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Russel Northe MLA:
An Update from State Parliament – COVID-19 Measures
Update regarding the emergency sitting of State Parliament.
By Portal Admin - 30th April 2020 - Back to News
Member for Morwell Russell Northe has provided an update regarding the emergency sitting of State Parliament yesterday.
"In a very different day of Parliament, only a limited number of Members of Parliament were in attendance due to COVID-19 restrictions but we were able to remotely contribute by way of writing to the Bills debated", Mr Northe said.
"A range of Budget and COVID-19 measures were debated and passed including legislation designed to provide crucial health funding, immediate business and economic support and a suite of temporary changes to assist businesses, individuals and families through these unprecedented times".
"I did take the opportunity to commend the Premier, and his Cabinet along with staff and their teams for their responsiveness in tacking the COVID-19 situation and continuing to update the community", Mr. Northe continued.
"Whilst I don’t necessarily agree or support every measure or restriction that has been introduced, particularly given there a number of inconsistencies that exist, I do respect that decisions have been made in the interests of all Victorians", Mr Northe said.
"I also put on the record my admiration and respect for members of my community who have displayed enormous resilience, strength and innovation given these unprecedented times and the current challenges before us".
"There are still concerns relating to the access of essential items, and gaps that exist in support measures to individuals, families, businesses and organisations and to which I will continue to advocate to the State Government on behalf of the Morwell electorate to achieve the best possible outcomes we can in these trying times", Mr Northe said.
Mr Northe’s Parliamentary contributions are attached for your reference
APPROPRIATION (INTERIM) BILL 2020
APPROPRIATION (PARLIAMENT) (INTERIM) BILL 2020
STATE TAXATION ACTS AMENDMENT (RELIEF MEASURES) BILL 2020
Hansard | Russell Northe | Thursday 23 April 2020
I submit some comments in regards to the Appropriation (Interim) Bill 2020, the Appropriation (Parliament) (Interim) Bill 2020 and the State Taxation Acts Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill 2020.
The Appropriation Interim Bill provides interim Budget authority for the ongoing operations of the government for the first 6 months of the 2020-2021 financial year. It also provides appropriation authority for additional amounts to be advanced to the Treasurer to cover the costs of COVID-19 to State of Victoria;
- $10 billion for the remainder of the 2019-2020 financial year,
- $14.48 billion in the period commencing 1 July 2020 and ending 31 December 2020
Similarly, the Appropriation Interim Parliament Bill gives the authority to fund the operations of the Parliament for the first six months of the new financial year. Within this time there will be a Budget Bill to cover the whole 2020-2021 financial year, and I look forward to these debates later in the year.
But today, this is certainly a very different Budget than what the Parliament is used to and what we have been accustomed to over the years. Normally there would be announcements, debate, time to review these important Bills. None of that applies at this very surreal time which is replicated across various jurisdictions and indeed right across the world. Digressing, I do commend the Premier, Government Ministers and their staff for their leadership during these challenging times. I appreciate not all will agree with some decisions made within this extraordinary period but I do believe everyone is doing their best for all Victorians.
These Bills provide for an extraordinary amount of money be afforded to the Government, and it’s therefore vitally important the Government expends this funding in a manner that provides value and makes a positive difference to Victorians.
Unfortunately the detail on how and where these monies will be spent is lacking at this point in time. That’s not to say the additional funding sought is not necessary, as we do face entirely unprecedented circumstances.
Some elements of this Budget are necessary to support our Victorian businesses through what can only be described as a completely catastrophic scenario. COVID19 has impacted organisations far and wide, with reports citing over 70% of businesses seeing revenue decline, one in ten have ceased trading all together and sectors such as hospitality have been entirely decimated. Leaving a trail of joblessness, debt and heartbreak behind it – we know, that many businesses won’t recover after the threat of Coronavirus has finally left us.
Before we even had our first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Latrobe Valley, I was receiving multiple calls daily from panicked, devastated business owners regarding the demise of their cash flow. There was not one sector that I haven’t heard from, where the business owners have had to make agonising, difficult, heartbreaking decisions about their dream. In some cases, dreams that have taken years to build – and only days to destroy them. I know it has been awful for many business owners to advise their staff they no longer have a job. It’s just heartbreaking for employees and their families as well. Thankfully in some areas the Federal Governments JobKeeper and JobSeeker initiatives are helping to some degree.
