This omnibus bill is a broad mix of legislative updates to implement the measures within the state government COVID-19 crisis announcements. It will come into effect the day of royal assent and provide immediate relief across the Victorian community in doing so.
First, I would like to extend my sympathies to the families and loved ones of the Victorians and indeed any persons who have lost their lives fighting COVID-19. I think in this heightened and anxious state that the world is currently in your grief has maybe been overshadowed. I am so sorry for your loss and for the loss of the regular, expected bereavement process with your family; sincerely, my thoughts are with you, everyone.
I would also like to acknowledge those who are in intensive care fighting for their lives, as well as their families. As I understand it, COVID-19 medically limits the ways in which you can be with and support your loved ones, which must be truly devastating. I extend my best wishes to you also.
Second, I do commend the state government and the chief health officer for their response during the current COVID-19 crisis. I appreciate the difficulty of decision-making in these times, and whilst there has been some confusion and mixed messaging on specific restrictions and activities—and indeed I have my own personal views on same—I know those decisions are based on managing the best health and wellbeing outcomes of Victorians. To this, I recognise the efforts of the Premier and those working within the Premier’s office, and government ministers, including the Minister for Health and her team. There are many staff who have worked incredibly hard behind the scenes and within ministerial and departmental offices, and I say thank you and well done for your contributions. In particular, the crossbench received several briefings this week, and to those who participated in those I thank you for your time. I also thank my own electorate office team, who have never been busier in their support of the community. They are fielding a wide range of constituent feedback and are doing a sensational job doing it too.
Third, I would like to thank our amazing healthcare sector and other workers who are providing necessary services at this time. Their dedication, diligence and preparedness to support others make us realise how fortunate we are to live in a state where people on the whole look out for each other. To those working in our hospitals, health and mental care sectors, pharmacies, aged-care, childcare and other care facilities, schools, supermarkets, transport sectors, charitable organisations, emergency services and many other facets of our community who are doing what they can to support community members in their time of need, I say well done.
I would now like to thank my community for their efforts and sacrifices made in order to protect our healthcare system and their fellow Victorians. Many in the Morwell electorate found the early stages of this crisis extraordinarily overwhelming, with daily escalations of closures and changes, job and income impacts, and restrictions on everyday activities and access to essential items. Many still find it overwhelming, but the overriding sense of community spirit, patience and understanding has been inspiring.
More than ever I am proud of the individuals and families of the Latrobe Valley, who are supporting each other, supporting local businesses and making the time we are spending isolated from our support systems more bearable. I thank the electorate of Morwell for once again proving their resilience and support of one another.
Now let us look at specific elements of the bill—and what a bill too. It has some extraordinary changes in it that would never fly in ordinary times. But we are certainly not living in ordinary times.
In line with national cabinet, there will be a moratorium on residential rental evictions and rental increases from 29 March to 26 September 2020, including at caravan parks and rooming houses. The bill will also provide mediation to support and help landlords and tenants negotiate fair arrangements through Consumer Affairs Victoria. I do note there are specified circumstances whereby an eviction can occur, and this is important to note.
Similarly, the bill provides relief to eligible commercial tenants experiencing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic by:
allowing the Victorian Small Business Commission office to assist in resolving disputes between owners and tenants before VCAT needs to be involved;
enacting a six-month moratorium on commercial tenancy evictions from 29 March 2020;
providing for a freeze on rent increases during the moratorium for commercial tenants;
providing for a rental payment waiver or deferral proportionate to a commercial tenants’ income reduction due to coronavirus, to be negotiated between tenant and landlord.
These elements are critical to support our Victorians who are doing it tough and are financially stretched. They send a clear message to both the residential and the commercial rental markets that consideration must be given where necessary during this crisis to businesses—it could mean the survival of businesses who have seen cash flow completely disappear—and of course to tenants whose income and cash flows have diminished.
Another change that is important to businesses is the implementation of electronic means within the planning permit and amendment process. This includes enabling planning panels to conduct hearings by videoconference or in other remote ways. Anything that prevents delays within the planning and permit approval process is well worth the change.
Another important aspect of this bill is to give our hospitals greater flexibility with their nurse-to-patient ratios where COVID-19 places extraordinary demand within their facilities. In softening these laws—whilst understandable in periods of sector distress—I hope that we do not see instances of opportunistic non-committal in providing our healthcare sector everything they need in terms of resources. There will be provisions within this legislation to delay changes that may worsen or impede the current situation, such as Environment Protection Authority Victoria reform and VCAT updates.
There are some justice reforms in regard to the courts, and as I understand it some of those provisions uphold current practices occurring due to COVID-19. There has been community concern expressed about fair trials and that some prisoners may be released early from their sentence due to the incidence of the pandemic. From the feedback I have received this would not be a palatable option for many of those same community members.
The bill also makes some sensible changes for WorkCover recipients, local government, the training sector and parliamentary committee operations. Having said that, a valid point raised in the context of local government and WorkCover relates to the costs of municipal rates and insurance premiums. I have been approached by a number of ratepayers and businesses who have expressed concern on how they might mitigate the fees associated with these two areas of cost. I do believe that relief measures pertaining to council rates and WorkCover premiums will need to be considered seriously by the government in the coming weeks and months because the reality is many businesses and indeed home owners will be unable to pay these fees in totality.
Many of the support measures in this bill—in fact nearly all—will sunset after six months, which creates a sense of relief that some of these extraordinary implementations will only need to be temporary.
In closing, this omnibus bill addresses a variety of challenges faced by the Victorian community in the wake of COVID-19, and I sincerely hope the measures within it provide relief to the sectors of our community most in need.