Rural housing shortage demands policy reset

Adjournment matter

Victoria needs a policy reset to resolve critical housing shortages in rural communities and enhance recovery in housing and rental markets. Fast-tracking approvals of ‘Big Build’ funding for projects like Yarriambiack Shire’s housing plan is one option.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (18:09):

My adjournment is for the Minister for Housing.

It follows the comments made to MLCs last week about chronic housing shortages in Northern Victoria during our Bright sitting by the Alpine Shire mayor John Forsyth and other local stakeholders during a committee inquiry hearing. It also follows my regular discussions throughout this term of Parliament with Northern Victoria councils and constituents about these shortages. As Cr Forsyth said, solutions to this problem for affected communities are in need of development across all levels of government.

My adjournment matter tonight is also informed by the release last month of a detailed new report from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) titled Pathways to Regional Housing Recovery from COVID-19. That study contains a number of valuable observations and findings, including important analysis and commentary about some of the many specific, discrete housing issues and recovery needs faced by regional and rural communities in the wake of the pandemic. For some rural and regional locations in Victoria, the existence of housing shortages is relatively new.

These shortages also spill over to a range of other problems, foremost among them the inability of many employers to attract a sufficient number of suitably skilled staff to local organisations and services. As we all heard last week and, indeed, as the AHURI study lays bare specifically in relation to the impacts of the COVID experience, these housing shortages are also typical and very wrongly becoming increasingly pronounced.

Among the reasons for this are that many regional areas across Australia are now experiencing a marked increase in housing demand. The authors of the AHURI report say this increase is most likely due to changing household preferences towards regional living and the notion that this is now perceived as a far safer prospect than living in a city in a pandemic. The impacts of all of this are being witnessed in a range of forms, including in significant price rises, reductions in vacancy rates, new pressures on housing and rental affordability in these areas and demand generally very substantially outstripping supply.

The action I therefore seek from the Minister is clarification on what changes, if any, will be made to the policy settings in his portfolio to address not just the critical housing shortages in rural and regional areas but also to enhance recovery in housing and rental markets specifically.

Victims’ experience must inform charter compliance

I asked Victim Support Minister Natalie Hutchins MP if the apparent exclusion of victims from consultations to make sure the Victims’ Charter works will be rectified.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (17:54):

My matter is for the Minister for Victim Support. It relates to the processes currently being undertaken by the victims of crime commissioner, Fiona McCormack, to develop a framework for compliance with the Victims of Crime Commissioner Regulations 2020.

In essence, these regulations govern the services provided by various organisations to Victorian victims of crime, particularly those organisations’ obligations to comply with the principles laid out in the state’s official Victims’ Charter.

In theory, it is actually a really good idea to strengthen that compliance. It is also desperately needed and is consistent with similar sentiment elsewhere, including Canada, for example, where there has been considerable recent focus on overhauling their victims bill of rights and thereby replicating best practice models in countries like England and France.

However, I am puzzled by some of the aspects of how this process is occurring here in Victoria.

First, it seems the commissioner was only asked to undertake this work either after or not long before the regulations actually came into force. So she is not scheduled to complete this process at the earliest until the regulations have already been in operation for around two years.

Second, from reading a discussion paper the commissioner released in March, it appears that it is purely the relevant organisations and agencies themselves that are being invited to provide their perspectives and feedback.

As happens far too often, it again seems there is not enough consideration or priority—maybe even none in this case—being afforded to the needs and lived experiences of victims of crime themselves.

Anyone who has read the 2018 Victorian Law Reform Commission or the 2020 Centre for Innovative Justice reports on victims of crime services and assistance in Victoria or indeed anyone who has talked to even just a few victims of crime will know they almost all have very important stories to share about how they have been let down by the current system.

In a process such as this, I would therefore have thought that those experiences and insights should have been regarded as incredibly instructive in examining where and why the victims charter is being breached and how future breaches can best be averted.

