Statutes Amendment (COVID-19 Permanent Measures) Bill – Second Reading

Bills, In Parliament, Speeches

Adjourned debate on second reading (resumed on motion).

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (17:03): I rise to speak in support of the Statutes Amendment (COVID-19 Permanent Measures) Bill 2021. I would have thought, just over a year ago, when we first started grappling with this pandemic, that we would not have had such emergency management measures in place for well over a year, as we have seen, but this pandemic has turned our worlds upside down and provided for a prism to re-examine the way we live.

The bill has some very practical measures that will be ongoing and become permanent measures, as much as we have permanency in these pandemic times. Indeed, the Aboriginal Lands Parliamentary Standing Committee Act is amended to ensure that members may join by audiovisual means. I note that the Presiding Member of that committee reflected on the ease with which this has assisted members of that committee to participate in the work of the committee but the technology perhaps being a little lacking at times, and I concur with that.

I point out that, while we were given information in the briefing that that was to support regional members, for those of us who for example have had other requirements and are not regional, whether it is waiting for a COVID test or not being able to be physically in this building, the changes that have been brought about by the pandemic, with the ability to meet remotely through audiovisual measures, have meant that democracy has continued under the pandemic in a way that has given it a real shake up. Certainly, this building and the institution in which we sit sometimes does need such a shake up.

The Acts Interpretation Act, the Emergency Management Act, the Environment Protection Act, the Mental Health Act and many more are all subject to some of these permanent and very practical measures that have become part of our world of living differently under COVID. We have lived now under this pandemic for a little over a year, and it has been a very challenging time and South Australia has certainly risen to the challenge.

I echo the commendation that other members of this council have acknowledged today for Professor Nicola Spurrier, our Chief Public Health Officer, and for Commissioner Grant Stevens, our State Coordinator. They have faced quite testing times, and I think we have been in very safe hands with those two at the helm. I note that we are technically in a police state, however, and the Greens certainly do not find comfort in being in a police state. I would rather we were in a public health state.

I note that other jurisdictions around the country do not necessarily have the police commissioner as their state coordinator or equivalent position. Indeed, the very specific nature of whatever emergency they face then determines who is the lead agency and person in charge. Certainly, from the Greens, in terms of debating the Emergency Management Act well over a decade ago now, if we could turn the clock back, should it be a public health emergency perhaps it should be the Chief Public Health Officer in charge ongoing. For example, if it was a fire emergency, the head of the fire services should be in charge ongoing, etc.

This pandemic has challenged us all. We have been told to stay at home to stay safe. What that has absolutely made crystal clear is that not everyone is safe at home and not everyone has a home. For those who live with family and domestic violence, their homes were not safe, yet we were forcing them to stay there with very little supports, with increased isolation and often with increased coercion.

I have been quite critical of the lack of proactive response. Over the period of time that we have had some of the emergency declarations, there has been a lack in understanding of the complexity of domestic and family violence, but I am pleased to say that that is improving as the voices have been heard of those who represent particularly the women’s sector and the DV and family violence sectors in those emergency declarations.

Of course, under the pandemic, just over a year ago we saw the Premier declare that no-one need be homeless in this city. Indeed, we cleared the streets of those who were homeless and living rough just before this time last year, with the coming of winter as well as the onslaught of the pandemic, and we housed people in hotels or homes. We found them a roof to put over their heads and we found them the supports that they needed. We showed that it can be done and we showed that the world can change overnight if we simply reprioritise what we think is important. In that case, we thought it was important to have good public health for the entire community, so we supported the most vulnerable in our community.

At a commonwealth level we saw people on welfare payments lifted out of poverty, abject poverty, for the first time in many generations, and that has now been lost. Should we, like Victoria, face a lockdown situation again, I do fear what will happen now with that lack of support to housing, that lack of a welfare system that has put people above the poverty line rather than plunge them into poverty, and should we need to again be telling people, ‘Stay at home to stay safe,’ whether or not they will be safe, whether or not they will be secure and whether or not they will even have a home.

