Strathbogie sees rail precinct prospect

Constituency question

September 8, 2021

My constituency question is to the Minister for Public Transport and concerns the Euroa railway precinct:

The Inland Rail project will have implications for the greater railway precinct, which falls outside of the scope of the ARTC (Australian Rail Track Corporation) and into the hands of the state government. 

This presents an opportunity for the precinct to be considered in a holistic sense for rail and road users, pedestrians and cyclists. 

Strathbogie Shire Council is very keen to engage with the Victorian government to ensure that the planning, funding and timing for a redevelopment of a Euroa railway precinct is collaborative and includes the community.

I ask the Minister if he will meet with the Strathbogie council to discuss these issues and opportunities and their need for $100,000 funding to develop a business case for the Euroa railway precinct.

Butting out Victoria’s illegal tobacco trade

Motion

September 9, 2021

Tania MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (12:54):

I move that this house:

(1) expresses concern at the proliferation of illicit tobacco in Victoria;

(2) acknowledges the criminal implications arising from the sale of illegal tobacco and the impact on law-abiding tobacco retailers;

(3) recognises opportunities to strengthen state responses to the retail sale of illicit tobacco in Victoria; and

(4) calls on the government to explain what action is being taken to disrupt and halt black market tobacco distribution sales in Victoria.

I rise today to bring this important motion to the house, to recognise the widespread extent of the illicit tobacco trade and to make recommendations that could improve the state’s response to what is a serious organised criminal market.

I have raised issues relating to illegal tobacco numerous times in this Parliament and have been encouraged by the constructive conversations I have had with the government, especially most recently, as we have unpacked some of the practical issues around enforcement and response.

$800 million annual excise loss

The sale of illicit tobacco is extremely lucrative in Australia, including in Victoria. The Herald Sun reported in June 2021 that criminal syndicates make more money from black market chop-chop than cocaine. The Australian Tax Office estimates the tobacco tax gap is more than $800 million a year across Australia. That is just the tax that is lost, so you can understand the phenomenal volume of trade that is occurring illegally in our communities.

Law-enforcement has established strong links between the smuggling and sale of illicit tobacco and organised crime syndicates. Most concerning is how profits are funnelled to other serious criminal offending, including but not limited to child sexual exploitation, terrorism, human trafficking, firearm offences, cybercrime and general violence.

Speaking generally on organised crime, and following the success of ‘Operation Ironside’, federal police commissioner Reece Kershaw said at his National Press Club address on 28 July that:

… these violent, trigger-happy, organised criminals also strike at the heart of our democracy by undermining our national security, our economy, social security system, and our social cohesion, especially in regional communities.

Speaking on 19 February 2020, Commissioner Kershaw spoke about organised crime in relation to child sexual exploitation. The commissioner said, and I quote:

This is organised crime, but the commodity is children.

As recently as July this year intelligence reports highlighted organised crime groups infiltrating Australian freight, logistics and transport firms for the import and distribution of drugs and illegal tobacco. Twenty-nine trusted insiders were arrested following the cracking of the encrypted ANoM app. Mike Phelan, head of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, was reported to say that Australian criminal networks:

… share supply routes, they share logistic supply chains … They share any corrupt networks …

During an operation in March 2021 the Australian Border Force executed search warrants at residential and commercial properties in suburban Melbourne, and it is alleged that the targets belonged to an organised crime syndicate that smuggles and distributes illicit molasses tobacco throughout Victoria.

Victoria Police indicated to the panel undertaking a review of Victorian criminal organisational laws that nearly all levels of crime in Victoria can be linked to organised crime. Organised crime is a constantly evolving challenge for law enforcement and incredibly dangerous and damaging to our communities. It continues to be a significant priority for state and federal law enforcement, and rightly so.

When talking about the increase in domestic growth of illicit tobacco, Illicit Tobacco Taskforce commander Greg Linsdell is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald on 26 July this year saying that:

… these are people coming in and exploiting regional areas, taking water, damaging soil, using foreign labour and giving nothing back to the community …

Commander Linsdell went on to say that:

Removing illicit tobacco from crop to shop creates a level playing field and also helps to stop organised crime syndicates from funding other activities …

The lost excise—money that pushes up the cost of legal tobacco to start with—is money that would otherwise be delivered to our communities for important services and infrastructure—to our hospitals, emergency services, schools and roads.

With plain packaging and no health warnings, as well as a moral and legal disregard for restricting sales to minors, illicit tobacco sales undermine other tobacco control methods and policies to reduce smoking and disadvantage law-abiding retailers who do the right thing.

It’s not about the rights or wrongs of smoking

This motion is not about the rights or wrongs of smoking, nor is it seeking to deprive smokers of the opportunity to buy legal products. I recognise that some people purchase illicit tobacco simply because it is cheaper and they give little or no regard to the broader criminal implications, but these broader criminal implications are of great regard to me and to Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party.

In the 2019–20 financial year the Australian Border Force detected and seized more than 432 million cigarettes and 177 tonnes of loose-leaf tobacco. These statistics demonstrate the extent of the market, because despite these interceptions it is suggested that there are more than 400 shopfronts selling illicit tobacco across Victoria. If that information is correct, there is one just over a kilometre from this place. It is not just a metropolitan situation, and shops are scattered across regional Victoria, including many in my electorate of Northern Victoria.

