Monday, 30 November 2020
Private Members' Business
That this House:
(1) recognises that metropolitan and regional Victorians continue to face significant limitations to their freedoms due to COVID-19 restrictions;
(2) acknowledges that:
(a) the epidemiological data in Victoria is now at a point where many health experts consider it safe to reopen in a COVID-safe manner; and
(b) the initial lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were intended to build capacity in the health system, and the Victorian health system has done this;
(3) commiserates with business owners that have been forced to shut their doors;
(4) notes that many businesses will not survive continued lockdowns;
(5) calls on the Victorian Government to give Victorians their freedom back;
(6) further recognises the undue pain and distress facing regional communities around the nation due to ongoing state border restrictions;
(7) further acknowledges that:
(a) border communities are unique in their interdependency; and
(b) regional and border communities are experiencing some of the most severe disruptions in the country, with impacts on healthcare, education, access to supplies, and the agriculture workforce;
(8) further notes that seven out of eight states, through the National Cabinet, have agreed to seek a sustainable model for border restrictions by December 2020;
(9) calls on state governments to open their borders to allow for the free movement of Australians; and
(10) acknowledges that the continued lockdowns and border restrictions will continue to cause significant mental health, wellbeing, and economic issues, particularly in Victoria, but also in other affected parts of the nation.
Today I rise to present my private member's motion on an issue that must be spoken about in order that it never happens again. COVID-19 has unveiled a sleeping giant that has surprised and horrified many of us—the power of the states to control and determine the activities of its citizens in ways not experienced before in Australia's history. All of this happened in an 82,000-square-kilometre region where there were zero or a handful of cases for eight months, my electorate of Mallee. Border closures have caused extreme levels of disadvantage and suffering for families, businesses, communities and our economy.
Situated in the north-west of Victoria, Mallee is bordered by both South Australia and New South Wales. This unique location meant that three Premiers imposed restraint on the lives of those locals, from farmers in Wycheproof to schoolkids in Piangil, patients in Mildura, businesses in Murrayville, families in Kaniva and everyone in between. The people of Mallee have shared with me countless stories of hardship, frustration and grief. In September I sent an electorate-wide email to check in on Mallee locals and request their feedback, to which I received over 700 responses. Only one in 10 people supported the state government's restrictions. Agricultural workers and businesses were hit hard. Daniel Berlin from Murrayville is heavily reliant on access to Pinnaroo in South Australia for his farming business. He brings 80 per cent of his produce into South Australia in the form of cereal grains. Coming off the worst drought in decades, the border closures were yet another strain for dryland farmers like Daniel.
While farmers and businesses suffered and kids could couldn't go to school, Mallee residents contended with severely restricted access to health care. Put simply, when weighing up the impact of border closures against risk of transmission, this basic human right was unjustifiably limited for Mallee locals. Hundreds and hundreds of patients in Mildura, who would normally rely on visiting medical officers from Adelaide, have suffered intensely. Several specialists would normally visit Mildura regularly, including surgeons, dentists, ophthalmologists and radiographers. However, they have not visited the region for eight months because the South Australian government would not grant them leave to visit Victoria and return to Adelaide without quarantining—not good for business.
During the pandemic, I had the pleasure to meet and represent John and Jeanette Feder from Lillimur. I worked closely with John and Jeanette to fight for them to access South Australia for John's cancer treatments. I'm very sad to say that John recently passed away from his illness. It tears me apart to know that the last few months of John's life were made vastly more difficult because of border closures. I want to take this opportunity to honour John, his life and his memory and the strength he displayed throughout this ordeal.
There have been many inspirational stories of leadership shown by Mallee locals throughout this difficult period. Di Thornton is a nurse practitioner from Murrayville who owns and operates Mallee Border Health Centre in Pinnaroo in South Australia. She was forced to close her clinic when the border restrictions began and she and her staff were unable to cross to South Australia. I worked closely with Di to assist countless people with applications to get across the border for health care. The fact is access to health care should never be this difficult. As a modern nation, we can't allow this type of response to occur again. It is un-Australian.
