Vaccine rollout missing the majority of seniors receiving aged care

By Julie Owens

27 July 2021

Last week Prime Minister Scott Morrison said ‘sorry’ for Australia’s botched vaccine rollout.

With more than half the country in lockdown, it seems he had no choice but to accept some responsibility for what is arguably his most important job.

In Parramatta, the consequences of the slowest vaccine rollout in the OECD are obvious. Businesses are closed, streets are deserted and many people are out of work and struggling.

But these are not the only consequences. This week I want to talk about how the Morrison Government’s vaccine failures have put some of the most vulnerable members of our community at risk.

You may have heard that despite promising to vaccinate all aged care workers and residents by Easter, some residents and a staggering 57% of workers remain unvaccinated.

You probably haven’t heard anything about vaccinations for the almost 1 million older Australians who are receiving care at home.

This kind of care involves multiple aged care workers and volunteers, such as cleaners, specialist carers and Meals on Wheels visiting the homes of frail older people, sometimes daily.

I’ve heard from many seniors in this group who have struggled to book a vaccine appointment and others who don’t know how they’ll be able to get to their appointment, if they manage to book one.

I’ve also heard from seniors who are wondering whether the workers and volunteers who come into their homes are vaccinated.

83.5% of all older Australians receiving aged care do so in their own homes, not a residential aged care facility, and over a third of the aged care workforce provides care at home. Yet it seems the Morrison Government has no idea how many of these older Australians and workers have been vaccinated.

I said “you probably haven’t heard” about the vaccine rollout in home care because the Morrison Government isn’t talking about it. In press conferences and media interviews they seem to be pretending that the aged care system only exists in residential aged care.

They’ve either forgotten about the majority of Australians in the aged care system, or they’re trying to cover up a lack of oversight of the majority of the aged care vaccine rollout.

Older Australians who’ve spent a lifetime contributing to this country deserve better than this. First and foremost, they deserve a plan.

This means the Morrison Government needs to work out and tell us how many older Australians receiving home care have managed to get vaccinated without any government support. Likewise the workers and volunteers who support them. Then they need to set a target for when the rest of them will be vaccinated and tell us how they’re going to make it happen, safely and effectively.

Scott Morrison has said the vaccine rollout isn’t a race. But it undoubtedly is, especially for the most vulnerable members of our community, and we need to start running.

More help is available

By Julie Owens

20 July 2021

Our community is in lockdown until at least 30 July.

I’ve heard from a lot of people and businesses who are already struggling and wondering how they will cope with the extension until the end of the month.

There has been a constant stream of announcements this past week. Fortunately, some of them have been about new support payments for people who’ve lost work and businesses forced to close because of the restrictions. A lot of the information out there is confusing, so I want to dedicate this space to explaining some of the support that’s available for people in Parramatta, and how you can get it.

Individuals

If you've lost work and income because of the lockdown, you can claim the COVID-19 Disaster Payment every 7 days during lockdown, starting on 4 July. You have to lodge a new claim each week with Centrelink through MyGov and the payment will depend on how many hours you've lost in that 7 day period.

As of 15 July, the payment has increased from $500 to $600 per week for more than 20 hours lost work, and from $325 to $375 for less than 20 hours. The original requirement to have less than $10,000 in liquid assets no longer applies.

Extended telehealth consultations (20 minutes+) are once again available on Medicare.

As of yesterday, child care gap fees will be waived for parents who keep their kids at home during lockdown.

There is also a 60 day freeze on evictions for residential tenants who have lost 25% or more of their income and can't afford to pay their rent because of COVID-19.

Businesses

Businesses and not-for-profits with annual turnover between $75,000 and $50 million that have experienced a 30% decline in turnover (or greater) can apply for a weekly business support payment of between $1,500 and $10,000 per week, depending on their payroll. Non-employing businesses such as sole traders can apply for $1,000 per week.

The NSW Government business support grants announced in late June have been expanded. Businesses, sole traders and not-for-profit organisations that have experienced a decline in turnover of 30% or more can now apply for a COVID-19 business grant of up to $15,000.

Micro businesses that have been affected by lockdown but left out of these measures may be able to apply for micro business grants of $1500 per fortnight from late July.

The NSW Government is also offering payroll tax deferrals and waivers for affected businesses and land tax relief for landlords who offer rent reductions (residential landlords who don’t pay land tax can apply for a grant of up to $1,500).

Click here for links to more information about these measures including eligibility rules and how to apply. If you're having trouble getting help, please get in touch with my office.

Cuts to Medicare under the cover of COVID

13 July 2021

On July 1, when all eyes were on COVID case numbers and 12 million Australians were in lockdown, Scott Morrison snuck through almost 1,000 cuts and changes to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS). 

This is the biggest change to the MBS, which lists all the Medicare services subsidised by the Australian Government, in its history. 

One in six Medicare rebates have been affected, radically altering the cost of hundreds of orthopaedic, cardiac and general surgeries. 

Despite the scale and impact of these changes, doctors and healthcare providers only learned the details around three weeks before they came into effect. 

That means people who planned surgeries before their doctor was notified about the changes now face out of pocket costs of up to $10,000. 

