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Call for rapid antigen test availability in regional Victoria

Letter

January 7, 2022

Hon. Martin Foley MP
Minister for Health, Ambulance Services and Equality

Dear Minister,

I write to seek your urgent assurance that the state government will make rapid antigen test (RAT) kits quickly and readily available to already-vulnerable regional and rural communities, businesses and services in Northern Victoria.

Echuca Moama and District Tourism speaks for many border and neighbouring communities when it confirms that local tourism and service operators, after two years of lockdown, restrictions and border closure, don’t have the resilience or opportunity to source and provide RAT kits to staff so they can keep their businesses open.

CEO Kathryn Mackenzie told me when I visited Echuca four weeks ago that many operators have been grappling to fill staff and skill shortages and taken on higher borrowings to carry through the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation is similar in other regional communities.

Yet now, at the peak of the first almost-normal summer visitor season in two years, businesses have little choice but to close their doors or limit service because rising infection numbers and the RAT kit shortage mean that staff who may have become close contacts cannot work. This is having a significant impact on local communities desperate to achieve business recovery. And, from what you have said publicly, the RAT kit shortage is to continue for some weeks.

I understand that limited supplies of RAT kits have been distributed to the four busiest Melbourne testing centres and, while this is understandable, it is critical that regional communities, with very little capacity in these very difficult times, are not left without these resources to help manage an escalating crisis.

At the same time, people in the communities I represent are struggling to access PCR testing, where necessary, and are confused by public health information about isolation requirements. News of health service staff furloughed, supply chain shortages and pressure on ambulance and police response times is only aggravating a keen sense of uncertainty.

Victoria’s coronavirus website provides guidance around PCR and rapid antigen tests, but there is no information about what people who cannot access testing should do to keep themselves and their families and colleagues safe.

Our communities are looking for clear direction and updates during the Omicron surge akin to information regularly broadcast during emergencies such as bushfire. I therefore also ask the government urgently to put in place a public health information campaign that keeps people informed and safe.

I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Tania Maxwell MP
Member for Northern Victoria

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Ombudsman damns cross-border permit system

Media statement

December 7, 2020

Tania Maxwell says the Victorian government must mandate the right of Victorians to return home during a future public health epidemic, pandemic or disaster.

The Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria has also called on the government to apologise to thousands kept from home and forced to rely on relatives, friends, caravans or tents for a roof and a bed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms Maxwell said the Victorian Ombudsman’s investigation into Victoria’s border-crossing permit directions, released today, showed:

  • 33 per cent of 2649 exemption applications were granted to attend a funeral or visit a loved one at the end of their life
  • 8pc of 10,812 exemption applications were granted to return home for health, wellbeing, care and compassionate reasons
  • 4pc of 971 exemption applications were granted to return to care for animals
  • 75pc of 553 exemption applications were granted for emergency relocation

“The Ombudsman’s report into the failings of the Victorian government’s cross-border permit system will be bittersweet for thousands of Victorians prevented from returning home during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ms Maxwell said.

“Throughout months of border closures, I raised with the offices of the Health Minister and Cross-Border Commissioner time-and-again the pleas from Victorians stopped by the government’s Travel Permit System from returning home,” Ms Maxwell said.

“These residents were denied the right to return home, children were separated from their parents, carers were unable to help loved ones through illness, and families were stopped from seeing a parent or grandparent at their end of life.

“These stories are heartbreaking and this report shows a system completely overwhelmed and ill-equipped to ensure that applications were treated in a compassionate, considered and consistent way.

“The job for the government now is to respond to the Ombudsman’s recommendations and provide a watertight, legal guarantee to Victorians of the right to return home in the event of a similar health or disaster threat.

“Because the pandemic management legislation passed last week by Labor, Reason, Greens, Animal Justice and Transport Matters parties does not enshrine this right in the new laws.

