In Parliament

Second Reading Speech - COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020

‘COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020’

Friday, 18 September 2020

Mr NEWBURY (Brighton):

This government has a simple message to 5 million Melburnians: Labor is holding you hostage in your homes, they are stunting your children’s development and they are destroying private sector businesses and jobs because of 300 active coronavirus cases in our community. As the Minister for Health admitted, 70 per cent of cases are in aged care. This bill is wrong, and this bill gives the singularly focused Premier even more power. It creates draconian detention laws, and it cremates due process in this state. Make no mistake: through this bill the Premier is weaponising the state and is systematically dismantling democracy and its institutions. He avoids Parliament, he has bypassed cabinet and he is picking which laws apply to him. As he said recently, human rights are not the first consideration. This bill goes against the grain of our values: values that respect freedom and the right to due process. The decisions being made will cause long-term damage to our economy, but dangerously they are also unpicking who we are as a society.

Labor has sledgehammered our businesses, our jobs and our sanity. This policy approach, through the restrictive powers in this bill, is decimating private enterprise, and that point needs to be repeated. The Premier has picked the public sector over the private sector. This government rewards tax spenders, not taxpayers. This government does not support the mum and dad entrepreneurs who are the backbone of our economy, and that approach has caused an economic earthquake in our state. Economist Terry Rawnsley from SGS Economics and Planning has estimated the second wave is costing Victoria between $300 million and $400 million every day in economic activity—$300 million to $400 million every single day. And that overall cost to the state’s economy from the lockdown could be $25 billion. As Mr Rawnsley said: “It’s a pretty dire situation …”

There’s a tough road ahead. It’s a reset for the economy.

New data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics yesterday is equally dire. It reports that between April and August the Victorian workforce decreased by 188,400 people, hours worked decreased by 4.8 per cent compared to a 1.8 per cent increase across Australia, and 113,000 Victorians with jobs did not work any hours, doubling on the previous month. To put the employment figures into further context, the effective unemployment rate is now above 10 per cent in Victoria.

As Paul Zahra, the chief executive officer of the Australian Retailers Association has said, this government’s approach: … will mean the permanent loss of up to 50 per cent of Victorian small retail operations that might otherwise survive, leaving … thousands of people unemployed.

The chief executive officer of Wesfarmers, Rob Scott, said the approach: … creates more uncertainty and hardship and will inflict a greater personal and economic cost, not just to the people of Melbourne but the whole of Australia.

Last week the Premier released his so-called road map, an outline of how he will use powers enabled in this bill. It cements in stone that the Premier does not understand private enterprise. No Victorian should forget the Premier’s admission in his Good Weekend profile about when he first understood the economic impact of the lockdown: He tells me about the night the lockdown’s economic impact hit him: his driver was taking him home along the usually busy Monash Freeway at 9 pm and there was not another soul on the road. “I thought: ‘This is really serious …”

When his taxpayer driver was driving him home—what an incredibly out-of-touch admission. No wonder the government has designed a road map that signs the death warrant for thousands of businesses and jobs.

As Wes Lambert, the chief executive officer of Restaurant & Catering Australia, said: … businesses held on believing as long as infection rate was dropping and getting to a manageable level they would be able to open their business in some way from September 14, they feel betrayed.

Local resident Lucinda put it succinctly to me: Today, Victoria is devastated, and hope has been cancelled.

As a policy response the road map will only sink more businesses. Offsetting debt has been the only way for many businesses to survive months of forced lockdowns, but businesses are already drowning in debt. They cannot take on more debt, yet the central pillar of the government’s business support response is payroll deferral, a lot more debt.

As David Gandolfo, deputy chair of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, said: It’s great as a headline, but when you just defer the problem you create a problem down the track. … It creates a problem where you may create zombie businesses which are just operating but may eventually hit the wall. You’re delaying the inevitable.

This was reinforced by Tom Piper, head of the Australian Industry Group, who said: We are extremely disappointed that the government has only deferred payroll tax.… It means this debt will continue to hang over businesses which may not have recovered enough by the time they need to repay the government.

And David Canny, the president of the Australian Hotels Association Victoria, said: … it is just scraping the surface. Many of our pubs and hotels are facing financial ruin—a debt cliff.

Does anyone in this government understand what is happening to the private sector?

But perhaps the most pitiful policy response was the sole trader package. As Bill Lang, the executive officer of Small Business Australia said: These are the heart and soul mum and dad businesses of Australia who are facing a day of reckoning when rents, leases, bank loans and other accumulating debts, which have been on deferral, are called in.

Someone in this government must have been smart enough to see this policy dog was covered in fleas, a package so pathetic it was announced separately. As constituent Tegan said: How have all these small businesses/sole traders missed out on help during this forced majeure?

As Joel said: Sole Traders have been forgotten in all of the Victorian based financial support during this crisis.

An estimated 92 per cent of the state’s sole traders have had the door shut on them by Labor, as only 33,000 of Victoria’s 412,000 sole traders are eligible for a grant.

The government’s policy response has crushed the economy and business, but the social effect will leave deep, deep scars too. The current restrictions have caused a tidal wave of mental health issues—issues that have swept over our community. Amongst those most profoundly affected are our young children, those with the quietest voices. We know that in the six weeks to early August the Department of Health and Human Services data shows Victoria had recorded a 33 per cent increase in children presenting to hospital with self-harm injuries. The effect on them is unconscionable. Anyone with a conscience should be shouting for an urgent and sophisticated policy response.

As constituent Amy said: The majority of children are left with uncertainty that is putting them in a highly vulnerable position. The COVID pandemic is simply being replaced with a mental health and learning problems pandemic.

This week the Australian Human Rights Commission released a new report Impacts of COVID-19 on Children and Young People who Contact Kids Helpline, which was co-authored with Kids Helpline. The report considered 26 709 Kids Helpline counselling contacts; 2567 of those contacts included a report of COVID in the counsellor’s notes.

As per the report: Children and young people spoke about their feelings of worry and stress, being trapped, frustrated, anger, sadness, loss and grief. Many raised the impact of COVID-19 on specific mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, phobias, eating disorders, obsessive and compulsive disorders, intrusive thoughts, self-harm and suicidality, to name a few.

The top three concerns raised by children and young people were mental health concerns resulting from COVID, social isolation and education impacts.

The report concludes that: Children and young people are being disproportionately affected by the psychological and economic fall out of the pandemic

These findings build upon the August report of the Australian Childhood Foundation, A Lasting Legacy: The Impact of COVID-19 on Children and Parents. The report finds that: … almost a third of parents were frightened that the impact of COVID-19 will have lasting mental health impacts for their children such as ongoing heightened anxiety and stress … COVID-19 is actively eroding their children’s development into the long term.

There is legacy of harm that will continue beyond the spread of the virus.

I repeat: There is legacy of harm that will continue beyond the spread of the virus.

Wake up, Premier. We are talking about generational scars. Please, I am begging you: get our children back in schools now. Get our children back in schools.

History will remember decisions of this chamber.

History will remember bills that have been put to this chamber like this bill, which undermines our values and our institutions.

It is wrong; it is unpicking who we are as a society.

A yes vote on this bill is being complicit in a crime.