I would like to talk to some of the specific measures that have been put in place and how these are paramount in my community to get right. The announcement of the State Governments $1.7 billion economic survival and jobs package whilst seen as overdue in some quarters was welcomed by those eligible for supports. I had raised in the previous sitting of Parliament the necessity for a Business hotline to be established and I am pleased to see that has now occurred. It is imperative businesses can seek expert advice given the uncertainties that currently exist.
But back to the economic package and within it, the $500 million Business Support Fund provides one-off $10,000 grants, however the eligibility of the businesses teemed with the specific ways the funds can be used are very restrictive and prescriptive. Our business community in Latrobe Valley is vibrant and diverse, and many don’t fit into the mould outlined in the eligibility criteria. This has meant that sadly, many businesses have chosen not to apply.
Similarly, where eligible businesses will have their payroll tax waived for the 2019-20 financial year there are restrictions on the businesses who are able to take advantage of this. I have heard from many businesses who don’t fit in under the thresholds but in other State’s such as South Australia or New South Wales, they would. This is disappointing. There are many medium sized businesses who pay more than $3 million of wages and who have paid substantial payroll tax over many years, yet at this crucial time when they need support and relief, they miss out. I have also received feedback that suggests that whilst a business might be eligible for a payroll tax refund, the refund itself might not occur until July or later. This creates an issue whereby, a business needs that relief right now for cash flow purposes. It would be a crying shame if a business closed its doors in the interim, despite being eligible for payroll tax relief but not being able to receive a refund for a period of months.
One initiative that I am certainly very keen to get working hard in the Latrobe Valley is the $500 million Working for Victoria initiative, where Victorian jobseekers will be eligible to apply for different types of work and Victorian businesses looking for workers can support them. I would like to see any program that can address unemployment – which is an important issue in the Latrobe Valley pre COVID-19 – reach its true potential, and I would be happy to support the Government in getting this going in my community. There are a number of organisations and authorities that await announcements on if they will be funded beyond June 30, 2020. The Government needs to as soon as practical provide certainty in this area. For example, what becomes of the Latrobe Valley Authority and its employees? Also the Government has made a number of commitments and election promises within the Morwell electorate so will these same commitments be honoured in the current economic climate?
Finally, I would like to provide my thoughts on what should happen to any surplus funds from these enormous and unprecedented advance payments to the Victorian Government. The Andrews Government are asking us to vote in favour of providing these additional funds without any normal plans, Budgets or the regular scrutiny prior to this debate. I have no doubt that much of this funding will be necessary to support our health system in its preparedness as well as over time as we fight COVID-19. But if there are any surplus funds, I point towards the research that tells us;
- between 30 March and 3 April 47 per cent of businesses made changes to their workforce in the previous two weeks, in response to COVID-19 (ref)
- Treasury forecasts that the unemployment rate will reach 10 per cent in the June quarter (ref) and as high as 11 per cent in the September quarter
- This crisis could lead to 270,000 Victorian jobs being lost
We are fully aware that the economic downturn of this crisis will be nothing short of devastating. Because of this, I would like to see surplus funds be used to undertake projects and infrastructure builds that have been in the pipeline for years. Because we know after all of this, we will need to get our economy moving again – and fast. By putting this money into works with an immediate start date, we will benefit Victorians and provide much-needed jobs and supplies for the long recovery ahead.
However, we can’t afford to have project budgets being blown as has constantly been the case in recent years. The waste that currently occurs on Government related projects is appalling and these needs to change moving forward.
Ultimately current and future generations will have to pay back borrowings that occur now. How that will be done is unknown at this stage and this is a scary thought for many. By passing this Bill there is an extraordinary amount of expectation and faith in that the Government will spend tax payer monies in a manner that provides value for all Victorians, including those of us in Regional Victoria.
