17 March 2020 – Questions without Notice
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (12:34): Premier, the Traralgon Vineyard also informed me this morning of eight event cancellations due to COVID-19 concerns in the last few days, which has placed enormous strain on the viability of their business going forward. They are one of many businesses who are already experiencing a downturn in their operations. Part of the issue for many business owners is knowing how they are going to survive the looming economic disaster, and it is imperative that the business community is aware of any government information and assistance in this regard. Premier, will the government consider establishing a business hotline for those businesses impacted by COVID-19 so that they can relay the real issues they are experiencing and also receive accurate and up-to-date advice on how they can be supported through this crisis?
17 March 2020 – Questions without Notice
r NORTHE (Morwell) (12:30): My question is to the Premier. Premier, obviously the impact of COVID-19 is causing enormous concern across many communities, including in the Latrobe Valley. In the last 48 hours I have been contacted by a number of small and medium business owners who are extremely emotional and anxious about their futures. For example, the Premier Function Centre in Traralgon yesterday received 12 event cancellations. Without this income the owners, Celeste and Danny, face an uncertain future, particularly given that there are still bills and wages they have to pay. Premier, I know that this function centre is not the only business going through similar challenges. Are you able to advise what financial and taxation supports and assistance will be available to Victorian small and medium businesses throughout this crisis?
18 March 2020 – Members Statements
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (09:57): I rise to acknowledge the terrible impacts the COVID-19
virus is having upon individuals, families and businesses within my community. I have received many contacts from anxious and vulnerable members of our community in regard to the panic buying of others, which has now led to a shortage of essential items in supermarket aisles and shelves. It is little wonder they are fearful of the current situation. The aged, the disadvantaged and those with a disability or health or mental health challenge need to be supported throughout this crisis, and I put it to the government and to grocery retailers that more has to be done to support these people. Some are unable to get to supermarkets easily and welfare agencies are also without supply, so in my view strong interventions need to occur. It is difficult to observe and comprehend the ugly behaviours of some people at this time—it is simply un-Australian.
Of course many business owners and their employees are also feeling the pressures of a downturn in trade in these trying times. The reality is we need strong, practical government assistance that will make a positive difference on the ground so our businesses are able to survive and then thrive, particularly when many have their livelihoods on the line. Whilst I understand it is not easy, businesses urgently require government financial and taxation relief at this critical time. As locals we can do our bit by shopping local where possible.
I would like to genuinely and deeply thank the work, support and tireless dedication of all of our healthcare sector workers—doctors, nurses, hospital staff and others on the front line of this crisis. We thank you for the vital role you are playing at this time.
19 March 2020 – Questions without Notice
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (11:23): My question is to the Premier. Premier, the impacts of COVID-19 are really being felt across many regional communities right now, and one of the concerns we have locally is accessibility of GP services and health services. There is a recognised shortage of GPs in the Morwell electorate, and many local residents are fearful that they will be unable to get a doctor’s appointment if they need to be tested for COVID-19 Whilst I understand responsibility for GP shortages primarily sits with the federal government, I have written to the Victorian health minister multiple times following ongoing complaints from local residents and GP clinics. At a recent Senate estimates health hearing it was duly noted that the Traralgon, Morwell and Churchill clinics did not have enough GPs even before COVID-19 hit. Premier, can you advise what actions have been taken in consort with the federal government to address GP shortages in my community, and will local residents be able to get immediate access to medical services should they develop symptoms of COVID-19.
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (11:27): Premier, as you are aware, many supermarket shelves are empty of essential items due to the selfish bulk-buying of some people. This behaviour has placed many vulnerable members of my community, including the elderly, persons with a disability, those with health and mental health challenges, amongst others, in an awful predicament whereby they are unable to access or purchase essential items. People who are required to work and are unable to get to their supermarket early are also confronted with empty shelves when they eventually arrive at their supermarket. Many people in those categories have contacted my office in tears about the situation, and quite rightly are asking for stronger interventions by government and by the supermarkets because what is in place right now is not working. So, Premier, can you advise what interventions the government might put in place to ensure members of my community and other communities are able to access an adequate supply of essential goods and items?
23 April 2020 – State Taxation Acts Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill 2020
Mr NORTHE (Morwell)
I submit some comments in regard to the Appropriation (Interim) Bill 2020, the Appropriation (Parliament) (Interim) Bill 2020 and the State Taxation Acts Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill 2020.
The Appropriation Interim Bill provides interim budget authority for the ongoing operations of the government for the first six months of the 2020–21 financial year. It also provides appropriation authority for additional amounts to be advanced to the Treasurer to cover the costs of COVID-19 to the state of Victoria:
$10 billion for the remainder of the 2019–20 financial year; and
$14.48 billion in the period commencing 1 July 2020 and ending 31 December 2020.
Similarly, the Appropriation (Parliament) (Interim) Bill gives the authority to fund the operations of the Parliament for the first six months of the new financial year. Within this time there will be a budget bill to cover the whole 2020–21 financial year, and I look forward to these debates later in the year.
But today this is certainly a very different budget than what the Parliament is used to and what we have been accustomed to over the years. Normally there would be announcements, debate and time to review these important bills. None of that applies at this very surreal time, which is replicated across various jurisdictions and indeed right across the world. Digressing, I do commend the Premier, government ministers and their staff for their leadership during these challenging times. I appreciate not all will agree with some decisions made within this extraordinary period, but I do believe everyone is doing their best for all Victorians.
These bills provide for an extraordinary amount of money to be afforded to the government, and it is therefore vitally important the government expends this funding in a manner that provides value and makes a positive difference to Victorians. Unfortunately, the detail on how and where these moneys will be spent is lacking at this point in time. That is not to say the additional funding sought is not necessary, as we do face entirely unprecedented circumstances.
Some elements of this budget are necessary to support our Victorian businesses through what can only be described as a completely catastrophic scenario. COVID-19 has impacted organisations far and wide, with reports citing that over 70 per cent of businesses have seen revenue decline, one in ten have ceased trading altogether and sectors such as hospitality have been entirely decimated, leaving a trail of joblessness, debt and heartbreak behind them. We know that many businesses won’t recover after the threat of coronavirus has finally left us.
Before we even had our first confirmed case of COVID-19 –
reach its true potential, and I would be happy to support the government in getting this going in my community. There are a number of organisations and authorities that await announcements on if they will be funded beyond 30 June 2020. The government needs to, as soon as practical provide certainty in this area. For example, what becomes of the Latrobe Valley Authority and its employees? Also the government has made a number of commitments and election promises within the Morwell electorate, so will these same commitments be honoured in the current economic climate?
Finally, I would like to provide my thoughts on what should happen to any surplus funds from these enormous and unprecedented advance payments to the Victorian government. The Andrews government are asking us to vote in favour of providing these additional funds without any normal plans, budgets or the regular scrutiny prior to this debate. I have no doubt that much of this funding will be necessary to support our health system in its preparedness as well as over time as we fight COVID-19. But if there are any surplus funds, I point to the research that tells us:
between 30 March and 3 April, 47 per cent of businesses made changes to their workforce in the previous two weeks in response to covid-19;
Treasury forecasts that the unemployment rate will reach 10 per cent in the June quarter and as high as 11 per cent in the September quarter; and
this crisis could lead to 270 000 Victorian jobs being lost.
We are fully aware that the economic downturn of this crisis will be nothing short of devastating. Because of this, I would like to see surplus funds be used to undertake projects and infrastructure builds that have been in the pipeline for years, because we know that after all of this we will need to get our economy moving again—and fast. By putting this money into works with an immediate start date we will benefit Victorians and provide much-needed jobs and supplies for the long recovery ahead.
However, we cannot afford to have project budgets being blown, as has constantly been the case in recent years. The waste that currently occurs on government-related projects is appalling, and this needs to change moving forward.
Ultimately current and future generations will have to pay back borrowings that occur now. How that will be done is unknown at this stage, and this is a scary thought for many. By passing this bill there is an extraordinary amount of expectation and faith that the government will spend taxpayer moneys in a manner that provides value for all Victorians, including those of us in regional Victoria.
The State Taxation Acts Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill provides the state government with its regular taxation, with a continuation of its ordinary revenue sources. It also enacts support for communities greatest hit by the devastating summer bushfires and extends the first home buyers grants as well as other provisions.