This month the Commonwealth and all state and territory governments except Western Australia agreed to a framework for national reopening that included an agreement on proportionate measures for controlling outbreaks; effective testing; contact tracing; and targeted hotspot controls. They agreed the removal of domestic border restrictions is a key pillar to support COVID-normal Australia. Merely days after this agreement several premiers reinstated border restrictions against South Australia. The hypocrisy is laughable, if it were not so serious.
Until a vaccine arrives and is distributed, we cannot continue this type of reactive response. Border restrictions unduly impact regional communities. The mantra 'We're all in this together' is a joke in cross-border communities who feel expendable and left behind by state premiers. I will continue to advocate for change in the hope that we can prevent this kind of devastation being wrought on cross-border communities again.
I first want to acknowledge the member for Mallee for her advocacy for her community during the border crisis and for bringing this motion to this House. Together, we had over 25 meetings with the New South Wales border commissioner—and I'm sure she had them with the South Australian border commissioner on top of that. We share the belief that we need scientific foundations for policies that cause this level of harm or we don't have them at all.
One week ago today, I stood on the bridge that links Albury and Wodonga over the Murray River. Gone were the police, gone were the ADF and gone were the bollards, the concrete dividers, the tents and the floodlights that comprised the border checkpoint for 138 long days and long nights. At 12.01 am that morning the border opened up again. Cars streamed across as DJ Steve Bowen, a fixture at hundreds of local weddings and formals, provided the backing track for this historic moment. Along the Murray, the border communities of Corowa, Wahgunyah, Jingellic, Walwa and many others were quietly reunited. Hours later peak traffic returned to normal with thousands of commuters crossing the border unimpeded for the first time in months.
In my electorate we're experiencing a moment of cautious pride. In this moment, it's tempting to forget what we've just been through. But the border closure has been a deeply traumatic experience as the member for Mallee has just recounted. For many, it rivals the impacts of bushfires that devastated my community just six months before. My office has dealt with over 700 individual constituent concerns about the border closure, each with their own story of heartbreak, despair, frustration or confusion.
The sudden announcement of the hard border closure on 6 July and the chaos in the week that followed was only a taste of what was to come. The mayors of local councils were not consulted nor were schools or healthcare, construction, agriculture or business sectors. Decades of work to bring the region together was wiped away in the stroke of a pen. The long awaited signing of the Albury-Wodonga regional deal, known as Two Cities One Community, scheduled just days after the border closed was changed, so it happened without fanfare, and the irony was lost on no-one. An agreement on border closures was on the agenda for the national cabinet. Time and time again, we both called for it. Each meeting ended without one. There was no protocol, no plan, applications for exemptions piled up and, while we waited, jobs were lost, family members got sick and some of them died alone. Sensible solutions were proposed by the community: move the border north of Albury so it doesn't split us in two, bring whole communities into the border zone, introduce a daily life permit, but progress was slow and often too late.
In the framework for the national reopening, as the member just described, a key principle is that response measures and decisions should be proportionate to the risk of harm and transmission. As a nurse and a rural public health researcher with a degree in public health, I am the first to support public health measures; I've been doing so all the way through this pandemic. But I find myself asking: was this border closure proportionate to the problem at hand? Was the crippling economic cost and human toll worth it? Once established, the so-called 'ring of steel' kept the virus contained in Melbourne and only two cases were reported in my border communities in the second wave. So, under these circumstances, I find myself struggling to say, 'Yes it was proportionate; yes it was worth it.' I don't think so. We need to learn the lessons of this experience and understand what can be done better should the borders—God help us—close again.
I'm pleased this will be examined by the New South Wales government, which will conduct a review of the border closure response. But in the interests of transparency, this must be public so that border communities on both sides can participate, and the findings and recommendations must be published. Victorians wore the cost of border closure but did so without New South Wales government support, and their voices deserve to be heard. For those who work daily within the two jurisdictions, we need to learn valuable lessons in the areas of health, education, agriculture, farming and emergency services.
Of course, I share the New South Wales Premier's hope that this is the last time in our lifetime that the border is closed but, until we have a vaccine, the threat remains. I commend the work of the border commissioners, I commend the work of the electorate officers in my office and right across the border, and the MPs I worked with, including the member for Mallee. I thank the community, who bore the brunt of so much anguish. We must do better if this is ever to happen again.
