House debates

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Ministerial Statements


10:30 am

Photo of George ChristensenGeorge Christensen (Dawson, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise—not with any happiness, that's for sure—to talk about this statement that has been made on the Wuhan coronavirus, COVID-19. There are seven million-plus people infected around the world. In Australia, almost 7,300 people have been infected with this virus. Around the world 404,000 people are dead, and that number is growing on a daily basis. In Australia, thankfully—hopefully—it looks like we have stemmed that tide, with a very low number of 102. But that's quite a stark statement to make: 102 people dead is still a lot of people dead. There are families and friends right around this country grieving because of those 102 people who have died in Australia.

It's estimated that 950,000 jobs were lost over seven weeks, from 14 March through to 2 May—almost a million jobs gone. Hopefully, a lot of them will return as the economy reopens, but some of them may not. People's jobs have been lost, perhaps for a long time. Businesses have been reduced to ashes, and people whose life's work and life savings have been affected are either on the brink of bankruptcy or have already gone bankrupt because of this event. So it has been somewhat devastating for this country—somewhat devastating for the world, in fact. But I have to praise the leadership of the Prime Minister. I think that he has been very much the right person at the right time in this global crisis and how it has impacted this country.

I want to particularly say thank you to all of the hardworking health professionals, the frontline responders. These people, quite frankly, put themselves in harm's way during this event. They're like the SES volunteers who go out during cyclone disasters or the country fire brigades during bushfire disasters. They are our doctors and our nurses in our hospitals and in the GP clinics, the paramedics and the ambos. All of these people, as far as I'm concerned, are deserving of a national emergency medal for what they have done during this pandemic crisis. So, particularly to the hardworking men and women who make up the Mackay Health and Hospital Service and the Townsville Health and Hospital Service, to all of those who work in GP clinics, and to all of the Queensland Ambulance Service workers in my electorate and elsewhere, I want to say, on behalf of the people of Dawson, thank you for what you have done during this pandemic crisis.

Things could have been done better—there is no doubt about that. Hindsight is always great. Actually, during the event, I, along with other members in the Liberal-National Party and also in Katter's Australia Party, were calling for there to be regional management and basically a lockdown of 'North Queensland's borders'—I say that in inverted commas; we're not a separate state yet. There are local government boundaries that could have been closed down so that there wasn't the spread of this virus. We had 90-plus per cent of cases in Queensland originating in Brisbane and the south-east corner. So we could have stemmed that tide further. That option wasn't taken up, but I notice that there's now a bit of arguing from Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk against the position that she had with North Queensland. She's arguing that the borders of Queensland need to remain shut because of cases in New South Wales and Victoria. Well, the cases are extremely low now, and what we are seeing is the devastation of our tourism sector, in particular, in places like the Whitsundays.

Some of my constituents received some rough treatment at the hands of New South Wales Health authorities when they were locked down in quarantine after returning to the country. I'm very disappointed that New South Wales authorities took a bit of a heavy hand with my constituents, and I've raised those matters with people here. But, whether it's these issues or whether it's the issues of the people in Peru—I had constituents who were over there and were struggling to get back home and people on cruise ships who were struggling to find a way home—they were great difficulties that were managed through.

But, out of all of this, we need to look at the root cause of this problem. I hold one single entity responsible for it all, and that is the Chinese Communist Party. They unleashed on the entire world this virus that has caused such devastation. It has caused such a high death toll. In this country, it has caused 102 deaths, jobs have been lost and businesses have been lost, and an economy that was OK, that was going well, is suddenly looking very, very bad indeed.

There was a cover-up by the Chinese Communist Party. It is quite clear that the matter was covered up. Doctors were being silenced. Well-known doctor, Dr Li Wenliang, who died of COVID-19, was silenced. He was brought into a police station and told he was a rumour-monger and that he had to sign a piece of paper saying that he wouldn't say any more about this—one of the first whistleblowers. There were more doctors that were hauled in and questioned and arrested, and some disappeared. There were people who worked in laboratories that were near the Wuhan seafood market who disappeared. Why was there a cover-up? Why did they go into that seafood market and clean it out before anyone could do some proper inspections of the place? Why did the Chinese Communist Party authorities destroy early samples of this virus? Why did they do that? Why was there a cover-up? Why? The question has to be asked, and I'm glad that our government has pursued this with the World Health Organization and the World Health Assembly, because these questions have got to be answered.

We don't know where it came from. They say a seafood market, a wet market, but then there are sources within the Chinese Communist Party administration that say, no, it didn't come from there—that it came from the USA, apparently, and that the CIA brought it over. With the laboratory that exists nearby, I do think that there is enough circumstantial evidence pointing to that as the cause. I've been called a racist for saying that. Well, if I'm a racist for saying that then there are a lot of racists in very eminent positions that are coming out. Scientists, the former head of MI5 and the US military intelligence apparatus are coming out and saying that this is the case. The Harvard Medical School has a study out alleging that CCP authorities had knowledge of this virus back in August by using satellite imagery of the hospital carpark in Wuhan and also search terms that were going on from Wuhan. They were search terms that are associated with symptoms of a virus, such as the COVID-19 virus.

We know the cover-up happened. Why did the cover-up happen? You've got to have a close look at that lab—a very close look at that lab—because actually that lab has been doing some shocking research, gain-of-function research, where it manipulates viruses and can cause quite dangerous outcomes. That's not me saying that; a renowned microbiologist by the name of Peter Chumakov has said that they are doing absolutely crazy things in that lab that a lot of people are talking about. A World Health Organization adviser—Jamie Metzl, who's a member of the WHO's international advisory committee on human genome editing—has said it's likely that it leaked from that lab. This is one of the early signs. When this first came out, the South China University of Technology released a report by Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao that said:

… somebody was entangled with the evolution of the 2019-nCoV coronavirus.

In addition to the origins of natural recombination and intermediate host, the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan …

Eminent scientists in China itself said this probably came from a laboratory. There are a lot of questions that the Chinese Communist Party has to answer, and hopefully we will get those answers because of Australia's initiative.

10:40 am

Photo of Amanda RishworthAmanda Rishworth (Kingston, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education) Share this | | Hansard source

Australians' sense of mateship is at its clearest in difficult times, and throughout this once-in-a-century pandemic we have again proven that we are the Lucky Country. However, I believe there is a clear difference between sheer luck and being extremely fortunate. I do not regard Australia's ability to weather this crisis as pure luck. It has been the result of hard work by every Australian, with everyone working together to ensure that we are in the good position we are in.

One of the lovely things coming out of this crisis has been the attention and care that individual Australians have given to their neighbours. There have been spontaneous groups set up around my community to ensure that their next-door neighbours are okay. Obviously, you can't see them and you can't talk to them, but you can drop off food and you can contact them by telephone. That outreach of support and kindness was something that I was really touched by when I myself received a card in the mail from someone down my street saying, 'Look, I'm here to help if you need it.' Now, we didn't need help, but there could well have been someone in that street who did, and that thoughtfulness and kindness is something I wanted to put on record. I know that it wasn't just happening in my street; I know it was happening all around Australia. People were lending a hand to people that perhaps they'd never met before; they were letting them know that they cared and they were there. I think that is incredibly important.