So the action I seek from the minister is for her to provide a clear explanation of why victims of crime have seemingly been excluded from consultation for the development of the compliance framework and whether this apparent oversight will be rectified in the course of the remaining year of the project.

Time to extend rural patient travel help

I’ve asked Health Minister Martin Foley MP to extend help for rural patients by cutting the distance cap for the Patient Transport Assistance Scheme to ‘more than 50 kilometres’, rather than 100km-plus.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (12:57):

My question is to the Minister for Health, and it relates to community transport services.

Community consultation by and with the Yarriambiack Shire has seen multiple requests for a regular community (patient) transport service, which has eroded over time from funding changes in both state and federal governments.

The lack of regular service means residents struggle to get to medical appointments or treatment and places another budgetary strain on local councils.

There are a number of options, including extending the Victorian Patient Transport Assistance Scheme for rural areas to travel over 50 kilometres instead of 100km, which could make community transport options more viable.

I ask the Minister: Will the government consider either of these options so that Yarriambiack Shire can reinstate community transport services?

Delivering Northern Victoria’s mental health priorities

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (17:19): My adjournment matter is for the Minister for Mental Health following the tabling in early March of the final report of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System.

As all of us would know, the report includes many shocking observations about Victoria’s mental health system. Accordingly, the royal commissioners have identified many different avenues and recommendations for change. My specific interest this evening is in those parts of the report that deal with mental health care and treatment in my electorate of Northern Victoria.

As I have said many times in the Legislative Council, there are a multitude of problems with the relative quality and availability of mental health services in Northern Victoria. The report highlights some of the more enduring and significant of these problems, particularly the pronounced workforce shortages, the long wait times for appointments, the huge distances people often have to travel even when they can obtain an appointment and the higher rates of suicide in rural and regional Victoria compared to urban areas.

I do keenly note that on the matter of those workforce shortages the royal commissioners specifically suggest the introduction of a relocation incentive scheme, the kind of initiative for which Mr Grimley and I have been advocating in this Parliament since 2019. Clearly the provision of new and/or repurposed facilities is also an urgent priority in order to increase access to mental health treatment and the number of available beds in our regions. These are all very important issues, and I am heartened that the royal commission has highlighted them. Moreover, given the government has agreed to all the recommendations, I hope that this will also lead to the kinds of reforms that are so desperately needed.

To that end, the most pressing concern in this field for my constituents and for me right now is the question of precisely how and when these improvements will be delivered. The action I therefore seek is the provision of a list of the recommendations of the mental health royal commission that are specific to Northern Victoria, including an indication for each of these recommendations of the date by which the minister envisages the relevant changes might be implemented. As part of that response I would also be grateful if he could outline how the implementation of these recommendations will practically enable people in Northern Victoria to more quickly access mental health support and lift the number of available psychologists and beds and in which specific locations and facilities.

Towong Shire needs road clearing help

Constituency question

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (12:02): My question is to the Minister for Local Government, and it relates to the impact on local roads of landslides and run-off soil since the bushfires in the Towong shire. As we know, plants and tree roots help to bind the ground, and after a bushfire these footings are severely compromised. Subsequent rain softens the ground and increases the likelihood of run-off and landslides, which will recur for years as the land rejuvenates.

Towong shire has taken responsibility for numerous clean-ups of debris across roads in the shire but cannot claim landslides and run-off as part of the bushfire event. Towong shire has many roads affected, and their operating budget simply cannot sustain this cost for years to come. I ask the minister: what funding supports are available to Towong shire to support them in dealing with their ongoing costs of clearing their roads of run-off while their landscape recovers and restabilises from the bushfires?

