I rise to make a contribution on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension) Bill 2021. The main purposes of the bill are to amend the principal act to lengthen the total period for which a state-of-emergency declaration may be in force in respect of the COVID-19 pandemic from 12 months to 21 months and to extend the period of operation of the temporary measures under part 13 until 16 December this year. It is just over 12 months, really, since we found ourselves with such an outbreak of a worldwide pandemic and the closure of Australia’s borders. So much has occurred since then. The feelings throughout our community in those early months when we realised what was happening I think were really very extraordinary for everyone in our community, and as the year went on, the realisation of what was happening really started to sink in. The lockdowns were very harsh and difficult for people to deal with, but they did.
We now find ourselves in a situation where the first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine has arrived. We are hopeful that it will be successfully rolled out, and the most vulnerable in the community will be vaccinated, we hope, within the weeks and months ahead. The AstraZeneca vaccine has now been approved by the TGA, and that is really good news as well. So we are in a situation now where there does seem to be a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.
We watched in horror last year as we saw what was happening overseas. We feared for ourselves and we feared for what could happen here, but to look at the United States and to look at the United Kingdom and the European Union, these places were in such disarray and so quickly, and often because they did not have the measures in place to do what needed to be done to protect their communities. The nature of their governments, the nature of their populations was such that they did not act quickly in so many cases—and the rest is, in some ways, history because for those countries the virus has run rampant through them, with millions of cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Sitting suspended 1.00 pm until 2.02 pm.
Ms SHEED: Just before we adjourned for lunch I was talking about the horror of what we saw overseas during the course of last year and into this year. It has certainly been instructive to see the change that has occurred in the United States since the newly elected President has mandated the wearing of masks and many other measures that ameliorate the impact of the virus. Numbers have started to drop significantly; just since January they took about a 50 per cent drop. It looks like there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and we are ever hopeful, bearing in mind that there are mutations that are happening and there could be more to come. But at the moment things are looking a bit brighter. The virus is still here, and every international flight that comes in seems to bring more people infected with the virus, sometimes with new strains of it. It is for this reason that I ask the Victorian government to suspend international flights into Melbourne until its current hotel quarantine system is changed to put in place alternative secure arrangements, preferably outside major metropolitan areas such as Melbourne.
Victoria has truly done it hard. Were it not for JobKeeper and the increases in JobSeeker and many business grants and other funding that have been made available, by both the state and federal governments during the course of last year, it would be hard to imagine how much worse things could have been. Early on, the national cabinet worked well. Governments were convening, they were meeting, they were talking things over and coming away with a level of agreement. The second wave in Victoria last year with its consequent lockdown was especially hard for Victoria. It has impacted on the mental health and wellbeing of most of us. Critical life and family events were missed. Our offices were flooded with requests from people needing some sort of compassionate consideration to be able to move about and attend events—family funerals and the like.
Victorians have been resilient and strong in many ways, but they are wearing out. They no longer want to consider the possibility of another year where their children miss out on schooling opportunities with that face-to-face socialisation that really is required. While many are working from home, there is a significant need for people to go back to work. The CBD is a prime example of the isolation and loneliness that appears when you walk down city streets.
Every year in Shepparton for many, many years we have held a business awards dinner. Last year that could not go ahead; it may not go ahead this year. But businesses are identified as doing well and as investing in themselves, and then of course there are always the new businesses. Many of these are very young people who have started new businesses, whether they are in beauty therapy, webpage development—a range of things that are just ways for them to have the opportunity to get into business on their own account.
Unfortunately during the last 12 months we really have seen those new businesses struggle, and others as well. The short, sharp, five-day lockdown that we have just had is the sort of thing that makes it so hard for businesses in Shepparton. With Valentine’s Day coming up, the Woolshed, for instance, a function centre, was hosting a very large ladies luncheon, a fundraiser for Valentine’s Day. Our restaurants were all booked out for couples to have romantic dinners. Our florists had so much stock. All of this had to be cancelled. Many people, realising the hardships these businesses face, bought flowers. Many people went out and ordered takeaway from the restaurants just to try and relieve the pain that they were suffering. Parents spoke of how emotional they felt at the thought of their children not going to school and of being away from school earlier this week.
The regions were included in this lockdown, and it was poorly communicated as to why that happened. It seemed to be suggested that the ring of steel could not be brought down quickly enough, and that may well have been the case. But it failed to recognise the fact that hundreds of people had gone through terminal 4 and dispersed into regional Victoria. My sister was one of them. She received a phone call just a few days later to test and isolate. I think it was overlooked that so many people had already gone into the regions and that there was a need to shut them down. But there is the possibility—and I have talked about this before in this place—of looking at more geographical shutdowns than what we have seen, and this is something that really does need to be taken into account.
But I do not want to see any more shutdowns; neither does anyone else. The way we stop it is to stop bringing the virus in on flights at the moment into Victoria. It is just something that is absolutely ridden with risk, and we are seeing the outcome of that play out continually. Everywhere has had hotel quarantine outbreaks. It is really tricky to get right. There is a lot of talk about how well the Howard Springs model has worked, how having those separate cabins, people being separate and separate air conditioning—all the things that seem to be creating problems, they seem to have in place—seems to be working. I would very much like to see the federal government step into this space and create more of those sorts of regional opportunities, but not in closely populated areas, I might say.
I think it needs to be drawn to everyone’s attention that every state has very harsh laws to put in place during a pandemic. Victoria is probably the only state as far as I can see that needs to bring it back to Parliament at regular intervals. The others just have it. A lot of it is just plain ministerial power. They have it, it is in their hands and they do not need to really account for it—other than that we all are held accountable at election time, and that is something that we need to remember. This is not the United States, where they had someone trying to suggest that an election was stolen, that an election was not valid. Here in Australia we have elections where we have 49 to 51 per cent. We all accept that the winner is the winner. Democracy actually prevails here, and I would be very disappointed to see a situation where we try and suggest that that is otherwise. We have a strong democracy, and we need to make sure that that continues.
I think nine months is too long to extend the powers for under this proposed legislation. I would like to see it be six months again. Coming back every six months is a realistic way of keeping an eye on things, in a sense. It is important that we learn so much more as we go forward, and one of the disappointing features about what has happened has been the lack of bipartisanship. The government should have set up a committee early on that included representatives from the various parties and Independents and the crossbench for them to be kept informed, to be brought into the tent, in a sense. I think that would have had a much better result than allowing this incredibly hostile sort of circumstance to develop as it has.