Now, while I say we've done well to come out of this crisis relatively unscathed in terms of our health, I still acknowledge that tragically, at the time I give this speech, we've lost 102 Australians. We have 102 Australians who have lost their lives, and there are family members, loved ones and friends of these 102 Australians who are grieving and who are sad. We need to show them our support, love and kindness as well and to let them know that we are with them. In my home state of South Australia, four South Australian families are grieving.

Sadly, around one-third of the deaths across Australia are among the dire consequences of the Ruby Princess controversy. This is a grave reminder of how important coordinated efforts are to ensure the safety of our community. Of the four South Australians to have died, half were directly linked to that ill-fated cruise ship. So, of course, we do need to make sure that we learn lessons from the things that might not have gone to plan and might not have been perfect. We need to ensure that we learn those lessons so that in the future, if we face something like this again, we know what to do.

Of course there has been a big impact on a lot of people's lives—on those who have contracted the virus and have had to have medical support, or those that have been impacted by not being able to celebrate with their loved ones or to attend funerals. Not being able to attend funerals has been one of the hardest things, as has not being able to visit an elderly relative in a nursing home. I know that has caused a lot of anguish and distress for many Australians, and so to them I say: I would like to acknowledge your sacrifice. There have also been very anxious people in our community, particularly vulnerable people in our community, people with a disability or chronic conditions, who have been really anxious during this time and really worried about whether they will catch the virus and what that means for them. I recognise that this has been a particularly stressful time. Such uncertainty and difficult times do have an impact on Australians' mental health, and I think we need to really acknowledge that.

There's been the economic impact that will be lasting and that is yet to be fully determined. We know that we're in the midst of a recession, and how we come out of this will be critically important. Industries and businesses have been hit hard, and many are without the ability to adjust their services in a COVID-19 climate. I would like to acknowledge those that have been able to adjust their business. Congratulations and well done. To those that haven't: we understand and we are thinking of you.

So there has been care and compassion, and there have been a lot of difficulties as well. I would like to place on record my appreciation for all the sacrifices Australians have made to ensure that we protect the health of all Australians. I would also like to list a number of thankyous. Particularly, obviously, our government and our opposition, both on a federal level and on a state level as well, have worked constructively during this pandemic to actually look after Australians and work in the national interests. I'd like to do a shout-out to our medical officials, our chief medical officers, both at the state and territory level and at the Commonwealth level, and those that support them. Both in South Australia and in the Commonwealth, it was a new job for both of the chief medical officers, and I'm sure it has been a huge experience for them. I thank them for their input, advice and commitment. I'm sure they've been working a huge amount to flatten that curve.

Of course there have been many other workers. There are the health frontline workers, and they deserve our big thanks. The care, the compassion, the prioritising of need. Those that have been in aged-care facilities, our cleaners and support staff within our hospitals and healthcare settings have been critically important. While many of us have been able to work from home, there have been those jobs we've relied on who can't work from home because they are there to look after us. They are there to care for us, so I would like to say thank you.

To our early childhood educators and our teachers, this has been a very difficult time for those individuals. For early childhood workers, their work didn't stop. Children kept turning up; those children of essential workers. It's pretty hard to socially distance in an early learning and care setting. They kept turning up and looking after children. It would have been a very stressful and anxious time for those early educators, but they provided the high-quality care that they always do. For our teachers it was a very confusing time. In a fast-paced sort of way they had to get their online offering up very, very quickly for those students that could stay at home, and of course there were always children that needed to go to school in a physical environment. The teachers and the school staff and the principals and everyone worked very, very hard to make sure children were looked after. Of course, as we move forward, we need to make sure that they are not left behind.

There were also the other workers, such as the retail workers, the cleaners, the transport workers. These workers are some of our lowest-paid workers in the community, but they kept turning up to work to make sure we could get our groceries or to make sure that services were cleaned right across Australia, whether that was in hospitals, GP clinics, supermarkets—wherever there were essential services being provided, cleaners were there to make sure that they were safe environments. And of course our transport workers were making sure that goods got to where they needed to go and that essential public transport was still available for those that desperately needed services.

Of course there re all the emergency services that couldn't stop. If there were a fire during COVID or if there were a weather event, there still needed to be emergency services like ambulance officers. Everyone had to still be on deck to look after our community, and I'd like to say thank you. And of course there were our support services and volunteers: emergency food relief, mental health and a whole range of other services that were still needed in the community. Those social and support service workers and volunteers in my electorate—and, I'm sure, around the rest of Australia—were working very, very hard.

So while we're not out of the woods yet, the work we've done so far is critically important. Almost exactly 100 years ago, Australia was in a similar position. In 1918, we weathered the Spanish flu pandemic better than other countries, but there was a second wave that was very devastating. So we can't be complacent. We all need to work together and ensure that we stay vigilant to ensure that this doesn't happen. To my community and to the rest of Australia, we say thank you.

10:50 am

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm delighted to follow on from my friend the member for Kingston, and I particularly want to acknowledge the work that she has done in a particularly difficult set of circumstances, advocating and leading on behalf of our early educators and childcare sector. I place on record the thanks of the people of Oxley for her work. I will be focusing on a lot in my speech today. There's a lot to get through, but I want to focus on the people who have missed out and who have been forgotten during this pandemic.

Not only am I the proud member for Oxley; I'm a proud Queenslander, and I want to remind the House just how well my home state have done. As of today, there have tragically been six lost lives, with five related to cruise ships entering our country. There have been 236,000 tests. We know, in our nation, we grieve and remember the 102 souls that have been lost, and we particularly keep them in our thoughts and prayers as we gather in this parliament.

I want to start off by acknowledging the work of our Queensland government and local government officials, who have really led from the front to deal with this pandemic. I place on record great thanks to the Premier of Queensland, the Hon. Annastacia Palaszczuk, who has led our state through one of the most uncertain periods with the COVID-19 outbreak. The premier's leadership has brought us to a very low number of currently active cases in Queensland, and we hope this streak continues while we are all mindful of social distancing and responsible behaviour.

I've been so proud and honoured to be the member for Oxley during this time in our nation's history. In the first weeks, when the pandemic hit, I held conversations with local community and business groups, churches and organisations right across the electorate. What I saw was an outstanding contribution from all our schools, small businesses, cultural groups, volunteers and faith leaders from across the Oxley electorate, all pitching in together. The community has shown great resilience during this difficult time, but it has not been easy. I think of the 13,000 small businesses in the Oxley electorate and I think of all the jobs and businesses that have been lost. I think of the long lines outside the Centrelink offices. I think of the early childhood educators that are still in need of support. We know that there are literally millions of Australians that have missed out on income support. Whilst Labor offered its support for the government's response, we know that the one-size-fits-all approach simply didn't cover everyone, and many Australians have been left behind.