Just reflecting back to the devastating Victorian summer bushfires—as it is so important to acknowledge that these catastrophic fires swept across particularly the east of our state only four short months ago—it may not feel like such a small amount of time has passed, but we can all attest that a lot has happened in society since then! But I am sure that those who lost loved ones and livelihoods certainly still feel like the wounds are recent and raw. We must respect and remember that.
I trust that elements of this bill will provide some support and comfort to them as they continue to rebuild in debilitating circumstances. To those who are recovering right now, I extend my heartfelt sympathies for your losses and continued challenges. We all look forward to being able to travel to East Gippsland and support that community when COVID-19 passes.
I will always take the opportunity to thank our emergency services, volunteers and workers. These heroes put their lives on the line every time there is an emergency event in our state in their efforts to save others. What legends. I was in contact with many of our local CFA volunteers over the summer, and quite a few of our local brigades and firefighters were active in fire events not only in East Gippsland but in New South Wales as well. I sincerely and deeply thank all our wonderful local firefighters, SES workers, police officers, defence personnel, ambulance officers, charities, support organisations, council workers and all the volunteers that kept them all going. Their swift and selfless actions never cease to amaze me, and I thank them for their remarkable dedication and service.
As our hardest hit communities recover, the measures in this bill seek to provide assistance to the businesses in the six local government areas that were so heavily impacted.
Firstly, it will provide a 50 per cent concession on transfers of commercial and industrial land in certain areas affected by a state of disaster. The concession applies to transfers where the contract, arrangement or agreement for the transfer was entered into on or after 27 January 2020.
Secondly, it reduces the payroll tax rate for eligible regional employers in certain areas affected by a state of disaster to 1.2125 per cent effective from 1 July 2019.
This will support to some degree businesses in these communities as they recover from the terrible bushfire event and of course with the continued economic downturn—all through no fault of their own.
This bill also extends the $20 000 first home owner grant for purchases of new homes in regional Victoria until 1 July 2021. This is a great initiative to encourage development in our regional areas such as the electorate of Morwell. In the months to come I believe that stimulating development and spending will be a sensible measure. The bill provides meaningful support to those businesses that continue the long, hard road of recovery as well as other sensible measures.
23 April 2020 – COVID-19 OMNIBUS (EMERGENCY MEASURES) BILL 2020
Mr NORTHE (Morwell)
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.
17 June 2020 – Constituency Questions
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (11:37): (2662) My constituency question is to the Minister for Small Business. Minister, what is the latest information regarding the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, including social distancing rules, which are having a significant impact on the business community? Many business owners and managers at function centres, cafes, restaurants, entertainment venues, wedding- and funeral-related services, clubs, pubs and more have expressed rising tension and frustration at the inconsistency of the many restrictions that apply. One example is that there is a perception that from 21 June restaurants and cafes will benefit greatly from an increase of patrons to 50. However, nothing will change for many, and this is due to the size of the establishment, where they are already at capacity, albeit limited capacity, particularly when the one person per 4 square metre rule is applied. Subsequently, many business owners have asked that I raise these same issues in Parliament and request the state government undertake an urgent review of the current restrictions in place and provide Victorian businesses with a real plan moving forward.
3 September 2020 – Adjournment – Business Support Fund
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (3590)
My adjournment matter is for the Minister for the Coordination of Jobs, Precincts and Regions: COVID-19.
The action that I seek from the minister is to urgently review the eligibility criterion for the Victorian government’s Business Support Fund expansion and ensure that sole-trader and partnership businesses are not excluded from this program. The Business Support Fund has been a very important initiative for the business community, and the government should be commended for its introduction and expansion; however, the criteria that exists is unfair to certain cohorts of businesses.
For example, I have been contacted by many businesses who are ineligible for the Business Support Fund expansion due to the fact that they trade as sole traders or are in partnership arrangements. To me this is grossly unfair, to say the least. This program was extended to regional Victorian businesses as we re-entered stage 3 restrictions on Wednesday, 5 August 2020. It provides one-off $5000 grants to eligible enterprises as they face constraints on trade and operations due to these restrictions.
Many of the businesses who have contacted me are mum and dad operators who have had their services ceased or reduced and events cancelled as a result of the restrictions imposed. These same enterprises who have suffered substantial economic harm are ineligible for state government support, despite being able to claim federal government assistance through programs such as JobKeeper.
Advice through the Business Support Fund states that to be eligible a business must:
a) operate a business located within Victoria; and
b) be a participant in the commonwealth government’s JobKeeper payment scheme; and
c) employ people and be registered with WorkSafe on 30 June 2020; and
d) have an annual payroll of less than $3 million in 2019–20 on an ungrouped basis; and
e) be registered for goods and services tax (GST) on 30 June 2020; and
f) hold an Australian Business Number (ABN) and have held that ABN at 30 June 2020; and
g) be registered with the responsible federal or state regulator.
Several of the businesses who have written to me wish to apply for this grant but despite ticking all other requirement boxes have been deemed ineligible due to the absence of having a WorkCover Employer Number (WEN).
There is currently an e-petition with the Legislative Council which highlights these same issues: ‘Many of these sole traders have commercial leases, business loans, equipment lease payments, insurance, utilities and other expenses that they are required to pay for business operations. However, they are excluded from the grant on the basis they have no employees. This has placed many small businesses into dire financial circumstances’. This petition calls for ‘the Government to consider the outgoing expenses a sole trader incurs when determining their eligibility for the current grants under the Victoria’s Business Support’.
A recent article in the Latrobe Valley Express spoke of this petition and discussed the disappointment and feelings of abandonment by local business owners. For example, Sue from the Black Fox Tattoo discussed how challenging the circumstances are to ensure that her employees will have a job to come back to when the current restrictions ease. And Glenys from Fibre Arts Australia has also faced constant battles in receiving adequate and fair support and assistance due to the criteria applied under the Business Support Fund expansion program.
I have serious concerns regarding these and other businesses in my community with the potential loss of jobs, particularly in my electorate where we struggle with high unemployment and every job is crucial. But it’s not just jobs—the possible closure of any business has vast ramifications for individuals and families that will be experienced for years to come. I urge the minister to urgently review the current requirements under the Business Support Fund expansion program and ensure sole traders and partnership businesses are immediately included as eligible for assistance under this same program.
3 September 2020 – Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of emergency Extension and other matters) Bill 2020 – Second Reading
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (16:44): Thank you, Speaker, and hopefully you can hear me okay. If you could give me the thumbs up—thank you—from afar. I would rather be there in person, but that is for a whole other debate.
I do wish to make some comments on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension and Other Matters) Bill 2020. The bill itself seeks to extend the ability for a state of emergency to be declared from the current six months to 12 months, and beyond 16 September. As we know, the government, through its initial exposure draft bill, proposed an extension of these powers for a further 12 months; however, this has now been amended to be a further six-month period. The bill not only provides the chief health officer and the government with additional time under the proposed provisions but it also provides additional powers to same.
More generally the state of emergency and state of disaster powers have had a significant impact right across every single Victorian community. On that point I do wish to acknowledge the individuals and families who have suffered as a result of the COVID-19 virus.
It is a horrible virus. It has been an extraordinarily traumatic and difficult time for those families who have endured the virus and have lost loved ones along the way. Also to those who are working within the aged-care facilities, in our hospitals and in other healthcare settings, many of whom have been put at risk and have actually contracted this virus, our thoughts are with those people. It is just a horrible situation to think that many people who are going in to care for others have actually contracted the virus. We send our best wishes to all of them, including those who are doing the testing, of course. There have been more than 1 million tests undertaken, and to the personnel on the ground: we thank you for your work.
From a local perspective, unfortunately we have had quite a few active cases, including in Bupa Aged Care Traralgon. Again not only local residents have contracted the virus but a number of healthcare workers, and I know it is a difficult time for them and their families. But more generally people in our community have accepted the restrictions pretty well and have done a pretty good job.
I think most recently across Gippsland there are 15 or 16 active cases with about 11 of those within the Latrobe Valley. They are the direct impacts of the COVID-19
virus, but there are also what I would describe as the indirect impacts of the virus due to the restrictions and directions that have been posed under the state of emergency and also the state of disaster provisions. One of those is the compassionate scenario, and I know some other members have raised the issues around funerals and palliative care. It has just been terrible to observe and witness the many cases. Indeed one from today comes to mind. I was talking to a lady in my electorate who has a sister who unfortunately is in palliative care in Queensland. The difficulties that family has experienced and faced in a loved one not being able to see a dying, direct relative in another state or attend a funeral are just absolutely horrendous. We really need to understand the emotional toll scenarios like that are having upon people, and of course that is extended to funerals as well.
