Legislative Council Wednesday 3 June, 2020
My response to the following motion:
Ms WEBB (Nelson) (by leave) - Mr President, I move -
Noting the significant impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on the lives of Tasmanians, and given the emergency response by the Tasmanian Government including Coronavirus related expenditure, legislative and public policy developments, that a Joint Select Committee be appointed with power to send for persons and papers, with leave to sit during any adjournment of either House, with leave to adjourn from place to place and with leave to report from time to time to inquire into and report upon -
(1) (a) the State's immediate and ongoing COVID-19 response and recovery measures;
(b) the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health, economic and social lives of Tasmanians; and
(c) any other matter incidental thereto; and
(2) That the number of Members to serve on the said Committee on the part of the Legislative Council be four.
And requests the concurrence of the House of Assembly.
Ms FORREST - There is a bit of context around what we are talking about here. We are dealing with what are, and have been called more times than I can even contemplate counting, unprecedented times. I remember when this first started being recognised as a particular challenge for the world, but also when it came to Australia and then Tasmania, other members here thought I was overreacting. They mocked me for cleaning my spot here and refusing to leave this space to speak and things like that. I knew what we were facing, and what could potentially be unleashed on this state.
I commend the Government, wholeheartedly and sincerely, for the actions it has taken and the way in which it has responded to this very real threat. To be at the heart of the region where our major outbreak occurred was quite frightening. I know the member for Montgomery is right next door as well. We had constituents who were terrified and desperate for information and knowledge.
I have said it before in this place, and no doubt I will say it again: I am very grateful for the openness, transparency and approachability - if that’s the word - the Premier provided to me personally. Not just the Premier himself, but also the Minister for Health, the State Controller, and even the state health controller, at times when it was absolutely imperative there was contact - as well as other staff in his office who could answer some of the other questions, including the acting secretary of DPIPWE.
I have no criticism of the Government in its dealings during that period. These were extraordinary times, where decisions had to be made very quickly. Some of the decisions that were made to shut down the state, and particularly to shut down the north-west, and the speed at which it had to be done, when things were changing on a daily basis, and then to get all the legal aspects of that, the orders and everything in place, and then the clarity around that with the answers to questions, were enormous tasks.
While the outbreak was really unfortunate - and unfortunately 13 people lost their lives as a result of COVID-19 - we did bring it under control.
The answer the Leader read out this morning, to the question I posed last sitting, stated that - and I don't know if this has changed - there is only one case in the state that is of unclear origin. I believe that is probably the case at the Mersey, where they couldn't identify where a person who worked at the Mersey caught it. I am not sure. I will be interested to find that out. It is not relevant at the moment.
I was talking to my husband about how, while we had more cases than we would have liked, they were all clearly linked to the Ruby Princess, and the outbreak at the hospital in the north-west and a couple of northern cases were also linked to that.
It was clear. We had really good contact tracing. We did not get those pockets of COVID-19 spread we could not account for. All power to the Public Health officers who undertook that work, and for the people who mostly did the right thing, with the odd little exception.
Mr President, during that period significant restrictions were put on us in what we did, how we moved, who we could see, where we could go. By and large, everyone did the right thing. I think there is a very positive story to tell in all of this. There is an opportunity to capture this story, at a time when it is fresh in people's minds, and it is still very real. In terms of, if this is the right time, if you do something like this, I would say yes, it is.
Some arguments have been put against it, apart from the timing issue, which is a personal position. I watched the Premier this morning, when he was asked a question in the other place, regarding an inquiry, or similar approach. He talked about the regular - and mostly, for a long time, daily - updates, which I hung out for, to hear what was going on. As soon as they had happened, questions would flood in from my constituents again, and at least I had heard it directly from his mouth. Some things were not always clear, and we had to clarify them, but that was fine.
The media could ask questions, but there was no real opportunity for parliamentary or public scrutiny at that point. Yes, they were really valuable, they were really important and absolutely necessary, but there were some limitations with that. Had they not been done, we would have been in an absolute information void. Also, parliament has been recalled. When we sat in March, and we were closed until August, clearly there was a need to have some sort of scrutiny. These really serious decisions were being made that completely restricted our freedom and liberties, with no scrutiny - not even Subordinate Legislation Committee scrutiny of those, and I will come to that in a minute.
