Response to Premier Gutwein's State of the State Address 2020

March 19, 2020

Click here to read Premier Gutwein's 2020 State of the State address.

 

[3.25 p.m.] Ms ARMITAGE (Launceston) - Mr President, a lot has happened since the Premier's State of the State address. The coronavirus has taken a terrible toll on our state with the cancellation, temporary closing or postponement of MONA, Targa, Supercars, weekend and weekday events from bowls to AFL, Agfest, swimming pools, Relay for Life, theatre, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, TMAG and many others, including our wonderful harvest market each Saturday morning in Launceston. It is certainly a difficult time for our state. It is hoped people, while many are self-isolating, will remember to shop locally and holiday within our state. 

 

While a crisis often brings out the best in people, it also sometimes brings out the worst in people.  It is sad to see the bulk-buying of essential items such as toilet paper, pasta, flour et cetera. This makes it very difficult for those who cannot afford to buy in bulk and need these essential items.

 

Ms Forrest - Are you aware people are now panic-buying Ventolin puffers? They have actually had to put them behind the counter in the pharmacies.  There are people like me, who might need a puffer to save their life, not from coronavirus but from asthma, who cannot get it.

 

Ms ARMITAGE - I have seen advertisements on some internet sites saying that people need to stock up on medicines for four weeks supply, so perhaps that is part of the reason.

 

Ms Forrest - These are not asthmatics who are buying them.Mr Dean - The problem may have started when a doctor on the radio the other day advised all people with medical issues to ensure they had four weeks of medical supplies.

 

Ms ARMITAGE - This is what I was saying.  Prescription needs for four weeks.  Unfortunately rumour and innuendo travel a lot faster than even the virus. It is a worry. It is a difficult time for our hospitals and with winter coming up, it can only get worse. Launceston General Hospital has many challenges, particularly with regard to adequate specialists, sufficient nurses and beds. We are a country of baby boomers and unfortunately many of our local specialists are reaching an age of retirement and it is not always easy to present a salary package competitive with other hospitals around the country to encourage relocating to LGH.

 

I note from answers to questions this week with regard to ENT surgeons, in the north-west, one ENT surgeon is employed as an ENT visiting medical specialist working 0.47 full-time equivalent. The LGH is currently searching for a permanent ENT specialist continues to have on-call coverage provided by two local ENT visiting medical specialists for one week per month with urgent cases being referred to the Royal Hobart Hospital if required, with Hobart not much better off, so that is not the answer. In Hobart there are two ENT surgeons as visiting medical officers, each working 0.09 FTE with a career medical officer and an ENT registrar also working full time. This is a severe shortage and very grim as there is no capacity in public or private hospitals. What happens with a patient if there is a serious bleed and we do not have an ENT or plastic surgeon trained in head and neck?I am pleased to see the new THS structure and it is hoped hospitals can again be in charge of their own destinies. 

 

Each hospital knows what is best for that area, rather than being dictated to by bureaucracy based in the south. The emergency departments continue to be blocked by ambulance ramping, but it is more a lack of beds in the wards than problems with the Department of Emergency Medicine. The Department of Emergency Medicine would work perfectly well as an emergency department but does not perform well as a ward. There is nowhere to put patients so they stay in the Emergency Department. 

 

To get it right, we need more beds. We need a better system as basically, we are being killed by demographics.To get the department functioning, we need to decongest it as the only overcrowding occurs in the Emergency Department. It is a well-known fact that the longer you stay in the emergency department, the greater your morbidity risk. We also need a purpose-built mental health facility. We need a dedicated standalone hospice for palliative care. We need more specialists and we needstudents, interns, residents and registrars who want to stay at the Launceston General Hospital. 

 

There was a time when it was the only place to work. We need to lift morale so it can be that place again.With the coronavirus, the outlook is bleak, so let us do all we can to stay well. I feel for our extremely hardworking doctors, nurses, ancillary and other staff who have no option but to look after patients. They need support and appreciation, as we simply could not survive without them. It is a similar story for our police force, our emergency services, ambulance officers - the list goes on.  We are fortunate to have so many dedicated people in our community. We should never forget to recognise them and appreciate the work they do.

