Legislative Council, Wednesday 25 August 2021
Ms FORREST (Murchison) - Mr President, as I mentioned when we moved the Suspension of Standing Orders to enable this bill to be dealt with today, I do not have an issue with the preparation of these bills, the way it has been done, as the Leader says herself, it is an administrative process.
What I have concern about is that, should these bills need to be enacted because we have a COVID 19 outbreak in the state - and that could be any time from today and the end of October, if the budget and appropriation bills that go with it receive Royal Assent. That is quite a period and you see how quickly things go pear-shaped. Ask the ACT residents, ask the Victorians, ask Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and certainly ask any person living in New South Wales.
Queensland has been a bit luckier. They have been able to stamp on it fairly quickly, which is pretty amazing when they have a large border with New South Wales. Sydney itself is a fair way from it, but now there are cases right up on the Queensland border, in the Aboriginal communities in those areas; unvaccinated Aboriginal communities.
I listened to a podcast this morning, slightly off this topic but it is important we understand the significance of what we are facing here. The day they were scheduled to have these communities on the border vaccinated was the day there was a case in the vicinity. Dubbo is their central hub where they all get their main services, it came up through that way. The vaccination clinic was cancelled. I can understand not wanting to send additional healthcare workers into these vulnerable communities, but why wasn’t it done sooner? Why were they waiting until it reached this point?
Our Aboriginal communities are extremely vulnerable. The Delta variant moves like wildfire and it certainly does not announce its entry into any place, whether into a premises, a state or anybody’s life. It is there before you know it. We know the reproduction rate of this virus is very high and it is very contagious.
With those comments, I make some other observations about this bill. I note that clause 6 of the bill provides for this bill to be subsumed into the Appropriation Bills that will be delivered tomorrow. It is not clear from that provision in the bill what that means and how it will work. During our briefing the Leader's adviser read out a reasonably descriptive process for what would occur. Here we are, appropriating a not insignificant proportion of the Budget and, we will effectively start that process again tomorrow.
The issue is that if we do need to enact these bills, there is no scrutiny of the appropriation that is made through them. There is no way of knowing what line items in health, education, infrastructure, justice or any other department will receive. What we are signing off today is simply high-level numbers of the amount of funding that will be provided, based on calculations by Treasury - that is all legitimate and all done appropriately to fund those ongoing services. There was a brief comment in the conclusion of the Leader's second reading speech, based on questions I asked at the briefing, relating to how the Government will ensure continued scrutiny. The Leader said that parliamentary committees can continue. Yes - but that is not the same as having the Parliament meet and scrutinise legislation. Parliamentary committees do not scrutinise legislation. If there needed to be further emergency measures taken, I assume - and the Leader might need to address her mind to this -whether those notices under the previous COVID-19 emergency bills that we passed earlier in the year would still be able to be issued. The Subordinate Legislation Committee would be responsible for scrutinising those notices on behalf of the Parliament. That is fine; but it is difficult to report on them in a way that can engage the rest of the members of Parliament.
The three of us in this House who are members of that committee will potentially see all the information, but no one else will.
Ms Webb - Only some of the things that are done under those acts get scrutinised by the Subordinate Legislation Committee.
Ms FORREST - Yes, under the COVID-19 Bill.
Ms Webb - Not the Public Health Act, not the Emergency Management Act.
Ms FORREST - The directions under the Public Health Act and Emergency Management Act do not.
Ms Webb - They are not scrutinised by anyone.
Ms FORREST - That is right, and that is the nature of those two acts they sit under. There is a range of reasons why Parliament should be able to continue to meet. My question to the Leader remains: What is the Government doing about enabling Parliament to continue to sit? What is the Government doing about that - not only ensuring that committees can continue, because we can meet virtually. I am sure there are measures that would need to be taken because I do not know that our Standing Orders provide for Parliament to meet electronically. What discussions have been had with our Presiding Officers and with our Clerks to determine what can be done should this occur? I hope if it does happen - and chances are it will - that we have a short, sharp lockdown. However, as I said, no-one else has experienced that. I do not know why we would think we would be so special. We have a lot of vulnerable members of our community, and quite a dispersed population. A lot of people in my electorate do not like following the rules, at the best of times. We saw that in the last outbreak here - and that was not the Delta variant. The absolute fear that was in my community, and the vilification of health workers at that time, was disgraceful; as I have previously noted.