Since the federal Illicit Tobacco Taskforce was formed in 2018 there has certainly been more happening to disrupt the trade, especially at the point of import and identifying illegal crops. The federal parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement undertook a review of illicit tobacco, which spanned over three parliaments and made key recommendations around coordinating law enforcement-led responses. I am aware of five operations in Victoria this year, including the seizure of 2500 packets of cigarettes and 28 kilograms of loose tobacco from properties in Shepparton and Euroa in January, almost 12 hectares of crops in Beverford in March, crops raised on properties in Yarrawonga in May and more than 300,000 cigarettes seized in July from businesses and storage sheds in Shepparton and Mooroopna. I know these raids are complex, and I give credit to the multiple agencies involved.

There are some who have urged that this is a federal responsibility, but as I previously noted in this Parliament, Australian Border Force Assistant Commissioner Sharon Huey confirmed at a 2019 Senate inquiry that state and territory health and policing authorities do have responsibility for compliance action regarding the sale of illicit tobacco by retailers. I note the Department of Immigration and Border Protection submission to the inquiry into illicit tobacco in 2016 detailed limitations to their enforcement at the level of retailer or wholesaler. Indeed one of the recommendations out of this review was 5.3, the ‘greater involvement of state and territory governments’. The federal government is due to formally respond to the joint committee’s report and recommendations relating to illicit tobacco in the second half of this year, but separate to this there are gaps that exist at a state level that could be immediately addressed to strengthen the system. The Victorian Tobacco Act 1987 empowers the Secretary of the Department of Health to appoint inspectors for enforcement of the act, and this falls in the lap of environmental health officers currently under local governments.

Municipal Association wants change

In October 2016 the Municipal Association of Victoria state council resolved to advocate to the Victorian state government for a review of the role of council officers in investigating activities associated with the selling of illicit tobacco products. Following this a service agreement was put in place to determine the education and enforcement activities that councils would undertake in this role. Environmental health officers have an important role in public health at the community level in relation to tobacco and in line with the service agreements. Councils see their role as enforcing smoking bans in prohibited places, restricting advertising and providing education. With illicit retailers run by serious criminal syndicates it is little wonder that councils avoid any enforcement activities relating to the sales of illicit tobacco. In consulting with councils across my electorate, overwhelmingly their feedback is that any remit to combat the sale of illicit tobacco is not appropriate for council officers and in effect they would not authorise them to undertake such activity. Councils have been very clear to me that they deem it unsafe for their staff to be conducting surveillance, search or seizures to circumvent illicit tobacco trade, particularly considering the links to organised crime.

Councils also report a restrictive and cumbersome system without a supportive infringement regime to give serious consequences to offenders. Powers of entry and the authority to direct and gather evidence are very restrictive and councils face substantial costs in pursuing illicit traders through the justice system. Exploring a simple structure of regulation and infringements could eliminate some of the complexity that exists. It would also act as a deterrent for any sellers of licit product that may also dabble in illicit sales.

Licensing scheme

Victoria and Queensland are the only two remaining states without a regulated licensing scheme for the sale of tobacco. Other goods are regulated, such as alcohol, gambling and firearms. Initiating a licensing scheme in Victoria could provide a means to combat illegal retailers and the opportunity to link regimes across jurisdictions and align them with commonwealth provisions. Licensing gives an opportunity for authorities to determine the fitness of persons to undertake the activity and provides a framework for managing offending through the process of suspending or revoking a licence. It then provides the capacity for infringement notices, scalable in nature.

A licensing scheme is supported by Quit Victoria and the Police Federation. I have had productive conversations with Quit Victoria, and they note that what we have in place now is essentially a negative scheme for tobacco whereby a retailer may be prohibited from selling tobacco products for a specific period if found guilty of offences under the Tobacco Act 1987. They have a longstanding concern that these provisions have had little impact or enforcement—they do not address illegal shopfronts—and they propose that a positive licensing scheme would provide better enforcement opportunities and support broader public health policies.

While the schemes are a little different in every state, systems that include both retail and wholesale licences appear to give greater accountability and transparency in the supply chain, with the onus on licensees to ensure that they only deal with other licence-holders. Some jurisdictions have a public register for licence-holders and give powers of entry and search to both investigators and police. This is in contrast to the current situation in Victoria, where police have to obtain a warrant to enter and search a premise and investigators can only search areas of a premise that are open to the public without the consent of the occupier or a warrant.

Under a licensing scheme, power could be given to the state administrative tribunal for disciplinary action against a licence-holder with proper cause. This would then give capacity for a licence to be suspended, revoked or disqualified. A range of penalties, including on-the-spot infringement notices and fines, would make enforcement easier and faster than exists under the current system. Tiering the maximum penalties for subsequent offences, for quantity of illicit tobacco involved and making non-compliance an indictable offence for large quantities of illicit tobacco could ensure penalties are focused on repeat and serious offenders. The Australian Association of Convenience Stores estimates legitimate traders lose $1.5 million daily in revenue, so I think the benefits would far outweigh any burden on existing retailers.

I will finish by conveying my gratitude to the Minister for Local Government, the Minister for Health and the Minister for Regulatory Reform for the very collaborative ways in which they have engaged with me in looking at the scale of this issue and the options for reform. It seems very reasonable that any remit to local councils in responding to illegal shopfronts should be removed and that considering a licensing scheme would be a very positive step in strengthening the state’s response to the extensive criminal trade of illicit tobacco across Victoria. On that note, I commend this motion to the house.

