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Noting - Premier's State of the State address 2021

[3.13 p.m.]

Ms ARMITAGE (Launceston) - Mr President, what can I say about the last 12 months that would meaningfully encapsulate the experience of our state and Tasmanians who have endured through some of the most challenging circumstances in almost a century? Many, many people have suffered in the past 12 months mentally, emotionally and financially. Thirteen people died, scores more lost their employment and their businesses, and myriad opportunities came with having a good attitude and hard work in atypical circumstances.

We cannot take away the pain many Tasmanians have endured, but the best we can do is hear it and try to understand it so the future can be a bit better and brighter. The swift establishment of the Premier's Economic and Social Recovery Advisory Council, endowed with nine members of high community standing and broad areas of expertise, set us on the right start. In releasing its final report last week, there were five areas of focus on the medium- and long-term future that would not only ease Tasmania out of the mire in which the COVID-19 pandemic has set it, but also make the most of our state's inherent assets for generations to come. These are jobs and income, community connectivity and engagement, health and housing, environment and sustainability, and public sector capability.

The Premier in his address last week structured his response largely around these areas, announcing a number of policy initiatives and funding to back them up. It is heartening to see the expert work done by PESRAC being taken seriously. Understanding what the final report and its recommendations mean, particularly for my electorate of Launceston, has been a priority for me.

Undoubtedly, ameliorating the adverse effects of the pandemic on our businesses capacity to operate should be a priority for the Government's response to it. Producing conditions conducive for an effectively functioning economy will have an effect on people's health and wellbeing and their sense of belonging, and will keep our state growing and prosperous.

With forced closures, social distancing, limits on weddings and funerals, shopping, eating out and tourism, we came to a halt virtually overnight. Conditions such as this have not been seen for generations, and I struggle to think of an event that has had a similar impact in recent memory.

Keeping people afloat through federal initiatives like JobKeeper and JobSeeker was necessary, and the right course of action. The real challenge was always going to be how to best move out of it into the so-called 'new normal'. Things are looking up. For the fourth quarter in a row, CommSec's State of the States report - quite separate from the Premier's Address last week - has placed Tasmania as the best-performing economy in the nation. Tasmania leads in four of the eight indicators: relative population growth; retail spending; equipment investment; and dwelling starts.

These indicators show a diverse but linked range of economic factors, which feed into Tasmania's current strengths. Home building is strong because, among many other reasons, population growth is also strong. This is a double-edged sword, especially when other segments of the community get left behind, which I will speak about in just a moment. Retail spending in Tasmania was 23 per cent above decade-average levels in the September quarter. Success in suppressing the virus boosted confidence while government cash handouts and wage subsidies supported incomes.

To this end the results in Launceston have been a bit of a mixed bag. The virus has directly caused the closure of some retailers, including some major names in and around the Brisbane Street Mall and CBD. Others are popping up on the peripheries, including both 'big box' retailers and local specialty retailers and hospitality venues.

The jobs being created by the construction blitz in the north of the state are already underway, and this is no doubt responsible for the multiplier effect across other industries and services, which are also being generated. Roads programs, proposed developments and major works like the University Northern Transformation Program and the recent approval of a $208 million redevelopment of UTAS Stadium will set us up very well for the years to come.

We also need to be mindful - in the exuberance that cash-splashing developments create - of ensuring that the people who live locally still have their say, and that the character of our regions is not overridden by big developers who spend and send good portions of their revenues overseas. There is little point initiating big-spending projects if the longer term profits are not invested back into the communities in which they are situated.

I, and many others, want to see the Government proactively engaging with Tasmania‑based businesses to deliver on these projects - not the easy course of action such as the hiring of mainland or overseas-based firms, such as we often see, for example, with TasWater.

I will speak briefly to the issue of housing and save my observations on the issues of health for later on. In rekindling our economy, targeting areas such as housing, which is unquestionably an area in need of significant improvement, channelling $300 million into a program to create social and affordable housing is an excellent start. Housing issues are being felt right across the state and people are desperate for any place to live.

Rentals are being way oversubscribed with applicants who, in an effort to secure a successful application, offer to pay over what is listed and price other applicants out of the market. Dwellings for sale are being snapped up at a breakneck pace. Currently the average time for a dwelling to be on the market, I am told, is nine days.