This pandemic is an opportunity to build back better. The Greens have said that in our campaigning work across the country but we have shown that political choices are made as to whether people have homes, as to whether people live in poverty, as to whether people have good access to public health. It has laid bare one of the tenets of the public health mantra, if you like, that there are social determinants to health and, in this case, those social determinants have very much exposed what I would call cracks in our social fabric.

Building back better should not mean that we paper over the cracks. We actually have to rebuild and ensure that those cracks that have now been exposed are properly fixed, that people are housed, that people are able to live good and healthy lives and are able to afford food, rent, power, utilities, medicine should they need it, and education should they need it. I have to say that unfortunately I think we are heading back into the error of our old ways.

While the measures in the bill today are good, practical measures, there is no vision coming from the Marshall government about ensuring that people are not plunged into poverty and are not put into homelessness yet again. We are seeing rough sleepers on our streets increase at a rapid rate—in fact, at a rate higher than I have seen in my adult lifetime of living in the city—and I find that to our shame.

I note that NRAS expires soon and I think there is another cliff of increased rents that are about to hit that somewhat private rental market that was supported by the Rudd era reforms that increased the ability of people to pay an affordable rent under that scheme. That is something where we have not seen redress coming from the state government and I think that is, again, to our shame as a parliament.

The real pandemic is coming; that is, we have faced the public health crisis of the coronavirus, we have seen our worlds turned upside down, we have seen shortages of toilet paper in the supermarkets, a twist on who really is an essential worker in this day and age, the fascination with things like TikTok and watching Tiger King, and theyall have their place in the stories that we tell of our woes of the pandemic. I have to say that I will here declare that I did not bake a single loaf of sourdough in the pandemic. I did eat quite a few.

The Hon. R.A. Simms: Neither did I.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: The Hon. Rob Simms interjects that neither did he. I have tasted his cooking and I think that is a very fine thing. What we have seen through the shared trauma, though, is the importance of community and the importance of connection, and the reason people have resorted to those things which I put in a somewhat humorous and trite way is that as a community we are stronger together but we have been forced quite often into isolation, and the most vulnerable of us have suffered the most.

I look on the pandemic as an earthquake that has shaken the very foundations of our social fabric, but what is the tsunami to come? The Hon. Terry Stephens raised this. The tsunami to come post the pandemic earthquake is, of course, a mental health crisis. I am often fond of saying that it is not whether your glass is half empty, it is not whether your glass is half full that affects your mental health, it is how long you have been made to hold that glass. No-one can hold a half full or a half empty glass forever.

The longer we make people struggle to pay the rent, afford medicines and be able to feed themselves, and the harder we make their lives and the more trauma we expose them to, the less likely they are to be able to meet the challenges to come as we transition from this public health pandemic. The mental health crisis to come is what needs our most urgent attention and all our efforts. However, the pandemic, as I say, is an opportunity to build back better: build more houses, build public infrastructure and ensure that we have food and water security in this state to get right the basics of a good social system and healthy welfare state that will create a healthy population, both physically and mentally.

I, for one, look forward to a recognition, as we have seen at various levels of government, of the importance of our public institutions, the importance of public investment and the importance of ensuring that all share in what is in Australia, this developed and very wealthy nation. With those few words, I commend the bill and look forward to the committee debate.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (17:15): I welcome the opportunity to talk about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on South Australia. It really goes without saying that we have been very lucky in our state when it comes to the impact of COVID-19. I think a lot of us reflect on that when we see what is happening over in Victoria at the moment and the regrettable situation that they face there. We are very lucky in that sense. However, whilst many of us have been lucky, this has not been a lucky time for everybody in our community. In fact, COVID-19 has exposed the growing pandemic of inequality that has been sweeping the globe over the last few decades. Really, this pandemic has shone a light on that.

