Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria) (17:45): I am not really pleased to rise and speak on this bill, but certainly I feel it my duty to stand against this bill, the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension) Bill 2021. Indeed The Nationals will be opposing this bill that is lying on the table today. The amendments that this bill proposes seek to extend the period of the state of emergency by another nine months. Not until December this year will we be potentially free from these draconian rules that have seen Victorians go into the most shocking lockdowns—and the whole of Victoria go in recent times into those shocking lockdowns—without compelling evidence. It provides inordinate powers, and we have seen those powers enacted: lockdown 1, lockdown 2 and then recently the most ridiculous total lockdown of the entire state because of the hotel quarantine fiasco once more. It absolutely defies belief that this government—with the inquiry, with understanding, with all of the technical expertise across the nation, with medical professionals offering their support and with recommendations in various reports saying what needs to be happening—still chooses to ignore those reports, and I will look into them further in my contribution.
What Victorians and people writing to me and ringing my office and emailing me have said overwhelmingly is that they are so frustrated with the lack of respect given to them by this Andrews government and that they fear that the weird stuff that happens in books is so much a reality that it will continue to become the norm in Victoria. They have asked me to push back, and today I certainly will push back. We have heard people say ‘give credit where credit is due’ in this house today. How can you give credit to the jailer? How can you give credit to a Premier that created this problem in the first place? Now, admittedly he did not create the coronavirus coming into our state, but his public health response has been of his making and of his choice. He did not listen to national cabinet. He has not listened to other states and learned from other states—and other states have made mistakes, there is no doubt about this. This had to be a learning experience because of its huge, significant and pandemic nature. But he has not learned. We have seen the Stockholm syndrome. We have seen Daniel Andrews locking up Melbourne for 23 hours, containing people within 5 kilometres. We have seen huge and extreme clamping down on our public life and liberties, yet we are asked to thank and congratulate and give credit where it is due. It just astounds me.
Those on the opposite side say, ‘Let’s talk about the facts’, and say that we over here are not presenting the facts. Well, let us just do some quick comparisons of the evidence: 20 000 positive cases, or a bit over, and 820 deaths from this coronavirus in Victoria; 74 per cent of the cases across Australia and 90 per cent of the deaths have occurred in this state. By contrast, New South Wales—let us look to them. They have made mistakes. They have learned from their mistakes. They have had 5000 COVID cases to date and 56 deaths. And we are seeing this again and again. Three times the returned travellers to this country have come back and gone into New South Wales, so the demographics should be stacked against them—but they are not. They have made mistakes, they have taken responsibility and they have acted seriously. Here we have seen weddings cancelled, we have seen families in isolation, we have seen businesses forced to close, open, close, open. We have seen many of them closed, and you only have to walk through the city to see the ‘To let’ signs on them. We have seen them in regional Victoria—an alarming state.
Indeed just before I came into this chamber I spoke to my son who lives in New South Wales. He is a paediatric nurse, and I am so very proud of him. He has just had his Pfizer vaccine today. Our rollout is not rolling out like it is in New South Wales. We applaud the work of our nurses, our frontline staff and our teachers, who have worked under amazingly difficult and challenging conditions to pivot and work to support their students, but we also have seen small business absolutely crippled and on their knees. Our small businesses pay taxes. They pay our wages, we who work for the public purse, and they are being curtailed and they are not being given the respect that they deserve.
Let us look at how Victoria has suffered. The Public Accounts and Estimates Committee report speaks to what is happening in Victoria. Again I say to those opposite, these are the facts: Victoria recorded an 8.5 per cent gross state product fall in the June quarter last year, 2020. It was the only Australian state to do so. Gross state product is expected to fall 9 per cent in Victoria over 2021. Unemployment was 7.1 per cent in October and it was up from July, and the unemployment rate is expected to rise again this year. Older workers, younger workers, part-time workers and the female employee sector seem to be really hard hit through this, and we saw this in my own electorate of Eastern Victoria Region, where people, many women, work as sole traders in businesses and they were put off without any support because they did not reach the bar and qualify. It is an absolute indictment. This government needs to be held to account. I know that the Liberals and The Nationals will be putting forward a proposal, an amendment, to look at rolling this state of emergency on a month-by-month basis. That is the only way we will agree to this bill going forward. Otherwise it is no deal.
