Friday, 12 June 2020
Questions without Notice
Bushfire Recovery: Mental Health
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, Senator Ruston. Yesterday the government announced that it was committing $11.5 million to mental health support for emergency services workers who were impacted by the recent devastating bushfire season. Yesterday's announcement was in fact just a reannouncement of the $16 million in mental health funding that the government announced in January. Why has the government's mental health support for emergency service workers to date been two press releases and not a single dollar spent?
I thank the senator very much for his question and for his ongoing interest in bushfire recovery and in helping our bushfire affected communities across Australia. I can say that the federal government, the coalition government, the Morrison government, is absolutely committed to helping Australians who have been impacted by bushfire, which is why we continue to invest money in this recovery. We also acknowledge, as do you, Senator, that the bushfires in 2019-20 have taken a very serious toll on the mental health of Australians. It has taken a very traumatic, emotional toll on those people who were affected in those communities. I know firsthand from the communities that I have had involvement with in South Australia that it was a very tragic and terrifying time, and the impact lingers, exacerbated even further by the fact that they have now had to contend with the implications and the consequences of the actions that have had to be taken around the coronavirus pandemic.
The government has committed over $100 million in mental health support for emergency personnel, individuals and communities impacted by the 'black summer' bushfires. These include $76 million for a bushfire recovery mental health package announced on 12 January this year. That package included free access to counselling in bushfire affected areas; Medicare rebated psychological support, including via telehealth, which is particular relevant given the COVID crisis; money for Primary Health Networks for additional services and to administer grants into local communities; and specific support for emergency service workers and their families. In response to the need for more community based support, the government has since announced an additional $13.5 million for primary care in the Primary Health Networks, and this is very, very specific—
Can the minister confirm that yesterday's $11.5 million announcement represents a $4.5 million cut to the $16 million already announced for mental health support for the same emergency services workers?
In direct answer to your question, no, I can't, Senator Watt, and I'm not going to. But what I would say to this chamber following the question I received yesterday is: Senator Watt, you can be very, very loose with the facts. Yesterday you came into this place and you accused us of only providing support—I think you quoted a figure of four per cent of Australians living in bushfire affected communities who have been able to access government support. What you failed to mention yesterday, Senator Watt—
No, I'm posing the question on it. If the minister wishes, she has plenty of opportunities, as a minister, to debate Senator Watt; I'm happy to stay and watch that. But could she answer this question, not argue yesterday's question, which she was unable to answer.
Senator Ruston interjecting—
I'm pleased you've found your brief since yesterday!
The minister is entitled to challenge the assertions or assumptions in the question but must remain directly relevant to the terms of the question. I'm listening quite carefully, and I'll continue to do so. The answer must pertain to the announcement and/or challenge or address any other claims contained in the question.
I would draw the senator's attention to the first sentence that I uttered, after he asked the question, where I answered the question. If they don't like the idea that I come in here and suggest that I've got evidence that Senator Watt is loose with his facts, I'm sorry about that.
We'll move on to the bushfire crisis that we're talking about at the moment. In 2019-20, the bushfire crisis has absolutely exemplified the—(Time expired)
Senator Watt, a final supplementary question?
Senator Ruston interjecting—
Senator Wong interjecting—
Order Senator Wong and Senator Ruston. Please, there are only 10 minutes to go.
Senator Cormann interjecting—
Senator Cormann, on a point of order?
The interjections are disorderly and the worst culprit when it comes to constant and relentless interjecting, personal interjections as well, is the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. I ask you to call her to order.
I have said before that there is no-one in this chamber with a halo when it comes to interjections, but I do ask that—
Senator Wong interjecting—
Senator Wong, please come to order while I'm ruling. There are common interjections across this end of the chamber that I can hear and they are all disorderly. We'll continue question time with Senator Watt's question, if they cease. Senator Watt, a final supplementary question?
I'm happy to table the article that cites the four per cent figure after question time. In January Mr Morrison promised that relief would be immediate. Why did the government go five months without spending a single dollar from the $16 million announced in January for mental health support for emergency service workers? Why is this government constantly prioritising marketing and re-announcements over the needs of people affected by the bushfires?
I obviously completely and utterly reject the premise of the comments that Senator Watt just said. That this government would be prioritising anything over what is tremendously important, dealing with the fallout and impact on the mental health of Australians who have been impacted by bushfires. Is an outrageous comment. We are absolutely committed to supporting, particularly our emergency service workers, who spent many, many, many weeks—many more weeks than we've ever seen before—out fighting fires. The impact on the mental health of those emergency workers—the post-traumatic stress disorders, the mental illnesses and sadly in some cases the suicides—is something that this government takes very, very seriously. And we remain absolutely committed to helping these people over the longer term, making sure that they have the support that they need.
Senator Watt interjecting—
Senator Watt, as you would well know—