Now, I am not saying that is just a Victorian government issue—it is as a consequence of border restrictions in other states—but those types of situations are having an enormous impact upon people, as are the business hardships. We know that there has been some welcome financial assistance by state and federal governments, but the business hardships are real. Many of my local businesses have closed, probably never to reopen. There are mums and dads who have put their life investment into their businesses. There are their employees, who are finding it difficult to find alternate employment, particularly in an area of high unemployment. And then of course there are the financial, health and mental health issues as well that extend into the community—people not being able to see loved ones, their grandchildren, and elective surgery being cancelled. I understand why it might have been cancelled, but there are health and mental health impacts upon those people. People are not attending GP appointments, impacting their health. Homeschooling and education we have spoken about, and even licence testing in regional Victoria is another liberty that has been taken away.
I understand these are not easy decisions for the government, but the reality is basic mistakes have been made along the way, and unfortunately they have had dire consequences. And if you cannot get the basics right, then everything else falls apart from my perspective. It is incumbent on people in the community to do the right thing as well.
In some respects both governments, at state and federal government levels, have made some errors along the way. I know they are unintentional, but they have had long-lasting impacts. And for a long time I have been saying that there are a number of basics, such as testing, adequate quarantine, better surveillance and contact tracing. Protecting the vulnerable, having adequate testing and turning those test results around quickly are really important. In that context this bill seeks to not only extend the period of time for a state of emergency but also provide for greater powers, and that does not sit right with me. So that is why under standing orders I wish to advise the house of amendments to this bill and request that they be circulated, please.
Independent amendments circulated by Mr NORTHE under standing orders.
Mr NORTHE: Just briefly, the first amendment is in relation to the declared time frame. The government is seeking six months, and in my amendment I am proposing an additional three months on top of the already six months. I am not opposed to a state of emergency—I know it is necessary and needed—but I think that three months is a far better outcome.
My second amendment relates to part 2, clause 3, of the bill, which is a new provision to be inserted. Within that section of the bill it essentially states that a state of emergency can be declared where the rate of community transmission is low or there are no new cases of COVID-19
or a period of time, and I rhetorically ask: what is the description of ‘low’, and what is the period of time? Clause 3 seems to afford enormous powers to the chief health officer, whose opinion, with all due respect, can override any real data or statistics. Well, that is what I interpret that clause to suggest as well. Similarly, I know there have been concerns articulated around clause 6 of the bill in that the chief health officer can direct or authorise authorised officers to exercise emergency powers if reasonably necessary to do so. Previously just the word ‘necessary’ was in there, so I guess the rhetorical question there is also: what is ‘reasonably necessary’?
I know a number of medical practitioners have written an open letter to the Premier raising similar concerns to those I have, particularly around clause 3 of the bill. I will not have time to quote them, but basically they are supporting—along similar lines—my concerns around those particular clauses. In my view there must be a balance of tackling the virus and at the same time having regard to the economic, the health and the mental health impacts upon businesses, individuals, families and communities in making any policy announcement with regard to state-of-emergency powers and the actions that come with that.
I am concerned about the lack of oversight and accountability relating to the decisions that have been made and how these same decisions have been arrived at, and that is why—by way of a notice of motion—I believe a parliamentary oversight committee should be established to monitor and inquire into the government’s response to the COVID-19
pandemic, and that will be on the notice paper tomorrow. I know similar committees have been established in other jurisdictions, such as the ACT, South Australia and New Zealand.
In closing, Victoria does need a plan moving forward, and I know the Premier has stated that he will announce a road map on Sunday. I trust that will provide some hope for Victorians. But given the reality is that we have to live with this virus for an extended period of time, there needs to be a plan also for how we live with the virus, and I say in the strongest of possible terms: we cannot keep locking Victorian communities down in the manner that has occurred in the past six months if an outbreak occurs. The devastation would be just too great for many individuals, businesses, families and communities. I do believe if the government gets the basics right, the net imposition on the majority of Victorians can be reduced. I do believe the bill before us does not provide adequate or appropriate oversight, and I also believe the period of time the government is seeking to extend the state-of-emergency powers by is far too long. So on that basis I am opposed to this bill before us.
17 September 2020 – Members Statement
Mr NORTHE (Morwell)
I would also like to highlight an issue in relation to inconsistencies in the application of the COVID rules and associated safety concerns with respect to learn-to-swim classes. At the moment outdoor pools can be open, and it doesn’t seem to make any logical sense that indoor pools remain closed for the purposes of swimming lessons. As has been expressed to me by concerned swimming instructors and parents of young children, in the last two months five children aged two years and under have died from drowning in Victoria. The lack of access to accredited training may exacerbate these devastating occurrences into the future. As we approach summer I cannot help but feel that we have not supported young Victorians in learning this vital life skill and sincerely hope that the government is looking closely at this risk as part of their restrictions and road maps moving forward and as we approach the warmer months.
18 September 2020 – COVID-19 OMNIBUS (EMERGENCY MEASURES) AND OTHER ACTS AMENDMENT BILL 2020
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 government’s 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 that has flowed through all of our communities.
I would extend my sympathies to the Victorian families that have lost loved ones to this dreadful virus. My heart truly goes out to each and every one of you. I would like to 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, which will continue to impact many Victorians in the coming months, yet it has been introduced and been debated with minimal parliamentary oversight, nor is there 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; (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
hese 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, I know the hardworking folk at L2P know just how important drivers licences 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 drought 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 per cent rate increase on top of it all! I have written to the valuer-general in regard 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 by 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.
13 October 2020 – Adjournment
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (21:13): (4553) My adjournment matter is directed to the Premier. The action I seek is for the Premier to urgently review and amend the threshold and parameters for regional Victorians that sit within the last step of the government’s COVID-19
regional road map. Regional Victoria is currently operating under the third step rules and restrictions as set out by the government. However, the leap to the next step is a monumental one and it is seemingly far, far away, much to the chagrin of regional communities.
Under the next step, which has been titled the ‘last step’—which ironically is not the last step within the government’s road map—the threshold states that there can be no new COVID cases for 14 days across the whole of Victoria to reach this arbitrary milestone. So I rhetorically ask: what if Victoria gets to 13 days without a new case and then one is recorded, or even worse, it is a reclassification of a case or some admin error? Should our entire state be bound to this threshold? To continue to mandate no new cases across the entire state for this period of time before enacting the last step is absolutely crazy. I know the commentary has been that the government is not seeking to eradicate the virus, but the thresholds under their road map seem to suggest otherwise.
I have been contacted by many concerned constituents, families, businesses and individuals who are frustrated and angry about these arbitrary thresholds for regional Victoria, which on current statistics could well be weeks and weeks away or even months away from meeting the target. I feel terrible for those residing in metropolitan Melbourne, who are enduring even worse restrictions, but the reality is that in the Latrobe Valley, in the Gippsland region, there have been to my understanding no new COVID-19
cases for more than 14 days, yet under the government’s rules we remain stagnant.
The impacts of the restrictions are well known, and whilst there is a perception in some quarters that regional Victorians and regional Victorian businesses are doing well, it is simply not accurate. Many businesses are still operating at very limited capacity and some still have their doors closed under the current rules. For example, indoor recreation activities, even for children, are closed. Activities like karate, judo, dance, ballet, learn to swim, gymnastics, gymnasium, basketball and more are prohibited. Despite children being able to mingle together at school for the majority of the day, even a handful of those same students are unable to attend an indoor activity together for any of the abovementioned activities for 1 hour of the day. It makes no logical sense.
Businesses have proven they can and will operate in a COVID-safe manner and have adopted measures to ensure their workers and customers can work and shop safely. Limitations on attendees at church services, funerals and weddings have done untold damage emotionally, and do not get me started on some of the interstate border restrictions with respect to palliative care and funerals of a loved one. We need to consider the economic, physical and mental health and wellbeing in conjunction with the response to the pandemic health measures. At the moment the balance is well and truly out of kilter. In closing I again call upon the Premier to urgently review and amend the last step threshold so that regional Victorians can finally move forward.