According to CoreLogic's recent Home Value Index, dwelling values in regional Tasmania increased by 11.9 per cent in the year to 31 December 2020. The median value now sits at $344 897. I read in The Examiner last week that for houses in regional Tasmania alone, values have gone up by some 12 per cent, which brings their median value up to $349 521. Units have gone up by 10.5 per cent, to a median value of $271 076.

Real Estate Institute of Australia data shows that housing affordability in the state further declined in the December quarter, with the amount of income required to meet home loan repayments increasing by 2.2 per cent, up to 31.1 per cent. Forget anyone who works in insecure working conditions, is unemployed or underemployed, or in a single income household. It is difficult even for those with multiple secure incomes to secure and reasonably pay off a home loan if they can manage to get one.

The property market is extremely volatile and it is a matter of when rather than if the market will bust. Action taken now will go a long way to cushioning the effects of that bust down the track. Of course the ultimate aim in these circumstances is to ensure we look after those in our community who are struggling to find a safe, reasonable and affordable place to live so this investment by the Government into constructing housing is a welcome development.

With the federal government programs of JobSeeker and JobKeeper being phased out, we are clearly at a very important moment in time, and it is imperative that we set ourselves up for success. Ensuring that our small and medium enterprises, as well as our community groups, receive meaningful and ongoing support in the medium- to long-term future will be the key to our state's success, bringing us into conditions that will help us thrive.

I note that the Government is providing access to specialist financial counselling through a new $1 million COVID-19 small business financial counselling support program over the next 12 months. While this will help businesses with advice to support them to recover, transition and apply other strategies to address COVID-19-related impacts, I hope to see further support for our community groups that have done it just as tough - many without the support many of our businesses have received.

As the COVID-19 pandemic reached its height with people working from home, maintaining social distancing, and keeping our students at home, disconnection and isolation for many people in our communities was a daily reality. It was encouraging to see many of our community groups adopt online forms of connection. Rotary clubs held their meetings via Zoom, not-for-profit organisations engaged their clients and members online, and our educators from primary to tertiary taught in new and innovative ways.

Some aspects of connection cannot be replaced. In my electorate, try as we might, we could not secure a workable solution for the dancing groups of some of my elderly constituents in the Prospect area. Organisations like New Horizons could not run their usual suite of activities with their members, and participation of some of the playgroups in the greater Launceston area evaporated.

It is these organisations and those who support them that I would like to see further financially supported. To this end I am extremely glad to see a good start with support to our kinship carers. According to Kin Raising Kids, approximately 80 per cent of kinship carers in Tasmania are informal, making qualifications for formal payments, subsidies and gaining access to support services much harder. The commitment by the Government to provide $500 000 to commence the implementation of recommendations from a review of current support measures in place is only the start of a long road but it is a start nevertheless.

Addressing digital literacies is another welcome announcement from the Premier's Address. I note that substantial policies will be developed in the lead-up to the forthcoming state Budget but I can see that the Government is taking it into account, and I echo the sentiments that emphasise the importance of including those who struggle to connect with newer technologies. No-one should be left behind for this reason and every effort should be made to ensure that anyone who needs help can access it.

Every week, community groups approach me in my office for assistance with grant applications, letters of support and advice. I imagine the experience of other members of this place and our federal counterparts is similar. It is evident that our community groups need support and assistance, particularly after the year we have just had.

The focus of the Government has been keeping businesses and employees supported. This was the correct approach, but we should not neglect our community groups and organisations that fulfil important functions which otherwise fall to the public sector to look after. The announcement of the Regional Events Recovery Grant Fund to the tune of $1.5 million, with an additional $1.5 million investment to aid ongoing recovery efforts for the community-based events sector is absolutely a welcome development to kickstart Tasmanian events.

I do not, however, want this to be at the expense of community-based organisations and not-for-profits which have endured the last 12 months, and continue to struggle, without support. While I and everyone else understands there are not bottomless buckets of money to hand out through grant programs to our community groups and organisations, I emphasise it is in everyone's interest to ensure a diverse range of grants programs is on offer to community groups for both broad and specific purposes. We should be supporting the organisations that support us. If too many of these organisations wind up, it will fall right back to government to fill the gaps their absence creates.

Leveraging our unique state-based environmental assets will play a critical part in Tasmania's longer term prosperity, with a suite of energy infrastructure projects in the pipeline. The Marinus Link and Battery of the Nation projects and the $50 million Tasmanian Renewable Hydrogen Industry Development Funding program staying true to the clean green Tasmania imagery will ensure our state remains an attractive place to visit, live and invest in for generations to come.

