Prison staff safety should be a priority

Question without notice

June 24, 2021

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (12:32): My question is to the Minister for Workplace Safety, Ms Stitt.

I do note the government’s announcement last week of a future review into safety and culture inside Victorian prisons. However, my question relates much more immediately to the latest wave of violent attacks on staff at the Malmsbury and Parkville youth justice centres.

I understand there have been at least half a dozen very serious assaults on staff since the beginning of May, including with various improvised weapons in a number of those cases.

Minister, drawing on your comments here on 10 June—that violence and aggression in the workplace is never okay—can you outline what actions you and/or WorkSafe have taken in response to these incidents?

Ms STITT (Western Metropolitan—Minister for Workplace Safety, Minister for Early Childhood) (12:33): I thank Ms Maxwell for her question and her interest in these really important matters.

While some of the matters you raise are not strictly within my ministerial responsibilities, I do acknowledge the challenging work that staff in our justice system perform. They play a really important role and, like all other workers, they are entitled to a safe workplace.

The Andrews Labor government and WorkSafe are committed to preventing and responding to occupational violence, as I have said a number of times in the chamber, including in our corrections and youth justice centres, and I am advised that WorkSafe’s actions include workplace inspections to ensure compliance with OH&S duties and working with employers to improve safe systems at work.

Specifically, WorkSafe has a corrections and youth justice task force, which is a dedicated team of technical inspectors within WorkSafe who are focusing on reducing incidents in corrections and youth justice facilities. WorkSafe inspectors do continue to respond to health and safety concerns, including both mental health and physical injuries and concerns that are raised through the corrections and youth justice facilities.

Since May 2021 I am advised that the task force has in response to these incidents undertaken multiple inquiries, and they have related to occupational violence as well as some fatigue issues within the youth justice precincts. I am advised that WorkSafe have been working closely with the health and safety representatives in those facilities and the Department of Justice and Community Safety to identify and address any occupational health and safety risks and to work really hard to mitigate those risks.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (12:36): Thank you, Minister. Just on that group that are actually working in the justice sector around those WorkSafe practices, how long has that advisory group been going for, and when was it first established?

Ms STITT (Western Metropolitan—Minister for Workplace Safety, Minister for Early Childhood) (12:36): Thank you for your supplementary question, Ms Maxwell. I will get those details for you; I do not have the exact dates to hand today. My understanding is that there has been that task force in place for quite some time preceding these particular issues that you are raising today, but I am happy to take that on notice and provide you with some more details about the time frame and the activities of that task force.

Kiewa CFA seeks ‘first-responder’ pilot

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Protecting sentencing and bail reforms

I’ve sought the Attorney-General’s guarantee that bail reform will not relax community safety laws

Event sector suffers devastating losses

Many people working in COVID-cancelled events are ineligible for government support and future planning is at risk from insurance costs

Sexual assault in universities

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) May 26, 2021: (12:00)

Universities are a hot topic today.

My question is to the Minister for Higher Education, Ms Tierney. It follows journalist Richard Ferguson’s front-page story in the Weekend Australian on 21 May highlighting multiple very serious failures in the University of Queensland’s responses to complaints from students about incidents of stalking and sexual assault committed by someone employed by the university.

Minister, in the wake of these very disturbing revelations, have you asked or would you ask for any form of audit or even an updated assessment of the robustness of the current structures and processes for the reporting and investigation of stalking and sexual misconduct allegations within Victorian universities?

Ms TIERNEY (Western Victoria—Minister for Training and Skills, Minister for Higher Education) (12:01): 

Obviously universities do have their own processes. Of course that does not stop anyone from also reporting incidents to police. There are also support services on campuses to provide counselling and other support mechanisms to victims.

It does not matter whether you are male, female or whatever, the fact of the matter is that there are supports there. But, Ms Maxwell, I do thank you for this question, because it has raised a discussion particularly in my office about whether there is suitable regulation.

I can inform you that the University of Melbourne is undertaking a study at the moment and has written to all staff and students asking for their input. It is my intention once I receive that report to then have a discussion with the vice-chancellors at the vice-chancellors forum about what else might need to be done in this area, so it is a very active topic. It is active in the media, but it is very active in terms of the discussions that are happening with key stakeholders in the sector.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (12:03):

Thank you, Minister.

Minister, there has been a considerable amount of anger about the University of Melbourne’s response to recent incidents of sexual assault and harassment. These include its handling of the allegations of serious sexual misconduct upheld in 2019 against its former dean of science Peter Rathjen, who I have mentioned previously in this place. Information about Rathjen’s offending was allegedly not even passed on to the University of Adelaide, where he was vice-chancellor before later leaving the position in disgrace following further sexual misconduct.

So I ask: during this term of Parliament has the Victorian government asked the University of Melbourne to improve its handling of sexual misconduct complaints, including by directing it to comprehensively and publicly respond to the allegations that it failed to disclose the findings against Rathjen to the University of Adelaide?

Ms TIERNEY (Western Victoria—Minister for Training and Skills, Minister for Higher Education) (12:03):

Obviously the safety of students is absolutely paramount, whether they be on university councils, in schools, at TAFEs, wherever—absolutely.

I do have a great personal interest in this area, Ms Maxwell, as you might know, but the fact of the matter is that in terms of my powers, they do not go to operational matters as such. But that is why I am taking a particularly keen interest in the work that the University of Melbourne is undertaking at the moment, and as I said, I look forward to having a wider discussion with the university community about what else can be done and what things might be able to be tightened so that the things that have happened in Queensland and elsewhere cannot happen again.

Supporting Shepparton’s detox service

Constituency question

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) – May 25, 2021 (12:11):

My question is to the Minister for Health, and it is regarding concerns from constituents about the need for drug and alcohol detox services in Shepparton.

The minister may be aware of The Cottage, a very successful residential and life skills recovery service in Shepparton, run by Rob, Maria, Aaron and their team to help their clients find a new path away from trauma and towards freedom from addiction.

The Cottage team tells me that detox services and addiction specialists are desperately needed to support the work that they do in helping people transform their lives.

So I ask the minister: what is specifically being done to deliver these specialist services in Shepparton and to allay the concerns of constituents within that region?

Making Panton Hill school rural again

Constituency question

Panton Hill Primary School near Hurstbridge should be reclassified as a rural school .

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (12:51):

My question is to the Minister for Education.

I have been contacted by parents from the Panton Hill Primary School community who are concerned about the rezoning of their school from rural to metropolitan.

It has been reported to me that one of the implications will be a reduction in funding of 12 per cent to the school over four years, and this is a cut that the school cannot absorb. The new rural-metropolitan boundary is only 200 metres from the school, but the primary school is very much in a rural setting.

The school needs to purchase LPG for heating, has its own wastewater treatment system, needs funds for continued maintenance of its bushfire shelter and sprinkler system, and other costs not required in metropolitan schools.

Minister, I ask on behalf of the local school community if you will review the zoning and reinstate the rural classification and funding for Panton Hill Primary School.

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.