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Put Murray Basin Rail back on track

Constituency question

November 17, 2020

Tania MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (12:39): (1520)

My question is for the Minister for Transport Infrastructure, and it concerns widespread dissatisfaction with the revised Murray Basin rail project.

For two years I have worked very closely with Ouyen Inc., which is advanced in planning for the Sunraysia–Mallee–Port Lincoln intermodal.

Ouyen Inc. and a large list of stakeholders recently submitted to the minister a solution to the problem she cited for not finishing the Murray Basin rail project. Their plan enables freight trains to move through Ballarat’s overlap section without affecting the increased passenger train services.

As far back as 8 February 2018 the minister gave an undertaking in Parliament to work with Ouyen Inc. regarding rail opportunities. Today I ask the minister why the government will not accept the $5 million* to examine completion of the Murray Basin rail project in full.

* The federal government in December 2020 committed $5m to advance planning for the full standardisation of the Victorian freight network. The federal offer required the Victorian government to match the commitment.

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.

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

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.

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’.

Border communities need business, not brokers

Wangaratta’s Cafe Pre Vue is usually brim with customers on a warm spring morning – but not today (Sep 14) because of unviable patron limits at regional hospitality venues.

STATEMENT

Comments by Tania Maxwell MP, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria, in response to the Victorian government’s September 13 statement: ‘On-the-ground support for Victoria’s border communities’ –

September 14, 2021

I find it appalling that this is being done now when it would be plain common sense to allow border zone residents to travel both sides of the Murray, and for our many twin communities to operate, as usual, as one.

Our small businesses and cafes, clubs and pubs in places without cases just want to open for normal trade while observing COVID-safe settings. Similarly, skilled farm workers should be able to travel across the zone as seasonal work demands, heeding common rules.

No amount of money put up to activate on-ground ‘border broker’ support will bring small and sole trader business that depend on cross-border commerce back from the brink of bankruptcy, or re-open those which have closed. Nor nor will it provide revenue to fund staff wages.

Today, pub, club and cafe operators indicate they have floorspace capacity for more patrons and yet last week’s new rules say they can seat just 10 people indoors, regardless of venue size. With miserable weather forecast this weekend, how can these businesses remain viable?

Let’s use our respected Cross Border Commissioners to reinstate commerce and common rules in the border zone so places without cases can get back to work.

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.

Help improve our criminal justice system

July 7, 2021

The criminal justice system inquiry now underway in Victoria is the broadest in 30 years.

The inquiry has come about after horrific murders in Wangaratta in 2015 and 2016. A rapist on parole committed one of these crimes. The other was committed by a previously convicted violent offender who had just been released from prison for breaching parole.

These awful events spurred a community campaign called ENOUGHISENOUGH that led to my election as a parliamentarian. They’re also the reason why the inquiry’s first hearing opened in Wangaratta on June 30, this year.

The Parliament’s Legal and Social Issues Committee – of which I’m a member with six other MPs – is conducting the inquiry.

The committee is chaired by Fiona Patten who, in this video with me and deputy chair Tien Kieu, talks about the inquiry’s terms of reference. These include:

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

The inquiry provides a clear opportunity for people throughout the state and especially in rural and regional communities to influence change. Voices that have long been lost in what can be daunting, complex system can now be heard. The committee wants to hear them. It also wants to host more hearings in regional communities.

So I really encourage people who’ve had both difficult and positive experiences in the criminal justice system to make a submission. This video sets out how the inquiry works, what it’s examining, and how you can participate.

Find out how to make a submission. Or if you need advice about the process you can call the committee staff on 03 8682 2869. My statement about the inquiry also provides more details.

Please have your say.

Fran Waterman nomination celebrates excellence

June 10, 2021

Fran Waterman is the principal of Yarrunga Primary School in Wangaratta and I’m very proud that she has is one of eight excellence awardees in the Australian Education Awards 2021.

Fran is an exceptionally positive and energetic leader who brings the best out of her team and students.

I had the pleasure of working alongside Fran in my former role as a youth worker and saw first-hand the incredible impact she had on her students, many of whom are vulnerable and at-risk.

Fran is well-known for her innovative and inclusive approaches to education.  She uses data to inform her practice, empowers her team and students, and her methods get strong results. 

Programs like pet-therapy have helped reduce school absenteeism and projects like billy-cart building provide play-based learning.

The Australian government schools principals of the year award will be announced at a ceremony in Sydney in August and I hope Fran will be able to attend.

Whatever the outcome, Fran is a winner in our eyes and our education system is richer as a result of her excellent leadership.

Congratulations and thank you, Fran Waterman.

IMAGE: Fran Waterman with Yarrunga Primary School students Jordan Woodrow (7) and Bella Hines (8). Photograph credit: Wangaratta Chronicle / Kieran Tilly

Places without cases deserve a green light

June 9, 2021

I’ve asked Victoria’s Health Minister, Martin Foley MP, to tell the Northern Victorian communities I represent what modelling the government has done so that future COVID lockdowns are targeted where coronavirus breaks out.

Constituents in my electorate – where there’s not been a single case – deserve to know, because a targeted approach is what we need to ensure regional communities, business and local economies survive.

I’ve advised the minister that retailers and service providers from Corryong to Ouyen and Kinglake to Echuca are reporting substantial losses from the state government’s state-wide ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown imposed from May 28. But we have no cases.

A constituent last week wrote to me wondering if the government would shut down metropolitan Melbourne if three cases were reported in Mildura? It’s a sharp question.

Last year I proposed a traffic light system that would allow us to go about our daily life, work, school and sport, with prudent levels of alert, when cases or exposure sites emerge.

I was assured this was being considered.

In January, the Premier introduced just such a system to identify COVID-risk local government areas interstate. Combined with a permit system, these ‘lights’ prevented travellers from red zones and limited those from orange zones coming to Victoria.

Surely, we could adapt this for use inside our own state. But here we are again, places without cases, wearing the impact.

It’s time to give us the green light.