 

To the planning scheme - having spent nine years on local council, I am well aware of the deficiencies and the intricacies of the Land Use Planning Act. More than once I have seen people deflated, angry and left scratching their heads when something that seems so simple was refused. Refused not because the planner did not think it was reasonable or met many conditions of the planning scheme, but because at least one criterion was not permitted under the act. It is not just the big developers who are affected and whom we hear about regularly, it is also the everyday person - be it mum and dad, young couples renovating, or in some cases people - making what seems a simple addition or change to their home.

 

We are seeing residential developments suffering in cases which can be characterised as vexatious and at times downright absurd. An example is a shed, which incidentally could not be seen from the road or other properties, proposed on a large rural residential block in a current rural living zone, with many of the neighbouring blocks already having sheds much larger. This constituent jumped through lots of hoops before being advised that under the current interim planning scheme, he cannot have greater outfittings when combined of 150 square metres in this zone. However, he was advised that if he waited for the new statewide planning scheme, this would be discretionary and in all likelihood approved.  

 

Where is the common sense in all this? The north of the state, Launceston in particular, has already seen two significant developments slip through its fingers due in part to burdensome and confusing planning and development regulations, with which they are expected to comply. As the Examiner has already amply reported, developers Errol Stewart and Josef Chromy have decided to move respective developments to the south of the state. The loss of these developments from Launceston translates into the loss of tens of millions of dollars of investment to our region. All developers need certainty and confidence to go forward, as well as a level of consistency across this small state.

 

The push for a statewide planning scheme goes back years. My recollection being it was to have been in place from 1 July 2017. A Tasmanian planning scheme is slated to deliver consistency in the planning controls applying across the state and provide the necessary flexibility to address local issues. To this end, the Tasmanian planning scheme would consist of state planning provisions which are the baseline standards to which all developments in municipalities must comply. The local provision schedules are council-specific and allow them to make variations to development applications to preserve local character, as local councils are best placed to determine specific requirements or unique places in their own municipalities. A Tasmanian planning scheme still seems very much unsettled.  Until it is, interim planning schemes are in place. 

 

Some degree of statewide standardisation is apparent under the interim schemes, but clearly some municipalities in the state are more attractive to developers than others.As I understand it, most councils submitted their draft local provision schedules in the latter half of 2019. It is expected that the entirety of the Tasmanian planning scheme is to be finalised and in place later this year. I believe the Tasmanian planning commission will publicly exhibit the draft provisions in the coming months. Following this, the commission will then provide final approval with sign-off by the relevant minister, allowing the statewide provisions to take effect.  We have waited long enough and the consequences are already being felt. Launceston is a city which is aspiring to be one of the great regional cities in Australia, if not the world. However, if the Tasmanian planning scheme is not implemented properly and expediently, we will become further ill prepared to meet the future needs that are quickly becoming apparent. 

 

With hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into our regions through the City Deal and the university transformation project, among other projects, we need to be thinking and acting quickly to ensure our infrastructure is well prepared to accommodate the associated growth in population, business and services. This means that our planning schemes also need to be similarly accommodating. Our regional cities have much to recommend them but we cannot idly allow their good qualities to speak for themselves. We must make our cities as appealing as possible to retain our families and young people as well as attract the vibrant future-focused professionals to our regions that we will increasingly rely on.

 

It was good to see today in the Mercury about the city infill living boom and very pleasing to see that an initiative of the Launceston City Deal aims to turn underused central Launceston properties into residential apartments.The chamber of commerce's Neil Grose said nearly 40 developments were completed and sold in Launceston last year, with plenty more opportunities for development with vacant, underused space. The Minister for State Growth, Michael Ferguson, said the city was seeing greater diversity inliving options. People were starting to look at buildings behind city streets, alleyways, attics and an opportunity for an extra level to be added. That is driving a positive economy and one of the many reasons this state has the highest confidence in the nation. We need that, particularly in view of the coronavirus and people with jobs and things that may be under threat. It is good to see that there are other areas with something positive happening.

