HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [11.07 am]: I move —
That this house —
(1) notes the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Western Australia;
(2) acknowledges that there are sectors of our society and economy that remain in significant need of further support; and
(3) calls on the government to address the needs of these sectors of our society and economy with targeted support and continued fiscal stimulus during this stressful period.
Two weeks is certainly a very long time in politics at any given point, but I think we can all agree that under the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves, two weeks has felt like a lifetime; indeed, life is changing very quickly, sometimes on a two-hourly basis. When the Greens put up this motion two weeks ago, the community was in the early stages of feeling the devastating effects of the necessary measures that have been taken to address COVID-19, the first pandemic to have occurred in any member’s lifetime. I am sure that as members stand to contribute to the debate on this motion, they will be able to give devastating stories of what is happening across our community, whether those stories are about people who are desperately concerned about their health and their lives, people who have lost their jobs or people who stand to lose their business. I think we can all agree that we are absolutely devastated to think what the future may hold for so many people in our community.
Every single one of us is affected by what is happening at the moment and this is a global issue. I begin by acknowledging those people on the frontline trying so hard to make sure that we are going to be safe, whether it be the people making the hard decisions that require people to self-isolate or the people in our hospital system who are waiting for what we know is going to come. There is no room for complacency around addressing COVID-19. Unfortunately, everything is telling us that even though we are starting to make real progress around flattening the curve, we will still see a massive influx of people presenting with COVID-19, and with that the risk that vulnerable people in our community will potentially lose their life. This weighs very heavily on my heart and, I am sure, on the hearts of everybody here. As a member of Parliament, I have been keeping a particularly close eye on the government response, both federal and state, to particular population groups. I understand that there are a wide variety of views within this chamber. I have no doubt that we will hear contributions from people who have expertise in particular areas that they will focus on. I particularly want to talk about a range of matters that I am keeping close tabs on. On some matters I will be giving bouquets to the state government and on others brickbats, but I also will be alerting the government to concerns coming from the sector and hoping to get some clarity for people.
From the outset, one of the areas I am particularly concerned to keep an eye on is what will happen within our community services sector. People know that I come from this area and I am particularly concerned to ensure that it has the capacity to respond. Our community and not-for-profit sector at the moment, to a large degree, is also at the forefront of delivering services to vulnerable people. There is a lot of focus, as there should be, on what is happening with our health professionals in the hospital system in particular, but we also know that those who work within the community sector are traditionally paid less than those in other community areas and they are predominantly women. How are they faring with what has now become a massively increased workload in the community sector that was already struggling for money and having to go through a lot of change? We know, for example, that services are coming under additional strain at the moment because there is a greater demand for their services at a time when the money has not necessarily been flowing. At the same time, they have had a significant reduction in the number of volunteers. Meals on Wheels is an example of this. It needs to provide more meals because more people need to self-isolate, yet, at the same time, it has funding pressures and reduced volunteer bases. These things are creating enormous pressures within organisations such as that one.
One of the things that our community sector is asking for is a greater flexibility to respond to need. That sector now has a suite of unanticipated costs, including for additional cleaning, cleaning products and also security. That sector is plagued by the same thing that plagues the health system, both locally and globally—that is, the lack of availability personal protective equipment. This is a huge problem. In the long term it probably goes to why we need to have a viable manufacturing base within Australia, but that is a discussion for after we have got through this crisis. This has seriously hampered the capacity of the community sector to deliver services. I know that this is firmly on the radar of government, as it is firmly on the radar of governments around the world. Nevertheless, it continues to be a massive problem and we have to acknowledge that even if there is not a ready solution. I applaud the many companies within Australia that are nimbly and swiftly stepping up to provide a range of PPE, whether it be in the form of masks, ventilators or hand sanitiser. That is very encouraging. I hope that we get some resolution of that issue.
Concern exists across the community sector about the loss of high-profile fundraising opportunities. Ordinarily, a lot of our charitable organisations rely very heavily on the goodwill generated by the community participating in these high-profile events to produce their desperately needed income. Suddenly that has all dried up overnight. What does that mean for these services that provide essential services? Across the sector as a whole, the Australian Council of Social Service has been calling for program-level funding to community services that otherwise rely on individual funding arrangements so that they can have a more stabilised workforce. It has already asked particularly for additional funding for housing and homelessness services. I will speak to that a bit more in a moment. ACOSS wants guaranteed access to PPE, which I just spoke about. It also needs to have flexibility on the contract arrangements for services right now so that they can respond to what is a community need that is changing on a daily basis. As part of that request, it has asked that we either delay or relax reporting requirements and that any government reform, particularly around new tendering processes, be frozen. Ultimately, the services need to have flexibility in how their funds are being used so that they can support their community safely throughout this crisis.