With 13,000 small businesses in the Oxley electorate, and with our hard-working chambers of commerce, the Centenary & Districts Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, I was really proud to see them pull together and make sure that they are still delivering outstanding services and businesses to many in the community. I partnered with some of our state members to make sure we did a Tuesday check-in, which was an awareness campaign that we did so that the community knew which businesses were open, which supports were available and how we could shop local and buy local. The more we do that, the more we keep money circulating in our local economy, the more our businesses will survive and grow. We know—and I know, coming from a small business background, with my parents running small businesses—that small business is the backbone of our economy. They are the unsung heroes, the mums and dads who take a risk, go out and enjoy free enterprise with the hope of improving their lives and their families' lives. We know how many of those people have been impacted by COVID-19. So I salute the businesses in the Oxley electorate and I thank them for their service and their dedication to employment and to providing an economic support base for our community. I know they're not out of the woods yet and I stand shoulder to shoulder with them as we get through this.

Over the last month I've been in contact with our early childhood educators and childcare centres. I know that after some of the most difficult employment situations they were left stranded by this government. The so-called announcement of free child care was a headline but it actually didn't deliver free child care. The most challenging is that we've seen people trying to access JobKeeper payments, and now, when they finally got Jobseeker, the government announced a broken promise, to withdraw Jobseeker. Now, just when they're back on their feet, we're seeing what I think is a pretty cruel measure by this government for a sector that, more than any other, has delivered support and care for those children of frontline workers. I think they are being treated as second-class citizens. They're harsh words, but it needs to be said. The stress placed on these workers and their families is unfathomable, and the mental health of our community continues to be at the forefront of what I stand for.

My electorate is extremely diverse and is home to Australians of many backgrounds, with around 50,000 people who were born overseas or had a parent born overseas, and many ethnic and religious backgrounds. One of the key areas that I've been most disappointed with in the government's response, though it hasn't had a lot of cut-through or a lot of headlines, is the way that we have treated international students. I've got a number of churches and welfare organisations that have had to fill the gap because this government has refused to take action on the care and welfare of international students. I recently visited Riverlife Baptist Church, whose members have generously donated thousands of dollars towards food parcels, financial relief and other assistance for many international students who they are connected with. We know the contribution that international students make to our Queensland economy and the national economy, but sadly many of these students have not been eligible for JobKeeper, Jobseeker or any assistance at all. The fear and the concern by so many international students, who haven't been able to return home because of closed borders and who want to remain in Australia to continue studies but are financially at breaking point—I've heard stories about students being exploited, students who have been evicted from their homes, the whole tragedy. We as a society and a country must do more to look after and protect the most vulnerable, and right now some of those people are international students.

As I said in my earlier remarks, the state governments have played a huge part in delivering the COVID-19 response, and they continue to play a crucial role. I want to take a moment again to acknowledge the work of the Queensland government alongside the newly appointed Deputy Premier and health minister, Steven Miles, and the new Queensland Treasurer, Cameron Dick, who happens to be my brother as well in his spare time. They have continued to serve Queensland well throughout this unprecedented time. Early on the Queensland government took the lead and released their own response website. This helped direct Queenslanders to one place for information to help the most vulnerable and the support they received. Having pledged a $3 billion package in funding for jobs and businesses, rental assistance, utilities and a job finders program, the Queensland government really has been at the forefront, the gold standard, when it comes to the response. We've also seen a $17 million package from the Queensland government directed to the University of Queensland for vaccine research and production and a further $28 million for mental health support services.

As I said, the work that the Premier of Queensland has undertaken alongside the National Cabinet has been absolutely outstanding during this difficult time. We often say that Queensland not only has flattened the curve, but it has smashed the curve. It has amongst the fewest cases of COVID-19 in the country. This has had some strong reactions across the community, but the Premier has always indicated the imperative that we work together to respond to this health crisis so that we can tackle the economic crisis that Queensland will no doubt face as a result of this national pandemic.

I also want to quickly acknowledge the work of the Care Army, which was set up by the Queensland government and which enabled thousands of Queenslanders to come together to help, just like we did during the recovery from the 2011 floods. The Care Army has put Queenslanders back in the hands of those who can help each other, and particularly those who are most vulnerable, such as the elderly and those who have lost their jobs. So while we're not over this yet and we've still got a long way to go, I pay credit to all the volunteers and community groups in the Oxley electorate, those wonderful people that call our community home.

11:01 am

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Firstly, I'd like to say a massive thank you to everyone in Newcastle for the incredible lengths that you've gone to to support and protect each other during these times. I say thank you to the community organisations that almost instantly rallied to identify people in need and to work out ways in which they would be able to best help; to the businesses that faced their own significant challenges but put those aside to help health workers and those in our community who were doing it tough; to the individuals who reached out to offer support to strangers and friends alike; to everyone who sacrificed so much to keep our community healthy. You made me and all of us so proud to be Novocastrians. We are living through historic times. COVID-19 has affected every single one of us. It's changed our lives in ways that would have been very hard to imagine just a few months ago. Of course one of the most catastrophic impacts of this crisis has been the sudden hit on jobs. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all of those civic leaders, people who are critical thinkers in our community, and the many grassroots activists and volunteers who really generously gave of their time with me to ensure that I understood the challenges and the impacts that this sudden loss of employment would mean for our region. I don't think any of us will ever forget that week when our Centrelink offices were filled to capacity and the lines spilled out the streets and around corners. This was a confronting sight for many in our community, and for many of the people lined up it was the first time in their lives they had ever engaged with Centrelink.

A key factor in addressing this unprecedented spike in job losses has been the JobKeeper wage subsidy. Let me be very clear: Labor supports the JobKeeper program. Indeed, we called for it for many, many weeks, and we were relieved that the government finally seemed to have understood the absolute necessity for a wage subsidy scheme in order to protect livelihoods and also to allow businesses and workers to remain connected so that they could get back to work quite rapidly when the time comes. But this support was never without constructive criticism from opposition. This was a very good program, but it was implemented very badly. From day one Labor has said that the scheme should have been better targeted. But this hasn't happened, and in my community thousands of people who should be getting JobKeeper support aren't, whilst some that don't need it are getting it. Tragically, some of the hardest hit industries are also the industries with the highest number of workers who are ineligible for support. Take retail or food and accommodation services, the third- and fourth-largest employing industries in my electorate. A huge number of businesses were forced to shut their doors, leaving staff jobless and in precarious financial situations. A lot are still trying to work out if it's financially viable to open up again under the current restrictions. But many of their staff are ineligible for the JobKeeper payment because they've worked with their employer for less than a year—something that is absolutely normal in these increasingly casualised industries. Likewise, a huge number of people in Newcastle's large, vibrant arts community also missed out. Why should these people be excluded from support because of the industries they happen to work in?

I've also been worried about the thousands of international students in Newcastle who have found themselves without income and with no capacity to return home, but they're ineligible for both Jobseeker and JobKeeper payments. While the University of Newcastle has been incredibly generous in providing support for these students, it shouldn't be up to the universities alone to fill this gap, especially given the dire financial pressures that are now facing our universities. Remember, this is a sector that has received zero support from this federal government. The universities have received nothing.

For those that are lucky enough to be able to get access to these payments, they have held off financial catastrophe. This makes the government's insistence that the increased Jobseeker rate, along with the JobKeeper program itself, will abruptly end in September even more reckless, especially given that the mortgage pauses that the banks have given homeowners to provide some breathing space are set to end at about the same time. Concerns about debt are legitimate, but the government needs to be very careful about the consequences of such a change in an economy that is still extremely fragile. If incomes are slashed and debts are called in before economic activity has recovered sufficiently, the outcomes will be dire and any perceived savings will quickly be outweighed by the devastating impacts of mass defaults and flatlining economic activity.

