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Cassy O'Connor Reply to Premier's Address

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Thursday, 18 March 2021

Tags: COVID-19, Political Leadership, Climate Change, Women, Tasmanian Aboriginals, Housing Crisis

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Deputy Speaker, what a different world we live in from even this time last year. The world is in the grip of a pandemic and here in Tasmania, of course, there has been suffering. Thirteen people have lost their lives; thousands of people were put out of work; small businesses and big businesses have suffered but there is a sign that at least in little lutruwita Tasmania we are coming through the worst of it.

Of course, there is so much more that we have to do in order to tackle not the dual crises that the Premier talked about yesterday but the three crises of recovering from coronavirus, climate emergency, and raging social inequality. We have to build back greener. We are meeting here in this parliament on the land of the lost nuaneena people of the south-east tribe in the foothills of kunanyi/Mount Wellington. As we know, kunanyi is sacred land to the palawa people of lutruwita, Tasmania and it is threatened by a cable car which they do not support and which they see as a sacrilege on that site.

From kunanyi to kutalina, koodalini to larapuna, wukalina to takayna is Aboriginal land. For 50 000 years or more, the palawa nurtured and shaped this country and, if you are looking, you see the signs everywhere - in the open grasslands, in the woodlands, in the tall regnans forests with the younger rainforests underneath which are a sign, of course, of Aboriginal burning centuries ago. We see in middens and in rock depressions and in shaped stone. I commend this book to members of the house, The Biggest Estate on Earth. How Aborigines made Australia by Bill Gammage, a wonderful book. In one part of it, it says:

In Tasmania, John Hudspeth praised the beautiful and rich valley of Jericho, more like a gentleman's park in England laid out with taste, the land in its natural state.

George Franklin though the Hampshire Hills afforded 'an instance of the beautiful natural decoration of some of our scenery with that park-like ground is entirely in a state of nature.' Elsewhere in the book it says:

In southern Australia around most of Tasmania and probably elsewhere was a belt of open country without large timber, running parallel with the coast and varying in width from a quarter to one or one-and-a-half miles.

Everywhere you look you see the signs of a proud people who, for 50 000 years or more, looked after this country. They survived invasion and attempted genocide and their culture, and their connection to country remains strong to this day. We often talk of reconciliation but it has to be much more than a word. We know this island, lutruwita, Tasmania, was never ceded and justice for the palawa people is not yet done and it will not be done until the truth is told by palawa people and we, who are not aboriginal Tasmanians, hear that truth, understand it, accept it and are driven to change through hearing it.

We must have treaty and we should not wait until there is a move nationally for treaty. Aboriginal Tasmanians, the palawa, must have their justice. I was encouraged to hear the Premier in his Address acknowledge the palawa people and their deep connection to this land and make a renewed commitment to work towards justice and land returns. It is, I think, some 16 years since any land was returned to the palawa people. Land returns are integral to justice and this Government needs to get on with returning lands.

The single most important immediate step that the Premier could take to show his respect for the palawa is to walk away from the policy to construct four-wheel drive tracks through takayna. It is, according to archaeologists, one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world. Anyone who has been up there, on that Arthur Coast and has seen those rock depressions, knows that is true. It would be a sacrilege to make four-wheel-drive tracks through that country.

As we know, justice has many layers. Of course ,it is all connected to some of the terrible injustices that have been inflicted on the planet. The dispossession and oppression of indigenous people have driven ecosystem decline and habitat loss at an unfathomable scale right across the globe.

But so to has the disempowerment of women and girls. There is a direct connection between genderinequality, neoliberalism, predator capitalism, global heating and biodiversity loss. There is a Chinese saying, 'Women hold up half the sky', but as we know and has become so evident in recent weeks, women and girls are being held back.

Grace Tame is right - the mighty Grace Tame, our Australian of the Year, when she said, 'The revolution has begun.' It has, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are seeing women stand up. Being heard. Being believed. We are seeing consequences for sexist, misogynist behaviour, as it should be.