Tien KIEU (South Eastern Metropolitan) (13:09):

I rise to contribute to the motion put forward by Ms Maxwell on illicit tobacco; indeed I support her motion. Tobacco consumption is very addictive. I know that because I once quit for 21 years. In fact it is known to be even more addictive than heroin. It is a health issue not just for the person who consumes it but also for passive smokers. That is the reason for the introduction of the excise and the increase of the excise every year in line with CPI.

Despite that, illicit tobacco is still very much available under the counter. It is not only an issue that undermines the effort to encourage smokers to quit and have better health—I should know—but it is also a taxation issue because of the revenue lost. It is also a local government issue because at this stage in Victoria it is up to, mostly, the councils with the support of police to regulate and to find out about illicit tobacco under the counter. It is also a law and order issue, because a lot of the profit has been going to organised crime because it is deemed to be a low-risk and high-profit activity. Ms Maxwell has listed some of the organised activities, like child sexual exploitation, cybercrime, drug dealing and firearm trafficking, but the profit is also being diverted to terrorism, which is very much a big, big issue in our time now. This is a very big issue, and it has many underlying not only taxation problems for the government but also law and order issues. But the reality is that right now enforcement is at a federal level, closely working with local government and with the support of the police.

In the year 2008, I believe, the Illicit Tobacco Taskforce (ITTF) was formed nationally. They have been working together and growing their expertise and the capabilities of many national agencies, including the Australian Border Force, of course the Australian Taxation office and also the Department of Home Affairs, including the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and many other law enforcement agencies. We in Victoria remain committed to strengthening the measures that tackle illicit tobacco in our state. In fact we have invested very heavily in Victoria Police to ensure that they are better equipped than ever before to target crime in whatever guise it takes, with nearly $4 billion in new investment not only for more police in our community but also to equip the police with the most up-to-date technology and also legislation to sharpen the police approaches to disrupting organised crime networks and also those who may operate in this space of illicit tobacco.

Apart from the city councils, which are responsible for monitoring, surveillance and searching, the police have also been assisting the councils and will continue to assist with enforcement in relation to illegal tobacco. I can give some examples here. As of November 2019 at the national level the Illicit Tobacco Taskforce had seized more than 262 tonnes of illicit tobacco, which could be cigarettes, cigars or loose-leaf. That could be either grown, manufactured or produced locally or imported from overseas.

Victoria Police have worked closely with the ITTF. In March 2020 VicPol assisted in shutting down two active illicit tobacco operations with a combined street value of more than $27 million. Not only that, VicPol has also been working side by side with the Department of Health and of course the local governments in identifying and disrupting any illicit activity related to illegal tobacco. In Victoria the offences relating to illegal tobacco sit within an act named the Tobacco Act 1987, which includes not only the sale of tobacco but also restrictions on the advertising, display and use of tobacco and its sale to under-age children.

Victoria Police is continuing to work with the community, and I would urge anyone in the community who has any information to contact us now. So our government welcomes the opportunity to be open about the important work being done to tackle illicit tobacco in our state, and to that end we support Ms Maxwell’s motion.

Edward O’DONOHUE (Eastern Victoria) (13:17):

I am pleased on behalf of the opposition to join this debate and thank Ms Maxwell for bringing it to the chamber. It is a very important issue. The issue of illegal tobacco is of growing importance, not just because of the health consequences for Victorians who buy illicit, illegal tobacco but because of the links to organised crime, links to international crime syndicates—particularly illegal tobacco from China and other places—and obviously the lost revenue to the taxation system, which impacts on the ability to fund the services that we as a community need now more than ever. And of course there are clear health implications. There has been so much regulation—which I think has been a great thing—of the retail, lawful sale of tobacco, but now we have this growing parallel proliferation of illegal chop-chop, illicit tobacco, that is causing a huge amount of harm in the community.

This issue is one that seems to sit in the too-hard basket. Dr Kieu said it is a matter for the federal government and local government, and frankly this model is not working. Local government inspectors closing down illegal tobacco shops in retail strips shut them down one day and they reopen the next in a different location in the same town, same community. It is simply not working. And of course the federal government have an important role managing the borders, ensuring that illegal tobacco is picked up at the border, but I think there is an important role for the government and for Victoria Police to also play an increased role.

So with those words, I support the motion. This is a very serious issue that is affecting so many Victorians, and it is one that needs to be tackled afresh with new eyes, new perspective and a new vigour to tackle what is an ever-worsening problem.

Fiona PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (13:19):

I am really pleased to speak on this motion, and I thank Ms Maxwell for bringing it here. I will commit to speaking very briefly on this motion because I know it is Dr Kieu’s smoko time very soon.

Australia was a leader in tobacco harm reduction, tobacco reduction. We were a leader in reducing people smoking. We are no longer. We have stalled, and as a result of that we are also losing control of the market. As Ms Maxwell stated in her contribution, we are seeing that the illicit tobacco market is growing and organised crime is taking hold. In fact just last night there was a major bust up in my region—Reservoir, Campbellfield and all of those areas—where three gang members were arrested. There was a huge haul of heroin along with a huge haul of illicit tobacco. So that is what we are seeing.

