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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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Government should boost regional media spend

Adjournment

December 3, 2021

Tania MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (22:10): (1683)

My adjournment is for the Minister for Government Services (Hon Danny Pearson MP), and the action I seek is for the minister to review the campaign expenditure requirement for advertising in regional and rural media.

It is government policy that regional and rural communities should have equal access to government communications and that regional media channels are used to deliver this. The Victorian government spent $84.6 million on media advertising for the 2019–20 financial year, and $9.5 million of this was spent on non-digital regional and rural media, which includes press, radio and outdoor advertising. This represents 17 per cent of the government’s total campaign advertising expenditure.

Departments and agencies are required to spend at least 15 per cent of campaign advertising expenditure on regional and rural media, so at least spending was slightly above this threshold. However, I suggest to the government that a 15 per cent base requirement is ridiculously low given the expanse of regional Victoria, the number of regional media outlets and the heavy reliance of local communities on local media for trusted information.

WIN Television’s Albury bureau closed in June 2019, and mid-year nine local bulletins were axed, including Shepparton and Bendigo. A number of print news outlets have shared concerns with me that the government has not utilised them for advertising, not only for COVID-19 pandemic information but across agencies and departments.

I was dismayed last week to learn that the ABC has cut Goulburn-Murray region local programming, and the 9.00-11.00 morning program has been replaced with a statewide show. ABC Goulburn-Murray, most recently with Sandra Moon and Alice Walker, has supported our region through the pandemic, with regular updates on border closures and restrictions. Back in the early days of my justice advocacy through the ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign, the ABC supported me on this program back when Joseph Thomsen was on the microphone. Last week I also received news of the closure of the Macedon Free Press, another blow for regional media.

Regional outlets provide essential information at times of natural disaster along with local context and scrutiny of state and federal politics. Losing local news is bad for small communities. In their absence people are turning to social media, where information published may not have the integrity of professional journalism. My constituents value their local media. Our government should value it too, not just for sharing important news stories but through advertising. There is a balance that can be achieved to support the survival of regional media and ensure our local communities have access to both local content and local context.

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’.

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.

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.