I do not know why we think we would be special, that we could suddenly stomp on this virus in a short, sharp lockdown. Yes, we would need to shut down sharply; but I do not know we can guarantee it would be short. This Supply Bill takes us to the end of January, which seems like a reasonably long time.
Ms Webb - It is not.
Ms FORREST - Let's hope it is.
Ms Webb - It is not though.
Ms FORREST - I am thinking about people in New South Wales and Victoria who thought they might have been going somewhere for Christmas. I suggest there is only a remote chance of that happening.
Mr Willie - There are 919 new cases.
Ms FORREST - I know - there are 919 in New South Wales today, but somewhat less in Victoria, thankfully. I have not seen the ACT figures for today, but they had increased again yesterday. It will be here in no time, in the scheme of things. If this does need to be used, I wonder what happens if we are still in lockdown without measures for Parliament to sit. Do we have to somehow rely on all of the emergency provisions, to keep funding the departments? Surely, we can do better than that. It would be almost a year without scrutiny of the budget expenditure by the time that came around.
I also asked the Leader to inform us as to when next year's Budget is expected to be tabled. Last year's Budget was delayed, resulting in this year's Budget being delayed; and this year is a bit less delayed. I hope we are not delayed next year. Can the Leader indicate the government's intent in that regard?
I note the second reading speech provides for contingency funds, through an additional $60 million being provided to the Treasurer's Reserve. When we had the first outbreak last year, a $150 million contingency fund was put in place, predominantly to assist with health expenditure.
I believe some of those funds were also used to support small business, through the small business grants. Certainly, if we have another outbreak there will be calls for support for small business - indeed all business. I expect the government will be willing to support businesses again during that period. One can only hope the Federal Government might step up a bit more than they have in recent times. Once New South Wales had the major outbreak, the Federal Government seemed to change their tune a little; but this has to be 'all in this together' approach.
I realise it is only for a three-month period, and $60 million would be enough. We are probably slightly better prepared this time, in terms of our PPE and our access to all the necessary equipment in our health services. We do not have to buy the most expensive equipment as we did last time, when there was a world-wide shortage of gowns and masks and even hand sanitiser. You know how hard it was to get hand sanitiser; you had to make your own.
From the evidence we received in a report tabled yesterday from the Public Accounts Committee, you will see that although there were some areas that were not so well done -as reported by the Auditor-General - overall it seems that we are more prepared for such an outbreak. However, it will also mean that we will have to increase testing, contact tracing and the like and that draws professionals from other areas.
Tasmania is doing quite well with our vaccine rollout, and that is positive. However, there are certain areas in our state that are not doing so well, and my area is one of them. You ask why - and I can tell you that there are still people who are fearful, or sceptical; people are being drawn in by conspiracy theories and all sorts of misinformation. Another issue is when you are told you will have to drive from Marrawah to Launceston to be vaccinated, and you do not have a car or a licence. What do you think is going to happen in that instance?
Clinics have been offered in Circular Head and similar locations, but they need to be there more regularly. We need to have Pfizer clinics there more often as well as availability of AstraZeneca. Pharmacies now are providing the AstraZeneca vaccine. We will have Moderna, which I understand is expected to arrive next month; however, we need to take vaccination to the people. We need to make it easier for people from very remote areas to access vaccination, and provide them with accurate information. We cannot expect people who are vulnerable, who often do not have a car or, if they have a car, they do not have a licence, to travel to receive a vaccination.
I received a message from a former constituent of mine who now lives in Lutana, in the member for Elwick's electorate. Letterbox dropping has been going on there, with misinformation about vaccination. This person sent me a photo of a very screwed up copy because that was her first reaction to it; but then she saw fit to flatten it as best she could, and photograph it and send it to me.