I, too, rise to speak on the motion moved by the honourable member for Mallee. I note that, amongst other things, it recognises that metropolitan and regional Victorians continue to face significant limitations on their freedoms due to COVID-19 restrictions, commiserates with business owners forced to shut their doors, notes that many businesses will not survive continued lockdowns, and calls on the Victorian government to give Victorians their freedom back. It's some aspects of that part of the motion that I wish to address tonight.
At the outset, I welcome the report that there are now no active COVID-19 cases in Victoria and there have been no new locally acquired cases for 30 consecutive days. This has enabled the Victorian government to announce further easing of restrictions on 8 November, following the initial period of no locally acquired infections at the end of October. So, 30 days with no new reported cases, following a peak of cases in early August—685 cases on 4 August—case numbers in Victoria have declined steadily, with no new acquired cases. Despite low case numbers, the daily average number of tests conducted in Victoria has remained relatively high, at approximately 14,000 tests per day, with an increase through early November in response to the South Australian outbreak. This is a tribute to the people of Victoria. The people of Victoria acted overwhelmingly in a responsible manner in relation to this. Yes, there were some idiots who did things which nobody supports, but, overwhelmingly, the people of Victoria showed common sense and did what was needed to be done.
But there's a cost for this, and that's what the motion goes to, in part. There is the economic cost affecting businesses and the jobs of individuals. There is also the health cost, particularly the mental health cost that comes from this. In my electorate, I know of businesses—and I suspect every member from Victoria and possibly other parts of Australia knows of businesses—which have gone to the wall because of what's happened in the last few months. I know businesses that will not reopen after Christmas. They've been hanging on as best they can, but I know businesses that will not reopen in my electorate and in metropolitan Melbourne. This has had a devastating impact on businesses, jobs and individuals. Part of that impact has translated into health effects. Regrettably, I have had reports—and I suspect many others have too—virtually every week, from friends and associates about someone that they know who committed suicide. That's the reality, in terms of the depression and the desperation. Some of that is related to what I was talking about earlier, in terms of the impact this has had on jobs, businesses and, therefore, families and communities. There is a real impact from this, and it's not over yet, unfortunately.
The economic measures which the government has taken—JobKeeper and JobSeeker—have been important in trying to keep people in jobs, but of course they will come to an end at some stage and there's been some scaling back of that, so we're not out of the woods as far as this is concerned. Also, the measures in relation to health—putting more money into direct health supports, enabling telehealth, and things like that—are all good measures that have been taken over the last few months.
I want to conclude on this note. There were failures. I won't go through them tonight, but there were failures in terms of tracing and quarantining, particularly in Victoria. In terms of tracing, we've only just got the QR code approach that other states have had. We can't just forget these failures and say, 'We have to move on.' We must learn from the lessons. We need to ensure that, in future, if there are responses, they are proportionate to the risks, they are precise in their breadth and they are consistent in their application. Finally, I say that future policy responses should not pit one group of Australians against another. They should not pit people from metropolitan Melbourne against regional Victoria or people from Victoria against people from New South Wales or South Australia or any other state, for that matter. For the life of me, I can't imagine that the framers of the Constitution, who put section 92 in there to enable interstate trade freely, would have been in favour of restrictions on movement, unless it were very precise and for very good reasons. We must learn from the lessons of the last few months.
Thank you. I hope that you will be as glowing about my comments as those of the previous speaker, Deputy Speaker. It's always wonderful to know that we have an impartial chair in these sessions. I'm really disappointed that this motion has not been withdrawn. I actually expected better from the member for Mallee. This motion is out of date. I accept that it was first tabled on 26 October and things have changed in Victoria. It is also just a political attack. It only attacks the Victorian state government. Nowhere in this motion does it attack the South Australian government or the New South Wales government, who actually closed the borders to Victorians. The New South Wales government closed the border to Victoria; the South Australian government closed the border to Victoria. That's what created so many issues, heartbreak and hurt in border communities like Mildura and Wodonga. You cannot put the actions of other state governments on the Victorian government, with no help from the federal government, mind you. Their app didn't work. We heard both previous speakers from the government attack the Victorian Labor government for the lack of contact tracing. What did the federal government's app do? It may have helped in 14 contacts. We were told by the Prime Minister that, if you download the app, you'll be able to go to the pub. That didn't happen. We were told by the Prime Minister that, if you download the app, borders will open. It didn't happen because the app didn't work.