I will just take a moment to reflect on the resignation of a former Liberal staffer, who I named in this place last night. Yes, he was made to resign. I believe he should have been sacked two years ago by the then premier. You cannot hurl that sort of language at a woman as an employee of the premier of the day and not face consequences. But Mr Hudgson did not at the time. He went on for two more years denigrating women in their workplace in Canberra.

Now he has gone, made to resign, two years too late in our view. It is interesting, is it not? It is so much easier for the Prime Minister to get rid of the staffer who is causing him embarrassment, because he is a sexist pig - not the Prime Minister necessarily, but the staffer - than it is to take on the Attorney-General who stands accused of an historical rape. So, women and girls, we need justice. We need to empower women and girls in order to tackle the enormous crises the world is facing.

We all so need to harness the capacity of our migrant communities, of people of all abilities and ages, and, of course, of our young people.

Let us reflect for a moment on the situation the young people of Tasmania are in. They are going through a pandemic. It is hard to find a job. It is nearly impossible to find an affordable rental. We have to do so much better by our young people. With the greatest of respect to the Premier, I do not believe the policies he announced on Tuesday are going to cut it.

We need a job guarantee in Tasmania. We need to say to young people, 'We are going to harness your skills, provide you with the education and the training, and we are going to put you to work, repairing nature, looking after people, working in areas of green skills, in renewable energy and in building and construction. We do not need to corporatise TasTAFE, in order to provide the training platform for you to be able to do that.

We know that there is a state election - well, I do not know, now I do not know. I thought the state election was going to be in about a year, but I suspect it is going to be perhaps a little closer than that. We also know we are up against a popular premier, and that there is a lot of gratitude in the Tasmanian community for the way Peter Gutwein - and the people who work with him - have steered us through a pandemic. I am personally very thankful, just as I am sure many Tasmanians are very thankful. I am also deeply grateful to our frontline workers who have helped to keep us safe during this very difficult time.

We can respect Peter Gutwein's leadership in a time of crisis, but we can also be really clear-eyed about the failings of his Government. We can highlight the absolute necessity of having Greens in parliament. Given how often we see the Liberal and Labor parties in this place vote together, we need a real opposition, one that does not bend and weave with the political breeze. That is us.

During COVID-19, Tasmanians learned it is possible to ensure no one is left behind. We are not out of this pandemic by a long shot. But the Premier, we believe, has already abandoned tenants. Some of the stories that we are hearing, of people in extreme rental stress - there is a letter today in The Mercury newspaper, 'Rent Rise Crises', from Ian Jessup of Beaconsfield:

Our landlord jumped our rent by 25 per cent, plus installed a $20 per fortnight water charge as of January this year. I remarried on 24 February, three years ago. The government believes it is cheaper for two people to live together, so they cut our pension by more than $400 a fortnight. We have been struggling ever since. Now, we have just bought our prescription medication today for $88.40. I am dead within three days without them. We live below the poverty line, have been looking for something cheaper, but cannot find anything. Life is very hard. I have been volunteering as a snake wrangler, trying to get enough pocket money to pay for a car service, thousands overdue.

And so on. we have had people get in touch with us and tell us things like this, this is so upsetting:

We have been trying to get a rental for two years. We finally found one, not cheap either, would prefer to be making these payments towards our own home, but we have no choice. We were competing with 50-plus people every time we applied for a rental.

People are telling me they are sleeping in cars with children, shared family members on friend's couches and in tents. This is not right. Another one:

I am on a disability pension. My rent is going up $15 on 1 April, which according to the Tenants' Union, will now be 49 per cent of my income. I recently put my name down with Colony 47, but have no hope of finding something within my budget. I am more worried about ending up back on the streets.

Another one:

As a renter and single mother, the housing crisis directly affects me and a lot of other people who I know who do not have housing at all. I worry about the future and how this housing crisis will affect all of us, not to mention the vulnerable members of our community.

Madam Deputy Speaker, another one:

The real estate just gave us notice that the owner wants to raise from $440 to $500 a week. We live in a three bedroom, average kind of house in Chigwell.

Another one: 'My rent went from $600 a fortnight to $850 a fortnight.' This story is being played out right across Tasmania.