13 October 2021 – Motion – No confidence in Government
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (20:12): I do rise to respond to the motion of no confidence as moved by the Leader of the Opposition. I certainly want to make my contribution in conveying the sentiment that is coming from my community in regard to the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Firstly can I say, look, I know that decisions made by the government in response to COVID-19
are not easy decisions. I do note that mistakes have been made, but also at the same time one cannot deny that many people have worked extraordinarily hard during this crisis, and whether it is ministers of the government, their staff, departmental persons, healthcare workers, police or those in the private sector, many have gone well beyond the call of duty in their dedication and commitment and they ought to be acknowledged for that.
But in terms of the motion before us and in the context of the feedback that I have received, people in my community are generally upset. They are angry and they are frustrated over many aspects of the government’s decision-making and in particular the impact that this has had on children, students, individuals, parents, families and businesses more generally. People have observed the politicising of the issues at hand, the various inquiries that are happening, legal challenges being considered, ministers resigning or being sacked and senior public servants being stood down, and that obviously from a confidence perspective has ensured that many communities are feeling let down. Also I must say that many have conveyed to me that they believe basic mistakes have been made and that this has culminated in the further spread of the virus, which has caused deaths, economic and financial distress and health, mental health and wellbeing challenges across a range of sectors and communities.
There is a general sentiment that basic principles have been handled poorly, and that is at all levels of government. The prohibition of persons returning from overseas who have the virus still seems to be an issue. Adequate quarantine settings, appropriate surveillance and monitoring of persons with COVID, best-practice contact tracing and protecting the vulnerable, including those in aged care settings, have probably failed at various levels, and those basic principles are vitally important.
And it is all right to sit over here and say hindsight is wonderful, but the reality is people instill their faith and trust in our governments to make sure they get important decisions right. And unfortunately those failures—and many have been conceded—ultimately led to significant lockdown measures being imposed and the subsequent impacts being felt. And again from a regional perspective, a regional Victorian perspective, I really feel for those who are living in Melbourne with even stronger restrictions. People are saying to me there seems to be an ongoing reactive approach to the basics, that it should have been dealt with months ago. The overwhelming feedback from my community is that the restrictions and thresholds are arbitrary and too high. They are not balanced in terms of on one hand tackling the virus but on the other hand not understanding the economic, health and mental health and wellbeing of people and the impact that that is having upon people across our communities.
It is fair to say that governments have stepped up to provide support to businesses and workers and organisations, and it has hit the mark for many. And that is terrific. But it is not the case for everybody, and there are many gaps and holes within some of those supports—sole traders, partnership arrangements for those businesses who do not employ someone directly. There are many businesses in my community who are still waiting for reviews on the first round of the Business Support Fund. This is months down the track. Cash flow is king at the moment, so to not even have their applications reviewed or finalised at this point in time is incredibly disappointing. Employees are impacted as well.
But I am also worried about the emotional toll that some of the restrictions are having. Many members have spoken today about weddings, funerals and religious services that are taking an emotional toll on many communities. In regional Victoria at the moment I think there is a perception that we are open for business, but that is not the case. Many businesses are open in a limited capacity and some not at all. For example, indoor sport and recreation activities are not open, so whether that is ballet, dance, karate, gymnastics, gymnasium, basketball or learn to swim, all those activities, particularly for children, are not open at the moment. We are not open for business in that regard.
People are worn out. They are tired, they are upset, and I guess there is little end in sight from the perspective of many people, particularly with the current thresholds and targets that are in place. My strong view is that they need to change and we need to get the balance right. Again I do not underestimate the challenge for the government in the decision-making, but there is confusion in Victoria around whether they are actually seeking eradication or trying to minimise the spread. I know that the Premier has been quoted many times saying we are not going down the eradication path, but when you look at the thresholds that exist under the road map it really does suggest otherwise to me.
It is hard sitting here amongst people who live in Melbourne, but regional Victoria is really handcuffed at the moment. We cannot move to the next step until there have been 14 days of no new cases across the whole of Victoria. In my immediate community and the whole of the Gippsland region we have had no new cases for longer than 14 days currently. It is making people get very frustrated obviously with those current rules. We have heard the World Health Organization just in the past few days saying that circumstances such as this are making poor people poorer and pleading with governments and leaders to really reconsider putting people and businesses into extended and hard lockdowns. Businesses have been so greatly affected that any consideration of getting hardworking business owners and their staff back to some kind of normal is absolutely critical in this time. I do not think businesses in many cases are asking for handouts; they are asking to at least be open in some capacity so they can get people back to work, have some form of business and ensure that they are servicing their clients.
What I will say in closing is that I do believe there is a lack of confidence in the state government in the handling of the pandemic, because that is the constant feedback that I receive in my community, particularly when people observe the almost daily calamity of the goings-on surrounding the hotel quarantine inquiry, memory lapses from senior personnel within government and the public sector, the reshuffle of ministers in cabinet and resignations of key personnel.
In addition, people observe reactive responses to the issues at hand, and they should have been dealt with months earlier. The many rules and restrictions just do not seem to be consistent or to actually apply any common sense, and those are the factors why, at this point in time, I do think there is a general lack of confidence in the government, certainly in my community, about how the pandemic has been handled. Of course that is a different proposition to the one in a parliamentary sense whereby this motion seeks the removal of the government, which is a consideration this chamber will obviously have to make.
15 October 2020 – Constituency Questions
MR NORTHE (Morwell) (14:43): (4610) My constituency question is to the Premier. Premier, what is the latest information regarding new rules that compel regional Victorian business owners who take bookings to check a customer’s ID to determine they are not from metropolitan Melbourne before the booking is made, with non-compliance resulting in a $9913 fine. Many businesses in my community have contacted me with regard to concerns relating to not only the penalty amount but the efficacy and practicality of the rules. For example, for some accommodation providers the inability to take any booking from a metropolitan Melbourne customer regardless of any future date which they are looking to book means some online booking services are rendered useless as uploading or checking ID is not a feature of some platforms. That means that staff in cafes now have to request each customer’s details, further driving up costs. Premier, these new rules may be well intended, but at a practical level they are further adding to the financial and administrative burden for many Latrobe Valley business owners who are already struggling. If the rules are to be in place, then vastly improved information and support is needed for these regional businesses.
29 October 2020 – Members Statement
Mr NORTHE (Morwell)
Over recent months many people, organisations and businesses have raised with me their concerns with respect to many COVID rules and restriction inconsistencies, some of which I wish to highlight today.
Whilst I understand the government has had to make some difficult decisions in response to COVID-19
the inconsistency of rules has led to enormous frustration and anger in many circles.
Despite an easing of some restrictions in regional Victoria, the perception that we are fully open for business is a complete fallacy. For example, whilst the hospitality sector can now open with 40 patrons inside and 70 outside, the reality is that for venues with smaller floor spaces nothing changes because of the current density quotients that apply.
And when you consider that 40 persons are able to dine indoors, so many other anomalies materialise from this set of rules alone, notwithstanding these same rules don’t apply to large retail outlets. For example, the following activities are still prohibited or limited to less numbers than hospitality, which makes no logical sense:
many indoor non-contact sports for adults;
indoor art classes;
music classes and practice at educational facilities and community halls.
There is a huge financial and mental health toll from the continued limiting on these important services and activities, unnecessarily restricting business owners’ livelihoods. The current rules that prohibit these activities need urgent reviewing for consistency of measures and due to the fact Gippsland has not had any active COVID cases for a number of weeks. The government is currently sending a message that it trusts certain sectors over others to open in a COVID-safe manner, and that is simply not fair.
11 November 2020 – Constituency Question
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (13:45): (4758) My constituency question is to the Minister for Police and Emergency Services. Minister, my question is asked on behalf of the hardworking CFA brigades and volunteers in my electorate, and that is: what is the latest information with regard to their participation in fundraising activities? My understanding is that the current directive prohibits CFA volunteers from fundraising activities despite the recent easing of COVID-19 restrictions across Victoria. It is well known, the necessity for CFA brigades across my electorate and indeed regional Victoria to raise vital and necessary funds to assist with the upgrading of their skills, equipment and assets. Many brigades have already missed out on months of opportunities to raise funds, and this in turn has only further delayed this critical investment. It makes no logical sense that while CFA brigades and volunteers are required to turn out for an emergency event to support and protect their communities, they are unable to participate in a sausage sizzle. In my view this directive needs urgent review and overturning.