This motion doesn't acknowledge any fault on behalf of their own government or the lack of what they did. What their government did was start to cut JobKeeper before our businesses reopened. That is what has put people out of work. This government is winding back support before we're through the health crisis. If this government did what the Victorian government did in their budget last week and announce massive investment, that would help every business try to save every job that they can. But there's no mention of that in this motion. No, instead it is just an attack on the Victorian government. It's an attack on people.
I'm a regional MP. The ring of steel was just below my electorate, and my people in my community were thankful for it. They were thankful because it was about controlling the virus where it was in Melbourne. People in my electorate overwhelmingly felt empathy for people in Melbourne. They felt sorry and they felt guilty. There was almost this guilt that we had that we still had life relatively normal. Our construction businesses did not close, Our hospitality businesses were able to do takeaway in the peak. Yes, it was hard and, yes, we have lost jobs. But we have lost jobs in my electorate because this government did not extend JobKeeper to the university sector. We have lost jobs in my electorate, not because of the Victorian shutdown for a health reasons; we have lost jobs because this government did not extend JobKeeper to people who are here on a temporary work visa. We lost jobs in my electorate and all throughout Victoria because this government did not extend JobKeeper to people who are casuals.
How dare people come here and put forward motions criticising a state government for responding to a health crisis that got Victoria through it. What was the alternative? They're not epidemiologists. What was the alternative—that we end up like the UK, that we end up like France or we end up like the US? That is what happens when you don't have infection control in place. I acknowledge that it was tough and I know that people in my community have done it tough, like every other Victorian. But most of them stand shoulder to shoulder with the outcome. We are now COVID free. We did it the hard way and we did it the long way, but we got there and now we're on the path to recovery.
That is why it is disappointing that this motion was not withdrawn and replaced with a motion that recognised what Victorians did and the leadership of Dan Andrews and the Victorian government—because they did it against opposition from this government—this government who have refused to work with Dan Andrews, refused to work with the Victorian people and have not backed businesses. We have already lost jobs because they wouldn't extend JobKeeper once. Will they do it now? We will lose more jobs if they do not help sectors like the arts sector, like the hospitality sector and like the university sector. How many more jobs do we have to lose before the government acts?
Regional Victorians are backing in the Victorian plan. It is disappointing that the regional Liberal and National MPs in this place are not backing in the plan. Get behind regional Victorians and get behind the plan. Support these businesses to grow, support them to recover and give them back JobKeeper until we are through this recession. They are simple things that this government can do.
I second the member for Mallee's motion advocating for Victoria to fully reopen in a COVID-safe manner. This means opening the doors of businesses, restoring the cherished freedom of Victorians and ending the crippling uncertainty that has afflicted regional communities in our state, particularly in the border regions.
In my electorate of Chisholm, I have witnessed the dire effects of the Andrews government's draconian lockdown measures. Small business has been given no respite or quarter. Small business is the lifeblood of our country and the communities within. The Victorian Labor Party has time and time again stood in the way of small businesses trying to survive this period. The Andrews government's response was extreme. It was an extreme solution designed to make up for their equally extreme mishandling of hotel quarantine. We wish the Victorian government had handled this crisis with the same care and competence that our neighbours in New South Wales did, but what is done is done. It wasn't Victorians' fault, and I am so proud of the courage and perseverance displayed by Victorians in getting through the worst of the latest crisis. The epidemiological data for Victoria is now at the point where health experts believe it is safe to reopen our state fully so long as we also stay COVID safe. The Victorian health system has recovered and built its capacity to deal with this pandemic.
Because of the Victorian outbreak, many business owners have been forced to shut their doors. Sadly, many of those doors won't ever open again. It is these business owners I am talking to when I offer my commiserations. It is truly gut-wrenching to know that many small-business owners have had to close the door permanently on their life's work. We will do whatever is in our power as a federal government to put Victorians back on their feet and to encourage all states to work together to avoid the border closures that have disproportionately affected regional border communities. This coalition government will continue to act decisively in the nation's interests, to help us to bounce back from the economic consequences of this disease.
