and has made it easier to find out which businesses were still trading and still open, particularly at the height of the restrictions.
Like many members, people flooded my office with calls to check that they were obeying the rules, because they wanted to be part of protecting the community from the most serious health crisis that anyone living has seen. We pulled together, with most people managing to put politics aside to work for the common good and the health of every person in our community. But we weren't unscathed. Sadly, the deaths at the Newmarch aged-care facility on our doorstep have meant local families have tragically lost loved ones. Others have had an anxious wait as family members remain in Newmarch.
Throughout all of this, the nursing staff of aged-care facilities have kept on caring. Nurses in hospitals have kept on caring. Doctors and admin staff, supported by the heroes of our time, cleaners, have kept on caring. I've spoken to nurses who, having been exposed to COVID-19, spent two weeks in isolation to make sure they hadn't contracted the virus, returning to work to continue that care on the very first day that they could. We really got to know who the essential workers are. I hope we appreciate them all, and I'm stunned to hear suggestions from the New South Wales government that workers like nurses are facing a possible pay freeze. Some thanks for the risks that they've taken!
I was able to show the community's appreciation in a very small way by delivering some sweet treats to our local hospitals, Hawkesbury, Springwood and Blue Mountains, drawing on local businesses like Auntie May's in Bullaburra, the Humble Bakehouse in Bligh Park and the Ori Cafe in Springwood. It was just something to help brighten their afternoon in their relentless work.
You really can't thank essential workers for their efforts in this health crisis without talking about teachers. While there is no denying that it has been a really confusing time for teachers, principals and parents, they've all been desperate to understand the health advice about whether they can be back in the classroom and how best to be back in the classroom. The creation of online modules, the supervision of children of essential workers in a school, often juggling the home schooling of their own children, protecting themselves and their families—all of this has meant a huge load for members of the teaching profession. We thank them. Of course there is the anxiety of casual teachers who were excluded from the JobKeeper program. That starts to touch on a second major health issue that my constituents and many others face: how to maintain good mental health in the face of a terribly uncertain and troublesome time.
Another profession carrying a big burden is the early learning profession. Workers in the full range of child care and early learning environments, from family day carers to preschools and long day care centres, have faced an unprecedented situation, where their clients are receiving free child care. While on this side of the House we have a deep belief in the importance of quality early learning, and we love the principle of free child care, none of us expected that the people to be paying the price for the free child care would be the centres themselves or their workers. It is complicated criteria that the government has applied, and directors tell me that they are still coming to terms with it and how they provide the quality learning environment they want with an income that is capped. Their income is capped, but the number of children who come back as restrictions ease is not. The bluntness of JobKeeper as a wage subsidy tool means that newer casuals don't qualify, and it leads to some part-timers earning more and some full-timers earning less. Directors have rostering nightmares.
I've been grateful to the family day carers, like Moochy Kids and Cubbyhouse, and the directors of Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains centres, who've Zoomed with me and shared with me their challenges and the lengths they've gone to to keep their children safe. I say to them: you've let me into the anxious world that you're surviving in, and you've allowed me and Labor to advocate on your behalf.
Parents are also feeling the stress—from the ones who called because they were worried their centre might close to people like Kieran Ashton, who wants his youngest daughter to join his son at Cubbyhouse in coming months and recognises that Tracey won't get paid for it. He's happy to pay but he isn't allowed, so it's a system with flaws.
Early Learning on George, in the Hawkesbury, is one centre battling bureaucracy. Director Karen Nightingale tried to have her numbers reassessed through exceptional circumstances, because her centre had two days of low numbers after a tree fell across the centre's backyard in a storm, which was during the reporting period. Her application was rejected based on her post-COVID numbers, but Karen tells me she's seeing an increase in attendances. She will be back to 97 per cent capacity every day next week, but funding it on the lower income. While Karen recognises JobKeeper has made a massive difference—and we knew a wage subsidy would; that's why we badgered the government and we're pleased they introduced it—she won't have funding for all the children returning next week without a review of her income. These are the challenges that people are facing day to day.
I can't stress how important financial security is to helping people keep good mental health at this time. To even suggest that financial support is to be wound back or reviewed in some way, or that you have to keep proving eligibility, is a really cruel thing to do, especially given that only this week is JobKeeper money starting to get into most people's accounts.
There are so many frontline people who have carried us through this difficult time, and will continue to as this health crisis goes on. There are the supermarket workers—the drivers who've made sure deliveries get to the door. Supermarkets in some cases have worked 24 hours a day to keep supermarket shelves stocked and restocked. Those people deserve our thanks. Another very visible frontline worker is the Centrelink worker. I was really pleased to help the Centrelink workers at Katoomba, Springwood and Windsor take a moment to have coffee or donuts. It was just a small gesture of thanks for the long queues of distressed people they've been trying to help through this process.
I also want to commend the volunteers in my electorate who helped me reach out to older people. I'm talking about people like Kristy and Jules, Shane and Anne, and Suzanne and Katherine, who made nearly a thousand calls to older people just to check that they were okay. Some of those calls were quick chats and some were much lengthier conversations. Hopefully, they helped people at a time when they may have been feeling very alone and isolated in their homes. We were also able to solve a few other problems for them, and we'll continue to do that because this isn't over; we know that and, as a community, we all have to accept it.
I also want to single out the arts sector. We have a huge arts community in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury. It's not just the front people, the actors and the lead singers; it's the band that sits behind them, the roadies who get the gear on stage, the producers, the lighting operators, the stagehands, the filmmakers. There are so many professions connected to the arts. Within theatres, it's the people who sell the tickets or sell you a drink at the bar at interval. Many of these people are missing out on any government support because the arts sector often has very short-term contracts and people haven't qualified for JobKeeper. I really urge the government to listen to the arts sector. We have relied on them while we've been in a routine that's much closer to home. We've listened to them and we've watched them. We need all these people to be ready to get back onstage for us when coronavirus is under greater control and we're allowed to get back outside more and to meet in larger groups. I really beg the government to step up to this. These are ordinary people in my community and they need your help. This government needs to keep supporting people as we move through what will continue to be challenging times.