Put places-without-cases on COVID road-map

Adjournment speech

September 16, 2021

My adjournment is to the Premier, and the action I seek is for the government to share with regional Victorians the new plan for a localised approach instead of blanket COVID-19 lockdowns. 

Regional Victorians were relieved to hear the Premier’s commitment last week – and yesterday – of a more localised approach to future public health measures.  I have been advocating this for a year, with calls to adapt the traffic-light system for our regions to define the COVID risk and restrictions.

In this situation, ‘places-without-cases’ would be designated green and have the least intrusive restrictions that could see children back in classrooms, venues with lower density limits, a more open local economy and greater social freedoms. Orange zones, of moderate risk, would have tighter measures, leaving the tightest of restrictions – for those with outbreaks – designated red.

I think our regional communities might have more resilience if such a system had been implemented in Victoria a year ago.

The Health Minister last week noted regional communities’ deeper sense of ownership and engagement with their health services and public health efforts.  This has been well-demonstrated by the people of Shepparton in recent times.

Regional restrictions eased last week, providing hope and uncertainty. Each time restrictions shift, without consistency, business is further disrupted.

The new, inflexible limit of 10 people seated inside a hospitality venue has proved unviable for most cafes, clubs and pubs.  It is unclear why, in places without cases, this can’t be adjusted to a density limit of one person every 4 square metres.  I reached out to the Premier’s office immediately with this feedback from my electorate. 

Regional communities are baffled by inconsistencies in restrictions. For example, if horse-racing meets can happen freely during the strictest of lockdowns, why can’t places without cases remain open for business?

In the border bubble, health advice appears to be different depending on what side of the river you are on. Our regional communities have some of the highest vaccination rates in Victoria, well ahead of most Melbourne local government areas, and the border zone worked very well before Victoria designated NSW as a place of extreme risk.

Yet, in the past two weeks we have seen local government areas like Buloke evicted without notice or explanation and residents still unable to cross the border for daily life. Border brokers don’t offer much confidence for the times ahead.

Premier, in releasing the roadmap on Sunday, please provide clarity for our regions that are ‘places without cases’.

Teacher trauma training could transform learning

Bill

Education and Training Reform Amendment (Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership) Bill 2021

Speech

September 9, 2021

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (10:40):

I am pleased to speak on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership) Bill 2021. I will just make a few comments regarding our support for the bill.

Continuing education and training is crucially important in every profession, not least of all a profession that is so formative in setting young Victorians on their life pathway.

This bill facilitates the establishment of the Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership and importantly includes regional areas, with the establishment of regional learning centres. The government says that staff at the academy will provide regular, impartial expert advice to the Minister for Education to ensure that ongoing changes and improvements are made to teacher learning and training. This commitment to ongoing shared dialogue on improving education systems in our state is really important and I hope will affirm for teachers their critical voice in this. I imagine the academy will strategically work with the existing Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership—the existing professional learning arm of the Department of Education and Training—and other organisations in the sector to maximise the potential and ensure we are strategic and supportive of what is already in place.

There is an ambitious time frame, I must say, for the academy to be operating by January 1, 2022, particularly in this current (COVID) environment. There is also not a great amount of detail on the record yet about how the seven regional learning centres will operate and exactly how they will practically interact with the academy, but the inclusion of centres in Bendigo, Mildura and Shepparton will no doubt be welcomed by regional teachers, and likewise Ballarat and Geelong in my colleague Mr Grimley’s electorate of Western Victoria. There is probably some hope that this will extend further, such as establishing a centre in Wodonga.

I know from my previous interactions with schools that many find it particularly challenging to try and schedule the gamut of professional development opportunities needed for their schools and their teachers. We need to be mindful to ensure that offerings are indeed deliverable and fit for purpose. Following the Victorian Auditor-General’s audit of professional learning for schoolteachers in 2019 the Department of Education acknowledged they needed to enhance their understanding of the costs to develop and deliver professional training. I note that the teaching excellence program, billed as the flagship of the academy, will be built on evidence-based teacher practice. It is this that I will focus on now.

Absence of trauma-informed training

Advanced professional learning is obviously important to raising the bar in our system, but also critically important is the foundation of training. I have been extremely surprised—in fact, for many years, shocked—at the absence of trauma-informed training for emerging teachers in their foundational studies. I would hope that in the future this changes, because we know that childhood trauma has direct impacts on the ability of a child to learn. The ability to recognise, understand and address the learning needs of children who are impacted by trauma can be transformational, not only for children whose needs will be better understood but also for teachers who are often very frustrated by the associated behaviours that children with trauma can exhibit. We have for a long time seen the impact that has had on children. They have often been sent home from school—suspended—for those behaviours. Teachers without that trauma-informed practice do not know what to do with these children other than to suspend them, to remove them from the classroom. That is not benefiting our children. We must ensure that our teachers have those skills.