But it's not just the economic front on which we are continuing to fight. We realise that this virus and the measures taken to combat it have caused significant issues in the space of mental health and general wellbeing. This is particularly the case in Victoria, where the outbreaks and lockdowns were so much more severe. So we want to send a message loud and clear: protecting the nation's interests necessitates protecting Victorian interests. That is why we have invested $29.6 million to establish 15 HeadtoHelp clinics across regional and metropolitan Victoria. These clinics will operate free of charge and significantly boost the capacity of our existing mental health system over the next year. This means more accessibility and more help for Victorians who need it.
But some Victorians are still being left in the lurch by the current restrictions enforced by the Andrews government. A business in my electorate, Vogue Ballroom, located in Burwood East, are still unable to operate. They have been continually forced to push bookings back and can't get any peace of mind. For them, this lockdown has not been eased, and they are still paying the penalty for Daniel Andrews's lockdown policy. My colleagues and I believe that it is time to unleash Victoria again, and that's why I firmly support the member for Mallee's motion today. (Time expired)
Reading this motion, I thought: 'Surely not? Surely this motion is going to be withdrawn now that Victoria is in the state in which it is.' But perhaps the only conclusion I can draw about a motion talking about a Victorian lockdown that doesn't exist anymore is that it was sent in via Malcolm Turnbull's NBN! That could be the only reason why it took so long to get to this place and finally be debated. But, if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that you don't play politics with a pandemic. You don't play politics with a pandemic because, if you do, it looks like it does in the United States, where the political class, the political leadership, is undermining health efforts, undermining the experts, undermining the efforts of those people trying to deal with this pandemic and instead we are seeing the people of the United States resist the health measures that are designed to keep them safe.
Don't play politics with a pandemic––which is exactly what this government has done. This government, I'm sure, are proud of their efforts over that time, picking on Labor states and Labor premiers. It worked really well in the Northern Territory, it worked really well in the ACT, and it worked well in Queensland after their relentless attacks on Labor premiers. That went really well. Playing politics with a pandemic is really great stuff and I encourage you, as a federal government, to do that to Victoria, because I can tell you one thing, and that is that Victorians are absolutely sick of it. They are absolutely sick of the Prime Minister lecturing Victoria about contact tracing, after his excuse for contact tracing was to develop an app that they are only announcing today that they are starting from scratch.
Victorians are absolutely sick of a Prime Minister blaming Victorian Labor for the state of the economy in Victoria, when this government is the one which, during stage 4 lockdown, decided that instead of supporting Victorian businesses, what are they going to do? They are going to reduce the JobKeeper supplement from $1,500 to $1,200.
We couldn't even have family over for dinner. Child care was shut down unless you were a permitted worker. We were tackling a pandemic. We were at 725 cases on 5 August, a comparable state to the United Kingdom, who are now tracking 20,000 cases. France has 50,000 cases a day. But instead, the Victorians and the Victorian people decided no, that is not what we're going to do. We are going to listen to the health advice, we are going to respect the experts, we are going to respect the scientists and we are going to respect the politicians who are trying to lead us through this Victorian pandemic and lead us out of the second wave.
Instead, at that very moment of need, at the very moment when Victorians needed their federal government, when Victorians needed support from those opposite, what did we get? A $300 cut, a cut of support to businesses, to families, to mums and dads. And it hurt. Thankfully, Victoria is now in a place where we are not in lockdown, we are not in a position where we are counting hundreds of cases a day, and we are not in a position where our hospitals are being overrun. It is because of the efforts of Victorians to listen to the health advice, to listen to the health experts, to listen to the Premier of Victoria, who each and every day admitted mistakes. It wasn't perfect. He fronted up every day––120 press conferences in a row.
How many times has the Prime Minister stood up and said, 'You know what, that contact tracing app that I said was our ticket to freedom and our ticket out of lockdown'––how many times has the Prime Minister stood up and taken a press conference about that? How many times has the Prime Minister stood up and said, 'That JobKeeper cut, the JobSeeker cut that I made during the middle of stage 4 lockdown, that was my fault, I apologise, and here is how we will fix it.' Not once.