However, what supports these big ticket items are the efforts being made at the local level where the work really gets done. To this end, a number of initiatives are in place, also in the north of the state, which I am very proud to see progressing. The launch of the ASPIRE platform by the Northern Tasmania Development Corporation in July 2020 is an excellent example. This has enabled northern Tasmanian businesses to be able to divert tons of waste products from landfill via a website described as 'Tinder for waste'.

ASPIRE works on circular economy principles and connects producers of waste with those who can re-use, repair, remake and recycle the products. George Town, the City of Launceston, Meander Valley, Break of Day, Flinders Islands, West Tamar and Northern Midlands have signed on.

The much anticipated container deposit scheme is slated to be bought to parliament very soon. It is imperative we get this scheme right and support our producers, community groups and the environment in the process with a scheme that is fit for purpose for Tasmania and will most efficiently achieve the desired outcome of the scheme.

I am yet to be fully convinced of the merits of the split responsibility scheme the Government has announced. I want to have a better idea of what contingencies are in place to ensure the issues experienced in other jurisdictions - like funding vending equipment to accept containers, and missed opportunities to engage community groups and not-for-profits in having a stake in the scheme. I continue to engage stakeholders in this matter and I look forward to seeing what solutions and responses the Government has on the apparent shortfalls of the scheme.

The past 12 months have been above all a health crisis, in which 13 Tasmanians were killed by the deadly virus that swept the globe. The quick response by governments, both state and federal, in combination with the mobilisation of our health workforce and the speedy implementation of new health protocols - especially in the north-west - stand as a paragon of best practice. We should be immensely proud of how we all responded quickly and overwhelmingly positively to the instructions given to us by the Health director, who has done an incredible job over the last year.

However, it takes nothing like a crisis to emphasise the issues that already exist. Supporting our health sector, health professionals, facilities and associated staff is more important than ever. The PESRAC final report takes stock of the overall preparedness for a pandemic event. It generally notes that experience demonstrates governments are geared towards the public sector reacting and responding to significant unplanned events. It further notes one of the reasons for this is that institutional settings are generally geared towards dealing with immediately observable problems and issues. It is essentially a question of priorities. It is difficult for any government to justify allocating time and resources to preparing for something that does not seem very likely, when there are more pressing and obviously problems occurring in the here and now.

Political memory is both long and short, and priorities are forever changing. Significant events get very quickly overlooked in favour of what's current and topical. This is simply the nature of our fast-paced political, social and economic environment. The PESRAC report rightly observes that the community has a role to play in setting the expectation of its political leaders that the state's long-term strategic interests need to be properly considered, and a more structured and deliberate approach taken to strategic risk and management. More than that - we, as leaders, need to listen. We need to think beyond our own election cycles and that of the government of the day, and we need to consider what kind of place our state will look like five, 10 or 20 years down the track.

Mr Valentine - Hear, hear.

Ms ARMITAGE - What legacy are we leaving for our children and their children? As they say, society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit. This is the mentality we need to adopt when looking at how our Government best responds to the needs of the people it serves. I look forward to the review of the Tasmanian State Service, led by Dr Ian Watt, due at the end of May.

On to health: Tasmania had a significant case-to-fatality COVID-19 ratio, according to the Johns Hopkins Dashboard. This is likely due to the vulnerability of the north-west coast population to the virus.

I, like everyone else, was floored by the accusations made about historical sexual abuse, allegedly perpetrated by a paediatric nurse at the Launceston General Hospital. I was pleased to see the commission of inquiry established.

However, while staff continue to do an amazing job, and work above and beyond for their patients and the community, I despair at the developments over time at the Launceston General Hospital. The LGH was once a hospital in high demand for registrars and trainee doctors, and certainly a centre of excellence in our state.

We have fewer and fewer specialists in our regional areas, and they are not being replaced as some of the more senior specialists retire. Waitlists are ever-growing and do not move in the right direction. Bed block and ambulance ramping, especially on the weekends when fewer hospital services are available, are factors contributing to dwindling public confidence that if one gets sick or injured they will be well looked after.

We need to look into the efficacy of existing health policies and examine whether the best procedures are in place to ensure that our hospitals are running smoothly and efficiently. We need to be supporting them, their staff and their patients. We need to look at improving the conditions in our health system, to encourage and incentivise a great number of talented health professionals and specialists to relocate to our state's regions. This is not a problem that will be solved by having money thrown at it.