I'd like to move now to childcare workers because, regretfully, the government seems deaf to the warnings that have been raised across the social and political spectrum about the importance of continuing this protection until the economy has demonstrated it is strong enough to stand on its own. This week, we learned of plans to begin the JobKeeper shutdown to some of the most vital workers in our economy—the very people who were absolutely integral to ramping up the recovery. Of course, I speak of the early childhood educators. At the same time, the government will rip away the support it offered to families, with help with childcare fees. Families were already hammered by high fees before COVID-19. Fees climbed more than seven per cent in a one-year period alone. Now, when parents are earning less or have lost their jobs, this snapback will make early education and care completely unaffordable and inaccessible for many. For many families thinking about going back to work or increasing their hours, this announcement could lead them to think twice because of the crippling cost of child care. The government must also guarantee that bringing back fees won't result in plummeting enrolments and attendance rates, which will again threaten the viability of services.

I'd also like to highlight a really critical issue in terms of the diabolical increase in domestic violence in recent months. We know that violence against women and children worsens in the face of job losses and financial uncertainty. Add to this the increased pressure of families being largely confined to their home and the risk of domestic abuse increases even further. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the brutal reality that, for many women, home is not a safe place to be. In my community, I've remained in close contact with a number of frontline services who help women and children fleeing domestic violence—places like Nova for Women and Children, the Warlga Ngurra Women and Children's Refuge, and Jenny's Place. They've told me that, while the number of women contacting them about domestic violence is up, they are expecting this to spike further as the lockdown conditions ease. For the past few months, many women and children found themselves trapped at home with the perpetrators, unable to reach out for help, but this will soon change and many providers must have the resources they need to respond.

I'm heartened that the parliament will now undertake a comprehensive inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia, especially in the context of COVID-19. I acknowledge the chair in his role, and I'm honoured to be the deputy chair for this important work. But it won't be enough. We urgently need to invest in our frontline services to help women and children escape family violence, and we need that now. I have called many times in this parliament for assistance for Jenny's Place in Newcastle to adequately fund an important telephone resource, a helpline, and have been buck-passed from one level of government to the other. Nobody wants to own this problem, and yet, for a $300,000 investment over a three-year period, this parliament, right now, could make a difference to so many lives in my region. It's unconscionable to me that this has not been taken up by the ministers to date.

In summary, there are so many elements of the government's response to this pandemic which do have Labor's support, but there are areas where we know it's not enough. We must do better. We will hold government to account.

11:11 am

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I've been in the healthcare workforce as a nurse, as a midwife and as a rural health academic for over half of my life. From experience, I know what's important in a crisis, and that's clarity, consistency and making decisions based on evidence. These qualities have been on display since day one. There's been no fear of experts taking centre stage. Compared to other countries, it's clear that preferring scientific consensus over political expediency has set Australia apart. In a few months, we have gone from a nation slow to react to a horror unfolding in a distant place to one leading the world in flattening the curve at home. I thank the minister, the Chief Medical Officer and his deputies, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, and the hardworking Department of Health staff and their counterparts in states and territories for their leadership, which has brought us this far.

Today, 11 June 2010, there is optimism in the air. It does feel like we have turned a corner. But only a fool would dare to make predictions. Two months ago, parliament was suspended for five months, yet, happily, we're here today. Three months ago, our Deputy Chief Medical Officer said the best-case scenario was a sobering 50,000 deaths. Six months ago, COVID-19 was a meaningless collection of letters and numbers. Are we halfway through the crisis or has it only just started?

What we do know is that it's far from over. Last weekend, after 71 days of zero reported cases in my electorate, an aged-care resident tested positive to COVID-19. Cases like this will continue to happen. The difference now, though, is we are prepared.

Today, I want to pay tribute to the extraordinary commitment and achievement of healthcare workers in my electorate of Indi: nurses, doctors, allied health professionals, disability and aged-care workers, pharmacists and GPs, healthcare administrators, and leadership across the board. Their hard work has transformed our local healthcare system into one prepared for whatever may come. The two large public hospitals in my electorate, Albury Wodonga Health and Northeast Health Wangaratta, rapidly boosted their capacity to address any surge in COVID-19 cases. In partnership with private hospitals, they pooled infrastructure, workforce and supplies to meet demand while keeping patients safe. Their screening clinics have conducted thousands of tests and fielded many times that number of calls to their hotlines. Sally Squire, director of Pandemic Response at Albury Wodonga Health, and Rebecca Weir, executive director of Clinical Services at Northeast Health, have been central. My constituents report that the screening clinics are smooth and well-attended. I congratulate Albury Wodonga Health and Northeast Health Wangaratta for their clear and engaging communication about COVID-19. Advice from a trusted institution is invaluable in uncertain times, and I have no doubt that their Facebook posts and media posts generally have changed behaviour and led people to take social distancing seriously.

Last month I was proud to open the Wodonga Respiratory Clinic at the Central Medical Group with doctors Greg Gladman and David Tillett and general manager Suzanne Fisher. This clinic is responding to huge demand for testing, particularly for children under 10, and easing pressure on the public health system.

Another clinic leading the way is Tristar Medical Centre, next door to my Wodonga office. This service has a multicultural, elderly and family clientele. They were early adopters of proper hygiene measures, setting up a sanitiser station with masks outside the clinic, and they have excellent isolation and barrier techniques installed for all their clients.

Benalla Health's drive-through testing service began in early April and is now completing a blitz of nostril-tickling tests for teachers returning to school. Benalla Health sits on the Benalla Rural City Pandemic Committee, which is a fantastic model that brings together government agencies and healthcare and aged-care providers, including Carrier Street Clinic, Church Street Surgery, Coster Street Medical Practice, Cooinda Village, Estia Health and the Royal Freemasons.

Mansfield District Hospital, in consultation with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Mansfield Shire and Mansfield's general practices, began preparations as early as January, and are working under the shire's multiagency pandemic plan. I especially thank CEO of Mansfield Health, Cameron Butler, for his extraordinary leadership during this time.

The Yea and District Memorial Hospital and Alexandra District Health have continued their excellent record of dedication and care for their patients and community while taking measures to keep everyone safe.

Our local emergency food and relief services have pivoted to providing a lifeline to emerging pockets of need, to people isolating at home or the newly unemployed, who never dreamed of accepting charity. These services include Albury-Wodonga Regional FoodShare, Mansfield and District Welfare Group, Quercus Beechworth, Salvation Army, Uniting Limited, VincentCare Victoria, and Loaves and Fishes. In a frightening time, where we often think of ourselves first, thank you for not forgetting the vulnerable.

The shift to universal telehealth, and assurances from the minister for regional health that it's here to stay, is the brightest silver lining in this pandemic. Telehealth can dissolve the regional and geographic and financial barriers to healthcare across rural, remote and regional Australia. Across Indi, telehealth consultations are now happening with speech pathologists, physiotherapists, dietitians, social workers and occupational therapists. The impact will be transformative. I'd particularly like to give a shout-out to Clare Wright and Sean Warfe of North East Family Medicine, who did a trial telehealth video with me on Facebook at the beginning of this pandemic to give people reassurance about how easy it is to have a telehealth consultation with your family doctor.