It is very hard to value the illicit market. I know that Ms Maxwell has put a value going by the AMA’s submission to the federal government, but I actually looked at this as well. We spend about $14 billion a year on tobacco, and there is an estimate that the illicit market is about 17 per cent of the market, so that is actually $830 million. So you can see what a great incentive that is for organised crime, when some of our poorest people are our biggest smokers. We know when we look at the statistics it is not Kew and Toorak where we are seeing smoking, it is actually my electorate. It is Campbellfield. It is the lowest five SES areas where we see the highest level of smoking. The highest level of smoking is in our Indigenous population and in people who are unemployed, so the people who can least afford $48 for a packet of cigarettes are being charged that—I looked it up, Dr Kieu. It is the leading cause of preventable death, but what are we doing? We are pushing people into the illicit market.

Now, I support Ms Maxwell’s proposition for licensing for greater control of that market; I get that. But we have got to find the sweet spot in demand reduction, supply reduction and harm reduction, the way we treat all other drugs, and we are not doing that. So for a very brief moment what I do want to talk about is that harm reduction, is that supply reduction. In the Australian health survey one in four smokers said that price would have an effect, four in 10 said that health impacts would have an effect and one in three smokers said they did not want to give up. So if we want to reduce the illicit market, we need to reduce the demand for this product. It is harm reduction; it is drug policy 101. So how do we do that supply reduction?

I would suggest: let us look at harm minimisation. Let us look at something like vaping. That is something this government could do. This government has actually repeatedly prohibited vaping in Victoria. It is absolutely crazy. We have got countries like the UK putting vapes on their PBS. They are actually paying for people to use vaporisers, because they know that it reduces the tobacco market and saves lives. I want to yet again repeat that vaping saves lives. If this government was brave, if this government was serious about addressing the tobacco market, if it was serious about addressing the illicit tobacco market—by all means license tobacconists, license people who are selling tobacco, try and reduce that. But when you have got a product that is so expensive and is so addictive, you have to deal with demand reduction and harm reduction. So I yet again implore the government, in looking at addressing this really important issue that Ms Maxwell has raised, to reconsider their position on nicotine replacement therapies such as vaping.

David LIMBRICK (South Eastern Metropolitan) (13:24):

Thank you to Ms Maxwell for bringing this important motion to the chamber for debate. This is an important motion, as the proliferation of illicit tobacco products in the community demonstrates a perfect storm of policy failure. It demonstrates something that Victorians will be well aware of from the last two years: that public health bureaucrats frequently fail to understand the negative consequences of their policies. I am sure these public health officials would think it is a simple thing: ‘We just need to catch the criminals and stop them importing illicit tobacco products’. As anyone with expertise and knowledge in the drug policy world will point out, it is not that simple. You have to actually understand the drivers behind this outcome if you want to adequately address it.

Excessively high taxes are the greatest incentive here. We have one of the highest tobacco excise rates in the world. In 2010 Australia introduced a 25 per cent increase and has had an annual 12.5 per cent increase every year since. A packet of cigarettes that cost just a few dollars in 1990 costs almost $50 now.

A Current Affair recently ran a special on the illicit tobacco trade which highlighted the drivers behind the market. One of the most shocking statistics reported was that illicit tobacco is 10 times more profitable than smuggling cocaine. A commonwealth joint committee on law enforcement published a report on illicit tobacco late last year. Pretty much everyone agreed that high taxes and high prices incentivise the illicit market—including law enforcement—and I quote from the report:

Submitters with a law enforcement perspective, for example the Police Federation of Australia, also agreed that that the high rates of tax on tobacco products creates incentives for people to engage in the illicit tobacco market due to the high profits to be made. It was further recognised that excise increases may drive more demand for cheaper alternatives, and this in turn may increase potential profit margins for criminal actors involved in the illicit tobacco market.

The A Current Affair piece quoted commander Greg Linsdell from the Australian Border Force Illicit Tobacco Taskforce, and he said, and I quote:

These are the big-end players in the Australian underworld.

It seems pretty clear that high taxes and outright prohibition have a very similar effect in incentivising organised crime. People are rightly concerned about the impacts of criminal activity. These high taxes do not just impact organised crime, however. They impact ordinary people.

Cancer Council Victoria are very supportive of these taxation measures. Research funded by them and published in the Lancet noted that there was about a 4 per cent reduction in the smoking rate in the nine years after the annual tax hikes were introduced. It is hard to know how much of this was driven by the price or simply people quitting because smoking is bad for you. They count this as a success, but what about the people that are unable or unwilling to quit? They experience increased poverty. I have heard some awful stories from people about the kinds of sacrifices that people make to be able to afford this addictive habit. We know that smoking rates are higher in regional areas, within Australia’s Indigenous population and in people with mental health conditions. The impact of this tax, sometimes referred to as a ‘sin tax’, is significant. What opportunities might they be sacrificing to allow this—health care, education, new clothes for their kids? We are increasing poverty and calling it public health. This is a familiar theme in 2021.

This is all really bad, but in Australia we have a bipartisan approach to nicotine harm reduction which makes it even worse. I have raised the matter of vaping and e-cigarettes in this chamber multiple times. In 2019 when an amendment was introduced that would have allowed the government to regulate e-cigarette retailers as e-cigarette retailers under the regulations that this government created, only the Liberal Democrats, the Reason Party and Dr Cumming supported it. I could probably speak all day covering the strength of the evidence that vaping is significantly less harmful than smoking and an effective tool for quitting. I will not go into all that, but I do urge members to spend a few minutes or ask your staff to have a look at the Public Health England evidence update on vaping.

