Bring the Muruguppans home to Biloela

By Julie Owens

22 June 2021

Two weeks ago, a photo brought Australians face-to-face with the cruelty visited on the Muruguppan family by the Morrison Government.

The photo showed then 3 year old Tharunicaa Muruguppan crying in a hospital bed, suffering from a blood infection caused by untreated pneumonia.

We now know that Tharunicaa was very sick for 10 days before she finally got proper medical treatment. Until then, despite her parents’ desperate pleas, she was only offered over-the-counter painkillers by medical staff on Christmas Island and her condition became so serious that she had to be medically evacuated to Perth.

The treatment of the youngest member of the ‘Biloela family’ – named for the Queensland town where they became much loved members of the community – is the latest instalment in a long and terrible story.

Priya and Nades Muruguppan are Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers who met in Australia and settled in Biloela in 2014. Their two daughters Kopika, 6 and Tharunicaa, now 4 were born there. Nades worked in the local abattoir and volunteered in the community.

In March 2018, soon after Priya and Nades’ visas expired, the family was taken into custody in a dawn raid by Border Force officers and police. The raid shocked the Biloela community, which started to campaign for their return almost immediately.

In August 2019, after more than a year in immigration detention in Melbourne, the family was forced on a plane bound for Sri Lanka. A Federal Court injunction forced the plane to land in Darwin and the family was moved to Christmas Island, where despite being the only detainees on the island, they were confined to two rooms and rarely allowed to leave the centre.

While the family has been in immigration detention the ‘Home to Bilo’ campaign has brought the family’s plight to national – and international – attention. A petition asking the Morrison Government to bring the family home to Biloela has over 550,000 signatures (and counting).

Under intense pressure, the Minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke, has released the family into community detention in Perth, allowing Nades and Kopika to be reunited with Priya and Tharunicaa, who will need 8 weeks’ treatment to fully recover.

This is a reprieve, but it doesn’t bring the family any closer to going ‘home to Bilo’, and there is still no certainty of an outcome.

Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews seemed to downplay the seriousness of the situation when she said last week that reporting of Tharunicaa’s illness was “inaccurate” and that she had been “well and truly treated.”

The Morrison Government has defended its treatment of the Muruguppans by saying that letting them stay would weaken Australia’s borders. But it is possible to be strong on borders without losing our humanity.

The Migration Act ensures this by giving the Ministers for Home Affairs and Immigration the power to exercise discretion – something they do thousands of times each year.

After spending an estimated $50 million to detain and try to deport the family and causing untold pain and suffering, it’s hard to see what the Government hopes to achieve by keeping the Biloela family in detention.

The vaccine rollout is a race – and we need to get it right

By Julie Owens

15 June 2021

Last week I got my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. When I tell people about it, I find I get one of two reactions.

Some people say “you’re lucky!”. Others tell me they want to wait and see how the vaccine affects others before getting it themselves.

These two reactions sum up the Morrison Government’s mishandling of the vaccine rollout.

On the one hand we have unacceptable delays.

Scott Morrison promised 4 million Australians would be vaccinated by March – and that all Australian adults would be vaccinated by October.

It’s now mid-June and Australians have only received 5 million doses of the vaccine. Many vulnerable people and workers in high risk industries are still waiting.

Earlier this month the Minister for Aged Care Services, Richard Colbeck, said the Morrison Government did not know how many aged care workers had been vaccinated, quoting a figure that could represent less than 10% of the workforce.

Despite this, Minister Colbeck said he was “comfortable” with the pace of the rollout.

I’ve heard from many residents who have been struggling to access the vaccine, and others who are confused about whether or not they are eligible.

At the current rate, it will take at least 11 months to vaccinate 20 million people. Meanwhile, the community is at risk of further outbreaks, more virulent COVID strains and devastating lockdowns.

On the other hand, there has been an alarming rise in ‘vaccine hesitancy’ in the community.

While many people are desperate to be vaccinated, a recent survey found almost one in three Australian adults said they were unlikely to get a COVID vaccine. Most of the people surveyed said they were worried about side-effects for their age group, or that they didn’t know enough about the vaccines currently available.

It is understandable that people will have questions about a new vaccine. But we are seeing increased levels of hesitancy because the Morrison Government is not providing clear public health information in response.

Scott Morrison has said that the vaccine rollout is “not a race”. But it is a race against the virus and new and more dangerous strains.

We need a fast and effective rollout of the vaccine that reaches the most vulnerable Australians – and the people who care for them – first. And we need a strong public health information campaign that explains why it’s important to get vaccinated and where people can go if they have questions or concerns.