The Premier has said he does not believe rents are too high. The Premier needs to get out more. Rents are soaring. At the end of this month the JobSeeker and JobKeeper supplements end. The level of financial and psychological distress amongst tenants right now is extreme. We are heading for a social calamity if we do not do something to rein in rents. So, the Greens are going to give parliament an opportunity to do just that. This is a policy that was examined during the inquiry into housing affordability first put forward by my colleague, Ms Standen.

Next week this parliament can pass legislation that would give tenants the right to challenge a rent increase over CPI plus 10 per cent. This is not radical policy, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is policy that is in place in the Australian Capital Territory and it gives tenants some rights to take on excessive or unreasonable rent increases. We know that in the community today, they are facing excessive rent increases. Of course, the cost of that in human terms is not only extreme stress, but it means people will make choices because they have no spare disposable income to, for example, buy the amount of groceries for their family, that they did before. They will make a choice not to pay their power bill this time, and maybe in the next fortnight, pay some of it. They will make hard choices about the recreational opportunities they are able to provide for their children; the clothing they can provide for their children.

This is an urgent social issue and we would argue that right now, it is the most urgent social issue facing Tasmanians. It is not good enough for the Premier and the Housing minister to glibly and say, 'We are building more houses, that will put down the pressure on rents'. That means nothing to those families who have had $100 a week rent increase, who are suffering today. And they are paying the price of the first four years of this Government where there was a massive underinvestment in constructing new social and affordable housing.

So where have we come since 2014? The proportion of child-safety investigations completed within 28 days has decreased from 31.9 per cent to 6.8 per cent. Yes, that is right, 6.8 per cent. The housing wait list has increased from 2465 applicants - we had it at its lowest level in a decade - to nearly 3500 applicants. The average wait-time for those housed has increased from 35.7 weeks to 61.8 weeks. The number of public housing dwellings has decreased from 8413 to 7050. So, we had an announcement from the Premier on Tuesday of the 'headworks holiday' for developers. The Greens are not surprised that developers are getting a hand-out, while tenants had been ignored. But it is getting the priorities wrong. We have to help Tasmanians who are struggling. There was nothing in Tuesday's Premier's Address to help tenants. Nothing.

We did learn during COVID-19 it is possible to leave no one behind. What we also learnt during COVID-19 is that the fantasy of small government is over. Government has an integral role to play during an emergency and in recovery. And big government in times like this, when we are tackling climate, COVID-19, and social inequality is what Tasmania needs. Government that takes a direct hand-on role in making sure no one is left behind, but that we are also setting ourselves up to build back greener.

Back to the record since 2014. The elective surgery waiting list has grown by more than 4000 patients, or 56 per cent. The average overdue time waiting for urgent elective surgery patients increased from 15 days to 99 days. Ambulance emergency response times have increased from 11.3 minutes to 13.8 minutes. The daily average prisoner population has increased from 472 in 2014 to 664. It was really interesting that in the Premier's Address, he talked about a new approach to Corrections, a more human rights-based approach.

Ms Archer - I have been trying that for ages. It is not a new approach.

Ms O'CONNOR - I have just listened to the Attorney-General mutter about 'trying' that. Let us get frank here. The Liberal Government came to office in 2014 with a 'tough on crime policy'. The consequence of that suite of measures has been to stuff our prisons full. It is a bit rich, seven years into 'tough on crime', which has our Corrections system bursting at the seam, for the Premier to now be saying, 'We are going to take a more rights-based approach and the Minister for Corrections will take leadership of this.'.

With the greatest of respect, it is seven years too late. You threw out 'Breaking the Cycle' and here we are. The imprisonment rate for Aboriginal Tasmanians compared to non Aboriginal Tasmanians has increased from three times higher in 2014 to four times higher. The youth offender diversion has decreased from 53 per cent to 46 per cent for the general population, and from 40 per cent to 23 per cent for Aboriginal Tasmanians. Youth recidivism has increased from 29.8 per cent to 58.3 per cent, and adult recidivism has increased from 39.1 per cent to 47.1 per cent.