Enable victims to appeal sentence leniency

Question without notice

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:46): My question is to the Attorney-General, Ms Symes. It follows the public outrage over the sentencing last week of Richard Pusey to potentially only one further week in jail for his actions following the 2020 Eastern Freeway crash that killed four police officers. To most Victorians this was yet another sentencing decision amongst so many over a long period of time completely out of kilter with community expectations and values and an insult to victims’ families. I do note the Attorney’s public statement last week that she did not wish to comment on individual sentencing decisions, so I ask—this is my more general question—what is the government’s position on whether victims of crime in particular should be provided with the opportunity to ask the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to seek leave to appeal the apparent leniency of a sentence?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Resources) (11:47): I thank Ms Maxwell for her question at the outset. Ms Maxwell, thank you for your question. In relation to my position on not publicly commenting on individual cases, that is not something new that was from last week. I made that very clear upon being appointed to the position of Attorney-General. I certainly have no intention of compromising the independence of our courts or the DPP by running commentary on sentencing decisions. Nonetheless of course I too am very aware of the public opinion in relation to this case. I would point out that the judge’s assessment I think we can all agree with—that Mr Pusey’s conduct was callous and reprehensible and had a profound impact on the families of the four slain officers, who of course we paid tribute to with a minute’s silence last sitting day. There are no excuses for the conduct of Mr Pusey, and he was rightly condemned by the sentencing judge for it. It is understandable of course that this behaviour has provoked a strong and public outcry.

I agree with Ms Maxwell that decisions about sentencing must be responsive to community expectations and the values that we share as a society, and as Ms Maxwell has noted, it is critical that our courts can sentence people independently and without political interference. I am sure that is something that this house expects and indeed the community does.

In terms of Ms Maxwell’s question in relation to the involvement of victims in decisions made by the DPP, I would like to point out that there have been several changes over recent times to strengthen the roles of victims in criminal trial processes. In 2018, for example, we passed laws that required the DPP to strengthen victims’ rights to be given information to be consulted during court proceedings. Those laws specifically require the director to seek victims’ views before making a decision to appeal a sentence. However, it is important to remember that an appeal against a sentence can only be filed by the DPP if she considers that the sentence imposed was manifestly inadequate and that an appeal would be in the public interest.

I have met with the DPP a number of times, and certainly the views of victims and how the Office of Public Prosecutions can better support victims is something that is front of mind of that organisation, and I commend them for their commitment in that regard. I can assure you that their work has victims at front of mind in the way that they go about their business. I thank you for your ongoing interest in this matter and I am always happy to have these conversations with you, Ms Maxwell.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:50): Thank you, Attorney. Attorney, I imagine you would be aware of the existence in this field of policy of the UK’s unduly lenient sentence scheme. Under clear criteria and guidelines, this scheme allows anyone to ask the Attorney-General’s office to review a sentence they regard as too low. It has operated highly successfully since the 1980s, resulting annually in dozens of increases to sentences that were later agreed to have been too lenient originally. It is my party’s view that such a scheme could have great value in Victoria, including in lifting the low levels of public confidence in court sentencing. I therefore ask, Attorney, as my supplementary question whether the government has given any consideration to the merits of the potential introduction in Victoria of an unduly lenient sentence scheme or a model along very similar lines?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Resources) (11:51): I thank Ms Maxwell for her supplementary question highlighting alternative approaches in relation to sentencing appeals and the like. I am certainly aware of the UK model. I have not had extensive briefings on it nor have I conducted my own independent research, but it is a significant departure from the Victorian model here.

I can assure you I get a lot of emails asking me to intervene and personally review cases. The independence of the courts from the Parliament is something that I am a supporter of, and as I have previously said in my answer to your substantive question, the DPP is responsible for reviewing sentences independently and deciding whether or not there should be an appeal. I think that the value of that independence has received bipartisan support over many, many years and indeed is entrenched in the Victorian constitution, so it is my view and that of the government that decisions about sentencing should be done with that.

Change could speed bushfire rebuild

Bushfire Recovery Victoria data shows 458 homes were destroyed or damaged in Victoria and almost 18 months later it’s estimated that fewer than three per cent of the people displaced have moved back into permanent housing.

State must do more to close black spots

Question without notice

Making sure emergency management factors shape the Victorian government’s digital black spot roll-out must be a priority in rural areas.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:13): My question is to the Minister for Employment and Minister for Innovation, Medical Research and the Digital Economy, Ms Pulford.

During the 2019–20 bushfires one of the many sets of issues that plagued local communities in northern Victoria were our longstanding, ongoing problems with internet connectivity and mobile reception. Indigo shire’s CEO, Trevor Ierino, spoke about these problems very publicly last year, when he said the lack of mobile service along major roads into and out of Beechworth, for example, made it near impossible for people in high-risk areas to receive even basic alerts, warnings or updates on conditions. So I ask: what actions, if any, are being taken by the state government to ensure that emergency management considerations are regarded as the most critical priority in fixing mobile black spots and internet access problems in Victoria?

Ms PULFORD (Western Victoria—Minister for Employment, Minister for Innovation, Medical Research and the Digital Economy, Minister for Small Business) (11:14): I thank Ms Maxwell for her question, and I thank the community of Bright for welcoming us so warmly. Ms Maxwell’s question is absolutely timely, reflecting on the remarks of the chair of the bushfire recovery committee at our welcome reception last night and the comments made so eloquently by both Claire and the mayor earlier this morning. They each described the fear and uncertainty of smoke and rapidly changing information, being so close as to be able to see flames.

Last night we heard about, ‘Evacuate. No, don’t evacuate. No, go home. Back. Evacuate again’, and one family experienced this five times. Having grown up in a bushfire-prone and indeed impacted area, I can remember well that fear and that anxiety, and of course all anybody wants to know is that they have the most accurate information they can possibly have in the most timely way. So at this regional sitting, which very much came about as a result of discussions in the Parliament about how we can support and hear from our fire-affected communities, this is a very, very important topic.

We have been participating in partnership with the federal government for many years now in the mobile black spot eradication program. Different names, different guises and different scales of funding from time to time, but on each and every occasion the input and indeed the final sign-off prior to the minister’s sign-off occurs from the emergency management commissioner. So there is a process where an assessment is made of where the black spots still are, but the emergency management experts in Victoria play a very, very active role in providing advice about sites.

I can entirely understand the frustrations and completely acknowledge the legitimacy of concerns in this community around mobile coverage. The terrain does make this challenging, and the telecommunications companies from time to time in particular environments find it difficult to install something that will work in the way that the community wants. We have recently funded six new mobile base stations in Indigo shire, and there was consultation with the local community through the identification of those sites. Just for context as well, we are participating with the federal government’s program and NBN satellite services for public wi-fi internet as well.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:17): Thank you, Minister Pulford.

Mr Ierino also suggested last year that the system of choosing locations for mobile black spot funding in Victoria appears to be based more on the commercial interests of telecommunications companies than the emergency management threat. To reinforce that impression I would note that the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions database of potential mobile black spot locations across regional Victoria is not made publicly available, on the basis that it holds commercial-in-confidence data provided under agreement with the mobile carriers. Minister, I therefore ask—this is my supplementary: what changes, if any, will the government be making to improve public awareness and input into decision-making about the areas in Victoria that most need mobile black spot funding?

Ms PULFORD (Western Victoria—Minister for Employment, Minister for Innovation, Medical Research and the Digital Economy, Minister for Small Business) (11:18): I thank Ms Maxwell for her supplementary question. The commercial viability of mobile towers is very much a matter for mobile carriers, but I want to reassure Ms Maxwell and the community that this does not determine Victorian government funding. That is not a factor that is taken into consideration. The carriers are of course important partners because they play such a key role in building and then maintaining the tower and base station infrastructure.

In terms of the publicly available information, carriers do provide public coverage maps, and they are published on the carriers’ websites. For digital plans, the regional digital plans that have been undertaken via regional partnerships over the last three or four years are also publicly released and include an extensive gap analysis, so I think that you will find that the sum of the information that you seek is publicly available.