Labor stands with the experts who have been calling on the Morrison Government to act for months now. Until they do, we all live with the risk of future outbreaks and lockdowns.

Anyone over 40 can now get the jab in NSW - if this is you, please scan the QR code to book an appointment as soon as possible. If you're uncertain or have any questions, talk to your GP.

There’s a housing crisis in Parramatta – and we need a plan to fix it

By Julie Owens

08 June 2021

Australia is in the grip of a housing crisis. It’s harder to buy or rent and there are more Australians experiencing homelessness than ever before.

The reasons for this are not a mystery. While wages growth has been stagnant since the Government was elected in 2013, low interest rates and Government incentives have increased demand in the housing market, pushing up prices.

Apartment developments have exploded in places like Parramatta, which has increased housing supply, but we haven’t been building enough social and affordable housing to keep pace with demand.

There are more than 400,000 people waiting for social housing in Australia, including 4,200 in Parramatta, and Everybody’s Home estimates that Australia will need 500,000 new social and affordable homes in the next five years.

The Morrison Government had an unprecedented opportunity to address these issues in the latest Budget, which has racked up a trillion dollars in debt in response to the pandemic.

Instead they’ve introduced measures that will increase demand and do little to address the critical shortage of affordable housing.

These include increasing the amount of money you can withdraw from super for a home deposit from $30,000 to $50,000. Experts say this will only push up prices, while leaving Australians worse off in retirement.

Another measure that’s received a lot of attention is the Family Home Guarantee, which will allow 10,000 single parents to buy a home with just a 2% deposit over the next four years.

When you divide the number of guarantees by the electorates represented in our Federal Parliament, that means an average of just 16 of the 738 single parent households in Parramatta stand to benefit each year.

If those 16 single parents want to buy a house or a unit in Parramatta, they’ll need to be earning close to the scheme’s $125,000 income cap to be able to borrow enough money to do it. Data from the Melbourne Institute and CoreLogic shows that someone earning the median income for a single parent with two kids ($56,795) would only be able to afford a house in one Sydney suburb with the guarantee – Carramar.

Labor believes the Government needs to take urgent action to address the housing crisis. That’s why we’ve committed to establish a $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund. Returns on the fund in the first five years would build 20,000 new social homes – with 4,000 set aside for women and children fleeing domestic violence and older women at risk of homelessness. They would also build 10,000 affordable homes for frontline workers; support housing repairs in remote Indigenous communities; and fund crisis housing for women fleeing domestic violence and older women and veterans at risk of homelessness.

After the first five years, a portion of the returns will fund acute housing needs each year in perpetuity – creating a permanent funding base for social housing that will also create jobs and inject billions into our economy.

Our community needs more social and affordable housing – and a Government with a plan to fix our housing crisis. If you’d like to learn more about Labor’s plan, click here.

More than just a word – Reconciliation takes action

By Julie Owens

01 June 2021

This week is National Reconciliation Week – a time for all Australians to listen, learn and reflect on what we can do to help achieve reconciliation in this country.

The days we observe just before and during the week are a good place to start.

National Sorry Day remembers the grief, suffering and injustice experienced by the Stolen Generations on May 26, the anniversary of the tabling of the Bringing the Home report in Parliament.

This report was the result of an inquiry into government policies which saw thousands of First Nations children forcibly removed from their families and communities. It brought to light the stories of cruelty, abuse and neglect abuse experienced by the Stolen Generations in places like the notorious Parramatta Girls Home.

In Parramatta, these stories reach back to 1815, when Governor Macquarie established the Parramatta Native Institution. 37 Darug children were removed from their families to be "civilised, educated and Christianised" at the institution - foreshadowing the policy leading to the Stolen Generations

This is not just history – today, there are almost 19,000 First Nations children in out of home care, and First Nations children are 11 times more likely to enter out-of-home care.

Reconciliation Week begins on May 27, the anniversary of the 1967 referendum, when Australians overwhelmingly voted ‘yes’ to count First Nations people in the census, and give the government power to make laws for them.

It concludes on Mabo Day, June 3, which commemorates Eddie Koiki Mabo’s 10 year court battle, which resulted in the landmark High Court decision recognising First Nations people as traditional owners of the land in Australian law.

Understanding the truth of our history is essential for reconciliation – but as the theme of this years’ Reconciliation Week reminds us, Reconciliation takes action.

On National Sorry Day four years ago, First Nations communities came together to deliver the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which sets out a clear course of action for reconciliation in this country.

They told us they wanted a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution and a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of truth telling and agreement making.

This would ensure First Nations people had a voice on government decisions that affect them; allow us to properly acknowledge the truth of our past; and work towards a Treaty with our First Nations people – something that was achieved in countries like New Zealand, Canada and the United States centuries ago.

Four years later, First Nations people are still waiting for the Morrison Government to take action.

So far, they’ve only committed to legislate a voice to Government, which is not what First Nations people asked for, and they haven’t said how or when they intend to do this.

Labor supports the Uluru Statement in full – and I will continue to call on the Government to listen to First Nations voices and take action. I encourage everyone to read it – click here for links to the Uluru Statement and more info on how you can support it.

Volunteers are the backbone of our community - and they need more support

By Julie Owens

25 May 2021

Last week was National Volunteer Week – a time to celebrate the almost 6 million Australian volunteers who work tirelessly to make our communities stronger.

Each year, these volunteers contribute 600 million hours to help others. This benefits the community, the volunteers themselves, and our economy.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated 520 million volunteer hours contributed in the 2012-13 financial year had an economic value of $17.3 billion.

Another way to understand the value of volunteers is to imagine Parramatta without them.

Imagine our community without volunteer-run sporting clubs like the Parramatta Memorial Swimming Club, which has been teaching kids life-saving skills and helping adults stay connected to the sport since 1964.

Or local bushcare volunteers like the Daranggara Corridor Bushcare Group, who help preserve our precious green spaces and protect native wildlife.

Or the NSW SES Parramatta Unit, who answered 107 calls for help from locals in the first five days of the NSW floods in March – in addition to helping flood relief efforts across Greater Western Sydney.

There are far too many fantastic organisations to name here - because Parramatta without volunteers is unimaginable.

This has become all the more obvious during the coronavirus pandemic, when volunteers have stepped up wherever the Morrison Government is absent.

Volunteers from local Rotary and Lions Clubs, Karabi Community Services and Jesuit Refugee Services – to name just a few - have been delivering food to hundreds of needy families, including many refugees and temporary visa holders who received no support from the government when they lost work last year.

Sadly, volunteering organisations have been supporting much greater numbers of people in need with fewer resources – and there was nothing in the Morrison Government’s latest Budget for volunteers.

In early-2020, two out of every three volunteers cut back their hours, including many older volunteers who had to self-isolate - leaving charities short by an estimated 12.2 million hours per week. Only around 1 in 4 organisations had been able to get volunteer participation back to pre-pandemic levels of activity by the start of this year.

Volunteers are the backbone of our communities, so one of the most important responsibilities of Government is to get behind our volunteer organisations and make sure they have the resources they need to continue their important work.

I will keep pressuring the Government to do more for our volunteers and I hope you’ll join me in thanking our volunteers for all they do to make our community stronger. If you think you’d like to volunteer yourself, click here for information on local opportunities.

Local organisations make our community stronger

By Julie Owens

18 May 2021

Last week was packed with Budget announcements from the Morrison Government.

The Prime Minister told us his Government had set Australia on the path to recovery and that new measures in the Budget would see this continue.

It’s true that measures like JobKeeper, and top up payments for people on unemployment benefits like JobSeeker – both of which Labor called for at the beginning of the pandemic – made a big difference during the darkest days of lockdown.

But credit must also go to our community sector, which did much of the heavy lifting, especially for groups like temporary visa holders and international students, who were completely left out of the Government’s response.

A 2020 ACOSS survey of community sector workers found 61% had seen increased demand for services after COVID restrictions were introduced in March of that year. More than half reported more people seeking help – rising to 86% for migrant and multicultural services.

At the same time, 36% reported that they were worse off financially due to falling donations and loss of other types of income.

Many of the local community organisations I talk to are run by a small number of committed volunteers, who often contribute both money and time to provide essential services to our community.

A small amount of money can make a huge difference to these organisations – funding things like technology upgrades, new equipment and fuel vouchers to help volunteers travel for important community work.

So one of the most important things I can do as the Federal Member for Parramatta is make sure our local community and volunteer organisations are well informed about grants and other funding opportunities.

There are lots of different sources of information out there – some more reliable than others – but searching for grants takes time that busy, often overstretched volunteer groups simply don’t have.

For the past 17 years I’ve been sending out a monthly grants bulletin to make it easier for locals to find the right grants – like the Powering Communities Program, which helps community organisations fund projects that can improve their energy efficiency practices and lower their energy bills.

You can subscribe to my Grants Bulletin and find more information about the Powering Communities Program for organisations in the Parramatta electorate by scanning the QR code above.

Of course, finding grants is just the first step. To get funding you need to know which grants to apply for, and how to write a successful application.

I’ll be hosting a grants forum on Monday 12 July to explain the ins and outs of the application process and how organisations can maximise their chances for success – click here to register now to attend in person or on Zoom.

If your organisation needs funding but you’re unsure how to get it, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with my office. Thank you for the work that you do to make our community stronger. I hope I can help you take it further.

It’s un-Australian to leave citizens stranded

By Julie Owens

11 May 2021

India is in the grip of one of the worst humanitarian crises of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At time of writing there are more than 20 million confirmed cases and more than 220,000 people have died. The second wave has overwhelmed the country’s healthcare system, which is facing a critical shortage of medical oxygen.

Last week Scott Morrison abandoned the almost 10,000 Australians who have been caught in this crisis when he made it unlawful for them to return to Australia.

This unprecedented decision means that an Australian citizen who attempts to return from India faces heavy fines and up to five years in prison.

There has been an enormous outcry in Australia and around the world at this decision, which the Prime Minister justified on the grounds that it would ensure “our quarantine system can remain strong.”

And there’s the rub. Despite the fact that Australia’s borders are the responsibility of the Federal Government, Scott Morrison has been AWOL on quarantine since the beginning of the pandemic.

His failure to deliver on quarantine has left too many Australians – 35,000 at last count - stranded overseas for far too long.

Now, instead of coming up with a plan to help them all get to safety, the Morrison Government has totally abandoned nearly a third of these Australians in an escalating crisis.

I’ve started a petition calling on the Government to:

  1. Cancel the ban on and penalties for Australians returning from India.
  2. Ensure travel restrictions are based on health advice and time-limited.
  3. Establish safe, national quarantine to ensure the safety of Australians at home and overseas.
  4. Take immediate action to help stranded Australians in India and around the world to return to safety.

You can add your voice to the call by signing the petition and sharing it with your friends and family.

Scott Morrison has already walked back threats of jail time and stressed that repatriation flights will resume on 15 May.

But it’s long been clear that the Morrison Government needs to set up national quarantine to ensure the safety of all Australians, both at home and overseas.

It’s also clear that the Australian Government should be doing everything it possibly can to help Australians come home – like ensuring sufficient flights, including additional repatriation flights; looking at options to vaccinate Australians left behind in the high-risk situation in India; and providing extra financial support to those most vulnerable.

Anything less is unacceptable – and un-Australian.

Locals fighting to make Parramatta a better place to live

By Julie Owens

04 May 2021

One of the best parts of my job is seeing the fantastic work that people are doing to make out community stronger, and to make Parramatta a better place to live.

Save Willow Grove

I’m sure most of you are aware of the long running fight to Save Willow Grove.

The NSW Government plans to demolish the 1880s Italianate villa, the only one of its kind in Parramatta, to make way for the new Powerhouse Museum.

The grassroots campaign to save this valuable heritage site and build a world class museum elsewhere in Parramatta has won overwhelming community support, with more than 1,200 people and organisations making submissions objecting to the Government’s plan to demolish the building.

It’s also won support from the CFMEU, which has placed a Green Ban on Willow Grove and moved its annual May Day march to Parramatta this year. Past Green Bans saved The Rocks, Centennial Park and a local bushland site which is now the Central Gardens Nature Reserve Merrylands.

In response, the NSW Government has agreed to ‘move’ Willow Grove to an unspecified site. The reality is that heritage buildings like Willow Grove can’t be moved, and the fight to save it continues. You can find out more about how you can support the campaign on their Facebook page.

Westmead Push for Palliative Care

Another campaign you may have read about in the pages of the Parra News is the Westmead Push for Palliative Care.

Palliative care aims to give people with an advanced disease and little or no prospect of survival quality of life at the end of their lives. It’s provided by specialists who are experts in pain management and compassionate and spiritual support.

Despite being one of the biggest hospital precincts in Australia, Westmead Hospital has not had a dedicated palliative care ward for many years.

This means that locals are not receiving specialised care at the end of their lives, and are forced to choose between palliative care at home, which is not an option for people with complex medical conditions; in a ward that is focused on providing care to recovering patients; or in a different hospital with doctors unfamiliar with their medical history.

I think our community deserves much better. If you agree, search ‘Westmead Push for Palliative Care’ on Facebook to find out how you can help.

Save our Local Buses

The NSW Government recently scrapped a range of local bus services without consulting the community, including the M52 express service to the City. Other local services including the 525 to Strathfield have been cut in half.

On top of this, the NSW Government is pushing ahead with plans to privatise all of Sydney’s remaining public bus services – despite reports from the NSW Auditor General and Transport NSW showing that privatisation of bus services in Sydney’s inner west and Newcastle has led to slower, less reliable services and fewer bus stops.

Local activists have started a petition to Save our Public Buses and they need more signatures to trigger a debate about these changes in the NSW Parliament. If you’re concerned about how these changes will affect you and your family, you can add your name to the petition here.

Honour fallen Anzacs by supporting our veterans

By Julie Owens

27 April 2021

Anzac Day in 2020 was very different for all of us.

The ceremonies and marches were cancelled, but people in Parramatta still found ways to pay our respects under COVID restrictions.

I joined people around Australia reflecting on the sacrifices made by our veterans and those who continue to serve by holding my own dawn service on my balcony as part of Light up the Dawn.

While we lit candles in socially distanced safety, defence personnel worked tirelessly to support the pandemic response.

Their efforts contact tracing, in quarantine and at state border checkpoints helped stop the spread and make community commemorations possible this year.

On Sunday I was honoured to be part of services held by the City of Parramatta RSL Sub-branch, Granville RSL Sub-branch and the Consortium of Tamil Associations NSW in Wentworthville.

This is important – but our support for veterans shouldn’t start and finish with symbolic recognition on Anzac Day.

Since the start of the Afghan war, we have lost many more veterans to suicide than soldiers killed in combat.

Veterans have been telling us for years now that we need a Royal Commission into this unending tragedy. The Morrison Government resisted their calls – proposing a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, despite veterans’ concerns that it would not have the independence, scope or resources of a Royal Commission – before finally calling a Royal Commission last week.

Labor is disappointed this has taken so long, but we are ready to work with the Government to make sure this Royal Commission has the strong and broad powers and Terms of Reference that it needs.

Unfortunately, early reports indicate that it will not cover the role of departments like Defence and Veterans' Affairs, previous reviews and inquiries like the 2019 Productivity Commission report, veteran homelessness, or the impact of anti-malarial drug trials on veterans' mental health.

The Morrison Government needs to do better – and the first step is to consult widely on how the Royal Commission should be run. This means listening to the voices of the veterans’ community and the families of veterans who have tragically died by suicide and can no longer speak for themselves.

One of the best ways to honour the service of our fallen diggers is to look after our living service men and women and their families through a strong veteran support system. Listening to the voices of veterans and their families through this Royal Commission is a crucial step towards building one.

If you need to talk to someone, Lifeline provides 24/7 crisis support on 13 11 14 or at lifeline.org.au

Rising child care costs are hurting working families

By Julie Owens

13 April 2021

Australian families pay some of the highest child care costs in the world. And the cost of child care keeps going up.

Since the Liberal Government was elected in 2013, child care fees have gone up by 35%. According to the Government’s own estimates, fees will increase on average 4.1% each year for the next four years.

Over the same period, wage growth has slowed to a crawl, and wages are only expected to rise 1% this year.

This means child care is increasingly unaffordable for working families in Parramatta – one local mum told me recently that her child care fees were higher than her mortgage repayments!

In many cases, parents who want to work full time are forced to work part time because the cost of child care would see them actually lose money for working extra days.

This isn’t just hurting local families – it’s hurting the economy.

Research from the Grattan Institute and KPMG has highlighted the ways our child care system dampens productivity, and the Government’s own Budget papers point to the drag on the economy caused by lower workforce participation rates and a declining population.

But there’s a silver lining in all of this. If we fix our broken child care system, we can boost our economic recovery so everyone benefits – whether they use child care or not.

Labor has a plan to make child care more affordable by scrapping the annual cap on the child care subsidy, which often sees parents – usually mothers – lose money if they take on extra days at work.

We also plan to lift the maximum child care subsidy rate to 90% and increase child care subsidy rates for every family with a combined household income less than $530,000.

Under a Labor Government, 97% of families with children in child care will be better off. Research from KPMG and the Grattan Institute estimates that similar reforms could generate GDP growth of between $4 billion and $11 billion every year.

Parramatta parents should be free to choose between staying home and quality child care – not penalised by higher child care fees when they take on extra hours or days at work.

Nationally, more than 100,000 families are locked out of our child care system because they simply can’t afford it. Our policy will open the door to child care for these families and make it more affordable for virtually all families with children in child care now.

If you’ve got children in child care – or you’ve been locked out by rising fees – click here to find out how much you could save under this policy.

And if child care reform matters to you, or you need help navigating the complex child care system, please get in touch with my office.

The Government has been silent on this issue, despite predicting a rapid rise in child care costs – so it’s critical that voices in our community are heard.