The Ashley Youth Detention Centre is still open. This is a place that brutalises children, harms children and is a one-way ticket to Risdon Prison Complex. There is no evidence of a therapeutic response to those young people; however, we know that against the advice of independent experts before the 2018 state election, a decision was made to keep the Ashley Youth Detention Centre open for political purposes. This was not done with the interests of young people who find themselves in there at heart. It was not, because if you were genuinely interested in juvenile offenders - in resetting their lives and keeping them out of Risdon Prison - you would close the Ashley Youth Detention Centre.

This commission of inquiry is an extremely important initiative. It will hear evidence about the harm perpetrated on children and young people in the Ashley Youth Detention Centre and will reinforce the urgency of closing that Dickensian place. We have urged the minister not to allocate money to the refurbishment of the Ashley Youth Detention Centre until the commission of inquiry is done, but he has refused to do so because it is all about pump-priming the north of the state.

Since 2014, the war on nature in Tasmania has continued apace. They are still water-bombing the fire Sustainable Timber Tasmania lit in the Styx six days after the end of summer, which went from a 25-hectare fire into something more than 200 hectares now. This damages our brand and it releases heavens knows how much carbon into the atmosphere in a time of climate emergency.

I want to take members now to the PESRAC report. This is a very important document and I thank every member of the Premier's Economic Social Recovery Advisory Council for the enormous work, intellect and heart that they put into this report. It is outstanding in so many ways.

We go now to the chapter on Environment and Sustainability. It says:

More than three-quarters of survey participants highlighted Tasmania's natural environment to be important for their own wellbeing, Tasmania's brand, an economic advantage and the global environment.

PESRAC says:

Throughout our consultation we heard that the environment is a major element of Tasmania's brand and creates a significant value for Tasmanian products in local, interstate and global markets.

The message that PESRAC received from across nine workshops is that Tasmania's environment directly and through brand association will be a major contributor to our future opportunities and therefore to economic and social recovery. Doing nothing or modest approaches to sustainability will not cut it in light of global trends. To retain Tasmania's premium brand positioning for tourism, export, investment and liveability, our environmental and sustainability credentials need to be stronger than other places across all the domains of energy, emissions, air and water quality, land management, waste and biodiversity, and collective action is required by all sectors, government and communities, to ensure our brand is authentic and remains a positive point of difference globally.

We have said it before and we will say it again and again and again. We cannot uphold the integrity of our brand unless we end native forest logging. We simply cannot. The brand will become a sham if we keep felling these beautiful, carbon-rich, biodiverse forests and then burning them. It is a sacrilege. It is a crime against nature, a crime against climate, future generations and it undermines our brand.

Back to PESRAC. We heard that:

For Tasmania, simply making incremental improvements to sustainability won't be enough to support our brand. We need to be better than elsewhere to maintain an edge.

Madam Deputy Speaker, this is so true. We also need to start repairing some of the damage of the past.

A few weeks ago Alice Giblin and I went to a place called Skyline Tier, a former forestry plantation up the back of Scamander. About 16 years ago, Todd Dudley, an east coast local and living treasure and part of the North East Bioregional Network, negotiated with the forestry company there to undertake some rewilding. Rewilding is the future. When we went up to this beautiful little place we saw a baby forest, so what had been this pine plantation on 350 hectares was a sight for sore eyes, quite literally. An evaluation report undertaken for the North East Bioregional Network as the baby forest grew found that there were blue gums, black gums, stringy bark, iron bark, white gum and peppermint, as well as plants like the hairy pennywort and the woolly cross herb, the dolly bush and the musk daisy bush, black casuarinas, native cranberry, native primrose and every type of endemic wattle. These are the habitats and carbon banks and water protectors of the future. Nature is healing itself with a bit of help from its friends at Skyline Tier. It is rewilding in action, where jobs are generated that deliver public good and repair the assaults on nature of the past.

There is also mention in the PESRAC report of an appreciation of the marine environment. The ecology of the marine environment of the east coast of Tasmania is changing rapidly. I think we can do a lot better as a state to build back greener.