“When the Attorney-General finally sought the DHJP’s view on the pandemic bill on November 18 we said the legislation should mandate that all Victorians have an explicit right to return to home.

“We also said it should mandate a reasoned, fair and consistent process for people to appeal a rejected border permit application.

“But the Ombudsman shows the department directed its significant resources into keeping people out rather than helping them find safe ways to get home.

“She also said the government used the exemption system as a blunt instrument that led to unjust outcomes, potentially for thousands of people, and described these as some of the most questionable decisions she had reviewed in her seven years in the job.

“The government’s actions also damaged public trust.”

Link

Read Why Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party opposes the government’s pandemic management bill

Why we oppose the pandemic bill

Speech

November 16, 2021

Tania MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (22:07):

I rise to speak on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021.

I would like to thank my colleague, Mr Grimley, for his speech, which reaffirms many of my constituents’ thoughts on this bill. When we debated the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension) Bill 2021 in this Parliament 14 months ago, I said it was one of the most important pieces of legislation we would ever consider, and I said that because it was about how government should be allowed to function and operate in a democracy. Our role is to scrutinise the extent to which it is appropriate for governments and public officials to seek to impose their own will over the rights, freedoms and liberties of citizens.

As we publicly declared two weeks ago, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party will not be supporting this bill. The thousands and thousands of constituents who I have engaged with over the last 18 months, who have contacted me about this specific bill and have provided feedback about the restrictions imposed over the last 20 months—border issues, problems accessing health services, unemployment, financial losses, poor mental health and missing education—understand that we need a public health response. However, they also want those approaches to be proportionate and to allow broader considerations to other impacts.

While this bill shifts some of the powers given under the state of emergency from the chief health officer across to the minister, it still accumulates substantial power in the hands of a chosen few. Ms Patten talks about human rights and says that this is what this bill is doing. There is only one side of human rights that she is conveniently addressing here. What about those who have been and will continue to be affected by these laws—those who have lost their jobs, their lives, their livelihoods? Those people do not count today, according to Ms Patten’s speech. Those people who could not sit with a dying child or parent, those who could not seek medical attention for their cancer when the state of emergency was legislated—no, no mention of the impact that they have experienced.

The powers in this bill make it even easier for the government of the day to repeat the pattern of restrictions we have seen in force over the last 18 months. It gives little assurance there will be any change from the strategy that gave us the title of the most locked down region in the world.

I have repeatedly raised in this Parliament that these restrictions were imposed time and again on places without cases of COVID-19, places like Corryong, which only contracted its first COVID case in October this year, where children were forced out of school to remote learning, many of them in places with little or no internet. Businesses were closed, tourism shut and people mandated to wear masks in public places, even when they were alone—even when they were walking in a paddock on their own. Instead of pursuing ways to proportionately manage restrictions and apply some balance against the risk in our regional areas, these places without cases were forced to live under much of the same blanket restrictions as those living in metropolitan regions.

Echoing the concerns of Liberty Victoria, people have been deeply frustrated that neither the health advice nor other analysis that underpins these restrictions has ever been made public. This information should be made public, whether the government is legally obliged to or not. I know the government will say that if this bill is passed, they will now provide this information, but my question is: why hasn’t it been made public through the ongoing lockdowns that we have all endured across Victoria?

Following the passage of this bill it is highly likely, if not a guarantee, that this government will make a pandemic declaration immediately, even with 90 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, the curve flattened and the risk reduced as much as possible through vaccination rates. This could go on for years, even though the government says we are now living with COVID. Granted, the minister now will have to publish the health advice, but we do not really know how detailed this will be, and it does not have to be published at the same time the declaration is made. Further, if the government fails to publish the health advice, the orders are not rescinded. They stay. Liberty Victoria makes a very solid point that the responsible person should report to Parliament on any order made under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008, not just pandemic orders, because all such matters are of public concern and we are here to serve them, not the other way around.