Then we have the PAC inquiry that has been initiated, and the Subordinate Legislation Committee process. As an exhausted member of both committees, let me tell you what goes on in both. I do not want to go on about PAC being the most powerful committee in the parliament, because it is actually not. You cannot sit during prorogation, whereas the Subordinate Legislation Committee can. However, Subordinate Legislation is limited by the scope within its act, in terms of on what basis we can scrutinise matters that come before us - whether it be regulations, by-laws or other instruments subject to scrutiny in Subordinate Legislation.
The COVID-19 emergency act provided an additional process for Subordinate Legislation to be able to scrutinise the notices issued under that act. Normally, notices are not scrutinised by Subordinate Legislation, nor are ministerial orders and a range of other instruments, and neither are directions made by the Director of Public Health or the State Controller under the Emergency Management Act. They are not subject to the scrutiny of the Subordinate Legislation Committee.
Those matters the Subordinate Legislation Committee can consider are confined within the scope of the scrutiny within the act, and also to the notices under that act and regulations - but not directions, and not ministerial orders, unless it specifically says so in the principal act, which is pretty rare. Most of them are a way of avoiding that scrutiny; I spoke about that another time.
With the functions of PAC, the committee may inquire into and consider and report to parliament on any matter arising in connection with public sector finances that the committee considers appropriate, and any matter referred to the committee by the Auditor-General.
Then we go to public sector finances. The definition includes any money forming part of or payable to the Public Account or an agency trust account, and any money received by an agency or government business entity or statutory authority or local authority, any expenditure that is made or authorised by the Appropriation Act or any other act, or an agency of government business enterprise statutory authority and local authority, and any liability for the satisfaction of which any expenditure by the Crown is or may be required.
That clearly gives us all the power to scrutinise the decisions made by government in regard to the spending - the spending on health, the economic stimulus, the support for small business, the support for the racing industry - and the support for this industry and that industry. Quite clearly, that was the intention. I was the person who proposed the inquiry in PAC, because I believe that is PAC's core business. There is no bigger game in town at the moment than the COVID-19 pandemic. To suggest there may be things that are more important is quite an interesting concept.
For PAC to look at those matters in relation to expenditure, particularly with regard to the additional moneys that had to be put into health, acknowledging that we passed the supplementary appropriation bill in March - it had $150 million unallocated, money that sat with Finance-General. I believe $50 million of that went pretty much straight into health, and I believe a significant amount of the other $100 million that was unallocated is going into health as well.
However, that is a matter the PAC will scrutinise because we have not had the opportunity to get the Treasurer and Premier in to talk about that yet, but he has made himself available and he will willingly come to PAC and talk about those matters.
It would have been an extraordinary expense with closing down the North West Regional Hospital. The amount of stock that would have been thrown out, everything was thrown out. Every piece of disposable equipment, anywhere in all of those wards, anywhere, was thrown out. It is staggering when you think about it. I understand some of the funding related to these decisions will be met - 50 per cent - by the Commonwealth under the National Partnership Agreement.
These are the things we rightly should be scrutinising and looking into, and PAC will do that because it is related to the finances. So, you could say, "Well, is that enough?' Some would argue yes, and some people have. I might suggest there are still some gaps where there is merit in having an inquiry that looks at these other matters.
We had a parliamentary sitting that was not going to happen and we had to stamp our little feet a bit to get private members' time. Anyway, here we are. We are doing private members' business, which is good. We have also had pretty much unlimited question time when we have been here, which has been really helpful too because there is very little opportunity to get your answers on the record otherwise.
Mrs Hiscutt - Plenty of scrutiny, hasn't there?
Ms FORREST - I am saying I have had plenty of answers to questions when I have contacted the Premier's office, or whoever, but they are not on the record. It is important to get some of this on the record, so people have it in writing, because people find it difficult to take on merit, or on trust, the words sometimes one of us will just provide if it means they may be breaking the law if they do the wrong thing. I can understand their reticence around some of that.