17 February 2021 – Members Statement
Mr NORTHE (Morwell)
By way of today’s member statement I wish to convey to the Parliament the sentiment and views of my local community over the past few days and how the COVID-19
esponse has been managed by the government. It’s fair to say my office and I have been inundated with feedback from individuals, families, businesses and organisations expressing their disbelief, their frustration and even their anger at the abruptness of the Premier’s announcement last Friday that saw all of Victoria go into a five-day lockdown, including those of us who live and work in regional Victoria.
Employers and employees alike were shattered by the forced closure of their business despite there being no local COVID-19
cases for months and months. Just as some businesses saw some light at the end of the tunnel and were trying to get back on their feet after the year from hell, the rug was suddenly pulled. Whilst some might say, ‘Oh well it was only for five days’, the reality is many businesses can ill afford to lose any revenue at the moment. The costs, the rent, the overheads didn’t go away for that five-day period, yet the revenue did for many sectors and industries, particularly with major trading lost on Valentine’s Day as an example.
Weddings cancelled on a whim, funerals delayed, schools closed, shifts lost, perishables wasted, bus tours cancelled, vulnerable people and the services they rely upon stopped, and so it goes on. Financial and emotional impacts far reaching. I sincerely don’t believe the government fully understands the toll of shutting down communities and businesses the way it has.
‘Why has the government forced my business to close when they are the ones who have made this mistake yet again and despite the fact that there have been no COVID cases in our region for months?’. This very question has been asked of me multiple times. So much confusion of the rules applied with stage 4 restrictions this time different to stage 4 from the last time. Open, close, open, close, open doesn’t work for many businesses and their staff and customers.
To me, you just can’t keep locking people and businesses down without understanding the emotional and economic impacts. I understand this is not easy for governments but for months and months I have said in Parliament and in other forums that we need to get the basics right. For example, if people travelling into Australia were required to test negative and isolate/quarantine before they arrived in Australia, if we had the best possible quarantine system, whether that be hotel or remote, if we had the best contact-tracing system in place and if we protected the vulnerable and the aged, then maybe lockdowns would not be necessary. We put our faith and trust in our governments to get the basics right but unfortunately that hasn’t been the case and it has been businesses and communities including regional communities that have paid the price for government mistakes. And this is the general consensus I have received from our local community.
17 February 2021 – Constituency Questions
My constituency question is to the Minister for Industry Support and Recovery. Minister, following the forced closure of many of my local businesses within the Morwell electorate during the government’s five-day lockdown, what is the latest information with regard to any financial assistance and/or support packages that might be available to employers and employees who have lost revenue and/or wages during this period of time?
Minister, as you will be aware or should be aware, so many businesses, sectors and industries were financially compromised by this latest lockdown and once again due to the failure of the government’s own quarantine system and its decision to enforce the lockdown across all of Victoria, including in the regions. Just as many businesses were getting back on their feet the calamity of an almost immediate lockdown has sent the financial and emotional health of many downhill quickly, including employers and employees alike.
Whilst any business and employee support and assistance is welcome, it’s hard to believe that many businesses hit by the 2020 pandemic restrictions are still waiting for a decision on their application for funding from the government’s Business Support Fund round 1, which is just further exacerbating the emotional and financial pain 10 months down the track. This is unacceptable to the nth degree and I call upon the minister and the government to immediately set up a new funding program to support employers and employees who, through no fault of their own, have lost critical revenue and wages from this most recent lockdown and at the same time ensure funds and supports are provided as quickly as practicable and not months and months after the event.
19 February 2021 – PUBLIC HEALTH AND WELLBEING AMENDMENT (STATE OF EMERGENCY EXTENSION) BILL 2021
Mr NORTHE (Morwell)
I thank you for the opportunity to make some comments on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension) Bill 2021. The main purposes of the bill are to amend the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 to lengthen the total period for which a state-of-emergency declaration may continue in respect of the COVID-19 pandemic from 12 months to 21 months, and to extend the period of operation of the COVID-19 temporary measures under part 13 to 16 December 2021.
By way of background and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a state of emergency was first declared on 16 March 2020 for a period of four weeks and this has now been extended a number of times. In September last year, the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 was then amended in the Parliament to allow for a state of emergency to be declared for a total period of 12 months from that initial date of 16 March 2020. So as it stands, the current state of emergency in response to COVID-19
is not able to extend beyond 11.59 pm on 15 March 2021 without gaining the support of the Parliament. As noted, what the government is effectively seeking by way of this current bill is to again amend the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 to allow for a further state-of-emergency declaration in response to the pandemic, and it seeks to do so by expanding these powers for a further nine months from 11.59 pm on 15 March 2021.
As per my speech of 3 September 2020, when state-of-emergency extension powers were previously debated, I seek to again place on the record and acknowledge the impacts of government restrictions that have been imposed under the COVID-19
pandemic rules. Much has occurred in the past five months since that debate, and indeed in the past five days or so particularly, when it comes to how the government has managed the COVID situation and how well those same restrictions have been received in the Morwell electorate.
Without labouring the point, the abrupt five-day lockdown, which thankfully was lifted on Wednesday night, well, it left many in my local community stunned, confused, shocked and angered, particularly with Valentine’s Day celebrations, and to which many businesses were anticipating a positive start to the year. Yet this was taken away, and in some regional communities this occurred in light of there never having been a COVID case in that same community, or no COVID cases for months and months. There were and are far-reaching effects emotionally and financially not only in my community but I’m sure across the majority of Victorian communities. Employers and employees are out of pocket through no fault of their own; in fact this only occurred due to the government not being able to manage its own quarantine program again. One can only hope that a satisfactory support package will be forthcoming to these same employers and employees.
I don’t oppose the notion of state-of-emergency powers, and indeed some aspects are necessary. But these powers need to be tested by the Parliament and experts on a more regular basis than the government is proposing in my opinion, whilst also ensuring there is proper scrutiny and oversight.
In terms of the bill itself, I must say my views and thoughts have not changed from the September 2020 debate. In fact, in my speech of 3 September 2020 I said the following, and I quote:
I understand these are not easy decisions for the government, but the reality is basic mistakes have been made along the way, and unfortunately they have had dire consequences. And if you cannot get the basics right, then everything else falls apart from my perspective. It is incumbent on people in the community to do the right thing as well.
In some respects both governments, at state and federal government levels, have made some errors along the way. I know they are unintentional, but they have had long-lasting impacts. And for a long time I have been saying that there are a number of basics, such as testing, adequate quarantine, better surveillance and contact tracing. Protecting the vulnerable, having adequate testing and turning those test results around quickly are really important. In that context this bill seeks to not only extend the period of time for a state of emergency but also provide for greater powers, and that does not sit right with me.
But here we are five months later, and once again I believe basic errors were and are still being made across some of those same areas mentioned above, but it’s the Victorian people and businesses who have to pay the price. Granted, it’s just such a relief that aged-care settings and their residents have not been subject to COVID-19
cases in recent times—touch wood—but the fact that governments were and are allowing people potentially carrying the virus to enter Australia and Victoria was always fraught with danger in my opinion. To put all our eggs in the one basket and hope that the virus could be contained in hotel quarantine when it had previously failed was a significant risk.
From a business perspective, we know that there has been some welcome financial assistance by state and federal governments, but the business hardships continue and they are real. Many of my local businesses have closed, some never to reopen. Employers and employees alike are feeling the effects, with financial, health and mental health issues rising in many cases. The government just has to respond appropriately to the most recent five-day lockdown as this pain has just been exacerbated for so many.
In closing, I will conclude my contribution with another extract from my 3 September 2020 speech on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension and Other Matters) Bill 2020. This really encapsulates and reinforces my position on the bill that is before us today when I said, and I quote:
But given the reality is that we have to live with this virus for an extended period of time, there needs to be a plan also for how we live with the virus, and I say in the strongest of possible terms: we cannot keep locking Victorian communities down in the manner that has occurred in the past six months if an outbreak occurs. The devastation would be just too great for many individuals, businesses, families and communities. I do believe if the government gets the basics right, the net imposition on the majority of Victorians can be reduced. I do believe the bill before us does not provide adequate or appropriate oversight, and I also believe the period of time the government is seeking to extend the state-of-emergency powers by is far too long. So on that basis I am opposed to this bill before us.
Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important legislation.
8 June 2021 – Adjournment
MR NORTHE (Morwell) (5900)
My adjournment debate is directed to the Minister for Small Business in the other place. The action I seek is for the minister to expand the current criteria of the government’s business costs assistance program to be inclusive of the many regional businesses who currently don’t qualify for support because they are not GST registered or they don’t have WorkCover insurance or employees.
Lockdown 4 has really hit the small business sector hard, and it’s a travesty that through no fault of their own many hardworking business owners and their staff are being ignored in financial support from the state and federal governments.
My office and I have been contacted by a number of local business owners who are understandably frustrated and angry that they have been overlooked for support when they most need it. There is a perception in some quarters that regional Victoria is out of lockdown, but this is just not reality, with many businesses operating at limited capacity or closed altogether. I rhetorically ask, where is the help and assistance for these businesses?
The financial, emotional and health impacts upon employers and employees is real. It is simply a disgraceful situation that a number of businesses don’t qualify for the Victorian government’s business costs assistance program. And it seems many regional businesses who are still forced to close their doors may not be eligible for the maximum $5000, unlike their metropolitan counterparts.
In addition, regional employees have been excluded from the federal government’s temporary COVID-19 disaster payment program, which is just as unfair.
As previously mentioned, regional Victoria is supposedly out of lockdown but it is not, and it is difficult to understand some of the inconsistencies that apply under Victoria’s current COVID rules. For example, in regional Victoria we can have students in a classroom for 6 hours per day yet children can’t attend a ballet, gymnastics or dance class after school for an hour.
You can play sports socially but not compete. You can have 50 people in a bar but no more than 50 people spread out on acres of a golf course. Gyms are still closed despite gyms being one of the most highly regulated and COVID-safe sectors. And it goes on!
With no COVID cases in our local community for month and months on end, one has to ask why people and businesses are being restricted so heavily—it just doesn’t make sense! As I have said ad nauseam, you can’t keep locking people down. We have to factor in people’s mental health and the economic harm of COVID-related decision-making processes. But sadly it appears this is not the case.
In closing, the action I seek is for the government to apply some common sense to its own COVID rules, and for the minister to expand the current criteria of the government’s business costs assistance program to be inclusive of the many regional businesses who currently don’t qualify. That means supporting all businesses who have been impacted by this lockdown.
8 September 2021 – Adjournment
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (5996) :
My adjournment debate is directed to the Premier. The action I seek is for the Premier to provide Victorian citizens with a plan that sees all Victorians coming out of these prolonged and extensive lockdown restrictions. Speaker, so many Victorians are tired, jaded, angry, hostile, fatigued, upset and can I say unwell. Not necessarily unwell directly from the impacts of COVID-19, but unwell due to the ongoing imposition of lockdowns and restrictions and the effects they have had right across the community.
As I have stated in the Parliament so many times since the pandemic commenced, you just can’t keep locking communities down without understanding the financial, emotional, health and mental health and wellbeing of people. People locked down and businesses closed, and in communities where there have been no or very few positive COVID cases. We have to find better ways to live with the virus.
Interestingly, the state government seems to have recently amended its position from elimination to suppression and vaccination. That might seem okay but in the interim it’s people’s livelihoods, liberties and freedoms that have been suppressed, which has caused untold damage. I know some will say that we are nearly there and we will be able to open up soon. But the reality is each day of lockdown is another blow to people already doing it tough. Don’t get me wrong —I appreciate these have been difficult decisions for governments and people will invariably ask, ‘What would you do?’, and I will elaborate further on this point towards the end of my speech.
But it is not just me who has expressed concerns with the impacts of lockdown. A number of medical professionals penned an open letter to the Premier more than 12 months ago on 1 September 2020 and that letter said in part:
… it is our professional opinion that the stage 4 lockdown policy has caused unprecedented negative economic and social outcomes in people, which in themselves are having negative health outcomes. In particular, it has caused or exacerbated depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, as well as contributed to domestic violence, through an extreme and unjustified disruption to family, social and work life. Job losses, homeschooling, the isolation of the elderly and single people and the restriction on the number of people who may attend funerals are but a few examples of how the government’s current response is harming the health of the general population. In short, the medical, psychological and social costs of the lockdown are disproportionately enormous compared to the limited good being done by current policies and are relevant factors to be taken into account by any responsible government.
Of course there have been subsequent lockdowns where these same issues exist. Even the World Health Organization has stated its views on lockdowns, with Dr David Nabarro from WHO saying, and I quote:
We in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus.
I have to say, Premier, I’m worried for people in my community. We now seem to be going down the track of creating different classes of people and that is the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. This is leading to relationships being severely tested or even breaking down completely as the future pathway remains unclear. The social fabric of our community is under threat with the mixed messaging and mixed signals governments are sending at present. We as Victorians, all Victorians, need a plan and we need hope that our liberties and freedoms will be restored. If we think of our young and our children, it’s a very distressing situation. Missing out on face-to-face schooling, social activities and sport and recreation are having impacts, as is indicated by the spike in the number of mental health presentations and self-harm incidents health authorities and experts are now reporting. We need to get our kids back to school, back to their sport and recreation activities and ensure they have direct social contacts with their friends.
Businesses who have been either forced to close or operate at minimal capacity are suffering, and whilst any government supports are well received, the reality is this same support falls well short of the real financial losses incurred and the subsequent emotional toll lockdown is taking. So many inconsistencies of the rules of who can open and when and which employees are deemed essential workers or not, amongst other valid questions are frequently asked. The confusion and inconsistency invariably leads to the legitimate question of ‘How can they open when we are forced to close?’. So many businesses say, ‘We don’t want handouts, we just want to open our business’. Workers and employees are missing out on employment and shifts and once again whilst government assistance is welcomed, it often falls short of the real losses incurred. So many regional businesses, including event, tourism and accommodation providers, rely on the Melbourne trade, so if Melbourne is in lockdown, this still impacts many parts of regional Victoria very heavily. We hear hints that regional Victoria will come out of lockdown this week, but if strong restrictions still apply, which is likely to be the case, then how can you say that? This is a play on words and the perception that regional Victoria and regional businesses are suddenly doing okay when a soft easing of restrictions is announced—well, this is completely wrong—they still are!
We have Victorian residents, Victorian citizens, still stuck in other states and territories who require a permit and an exemption to get back to their own home and place of residence. This is truly bizarre when you really think about it and there has to be a more humane way to deal with such situations. There are safe ways to get our residents back home and the government needs to address this issue urgently. Many of these same people are fully vaccinated and have proof of negative COVID tests, yet they are still being denied the right to return to their home state. I have spoken previously about the emotional toll people have endured through limitations or cancellations with respect to palliative care and other care visitations, weddings, funerals and important major milestone events. The inability to visit our loved ones in care and aged-care settings is just a horrible situation for both parties.
Governments are ramming home the point that we all should get vaccinated so we can achieve the 70 per cent and 80 per cent vaccination threshold rates that will allow some of the lockdown restrictions to be eased. What actual restrictions will be eased and when is unclear. We need a plan and we need hope. There is the national plan, yet there doesn’t seem to be consensus from all states and territories. The detail on how all Victorians will fare under this plan are not certain. Despite the push from the Prime Minister and the Premier for people to get vaccinated, there have been significant delays at a local level in people being able to obtain vaccine appointments, which is rather ironic but frustrating for those wanting to get vaccinated. There are others who want a specific vaccine for medical or other reasons, but in many circumstances this is not possible. I ask: what becomes of the people who are unable to be vaccinated or who don’t wish to receive the vaccine? The creation of two sets or classes of people in relation to a vaccine that is optional is a worrying pathway.
In my circumstance I can say that I’m now fully vaccinated and that’s my decision and my right, and I certainly encourage people to get vaccinated if they can. However, I am aware of people who have legitimate reasons, including health reasons, why they can’t or won’t receive a COVID vaccination and this cohort should not be left behind. You have to give all Victorian citizens hope. In this same space what is the future for our businesses who have to grapple with the vaccinated or unvaccinated scenario? Will their businesses be deemed non-compliant because the business owner, manager, staff or customers are not vaccinated and in the eyes of WorkCover or the government their workplace is unsafe? Is this where we are heading and is this fair and reasonable? I sense there is a legal minefield brewing in this space. Governments have a responsibility to look after all their citizens and their human rights.