The community has stepped right in behind the healthcare frontline. Galen Catholic College student and innovator Ryan Falconer assembled a team to produce 3D printed face shields and bands for North East Health Wangaratta. With the help of VEX coordinator Maree Timms, 3D printing lab BioFab3D, Brett Ambrosio and Craig Murphy from GOTAFE's Innovation Hub, and Rohan Latimer of the Jewellers Coworking space, dozens of face shields and headbands have been added to supplies. Schoolkids and innovators across the electorate have got on board too.

Across my electorate more broadly, amateur tailors and accomplished seamstresses are putting the pedal to the floor to stitch scrubs and face masks. Pangerang Community House has coordinated sewing volunteers. The Upper Kiewa Valley Community Association brought together volunteers to produce surgery gowns and masks for the local hospital and medical centre. The Rotary Club of Euroa donated free hand sanitiser to Euroa Health after buying bottles in bulk to give to those in need.

As a former nurse, I am proud but not at all surprised by the hundreds of non-practising nurses who did refresher training so they could join the surge workforce. Then there's the nurses who upskilled in critical care nursing so they could support coronavirus victims in intensive care units. To my fellow nurses: whether you stepped out of retirement or out of your comfort zone, your willingness to go above and beyond has been truly inspiring, and I thank you. To the health workforce in Indi: you've had your clinics closed, rotations postponed, plans thrown into disarray. Almost as hard has been the state of readiness that you remained in for weeks, expecting the worst to flood through the door, not knowing if it would. You have worked long hours under increased pressure. Your calm reassurance has made all the difference to your patients and to your peers. Thank you for caring for us, and thank you for caring for each other.

To the families and partners of those health professionals: you've let those you love go into danger to protect us from an invisible threat. COVID-19 has made every day uncertain for you too. I see how hard you work to put aside those worries and keep the ship afloat and the family ticking along, with a smile or, indeed, the gallows humour that so many people employ in times of crisis. Your bravery is the unsung hero of this pandemic.

Finally, to the people of Indi who followed the health restrictions to stay at home—the same restrictions which have paralysed our tourism, hospitality and accommodation industries and led to job losses—I see the sacrifices you have made. I know it has saved lives. In Beechworth, Bright and Mansfield last weekend, I saw the first real influx of tourists for the year after fires chased them away and COVID-19 locked them out. Before the weekend, business owners told me they were excited but nervous; desperate for customers but scared about disease they might bring. This tension will be a fact of life for months and possibly years to come. But with strong local health systems working together with a supportive community, we are now more prepared than ever to face whatever comes. I thank you all.

11:21 am

Photo of Anne StanleyAnne Stanley (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Most Australians have never experienced the kind of widespread disruption to our normal way of life that we have experienced over the last two months. There are, of course, members of our community who've experienced similar circumstances of lockdown and shortages. They are the migrants and refugees who came to Australia after their homelands were turned upside-down through war and famine, or our older Australians who remember the Great Depression, World War I, World War II and the postwar austerity required of our citizens. For the rest of us, however, our societal structure and way of life has, in no uncertain terms, been significantly challenged. From the ability to enjoy the wide open spaces or have a coffee or shopping, to the dislocation and collapse of employment and income safety, our way of life at this time is vastly different to what might have been expected at the beginning of 2020.

While Australia has done well to restrict the potential for COVID-19 to spread throughout the community, gaps have emerged. We have not ensured that all Australians have a roof over their head or the money to pay for food, medical or other bills. The first warning signs came when we all witnessed the huge queues outside Centrelink offices, when a million people lost their jobs overnight as health orders shut down many businesses. On Monday 23 March, half a million Australians became unemployed for the very first time in their life. Many of them had never had a need to have a myGov account, and it was clear that the computer systems that supported Services Australia and Centrelink couldn't cope. Unhelpful comments explaining that it was a result of a cyberattack were unnecessary, inaccurate and not funny. Disaster planning of these essential services was clearly not adequate. Queues down footpaths, stretching along streets around blocks and further, was a real-life example that Australians had nobody, or nothing, to turn to but the government for support. The fact that social distancing was almost impossible in these situations led to more stress, not to mention the stress of employees of Centrelink, who were needing to deal with these Australians.

Data from the ABS shows that 780,000 people lost their jobs between mid-March and 4 April, which was representative of the immediate impact on people employed by pubs, clubs, gyms, cinemas, beauty salons and any other business that deemed themselves non-essential. The same data also shows that some of our most vulnerable are bearing most of the burden of this number—youth and older Australians. Over two million Australians are now unemployed. Given these extensive job losses, especially considering the demographic of those bearing much of the burden, you can only imagine the stress that our frontline workers in our social security system are experiencing. When I hear the stories of abuse and shouting at people who are just coming to work to help others disappoints me greatly, especially when those throwing the abuse are the people they're trying to help.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that both the Jobseeker and JobKeeper payments will help many Australians economically affected by the virus, there are many who are falling through the gaps—and I'm not just talking about the $60 billion accounting error. Take, for example, one of my constituents who called me in April. He runs a business that employs six staff and subcontracts to live entertainment and catering. Naturally, his business was all but effectively halted. He, like many business owners, did not have the capital to pay all of these workers' salaries until JobKeeper allowances commenced, as it was paid in arrears. His only option was to obtain a commercial loan to cover the salary payments, which imposed additional costs in interest rates and other fees. In another example, a carpentry business in Werriwa had registered for the JobKeeper payment but felt the information they had to rely on was insufficient to make proper decisions. This business could not afford to pay the wages in advance, and that's why, I was told, they applied for the JobKeeper payment in the first place. It appears that the government set up the program without consideration for small businesses like this.

While, daily, I hear from honest, hardworking local business owners and people who find themselves unemployed about the delays in receiving payments, I'm also angered to hear of some of the rorts that have been going on. I've heard stories about businesses telling their employees they were going to retain part of the payment for administration purposes, and other stories where employees who had lost their job were allowed to return but only if the business retained part of the JobKeeper payment. Whilst I know there was a dob-in line, employees were concerned about recriminations if they did so. To rip off hardworking employees who need to put food on their table is just outrageous and un-Australian, but that's what happens when a program is unclear, overly complex for both government and participants of the program, and start dates were delayed so long that the only choice they had was to close.

In New South Wales, most nursing homes are still limiting the number of visitors that they are allowing. The aged-care system relies not only on those paid workers; it also relies heavily on volunteers and family members of those in care. These restrictions have meant that volunteers and family members have not been able to visit aged-care facilities to provide the level of assistance that the facility, the workers, the family members and the residents rely on. I heard from a constituent about the mental health challenges his loved one has had because of the lockdown and having little support. Further, with over 100,000 people waiting for support on the aged-care package list, isolating at home has further impacted their quality of life.