We are all living through the most disruptive global event in our lifetimes with the pandemic. Reporting around the Doherty modelling suggests that ending all restrictions after 80 per cent of the adult population is vaccinated could result in 25 000 deaths. I expect this may be an overestimate, but we have about that many Australians dying every year from smoking-related illnesses. We are willing to completely shut down society, restrict liberties and freedoms to the greatest extent in our history and turn our country from a wealthy nation into a poor one to address one public health risk, but we are not even willing to make the most popular and effective quitting aid legal to address another. And these are the same public health officials and the same governments. It just does not make any sense.

The federal government’s approach is to create a completely dysfunctional regulatory system to sort of legalise vaping. From October this year you will require a prescription to import nicotine e-liquids. I am sure this makes sense to governments and public health bureaucrats that think they can control everything, but in the real world it is almost certain to fail. I could go on, but I have realised we are going to run out of time, so I will have to leave it there.

Catherine CUMMING (Western Metropolitan) (13:30):

In rising to speak briefly on this motion, I do support the merit of this motion, being that I understand where your intentions come from, but I represent an area that has a lot of chop-chop in it and there are a lot of people in my community also who support vaping as an alternative. I feel that both of these are not being addressed properly, one being that there is a keen push for decriminalisation of many drugs out there so that we can actually deal with them properly, not just this, but they would love to see them taxed so that money could actually go into our healthcare system rather than just being heavily reliant on the legal substances, which are smoking and alcohol, to prop up our healthcare system. So for me I believe that there needs to be a proper look at this.

It would seem that there are opportunities that we could possibly have in that when it comes to tobacco farming here in Australia, seeing that we are very supportive of brewers and making sure that there is funding available to make alcoholic substances—both substances are quite legal, both have health implications. But I do come from a position that we have to look at it holistically, understanding that the community does take these substances. They are adults and they know fairly well what the health implications are to them. We also have to make sure that they have access to supports, and there has to be fair taxing of all of the substances that are out there that may be not good for your health.

I am supportive of Ms Maxwell’s motion and the intent, but I also see the other side of the argument. I feel that there are other opportunities to regulate, and I hope that we go down a path of actually looking at this issue holistically—as well as at vaping.

Tania MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (13:33):

I would sincerely like to thank everyone in the house for their contributions today in recognising the scale of the illicit tobacco trade, the profits that flow on to other organised crime and the opportunities to strengthen the specific responses within Victoria. I appreciate the productive discussions I have had to date with the government—and in fact I am having more of those discussions this afternoon, so I look forward to that. These issues cover a number of portfolios—health, police and local government—and it is great to have had them all on board in being willing to hear my motion and to have ongoing discussions in relation to it.

I would welcome a consideration by the government to remove the remit for search and seizure of illicit tobacco from local councils and ensure that responses to illicit trading are sufficiently organised and resourced. It is the position of Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party that Victoria would benefit from a licensing scheme to regulate licit trade and support efforts to combat illegal tobacco sales across metropolitan and regional communities. This will also ensure the safety of council workers, ensure that the responsibility for enforcement is in the right hands and that the system is simple, the responses are swift and that the consequences are of a sufficient scale to bring those operating outside the law to account.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the many, many retailers who trusted me to put this motion forward and to advocate on their behalf. I hope that I have done them proud in working with the government to implement some changes.

I believe that from a health perspective we need to invest in enabling people who smoke to access ways to help them quit. I used to be a smoker, and I could not give up. Going to hospital and having a knee reconstruction was what got me there. That is a very drastic measure, but I do understand how difficult it can be to give up.

Whilst I also know this motion is not the panacea to fix all the issues relating to illicit tobacco, I hope that it opens discussions to find ways in which we can stop this illegal trade and the crimes that it funds. I was going to address some of the issues raised by Dr Cumming, but I think I will leave that for another day and another discussion. I would encourage Dr Cumming to put forward a motion of her own to address those issues that she raised. I thank the house, I thank the government and I commend this motion.

Motion agreed.

Border communities deserve respect and reward, not eviction

Letter to editors

September 6, 2021

It’s ironic that five of the Northern Victorian local government areas cut from the border zone on September 2 have at least two things in common.

First, Buloke, Yarriambiack, Benalla, Loddon and Greater Bendigo are places without COVID cases.

Second, the member-communities that comprise these council areas have achieved some of the highest vaccination rates in Victoria, with Buloke’s population recording the state’s top rural count of both first and second doses in the latest Commonwealth local government area vaccination report*.

So, I share the deep disappointment of communities, mayors, councillors and staff whose councils have been dumped from the bubble without consultation or explanation from the state government.

Like the rest of us, they were left to make sense of this statement from Victoria’s Health Department:

‘With over one thousand cases per day, and a trajectory of exponential growth, the risk that NSW poses to Victoria is bigger than ever. That’s why we are reducing the number of communities in the border bubble from 11.59pm on…2 September.’

The border bubble has proved a relief for Northern Victoria’s communities after months and months of disruption.

It’s enabled people to go to work and medical appointments, visit their families, play sport and contribute to their communities in very difficult times. They’ve responded to the pandemic, lived by the rules, gone out and got tested, and kept COVID-safe.