The focus on detention and punitive measures in the bill is also of concern to us. We cannot support a public health response that focuses on detention, exclusion, policing and fines, whether that relates to warrantless entries, extensive mandates for vaccines, curfews or border closures—and we have seen plenty of those. The detention review processes are limited to the department reviewing itself and provide little or no apparent means for other orders to be challenged. Through this pandemic we saw thousands of people excluded from entering their home state and returning to their private place of residence, some for months, and there seems to be no provision for them to have their matter reviewed. The role of the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC) in scrutinising orders is an improvement to the current situation. However, this does not happen on every order, only when they consider it necessary. The independent committee does not require representation of small business, education or mental health or an explicit understanding of regional and rural areas.

The initial state of emergency was declared on 16 March 2020 for the purpose of flattening the curve of hospitalisation and to prepare our health system. I can understand that preparing the health system for a pandemic disease is no easy feat, but I cannot understand that when our health system has been operating close to full capacity there was little means available to expand and prepare it to respond. Fixing this will be vital to supporting our health workforce in the future and ensuring we do not have to lock down citizens for 18 months instead.

I cannot speak on this bill without expressing my disappointment that three crossbenchers were actively brought into the fold of the government to participate in the development of this legislation, to the express exclusion of others. I have worked cooperatively and collaboratively with this government on important matters, including supporting victims of crime, the initiation of the Victorian Law Reform Commission review into stalking, the Better Regulation Victoria review of tobacco regulation and even last sitting week adding female-specific cancers to the list of presumptive rights for our firefighters. For the government to push this through the Legislative Assembly as it did, to skip the scrutiny of SARC and to skip public consultation or the release of an exposure draft is an opportunity lost to allow the people we serve to have their voice. These issues were raised by the president of the Victorian Bar.

The government is asking the public to trust it, but it has already compromised this trust through the lack of transparency and due diligence by which this legislation was developed. I know this legislation will pass, but I hope the government chooses very sparingly to use it.

Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party opposes Victoria’s pandemic-specific Bill

Joint statement: Stuart Grimley MP and Tania Maxwell MP

October 27, 2021

Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party will not support the Victorian government’s pandemic-specific Bill introduced to Parliament yesterday.

If passed, this Bill will give the government unprecedented powers over Victorians. Further, it would not even require a public health threat threshold test to determine pandemic risk before its powers were used.

We are elected Members of Parliament, yet we found out about the Bill’s introduction and its contents from the media. The two of us represent more than a million enrolled electors, but we’ve been told we were not briefed on the bill because we opposed the state government’s State of Emergency Bill in March last year and its extension five months later. What sort of a democracy is that?

If the intent of the Bill is to protect the public, then Victorians should be alarmed, as we are.

Additionally, this Bill allows the government to exclude unvaccinated people from entering certain venues, workplaces and events. In effect, it takes people’s jobs from them. It must also be recognised that there are some people in our communities who are medically exempt from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. We need to come together during a crisis and ensure that the most vulnerable are not alienated under any circumstances.

The Bill also allows the government to make decisions about ‘certain classes of people’ currently protected under the Equal Opportunity Act and to exclude them from certain activities and opportunities because of their race, gender, disability, political beliefs or other characteristics. We can’t agree with this.

We instead believe that health advice to a government about a future pandemic threat should be answered with legislation tailored to it, and to that alone.

Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party supports vaccination. We are vaccinated by choice, as are our staff. But as NSW moves to become ‘one society’ on December 1 – with no restriction between those who are vaccinated and those who are not – Victoria is heading in another direction. We’re likely to achieve 90 per cent vaccination by November 24. Which begs the question, if we’re vaccinated and doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, why should we be giving the Premier and the (current or future) government unfettered new powers?

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen issues time and again with one person having exceptional power over Victorians. Further, the official advice handed to the government for the past 19 months has never been made public, and still we do not know if the government followed it or has made up restrictions as it decided.

Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party prides itself on reviewing all legislation thoroughly and making informed decisions in the best interests of our constituents. We also pride ourselves on making the right decisions based on the principles and policies of our party, particularly around justice.

We know that’s what all Victorians expect, and that’s why it’s the right thing to do.

Hub steps up to vax verification demand

Constituency question

October 26, 2021

My question is to the Minister for Government Services (Hon. Danny Pearson MP) regarding the massive demand in my electorate for people needing to set up proof of vaccination.

The Wangaratta Digital Hub is doing a fantastic job helping members of our community who might not have the technology, or sufficient digital access or literacy, to set up a MyGov account, download the Services Vic app and link everything together to get the green vaccination tick they need to access a lot of venues. Hubs like this operate for limited hours due to funding and cannot keep up with demand.

So, my question is, with only a few days until the ‘vaccinated economy’ ramps up, what urgent support will be provided to ensure help is available for people who need to set up their digital verification?

Give Northern Victoria tourism a head start

Media statement

October 21, 2021

Tania Maxwell MP has encouraged the state government to give regional tourism a head-start by allowing Melbourne residents to book accommodation and to travel to the North East, Central Victoria, Murray, Mallee and Sunraysia from October 29.

The Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria put the request in a letter to Health Minister Martin Foley this week following representation from hospitality businesses hit hard by bushfire and COVID-19 lockdowns since January, last year.

“As a snapshot, the cumulative impact of the 2020 bushfires and pandemic restrictions that followed shortly afterwards is estimated by Tourism North East to have cost Wangaratta, Benalla, Indigo, Alpine, Towong, Mansfield, Murrindindi, alpine resorts and local communities at least $1.5 billion in the 16 months to June, this year, let alone the on-going cost of COVID restrictions since July,” Ms Maxwell said.

“Allowing Melbourne residents to travel and stay in our regions from October 29 – the Friday before what many enjoy as an extended weekend ahead of the Melbourne Cup – would give our tourism sector and many small hospitality and retail businesses a great head-start towards recovery.

“It would help them set out on the path towards rebuilding cashflow that’s so critically important in all our communities after 20 months of severely restricted business. 

“With Victoria’s population aged 16 and over today achieving 70 per cent double vaccination almost a week ahead of target, it seems reasonable to expect the 80pc target should be met ahead of November 5, the date forecast in Victoria’s road-map.

“Many accommodation providers in the regions, and especially in Victoria’s east, rely heavily on a mix of metropolitan markets, including Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney, and they stand to lose the advantage offered by the closest market if Melbourne people are unable to make bookings in regional communities for what is usually a boom weekend ahead of the Melbourne Cup.

“While I encourage everyone to stay COVID-safe, I hope Mr Foley and the Health Department will recognise the opportunity that strong vaccination uptake offers to make the weekend a winner for our regional communities and tourism businesses.”

Image: Concrete Playground 2018

Excluding parliamentarians excludes our electors

Speech

October 14, 2021

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (17:25): I rise to speak on the government motion on compulsory COVID-19 vaccination of members of Parliament. I must start by saying that never did I imagine us debating measures to exclude elected representatives from this Parliament in such circumstances. I guess none of us ever did.

I will start by noting that Mr (Stuart) Grimley MP and I are both fully vaccinated against COVID-19, a decision we took individually and voluntarily, and I wonder if that declaration is enough proof to allow us to continue attending Parliament and our electorate offices. I would also like to place on the record that Mr Grimley and I encourage people to be vaccinated. We are not anti-vaxxers and, I will say it again, we encourage people to be vaccinated.

We are here in this place, as are those in the other place, to serve the people of our electorates. We are here to represent them as citizens and eligible voters, and that only works when we speak for them and on their behalf here in this Parliament. We need to be conscious that excluding any one of us from Parliament is to exclude those who elected us to represent them.

