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Lockdown lift welcome, but hospitality venue limit not viable

With The Other Place Rutherglen cafe owner Cyril Cox after the June lockdown.

September 9, 2021

I welcome the Premier’s decision to lift lockdown restrictions in regional Victoria from 11:59pm today.

But what’s really welcome is his common-sense commitment that lockdowns for any future COVID outbreak in a regional community will be locally-targeted.

I’ve been advocating a local government area traffic-light system for more than year so people in places-without-cases can get on with their daily lives and community and business recovery.

There have been no cases in our communities and they’re achieving some of the highest vaccination rates in the state. Great work by Alpine, Indigo, Wangaratta, Benalla, Mansfield, Moira, Euroa, Buloke, Yarriambiack, Mount Alexander, Hepburn, Macedon Ranges, Strathbogie, Gannawarra, Nillimbik and Towong communities which have achieved first dose vaccination rates between 70 and 74 per cent for those 15 years and older.

But despite this strong response the new hospitality limit of 10 people seated indoors and 20 outdoors at cafes, restaurants and hotels makes little sense.

Venues in my communities tell me it’s simply not viable – a point I made to the Premier’s office on Wednesday. They should be allowed to apply the usual COVID-safe density rules and open, just as supermarkets can.

Victorians should be able to take Parliament sitting for granted

Joint statement

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

August 29, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMAGE: Parliament of Victoria Legislative Council chamber

Justice Party MPs oppose Parliament shutdown

Statement

August 18, 2021

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

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

We did not support the government’s adjournment motion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Event sector suffers devastating losses

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

‘Green-light’ places without cases, Acting Premier

June 18, 2021

Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party parliamentarians Tania Maxwell and Stuart Grimley have pressed Acting Premier James Merlino to keep places without COVID cases out of future lockdowns.

The pair wrote to Mr Merlino on June 16 to put the case again for rolling out in Victoria the COVID-risk management ‘traffic light system’ the government established early this year to limit travel from high-risk locations in NSW.

“I’ve also circulated the proposal to mayors across Northern Victoria and I’m encouraged by the upshot,” Ms Maxwell said.

“Here’s a workable solution that we first put to the government in August and reiterated publicly in parliament in September, last year.

“The government, in response to the Sydney COVID outbreak in January, subsequently set up the Victorian Travel Permit System that used public health advice to define levels of COVID risk in NSW local government areas.

“High-risk zones were designated red, at-risk zones orange, and low or no-risk zones green.

“People from red and orange zones wanting to enter Victoria were subject to travel, activity and stay-at-home restrictions and testing requirements, while people from green zones could carry on with their daily lives and come here simply by completing a declaration permit.

“It’s a system the government continues to use for all travellers from interstate.

“This week Stuart and I have again asked the government to adapt this system for use throughout Victoria in conjunction with robust trace management and testing.

“This would deliver for our communities an ‘an easy-to-understand traffic light system’, as Premier Dan Andrews described it in a media statement on January 11 during the Sydney outbreak.

“It would also enable the ‘places-without-cases’ communities that we represent to get on with recovery and rebuilding after our fourth statewide lockdown.”

Ms Maxwell and Mr Grimley acknowledged in the letter the government’s earlier adoption of other COVID management changes the pair had put forward, including specific exemptions from lockdown for border residents and differing restrictions between regional and metropolitan communities.

“But we’ve told Mr Merlino the government cannot continue to rely on hard lockdowns and sweeping restrictions to limit outbreaks of COVID-positive cases in Victoria,” Ms Maxwell said.

“If there’s either no risk or a very low risk of COVID spread in so many of our communities then these shouldn’t be locked down.”

Mr Grimley said using the traffic light system was “a no brainer”.

“Regional communities should not be lumped in with Melbourne COVID outbreaks,” the Member for Western Victoria said.

“Both Tania and I hear from regional businesses and organisations located more than 400 kilometres from Melbourne pleading to stay open. A traffic-light system will benefit our regional towns.

“I’m sure businesses would be more than happy to continue to check IDs to make sure their customers aren’t from ‘red zones’, especially if that means they can stay open during a Melbourne COVID outbreak.

“It’s hard to think that people in towns such as Nhill, Portland or Edenhope have to wear a facemask because a small group of people in Melbourne have contracted COVID-19. The traffic-light system could stop this from happening.”  

Ms Maxwell said the Justice Party wanted the proposal considered as a key part of a detailed, long-term plan for COVID management in Victoria.