I particularly want to acknowledge what has been a very important initiative by the state government that occurred over the last two weeks; that is, the establishment of an incident management team by the Department of Communities to lead the response. Bringing the various task forces together that will be addressing the issues around homelessness, Aboriginal people, people with disability, family and domestic violence, children in care, seniors and also residents in remote communities has shown great leadership. I also want to acknowledge that there are two components to the way in which Communities has chosen to do this. I applaud that and I really want to get this on the record— these are some of the bouquets. The first one has been a very genuine engagement with particularly the not-for-profit peak bodies. I have often said in this place that that is where a lot of the expertise lies, and clearly the government has taken that on board. In the many conversations that I am having across the peaks—people would not be surprised to know that I have ongoing relationships with these people because I come from that area—people are saying that the peaks are being looked to to provide leadership in this space. I applaud the government for doing that. The second thing I want to applaud the government on is, frankly, some of the personal appointments it has made to try to coordinate this response. The appointment of people of the calibre of Debra Zanella and Sue Ash has shown good leadership because these people are respected within the community and they are good at their job. When those announcements were made, it instilled a greater level of confidence within the community-based sector. That is really important and I am really hopeful that we are going to see some progress. I will talk a little more about some of those elements.
One of the questions being asked across that sector is: when are we likely to see a whole-of-government response or commitment to ensure that all vulnerable members of the community are going to be supported and protected from COVID-19? There is an issue around the time frame. People are concerned about how long some of these changes are taking to be enacted. They are also making it quite clear that we still need to get serious commitment around money, in particular, although I recognise that everyone is working incredibly quickly.
I particularly want to make some comments about what is happening in the homelessness space. I note the announcement that 20 people who are particularly at risk will be housed. That is welcome. I need to point out, though, that we are talking about another estimated 800 or so people in the Perth CBD alone who are sleeping rough. Also, having spoken to the Mayor of Fremantle, I am aware that there is a real concern about what is happening with the homeless population in Fremantle. For a whole range of reasons, we have seen a withdrawal of homelessness services— primarily because of the lack of protective personal equipment—at the same time that we need people to self-isolate. It is the case that this will have to be a particular area of priority. Feedback from the sector about the trial of housing people is that it is fantastic, and it has been very well received, but we need much more. We are going to have to make sure that we have urgent funding and resources, including access to housing, accommodation and support services, to meet the increased demand for care and also to help prevent the risk of transmission.
Likewise, I want to make some comments about mental health. There has, of course, been huge concern about what the long-term impacts will be for people with mental health issues. I am concerned about early reports of increased rates of suicide. We obviously do not have definitive figures, but that was always going to be a very serious risk. We will need to make sure that our mental health system is able to meet the growing need. We already had a community-managed mental health sector that was unable to meet the existing need, which was recognised in the 10-year plan. It has become even more critical than ever that we fund our community-managed mental health services because now, more than ever, we have to keep people away from hospitals. We do not need people with serious mental health issues turning up to our hospitals if there is any capacity to support them safely within the community. We have been saying this all along, but now is the time to do that. We have seen investment coming through from the federal government, and that has been welcomed. The community-managed mental health sector has certainly spoken about the goodwill that is coming from the Mental Health Commission to ensure that there is engagement. But there is a concern that we are able to deal immediately with the crisis. There is a particular concern about the impact of coronavirus on people who are accommodated in our psychiatric hostels because they are particularly vulnerable. We have to be mindful that we will have to take a long-term approach to this.
I acknowledge the good work that is happening in the family and domestic violence space. Obviously, we will be dealing with legislation around this shortly. I recognise that, at the moment, instances of family and domestic violence are, unfortunately, well and truly on the increase, and concerns are coming through to me from people involved in child protection. I will have more to say about that, perhaps, in members’ statements.
I want to acknowledge the good engagement that is happening around the disability space. The feedback that has come back to me has certainly been that the issues have been articulated, even if the problems have not been resolved. The disability peak bodies and people working within the space are saying that they need swifter movement from the National Disability Insurance Agency about how to respond to a lot of the issues that are emerging. This is a population group that is particularly at risk, and I think we need to be very mindful of making sure that their needs are met.
I also want to say that I have had a lot of feedback from, particularly, Aboriginal Noongar elders, who have said that they have felt as though many of the concerns within the community have not necessarily had an avenue to be heard, although I think that might be changing now. There has, necessarily, been a big focus on Aboriginal people who live in the Pilbara and the Kimberley. That is important, because it is about saving lives, but we also need to come back to remembering that the majority of Aboriginal people within Western Australia live in metropolitan Perth and have specific needs, particularly around issues of overcrowding in their homes, which creates serious risks. That is without even looking at the fact that a lot of Aboriginal people already live with comorbidities.