 

Another area that has great concern to me, apart from the planning, is the Building Act. I have been concerned with the Building Act and problems associated with it for quite a few years. For some, I have been hearing of issues with the Tasmanian Building Act brought into force in 2016. The act enumerates four different categories of work based on the level of risk involved. The act also allows for so-named 'competent persons' and owner-builders to undertake a wider range of works in the lower risk categories. However, the act has failed to provide clear guidance on how that work should be undertaken to maximise safety, consistency and legality. 

 

The Building Act is supplemented by directives issued by the Director of Building Control. These directives are for the making of determinations for miscellaneous procedural requirements or the issuing of guidelines to assist in complying with the act. What has occurred in reality is that rules are being made on the run with little scrutiny or input from those working in the industry. As a result, the operation of the act has had the perverse effect of increasing red tape by making the categories of work harder to understand. As work becomes more difficult to undertake and riskier to complete, insurance for builders and building surveyors may fail to cover the work. Consequently, insurance becomes more expensive to obtain, especially where builders or surveyors are working to advice which is difficult to comply with properly. This is especially relevant to professional indemnity insurance, the nature of which requires a policy holder to mitigate all risks as much as possible. 

 

This made headlines in Launceston last year when building surveyor, Protek, closed after the company's insurance premiums rose from $25 000 to $80 000 and its excess from $5000 to $50 000. Seven people lost their jobs.

 

Owing to misunderstandings of the act and difficulty in knowing when permits and reports are required, much of the defective work being carried out residentially leaves home owners with little prospect to recover damages. Residential work is being completed by 'competent persons' and not necessarily registered builders.  The Building Act allows this for certain jobs that are defined by the act as being lower risk. However, even jobs that are lower risk can have a significant effect on the overall quality of a home. Consequently, the only legal option for those seeking recompense for defective work is to personally sue the person who did the work, assuming they can afford a lawyer and the person being sued could actually afford to pay out. A typical family who buys a residence that has had unlawful and/or unregistered work may therefore be purchasing a liability and not an asset.

 

The Building Act does not seem to have delivered the benefits it promised. To be transparent,I voted to pass this bill in 2016. I particularly believed that it was important that small building works could be undertaken by an owner-builder or a competent person in order to make things easier for residential developments such as construction of a lean-to or a carport. 

 

Over time, the practical effects have become clearer and not only have industry practitioners had difficulty adapting to the requirements of the act, non-professionals do not possess the expertise to understand what these rules actually mean. The number of determinations issued in the interim has also meant that the system of rules and regulations is now manifestly different to what it was when the act was initially passed. 

 

In 2018, the building confidence report, the Shergold-Weir report, which examined the building industry nationwide, identified a number of issues and made suggestions for remediation. One issue identified was the inconsistent requirements for registration for industry practitioners to operate between jurisdictions. Some states and territories have been reluctant to register practitioners in other jurisdictions on the basis that they believe the registration standards set by other jurisdictions are of a lower level, according to the report. In one case I am aware of, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal determined that conditions for registration under the Tasmanian act was so radically different to the conditions in the Victorian act that a Tasmanian practitioner was refused permission to work in Victoria, even though they were capable of doing the work in question. 

 

Reading between the lines, one could argue that the judiciary is making a statement about the quality of the Tasmanian act. 

 

Practitioners I have spoken to are increasingly dissatisfied and in some cases are looking to get out of the industry entirely. They are working harder than ever before and are competing with unqualified practitioners who suffer minimal consequences if their project fails as they work in an occupation such as landscaping, which falls outside of the act. What is clear is that the act needs to be reviewed to improve safety outcomes, to provide certainty to those working in the industry and bring some degree of flexibility to lower-risk jobs. This will require meaningful consultation with those who work across this entire industry for the safest and most production outcome for all Tasmanian building projects.

 

Onto something a little different, I am pleased to see climate change recognised by our Premier and that he has taken on this portfolio. I believe we have the cleanest air in the world and the lowest per capita of emissions of all states and territories. 

