Speeches to Parliament

Kristie Johnston, reply to Premier’s address – 8 March 2022

By March 10, 2022No Comments

Thank you Mr Speaker/Deputy Speaker

I wish to focus my contribution to this debate on the immediate needs of Tasmanians. The old, the homeless, those on welfare, and generally every Tasmanian and Tasmanian family that is struggling right now.

I acknowledge the long-term investments outlined by the Premier and I am pleased – albeit with qualifications – that the Government is looking beyond the political election cycle to anticipate the needs of Tasmanians in the next decade, not just this one.

However, I do have doubts about the Government’s ability to deliver projects to budget and on time. The Government’s track record for hitting targets is not good: blowouts and delays at the Royal Hobart Hospital rebuild, perennial Bridgewater Bridge announcements, a decade of thumb-twiddling over the northern suburbs light rail, the Tasman Bridge … and don’t get me started on the running joke that is the Macquarie Point development.

And isn’t there just a hint of a thought bubble with some of the new projects? The Commonwealth Games was floated just a few days ago, only to disappear into the ether. Now, out of the same ether, we have a $750 million football stadium at the regatta grounds.

Nevertheless, for good and bad, the Government has a ten year vision for Tasmania. That’s great, as far as it goes, but the Premier failed to show that he genuinely understands the hardships many Tasmanians are facing right now. It’s a common theme that surrounds what this Government does and everything it says: very little real empathy with the battlers in the suburbs.

Mind you, the Labor members here are no better. We’ve had three sitting days this year and Labor has failed to hold the Government to account on any of the problems and concerns of every-day Tasmanians. Where is Labor on housing affordability, education quality, heath costs, surgery waiting lists, the devastation caused by poker machines, and a dozen other bread-and-butter realities that ordinary families grapple with every day?

Where is Labor? Missing in action.

Mr Speaker, in my time here today I want to outline some policies and programs the Premier could have included in his speech, measures that Tasmanians need right now, not on the never-never.

First, look at the housing crisis.

But it’s more than a crisis, Mr Speaker – for many, a disaster.

There are thousands of Tasmanians in housing stress: couch surfing, sleeping rough, homeless, or paying rent they cannot afford. Three or more families sharing a single house. These people need help right now – and I mean tonight, not next week or year or decade – right now.

It’s disappointing and heartbreaking that the Premier did not recognise their plight in his speech.

Here are some suggestions he summarily dismissed in Parliament last week, that could have been announced in his speech.

One move to quickly ease housing pressure would be to limit short-stay accommodation, such as Airbnb, to rooms in the owner’s principal place of residence. This would free up entire homes and apartments to be returned to the long-term rental market or owner-occupation.

Victoria and New South Wales are looking at various adaptions of this policy – why not Tasmania?

The Premier turned the idea down flat.

Another ready source of housing would be to release the hundreds of empty homes lying idle in our cities and suburbs.

Mr Speaker, the Tenants’ Union of Tasmania recently published data from TasWater that showed there were 192 residential properties across the Hobart City Council municipality that had a “high chance” of vacancy, 115 in the neighbouring Glenorchy City Council and 256 in Launceston City Council. These properties used less than 10 per cent of the average household water consumption for three consecutive years, and therefore are almost certainly vacant.

That is 563 inner-city residential properties we know of that sit empty during a housing crisis. A conservative estimate is that there are potentially 2000 empty homes in Tasmania.

Mr Speaker, in cities as diverse as Vancouver and Melbourne, for example, homes left empty for more than six months without a reasonable explanation are taxed one per cent of the value of the property.

Why can’t we do something similar in Tasmania?

Another reform turned down flat.

So what did the Premier do? He provided $220 million of land tax relief to property owners.

He justified this as a measure that would put downward pressure on rents, but anyone who’s completed first-year economics would know that won’t happen. What will happen is a whopping payday to wealthy property owners.

There’s nothing in this for tenants.

Mr Speaker, we know that last year’s cuts did not result in more affordable rent – quite the opposite in fact with rents still significantly increasing and more Tasmanians experiencing housing stress.

The fact is that residential rents are primarily determined by market forces, not the costs landlords incur. Respected economist Saul Eslake, agreed. He said,

“It’s a myth propagated by the property industry, that land taxes affect rents: they don’t.”

The rich get richer and the poor tenant gets it in the neck. Again.

The Premier needs to come up with concrete policies and programs that will genuinely provide rent relief to struggling Tasmanians now, and not do the bidding of the landlord lobby.