I met earlier this year with Dr Anne Southall of La Trobe University, who has developed a six-week online program in mental health and wellbeing in schools to develop in teachers an understanding of trauma-informed practice, and I certainly hope that that online learning will continue.

Disappointingly, their ‘Hard Yards’ conference for August 13 was postponed due to current restrictions. The model was based out of allied health and modified for schools, and I congratulate Dr Southall for her commitment to this very important work.

Finally, I note the government says the academy will continue to evaluate their programs and their effectiveness. This should happen for every program in every arm of government and is something that I wish was more transparent and publicly available. I will end my contribution there, and I look forward to seeing the impact the academy has on the education of our young people in the future.

Image: Abhi Sharma | Creative Commons via Flickr

Expand roadside drug-test training

Adjournment

September 9, 2021

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (12:59): (1485) My adjournment is to the Minister for Police. The action I seek is for the government to confirm when all general duty police officers will be provided with the training and equipment to complete roadside drug testing.

The Monash University Accident Research Centre was contracted by the Transport Accident Commission to evaluate the roadside drug testing expansion program. Monash released the findings of this study in May, and the good news is that it found the TAC-funded increase in roadside drug tests was effective and highly beneficial, saving more than 33 fatal crashes and nearly 80 serious injury crashes per year. The report suggests that roadside drug tests could increase by up to 390 100 annually and in doing so could prevent 46 fatal crashes and 134 serious injury crashes per year. These are big numbers, both in terms of drug testing and the potential reduction in our road toll.

A report from the TAC found that over five years approximately 41 per cent of all drivers and motorcyclists killed who were tested had drugs in their system, so it stands to reason that with that level of drug detection associated with road deaths, testing and removing drug-affected drivers from our roads will improve safety for all road users.

Yarrawonga police are now accredited to perform oral fluid tests on drivers, after a six-month pilot. Other training across the state has focused on members of the highway patrol. There are practical implications if training for drug testing is not expanded to general duties officers. Basically, if they suspect someone is under the influence and wish to conduct a drug test, the general duties officer needs to wait for the highway patrol, but the highway patrol must see them driving. So this process is impractical and inefficient.

Given the very positive results of the Monash study and the key finding that increases in roadside drug tests are justified in terms of saving both lives and serious injury as well as on economic grounds, it is imperative that training be expanded. I look forward to the minister’s response.

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.

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.

Ambulance ramping threatens healthcare

Adjournment speech

August 4, 2021

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (18:06): My adjournment matter is for the Minister for Health in the other place, and the action I seek is for the minister to detail how the government intends to address the persistent ramping issues that are affecting hospital admissions and creating further delays in ambulance responses.

The latest report, last month, of a patient with a spinal injury who was in a corridor of Sunshine Hospital for 14 hours is simply despairing. 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 case recently 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. When speaking with healthcare workers they convey 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 AMA 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 lockdown # 1 was to prepare our health system to cope, and 18 months later we seem in no better a position.

Now, this is not just a state hospital matter, nor an issue isolated to 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. Other states are rolling out policy to take pressure off emergency departments—such as Tasmania, with extended care centres through general practices including a Medicare match scheme, extending access to GP 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.

The latest ambulance response time data is due for release, and I do not expect to be happily surprised by it. But I hope—I sincerely hope—I am wrong. 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.

Time for border common sense

Adjournment

August 3, 2021

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (18:31): My adjournment is for the Minister for Health, and the action I seek is for the government to consult and engage with regional communities when considering restrictions before the end of the state of emergency and the pathway out of this pandemic.

Over the past year I have asked the government to consider a traffic-light system for restrictions in Victoria to allow places without cases to operate at a level proportionate to their absence of case numbers, and to provide some measure of flexibility and certainty within regional areas.

Regional Victoria has been subject to restrictions for at least a third of the past year. We are emerging from lockdown number five, and communities are worried about how they will get through lockdowns six, seven and so on. In border communities there is confusion, anger and frustration about the substantially tightened cross-border rules. The (Victorian) border zone is home to 573,000 people, and in recent weeks there have been five active cases, all suppressed. Across the border (in NSW) there are no cases north, west or south of Goulburn. Albury-Wodonga has had over 300 days of zero cases. That is not to say ‘Let it rip’, but contact tracing has enormously improved and vaccination numbers are building, and we should have confidence in that.