 

While we are one of the lowest net emitters of carbon dioxide on the planet, it is also good to see we have already set a target of zero net emissions by 2050 as well as committing to being 100 per cent renewable by 2022. Homelessness continues to be a growing issue worldwide and I am also pleased to see $4.5 million dollars to be spent on Thyne House in Launceston, as well $2.2 million dollars to be spent on the Launceston Youth at Risk project. 

 

I note in the Premier's State of the State Address that the First Home Owner Grant is being extended for a further two-year period until June 2022, providing $20 000 dollars for Tasmanians building their first home, as well as a stamp duty concessions for eligible pensioners downsizing and first home buyers of an established home, as many first-home buyers cannot afford to build a new home.

 

Another vexed issue that has come across my office over the last few weeks has been the changes to Metro services. There are situations in the community, particularly for people who rely on the Metro bus service and who are older or have mobility or other issues.  The new service plan makes it less accessible or less convenient. Many people in the community I have spoken to, especially in places that have lost or changed services, are feeling disadvantaged.  I would also urge consideration for frontline workers as it is not just bus users who could get caught up in this. 

 

Spare a thought for bus drivers who often go out of their way to assist passengers and Metro staff managing calls and emails, who all work so hard but can cop much of the flak for these decisions and changes. The implementation of the new service plan, depending on the route, has caused concern and disappointment for many.

 

There is a level of discontent in the community with some of these changes and I have counted at least a dozen letters to the editor, with these and more comments left on Facebook during the last few weeks. I have also been approached with regard to some bus stop and route changes and, in the wake of a new service plans' implementation, many people I have spoken to feel ignored and alienated from the decision. 

 

In addition, some bus routes to the Launceston General Hospital have changed and are somewhat confusing. I am told that a route that had previously taken ten minutes and went straight past the hospital now takes people from West Launceston 40 minutes and requires a changeover in the city. The consultation campaign was from April to June 2019 using letterboxing, newspaper, radio,posters and social media to advise people that a review was taking place and passively relied on members of the community getting in touch with the Department of State Growth rather than proactively seeking feedback. 

 

From this feedback, five major changes were proposed. Unfortunately, it is often only once change is implemented that we appreciate the difficulties. Hopefully it is not too late for some tweaking to ensure the community is well catered for. I am told the changes are for the good of the community, to make it easier to catch a bus and to take less time to get where you are going but some people may have a longer walk. 

 

Many of the people I have spoken with do not agree, and it will be harder in some areas for elderly people, especially who may have further to walk, because they cannot all get taxis or community cars. What may have been a 100-metre or shorter walk to the bus may now be a 400-metre walk. That is fine for someone fit and healthy, but not for the aged, infirm, perhaps a mum with a stroller, toddlers and shopping et cetera. A quicker trip might be attractive for some but we cannot forget those who have no option but to catch a bus and find 400 metres downhill hard, but 400 metres uphill impossible, especially in Tasmania's colder and hotter months.

 

Understandably, any organisation would want to review bus services that have few passengers. I am advised that Metro trips are free before 7.00 a.m. to encourage people to go to work earlier, thus finishing earlier and meaning fewer cars on the road. I believe if State Growth wants to make a real impact and fill Metro buses, they could be free for users before 9.00 a.m. andafter 5.30 p.m. This would have a really positive impact on our CBD and peak hour traffic, with more people catching buses and fewer cars on the roads.

 

Metro is a government business enterprise, which operates the majority of the state's public metropolitan bus services. This imposes on them an obligation to service customers who rely on these services in the manner that is most efficient, reliable and safe. I believe Metro must provide services to people who rely on them even if it is not always to a profit. After all, according to Metro's website, its values are safety, respect, resilience, unity and service-driven. Interestingly, the Metro board currently comprises six people, not one of whom is based in the state's north or north-west. I hope this will change as it is something that I have raised with the Government time and again - the number of north and north-west board representatives compared with southern and interstate representation on a number of boards. This needs to be balanced.