And he made a big deal over the Housing Market Entry Program and boosts to the first home owners grant program, which may make a marginal difference in assisting people into a home, eventually, but which many economists say distorts the market as the main outcome will be an increase in the price of homes by the amount of the subsidy.

And what about the homeless, or the thousands of Tasmanians close to it? There was nothing from the Premier on reducing the waiting times for affordable social housing. What we should have seen are concrete plans to immediately increase the stock of public housing, homeless shelters, and appropriate dwellings for those with special needs.

The Premier is keen to crow about how strong the Tasmanian economy is, but that is not keeping our vulnerable people safe and warm at night.

Now, Mr Speaker, I want to turn to education policy, which scarcely received a mention in the Premier’s speech, except for some vague infrastructure promises and re-announcements.

Again, as it was with housing, the Premier failed to deal with every-day pressures. He failed in any way to address the problems with the quality of education our children are receiving as they sit in classrooms, and in the end isn’t that the most important thing?

The literacy and numeracy skiils of our young people are an embarrassment. How could we get education so wrong in the 22nd century?

Respected UTAS demographer, Dr Lisa Denny, analysed NAPLAN data of a cohort of Tasmanian students across 10 years. She found that by the time that group reached grade three, 16.5 per cent were ranked either below or at the national minimum standard in reading.

Alarmingly, that increased to 28.5 per cent of students by the time that cohort reached year nine.

And Dr Denny pointed out that the national minimum standard, “… sets a very low level of proficiency for literacy and numeracy skills,” with students at that level potentially requiring additional assistance to enable them to achieve their potential.

So a third of our students can’t even achieve that low mark.

They are struggling to make any headway with reading and writing as they progress through school and that, Mr Speaker, is a disgrace.

Mr Speaker, I have no doubt that all members of this House would agree that education is the key to young people thriving and is an important protective factor against social and economic disadvantage. However, we see consistently over many years a chronic underfunding of public education. We can’t even fully fund the Schooling Resource Standard. It is hardly surprising then that we have poor literacy and numeracy outcomes. It’s another false economy.

What the Premier should have included in his speech was a commitment to immediately fund the School Resourcing Standard. That’s not a gold standard either – that’s the bare minimum requirement – and we don’t even meet that.

But it would mean our over-worked teachers could deliver the minimum level of quality education, and not have to stretch budgets, dip into their own pockets for materials and learning aids, or watch their pupils simply go without.

We are failing our students and teachers. As a society with all our first-world riches, that is shameful.

Mr Speaker, the state of our health system is also needs immediate intervention.

I will take a moment here, Mr Speaker, to stand with the Premier in his acknowledgement and appreciation of our health and hospital workers who have borne the brunt of Tasmania’s COVID response.

However, I do know from the many healthcare workers that have approached me, that there is a disconnect between clinical staff and their administrative and political masters. I hear of bed blocks, understaffing, stress and exhaustion. We are running a health service on the goodwill of health professionals, but there is a limit to how much they can take.

Make no mistake, Mr Speaker, they are at breaking-point.

The Premier had nothing in his speech that went to fixing the immediate problems in health care. He ignored the call from doctors, nurses and allied health works that improvements to our health system are needed now before it collapses completely.

The Premier should have announced a package of interventions, policy changes and funding to get on top of the interruptions caused by the pandemic, including the blowout in the elective surgery list, the backlog of patients needing to see a specialist, excessive ambulance ramping, bed blocks, and so much more.

Mr Speaker, we know just about the best way to relieve pressures on our tertiary and front-line health providers is to increase investment in programs that treat and keep people in their home and communities. Putting people in hospitals is not only massively expensive, it’s bad for their long-term health.

It seems that we are constantly playing catch-up – spending more and more money just to manage the symptoms of our broken health system rather than treating the underlying condition.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has given us the title of being the country’s unhealthiest state. We have the highest stress levels, body mass index, blood pressure and smoking rates in the country. We have the highest rate of heart, stroke and vascular disease. We have the highest rate of chronic kidney disease. The highest rate of adult obesity. And the highest incidence of depression.

With these kind of indicators, unless we change the way we deliver health care, it is easy to see how health can become a bottomless pit. The Premier acknowledged in his speech that when people are treated in the community with the right help that they can recover sooner, but then failed to back that up with adequate investment or programs. We need a Government to immediately fund allied health and community care services.

Mr Speaker, there are many areas that should be targeted.

In his speech the Premier talked up the new Police, Ambulance and Clinician Early Response team, or PACER, which I understand it is doing a fantastic job delivering support to people within their communities, with a focus on those experiencing mental health episodes.

But it’s only a two-year pilot, and only in the south of the state.