Albury-Wodonga media was briefed on the border bubble restrictions, but there was no interaction by the government with border mayors. Wodonga mayor Kevin Poulton told ABC Goulburn-Murray yesterday: ‘We just seem to get forgotten in the whitewash’. The Gannawarra Shire Council recently passed a motion to call on the government to assess any restrictions on a local government area basis with input from the local council. Other regional councillors in conversation with me, or publicly, have shared their support for a response that is much more nuanced.

Regional communities have proved that they will stand up in response to any outbreaks and take local and individual responsibility. Industry groups are frustrated that their proactive proposals for protocols to manage risks are given no feedback. Many local businesses are near broke and in substantial debt. Their psychological resilience is spent, their children’s learning is constantly disrupted, their other health needs are being pushed to the side, and they are beyond frustrated.

There is a need for stronger and collaborative engagement with regional communities, including in the four-phase plan agreed between states and the federal government that maps the pathway out of repeated lockdowns.

Places-without-cases deserve a fair go, and I ask the government to talk with us, listen and use some common sense.

Strengthening child protection laws

Speech

June 24, 2021

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:22): I rise today to speak on the Child Wellbeing and Safety (Child Safe Standards Compliance and Enforcement) Amendment Bill 2021.

This bill has come about as a result of the 2019 Department of Health and Human Services report Review of the Victorian Child Safe Standards. As I have said before about other bills like this one, legislation aimed at better protecting children is always very close to my heart, and it is also regarded as a priority of Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party as a whole. The overriding purpose of this legislation is to foster an increased focus on child safety within thousands of Victorian organisations. It is aimed at improving the way that the standards, policies, procedures and practices of those organisations are regulated so as to more effectively prevent, disclose and respond to allegations and instances of child abuse. It is therefore great to see broad support across the Parliament for such a bill.

It is a bill which, as other speakers before me have said, makes a series of important changes that are aimed at enhancing compliance with Victoria’s child safe standards. It also increases the monitoring and enforcement powers in relation to such compliance. Furthermore, the bill expands the range of information that can legally be collected in this field and strengthens disclosure, use and reporting requirements. In each of these respects its content has been heavily shaped by that 2019 review of the child safe standards, as I said, that was conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, as it was known at that time.

There are a few points which I want to particularly concentrate on at the moment. First is the principle of better aligning Victorian child protection laws and regulations with those elsewhere in the country. Over a number of years there has been a far greater determination than ever before in many parts of Australia to try to substantially enhance legislation and regulation in this field. Accordingly there are likely to be many benefits from linking more closely the work of other states and territories and the federal government to Victoria, including by aligning the Victorian child safe standards with the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations. Indeed there was an article on June 22 calling for Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria to sign up for a national child protection scheme so those jurisdictions can crosscheck information on people deemed a risk to work with children.

Another particularly important change embedded in this bill is the creation of better demarcation across organisations in relation to their specific regulatory responsibilities. Until now there has been significant and frustrating complexity, overlap and confusion across the various relevant bodies. So the conception of a new mechanism that clearly delineates the regulator for each sector and stipulates their specific functions in relation to the standards appears to be a major positive step forward.

Alongside the improved collection, analysis and publication of data, arguably the most important change of all is the move towards the better exchange and sharing of information. Traditionally one of the biggest problems in the administration of child protection in Australia has been the siloed approach adopted by or forced upon many organisations. Generally speaking this has been a problem across many organisations who have identified the need for information sharing. However, the powers that be have not enabled this to happen previously. Individual organisations understand the crucial importance of cross-agency cooperation, collaboration and encouragement in jointly identifying and acting upon problems or potential problems when necessary to achieve positive outcomes. They also understand and respect the need for confidentiality. However, this must also allow information to be shared if and when it is in the best interest of the child’s health and wellbeing.

On the whole, the DHHS report and this bill are now paving the way for a number of important and worthwhile reforms. It is right that the administration of the child safe standards should now be strengthened, and I hope that there will be significant support provided to organisations to implement any changes which they are required to make in order to meet the recommendations in this bill. I would also like to see the government prioritise, recognise and consider voluntary placement survivors for informal foster care who have been sexually abused whilst in care, as they currently do not appear to have that same recognition.

More broadly, I have been glad to hear that the bill also has the support of the Commission for Children and Young People, given that this organisation will clearly have a crucial leadership role to play in administering this legislation. I would like to take this opportunity to formally thank Commissioner Liana Buchanan for taking the time to meet with Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party and all of her other very dedicated staff in that office who have liaised with us and who have been performing outstanding work. Whilst the organisation’s reports are often disturbing, their findings and recommendations are extremely valuable and illuminating. They highlight many problems in the Victorian child protection system and therefore the imperative for substantial changes and reforms.