It’s a lesson in risk management that deserves respect, engagement and reward, not eviction.

Tania Maxwell MP
Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria
Wangaratta

* First and second dose vaccination % (population aged 15 and over) by local government area

  • Benalla 66.7, 43.8
  • Buloke 71.6, 48.4
  • Greater Bendigo 62.0, 40.7
  • Loddon 62.7, 35.8
  • Yarriambiack 67.0, 41.3

Source data [August 28, 2021]

Victorians should be able to take Parliament sitting for granted

Joint statement

By Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Leader and Member for Western Victoria Stuart Grimley MP and Member for Northern Victoria Tania Maxwell MP:

August 29, 2021

Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party is extremely disappointed and frustrated that Parliament has once again been adjourned.

We made our views known last sitting week when we voted down the government’s motion to defer Parliament and supported changes to allow all MPs to participate in a COVID-safe way.  

Last year, when sittings were adjourned because of COVID, MPs were able to put questions to Ministers, have them answered, and for these actions to be reported in Hansard – the Parliamentary record.

Without even this basic procedure, there are few options for us to keep the government to account unless we go to the media.

As a matter of urgency, this lockdown shows why Parliament must be able to meet virtually – as federal Parliament is demonstrating – so we can represent our communities and scrutinise the government and its legislation, as we’re elected to do.

Making sure Parliament can meet – in person in a COVID-safe way, or virtually – is the one thing the people of Victoria should be able to take for granted in these challenging times.

IMAGE: Parliament of Victoria Legislative Council chamber

Apply for lockdown cash support now

I encourage small and medium-sized business, sole traders and people who have lost work to lockdown to seek the maximum cash support available from government.

COVID hardship fund

This fund offers a $14,000 payment where revenue has dropped more than 70 per cent since May 27, 2021, for small and medium-sized business ineligible for other support programs.

You must be able to show the drop for a minimum of two consecutive weeks compared with the same period in 2019. If you weren’t trading in 2019 alternative arrangements are available.

You must also have an Australian business number (ABN) and be registered for goods and services tax (GST). Find more information here.

Business costs assistance program

Regional business which received a Business Costs Assistance Program payment in round two and the subsequent July extension will receive $5600, or $2800 per week, during the August 21-September 2 lockdown period. You do not need to re-apply.

Licensed hospitality venue fund

Licensed hotels, restaurants, cafes and clubs which received a payment of $5000 to $20,000 per week, according to patron capacity, will receive the same payment during the current lockdown.

Alpine resorts winter support program

This program will also provide payments of $5000 to $20,000 per week to eligible businesses.

Check the latest information for each of these programs listed above.

COVID-19 disaster payment

If you lost or lose work during lockdown you can apply for a COVID-19 disaster payment of $450 or $750 for every seven-day period that COVID restrictions prevent you from working.

Sole traders who don’t have an ABN or aren’t registered for GST can also apply for this payment.

In regional Victoria, you can claim the disaster payment for these periods:

  • August 6-12 (apply before September 2)
  • August 20-26 (apply before September 16)
  • August 27-September 2 (apply before September 23)

Check your eligibility before you apply.

Contact me

Please email tania.maxwell@parliament.vic.gov.au or call 03 4700 1787 if you need help, or if your applications keep being rejected. My office is open 9am-5pm weekdays.

Time to butt out Victoria’s illegal tobacco trade

Media statement

August 19, 2021

Tania Maxwell MP wants the state government to crack down hard on Victoria’s widespread illegal retail tobacco trade by shifting compliance responsibility from local council environmental health officers to law enforcement.

The Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria said Victoria Police or a new agency should instead be given robust powers to disrupt and halt illicit production and under-the-counter retail sales estimated to cost Australia more than $820 million a year in unpaid tobacco tax.

“It’s a very shady trade that also costs our communities, the state and the nation in ways that go well beyond lost revenue,” Ms Maxwell said.

“Law enforcement has established strong links between the smuggling and sale of illicit tobacco and organised crime syndicates.

“Most concerning to me is how profits are funnelled to other serious criminal pursuits, including child sexual exploitation, terrorism, drug, firearm and human trafficking, cyber-crime and violence.

“As Illicit Tobacco Taskforce commander Greg Lindsell told The Sydney Morning Herald just a few weeks ago: ‘Removing illicit tobacco from crop to shop creates a level playing field and helps to stop organised crime syndicates from funding other activities’.”

“It’s an insidious trade across our communities, too – ranging from the waterfront, where Australian Border Force every year intercepts millions of illegal cigarettes, to more than 400 shopfronts throughout Victoria selling contraband tobacco products.

“Just this year there have been seizures of illegal cigarettes, loose tobacco or crops in the ground in Euroa, Shepparton, Mooroopna, Yarrawonga and Beverford.

“In March, a joint taskforce of NSW and Victoria Police, the Tax Office and Border Force raided three properties either side of the border on the lower Murray and seized 45 hectares of illegally-grown tobacco worth up to $84 million in excise payable to the federal government had it been sold legally.

“But at a retail level it’s local councils that are currently responsible for checking that cigarettes and other tobacco products sold in local shops have been lawfully produced and manufactured.

“This means environmental health officers are usually those carrying out inspections.