So we won't be lectured to by these people opposite, constantly undermining the health efforts, constantly undermining the people who were trying to get Victoria through a pandemic, constantly undermining the efforts of scientists and experts to keep people safe. Instead they have got conspiracy theorists and they are playing political games only with Labor premiers. Victorians are sick of it. I know this, we know this in Victoria, but I would encourage those opposite, if you want to keep playing your petty political games, then go for it and you will face the repercussions at the next election. Victorians did something remarkable, no thanks to those opposite.
I never thought I would see the day, in my own country, when human rights, freedoms and liberties of Australians would be swept away so ruthlessly, as they have been under the guise of this pandemic––the most ruthless of all being the state of Victoria, where over the last six months people's basic rights have simply been crushed by force or by fines. A state government's desperate attempts to compensate for their own failings have seen our fellow Australians fall victim to heavy-handed, big-brother style law enforcement.
We have seen police enter a family home and arrest a mother in front of the kids. Her crime? Posting on Facebook. People have been fined thousands of dollars for driving to work, for exercising, for travelling apparently too far to go and get food and essentials. We watched a young woman being choked and forced to the ground by a Victorian policeman for not wearing a mask. It's clear the Victorian government has gone way too far. But the question is why? Is the virus as bad as the mainstream media and the opportunistic politicians have told us it is, or is the cure worse than the disease?
Let's look at the facts. In Australia, the median age of death from COVID-19 is 86. The average life expectancy in Australia is 82. If you're young and healthy, the chances of dying from coronavirus are very, very slim. It makes no sense to lock up healthy people when we can just protect those that actually need protection. Government enforced lockdowns, such as those in Victoria, will have severe effects on the mental health and the financial stability of many Australians. The World Health Organization has said: 'Lockdowns can have a profound negative impact on individuals, communities and societies. There is even doubt that they actually work at all.' The American Institute for Economic Research compared global lockdown responses with COVID-19 cases and deaths, and they found very little correlation. The Victorian government has mandated the use of masks, specifically recommending cloth masks as adequate protection from coronavirus. Well, the Australian Department of Health's Infection Control Expert Group stated that the use cloth face masks is almost completely ineffective and may even increase the likelihood of infection. The DANMASK-19 study, a randomised trial of 6,000 participants, found that there was no statistically significant difference between those who wore masks and those who did not when it comes to being infected by COVID-19. While the efficacy of masks is questionable, the enforcement of mask wearing by law is detestable. Virus or no virus, people cannot and should not be forced to cover their face for fear of financial penalty, or worse, in a democratic society like Australia. It is simply a violation of individual freedom. It sickens me that we have got to a point where I have to stand here in this parliament and actually say that.
When the virus first broke out, we expected the mortality rate would be much higher than it is now, particularly for people who are fit, healthy and under the age of 60. We thought it was going to be bad, and yet there are indications now that the mortality rate for COVID-19 overall is actually declining, even in countries where the transmission rate is increasing. In Europe, the infection rate has risen significantly but there hasn't been a matching increase in hospitalisations or deaths. The US study of COVID-19 tests in Detroit found that the viral load on swabs has decreased as the pandemic has progressed, correlating with a decrease in deaths. The UK built seven specialised hospitals for the purpose of dealing with a second wave of COVID-19 patients. Most of them are completely empty, and some are now being repurposed.
The fatality rate of COVID-19 in Australia is 0.4 per cent. That doesn't account for all of those who are asymptomatic and haven't been tested. According to the World Health Organization, it's very rare for those that are asymptomatic to transmit the virus. A recent report published by the World Health Organization stated that 80 per cent of COVID-19 cases are mild or asymptomatic. If that information is correct, why subject 100 per cent of the population to draconian lockdowns and business-destroying restrictions when you could just recommend protections to older and vulnerable citizens and quarantine those who are actually showing COVID-19 symptoms?
There will be calls of conspiracy theories and all the rest, but if you tell me that a state government removing basic freedoms and liberties from law-abiding Australians by intimidation, fine or force is okay then you're not Australian. Our national anthem says, 'Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free.' What's free about this? (Time expired)