Yes, the house is enabled to manage its own business, but not in such a way as to undermine or change the privilege of its members and certainly not to remove these privileges altogether. So, does a motion to compel members to be vaccinated and for each to provide evidence of vaccination to the house in order to continue to represent their electorates go against the principles of our democracy?

I have spoken to so many people from across my electorate during the course of this pandemic. I have received thousands and thousands of emails, as have you all, regarding their financial hardship and their psychological distress. Victorians have had their everyday choices removed from them—the right to work, to go to school, to go out in public, to see their family, to cross an interstate border five minutes from their home. They have been frustrated by inconsistencies in restrictions and by the severity of mandates. Employers are now being forced to mandate the vaccination of their staff or effectively terminate them. There are privacy and legal concerns about this that are yet to be tested, and some businesses will have to close their doors while they recruit and train replacement staff. People who are not vaccinated face unemployment, further financial hardship and possibly homelessness, and we all know the crisis in the lack of available housing in this state at the moment.

We recognise the demands and limitations placed on the community and perhaps the opinion that members of Parliament should not be treated any differently. There are many other jurisdictions around the world using alternatives such as rapid testing to avoid widespread and prolonged restrictions. This has not been offered here or for a host of other settings. It does not appear that any other parliament in the world has deemed it necessary to mandate its elected representatives to prove their vaccination status in order to do their job. We recognise this may set a very dangerous precedent for the future.

We are disappointed that that health advice has not been provided nor consultation been offered with the chief health officer in relation to this motion. We also question whether these measures are even necessary given that the inoculation rate for members of this chamber sits at approximately 97.5 per cent if the media reports are true. If you include the clerks and other staff that enter this chamber, presuming they are vaccinated, the rate would be more like 99.5 per cent. This house should consider other reasonable means to ensure the safety of this chamber, such as rapid testing, and we will support amendments to that effect.

We believe in everyone in this place being safe, and we are very keen to get back to our normal, regular sittings so we can represent our constituents and hold the government to account. On this basis we will support this motion despite its flaws and noting our concerns that we want to have placed on the record.

Government motion (Attorney General Jaclyn Symes MP)

That —

  • In order to protect the health and safety of Members and parliamentary staff and reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19, this House requires Members of the Legislative Council attending the Chamber or the parliamentary precinct to have received —

(a)       their first COVID-19 vaccine dose by 15 October 2021, or have an appointment to receive their first dose between 15 October and 22 October 2021 and subsequently receive that dose by 22 October 2021; and

(b)       their second COVID-19 vaccine dose by 26 November 2021.

  • In order to protect the health and safety of electorate officers and community members, this House requires Members of the Legislative Council attending their electorate offices to have received COVID-19 vaccinations as set out in paragraph (1).
  • Members must provide proof of vaccination, proof of a vaccination booking or proof of a valid exception to the Clerk by the dates set out in paragraph (1).
  • If any Members do not meet the requirements set out in paragraph (3), the Clerk
    will —

(a)       as soon as practicable, notify each Member of the House which Members have not met the requirements; and

(b)       report the details to the House on the next sitting day.

  • Unless otherwise ordered, any Member who has not complied with the requirements set out in paragraph (3) is determined to have failed to comply with an Order of the House and therefore —

(a)       is suspended from attending the Chamber and the parliamentary precinct until the second sitting day of the 2022 Parliamentary year; and

(b)       will have their Parliamentary precinct security access pass revoked for the period of the suspension at the direction of the Clerk.

  • If a Member who is suspended under paragraph (5) provides proof of a single dose of vaccination between 15 October and 26 November 2021 or a second dose after 26 November 2021, or proof of a valid exception to the Clerk, their suspension is immediately lifted, and the Clerk will advise Members and the House accordingly.
  • For the purposes of this resolution —

(a)       COVID-19 vaccine means a vaccine to protect a person against SARSCoV-2 that, as at the date of this resolution, has been registered or provisionally registered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration or as been approved by a comparable overseas regulator, as determined by the Therapeutic Goods Administration under regulation 16DA(3) of the Therapeutic Goods Regulation 1990 of the Commonwealth;

(b)       proof of vaccination means information about a person’s vaccination status and includes a letter from a medical practitioner, a certificate of immunisation or an immunisation history statement obtained from the Australian Immunisation Register;

(c)       proof of a valid exception means written certification from a medical practitioner that the person is unable, due to a medical contraindication to receive a dose, or a further dose, of a COVID-19 vaccine.