I understand and appreciate the delta strain of the virus and its contagiousness. However, I do believe the balance in locking down communities against the economic, health and mental health of people is skewed strongly towards lockdown and this has always troubled me. In context I say that those communities without significant outbreaks of COVID should have at their disposal greater freedoms and liberties. Having said that, it’s incumbent on people also doing the right thing. I don’t necessarily say I have all the answers, but I firmly believe children could and should attend school and their community sporting and recreation activities. At one stage we had the ridiculous situation whereby kids were in school with each other for six hours during the day but then couldn’t attend a gymnastics, dance or ballet class together for one hour afterwards. Schools and sports clubs have continually demonstrated they can operate in a COVID-safe environment and for the betterment of our children’s mental health and wellbeing this should be occurring. I really feel for those in their senior years of school and the disruption they have endured these past two years. I really hope they can be assessed fairly and justly, given the circumstances they have contended with. Of course the impacts go beyond the students, with no face-to-face schooling impacting teachers, staff and parents—might I say all who have done a mighty job at such a difficult time.
In terms of businesses there are so many inconsistencies around which businesses can open during lockdown periods and which can’t. It’s unfair to many who are forced to shut or operate at limited capacity. Again, if the government is saying vaccination is the key, why can’t a fully vaccinated hairdresser give a fully vaccinated customer a haircut, for example? Why can’t we use rapid testing as an option for those who might be unvaccinated to at least get businesses operating and to start providing services in our community? The reality is when it comes to COVID, businesses want to do what’s right because the last thing they want is to be a COVID exposure site. As noted earlier, businesses don’t want handouts, they just want to be able to trade and be open.
We humans are social creatures and our social interactions are vitally important to keeping us sane. According to governments, if vaccinations are the answer, then I would argue why couldn’t a fully vaccinated child visit their fully vaccinated father on Father’s Day or at any other time? The re-establishment of our social and family connections is just so vital for people of all ages and we have to find a way to enable this to occur across a range of settings. Why we are not able to enhance those social interactions, even if it is limited, in areas or regions without COVID makes no sense. Premier, we as Victorians, all Victorians, need a plan and we need hope that our liberties and freedoms will be restored. I respectfully ask you to convey to us what the plan out of lockdown looks like and give us the hope so many Victorians are desperately looking for.
In closing, I do wish to thank, recognise and congratulate all those people who are working in the COVID-related spaces in our local community. It’s been a bloody tough 18 months or so and many have gone over and beyond the call of duty in so many ways. Thank you for the opportunity to submit the above speech today, which I hope has captured the sentiment from a wide range of persons from my local community.
16 September 2021 – Questions without notice
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (14:58): My question is to the Minister for Industry Support and Recovery. Minister, under the current COVID rules and restrictions there are still many regional businesses who are forced to remain closed. There are other regional businesses who have chosen to keep their doors closed because it is simply unviable to open, and then there are other businesses who are operating in a limited capacity but incurring a loss due to the COVID restrictions. Whichever way you look, each of these scenarios places regional businesses in a precarious position, as their revenue is compromised yet their overheads and costs simply do not go away. Minister, in a media statement on 8 September the state government announced that business support grants would continue to be paid out to regional businesses from 2 to 16 September. Can you confirm if regional businesses will receive state government financial assistance and support beyond today, 16 September, and if so, in what form?
Mr PAKULA (Keysborough—Minister for Industry Support and Recovery, Minister for Trade, Minister for Business Precincts, Minister for Tourism, Sport and Major Events, Minister for Racing) (14:59): I thank the member for Morwell for his question. It is a very timely one. He is right; I did indicate in the last sitting week that we would have more to say this week, and we resolved that late last night and today. There are about 20 000 or 21 000 businesses in regional Victoria who receive support from either the business costs assistance program (BCAP) or the Licensed Hospitality Venue Fund. The majority of those businesses will receive support over the next two weeks. All of those who have been receiving Licensed Hospitality Venue Fund support will continue to do so until the end of the month, and that will just continue as an automatic payment.
In regard to the business costs assistance program it is a bit more complicated. There are businesses in industries which are clearly operating closer to normal, such as retail, such as gardening services or allied health. Those payments will not continue. But in the sectors where there are substantial ongoing restrictions, whether they be hospitality, beauty services, photographers, gyms, accommodation, the events sector, the creative sector or tourism operators, those BCAP payments will continue for the next two weeks. The Business Victoria website will have a full list of the Australian and New Zealand standard industrial classification codes where that is the case by tomorrow. In regard to the Small Business COVID Hardship Fund, which is operated by Minister Pulford, that is unaffected, and as it relates to the alpine support grants, where we have already indicated that there will be a final payment to take us up to close to the end of the ski season, that will also be unaffected. So in summary I say to the member for Morwell, the Licensed Hospitality Venue Fund, small business hardship fund and alpine support will all continue, and for the majority of BCAP recipients it will continue until the end of September as well. Obviously for Ballarat it continues for all of those regional businesses that have been receiving support until now.
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (15:01): Minister, the current COVID restrictions are still heavily impacting regional businesses, including small and micro businesses, and subsequently that means that employees continue to lose income, work and shifts. Can you confirm if the COVID-19 disaster payments will be made available to employees of regional businesses, and what the state government is doing to work with the commonwealth in supporting employees of struggling regional businesses?
Mr PAKULA (Keysborough—Minister for Industry Support and Recovery, Minister for Trade, Minister for Business Precincts, Minister for Tourism, Sport and Major Events, Minister for Racing) (15:01): I thank the member for Morwell for this question. Again it is a timely question, and some very interesting things occurred yesterday, where a number of workers in regional Victoria received notices from Centrelink telling them that they had been cut off payments, which came as a great surprise to this government, given that the Premier’s office had conveyed to the Prime Minister’s office last week that the Victorian government was more than willing to continue to fund the payments for workers in regional Victoria. That had been conveyed both to the Prime Minister’s office and to the federal Treasurer’s office, so we were very surprised to learn yesterday that workers had received information from Centrelink telling them that payments would stop. Subsequently, upon investigations being made by the government, it seems that those workers will still be eligible, but they will have to reapply. It is unclear why that will be the case, but they will be able to reapply by the ‘I am impacted by a COVID-19 restricted movement/lockdown, but was not living, working or present in a COVID-19 hotspot area’ option on the Centrelink website.
5 October 2021 – Adjournment
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (6043): My adjournment debate is directed to the Premier. The action I seek is for the Premier to provide all Victorian citizens including those who are unvaccinated with a plan that ensures Victorians do not lose their employment or liberties as a result of the government’s COVID vaccination mandate.
Since the state government’s announcement on Friday that ‘authorised workers’ in Victoria will now be mandated to receive a COVID vaccine, well it’s fair to say there has been substantial backlash across my local community from a wide range of people. I speak today from the perspective of one who is fully vaccinated, who has actively promoted vaccination opportunities in my local community, and who has encouraged people who can and wish to be vaccinated to go and do it at their earliest opportunity. To be vaccinated is my decision and my right.
In recent days and within the daily COVID press conferences we have listened to the experiences and stories of nurses Jacqui and Michelle, who outlined what it was like to care for very ill COVID patients in an intensive care unit of a hospital. We have heard today from COVID survivors who relayed their lived experiences and the physical and emotional challenges they had endured. It was hard to not be moved by these stories and the underlying message, being that vaccination is crucial to minimising the risks associated with COVID-19. So whilst these campaigns in my opinion are important and can be very effective, the issue of mandatory vaccination is far more complex and vexed.
We are at a juncture where the state government has determined that ‘authorised workers’ must be fully vaccinated by November 26. I can even understand at one level why the government is trying to do this and as a means to get everyone vaccinated as quickly as possible. This might sound fine in theory but I would argue there is also a downside or ‘unintended consequences’ as a result of such a major decision. One only has to consider the depth of the prolonged lockdown rules here in Victoria, and where ‘unintended consequences’ appear to have not been factored into the decision-making process. Many will argue that lockdown decisions are made whilst looking through a very small lens with a focus of how the government can reduce the number of COVID cases. I don’t disagree that lens is not important, but what seems is not always factored in is the collateral damage, including the financial pain of businesses and employees, the decline in physical and mental health, relationship breakdowns and loss of social connection that occurs because of the lockdown rules implemented.