The State Taxation Acts Amendment Bill provides the State Government with its regular taxation with a continuation of the ordinary revenue sources. It also enacts support for communities greatest hit with the devastating summer bushfires and extends the first home buyers grant as well as other provisions.
Just reflecting back to the devastating Victorian summer bushfires, as it’s so important to acknowledge that these catastrophic fires swept across - particularly the East - of our State, only four short months ago. It may not feel like such a small amount of time has passed, as we can all attest that a lot has happened in society since then! But I am sure that those who lost loved ones and livelihoods certainly still feel like the wounds are recent and raw. We must respect and remember that.
I trust that elements of this Bill will provide some support and comfort to them, as they continue to rebuild in debilitating circumstances. To those who are recovering right now, I extend my heartfelt sympathies for your losses and continued challenges. We all look forward to being able to travel to East Gippsland and support that community when COVID-19 passes.
I will always take the opportunity to thank our emergency services, volunteers and workers. These heroes put their lives on the line every time there is an emergency event in our State, in their efforts to save others. What legends. I was in contact with many of our local CFA volunteers over the summer, and quite a few of our local brigades and fire-fighters were active in fire events not only in East Gippsland but in New South Wales as well. I sincerely and deeply thank all our wonderful local firefighters, SES workers, police officers, defence personnel, ambulance officers, charities, support organisations, Council workers, and all the volunteers that keep them all going. Their swift and selfless actions never cease to amaze me, and I thank them for their remarkable dedication and service.
As our hardest hit communities recover, the measures in this Bill seeks to provide assistance to the businesses in the six local government area’s (LGA’s) that were so heavily impacted.
Firstly, it will provide a 50% concession on transfers of commercial and industrial land in certain areas affected by a state of disaster. The concession applies to transfers where the contract, arrangement or agreement for the transfer was entered into on or after 27 January 2020.
Secondly, it reduces the payroll tax rate for eligible regional employers in certain areas affected by a state of disaster to 1•2125% effective from 1 July 2019.
This will support to some degree businesses of these communities as they recover from the terrible bushfire event and of course with continued economic downturn – all through no fault of their own.
This Bill also extends the $20,000 first home owner grant for purchases of new homes in regional Victoria until 1 July 2021. This is a great initiative to encourage development in our regional areas such as the electorate of Morwell. In the months to come, I believe that stimulating development and spending will be a sensible measure. The Bill provides meaningful support to those businesses that continue the long hard road of recovery as well as other sensible measures.
COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020
Hansard | Russell Northe | Thursday 23 April 2020
This omnibus Bill is a broad mix of legislative updates to implement the measures within the State Government COVID-19 crisis announcements. It will come into effect the day of Royal Assent and provide immediate relief across the Victorian community in doing so.
First, I would like to extend my sympathies for the families and loved ones, of the Victorians and indeed any person who have lost their lives fighting COVID-19. I think in this heightened and anxious state that the world is currently in, your grief has maybe been overshadowed. I am so sorry for your loss and for the loss of the regular, expected bereavement process with your family – sincerely, my thoughts are with you everyone.
I would also like to acknowledge those who are in intensive care fighting for their lives, as well as their families. As I understand it, COVID-19 medically limits the ways in which you can be with and support your loved-ones, which must be truly devastating.
I extend my best wishes to you also.
Second, I do commend the State Government and the Chief Health Officer for their response during the current COVID-19 crisis. I appreciate the difficulty of decision making in these times, and whilst there has been some confusion and mixed messaging on specific restrictions and activities, and indeed I have my own personal views on same, I know those decisions are based on managing the best health and well-being outcomes of Victorians. To this, I recognise the efforts of the Premier and those working within the Premiers office, Government Ministers including the Health Minister and her team. There are many staff who have worked incredibly hard behind the scenes and within Ministers and Departmental offices and I say thank you and well done for your contributions. In particular, the crossbench received several briefings this week and for those who participated in those, I thank for their time. I also thank my own electorate office team who have never been busier in their support of the community. They are fielding a wide range of constituent feedback and are doing a sensational job doing it, too.