Really, Mr Speaker, waste two years to tell us something we know already? The PACER program should be funded and staffed state-wide now to give our doctors, police, paramedics and mental health professionals the support they need, and to keep people out of hospital.

Another matter that needs urgent attention is the shortage of GPs. I am hearing from my constituents that many people simply cannot find a GP who will take them on. The NO NEW PATIENTS sign has gone up in practices around my electorate, let alone the well-known GP shortage in the regions.

Many of my constituents can only afford a visit to the GP if it is bulk-billed, and finding a bulk-billing medical practice is close to impossible. So even if they can secure an elusive doctor’s appointment, the chances are they have to pay a contribution and they just can’t afford it.

To illustrate, Mr Speaker, I visited my GP last week and was charged $82 for a single consultation. Ninety dollars! That means, after the rebate, I am out-of-pocket $42.90. I can tell you, I took a double-take and a deep breath when I saw the bill, but I am lucky because I can afford it. But anyone who understands the battle many Tasmanians have will know that finding $40 plus for a GP visit is simply out of the question.

Mr Speaker, if people cannot access affordable primary health care, two things can happen. One is that they remain untreated, which means they get sicker, which means they end up with chronic conditions in our hospitals. Or they present at the hospital emergency department, which is over-stretched, and they go back out to their homes and communities, and the cycle starts again.

I appreciate that fixing the GP shortage is a complex issue that involves action from all three levels of government, but I urge the Premier to make it a priority.

Mr Speaker, dental and oral health are also pressing matters. Recent figures released by the Health Department show that patients are waiting on average two years to get an appointment with a public dentist. Further, a report commissioned by St. Luke’s Health found that 62 per cent of Tasmanians avoided or delayed visiting a dentist because of the cost.

Mr Speaker, it is well understood that oral health is essential to maintaining a person’s general health and well-being.

Poor oral health causes considerable pain and suffering by changing what people eat, their speech and their quality of life and well-being. All this adds to the cost of health care because if you fix oral health early you reduce the risk and severity of other health issues. For example, I have seen a report that linked bacteria from untreated gum disease to serious health problems like diabetes, heart disease, stroke and even premature birth.

Mr Speaker, in Tasmania I understand dental problems to be the most common reason for preventable hospital admissions.

You may recall the media reports from late last year where dentists in Hobart’s northern suburbs – my patch – told us that, to save on future dental costs, a lot of young people want all their teeth taken out and have dentures made.

The media reported one dentist as relaying a particularly grim day:

“Five young children under five years of age, all having extractions because of dental decay … and by the end of the afternoon I think we counted up I’d actually removed 60 teeth.”

How can it possibly have come to this?

I know the Premier is aware of these problems and has some programs in place, but my plea to him is to double, triple his efforts as poor dental health is ruining the lives of many Tasmanians, and placing an intolerable burden on the whole health system.

Mr Speaker, in my contribution here today I’ve tried to highlight the immediate needs of every-day Tasmanians and make a plea to the Premier not to leave them behind. Yes, the Premier’s speech was full of rhetoric on growing the economy and providing jobs, and I get that – this is a conservative government and it’s what we should expect.

And for the record, Mr Speaker, broadly speaking I agree with the Premier: a strong economy is important.

But it’s not everything. It’s nowhere near everything.

What worries me is the unspoken neoliberal assumption that economic growth will “trickle down”. Well, it doesn’t. As we’ve seen elsewhere in the world tax breaks and benefits for the wealthy do not trickle down to everyone else.

The rich get richer and the poor, well, we see what happens to them.

Today I’ve focussed on three fundamentals we should, as a society, be able to provide to our people: decent housing, a good education and effective health care.

Nonetheless, Mr Speaker, that is nowhere near the end of it. There are many more problems we face that desperately need Government attention, including: dysfunction in the aged care and disability sectors; the denial of the problems gambling addiction causes to society; animal welfare, particularly in the racing sector; gender equality; election donation reform; and the too-often hidden tragedy of domestic violence.

Mr Speaker, the Government can add these to the list of bread-and-butter issues they either ignore, dispute or under-deliver.

I’ve made the case that, through under funding and inefficiencies, this Government – and to be fair its Labor predecessors – has allowed too many of us to fall off the economic bandwagon.

So, Mr Speaker, regrettably the Premier’s speech was an opportunity lost to really recognise the plight of the many Tasmanians who struggle to get by.

Having said that, I believe all of us here are here primarily to make this island we call home, a true paradise for everyone.

Premier, in your quest to build the Tasmanian economy please take a look in the rear view mirror and understand that many need your help right now. Please don’t leave them behind.

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