“Since September we’ve openly said the government must also consult widely so Victorians can deal responsibly with COVID,” she said.

 “Stuart and I hear from our communities every day about the devastating financial, psychological and social impacts of impromptu lockdowns, particularly in places where there’s no, or low, transmission risk. 

“All parliamentarians should be actively encouraged to contribute to this plan for public recovery –one that at its heart is directed at restoring Victorians’ livelihoods, certainty and confidence.

“We look forward to the Acting Premier’s positive response.”

Budget initiatives welcome, but lockdown re-think vital

June 10, 2021

In making a speech about (Victoria’s) Appropriations Bills, it would naturally be remiss of me not to observe that the state’s economic position has already deteriorated from the time of Budget day on 20 May. 

Yet another COVID lockdown is again significantly harming the State’s economy, businesses and workers – and no amount of compensation packages or programs can or do ever go close to repairing the full extent of this damage. 

I also want to thank the Treasurer and his staff for their regular engagement with Mr (Stuart) Grimley MP and me, and our staff, on this year’s Budget.

Those conversations were very open, very constructive and very much appreciated.  They also allowed us to identify a number of priorities on behalf of our constituents and other key stakeholders that we believed needed new or extra funding in the Budget. 

To that end, we are very grateful that a number of those priorities were taken up by the Treasurer, and I will talk about some of those in more detail shortly. 

Obviously, we do feel some nervousness when we see the introduction of the kind of new taxes and/or big increases in taxes that are part of this Budget. 

I am certainly already receiving considerable and very frustrated feedback about the various new or increased property based taxes – and the huge new mental health levy. 

I would implore the government to revisit some of the changes, including by having more detailed conversations with some of the many people seriously impacted by them.  Among those people, I obviously include the many industry associations (especially in the property sector) whose members are clearly extremely adversely affected.  

Within this year’s Budget, Mr Grimley and I would also have liked to have seen greater attention paid to infrastructure projects particularly in rural and regional Victoria. 

It is another serious, missed opportunity that the necessary funding has not been devoted to reviving the critical Murray Basin Rail Project and seeing it through to completion.  I have talked about that project many times inside and outside of this Parliament.  Its completion is vitally important to economic and social development for many communities not just in Northern Victoria but also well beyond. 

To its credit, the federal government clearly sees and understands the value of this project – but the state government is not exhibiting the same approach.  That continues to be so disappointing and frustrating, and I honestly do not understand the rationale for this.  Nor do a huge and growing number of people in my electorate.  

I had also kept my fingers crossed that an interrelated project (the Sunraysia Mallee Port Link; formerly the Ouyen Intermodal) might also have received at least some of the relatively small amount of funding that it still currently needs.  This is a great concept and project, with a clear capacity to significantly improve the transportation of many agricultural products and dramatically reduce Victorian carbon emissions in the process.   

On another front, I hope the government will also soon be able to provide more clarity about how a number of the items that do feature in the Budget will be funded.  In saying this, I refer especially to how, and by how much and when, my constituents in Northern Victoria might benefit from the extra $759 million allocated to ambulance services across the State. 

I also would like to note the Victorian Auditor General’s Office ‘Measuring and Reporting on Service Delivery’ report that was released shortly after the Budget.  It makes many salient points about the longstanding need for significant improvement in the performance reporting elements in Victoria’s Budget papers.  I understand that the Assistant Treasurer may currently be looking into these matters and VAGO’s recommendations, and so I hope he acts upon them as a priority.

However, and notwithstanding each of those various issues to which I have just referred, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party greatly welcomes and is really pleased by many of the elements of this Budget.  Indeed, we take considerable pride in the fact that a number of the items for which we advocated have been funded. 

In respect of my electorate of Northern Victoria, I particularly thank the Treasurer for hearing and acting upon my pleas to commit money to two really important projects in Benalla. 

The first of these was the urgent need for upgrades to the dilapidated and decrepit Benalla Police Station.  In Victoria Police’s own words, that station has been “bordering on inoperable” for many years now, and its current state has to be seen to be believed.  I understand that the $28.9 million of works now approved by the Treasurer should be completed in 2024 – and that day can not come soon enough. 

I’m equally delighted that Benalla’s Tomorrow Today Foundation has received a $1 million commitment to continue its phenomenal philanthropic work across a range of areas.  Its PEEP initiative, in particular, continues to secure remarkable outcomes in early childhood education and development. 

In both cases in Benalla, these are funding commitments for which I have personally been advocating to the government for a while now – including in Parliament from back in 2019 in each case.