I've spoken previously in this place about the great impact that local government has had in my part of the world in south-western Sydney. I've spoken about council staff and the incredible contributions they make. But I'm deeply concerned that local councils are not eligible for the JobKeeper payment, which puts a further 40,000 jobs at risk right around our country. Councils maintain absolutely necessary social health and welfare services, so it really beggars belief that the government will not ensure these employees keep their jobs so that those services are maintained for the community. Keeping their jobs will also help our economy.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of social restrictions, the ability of charities to raise funds and continue providing necessary activities and services to our community has been destroyed, and the government needs to consider some sort of specific support for them. Close, lengthy proximity increases over the past months will only increase the chances of domestic violence and abuse in our community. This also means it's much harder for victims to get the help they need. The Sydney Women's Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service has said that many people are suffering right now, but they can't make the call. I spoke recently to the Liverpool Women's Resource Centre, which has reported a large increase in requests and need for support. It has given out probably 50 per cent more food vouchers and hampers to those who have lost their job or are suffering domestic violence and have had to flee. In many circumstances, the workers have had to read between the line because the person that they were speaking to was talking to them in code because the perpetrator was in the house with them. We need to make sure these services can continue to do the extremely important work they do so that all Australians can get help when and if they need it. I fear that many victims out there are unable to make this call and, even if they can, they're unable to get the immediate help they need because of the lack of other housing options.

The government needs to understand that there are volunteer community groups and other organisations providing key and vital services to communities right round Australia, and the government needs to ensure that they support them so that they can continue their operations and support during this time and beyond. What these groups do takes so much demand away from government agencies. The groups contribute $129 billion into the Australian economy each year. I have no doubt that we needed to act quickly and I accept that, in the need to act quickly, gaps will emerge, but the gaps must be filled. When major cracks emerge in our society, it's more important than ever for those who fall through to be assisted.

I'd like to thank our community of Werriwa for the positive outlook they've had during this extremely challenging time. I've heard so many stories and received so many calls and emails about the great actions of so many—for example, local business owners who take food to those who are at risk and vulnerable; some of our charities who have been working nearly 24/7 to provide support; and also neighbours checking in on each other. While this is a challenging time for all of us, through all of this, our community and our country will grow stronger, and we may come out of it—let's hope—a more caring, understanding and positive community.

11:31 am

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Australia's collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic—Australia's greatest challenge in 75 years—is something that we should all be proud of. In terms of health outcomes, with 7,276 cases and 101 deaths, we're doing much better than many other countries. But we still have a long way to go. The world is still in this crisis, and this virus is still circulating. We must acknowledge how far we've come, but we have a long way to go. In the Hunter region, we have had no new cases in the last six weeks. I want to acknowledge the Minister for Health, the Department of Health, the Chief Medical Officer and the New South Wales Premier for this good outcome. I want to thank our frontline workers, particularly the staff of Hunter New England Health and our hospitals and doctors, who have made such an effort to protect our community.

I went to the Raymond Terrace Community Respiratory Clinic and got tested. It wasn't a pleasant experience; it stung! I want to thank Doctors Damien Wellborne and Sarah Bailey for their exemplary care. It was an uncomfortable but quick test, and it obviously came back negative. I want to thank them for setting up a professional practice that is helping many people in our community. And please keep getting tested. Don't just think it's okay; it's all over. If you feel unwell, go and get a test.

Whilst all Australians have had to sacrifice, the burden—let's face it—hasn't been shouldered equally. Those working on the front line and in the tourism, hospitality and the arts sectors have had the most job losses, and the businesses have been impacted the most. Women have disproportionately lost the most jobs, while taking on most of the caring and responsibilities at home. Many young people have lost their jobs. With their working lives ahead of them, they've been faced with that first sting of not being employed, and they're going to have to carry these economic cans for years to come. The costs of the decisions that we make right now in this place will be carried by those people.

Significant economic policies have been rolled out rapidly, with well over $200 billion in stimulus packages. Whilst this has supported many Australians, there are still many being locked out of really critically needed assistance. Labor has taken a constructive approach. We've identified gaps and delays and we've called for action where it's needed. As the months roll on, this government must do more to help those who are in need of assistance.

Child care has rightfully taken its place under this harsh spotlight during the crisis. Many years of bad child-care policy has created a broken and expensive child-care system. The crisis has exposed the neglect of this government of the next generation of Australians, through thoughtless and underfunded child-care policies. The Liberal and Nationals have overseen an increase in child-care costs by 34 per cent since they were first elected. This has been compounded by a rescue package that really has created winners and losers, at a time when we're all being told we're all in this together.

I held an emergency Zoom meeting with child-care and early education providers last month, and invited the shadow minister for early childhood education, Amanda Rishworth, to be part of that, so we could hear the issues firsthand that were being caused by these policy changes. These child-care providers made it clear that the only thing worse than the current COVID policy was snapping back to the old one. The COVID-19 rescue package has left parents without child-care spots they need and, conversely, educators without the work that they desire. How is that a great system? Now they're going to snap back to very expensive child-care fees whilst many families are still struggling financially. The Morrison government has a complete lack of understanding about the child-care and early childhood education sector. Many families are under financial strain right now, and adding sky-high child-care fees on top of this is unfair. Parents relying on JobKeeper for income couldn't afford fees for child-care rates before the pandemic and they're really struggling now.

Mr Deputy Speaker, might I just request that you conduct that conversation somewhere else? Excuse me, Mr Deputy Speaker, could I just ask that you conduct that conversation somewhere else? I'm really being quite distracted by the ongoing conversation, and I think this is a matter that does deserve and require your full attention. Thank you.

Many families are under financial strain right now, and adding sky-high childcare fees on top of that list is completely unfair. Parents relying on JobKeeper for income can't afford fees for child care at the rates before the pandemic, and the government's latest announcement on the transition fees goes to centres, not the parents. Parents looking at returning to work or increasing their hours, which we desperately need for our economy, will have to think about whether they can afford to. No-one should have to think about whether they can afford to go back to work or have their children adequately cared for and educated. Early educators on JobKeeper thought they at least had certainty until September, but now JobKeeper is being ripped out from under them in a few weeks. Providers are already struggling to keep their doors open. Going back to the old system of high fees risks lower attendance and revenue.

Here presents an opportunity to do something different, to build a better early education childcare system, one that works for every working parent. I plead with the government to do more to fix this childcare crisis, so that parents can get back to work and children can get that early education that we need to build a better country and build better citizens. In the long run, if you want to talk about the economy, it builds a far more prosperous economy as well.

This government must fix JobKeeper. We all said it was necessary and a good idea, but we know, being honest, that it was speedily rolled out. It is ridiculous that some people's casual income has doubled or tripled to $750 a week, whilst others have lost their income and are getting absolutely no support. JobKeeper does need to be better targeted. It's creating a big debt that we'll have to repay in the future, and it must be used to support critical industries. We on this side of the chamber know that that has to include education. This government really needs to come to terms with the value of education. For the life of me I can't understand why my free-market colleagues don't get this. From early education right through to university, our educators have been on the front line and not getting the assistance they need.