“But they have no training in surveillance, search and seizure and do so at considerable personal risk because of the very nature of this black-market trade.

“Local government also tells me that there are no substantial infringements that would be of any real consequence to an offender, yet one council reported it spent 12 months and $50,000 to get a conviction.”

Ms Maxwell said Victoria and Queensland were the only Australian jurisdictions without a regulated licencing scheme for the sale of tobacco.

“Victoria regulates gaming and the sale of alcohol and firearms that enables the state to decide who are fit and proper people to conduct these activities, the conditions by which they must operate and the penalties for breaching these,” she said.

“But we stop short of doing the same for those who deal in tobacco products.

“This is completely at odds with the huge investment we’ve made in public health campaigns to limit and reduce smoking and the cost to the health system and people’s lives, estimated at $137 billion by the National Drug Research Institute.

“By strengthening enforcement and introducing a licencing scheme with robust powers, Victoria’s tobacco control system would better align with those in other states and at a national level, provide effective support for legitimate tobacco retailers, bolster public health messaging, minimise harm and rein in crime.

“I’ve had productive conversations about these proposals with Health Minister Martin Foley, Local Government Minister Shaun Leane and acting Police Minister Danny Pearson in recent weeks.”

CIGARETTE IMAGE: Australian Border Force

Justice Party MPs oppose Parliament shutdown

Statement

August 18, 2021

Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party parliamentarians today opposed the Victorian government’s shutdown of the Legislative Council following yesterday’s announcement by the Premier that Melbourne’s COVID lockdown would be extended to September 2.

Member for Northern Victoria Tania Maxwell MP and Member for Western Victoria Stuart Grimley MP said the communities they represent rightly expect them to be in Parliament:

We did not support the government’s adjournment motion.

Parliament is safe. We are socially-distanced. Except when speaking we wear masks, we keep to our offices, we avoid contact with others, we’re not allowed visitors, and we have minimum staff to help us with our work.

Yes, COVID presents very serious risks. But Parliament is an authorised provider and can open under restrictions. We have COVID-safe plans, a check-in system and extensive security. If there was an outbreak, we’d be in a very good place to trace contacts.

It’s very frustrating to be told that by doing our job and coming to Parliament we would be breaching health advice.

What health advice are they talking about? We don’t know. We’ve not seen it. Instead, we received late yesterday a three-paragraph letter from the Chief Health Officer’s delegate telling us “all parliamentary business… should not be conducted in person”.

On this day, last year, we had a seven-day average of 257 active COVID cases. Yet we sat in Parliament. We sat on August 4, too. On that day, last year, Victoria recorded 700 new cases. So why can’t we do our jobs now?

The health advice in relation to ‘authorised workers’ currently states: “If you can work from home, you must”. But the reality is that we cannot.

We’re here because we’re elected law-makers.

Our constituents expect us to be here, as do the people of Victoria. They expect their elected representatives to be in Parliament, speaking for them, representing their views, debating issues, and passing laws.

They also expect us to be here to hold this government to account. There has never been a more important time for us to do this.

Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party fights for stalking reforms

Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party has proposed 43 reforms to Victoria’s stalking laws, policing framework and victim support in a submission to the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s stalking inquiry.

The DHJP believes flaws in current legislation and its interpretation undermine the seriousness of stalking.

It asks the VLRC to consider proactive reforms modelled on The Netherlands’ move in 2015 to strengthen police awareness of stalking risks and set up a data-driven system to trigger offender alerts.

The Dutch policing framework includes:

  • Continued education and training for all police officers in stalking behaviours, ‘red flags’ and actions.
  • An algorithm-based checking system designed to ensure no stalking cases are missed or misidentified. This digital trawl of all police information management systems flags cases logged in the previous 24 hours for certain words and phrases. The cross-referenced data is then checked by an officer who assesses whether any cases are stalking-related but may not have been marked as such when logged.
  • A Screening Assessment for Stalking and Harassment (SASH) tool refined by Australian, British and Swedish clinicians and researchers that weighs victim and stalker risks of persistent, escalating and violent stalking.
  • An enhanced communication and co-operation case management system where a single police officer case-manages an allegation to completion, and is responsible for notifying agencies that should be involved, such as child protection services.

The DHJP also recommends the immediate expansion of Victoria’s fledgling Victims’ Legal Service that was funded in the 2021-22 State Budget as a result of its MPs’ advocacy.

The party says an expanded service should provide information, advice and support for victim-survivors of stalking throughout the criminal trial process.

Other recommendations in the submission include:

  • Separating personal safety intervention orders (PSIOs) into different streams, including one specifically for stalking cases.
  • Increasing the maximum penalty for stalking offenders.
  • Allowing stalkers’ previous behaviours to be admissible in court, particularly pre-sentence reports.
  • If adopted, naming these changes ‘Celeste’s Law’ in memory of Celeste Manno, a young Victorian who was brutally murdered, allegedly by an ex-work colleague, in November 2020.

The full submission will be available online. Submissions to the inquiry close on August 17.

Tania Maxwell MP:

Stalking crimes often affect their victims in unimaginable ways.

An offender will watch their victim’s every move, and victims have to change their lifestyle and make countless sacrifices to stay safe, including installing cameras or moving house. Stalking can change the lives of victim-survivors forever.

Having worked with many victim-survivors of stalking crimes, it’s obvious that our current system isn’t working and that the reporting and judicial processes can often be as traumatising as the crimes themselves.

