Thank you for the opportunity to make a small contribution in support of the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020. When I was at law school at Melbourne University in the 1970s, one of my lecturers was Gareth Evans, and there was not a class that went by where civil liberties were not talked about. In every subject indeed it was very much the topic of the day. Over the years we have had civil liberties organisations and we have all constantly been made aware of how important that aspect of our democracy is. We have seen very significant change in our community since I went to law school. Indeed since Benjamin Franklin said that those who are willing to sacrifice their liberty for safety deserve neither, we have also seen very significant change. We could not have foreseen the population growth that the world has seen, the urbanisation that the world has seen and the need for regulation of how people live. All these things have dramatically changed our world, as has the growth in technology and the adaptation to that.
In just the few short years I have been in this place I have seen significant legislation passed which curbs people’s liberties, which has the effect of organising our society in a way that in many cases we have been prepared to go along with because it leads to that orderly notion of how we live. We have seen legislation that massively allows for the sharing of information between government departments. We have seen mandatory sentencing introduced in certain cases. These are just examples of things that once we would not have even contemplated could happen. We are now seeing put before us the prospect of an app on our phones that will track where we are and those around us in certain circumstances.
This bill certainly has some extraordinary measures in it, and it is extraordinary in a number of ways, one being the regulation powers that it enables—amazing. We would never tolerate this in usual times. There is the power that the Attorney-General will have in a range of areas that we would never normally tolerate. For those of us here supporting this bill, it is the sunset clause that is the very major feature of it. We all understand that this needs to happen for a limited period of time as we deal with this crisis and this pandemic that we currently find ourselves in. But winding things back can sometimes be very, very difficult, and that is a concern that I have. It might seem that some of the things we are doing now are a really good idea and it would be good to keep them going forward, things like trial by judge alone—how that will speed up the system, ‘Wouldn’t that be a good idea? Let’s hang onto it’. So it is important that we remember some of the fundamental rights that we are sacrificing right now at this time to do what needs to be done, to allow government to do what it needs to do, but let us not forget what we are giving up during this time.
I would like to thank the government for the briefing that they gave the crossbenchers in relation to the detail of this bill and the willingness to answer so many questions that of course many of us had. I have also heard so much out in my electorate praising both the federal and the state governments for the way they have stepped in and stepped up in the handling of this. In an electorate where there is a great diversity of views about politics there has been a very cohesive voice about that. That is something that I think gives us all some hope that we can get through this, that government can lead us through it. But we do have to be vigilant as we go forward, and there are many issues that are emerging.
The member for Melbourne has spoken about some of those in relation to tenancies, but we in regional areas are seeing the closure of our newspapers. Media is becoming very scarce. Sources of obtaining news are something that is really difficult. We have seen the Sunraysia Daily close and the Yarram Standard News and other smaller newspapers in communities, which are absolutely the lifeblood of information and part of that backbone of democracy, just gone. So I was very pleased after writing to the Premier to see that this government is going to advertise regularly in a number of our local newspapers just to try and get us over this hump. They were faced with a lot of difficulties anyway because of digitalisation, but nevertheless their need to be in our communities at the moment is really important, and they do need that assistance to be able to stay afloat and give us what we need.
Foodshare in our community is a major part of the distribution of food to the needy, and it relies on Foodbank in Melbourne to get the food it needs to distribute, and indeed the funding. Foodshare every year has a grand dinner that we all go to. It raises $100 000 and that pays for the whole operation of the very small Foodshare operation we have that services Shepparton, Benalla and over to Wodonga. That dinner cannot take place; they will be bereft of that sort of income. These are just some of the things around pivotal not-for-profit organisations that we still really need in our communities and that need to continue to operate that we will have to address.
We need to address the issue of homelessness as an urgent issue in relation to certain people. We have got a number of people living in circumstances that are not acceptable, and let me tell you there is a lot of empty accommodation in this society, in Victoria and in Shepparton. In Nathalia we have an old nursing home in good condition, fully furnished and fully equipped, and it has been empty for four years. There is the opportunity—and I will be talking to the Minister for Prevention of Family Violence about this issue—to actually start making some spaces available that are out there.
We have seen that the government has the absolute ability to act quickly, diligently and in a very nimble way to solve problems, and we really will need to see that happen. Again, I am pleased to say that when these issues are raised by crossbenchers, we are being heard and we are getting a good hearing on what opportunities might be there in our communities to relieve some of the current stress.
There are families who need to exercise contact with children—separated families. These are issues: where they do it, how they do it. People are coming to our electorate office; I have to say that our electorate office has never been so busy. There are so many questions that people have. There is confusion because the COVID-19 hotline, I am sure, has never been so busy either and no doubt is being constantly up-staffed.
People are unfortunately at times getting different messages from different people and are looking to us to provide answers. It will be incumbent on the government to be able to provide some answers and guidance to people even in what might seem like simple things because people’s businesses, their future employment and all sorts of things rely on it. I am pleased to say that in Shepparton, our local government and our catchment management authorities have taken up the opportunity of Working for Victoria—the $500 million fund—to look to get people in our community into short-term employment while we go through this very unnerving time. So many young people, casuals, have lost their jobs, so to be able to pick them up in various sorts of work scenarios going forward for the community’s good is something that we will certainly need to see happen.
Let me say that grief is something we need to recognise is very out there in our community. Attending a funeral online recently for a distant relative brought that very much home to me. So often when we are faced with grief we reach out, we hold people, we hug people and we share our human contact with them, and one of the most difficult things about this virus, this circumstance, is that inability to be able to share, to touch, to comfort. We just have to find ways around that and to particularly be aware of those people who are alone at this time and to make sure that they are contacted, that we do everything we can to ease the burden of their loneliness.
There are so many things we could talk about, so many changes that have occurred in so many people’s lives and will continue to, and we just have to be alert to them. I trust this bill will assist.
Incorporated speeches as follow in accordance with resolution of house today: