DOORSTOP INTERVIEW: Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation; isolation requirements; vaccine rates; teacher shortages; NSW Gaming


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CHRIS MINNS, NSW LABOR LEADER: Chris Minns here, NSW Labor Leader. A few things on the agenda, first up, the Premier’s announcement in relation to the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation. I want to throw Labor’s support behind this proposal, we’ve said from the very beginning that if the government comes through with an idea that has common sense, that will affect and help the situation on the ground, the Opposition won’t play politics for politics sake. We think this is a good initiative that will help in the reconstruction of the Northern Rivers, a community that’s been so desperately, badly hit over the last few months. Now, our local member up there Janelle Saffin, I know has been in constant contact with me and the Premier using question time, the media, any appearance that she can possibly get, any platform or opportunity that she has to broadcast the fact that a reconstruction commission or cooperation is required for the Northern Rivers. It appears that the government has listened to her concerns, and is establishing this important piece of infrastructure to drive investment, relocation and change into the Northern Rivers. It’s required, the NSW Government has an important role to play here. I’m glad that decision has been taken, I hope that the government’s promise to include local mayors, representatives, community leaders and local members of parliament is headed to and that he’s true to his word, and he does listen to people on the ground. After all, he and myself are Sydney based MPs, we need to understand and listen to those local expertise and the experience of people who’ve actually gone through these devastating floods over the last few months. I think that’s probably would have been one of the problems with previous flood recovery responses, we haven’t been listening to the people who’ve been directly affected by these devastating natural disasters.

Second issue I’d like to mention is the issue of potential changes to close contacts who have a COVID case within their family. I recognise that this is a very difficult problem for the NSW Government. If they’re proposing to make changes for close contacts within a household due to the significant amount of labour shortages within the economy, and the significant disruption for communities right across NSW, we’d like to see the details but obviously I’m not going to knock the Premier if he’s making a policy change in relation to that. A couple of caveats however, we’d like the Chief Health Officer to be looped into the decisions that are being made in relation to this, we understand there are competing priorities and that a judgment call needs to be made, however, Kerry Chant guided the state with the previous Premier Gladys Berejiklian through very difficult circumstances. Her expertise and experience in relation to COVID management are second to none. The previous Premier relied on her, I’d ask the NSW Premier to do the same.

The second issue is in relation to vaccine doses now, my understanding is that the third dose, the booster dose for the general adult population is sitting at around 61%, for the general community, double doses that are at 94.9%, nearly 95%. So we need to make sure and encourage people to go out and get their third vaccine dose. It’s essential in terms of herd immunity, reducing exposure for our public hospitals, ensuring that those that are exposed to the disease don’t have elongated or pronounced effects associated with COVID and that 61% is just too low. As is the double dose vaccination for children which is currently sitting at 49%, again, too low. One of the great public health responses that we have seen in modern times was the 94% nearly 95% double dose vaccination rates amongst the adult population in NSW, some of the highest in the entire world. We need to make sure that the great gains that have been made in terms of the double dose vaccination rate are extended to the booster shot and I’d ask the NSW Government to come up with a plan to drive that number up and ensure that our community is protected as much as they can be with vaccines.

Lastly, in relation to teacher shortages now, we do know that there are 2,383 vacancies in NSW schools as a result of teacher shortages. Recent statistics indicate that in government schools, there’s 14 students for every one teacher, in the Catholic system, it’s 13 students for every one teacher, Catholics are doing better than government schools in relation to that metric. Now, this is important, probably the single most important government policy is to ensure our public education system is the best it possibly can be. One of the key metrics I think the NSW Government should be looking at, and we certainly are, is the PISA scores that have declined over the last 20 years in NSW and Australian schools. It was once the case that we were ranked fourth in the world amongst OECD countries when it comes to reading, that number is now 16th , when it comes to science, we were once ranked eighth we’re now 17th, when it comes to maths we were once ranked 11th, that number has fallen to 29th in the world amongst OECD countries. Probably the single most important metric is lifting those test scores, lifting the performance of our young children as it relates to these tests because we are in a competition not just with other states in the Commonwealth, but with other parts of Asia and the world. We’re a global economy, we need to make sure our young people are getting the best quality education we can possibly provide. That certainly should be the focus of all political leaders in NSW.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: On this new corporation, what’s the danger that we’re just replacing a whole bunch of other bureaucracies with one more bureaucracy?

MINNS: I do think that that’s a concern, not so much in terms of the bureaucracy, but in terms of inquiries. We’ve got the Fitzsimons lead recovery agency, we’ve got the SES, we’ve got inquiries by the NSW Upper House, we’ve also got inquiries being led by various designees of the NSW Premier.
I think the distinction here and one of the reasons why the Opposition is supporting it is, there is a role for the NSW Government in terms of reconstruction, whether it’s acquiring land, whether it’s helping with zoning, whether it’s making a decision around the taxes, levies and charges that are placed on the local government as well as individual consumers when it comes to changing locations that can only really be done with a central authority. So that’s one of the reasons why our local MP on the ground Janelle Saffin has been such a strong proponent of it, I think, in this case, it’s justified.
There are more questions to answer in relation to the immediate recovery and rescue operation but I see this as slightly distinct and different.

JOURNALIST: How much of the design of the cooperation has really been borrowed or lifted from what Janelle Saffin was calling for, you know, do you consider this a win for Labor?

MINNS: We’re not really keeping score in relation to good ideas. At the end of the day all the people of this state care about is if the government is doing the right thing and implementing ideas, no matter where they’ve come from. That’s certainly been our philosophy as it applies to the Opposition. I think if you look at Janelle Saffin’s approach ever since she had to scramble out of the house and swim for safety, she’s focused on coming up with practical common sense solutions to these problems, it would be pretty easy for her to issue media releases attacking Dominic Perrottet and Scott Morrison, and I think trying to play as much politics as she possibly could in the run up to the general election, that’s just not her style. And I’m pleased that the NSW Premier has effectively adopted her model. All that matters is what works, it doesn’t matter who comes up with the idea we just need to make sure that we’re putting people first.

JOURNALIST: The corporation will have some fairly significant powers, one of them’s over compulsory land acquisition. Given that you’ve been involved, the Opposition been involved in inquiries on that very issue, is that of any concern?

MINNS: Compulsory land acquisitions have been a power that the NSW Government has had, I think, since incorporation in NSW, so that in and of itself is not a new power that’s been conferred to the corporation. I do know that the Premier has said that any decision in relation to that will be done in concert with the local community, that’s why it’s important to have mayors and local members associated with the corporation. So that there’s I guess, local community input into whatever decisions are made, but I’m not prepared to jump on him yet in relation to that, because that’s a power that the NSW Government already has, and it may well be the case that decisions need to be made in order to make sure that communities are relocated to safe parts of Lismore and the Northern Rivers so that the devastating floods that have washed through that community, along with government assistance, we want to make sure that people aren’t on their own, to the extent possible don’t happen again.

JOURNALIST: On isolation rules, it was only probably two weeks ago, Brad Hazzard was actually against the idea of lifting the rules and he said that was based on the advice he’d received from Kerry Chant, so given that’s only a couple of weeks ago, there is still a divide, do we back Ms Chant completely or do we actually take into consideration the business groups?

MINNS: I think you asked me that question a couple of weeks ago Clinton, and that’s fair enough, but I made the point then and I make it now that there are competing interests here. Two weeks is a long time when it comes to pandemic management for the simple reason that in many cases, Australia is slightly behind the rest of the world when it comes to COVID infection rates so we can learn from other jurisdictions about what herd immunity does to the disease, how it affects public health, hospitals and emergency departments, making sure that we make and craft rules and policies that are consistent with what’s happened in other places around the world. So it’s hard for me to speculate on where Kerry Chant’s sitting in relation to this but I do acknowledge it’s a difficult one to navigate and I’m just not prepared to jump on the NSW Premier yet because I recognize it’s a problem that either side of politics no matter who was in government would have to face.