Only with careful examination of the existing issues being reported at our hospitals, and consideration of adequate responses, can we hope to start finding and implementing solutions.

Key to Tasmania's long-term outlook and prosperity will be our education system. The PESRAC final report notes one of the core structural issues raised during its consultation phase was the ability of the training system, TasTAFE in particular, to provide more responsive and industry-relevant training. This is the key skill-related challenge that needs to be tackled as the longer term COVID-19 response.

I understand that gearing up TasTAFE to handle a task of this magnitude is difficult to conceptualise, let alone carry out. Resourcing is clearly a significant factor in ensuring this can be implemented correctly. Beyond what has been suggested by PESRAC to improve TasTAFE's central role in vocational education and training, which is central to Tasmania's current and future economic and workforce needs, I believe a closer look into the issue is warranted. It is important to get it right.

If we do not figure out and implement a solution in a timely manner, Tasmania will continue to suffer skill shortages. Publicly funded stimulus may drive economic activity, but may also simply increase demand for interstate and international workers while many Tasmanians remain unemployed because they do not have the right skills.

I know the Premier has acknowledged PESRAC's recommendation to make TasTAFE an independent government business, which would be a major reform. Ensuring that all the options have been considered, including the role that registered training organisations have to play, will be an important step in ensuring its legitimacy and integrity.

More granular detail on how student to employee pathways will be integrated will also be welcome. I would like more detail on how internships, traineeships, work experience placements, cadetships and the like will be secured, meaningful and beneficial both to students and employers. I note that when reporting on the Premier's Address, the ABC spoke to Simon Bailey of the Australian Education Union (AEU), which advised it had not been consulted on the plan to convert TasTAFE into an independent government business. Some clarity on the Government's next steps would be very much appreciated.

On to the arts -I am very pleased to see that the Princess Theatre in Launceston can now move to 75 per cent capacity, which equates to 708 patrons, with mandatory mask-wearing once the number hits 373.

Obviously our arts are very important, particularly in times of COVID-19, and hopefully we will have some of the larger shows returning to the Princess Theatre.

In conclusion, in less than favourable times what keeps us going is the hope of a better future. I therefore place a lot of trust into our young people. I believe that trust is very well placed.

We have much about which to be optimistic. Like everyone else in this place, I am buoyed by the selection of the incredible Grace Tame as Australian of the Year - the first Tasmanian to be selected in its 61-year history.

The action brought about by the work of Layla Seen, the Exeter High School student whose letter has resulted in the Government committing to provide free sanitary products to public schools from term 3, is yet another achievement by our young people, and we should be incredibly proud of them.

A person who was born in the year 2000 will be turning 21 this year. In their lives so far, they lived through one of the most devastating terrorist attacks in global history; protracted armed conflict in the Middle East - in which Australia's interest was not insignificant - the biggest global financial crisis since the Great Depression; significant increases in fees for tertiary education, with a job market where supply outstrips demand; and witnessed violently suppressed uprisings in the form of the Arab Spring, Myanmar, Hong Kong and others.

They will also have witnessed the terrors perpetrated by armed extremists in Norway, the United States, France and New Zealand, and the most significant pandemic event in a century, with over 2 500 000 people dead.

It would be understandable if our young people simply threw their hands in the air and refused to engage - but they are doing the exact opposite. I believe that young people are now more engaged in their communities and with politics than ever before.

Just a couple of weeks ago on the lawns at the front of this building, we saw a peaceful assembly for the rights of women and girls. Many of the participants were young people. This is a watershed moment not just for Tasmanians, but for all Australians - and particularly women.

It may be trite, but enough is enough. Now is the time to look at the harm that has been perpetrated in insidious and hidden ways to women and children and begin to make meaningful strides towards healing and doing better.

Beyond that we can feel the impetus for positive change and hear the demand for good leadership. It is the responsibility of those in power to lead by example and make the changes necessary to improve conditions - working and personal - that will make Australia a better place to be.

I am truly inspired by Grace and Layla and Brittany Higgins, and people like them, and I commit to doing my part as a member of parliament and lawmaker.

The Premier's Address is good, and we have all pulled together in the most extraordinary of ways in the past 12 months. There is much about which we can be optimistic, but our jobs are by no means done. There is plenty left to do, and I believe that Tasmanians are up to the task.

I note the Premier's Address.


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