I won’t delve into detail about each of them now, but there are a number of other forms of new funding across Northern Victoria by which I am heartened and of which I am appreciative.

More broadly, I thank the Government for agreeing to extend the Adolescent Violence Program into a statewide model.  That was a request that I made of the Treasurer, especially through an adjournment speech on 30 October 2020, and I am delighted that it has now been delivered. 

I want to also sincerely thank Minister (Gabrielle) Williams, as the Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence, for our many one-on-one discussions on this issue and this program, and I commend her for all her hard work in advocating for and securing this Budget commitment, too. 

More widely, I am also delighted by the government’s notably increased emphasis on the importance of ‘early intervention’ across various programs and portfolios.  As anyone who follows me would know, the need for effective early intervention is a constant theme in my work – and it is critical to Victoria’s future in many different respects.   

I am obviously also gratified by the government’s decision to place the goal of overhauling Victoria’s mental health system at the centre of the Budget.  The new levy is clearly controversial and I would have preferred for the funding to have been found another way.  I am also very frustrated when I think about how much damage the COVID lockdowns are continuing to inflict on Victorians’ mental and physical wellbeing.

However, it is really important that the state revamp many of the current aspects of our current mental health arrangements – and, in the wake of the findings of the Royal Commission, I thank both the government and opposition for so strongly committing to fully funding this objective. 

In Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, we have advocated many times for drastic improvements in Victoria’s mental health structure.  Not least that is because Mr Grimley and I both represent rural and regional electorates, where mental health services are often in need of the most remediation.    

We are therefore particularly appreciative of the Budget funding that is being directed to new hubs and centres in our electorates. 

Among all of the Royal Commission recommendations that will now be taken up, we are also especially heartened by the finding that workforce incentives should be made available in order to try to recruit more mental health specialists to rural and regional Victoria.  That is something for which we have both been campaigning for a long time now, including through speeches here in the Council dating back to 2019. 

Above all, the one aspect of the announcements of 20 May by which we are most pleased is what we believe to be the unprecedented funding in a Victorian Budget to measures that directly support victims of crime. 

Helping and achieving greater recognition and fairness for crime victims is at the heart of the work Mr Grimley and I undertake in this Parliament, and to see such support reflected in the Budget is very gratifying. 

Among those measures, the one that gives us the most heart is the establishment of Victoria’s first-ever Victims’ Legal Service. 

Only a comparatively modest amount of money is going to this service initially.  As I understand it, the $7.3 million earmarked for it at this stage will only fund a relatively small amount of community lawyers, VOCAT assistance, and the pursuit of restitution and compensation orders.       

However, the mere fact that such a service is being established is a watershed moment in the history of legal assistance to victims of crime in Victoria and its significance should not be underestimated. 

I obviously also trust that this year’s Budget commitment will be the first of many investments in this scheme.

To come back to where I started this speech, I want to again express my disappointment that, since the Budget was delivered, Victorians have now been subjected to yet another COVID lockdown.  This is again inflicting enormous financial pain and damage on many individuals, many organisations and many businesses.  In short, it is causing further damage to lives and livelihoods, as well as to the State’s overall Budget position, and it is baffling and heartbreaking to have to go through all of this again. 

After more than 15 months, it is absolutely not good enough that such extraordinary harm is continuing to be done to our State – let alone in a form so disproportionate to the risk.  

For the tourism, hospitality, fitness, events and other retail industries, in particular, its impacts are again utterly catastrophic. 

As I have said so many times, a different approach simply has to be considered and implemented to ensure the entire state is not locked down when we have a small number of cases identified.   Inflicting this pain on an entire state when there are so few cases is ruthless and unreasonable.

Gym operators, clients and event organisers out in the cold

Tania Maxwell MP says the government has a clear responsibility to help Victorian gym operators and regional event organisers hard-hit by COVID lockdowns.

June 8, 2021

Tania Maxwell MP says the government has a clear responsibility to help Victorian gym operators and regional event organisers hard-hit by COVID lockdowns.

The Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria said Wangaratta and Shepparton gym and fitness centre operators had made her aware of the devastating impact of current circuitbreaker restrictions that forced them to close from May 27.

“But unlike other businesses, gyms in our communities have not been allowed to re-open since restrictions in regional Victoria were lifted on June 4 and where we have no COVID cases,” Ms Maxwell said.

“The rules are completely inconsistent. You can go to a pub for a drink and dine-in with nine other people and there can be another 40 people in the same venue. You can shop with perhaps a hundred or more people indoors.

