Bills: COVID-19 Emergency Response Amendment Bill

Wednesday August 25, 2021

Second Reading – 25th August 2021


Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (16:54): I rise to make some comments on the emergency response amendment bill and indicate that I have tabled some amendments to the bill. Time and time again, we hear the comments that restrictions will not be in place one minute longer than needed, so I am a little surprised to see a date of 30 April 2022 highlighted, which is after the next state election during caretaker mode.

When you look at the Prime Minister's comments, the federal government last month unveiled a four-stage plan to relax restrictions once 70 per cent of people are vaccinated, with stringent lockdowns highly unlikely to be required and, when coverage reaches 80 per cent, only highly targeted lockdowns will be necessary and inoculated Australians will be free to travel interstate.

The prediction for 80 per cent of people receiving the vaccination is actually December this year, as has been reported in various media forums. With that in mind, one of the amendments I will be putting forward is that we make 1 December this year the expiry date of the emergency response amendment bill. That would give the government time to assess how vaccinations are progressing and certainly to focus attention on promotion of vaccinations. That is the optional sitting week but a decision could be made in the last sitting week of parliament before that if the government did not want to come back for the optional sitting week.

That would tie in quite succinctly with what the federal government is putting out, that 80 per cent of Australians will be vaccinated by around December this year. It is really a commitment to the people of South Australia regarding these quite extraordinary measures, where unelected persons are making decisions—and I might say they have done a very good job up until this point in time—and that those powers would not be extended one minute longer than absolutely necessary in a free and democratic society such as South Australia.

The next part of what I will be aiming to contribute to this bill is that a regional representative is on the Transition Committee. Time and time again, in my electorate people are asking questions about why certain measures are in place or why certain restrictions are in place. Bear in mind that Mount Gambier is sits pretty well 20 kilometres from the Victorian border, so pretty much right on the Victorian border, yet we have not had a case of COVID-19 since May 2020. That case was a passing traveller who visited Mount Gambier who continued on their journey.

Yet there have been severe restrictions to people's liberties, including two statewide lockdowns, with certain industries being allowed to continue but certain others not. We have the timber industry, which I fully support, having a robust COVID management plan and being able to work through the lockdown period, particularly this last lockdown period. Yet construction and commercial construction of government priorities have not been allowed to be operate in Mount Gambier and, surprisingly, have been able to operate in the City of Adelaide.

Obviously, currently many people are questioning why, if we have not had a case in 15 months, we need to wear face masks around Mount Gambier. There is confusion around sitting down at a pub to consume a beer and not being able to stand up or sit at the bar, which pleasantly I have seen has changed. In all honesty, nothing has changed about the risk level for those residents of my electorate, yet the restrictions, pleasingly, are being eased a little bit.

We have had many cross-border issues to deal with. Casterton, which plays in the Western Border Football League, is not able to travel across the border at certain times, yet Melbourne clubs are able to fly in to play at Adelaide Oval, not that Casterton has had a case of COVID-19 in, I believe, the entire time it has been in Australia.

The Hon. L.W.K. Bignell: They had to cancel the Kelpie Muster too, which is very disappointing. Dusty and I were going over for that on the long weekend.

Mr BELL: I think they have cancelled the Kelpie Muster, correct. What we are looking at here is certainly getting some regional representation on the Transition Committee for those of us who live close to the border. I know I am not the only one, as there are also the member for MacKillop, the member for Chaffey and the member for Hammond. Even the member for Stuart pointed out to me that he has three borders to deal with. I think his exact words were, 'What are you whingeing about? I have three borders to deal with.' I take his comments on board.

The next amendment to try to improve this bill is a speedy turnaround for people in our electorate who are either stranded or just do not know what is going on with their particular case. I am going to read out a few to give some idea of this week's workload. I need to really pay tribute to my staff, particularly Denise Urquhart in my office and Travis and Kate, who are dealing with an insurmountable load of issues that come through our desk, and Bailey, who takes the phone calls at the front desk.

It appears that we do nothing else other than support constituents who are either trying to return or seeking exemptions to travel. In fact, the phone starts ringing at 8.30 in the morning and it does not stop until 5 o'clock. In fact, it rings after that, but I make them go home at five so they can get a bit of peace and come back the next day.

The frustration is whether SA Health has enough manpower, and that needs to be looked at. When we are ringing our contact person, the phones now ring out and nobody gets back to us. We send emails and nobody gets back to us. I imagine that the poor SA Health workers or the minister's office are absolutely inundated as well. There might be a level of burnout and fatigue there, and that is a clear indication that more resources need to go into that area. Even if it is a no, it allows people to plan and progress ahead.

As I said, just this week these have come in. Stan and Gloria are waiting on a farm in Broken Hill. They applied for a cross-border travel exemption 27 days ago. Not only have they not been granted an exemption but they have heard nothing back from SA Health. My office has heard nothing back from SA Health after taking up that issue and trying to progress it for them on their behalf.