In particular, I want to talk a little bit about the impact on some of the most vulnerable people in our community. As my honourable colleague Tammy Franks has stated, we saw the government take action to support people who are homeless, in terms of connecting them with short-term accommodation during the pandemic. That was a welcome thing, but unfortunately we have not seen the follow-through. We have not seen the government then ensure that those people are provided long-term accommodation.

I really fear that there are people sleeping on our streets—I know there are people sleeping on our streets in the middle of this harsh winter—and that is simply not good enough for a state like South Australia. It is simply not acceptable that we have people sleeping on the street when we have so many resources at our disposal. Where is the leadership from this government to deal with the housing and homelessness crisis?

We also know, and this has been reported extensively over the last few months, that if you are somebody who is renting and you are trying to live on JobSeeker—and I say ‘trying to live’ because you cannot live on JobSeeker; it is woefully inadequate—you cannot find a single place that is affordable for you to rent in South Australia. If you are a single person, there is not one single property that is affordable for you to rent. I think that is an outrage.

I really would like to see some leadership from the government to deal with the rental crisis. What are they doing in terms of building more social housing? What are they doing in terms of building more public housing? What are they doing in terms of building more affordable housing? This is not something we can just push off into the never-never; it is integral to the response to this pandemic and the economic crisis that has followed. Just today, I noted a news report on the ABC, referring to homelessness services in Port Lincoln. I quote:

A homeless support service in South Australia’s Port Lincoln is reluctantly calling for locals to donate tents, sleeping bags and old swags, following an increase in people seeking support in the…region.

It comes as reports of rental shortages across…SA emerge…

What on earth is happening when we have vulnerable people being forced to sleep in tents because we do not have enough accommodation available in our state and in our regional centres? That is a disgrace. That is an absolute disgrace, and we need leadership from this government to address that.

As I said before, COVID-19 has really exposed that ongoing crisis of inequality in South Australia, and it has really highlighted the potential for government to take action that changes people’s lives for the better. What we need from this government is for them to embrace this opportunity to actually take the leadership that is necessary to deal with the public health crisis and also the growing crisis of inequality in South Australia, recognising that every South Australian deserves a roof over their head and a place to call home, and that that is the right of every citizen in our community, not just the wealthy few.

Whilst I support this bill and commend this bill, I call on the Marshall government to go further in terms of advocating for vulnerable South Australians and in terms of investing in the infrastructure that we need to ensure that people are not plunged into poverty as a result of this economic crisis. I note that the government has called a Code Blue to support people during the extreme weather that we are facing over the next few days, but they are announcing that measure—and of course the Greens welcome that—at a time when they have initiated brutal cuts to the homelessness sector in South Australia. We have seen cuts to Street to Home, cuts to Catherine House, cuts to the Hutt St Centre; again, a failure of leadership at a time when leadership is so desperately needed.

In terms of concluding my remarks, I make a few comments about the rollout of the vaccine to people who are homeless. You may recall that I asked the health minister in question time during our previous sitting period what the government’s plan was to ensure that the vaccine was made available to people who are homeless.

He provided an explanation and stated that he was going to be dealing with support services to get the vaccine out through food trucks that already provide support to people who are homeless. It is great that something is being looked at, but we need to have more detail on that. The minister’s response really threw open more questions than it did answers.

We need to know whether or not more resources are being allocated to these organisations so that they can roll out the vaccine. Are these the sorts of organisations that have been impacted by the Liberals’ brutal cuts to homelessness support services? Are these organisations going to be able to ensure that a follow-up vaccine is provided to people who are homeless? What measures are in place to ensure that we can keep track of these people and ensure that they receive the second vaccine that they so desperately need?

All of these are questions that the government has failed to answer. When I asked the minister about this I received, might I say, a fairly churlish response correcting me about the size of the health department. That is not good enough. We need to see leadership from the government on these questions, and we need to see answers to these questions, so that vulnerable South Australians know that they are getting the support they desperately need during this economic crisis. I commend the bill, but I call on the government to show the leadership that we need to ensure that no South Australian is left behind.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I. Pnevmatikos.