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Motion: COVID-19 Response Committee – Interim Report

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: I move:

That the report be noted.

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a global pandemic. This came after a number of countries had experienced outbreaks and after Australia had already confirmed its first COVID-19 case in late January 2020. The federal government, together with the states and territories, responded to the pandemic by enacting a range of laws and policies to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ensure public health and safety.

As of 15 February 2021, Australia had 28,898 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 909 people dying from the virus. Also as of 15 February 2021, South Australia had 606 confirmed cases, of which 419 were overseas acquired. At the time of this report, there were five active cases, all of which were acquired from overseas and are currently in quarantine, and there had been four deaths in our state. I note that today there have already been another two reported cases, so these figures are already out of date.

The report that we note today provides background on the activities of the upper house committee, highlighting the key issues raised during our inquiries and also the committee's view that scrutiny of the government's management of COVID-19 has been necessary and should be enhanced.

I thank the members of the committee to date for their contribution: the Hon. Connie Bonaros, the Hon. Emily Bourke, the Hon. Dennis Hood and the Hon. Ian Hunter, as well as the Hon. Terry Stephens; and former members, the Hon. Dr Nicola Centofanti and the Hon. Kyam Maher, for their service, from 8 April until September 2020 for the Hon. Dr Centofanti and the same dates, almost, except it was the 22nd of that month, for the Hon. Kyam Maher. I also thank the work of the committee staffers, in particular the research officer, Sue Markotic, as well as Anthony Beasley, the parliamentary officer, and Ms Leslie Guy, the clerk assistant, for what has been a committee responding to very difficult times.

We often hear the government say that responding to this pandemic has been like flying the plane while building the plane, and I have been known to quip that this committee is somewhat the black box, but what we do not hope for is any sort of crash where this black box is required. But it certainly is a repository for information, for raising concerns and for seeking transparency, and transparency has never been more needed as we continue well beyond a year since this pandemic was declared and with, at this stage, many months ahead of us of extraordinary times.

To tackle this pandemic, we did see the government enact emergency measures and legislation, and we all had to find new ways of working and dealing with things somewhat on the fly. We were all in very new and uncertain territory and decisions were made under significant pressures and often with limited information available. Certainly, that was the case early on in the pandemic.

As I have said many times, however, this does not mean that we should run roughshod over people's rights and that we should not have accountability and transparency when it comes to our response to the pandemic. That is not something to be feared. That is one of the reasons that this committee was formed by this upper house and it is indeed one of many committees across the nation that have been similarly formed and that continue.

For the most part, we heard from quite informed witnesses and had many important issues raised and resolved. Indeed, many of them have moved on quite a significant distance since they were raised in the works of this committee and within this report. In particular, we heard key evidence and sought additional documentation and information from the state government's Transition Committee. This Transition Committee was established to help 'transition' the state from the COVID-19 health emergency and provide advice to the State Coordinator in relation to which emergency restrictions should be eased or reinstated if necessary and in what order.

I am noting the evidence that the committee has received from the Transition Committee because it was absurdly difficult for us to get that evidence. As is noted within the report, the Transition Committee has significant power to implement the way in which our state responds and recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and its accountability and transparency to the community through this parliament is of paramount importance. In this report, the committee has expressed our disappointment that it has taken multiple and repeated requests to get simple information from the Transition Committee as part of our inquiry.

Indeed, some members might remember that late last year I even moved the motion in this place to compel the Transition Committee to provide the documents this committee had requested—simply, the minutes of their meetings. We did end up getting that before that matter needed to be brought to a vote, but it should never have needed to be brought back to this place.

So I am going to repeat myself here when I quote what I said then which is that I do not believe it is unimportant that this council, this parliament and the people of South Australia understand the work of the Transition Committee. This is the committee that is charged with the very important job of bringing us through this COVID pandemic, from the health response to the recovery response. This is the committee that decides whether or not our borders are open or closed. This is the committee that decides whether or not we can drink standing up, whether we can dance at a pub, whether a private function means that we can do both of those things (drink and dance) but should the pub put on its own function that we cannot do both of those things: drinking and dancing.

Many decisions that are made by this Transition Committee go well beyond that. We have seen families separated, we have seen people unable to access health care, employment or education. We have seen curious decisions made which are informed by health priorities but are balanced with the business and commercial priorities and the South Australian people deserve to know how and why those decisions are made and, most importantly, who is in the room when it happens and who gets access to the Transition Committee. That is a timely reminder. That need for accountability and transparency in this space will only grow stronger.