I thank the VLRC for its work and hope it considers implementing our party’s recommendations.

Stuart Grimley MP:

We are extremely proud of this submission, which goes some way in honouring the victim-survivors of stalking we have worked with and those who aren’t here to contribute.

We’re grateful our Victims Legal Service was partially funded, though it is very limited in the services it can currently provide. Supports and legal advice for stalking victim-survivors should be part of the future expansion of the service.

We hope that the VLRC will look closely at these recommendations to ensure our system responds adequately – and proactively – to stalking crime in the future.

Revamping ambulance ramping

Media statement

Tania Maxwell MP has again asked Health Minister Martin Foley about state government action to improve ambulance response times and overcome ramping at hospital emergency departments.

The Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria last week told Parliament she did “not expect to be happily surprised” by the latest ambulance response time data for the April-June quarter.

It shows average response times[i] to code 1 call-outs, compared with a year ago, increased two minutes in Alpine, Campaspe and Mitchell shires, 2:41 minutes in Hepburn , one minute in Benalla, 3:21 minutes in Loddon, and 4:21 minutes in Mansfield, while there were improvements in Gannawarra and Indigo – all areas under the spotlight in the past year.

Ms Maxwell said practice of ambulance ramping, which occurs when hospital emergency departments are extremely busy and instruct paramedics to keep a patient on board until given the go-ahead to deliver them, was also affecting patient care.

“The July report of a patient with a spinal injury who was in a corridor at Sunshine Hospital for 14 hours is simply despairing,” she said.

“This patient was ramped outside the hospital for hours and then waited and waited for a bed. The Victorian Ambulance Union reports that patients are regularly waiting for 12 hours in ambulances outside hospitals or being treated by paramedics in corridors while they wait.

“I have spoken numerous times in this Parliament about the pressure on ambulance services in northern Victoria, including a very sad, recent case in my electorate where an aged-care resident waited 90 minutes for an ambulance, a delay which was attributed directly to hospital ramping.

“These bottlenecks are placing enormous strain on our health workforce.

“Speaking with healthcare workers, they tell me of the challenges of staff shortages and trying to find ways to discharge more patients safely to free up beds.

“They do an incredible job in an already pressured environment.

“The Australian Medical Association warned in July that our hospital systems cannot cope with a flu epidemic, let alone a COVID epidemic, in what was described as an ‘acute public health disaster’.

“Yet the point of Victoria’s first lockdown early last year was to prepare our health system to cope, and 18 months later we seem to be in no better position.”

Ms Maxwell said ramping was not isolated to state hospitals or Victoria.

“The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners has called for a whole-health-system approach across both state and federal governments, including utilising general practice and community health,” she said.

“Other states, such as Tasmania, are rolling out policy to take pressure off emergency departments with extended care centres through general practices, extending hours, and weekend operation.

“I expect such a prospect would be welcome in many regional centres also, if you could indeed resource them, given the wait time to see a GP.

“I thank our healthcare workers, and I encourage the government to share with our communities what work they are doing in Victoria and with other levels of government to address these concerns.”


[i] https://www.ambulance.vic.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/2020-21-Q4-Ambulance-Response-Quarter-4-FY2020-21.pdf

Operations costs fuel fire levy blow-out

Adjournment speech

August 6, 2021

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (17:30): My matter is for the Minister for Police and Emergency Services.

It relates to the details on page 19 of this year’s Victorian Budget paper 5 for the fire services property levy. That shows the ongoing significant projected increases that Victorians will bear for that levy over each of the next four financial years.

By 2024–25 the figure is calculated to rise to $807 million. I am happy to be corrected on this, but I assume that those numbers are being heavily impacted by very significant growth in the cost of operating for Fire Rescue Victoria. Indeed there has been also further evidence on this in an article in the Herald Sun on 1 August this week.

Sadly this is exactly what I foreshadowed would ultimately come to pass when I spoke about these issues in a debate in June 2019 on the formation of Fire Services Victoria. Even then blowouts in the fire services property levy were already apparent, and this suggests that there would be further large increases in the future once brigades became comprised of a far larger proportion of paid firefighters.

Two years on, those predictions are being proved accurate on a lot of practical evidence. They are also being reinforced by information I am consistently hearing from my constituents as well as seeing in various Weekly Times articles on this subject from journalist Peter Hunt. There was also a Herald Sun article recently by Shannon Deery that pointed to a 5.5 per cent pay increase from January 2020 going to commanders and assistant chief fire officers and a 2.5 per cent increase going to all other career firefighters.

Both Peter Hunt and I have reached very similar conclusions from the budget papers and the most recent Department of Justice and Community Safety, Country Fire Authority and Metropolitan Fire Brigade annual reports. The relevant Department of Justice report reveals it spent more than $1.25 billion in fire-related grants in the year leading up to the creation of Fire Rescue Victoria.

The CFA and MFB reports, meanwhile, point to rises in annual wages and leave to totals of $374 million and $286 million, respectively, in some of the largest yearly spikes on record. These increases are even more perplexing at a time when so many other Victorians are losing pay, jobs and entire businesses because through COVID lockdowns.

In light of all of this, I seek an outline of what urgent action the government is taking reduce the massive costs of running Fire Services Victoria and to stop the substantial ongoing increases in the fire services property levy.