If I am going to give the brickbats, I will say that it is in the way that this government has chosen to respond to what is happening within our prisons. In other states, proactive legislation has been put forward to allow discretion for low-risk prisoners, in some circumstances, to be able to receive early release from prison, because it has been recognised by the World Health Organization that our prisons will be a hotbed of disease if disease gets in to them. We are talking about a population group who, largely, live with comorbidities, cannot self-isolate in the way that people in the community can, and, by definition, live in close proximity to each other. I have been very disheartened by the responses I have had from the minister that prisoners will still be able to access the health services that are ordinarily available to them. Those services are woefully inadequate at any given time.
The idea that we will, effectively, be sentencing some people to death by keeping them in prison when we could otherwise safely get them out into the community, defies belief. I particularly think of Bandyup Women’s Prison and the number of women in that prison who are Aboriginal and have families that they need to take care of. I am hearing daily from families of prisoners because people have become aware that I am prepared to raise these issues. People are desperately upset about what will happen and want to know why Western Australia is taking a different position on this. This is aggravated by the fact that in Western Australia we do not have the right to have a judge-alone trial, so people who would otherwise be able to have their trials and potentially be subject to release are now looking at having to be kept on remand for a longer period than normal. I have also said that there needs to be a halt on people being sent to prison for fine default. I note that we have never had a chance to debate that legislation. I am really concerned about what this will mean for our prisons.
I could say much more about our schools. I am glad that the transition has finally been made to allow online learning, but I need to acknowledge that the transition has been anything but smooth for parents of public school students. I certainly hope that it goes better for those parents after Easter. I am also conscious that there is still great uncertainty about what is happening in TAFE, both for students and lecturers, because they are in regular contact with me.
Finally, I want to make some comments about the public sector. It has been concerning to me how inconsistent the capacity to work from home has been across the public sector, and the union has certainly been raising that with me. To a large degree, a lot of it seems to have been left up to the discretion of individual managers, and that has been less than satisfactory for people who work in our public sector. I recognise that these are terrible times and that everyone is working incredibly hard. It is up to all of us to make sure that we raise concerns as they come to our attention. I hope we are able to get through this as a community with as few people dying as possible and that we are able to recover.
Comments and speeches by various members
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [12.52 pm] — in reply: I really want to thank the members who spoke—Hon Peter Collier, Hon Stephen Dawson, Hon Martin Aldridge, Hon Robin Scott and, of course, my colleagues Hon Tim Clifford and Hon Diane Evers. I think it was helpful to have people share the various perspectives that are coming through their offices. As the Leader of the Opposition made very clear, the reality is that all of us are affected by this and we are subject to some pretty devastating stories. The economic impacts of COVID-19 are going to be felt for some time and the stimulus packages proposed at both the state and federal levels are welcome. I imagine there is much more to come and we need to ensure that we cover all those areas that are being financially devastated so we do not end up with deeply undesirable consequences in the long term, because it is already going to be bad enough for many people.
As I said in my contribution, I rose to particularly talk about the people who are going to be the most affected from a health perspective. Of course, those people are older Australians; people with underlying health issues, particularly those who are immunocompromised; people with disability; Aboriginal people; and people who have been left in very vulnerable situations such as prisoners. I particularly want to mention those refugees, who I did not mention because I ran out of time, currently sitting in our detention centres. I am very concerned about them, as I am about people with disability living in group homes, people with psychosocial disabilities in psychiatric hostels and these sorts of situations. This is really complex and it requires complex, multifaceted solutions. As I said, I am pleased to see that the state government has led on some of these fronts and consulted with the peak bodies that are well-placed to be able to assist, but I remain very concerned about the lack of positive action for other groups in our population, particularly prisoners. The lack of compassion or understanding towards them has been galling, particularly when we compare our poor response with that of other states, which have been far more proactive in trying to deal with this.
I recognise the complexities around the need to respond to rising instances of family and domestic violence, the implication for areas such as child protection and what happens with children who are currently in out-of-home care. One thing I did not get a chance to mention because of time was the alarming stories coming to me from people I know who work in child protection that a number of foster parents have had to give up their foster children because they have found themselves in quite dire financial straits. I want to flag that that is going to pose a very big challenge for government as we deal with these children who far too often go from pillar to post. They have already been taken out of traumatic situations and they then find themselves losing any further stability. These are the sorts of unforeseen consequences, which, as people in this chamber have spoken about, were unthinkable back in December. They are things that we did not think we would see happening in our community now in April, yet here we are and lives have been turned upside down.
I have a final comment. We will talk about this a little bit more when we get to the legislation, but broad concerns have been raised about the shutdown of a lot of the freedoms we have taken for granted our whole lives. Obviously that is alarming and distressing for people, but I want to stress once again that this is driven by public health measures. That is the only grounds on which these things have to occur. We are trying to save the lives of those vulnerable populations I have just listed. I say to people who are cavalier about this that it is very easy when it is not your life on the line. It is about us as a community recognising that everybody’s life is valuable and that we have an obligation to work collectively to try to save as many lives as we can. I thank members for their contributions.
Question put and passed.