Mr NORTHE (Morwell): The COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020 will again extend a broad range of temporary legislative changes made by the previous Omnibus Bill – assented in April this year – for a further six months. The measures this Omnibus Bill allows directly impact the continuation of many of the supports within the State Governments COVID-19 crisis response.
And what a six-months it has been indeed, as we have lived through the period of time that these measures have been in place. I think it would be pointing out the obvious to say that the debate we had in April would be very different to the debate we will be having now, given the experiences we have all lived through and the fierce impact of the COVID-19 response has flowed through all of our communities.
I would extend my sympathies to the Victorian families that have had lost loved ones to this dreadful virus. My heart truly goes out to each and every one of you. I would like place on record again, my sincere thanks to all of our incredible healthcare and other associated workers for their continued dedication to communities across Victoria. In addition I am grateful to my local community for their ongoing efforts and sacrifices made in order to protect their fellow Victorians. Many in the Morwell electorate have found this crisis extraordinarily overwhelming, with escalations of closures and changes; job, business and income impacts; restrictions on everyday activities and access to essential items. As we see some easing of restrictions this week in Regional Victoria, I truly hope that we can enjoy some small gains of normalcy back to our daily lives.
On a personal note I wish to acknowledge the efforts of Ministerial and Parliamentary staff for their efforts over past months. It is a challenging time for them and I know I have harassed many during this period. And I want to place on the record my gratitude to electorate office staff of all Members and of course my own staff in Kirstie, Jo, Bridget and Helen who like so many are working over and beyond the call of duty.
On the Bill itself, one of the main issues I initially raise is that here we have yet another significant and important piece of legislation, and which will continue to impact many Victorians in the coming months, yet it has been introduced and been debated minimal Parliamentary oversight, nor with community, business or industry scrutiny.
Some documents relating to this Bill were only delivered to Members on Monday evening, and subsequently a briefing provided on Tuesday morning. The Bill was introduced into the Legislative Assembly just two days later. I think it’s extremely unreasonable for any Member of Parliament to receive notification of such substantial legislation and be expected to consider, consult and vote on same within a couple of days.
No Member in this place has had the opportunity to broadly or effectively consult with their community regarding the impact to the provisions outlined in this legislation and, in fact, we are still awaiting information regarding certain elements. The lack of scrutiny and oversight is very concerning. This is not normal nor expected democratic process.
Last sitting week I put forward a notice of motion that;
This House requires — (1) a select committee be appointed to inquire into the Government’s health and financial response to the COVID-19 pandemic; (2) such committee to consist of three members from the Government nominated by the Leader of the House, three members from the Opposition nominated by the Leader of the Opposition, and the member for Morwell; (3) the members to be appointed by lodgement of the names with the Speaker no later than 5.00 pm on Tuesday 22 September 2020; (4) the Committee to be chaired by a non-government member; and (5) the Committee be required to present its final report no later than 31 March 2021.
I lament that if such an oversight Committee during the COVID-19 pandemic was currently in place, we would have more scrutiny and proper governance during this crisis. The Parliamentary Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC) haven’t yet reported on the Bill that’s now before us. The community would be assured that this enormous impact to their lives is being managed in accordance with the democratic process that it should be afforded.
I will acknowledge that there have been some legislative changes and supports that have been effective, including from the first version of this Omnibus Bill. But there have been others that have proven to be problematic over time.
First, the April variation of this Bill provided a moratorium on residential and commercial tenancy evictions, recently extended via other legislation. These measures were put in place to rightly protect individuals and businesses from unfair treatment during the COVID-19 crisis. But these measures have had insurmountable financial impacts on landlords who are struggling just as much as tenants are, in some circumstances. Of course support for vulnerable tenants is welcome, but likewise landlords should not be forgotten. Exacerbating this issue is the backlog of VCAT and DSCV cases meaning that those landlords that have a just cause for eviction cannot legally do so, driving them further into financial distress. These backlogs need to be addressed as a matter of urgency, particularly as we enter a second six month period of these policies.
Another backlog that is causing significant distress is the effect the April legislation has had upon the Court, tribunal and justice procedures. The ongoing delay in Court hearings is causing emotional and financial misery for families and individuals across my electorate. These delays cannot continue for a whole 12 months, other measures must be in place to clear the backlog and allow closure on these matters.
Potential Learner and Probationary drivers – who are also experiencing lengthy delays in sitting tests in Regional areas – are another cohort of the community who desperately need assistance. Many students and parents have raised their concerns at the lack of information being provided with previously rescheduled appointments put on hold and new appointments unable to be made, providing a huge backlog to clear. As Chair of the Latrobe L2P program for a number of years, the hardworking folk at L2P know just how important driver’s licenses can be in the lives of vulnerable youth, particularly in the country. There needs to be a focus on supporting these kids, they’ve been waiting long enough now.
And at the risk of sounding like I am harping on about delays, the Government also seriously needs to address the elective surgery wait times, particularly in Regional Victoria as we commence steps towards reopening. I was pleased to see some announcements regarding this issue earlier in the week, but I cannot stress how important it is that we support our health services in getting these surgeries up and running and continuing as normal. People have had a terrible year, I don’t think further delays to matters concerning their health is reasonable.
I have also had contact with anxious farmers, who you can imagine are having a terribly challenging year. On top of a horror droughts and fires and the vast impacts of COVID-19 to their operations and income, I know of one farmer who now is facing a 45% rate increase on top of it all! I have written to the Valuer-General in regards to this, but this is just unreasonable and unjust beyond belief. I’ve brought up rate relief before, I think it’s a meaningful way for the Government to support farmers in times of need and it should absolutely by considered within any COVID-19 support efforts.
My final remarks I will leave to a sector of our community that is definitely hurting. Our local traders, small businesses and organisations have had an abhorrent six months. It goes without saying that the impacts of COVID-19 to our economy are devastating. I acknowledge and commend the Government for their implementations of business support packages that have attempted to prop up our owners as their revenue streams have been strangled or squashed. But many small businesses are not able to withstand the continued limitations and roller coaster of restrictions, even with the supports that have been released. The sad fact is, that many will find it very difficult to recover, if ever they can. I have spoken to sole traders who are shattered that they remain ineligible for many of the supports, to café owners who are still fighting to receive their first round of grants via the Business support fund and to various sectors.
Businesses who have contended with restrictions in sectors such as events, entertainment, hospitality, cafes, restaurants, travel and tourism, beauty and personal services and more ought to be commended for the manner in which they have handled such significant challenges. In addition, I have been contacted from business owners who operate learn to swim schools, dance studios, gymnasiums, recreation and gymnastic groups, and who are still required to close under Third Step provisions even for the provision of services to children, as indoor activities are currently closed. This makes no logical sense and I firmly believe the Government needs to have faith that such services can be delivered in a COVID safe manner by responsible business owners.
There is more work to be done in supporting our business community and as we move towards recovery this should be a focus of our State Government to get right.
In closing, this Omnibus Bill extends a range of measures until 26 April 2021. It’s a terrible fact that the Victorian community might have to endure at least 12 months of these emergency measures, and the many other challenges that COVID-19 presents.
I will consider the amendments proposed by the opposition parties in the Assembly. In summary I have three concerns with the Bill before us. First, due to the short time-frames in which we have been in receipt of this Bill I don’t believe there has been sufficient time for it to be properly considered. Second, there has been no ability to adequately consult with or receive feedback from my community. Third, there has been a lack of scrutiny and oversight of what is an extremely important piece of legislation that has wide-ranging impacts. I therefore oppose this Bill.