Transcript: Matter of Public Importance debate

I rise today to speak on the matter of public importance submitted by the member for Carrum, who we have just been listening to, and to be honest I am absolutely flabbergasted. I am flabbergasted because I cannot believe the four points that you have highlighted. I actually thought it was a bit of a joke. So I am going to start off with my shadow portfolio responsibilities around the highlighting that the member has done of the good work the government is claiming to have done incorporating technology into a number of government services to assist with licence testing. I cannot believe she has highlighted licence testing. In March licence testing was shut down as a result of the pandemic. So here we have tests that were already on computers that were unable to be done—you currently have to walk into a VicRoads office and do this test.

My daughter is in year 11 doing year 12 subjects and she has been doing her assessments online for her Victorian state level. I can transfer money to her right now on my phone into her bank account—she will have it in seconds. It is safe and it is able to be done online. So why did the government take six months and an enormous amount of pressure from the Liberals and Nationals, my colleagues and me, to actually react to the fact that in the country particularly we have got kids who cannot get to work? It is not a rite of passage because they want to go and have fun driving; they actually need to get to work. There is no public transport available to them, as is more than likely the case. There are parents getting up in the middle of the night taking kids to jobs and coming back, getting into bed, getting up themselves and going to work—extraordinary circumstances. The government ignored those pleas from us and did nothing until recently, and now they have come out and are saying, ‘Oh, we think we’ll do something about this, and by next year we might have online testing available’. This is the most ridiculous example of a government not being able to be nimble. Businesses have pivoted. Businesses have offered services online. Businesses have been innovative. This is an example of a typical Labor government who cannot manage a department and get something done quickly. I will leave it at that and go back to the other matters of public importance because I find them all as extraordinary as that one.

The first point celebrates getting kids back to face-to-face learning in term 4—term 4! We here in Victoria are wanting to talk today in the Parliament about how this government has handled the pandemic. Well, you know, this is a nation, and we were all very impressed when we saw our leaders come together at national cabinet, put politics aside and in a time of crisis show our communities that we can work together. But unfortunately for Victoria, the Premier did something different each time he came away from that table, just tweaked things his way, and how did that work out? How did that work out?

One of those examples is refusing to take on the Australian Defence Force to manage the hotel quarantine. How smart were we as a nation—thank you Prime Minister Scott Morrison for saying, ‘We’ve got borders, let’s close them, let’s put people into hotels and we’ll stop the virus there’. Guess what? The other states managed it. They had outbreaks in hotel quarantine but they had processes in place and they managed it because the Australian Defence Force, a very respectable and respected organisation, has processes in place and knows how to follow procedures. Oh no, our government brings in the bouncers—the bouncers with no training in infection control. Now, I have nursed for 30-odd years—I have said that many times in this place—and you are trained in infection control. It is not natural. It is not natural to think about whether a surface is contaminated. It is not natural and you need to be trained. You can put training in place, but these guys did not have training. They were—sorry, no, I am wrong, they were trained. They were trained in diversity. They were not trained in infection control.

Now, people make mistakes. I will give it to the Premier that he has made a mistake. But when you make a mistake you admit it and you say you are sorry. This is a man who instead of saying sorry said, ‘We’ll have an inquiry’. That inquiry was an embarrassment to every Victorian. It was worse than an embarrassment. It was an insult actually to every Victorian because we had minister after minister, public servant after public servant actually—

A member interjected.

Ms BRITNELL: I am not allowed to say the word ‘lie’ in this place, so I cannot say that the Premier lied and ministers lied. I can say, though, that they told nothing but untruths—

The SPEAKER: I do warn the member.

Ms BRITNELL: Untruths because that is not saying ‘lie’. I think that is how I do it.

The SPEAKER: I think you are using a device, member for South-West Coast, when you choose that word, and I warn the member.

Ms BRITNELL: Not allowed to use the word? Okay, thank you for the clarification, Speaker.