Whilst early educators are set to lose JobKeeper next month, university workers have been locked out of the program from the get-go. Today it was revealed that the brilliant University of Newcastle has climbed into the ranks of the world's top 200 universities. That is a fantastic thing. It's a regional university—it was started by the steelworkers at BHP—but it's under incredible pressure. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Newcastle, Professor Zelinsky, projected and told me last week that they're going to lose $46 million in fees for 2020. This is a well-run organisation. The University of Newcastle not only employs many people in our region but is a breeding ground for our brightest minds and, more importantly, best ideas. It's through collaboration with the university that local manufacturers were able to develop ventilators to help us tackle this virus. But the government is happy to expose them to the ill winds of the moment and cast them to those winds.

Universities need to be supported and treated decently, because they are the petri dish where we grow the cure for corona. It is no more basic than that. We need to be supporting them because fundamentally we need them. We need their bright ideas and we need their research. We need them for our future and we need them for our economy.

Another critical industry that has been overlooked is the arts. While everyone that has had the luxury of being able to do so can cocoon at home and perhaps catch up on Netflix or binge on whatever they want to binge on, we don't want to look after the people who are artistically creating this stuff that we rely on when we're cocooning. And small businesses, mum-and-dad businesses in my electorate are really suffering. I want to send a shout-out to all the businesses that completed my small business survey. We'll keep working for you and keep supporting you. (Time expired)

11:41 am

Photo of Emma McBrideEmma McBride (Dobell, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Mental Health) Share this | | Hansard source

Today I'd like to begin by drawing attention to the impact of COVID-19 on regional coastal communities across Australia like mine on the Central Coast of New South Wales. These are communities built on the shoulders of tourism, retail, hospitality, construction and the service industries. These communities were hit hard when restrictions were introduced, and in these communities the road ahead to recovery is long and bumpy. We haven't all quarantined equally and we won't snap back to normal come September, when the last of the government's supports are wound back. In recent months Australia has faced ongoing drought, bushfires, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact has hit hard in regional and remote Australia. In late May the Grattan Institute released its job losses caused by COVID-19 report by electorate. My community saw a sharp fall of 5.7 per cent. Our local economy, as I mentioned, is built on hospitality, retail, tourism and construction. The impact of restrictions on small businesses and local jobs has been devastating. I've heard from families where both parents have lost their jobs on the same day. Danny of Norah Head works in gaming and his wife has her own graphic design business. They're both now on JobKeeper, and Danny tells me he can't see himself earning a normal wage for up to two years.

Far too many people have fallen through the cracks and missed out on support together. Around Australia up to 1.1 million casual workers will miss out on a wage subsidy and potentially be forced into the unemployment queue because the Morrison government has stuffed up on JobKeeper. They are young people like Ryan of Bateau Bay in my electorate. Ryan is a heart transplant recipient who lives with a daily regime of immuno-suppressant medication. Ryan strictly followed medical advice and quarantined at home, but his employer didn't meet the turnover test and he's too young to be considered independent, so he's relying on his parents to get by. I wrote to Minister Robert over a month ago on Ryan's behalf and I am still waiting for a response.

It was Labor who pushed for a wage subsidy when the government was stubbornly ruling it out. Then for weeks the Morrison government has been telling casuals and other excluded workers that the JobKeeper program was full, when in reality it was three million workers short. Thousands of hard-working young people like Ryan shouldn't miss out because the PM and Treasurer were wrong by three million workers and $60 billion.

As we face COVID-19, one group who have been doing it particularly tough in my electorate and across Australia are parents of children living with disability. The costs of NDIS programs have gone up, while face-to-face supports have fallen away, making life that much harder for these people and their families. Yet parents on carer payment have received very little additional financial support from the government as COVID-19 continues to unfold. These are parents like Karen, of Hamlyn Terrace in my electorate of Dobell, a mother to eight with seven still at home, four home schooled and two living with disabilities. Karen receives the carer payment and carer allowance and asks why she is now worse off than other single parents as we face COVID-19.

Parents like Karen deserve better from this government, as do those caring for the aged and others more vulnerable to COVID-19, who have found their responsibilities just that much harder with increasing social isolation. They've faced higher costs, shortages of essential items such as medicines and flu vaccines, and the very real fear of what will happen if their loved one catches COVID-19. Patrick, of Bateau Bay, called me. He has cared for his 91-year-old mother since his father, a war veteran, passed away 11 years ago. She's immobile and living with dementia. When not caring for his mum, Patrick volunteers at Lifeline and is undertaking a Certificate III in Alcohol and Other Drugs. He told me he feels that carers at the front line, like him, who are keeping older people safe, protecting them and keeping them out of our hospitals, are being disrespected. He asked why service providers can get a 10 per cent loading, while he struggles to get by and take care of his mum. He says, 'Carers for older Australians have been forgotten.' Carers like Patrick deserve better from this government.

The impact of this pandemic has not been shouldered equally. We don't all quarantine the same. This has been particularly true for women, with many finding themselves out of work at the same time as their caring responsibilities have grown. Across the board, we've already seen worrying evidence of this inequality, and sadly the Morrison government has only made it worse, not better. The first release of ABS data since COVID-19 showed not only that were women more likely to have lost their job after the emergence of COVID-19; they had also lost more wages than men in the same period. Sadly, many are now facing homelessness, and some are facing family violence. I spoke to a woman with a disability who had faced years of family violence and was at risk of losing her home—a home that had been modified to meet her specific needs. Women and children need more support, not less, as we face COVID-19.

It must be said that Australia's world-class healthcare system, underpinned by Medicare, has largely been the foundation of our success in the fight against COVID-19. But well before this pandemic reached our shores we'd been raising concerns that basic health care is becoming unaffordable and out of reach for many Australians. Medicare figures confirm what Australians already know: the out-of-pocket cost to see a doctor is higher than ever before. The government's own data shows that the average out-of-pocket cost to see a GP in my electorate of Dobell, on the New South Wales Central Coast, is $32.65, up over $7 since the Liberals were elected. The same is true for the cost of seeing a specialist. The average out-of-pocket cost to see a specialist in Dobell is now close to $90, up $28, or 50 per cent, since the Liberals were elected.

These costs, particularly as we face COVID-19, are pushing household budgets to breaking point. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the government's own experts, say that 1.3 million Australians a year delay or avoid Medicare services due to cost. That's worth repeating: in a country that prides itself on universal access to health care, over a million people each year can't afford basic health care. According to the ABS, 961,000 people a year delay or avoid taking prescribed medicines due to cost. As a pharmacist, and one who worked in our local public hospital for many years, I've seen the consequences of people delaying or avoiding essential treatment. What that means to them, their prognosis and their health outcomes, and what it means to our economy, is well understood and must be addressed. The rate of people skipping prescriptions is twice as high in the most disadvantaged areas as it is in the least disadvantaged areas, which means that the cost of medicines is contributing to health inequality in Australia today.