I think it is safe to say that 2020 did not really go to plan for anyone. From toilet paper shortages to Tiger King binges and TikTokkers stacking out Trump rallies and leaving them empty, or indeed old folks like myself becoming a little addicted to TikTok. The year started out quite badly with what seemed like half the country on fire, with the devastating loss of human life, animal life and precious vegetation, and it did seem at that point that it could not get worse. Little did we know what last year had in store for us.

It has been interesting—that is one way of putting it—finding ways to maintain contact with family and friends in this environment, sharing dinner and drinks over video rather than in person, for example. We have all missed at some stage having physical contact with loved ones. It could be much worse, and South Australia has done very well, but it has been good that technology has enabled us to live in what is called this new COVID normal. I think for the most part we have at least got used to unmuting and muting ourselves and using the technologies in ways that I think will be continued post the pandemic.

The travel restrictions we have seen imposed as a response to this pandemic have been very difficult to navigate for many, and it has certainly been a big shock to our collective systems: a nation of travellers unable to travel and with many travellers unable to come home. This has been a key concern and will be a continuing concern of the committee as we have already heard from stranded Aussies overseas and their struggle not just to come home but then with the quarantine issues as they return. This is an issue that I hope we can continue to work on, not just to bring our people home but to ensure that quarantine is both safe and done in a way that does not harm our fellow South Australians.

There have definitely been some highlights and lowlights in this past year. While there were very high hopes that we might unite against a common threat, we have seen that that has not always been the case. Broadly, the vast majority of the community in South Australia and our nation in general have shown remarkable willingness to make small temporary sacrifices to protect each other and to protect particularly the most vulnerable in the community.

Some of the more appalling and concerning things that this past year has highlighted for us is the way in which ordinary people are struggling and facing work and housing pressures because of the pandemic, we have seen them face racism, we have seen inequality grow, we have seen the wealth continue to grow but that inequality rise just as fast. How is it that in the new COVID normal we are not seeing that the better way forward is indeed to end that inequality and to ensure people have what they need to live happy, healthy lives?

What happens in the next six months or so will determine, I think, the long-term impact of this pandemic on our nation as a whole. The rich have got richer and the inequality has grown. There was a temporary buffer of JobKeeper and the Coronavirus Supplement, which saw people able to put food on their tables, have the medication that they needed, live comfortable, healthy lives and not be facing choices that, to be honest, they should never have to face.

We saw the homeless given housing in our central business district almost overnight. We saw that problems such as homelessness or poverty are not insurmountable; they are utterly solvable. They were done for the pandemic in terms of us all banding together to ensure that our community was a compassionate one, and I hope that we do not see ourselves returning to the dog-eat-dog situation of the previous-to-the-pandemic nation that we were devolving into.

The world has changed this last year, and what remains to be seen is if this change will be for the better or, potentially, for the worse. We are in a unique position to shape what comes next and what comes after, and I, for one, certainly do not want us to return to what was becoming normal. Normal is not good enough if we go back to what we had pre pandemic. Indeed, we can get rid of poverty. We can build back better.

I hope that this committee's work continues and that we hear new ideas for how to continue to address homelessness in a way that is not just an emergency response but is a sustained, concerted, consensus across the aisle effort for our state.

This pandemic has also shown us the true nature of what insecure work and casualised work brings to us. It has also shown us who really are the essential workers in our state. It has shown that more of us can work from home and that our workplaces could and should be more flexible. It has also ensured that we are rethinking what is a priority, and our families and our loved ones and the role of work in our lives and that balance, I think, many people have taken the time to reflect upon.

I believe that the prioritisation of free child care shows us that it also is something we do not have to go back to, the idea that we marginalise those who have roles caring for children from access and equity when it comes to a working life. It should be something that we do not return to post pandemic. Indeed, free and accessible child care and a valuing of the jobs that our teachers do would, I would hope, be far more revered and respected into the future.

I hope the new normal will be one that is better for all of us, not just a response to a health crisis but seen as an opportunity for a more hopeful future. As we faced a health crisis, I think this committee has been very sensitive to ensuring that we do not add to misinformation and hysteria. This committee has been very careful not to be partisan, but I think it needs to be respected by groups such as the Transition Committee to ensure that that balance continues.

There needs to be access to information. There needs to be clarity around decisions made that are in some cases quite extraordinary decisions that impact on our human rights and our civil liberties. We need the clarity as we move forward. No doubt the vaccine, as it rolls out, will have teething problems. I have absolutely no doubt that it will not all go to plan as we continue to tread our way through this very difficult path, but I would envisage that we will be asking harder questions into the future and demanding those answers from this committee that sometimes have been lacking to date. With that, I commend the report to the council.

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