The Victorian people were insulted. We all know people make mistakes, but the arrogance of just ignoring that and not doing something. We have seen our health minister being thrown under a bus. We have seen the head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, the Premier’s adviser, being thrown under a bus, and rightfully so, but the reality is the Premier stopped democracy. He shut down the Parliament, he got rid of his own cabinet, he got a gang of eight around him and he changed things.

How did it work out for him? Look at the rest of the country. The kids were back in school long ago. Years 8, 9 and 10 in Victoria and Melbourne are not even back yet. Most of our kids missed most of the year, and they want to be congratulated for getting them back in term 4? I am sorry, but the kids in South-West Coast that actually go to school in South Australia on the border, they could not even do that. It was just bizarre what was happening, so no, I am not celebrating that, and I do not think any of the kids at school are very happy that they are not back until now. Parents are ringing me and kids are even telling me that they cannot do their graduation ceremonies—I sat on Zoom on Saturday night watching from afar my own daughter’s school doing a graduation ceremony virtually. It was shocking to sit there as a mum. I was texting all the other parents going, ‘Can’t believe this. What are we doing sitting at home watching this online? This is bizarre. It’s not okay’.

And it is not because I do not respect the fact that we have a virus. Unlike what the member for Carrum tried to claim, I know this is a pandemic, and I also understand what a virus does and looks like. I also understand bacteria and protozoa infections and fungal infections and the like. Yes, this is a novel virus, which means it is new and emerging. It does not mean it is changing wildly. It means we have just got to put some things in place, and we have done that. We need to continue to do that. We did that really well in Australia but we did it badly in Victoria. The Premier is terrified of the fact that he has caused these deaths and he has got to make it stop. That is why he is after an elimination process, not a flatten the curve.

Now let us stop there for a sec: ‘flatten the curve’. As I say, I respect the fact that we have got a virus, and I never wanted to be as a nurse in this environment having to choose a ventilator for Danny or for James, both healthy young men. I never wanted to be as a nurse the one that has to make that decision between the two of them.

The SPEAKER: I just want to remind the member—I know that the member is trying to make a point—to refer to all members on each side of the house by their correct titles.

Ms BRITNELL: Oh, sorry. The member for—where are you from?

Mr D O’Brien: Gippsland South.

Ms BRITNELL: Gippsland South, and the member for Brighton, yes. I never wanted to be in a position to do that. Both young, healthy men, that is right.

Mr Riordan: What about me?

Ms BRITNELL: Richard, you are closer to my age.

Members interjecting.

Ms BRITNELL: Hang on. Seriously, I want to talk about the fact that we had to as a state and as a nation get enough ventilators in place, because we did know this was a respiratory condition that compromised the respiratory state pretty quickly. So in Warrnambool we had four ventilators, pretty much. You could take them out of theatre and you could do a few things, but we basically had four ventilators. We have now got 18. Now, in the whole of Victoria I do not think even today—yesterday certainly—we have a person on a ventilator. We have upped our capacity to 7000 ventilators, and we are ready because the curve is flattened. We are not using that capacity. We can work with this virus.

The fact that we are not opening up is because they stuffed up hotel quarantine, but the best is yet to come because—as I keep saying, mistakes get made, say you are sorry, move on—of contact tracing. You know what? We have actually been contact tracing for a long time. Tuberculosis was a disease that we always recorded and traced and made sure remained contained; we have been doing that for a very long time. Sexually transmitted diseases—or STIs as they are now called, not STDs anymore—we have been reporting them, and we have been making sure they do not get wildly out of control. We had a syphilis outbreak in Darwin about two or three years ago. These things happen, so this is not new. So how come Victoria could not manage contact tracing?