I have Keith, who has returned from the USA due to an urgent family issue. He quarantined in Sydney, was released yesterday and is now in Melbourne and waiting at the Victorian border because SA Health have not been able to get back to him. He has no accommodation at the border and applied 18 days ago for that exemption.

This one got sorted out this morning. We had six year 6-7 students from Glenburnie and Mil-Lel who had a couple of students who are within the cross-border bubble, but their Canberra trip was cancelled and they were not able to travel past 70 kilometres on the South Australian side. Those students were not able to come to Adelaide as part of their school studies as a replacement trip for the Canberra trip.

Alan and Faye have been waiting over 20 days. Having sent off their applications, they are now waiting in a caravan in Broken Hill. Alan says that the most frustrating thing is just not knowing. He understands the SA Health team is busy, but the lack of communication is a concern. It impacts businesses as well. I have an engineering firm that is waiting for their risk mitigation plan to be approved. This job is a maintenance job on Australia's largest glass manufacturing business. It is worth about $350,000 to this engineering firm, and the shutdown has been planned for a number of years. They are to construct a conveyor system, but if they do not hear back soon then they will have lost that job.

Seven weeks ago, Jason and Maddy did their application as essential workers. They have 20,000 cattle over seven farms in my electorate to artificially inseminate. The value of this work plus potential offspring is in the millions of dollars. Kimberly Clark Australia (KCA) requires a technician from Honeywell of Rosebud, Victoria, to service and maintain the tissue machine scanner, moisture control and steam shower control essential to the production of toilet paper and facial tissues. The technician had been granted an exemption, but the recent application has been declined. If this machine fails, it will cost millions and millions of dollars.

Jody has a deteriorating health issue and is returning to Mount Gambier for family support. She has had both her Pfizer vaccinations; again she has been waiting weeks but still no reply. Just this morning, we have had Megan and her partner, Scott, who are in a very stressful situation. Megan has just given birth to a baby, their lease has run out in New South Wales and they do not know whether they are going to be homeless any time soon. They are trying to get to Mount Gambier for family support.

What is concerning for me as the local MP and my office is that when we are reaching out to the SA Health team we are not getting the phone answered and it is ringing out. We have people's mobiles, but they are now not answering those mobile calls. We are sending emails, but they are not being responded to. All we are trying to do is help our constituents navigate through this.

Even if the government had the attitude that everybody has COVID who wants to come back to the South-East, that would be fine. You set up a system where you allow people to travel back and they need to self-isolate until they have their COVID test on days 1, 5, 13, whatever the actual days are, and cannot leave that self-quarantine until those tests come back negative. That would allow people to progress through with some level of certainty.

Obviously, we all agree that safety is an issue and that we need to treat this very seriously, but if we go into the mindset that everybody has got it then, if you have a place to self-isolate, this is the process to travel back safely. It would speed up the process, and they would need to self-isolate until they had a negative COVID test.

I have included in my amendment for the Minister for Health to ensure that sufficient resources are available for the purpose of applications, with an aspirational target of applications being dealt with within 48 hours after they have been received. I agree that 48 hours may be a way too short time line, but people waiting over 30 days with absolutely no response is certainly an area that needs improvement.

My other amendment is just a reminder to the Transition Committee that MPs are actually on the frontline and one of the government's greatest assets. All we want to do, as I said, is to support our community. My amendment to insert section 25A relates to consideration of regular briefings. It is about making sure that we are not just watching it on TV or having to sift through a COVID direction on a website, because as soon as it is on TV or on the radio we are hearing and watching it at the same time everyone else is and then trying to determine what that means.

Of course, the calls start straightaway. People think that you are fully briefed, that you know what is going on, and in most cases they think that you have had some input into the directions because they do not quite understand how it is fully set up at the moment. We need a proactive approach that says, 'This is the threat. This is what we are looking to implement. This is what it would mean for you,' and actually be proactive as MPs who genuinely are not playing politics with this at all. They are there to assist their constituents, and the more information we get the more we can help and the more we can take the load off state government resources.

Really, what we need is somebody who can make a decision and respond in an efficient manner with a decision going forward. If the State Coordinator or a delegate of the State Coordinator is issuing directions or requiring certificates that a direction or requirement is to come into force urgently, then as soon as practicable MPs or our staff should be fully briefed. We need to be informed that this is what it means and this is how you can assist the inquiries that come in.

Whilst there are broad determinations, invariably people have very specific situations that that broad determination almost never covers. We obviously receive inquiries of a specific nature, and if we had more background and more information we would be able to assist further instead of having to refer everything to a liaison person who, quite frankly, has now stopped taking the calls and stopped answering emails. It makes it very frustrating for our constituents, it makes it very frustrating for my staff and, as the local MP, it is very frustrating in terms of trying to support the government in this emergency response in which we are all trying to do the best we can.

My intention is and has always been to be constructive in these things. I think I do that by these three or four amendments, which we will get to in the committee stage. It has been an 18-month journey now, and I think that some of these things should be in place to support us, and in turn that supports the state government, and ultimately our state and our constituents are better for it.