I forwarded that on to Minister Rockliff's office, on the basis that some action must be taken because there are people who are not well-informed, and who are drawn into this misinformation. It becomes a real challenge then, to help them to appreciate the importance of vaccination not just for themselves, but for the whole community about vaccination.
I dared to put a post about vaccination on my Facebook post the other day. If anyone saw the thread you see it brought out some really sad comments and misinformation. Thankfully most of the informed people who hopped on behind them, put up posts discrediting claims that have been made by various others with evidence-based information.
That is a constant battle. I thought it was easier to step out of it and not say anything. It is easier not to say anything publicly because you do get vilified. You do get hammered. You do get threatened with all sorts of stuff. But if I don't, who will?
We all have an obligation as leaders in our community, not to step away from these hard conversations. To be out there putting the accurate information in front of our people, our constituents, our fellow Tasmanians, guiding them to credible information and resources. Some people you will never convince, but if you just convince one person. I know on the Facebook thread there is at least one person who has been convinced through the process. It was interesting watching that process. Do not give up on anybody. But you have to get engaged to do that. It is easy to sit back and say nothing, it is much less stressful, much less tiring, but you are not being the community leader you are supposed to be if you do not. You do need to step up. And it is lonely at times because there is criticism everywhere.
I would like the Leader to address her mind to the $60 million in the Treasurer's Reserve and the actual key purposes for that. I know it is a contingency and assume that will be picked up in the budget tomorrow - if the intent is there to deal with unexpected expenditure related to an outbreak or whether it is there for more broad purposes. I always have concerns when we top up the Treasurer's Reserve, because that is something that the Treasurer can dip into at will.
Mrs Hiscutt - With regards to the $60 million, that is what it is there for, for stuff that has not been thought of but may be required for.
Ms FORREST - There is always a concern about topping up the Treasurer's Reserve without any clear intent because that then makes $60 million available for pork barrelling if you like.
Mrs Hiscutt - That is not the intention of course. We do not know what is going to happen, but you have to plan for what you think may happen. The $60 million is set there for something that might happen that we have not thought of.
Ms FORREST - Sure. Members would also have received the letter from the Minister for Finance, Minister Ferguson, regarding his desire for us to deal with these bills in a prompt manner. And attached to that email are two letters signed by Her Excellency, The Governor. I have never seen anything like this before and wondered if this is usual practice. I will read out the message from the Governor.
In accordance with the provisions of Section 38 of the Constitution Act 1934
(25 GOV94) the Governor recommends to the House of Assembly the payment out of the public account of the sum of $1 650 703 000
and that number is repeated in number form,
for the purpose of set forth in schedule one to the Supply Bill (No. 3) 2021.
There is a similar message related to Supply Bill (No. 4). Is that normal practice?
Mrs Hiscutt - I did think I would just pass that on. It is not normal practice for us, but that letter is read out in the other place to begin the process of these bills. I just thought you would be interested in it.
Ms FORREST - My question - is this done with every bill? Is the Governor right to be sending …?
Mrs Hiscutt - It is just money bills.
Ms FORREST - Does the House of Assembly receive such a message when the Budget is tabled?
Mrs Hiscutt - Whatever the process is. We should get the member from the lower House down here to tell us about it. Normally that does not come to us.
Ms FORREST - No, I appreciate it normally doesn't.
Mrs Hiscutt - It is a process from the other place with supply bills.
Ms FORREST - This occurs with any money bills?
Mrs Hiscutt - Supply bills. I do not think it happens with the budget bill, it just happens with supply bills. Sorry, it does happen with money bills. Correction there - it does happen with money bills.
Ms FORREST - Did anyone else know that?
I have learnt something.
Mrs HISCUTT - I also have not seen it before.
Ms FORREST - That is right. We are not in the House of Assembly, that is why you have not seen it because it was in the other place.
I am not going to oppose the passage of the bill. I hope we do not need it, but I would like the Leader to address the matters I have raised, particularly how this bill was subsumed into the budget process, assuming we continue. We are still here in budget Estimates and then the budget wrap-up towards the middle of October, so I will not oppose the bill.