Third, I would like to thank our amazing healthcare sector and other workers who are providing necessary services at this time. Their dedication, diligence and preparedness to support others makes us realise how fortunate we are to live in a State where people on the whole look out for each other. Those working in our hospitals, health and mental care sectors, pharmacies, aged care, child care and other care facilities, schools, supermarkets, transport sectors, charitable organisations, emergency services and many other facets of our community who are doing what they can to support community members in their time of need, I say well done!!
I would now like to thank my community for their efforts and sacrifices made in order to protect our health care system and their fellow Victorians. Many in the Morwell electorate found the early stages of this crisis extraordinarily overwhelming, with daily escalations of closures and changes, job and income impacts, restrictions on everyday activities and access to essential items. Many still find it overwhelming but the overriding sense of community spirit, patience and understanding has been inspiring.
More than ever, I am proud of the individuals and families of the Latrobe Valley who are supporting each other, they’re supporting local businesses and making the time we are spending isolated from our support systems more bearable. I thank the electorate of Morwell for once again, proving their resilience and support of one another!
Now let’s look at specific elements of the Bill.
What a Bill, too. It certainly has some extraordinary changes in it that would never fly in ordinary times. But we are certainly not living in ordinary times.
In line with National Cabinet, there will be a moratorium on residential rental evictions and rental increases from 29 March 2020 to 26 September 2020 including at caravan parks and rooming houses. It will also provide mediation to support and help landlords and tenants negotiate fair arrangements through Consumer Affairs Victoria. I do note there are specified circumstances, whereby an eviction can occur and this is important to note.
Similarly, the Bill provides relief to eligible commercial tenants experiencing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic by;
- Allowing the Victorian Small Business Commissioners office to assist in resolving disputes between owners and tenants before VCAT needs to be involved
- Enacts a six-month moratorium on commercial tenancy evictions from 29 March 2020
- A freeze on rent increases during the moratorium for commercial tenants
- A rental payment waiver or deferral proportionate to commercial tenants’ income reduction due to coronavirus (COVID-19), to be negotiated between tenant and landlord
These elements are critical to support our Victorians who are doing it tough and are financially stretched. It sends a clear message to both residential and commercial rental markets that consideration must be given where necessary during this crisis. It could mean the survival of businesses who have seen cash flow completely disappear, and of course to tenants to whom their income and cash flows have diminished.
Another change that is important to businesses, is the implementation of electronic means within the planning permit and amendment process. This includes enabling planning panels to conduct hearings by video-conference or in other remote ways.
Anything that prevents delays within the planning and permit approval process is well worth the change.
Another important aspect of this Bill, is to give our hospitals greater flexibility with their nurse-to-patient rations where COVID-19 places extraordinary demand within their facilities. In softening these laws - whilst understandable in periods of sector distress – I hope that we don’t see instances of opportunistic non-committal in providing our healthcare sector everything they need in terms of resources. There will be provisions within this legislation to delay changes that may worsen or impede the current situation, such as EPA reform and VCAT updates.
There are some Justice reforms in regards to the Courts, and as I understand some of those provisions uphold current practices occurring due to COVID-19. There has been community concern expressed about fair trials and that some prisoners maybe released early from their sentence due to the incidence of the pandemic. From the feedback I have received this would not be a palatable option for many of those same community members.
The Bill also makes some sensible changes to WorkCover recipients, Local Government, the Training sector and Parliamentary Committee operations. Having said that, a valid point raised in the context of Local Government and WorkCover relates to the costs of municipal rates and insurance premiums. I have been approached by a number of rate-payers and businesses who have expressed concern on how they might mitigate the fees associated with these two areas of cost.
I do believe that relief measures pertaining to Council rates and WorkCover premiums will need to considered seriously by the Government in the coming weeks and months because the reality is, many businesses and indeed homeowners will be unable to pay these fees in totality.
Many of the support measures in this Bill – in fact nearly all – will sunset after six months which creates a sense of relief that some of these extraordinary implementations will only need to be temporary.
In closing, this omnibus Bill addresses a variety of challenges faced by the Victorian community in the wake of COVID-19 and I sincerely hope the measures within provide relief to sectors of our community most in need.
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