In terms of our next steps as the Victorian government, there was a very significant funding boost to our digital infrastructure programs in the state budget in November last year—$300 million of the $626 million for mobile connectivity to improve the eradication of black spots as well. We will be extensively consulting with communities in the development— (Time expired)

Corryong FoodShare needs confidence and certainty

Question on notice

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:56): My question is to the Minister for Disability, Ageing and Carers, regarding the need for Corryong Foodshare Services to have a permanent site for their relief efforts. Corryong Foodshare delivers to Walwa, Cudgewa, Thowgla, Biggara, Nariel Valley, Corryong township and everywhere in between, clothing and feeding over 110 families last year.

They have operated from the scout hall for a number of years, but this is no longer possible for the long term and they urgently require a permanent home. Investment for regional food hubs is welcome, but the geographical distance between Albury-Wodonga and Corryong demonstrates the need for a dedicated food-share premises instead of operating out of a borrowed building soon to be reclaimed.

My question to the minister is: Will he meet with Corryong Foodshare and discuss potential solutions so they can continue providing vital support to bushfire-affected and vulnerable people?

Justice inquiry gives voice to crime victims

Tania Maxwell MP says an inquiry into Victoria’s justice system provides a powerful opportunity for crime victims to voice the case for change after submissions opened yesterday (April 13).

The Member for Northern Victoria successfully brought a motion to Parliament in June last year for the Legislative Council to inquire into ways the justice system operates and its effectiveness.

The Council’s Legal and Social Issues Committee, of which Ms Maxwell is a member, will examine:

  • Factors influencing Victoria’s growing remand and prison populations
  • Ways to reduce rates of repeat offending (recidivism)
  • How to ensure judges and magistrates have appropriate knowledge and expertise when sentencing and dealing with offenders, including an understanding of recidivism and the causes of crime; and
  • Appointment processes for judges in other jurisdictions, especially reviewing skill-sets required for judges and magistrates overseeing specialist courts.

“This is the broadest inquiry into Victoria’s justice system for almost 30 years,” Ms Maxwell said.

“I encourage victims of crime to seek the support they might need to make submissions because their voices will influence change.

“For so long these have been voices unheard, lost in a system of ballooning complexity and where, too often, the rights of offenders prevail.

“This inquiry opens the prospect of ways to deliver practical support to victims, such as the right to legal representation that offenders have, and a victim advocacy service.

“I expect cases will also be made for the inquiry to consider children as victims in their own right, especially in family violence cases, where so often there is limited support, or none, for kids who experience domestic trauma.”

Ms Maxwell said the inquiry would also look at the potential for early intervention and primary prevention to shape how communities can work to help stop people from becoming involved in crime in the first place.

“The latest Corrections Victoria figures show the number of people on remand – unsentenced when they enter the prison – has trebled in the past 10 years from 3454 in 2010 to 10,998 in 2020,” she said.

“For the most serious crimes, the number of offenders jailed for acts intended to cause injury are up 34 per cent and illicit drug use up 24pc since 2015.

“We can do so much more to improve the wellbeing of those who are vulnerable in our communities so that people don’t become involved in the justice system, and to reduce repeat offending.

“I recognise that cutting rates of recidivism requires significant investment in prevention and many factors play a part, particularly in rural and regional areas, including access to housing, skills training, work, health services, and alcohol and drug management.

“But, as a society, we need to be serious about tackling this challenge, and that means properly resourcing support services, including mental health, so prisoners can rehabilitate and, when released, go back to their families and back to a job.”

Ms Maxwell said the role and benefits of cultural and skills training to enable magistrates and judges to specialise in hearings involving indigenous people, family violence, and alcohol and drug use was another important inquiry term of reference.

Visit https://parliament.vic.gov.au/lsic-lc/article/4532 for the inquiry’s specific terms of reference and ways to make a submission online or in writing. People who want help to make a submission should contact Ms Maxwell’s electorate office:

Submissions can be made until July 30.

ENDS