JOURNALIST: If we have indeed passed the peak of this wave, which we are hearing from epidemiologists. Is there really any point in maintaining these and at the cost of  the overwhelming staff shortages we’re seeing that, you know, wreaked havoc over the last week, not just the airport but but across all industries?

MINNS: Well, I guess that’s the point I’m making, but I understand it’s a difficult problem for the NSW Premier, so rather than the Opposition, jumping up making life more difficult and trying to extract a political win out of it, we would say that the NSW Premier needs to make a decision in relation to that. If changes in relation to close contacts within households need to be made, make sure it’s done with the best advice and information provided by health professionals, but a rapid antigen tests with a negative result may well be appropriate given herd immunity is far greater today than it was months ago and certainly in the dark days of winter 2021.

JOURNALIST: Just back on the flood corporation, there’s a long sort of remit given to this corporation of about three to five years, that’s the focus, so in that time, how are we going to know it’s achieving results?

MINNS: Well, that’s a good question and I guess that’s the role of the NSW Parliament and the Opposition to ask questions to make sure that there are clearly defined objectives and goals of the corporation and that they’re actually followed through. You’d have to say it’s a mixed record when it comes to the NSW government when it comes to state owned corporations, those agencies that are not directly linked to government departments, whether it’s the Transport Asset Holding Entity, or iCare, or any of the public utilities that have been or were once owned by the NSW Government. So that’s our obligation. I just call on the NSW Premier, and the government as they’re going about setting up this corporation, take the public into your trust, have as much or maximum transparency as you possibly can muster because bringing the community along when it comes to a rebuilding effort like we’re seeing on the Northern Rivers is essential and if you lose the trust, and confidence of the local population, particularly when you’re dealing with difficult issues like eminent domain, compulsory acquisitions, land re-zonings, changes to town centres and community infrastructure, it’s very difficult to get back.

JOURNALIST: And would you like to see KPIs or something for the corporation or would that just get in the way?

MINNS: Yeah, I think that the KPIs of course need to be put in place. A corporation that’s set up with a specific goal needs to be the absolute objective of the NSW Premier and the NSW Government. We just can’t have, as has been mentioned earlier today, another layer of bureaucracy this must have a specific game, specific goals, specific objectives, which is to rebuild the Northern Rivers.

JOURNALIST: NSW Gaming Minister Kevin Anderson is suggested that they might ditch this idea for a cashless gambling card in favour of more of an opt in digital scheme, is that a mistake moving away from that?

MINNS: I’d like to see the proposal, all I’ve seen is media speculation from the incoming Minister in relation to it. I understand it’s at cabinet level and as I know, from media reports that there’s been division in the NSW Cabinet in relation to that. I probably want to wait and see what his alternative proposal is before the Opposition makes further comment on it. It’s obviously a difficult issue, it’s hard to navigate, but we would expect the government to be transparent and open in relation to whatever policy changes they make and if they’re proposing to change course in relation to that particular policy from the previous Minister Dominello to the new Minister Anderson, well, just be up front for people in NSW.

JOURNALIST: There’s a lot of support, I suppose from harm minimization advocates and others and of course, we know how rampant money laundering can be in pubs and clubs and organized criminals using pokie machines to launder cash. In theory, would a Labor Government support a cashless gambling card? I mean something needs to come in to address this problem.

MINNS: I’m really reluctant to comment in detail on a hypothetical policy that hasn’t been released, that I haven’t laid eyes on, that hasn’t been released to the NSW public, that has no data behind it as of yet. That would need to be the threshold that needs to be passed before we can have a considered reply and I’ll wait for that.

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