Mr Deputy Speaker Wilson, I now turn to mental health. I know it's something close to your heart. The Black Dog Institute's report Mental health ramifications of COVID-19 highlighted four groups at increased risk during an outbreak: people with pre-existing anxiety disorders and mental health problems; healthcare workers; people in quarantine; and people who are underemployed, unemployed or find themselves in casual work. As the COVID-19 pandemic reached Australian shores, we saw an immediate spike in demand for mental health support. In March, Lifeline answered almost 90,000 calls for help—calls taken by people like Patrick in my electorate—an increase of 25 per cent compared to the same period last year, or one call every 30 seconds. It was the highest call frequency in Lifeline's 57-year history. Black Dog saw a 30 per cent spike in contacts to their support service in the last two weeks of March. On some days, a third of contacts were COVID-19 related. A survey by Black Dog released in May found that 78 per cent of respondents reported that their mental health had been worse since COVID-19 and over 50 per cent of respondents were moderately to extremely worried about their financial situation.

We know the consequences of unemployment and financial distress and the mental health anguish they can cause. Suicide Prevention Australia's Turning the tide report, which was released in March, showed that well-established link between unemployment, financial distress and a crisis in mental health. People who are unemployed are nine times more likely than working people to take their own life. As hundreds of thousands of Australians have lost their jobs and businesses have folded, lives have been broken. People across Australia who are in financial distress and facing financial hardship deserve better from this government. Whilst we welcome the investment that they've made, there is still much more to be done, and it's urgent.

I would like to finish with some heartfelt thanks on behalf of my community. To the health professionals, from the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Nurse and Midwifery Officer through to the frontline staff in ICU and mental health, our hospital cleaners and those running COVID-19 testing centres: you've all done an outstanding job, often putting yourselves in harm's way. Your dedication and selflessness have meant Australia has avoided some of the devastation seen in other countries. To the retail workers, cleaners, transport workers, childcare workers and age and disability workers, who have gone to work so we can stay safely at home: thank you. An unfortunate truth is that many of these people are the worst paid and hardest-working Australians. I'd also like to acknowledge the Centrelink staff and give a shout-out to those at Wyong Hospital. (Time expired)

11:51 am

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to start by thanking the healthcare workers, and their families, who, week after week, walked into the hospitals, the GP clinics and the testing centres never quite sure if it was the day that they would be overwhelmed, like their colleagues in Italy, the UK or the US. While Australia did flatten the curve, I cannot begin to imagine the toll that this has taken on our healthcare workers. I want to thank the Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, and his deputies, as well as South Australia's Chief Public Health Officer, Dr Nicola Spurrier, for their leadership and guidance in recent weeks. Their briefings quickly became part of our daily routine, and phrases such as 'flattening the curve' and 'social distancing' are now part of our Australian vernacular. I'd like to acknowledge the work of the state government and, in particular, our Premier, Steven Marshall, Minister Wade and Commissioner of Police, Grant Stevens. Premier Steven Marshall's mother said that he was born for this, and, can I say, his leadership has been extraordinary. Finally, I want to thank the community. It was in no small part due to the disciplined and determined approach to following the health advice and abiding by government restrictions that we were able to avoid the calamitous events which unfolded elsewhere, and are still unfolding, in the world.

Worldwide, more than seven million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and over 400,000 people are estimated to have died. The numbers are almost beyond comprehension. When they compare to our national and state data, we have been incredibly fortunate in this country, and that is because of our governments, both state and federal. In South Australia, there are currently no active cases of COVID-19 and it has been over two weeks since the last reported case. But I recognise that many families and friends have lost loved ones, only to have that loss compounded by their inability to grieve as they would wish due to the restrictions. For others, the physical separation has taken its toll. I was particularly concerned to hear from distressed family members who were, and some still are, repeatedly denied access to their families and friends in aged-care facilities.

I wish to thank the Aged Rights Advocacy Service for their assistance in helping older people and their family members to understand their rights and for working with residential aged-care providers to workshop solutions to the visitation restrictions. The staff at aged-care residences across our electorate worked hard to find new ways to ensure residents remain connected, including video calls and window visits. Adelaide Hills Council have launched their Cards for Kindness campaign where schoolchildren write postcards to residents in aged care. While this is a poor substitute for a hug or someone holding your hand or long chat over a pot of tea, it shows the capacity we have for kindness in the face of great uncertainty and fear. I have the oldest electorate by median age in South Australia, and that fear and concern was very much felt on our South Coast, which is also an area where we normally experience an enormous amount of tourism.

Our Mayo community has risen to the occasion and has faced the challenge with a great sense of camaraderie. For example, at the height of the pandemic buying, the local IGA at Mount Barker went above and beyond to ensure that those who needed essential supplies were always able to access them, including the Meadows out-of-hours school-care team. Each day, the Meadows OSH feeds between 10 and 15 children breakfast before school and another 30 tired and hungry students at the end of the school day, but, at the height of the pandemic, sourcing and buying the supplies they needed to feed the children was just impossible. In stepped Joe from the team at Mount Barker IGA, who not only supplied enough groceries for the remainder of the term but threw in Easter eggs too so the children could have an Easter egg hunt. In the words of Caroline G from the Meadows OSH, 'This action has made us reflect on our business choices of supplies. We are hoping to move very quickly to an account with Mount Barker IGA, locally owned. So much better for all of us.'

As we move out of the pandemic and to our next challenge, the economic recovery, we need to support our local businesses as they, too, adapt to a changing landscape. I'd like to mention a few businesses in my community that I think have done an extraordinary job of adapting. Prancing Pony and Sidewood Estate are two business that have been able to adapt and navigate a pathway through the restrictions. There are many others who will simply never reopen their doors. For many, the bushfires were a devastating blow, but it was COVID that stopped their recovery. I'd also like to mention Sylvia from Walls That Talk. She changed her business model. She used to make corporate wallpaper, but she moved to making COVID signage. My offices in Mount Barker and Victor Harbor have her COVIDSafe signage everywhere, on the floor and on the walls.

I'd also like to mention a local COVID relief fund. This is what community does. I, my state colleague, the member for Kaval, Dan Cregan, and one of our local mayors, Ann Ferguson, got together and realised that there would be people in our community who would be suffering. Perhaps they had very big mortgages, had never had interactions with Centrelink before and were really struggling to feed their children. We have had over 200 families every week accessing the pantry. We've come together to create a fund so that, with Rotary, we can put money in and can work with local businesses to have local takeaway meals in the deep freezer, as well as a range of fresh fruit and vegetables and dry goods. We're putting our personal money into this fund, but we know that many in our community who also have capacity to give are doing this. We're all caring and supporting each other, and that is what this is all about.

There is a light on the horizon. The clearest sign of life returning to normal is, surely, the return of the Showdown for South Australians and the announcement that 2,000 supporters can be cheering for our state's greatest rivalry. It's incredibly exciting for so many of us. Most importantly, though, local sport is coming back. I will be standing on the sidelines, with my gloves on, cheering with the rest of our community. We believe we'll be able to do that in July. We have each done our part to successfully flatten the curve, but I urge all members of our community to follow the health advice and health experts.

I would like to finish with a shout-out for a wonderful business called Quarter Mile Cafe. A gentleman named Dave makes soups and meals, no questions asked. If you need assistance, you just come in and get some soup for your family. He has made thousands of litres of soup. I've personally dropped off some pumpkins from our garden just to help out with his soup. He's doing an extraordinary job. It's all these people in our community, all these heroes in our community, who have made our community come through what has been a devastating time for many.

Debate adjourned.

Sitting suspended from 12:00 to 16:01