When we look at the wording and the terms of reference such as the member for Nelson has proposed, I want to make a couple of points.
The first one, (1)(a) - 'The State's immediate and ongoing COVID-19 response and recovery measures'. I understand it is the practice, and I am not sure whether this has been considered by the member, that normally joint House committees that members of the lower House are involved in have reporting dates in them. I am not sure whether if it does go downstairs and is supported, they will insert a reporting date. It would be difficult to interpret what that reporting date is, because we do not know how long this is going to go on for. It probably could be some time. When you look at the use of 'ongoing' there, how ongoing do you expect it to be?
Part (1)(b) - 'the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health, economic and social lives of Tasmanians' - this is where the potential crossover could be when you look at the word 'economic'. I read this as the economic impact on the people. The people of Tasmania have the opportunity to put forward the impacts on them. The businesses that missed out on the grants - I am getting representations from quite a number at the moment about this.
Ms Rattray - I am hopeful that might be turning around after what I heard in the other place this morning.
Ms FORREST - Yes, I heard some comment downstairs earlier today. There seems to be this disconnect, that this is a matter that may become less of a problem for some of our people. This is about the impact on the people of Tasmania, whereas PAC is looking at the government expenditure, its economic response, its economic plan. It is a different area and the people of Tasmania have a much better opportunity to put their case to a committee like this where it is focused on the broad impact on our community, based on the restrictions that have been put on us, as well as the threat of illness.
They are different areas. Yes, there could be some crossover to a small degree, but that is not a barrier to actually having an inquiry that enables a body of evidence to be collected that relates to a really specific and really unprecedented time, to use that overused word. If we have an experience in the future and we have further pandemics - they might not be in our lifetime but they will occur - there will be a body of evidence to look at what actually worked. It has worked and this is a great way to capture the story and the information about what worked, where the gaps were, where the really great work was done and predominantly to tell a good news story. You do not have to look too far across the water to see where there is not such good news.
Clearly, the Subordinate Legislation Committee cannot scrutinise the Public Health directions or the Emergency Management directions. It is outside its scope and it cannot do it, and these are the decisions that have the biggest impact on people. Arguably, I do not know whether PAC really has the capacity there either, except perhaps looking at how the Government responded in terms of financial support. They are the sorts of things that do not fit neatly into either of the processes on foot at the moment.
The Government did a great job of containing the north-west outbreak. Prevention, of course, would have been the ideal - if only we had not had it at all - but there are great learnings to be had and the independent inquiry is very focused on that. It is not a broad inquiry; it is a focus on what happened and what went wrong at the North West Regional Hospital and the North West Private Hospital, what could have been done better and what we can learn from it. The interim report from the Director of Public Health released a little while back gave some insight, but there needs to be a lot more opportunity for people to come forward without fear or favour - and certainly without fear of retribution - who actually worked there at the time because they will not without that guarantee.
The Leader said there were also many constitutional matters being dealt with during this period. It would be really interesting to know more about those because they are obviously significant and it would be good to have that sort of information captured on the record.
Mrs Hiscutt - I think the word was supposed to be constituent matters, not constitutional.
Ms FORREST - You said 'constitutional'.
Mrs Hiscutt - If I did, I do beg your pardon. Many constituent matters.
Ms FORREST - Okay. It does make it a little bit better because I am thinking, 'Hmm, there is a whole heap of information there we do not know about', but either way the constituent matters will be able to be heard in a public forum in a way that is on the record and their stories will be told and form part of the story. If it is constituent not constitutional, I take your word for that.
It gives an opportunity to enable the engagement of public voices, not only the Government's voice. The Government's voice has been loud, it has been strong, it has been constant, but the public voices have not been on the record, not in a formal sense, and this will give an opportunity for that.
I have listened to both sides. I waited for other members to speak and having the experience of both Subordinate Legislation and PAC, I know what is going on there probably more than others because I am on both. That is obviously for my sins. It will be interesting to see how this vote actually goes.