I would like to talk about an expert that has come in and I have listened to, a very invaluable expert. We had him in the contact-tracing inquiry, in which I was a participating member. He is the AMA president, Associate Professor Julian Rait, and he had some valuable insights. He put them in the Herald Sun the other day. He talked about Victoria’s two-tier system in hotel quarantine and why it is failing. He also said, and I quote:
In Victoria, the Australian Medical Association advocated as far back as April last year for an operational approach to the state’s quarantine system.
How radical, an operational approach—and to talk to the experts, talk to the infection control experts. He goes on to talk about the fact that at present, which is why we saw that third crazy lockdown statewide, we are running a two-tier system. There is a hot hotel for those who come into the country with a positive test. They go into the hot hotels, and they are secure and there is a high degree of operational rigour. Then we have the cold hotels accommodating people that come back with a negative test, but we have seen since—and this is the nature of this virus—they have gone on and ended up being positive in there. We have seen leaks through that system. Why, when we will have a $155 billion debt in the forward estimates, wouldn’t this government put the funding in and create all hot hotels—treat all hotels and all returned travellers as if they have the disease and keep them locked down? Indeed we saw the terrible, terrible situation where people were wearing garbage bags over their heads as they were being transferred. Now, I appreciate that they may well have wanted their dignity intact and their identity hidden, but I can only feel, and really challenge the government, that this is not the right thing to do.
Professor Rait said, and I quote, ‘This is a mistake’ in relation to the cold hotels. He went on to speak about again the Andrews government deflecting the way we handle it by looking at different quarantine facilities. He said:
A best-practice, expert-led approach is more important than where quarantine might be located.
In relation to even what New South Wales does at its airports—and we have seen this quite vividly with people coming into and out of Sydney and back to Melbourne—we have seen the difference there. This is not rocket science, and it should be contained. We should be doing the best we can for our Victorian population, not what we are being served up.
We see the economic loss, and it has a human face. We have seen sole traders, as I mentioned before, denied access to the Business Support Fund, a grant that was instigated by Labor to support small businesses. They backtracked and then provided the sole traders with grants, and to date only $12 million out of the $100 million that was supposedly on offer has been taken up because the criteria have been too constrained. But not only that, we had people apply for and be given grants, given $20 000, as was a business owner in my electorate, and then told that they must pay it back—‘I’m sorry, you don’t qualify’—even after it had gone into their bank account after they had been closed down so that they could try and pivot and create new opportunities. Not only that, if they do not pay it back, the government will charge them interest: ‘We lock you down in regional Victoria. We say you can’t have grants. We give you the grants, then we make you send them back to the coffers. If you don’t, we’ll charge you interest on the way’. This is a terrible indictment.
I have commented in the past that we had Orbost small businesses being shut down in this third lockdown of five days. A really good example with employment agencies is that someone wrote to me recently, saying that it is very challenging to get long-term unemployed people ready and interested to learn, particularly in this environment. I had a gentleman speak to me about interns that were deferred from construction opportunities where people were going to construction jobs, local hardware shops and the like—they were being deferred. Businesses lack confidence, and they are lacking it like never before. The tourism industry has been decimated. And yet we have got a government saying, ‘Here, trust us, public. Trust us for another nine months. Trust us’. I have had example after example of example of constituents that have reached out to tell their story, and I could fill the next 2 hours with their conversations and their lament. They are trying to survive, but it is so, so very challenging.
Today we saw the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System deliver its findings and its recommendations, and they will be a very interesting read. I know that people from my electorate too have wanted to speak and have had the opportunity in the past to speak at the roundtable events. But what can be learned from this? The government has to stop this brain drain, this emotional suppression, this hurt that people are living in separation and this fear about the loss of their jobs or not being able to see people interstate and overseas again. We know that Beyond Blue have reported during the stage 3 lockdowns that 64 per cent of the nationwide calls came from Victoria. By comparison 19 per cent were from New South Wales. Does that mean that we have more worriers in Victoria? No, they are under far more pressure than any other part of this country. It is an indictment of this government, and again if we pass this bill it will only serve to create more and more devastation. We have seen it in education, and particularly regional education. We had to go into the third lockdown—it just defies reality—‘because we want to keep you all the same’. Well, students in regional Victoria already have a layer of pressure, already have a layer of challenges, and yet we see the government continuing to do this.
The Nationals will not be supporting this bill. We will support the Liberals and Nationals amendments for a month-by-month extension with great oversight. We do not support the Andrews government having a blank cheque on the Victorian population, and this government needs to do better.