  • The Clerk —

(a)       must ensure all information provided under this resolution remains confidential and is stored securely;

(b)       must not disclose any information except as authorised by this resolution; and

(c)       must destroy all information provided under this resolution at the end of the session or an earlier time determined by the House.

  • The House may agree to further resolutions to —

(a)       vary or amend this resolution; or

(b)       provide for arrangements for sittings in 2022 based on the epidemiology and progress in the roadmap to implementing the national plan at the time.

Ensuring violent offenders leave home

Adjournment speech

October 15, 2021

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (00:13): (1593) My adjournment is for the Minister for Prevention of Family Violence.

The government committed to keeping more victim-survivors of family violence safe in their homes, and the action I seek is for the minister to detail the number of perpetrators in my electorate of Northern Victoria who have been removed from the home as part of this program.

On August 17, 2020, the government announced it was directing more than $20 million to keeping perpetrators in full sight and victims in their home. As part of this, the program was to enable 1500 perpetrators of family violence to be moved into short-term or long-term accommodation and provide intervention and behaviour-change programs. This included support for the growing issue of adolescents using violence in the home.

The latest crime data ending June 30, 2021, shows family violence remains at an all-time high. More than 19,000 incidents of family violence in Northern Victoria occurred in the past 12 months. There were more than 5000 breaches of family violence orders and 1794 reports where the affected family member was a child. The coronavirus restrictions have placed some families into settings of increased isolation and risk. For children experiencing family violence, school is often the only safe space they have and provides a critical opportunity for them to get a break from the chaos and the stress of home and to connect with welfare staff at school.

For some vulnerable children, school might be the only place where they have access to food. Schools have remained open for vulnerable children, but we know not all at-risk children have been attending.

The only way to keep families safe is to stop perpetrators from offending. My colleague, Mr (Stuart) Grimley MP, referred very recently to the report of the family violence reform implementation monitor which said 500 men could be waiting to access a program at any one time. Many finished their community correction order without even completing the core program, which is meant to address their offending.

Keeping perpetrators of family violence out of the homes while they work to change their behaviour is certainly a step in the right direction. I suspect the critical shortages in affordable housing, particularly in regional areas, may complicate this policy rollout. But the shift from ‘Why doesn’t she leave?’ to ‘Make him leave’ is a very important statement for the rights of victims and moves the onus of responsibility to where it should be, which is absolutely with the offender.

Mandatory vax order challenges local business

Constituency question

October 12, 2021

Tania Maxwell MP (Northern Victoria, 15:52):

My question is the Minister for Industry Support and Recovery (Hon. Martin Pakula MP):

My office was contacted yesterday by a retailer in Wangaratta who is going to lose 50 per cent of their staff because they are hesitant to be vaccinated. There is no mandate that people entering their store, which supplies food, have to be vaccinated. They can’t deny entry to unvaccinated customers, but their staff will not be able to attend work, despite other COVID-safe measures being put into place.

Minister, this business will struggle to advertise, interview, appoint and train new staff in one week. The COVID hotline told them to close their doors until this process is completed, but they couldn’t tell them if they’d be given any financial assistance. So, what financial support will be given to this constituent and others in these circumstances?

LINK

COVID-19 Mandatory Vaccination (Workers) Directions (October 7, 2021)

Court blacklogs don’t justify sentence discounts

Courts could implement rapid testing and resume jury trials instead of relieving backlogs with sentence breaks