On that note, I also want to reflect on the point that Mr Donnellan made in his second-reading speech on this bill that the harms and costs to individuals, their families and the broader community from child abuse remain unacceptably high. I agree with him wholeheartedly there and would say that this is all the more reason why there should continue to be further tightening and enhancement of the child protection system beyond just this legislation.

I would also like to see more of a focus on the working with children checks, particularly in sporting arenas. A constituent of mine, Barry Johnson, has raised this with me several times and met with the previous Attorney-General, Jill Hennessy, to try and raise the importance of coaches, in particular sporting coaches and those who are affiliated with sporting clubs, holding working with children checks.

I have spoken in here before, for instance, about the Commission for Children and Young People’s (CCYP) incredibly important and chilling Lost, Not Forgotten report of 2019. That report scrutinises the actions, or more accurately the lack of actions, of child protection and child and family services in relation to the repeated and severe neglect of each of those 35 children in particular. These 35 children, who were aged between 12 and 17, ultimately committed suicide in the years between 2007 and 2019, typically after their cases were closed or passed to other agencies who were not appropriately placed or equipped to help them. In essence, Lost, Not Forgotten shone a spotlight on issues like the generally inadequate tracking of families’ engagement with services, a pattern of reports and referrals essentially gathering dust.

This is not a slight in any way on individual child protection workers. This is to try and highlight the defunct system that they themselves are having to work with. I should add that CCYP’s work has also been reinforced by a number of other reports, including media reports, also pointing to a range of very serious systemic problems. Last year we also learned, for instance, that over 14,000 calls to the state’s child protection hotline were not even answered during a 20-month period (between 2018 and 2019). Similarly, a recent Victorian Auditor-General’s Office report made a series of scathing findings about the administrative inadequacies of the Department of Health and/or public health services responsible for child, youth and mental health services.

As Dr Bach stated in his speech earlier today, this month we have also become aware, courtesy of ABC News, of the absolutely shocking revelations that the department (of Health and Human Services, since renamed Families, Fairness and Housing) seriously misled the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner in the course of a recent official investigation.

This investigation centred on how a known sex offender gained unauthorised access for more than a year to the government’s client relationship information system for service providers (CRISSP) database that holds the personal details of child protection cases. This access allowed him to gain the details of at least 43 children and then prey on a number of them, including to the point that he was ultimately charged and jailed for raping that 13-year-old boy whose contact details he had accessed through that database.

This closely follows another similar case, the details of which came to public attention in March this year. Again, it was publicly revealed that after leaving their job a former caseworker who was investigated for an alleged child sex offence had been able to access confidential information through CRISSP around 260 times in relation to 27 separate vulnerable children. Each of these points is very distressing in its own right, but collectively they paint a clear picture again of serious systemic failings in Victoria’s child protection framework. They are backed up by so many other accounts that one hears as a member of Parliament, so I sincerely hope that this bill is a precursor to many other critically important changes as well.

I would also like to raise, as my last point, that while information sharing between organisations is essential in ensuring a collaborative approach, there should also be serious consideration for families to have access to their own records documented by child protection. It would appear that there are times when information that is documented is incorrect, and this can create serious and ongoing concerns for the families who are investigated and whose cases are closed due to lack of evidence or necessity for further engagement with child protection.

This is a point where I would actually like to reflect on some of the experiences that I have had with child protection.

I had notes come across my desk when I was a youth worker. Through those intake notes dates of birth were incorrect, we had different names for the one client in a document, we had a family’s siblings named who belonged to another family. This cannot go on, this needs to be rectified, and I am hoping that the government will make these changes within this bill. I am very grateful that they have now taken the time to reflect on the serious ramifications that some of these children and families have had to endure.

I would also like to talk about families who have had medical records with incorrect information inserted into child protection documents. These documents are not able to be changed, and families are also not able to gain access to the files which Child Protection have completed on their child. They say this is to protect the child. However, that information which leads to no further concern for the child’s welfare or safety should be made available to those parents so they know that what has been written about their child is factual and correct. I would implore the government to consider this. I have previously spoken to the minister about this very incident and will continue to follow up on this.

To sum up, I would like to confirm that Mr Grimley and I support this bill. We also thank the government, Minister Donnellan and the department for what is clearly a very considerable body of work that has led to its introduction into this Parliament. However, we do again want to reinforce the point that we would like to see further changes to, and a continued strengthening of, child protection legislation and its enforcement in a number of different forms. For the moment, though, I thank the house.

Sex offenders near schools must be monitored

I’m outraged that convicted sex offenders can work on school grounds. How can this be allowed and how are offenders monitored?

Hit-and-run laws need hard fix

Police should have the power to suspend driver licences immediately someone’s charged for hit-and-run and dangerous traffic offences