I cannot understand how a minister—even if they do not have much health knowledge—can not know what her department was doing. Seven months into this disease we are still hearing about people who have had the disease and had not been contacted for 10 and 12 and 14 days. Well, you know what? In South-West Coast we have had four outbreaks, and we contact traced. We got the local health service, and the local businesses and local communities just naturally came together and dealt with it. Colac have done the same, and I will be very surprised if Shepparton do not do it as well. If they have the department working with them, not coming down with a top-down approach but actually working with the community, you will see a good result—and that is what we need to do. We cannot keep this place locked down, because we have proven we can work with the virus now. We have flattened the curve, we have got the ventilator capacity and we can socially distance.

Businesses are screaming. This government has in this matter of public importance spoken about unprecedented help for business. Well, open up your computers, guys. Read your emails. Go visit your constituents. The business community, who employ people who you say you care about—the workers, the families, the young people—is on its knees. Businesses are being victimised, they are being crucified and they are saying, ‘Look, we have been working in a litigation environment for a very long time. We care about our customers, we care about our workers, we care about our clients.’ You know, back in the day maybe workers were not treated as well as they should have been, and industrial laws have changed and come in. But nowadays we have a symbiotic relationship with our workers. That is certainly how our business is focused. Without our staff we could not do the business, and I have never spoken to a business in my five years in this role that does not think like that.

So here we have businesses being victimised because they are being shut down. Well, hello—that 40 per cent of our community is actually bringing in the taxes that pay the public servants’ wages, pay the nurses, pay the doctors and pay the teachers. Is it just something that you are missing—you cannot see the equation here—that if you keep them locked down and they go broke, there is no income for the state? Can you not see that? I just struggle, I really struggle, to understand how there is not an understanding that business is not the enemy, business is the saviour. They care about people and they want their workers back working. They have COVID plans. They have been doing it for years. You talk to anyone from the meat industry, for example. They are not harvesting the disease in there—they actually know how to manage disease.

They have been working with bacteria and the like forever. Actually many of them employ microbiologists. Pseudomonas, E. coli—lots of different types of bacterias and viruses—they actually work with every day, so they know how to do this. And we have all learned. But it is not right to keep them locked down. It is not right.

What we need to do is open up business and test, test, test. Support families to stay home if they are sick. Support workers to stay home if they are sick. Shut down. Put rings around areas—like Shepparton. You need to contact trace. You need to watch your own individual area’s capability and your health infrastructure—how many ventilators you have got, what your staff capability is—and then put rings around things. You might have to shut a hairdresser down just like we saw in Port Fairy. You know, we had a guy test positive in the quarry and his wife shut the business down, she contact traced everyone and we only had a few people. We did not have a cluster. I had better not say that world. We did not have an outbreak, we had a very managed cluster. That is what we had. We had a managed cluster, and we had that four times in Colac. You have done the same thing, member for Polwarth. So we know we can do this.

One more thing: the World Health Organization recognises what I am saying. They are saying you only use lockdown to get control. We are back in control, guys. Open up business. Open up, lock down when you need to in little areas and control it—contact trace well. But the World Health Organization says you are making people poorer by doing what you are doing. Listen to them if you listen to nobody else.

The last thing that I want to finish on is the mental health challenge we have got in front of us. Now, mental health is a term that gets thrown around too much. What it means is we are breaking people’s spirit. It is really hard for people to get out of bed. If you run a business—which I have, and I think our overdraft was something like $250 000; it is big money sometimes—it does not mean you are rolling in it; quite the opposite. I remember reading an article about a gentleman who said he had an income of $15 000 per week and now he is on JobKeeper. Well, I guarantee his $15 000 would have had $14 500 worth of costs coming out of it. So these people are under enormous pressure. They have not got a disease where they are going to crumble; they have got responsibilities—the people who work for them, the kids.

I used to think, ‘Gosh, if I lost a worker I would lose a teacher at the school’, because we would not have enough kids to be able to have the teacher ratio we needed. That is the level of support you give your community when you are in business. So, I am sorry, I am really disappointed in the Labor government. Open up safely, responsibly. We are there now, and do not accuse us of saying ‘No restrictions’, because that is not what we have said.

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