My major concern is that once again we have a very monumental decision being made and whereby the ‘unintended consequences’ are not known or understood by the government. As a community and as a society we have to face a reality, and the reality is that there are a cohort of people who are unable to, or don’t wish to, be vaccinated for a whole variety of valid reasons. Even governments themselves know that 100 per cent vaccination is not possible as their roadmaps indicate this, so why is the state government making vaccination mandatory in certain sectors and what becomes of those who are unvaccinated?
And as my Parliament speech in early September, mandating what has been deemed a voluntary vaccine by the federal government is going to cause enormous division in families, workplaces and communities and I’m sad to report this has now come to fruition. This speech is not necessarily about the merits of vaccination or not, but it is about the rights and liberties of those persons who will be unvaccinated prior to the government’s vaccination deadlines. The biggest problem as I see it at the moment is that the Premier has not given this cohort of people any alternatives or options, including if they will retain their employment or freedoms. Indeed the message is get vaccinated or you will lose your job if you are an authorised worker. Many have now lost hope as the government has not seen fit to give them any hope. Victorian citizens no matter who they are or what their position is deserve hope but we are not seeing or hearing that from the government!
Now I don’t pass judgement on any person vaccinated or unvaccinated. It’s wrong to assume that everyone unvaccinated falls into the ‘anti-vaxxer’ category as this is not always an apt description. I can say that I have been contacted by various people from a wide range of industries including teachers, healthcare workers, business owners and tradies amongst others who have conveyed reasons why they believe a vaccination mandate is a bridge too far. I have been contacted by farmers and others who fall into the authorised worker category scratching their head as to why they are included in this directive.
I’ve been contacted by authorised workers who have had the COVID virus, and subsequently they are medically unable to receive a vaccine. So does this mean they will lose their employment and freedoms because they can’t meet the government’s demands? I have also been contacted by persons with disabilities, by people with underlying health issues and by people who have done considerable research and at this point in time they are unable or unwilling to receive a COVID vaccine. Again who am I to judge? I rhetorically ask what becomes of people who have legitimate underlying health issues that don’t allow them to receive a vaccine. Will they lose their employment because at the moment the state government is not offering any solutions other than you can’t attend your workplace unvaccinated?
The mandated vaccination issue now falls upon businesses, organisations, schools, principals and others to resolve. As one distraught fully vaccinated business owner said to me on the weekend, ‘I would rather close my business altogether than tell three of my close friends and work colleagues they can’t work here anymore because they can’t or won’t get vaccinated before the government’s deadline’. Many businesses are at tipping point and their emotional buckets are already full. Sadly, over the past few days more than one business owner has informed me that their business is now closed permanently as they just can’t take it any more.
People are scrambling to locate legal and other information from various sources including the Fair Work Commission, Supreme Court, Human Rights Commission and other agencies to understand what their rights are from an employer, employee and individual perspective. We seemed to have come so far in terms of equality and human rights; however here we are in 2021 asking the question of: what are the rights of Victorian citizens in the circumstances of mandated vaccination? This very day there is action in the Supreme Court by Victorian teachers due to the government’s mandate. This should be an indication to the government of how their directive is creating such havoc legally, financially, emotionally.
In this place I have previously opposed state of emergency legislation on the basis that it gave government and health officials almost unfettered powers to make directions against Victorian citizens for prolonged periods without parliamentary and expert oversight and scrutiny. So here we are at this point in time where the deputy chief health officer has made directions to mandate COVID vaccination for ‘authorised workers’ without a vote and without any parliamentary scrutiny on a decision that affects every Victorian citizen. This should concern us all because it begs the question of: it is mandatory vaccination today so what’s next?
This pandemic has already taken a massive economic and emotional toll, and I get the sense the government has not fully understood what their decision on mandating vaccinations has had on individuals, families and businesses. I really feel that in light of the strong vaccination rates and uptake in Victoria, and credit to every Victorian who has taken the opportunity to get vaccinated, then the Victorian government has to reconsider its vaccination mandate. Sure go your hardest in promoting the merits of vaccination and the pitfalls of not being vaccinated. But the government has to understand the consequences of their directive, which includes many people feeling they are being forced or coerced to receive a vaccine dose. Victorian citizens should not be placed in this position, and they at least deserve options including being able to provide an exemption and/or undertake testing to ensure they can at least maintain employment as an authorised worker.
One of the perverse outcomes of the government’s mandate is that the very sectors where authorised workers are employed and crucially needed, we now face the prospect of losing good people from these same sectors. Go figure. Already we are hearing from employees who are being told they won’t have a job after15 October. It’s hard to fathom this is where we are at. The reality is we are well and truly past 80 per cent first dose vaccination and therefore one would presume the 80 per cent fully vaccinated target will be met in the not too distant future. So I ask: is a vaccination mandate necessary given the targets under its own road map are seemingly already achievable, in addition to the government conceding they can’t or won’t achieve 100 per cent vaccination? It doesn’t matter if there are 1 per cent or 10 per cent of persons who are unvaccinated, the point is: what is the government doing to support those persons, many who have valid reasons and circumstances for not being vaccinated? So Premier I’m calling on you to show some compassion and understanding for this cohort of citizens and ensure they are able to maintain employment, liberties and freedoms. You need to give ALL Victorian citizens hope.
14 October 2021 – Questions without notice
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (13:22): My question is to the Minister for Health. Minister, many workers are currently resigning or being stood down in a number of sectors and industries due to COVID-19 vaccination now being mandatory for authorised workers and employees in the areas of education, health care and construction. Minister, has the government received any modelling or advice as to whether the vaccine mandate will lead to critical skill shortages and the compromising of services to Victorian citizens?
Mr FOLEY (Albert Park—Minister for Health, Minister for Ambulance Services, Minister for Equality) (13:23): Can I thank the member for Morwell for his question. I have not received specific modelling as the honourable member outlines, but what I have seen today are the unemployment figures nationally—not really my portfolio, but if I can freelance a little bit. The federal minister has put out a statement talking about the fact that lockdowns in Victoria, the ACT and New South Wales have contributed to the very things that the honourable member refers to: losses of jobs, losses of skills and big impacts on communities. But those lockdowns in those three jurisdictions have been there for a very good reason, and part of the reason is to make sure that when we can safely and sustainably reopen, those very issues that the honourable member refers to can be addressed. I am sure all jurisdictions that are undergoing this lockdown at the moment as we seek to deliver the national plan will address those matters.
The honourable member’s, I think, misalignment and what underpins his question goes to the reason behind the engagement strategies around vaccine strategies. The vaccine strategy has at least three pillars. Firstly, there is the education component to it that both state and national jurisdictions are pursuing. That has been overwhelmingly successful with the vast majority of Victorians, as we have seen very high numbers of people come forward to get that support. Then there are the engagement strategies, which the honourable member will know from his own community recently, which had to go through a seven-day lockdown as a result of particularly at-risk communities being somewhat disengaged from the vaccine program. That important arrangement is also critical.
The third part of the strategy goes to the requirement or the mandating aspect of the vaccine strategy. That is there for a variety of reasons across some of the settings that the honourable member referred to, and indeed now others as a result of orders coming into effect for the approved worker and approved worksite arrangements, which will see that set of orders cover many, many thousands of workers. The honourable member asserts that this has led to many resignations. I am not aware of those, but I am aware of the broad support from the employers. For instance, I participated in a Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Zoom some weeks ago where this very measure was called upon. It was asked of me and the chief health officer by VCCI. We have seen company after company bring this forward, and it is a measure that we do not resile from.
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (13:26): Minister, with respect to the vaccine mandate, has the government received any modelling or advice as to when the mandate will be lifted for authorised workers, and if so, when is this likely to be?
Mr FOLEY (Albert Park—Minister for Health, Minister for Ambulance Services, Minister for Equality) (13:26): It will be there as long as the public health advice says it needs to be there. The honourable member and all honourable members and the Victorian community know that these arrangements are there so as to ensure that the safety and the wellbeing of Victorians is underpinning the delivery of the national plan to reopen and Victoria’s road map to do the same. If, again, the honourable member’s question is there to send a message that perhaps people want to wait out this arrangement, let me take this opportunity to be very clear: it will be a very long wait. It will be there for as long as it is proportionate and needed to be put in place to keep Victorians safe and to underpin our safe reopening. I have seen public commentary that talks about this measure being needed until as long as April 2022.