“But you can’t exercise indoors for your physical and mental well-being under the same distancing rules that apply in our hotels, cafes and supermarkets.

“As I’ve been told by Wangaratta gym owner Amber Kiker and Shepparton’s Tareke Le Lievre, gyms maintain strict hygiene standards subject to council health and environment inspection and mask requirements.

“They’re even prepared to be subject to law enforcement inspection.

“But right now they’re treated as suspect when there’s no substantial information from Victoria’s chief health officer about the proportionate risk of COVID-spread where indoor exercise takes place.

“I’ll be asking Health Minister Martin Foley why gyms in our COVID-free communities remain closed, which is also affecting physical and mental well-being.

“I’ll also encourage our gym operators to make sure they apply for the Business Costs Assistance Program for the full entitlement of $2500 per week while restrictions require them to close.

“But will employees who’ve lost work also be eligible for the federal government’s temporary COVID disaster payment?”

Ms Kiker, whose Fitness4Me women-only gym has been closed for much of the past year because of lockdowns, said keeping fitness centres shut when there were no COVID cases made no sense.

“It seems gyms have been targeted as COVID breeding grounds when hygiene is always our priority,” she said.

“The sector quite possibly has the cleanest of venues where spaces and equipment are always sanitised.

“But opening and shutting so often over the past 18 months has not just affected me and my staff. It’s put such doubt in clients’ minds that they find it difficult to commit to staying on their physical and well-being journey.”

Ms Maxwell said she was also concerned for many sole traders in the wider business community ineligible for Business Costs Assistance Program financial support.

“They won’t be able to apply for program support if they don’t have an Australian Business Number (ABN) and be registered for Goods and Services Tax (GST) because they don’t have a turnover of $75,000 or more,” she said.

Ms Maxwell said major events in regional communities were also affected by rolling lockdowns.

“Thousands of events were cancelled across Northern Victoria in the past year,” she said.

“This upcoming Queen’s Birthday long weekend would normally deliver an economic boost, but the King Valley’s ‘Weekend fit for a King’, while going ahead, has had to alter its format and Rutherglen’s Winery Walkabout has been put back five weeks.

“These forced changes have serious impacts, pushing costs onto organisers.

“Another is that future planning is put at risk because business and organisations cannot get either public liability or COVID-19 cancellation insurance.

“The events industry has been largely lost in this pandemic. Less than five per cent of business events are eligible for the Victorian Business Events Program and there is little support for those that organise agricultural shows, community days, fairs and other community events.

“I want government to offer short-term security for public liability and cancellation insurance that helps the regional events sector and community organisations to ensure these events continue.”

Lockdown business deserves confidence and security ready-reckoner

Beechworth’s Ford Street, usually packed with vehicles and shoppers, all but deserted since the ‘circuitbreaker’ lockdown announced on May 26, 2021.

Tania Maxwell MP says business deserves to know it will be supported when the state government calls a snap lockdown to contain a COVID-19 virus outbreak.

The Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria said the government and its agencies should by now have a workable ready-reckoner in place so an affected business can calculate with confidence the financial support it can expect when a sudden ‘circuitbreaker’ forces a trading shutdown.

“Yesterday’s announcement of a week-long closure of all but authorised work is the fourth lockdown that business and retail operators have had to wear since March 2020,” Ms Maxwell said.

“I understand that circumstances will vary, and that outbreaks are unpredictable, but it’s imperative that business owners and managers know they can rely on a publicly-funded, straightforward system that compensates them for loss of trade and keeps staff paid when there’s a shutdown.

“Business can no longer fall-back on JobKeeper after the federal government closed this program on March 31, and after the impacts of the past year many small businesses are still trying to get back on their feet.

“My office has spoken with the Treasurer’s office this morning and we’ve been told it’s ‘hopeful’ that a new support package will be announced during the weekend.

“But the point I want to bring home to the government is that we’ve been here before – three times.

“As I’ve raised in Parliament consistently in the past year, the near-constant enforcement of restrictions on all Victorians continues to create a host of wider problems.

“These include economic and social impacts, especially in our tourism, hospitality, fitness, events and retail sectors and for the employees who work in them.

“I know of many businesses in the Northern Victorian communities that I represent that will stand down staff for as long as this fourth lockdown lasts.

“But in most of these communities we have no COVID-19 cases.

“So while a statewide shutdown is imposed on all of us I think it’s only fair that businesses forced to close should be compensated so staff can still be paid and costs met.”