 

On a positive note, I believe Metro changes have been welcomed in some areas. I am pleased to hear that more weekend services have been put on, as many suburbs have been disadvantaged in the past with a lack of Saturday and Sunday buses. I have met with the Minister of State Growth and Metro and urged them to take notice of community concern and implement changes on the new service plan where and when it disadvantages people who need the service the most and have relied on it for so long. I believe there is still time to listen to the community and get their priorities right, servicing the community safely, reliably and respectfully.

 

I agree with the member for Windermere with regard to the expansion of years 11 and 12. While it is very good for many of the country schools expand years 11 and 12, many of the schools in the CBD and in the city, such as Prospect, Kings Meadows, Queechy and Brooks, have been serviced well by the Launceston College and Newstead College in the past. To see numbers decreasing, particularly at one of those colleges, you really have to consider whether it would be time for the Government to make a common sense decision and combine Launceston and Newstead Colleges, making them one large college with two campuses; Launceston and Newstead. It would be a simple decision. 

 

Madam DEPUTY PRESIDENT - I am not sure simple would be a way some people would describe it.

 

Ms ARMITAGE - We will say 'common sense'.  I am not sure it would be that difficult, in all honesty. I have spoken to some of the teachers at Launceston and Newstead Colleges. I have been told by some teachers that Launceston College classes are very large, which can make teaching difficult. To have those larger classes, but others teaching very small classes in the same discipline at Newstead College on some occasions, it would seem sensible if they were two campuses.  You would not have one very small class and one very large class. You would have more spread out numbers. It must be very difficult for teachers at one school to be teaching huge classes, and another one getting paid the same amount of money but teaching a very small number of students. 

 

I have raised this with the minister in the past and I will continue to raise it, because I am concerned that one college is having difficulty with numbers - they are both having difficulty with numbers; one is overcrowded. I will take that up further with the minister and not go on about it here.

 

Another area of concern to many of us is the Tamar River, or kanamaluka as it is also known, which runs through our wonderful city of Launceston. It has experienced some extraordinary changes since Launceston was first developed as a city, and changes drastically from year to year.

 

As an estuary leading out to the sea, the Tamar naturally shifts from fresh to salt water year during the year with ebb and flood tides, and along with the changing weather, develops mud flats which, while unpleasant to look at, are a part of the estuary's natural cycle.

 

Dredging - a process to drag along the bottom of the waterway to artificially deepen it - has historically been used as a way to move larger vessels into and back out of the river. It is a practice that continues to be raised as a possible solution to target the mud flats to clean the river, but as they continue forming despite this, dredging has been more or less debunked as a practical solution to restore the Tamar back to optimal health. It has also been found that dredging in times of high floods, while somewhat successful in removing the silt, had detrimental effects further downstream. 

 

While the mud flats are aesthetically displeasing, I believe the biggest issue by far is the amount of faecal matter in our river. In Launceston, our combined draining system, involving over 9200 homes, was constructed in the 1860s, and during periods of heavy rain has no option but to release stormwater and raw or partly treated sewage into the waterways. In 2018 there were 15 spills due to wet weather, ranging from 400 000 litres, to one consisting of 1.2 million litres. A river running through a city containing combined stormwater and sewage is not what you would expect to see in a developed, First World country. It is not something we should be willing to tolerate.

 

I note TasWater and the state Government have a 10-year plan, with a new secondary treatment plan to cut raw sewage emissions into the Tamar Estuary, at a cost of about $285 million. I believe this should have happened much earlier. In the meantime we have the River Health Action Plan, an initiative developed under the Launceston City Deal, which details the main issues affecting river health and quality, and establishes a framework to resolve the issues that are most pressing. 

 

The taskforce has quite rightly decided to make its initial focus to look at actions to improve public health measures - for example, faecal contamination from human and other sources, as measured by Enterococci levels in the water. Under the Launceston City Deal, $100 million has been provided to address this, and much of this funding will go towards catchment works, such as fencing out livestock from the river and thus reducing contamination. More of this funding will go towards improving system catchments.

 

It is expected that a considerable amount of the contaminants that currently enter the Tamar will be eliminated once the combined system catchment improvements are made.  It is hoped this will occur sooner rather than later. What enters the river upstream affects what occurs downstream. By monitoring and eliminating waste that goes in, the river health as a whole will be improved. Leadership on the health and amenity of the Tamar River estuary is required, and the City Deal does present an opportunity to do this.

 

My sincerest hope is that there is adequate follow-through to ensure that our river is made an asset to our region and provides amenity for generations to come.  Over the preceding decades, there has been report after report, and incalculable dollars spent on experts and working groups, so that it becomes more talk and less action.  So many interests, individuals and groups have had a say in discussions on how to improve the Tamar's health, from more gorge flow to barrages or weirs, but to date we still have a river that is more of a liability than an asset to our city. We can only imagine the kind of interest and economic activity a clean, beautiful river would generate. There are plenty of issues, and possible solutions on the table, but there seems no one group able to take responsibility and leadership, and the steps needed to improve the state of the river.  I believe this has to change. As the famous quote says -The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.

 

It has been suggested a single authority could be established and charged with responsibility over the Tamar River which is certainly a discussion worth having.  Getting to the stage to task one organisation or authority with these responsibilities would likely be a challenge, but the dividends would be extremely valuable and the state Government should take note of this as a possible course of action.

 

Our state of Tasmania and Launceston - the best city in Australia - is the perfect place in the world to be, especially now with this pandemic. I have never lived anywhere else, nor would I want to. It is good to read the Premier's State of the State address that we have a strong economy as this is going to be needed in the weeks and months to come to see us through these dark days.We need to support each other and our local businesses. 

 

When the travel restrictions are lifted, we need to travel within Australia to the many wonderful and varied places we have to offer. The grass is not always greener somewhere else. As many here, I also was impacted with a trip to the four-year event, the Tall Ships Festival in Brest in France in July, but unfortunately, I am not sure whether it is going ahead but I will not be travelling overseas. Many of us are impacted and I will use the vouchers from the airlines, if I can, to travel in Australia to many places I have not seen, and that is probably what lots of us should be doing. Even in Tasmania, there are places I have not been and we can all learn from this. We should be trying to find some positives from this pandemic. I am sure we will be able to and will come back stronger in the long run.

 

Speaking of travel, the latest restrictions today with Tasmania declaring a state of emergency, while impacting on many, will hopefully stem the growth of COVID19.  That relies on people doing the right thing and self-quarantining for a period of 14-days. It is hoped everyone will do this, but unfortunately, there will be some who will not and it will be difficult for authorities to keep a check on. Hong Kong is apparently using electronic wristbands to enforce quarantine and reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

 

The Launceston Airport, now in my electorate is open and continues to operate with the focus being the ongoing health and safety of passengers, airport users and staff. We are advised they work with their cleaners to implement a significant increase to the scope and frequency of cleaning and disinfection of public high-touch areas at the airport from everything from security, screening trays to toilet doors and handles, buttons on parking machines through to table tops and armrests.It would be hoped that other airports around Australia are also cleaning the security screening trays. They have never looked that clean in the past when you pick them up and put things in them.

 

Finally, my appreciation for the many years of service from our former premier, Will Hodgman, on his well-earned retirement from politics. I wish him and his family all the best for the future. Congratulations to our new Premier, Peter Gutwein, and a huge thank you to Mandy, Millie and Fin for being agreeable to Peter taking on this extremely important busy and onerous role. 

 

Congratulations also to our colleague Jane Howlett, on taking on the ministries of Racing and Sport and Recreation.  No easy task and she will do a creditable job.

 

Now to great news to finish off on. Congratulations and best wishes to another colleague, Jo Siejka and her partner Daniel, on the arrival of their beautiful baby Ivy. We have only seen her on Facebook and email to date, and look forward to seeing her in person in safer times.

 

Mr President, we are in difficult times currently, with the goalposts moving daily. It is hoped better days are on the horizon in the not-too-distant future.  I note the State of the State address.

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