The Australian Medical Association, the Grattan Institute, health funds, the Consumers Health Forum, and the Australian Orthopaedic Association have all warned the cuts and changes will lead to an increase in out of pocket costs for patients. 

The Minister for Health has said savings from these cuts will be reinvested in Medicare – but he hasn’t been able to explain how patients will benefit. 

This follows a pattern of rising out of pocket costs under the current Liberal Government, which has seen gap fees go up by around $10 for GP visits and a whopping $30 for specialists. It now costs 43% more to see a doctor in Parramatta than it did in 2013. 

Over the past eight years, this Government has also pursued Medicare privatisation, proposed a $7 GP tax, cut bulk billing services and cut billions from Medicare. 

It’s important to note that the latest cuts and changes came out of a five year review that was supported by the AMA and other medical groups. 

The aim of this review was to bring the MBS in line with modern surgical practice. But the outcome has blindsided the medical profession, and the Morrison Government is yet to explain to doctors or patients how the almost 1,000 changes will work. 

Doctors are already reporting cases of patients putting off surgery because they don’t know if they’ll be able to afford it.  

In Australia, in 2021, patients should not be forced to choose between cancelling life-changing surgeries or being hit with huge bills they were never told about. 

I’ve added a petition to my website so people in our community can tell the Morrison Government to abandon these cuts and changes. If this matters to you, please add your name here.

If these cuts and changes have affected you or someone you care about, please get in touch with my office. 

Looking out for each other in lockdown

By Julie Owens

06 July 2021

Greater Sydney is in lockdown until at least the end of this week – a situation which may change for better or worse in the time it takes this paper to reach you.

Last week, stay at home orders were announced in Brisbane, Perth, Darwin, Townsville and the Gold Coast, plunging 12 million Australians into lockdown to stop the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.

The public debate has, quite rightly, been focused on the reasons why almost half the population is in lockdown more than a year after the pandemic began.

Without losing sight of that, I wanted to spend some time talking about the people in our community who are hurting because of this lockdown, and how they can find help.

Many are hurting because they’ve lost work. Casuals accounted for two thirds of job losses during the first COVID lockdown and will bear the brunt of this one. 

It’s hard to say how many have been affected, but a shift scheduling app used by two million Australian workers has reported an almost 70% cut in hospitality shifts, and a decline of around 60% in retail and service roles. Parramatta is home to around 10% of Sydney’s casual workforce – 54,600 people.

If you’ve lost work and income because of the lockdown, you may be eligible to claim a one-off COVID-19 Disaster Payment from the Federal Government. It only kicks in when the lockdown lasts for more than 7 days, meaning you can only claim if for hours you lose from the start of the second week - $500 for 20 hours or more or $325 for less than 20 hours.

Refugees, asylum seekers and other temporary visa holders who’ve lost work will not be eligible for this payment – or any other government support.

Volunteers and local community organisations like Parramatta Mission and Karabi Community Services continue to step up wherever the government is absent, providing emergency relief including meals, food parcels and food vouchers. But the demand is so great that some organisations now have waiting lists for these services.

Of course, people have lost work because businesses have been forced to scale back or close their doors during lockdown. This has been devastating for local small businesses, who have been struggling to trade through changing restrictions and the construction of the Parramatta Light Rail for more than a year.

From late July, small businesses that have seen a decline in turnover can apply for a NSW Government COVID-19 support grant - $5,000 for a 30% decline in turnover, $7,000 for a 50% decline and $10,000 for a 70% decline. While this support is welcome, I’ve already heard from business owners that have been forced to close, but won’t be eligible for these grants.

The QR code at bottom left links to a page on my website with information about the business support grants, the COVID-19 Disaster Payment and other local services that can help if you’re struggling.  And my office is always available to help by phone or email.

Some of you who are doing OK might like to consider volunteering or making a donation to one of our fantastic local relief organisations. But we can all do our bit to help by looking out for each other. That’s how we’ll get through this together.

Parramatta’s environment and heritage under threat

By Julie Owens

29 June 2021

The NSW Government continues to wage a war on heritage and green space in Parramatta.

Let’s start with Willow Grove. I’ve previously written about the long battle to save this heritage building from demolition to build – paradoxically – a heritage museum.

Despite overwhelming community opposition and a Green Ban stopping work, the NSW Government is pushing ahead with its new plan to dismantle and ‘move’ Willow Grove to an unspecified site.

Community activists from the North Parramatta Residents Action Group have taken the fight to the NSW Land & Environment Court, arguing that the NSW Government failed to properly consider alternatives that would have allowed Willow Grove to remain on Phillip St, where it’s stood for almost 150 years.

Two weeks ago the Court found in favour of the NSW Government and last Monday, workers began demolishing the one-of-a-kind Italianate villa.

But I’m pleased to say the fight is not over. Activists gathered before dawn last Tuesday to surround Willow Grove and NPRAG won an injunction that will stop the destruction of the building until the Court’s decision can be appealed. Unfortunately, workers are still tearing down outbuildings and cutting down trees at the site.

While the future of Willow Grove hangs in the balance, Greater Sydney Parklands is planning to remove 60 mature trees from Parramatta Park to make way for 130 new parking spaces.

This is being done as part of the ‘People’s Loop’ project, which – again paradoxically – is all about removing cars from the park to make it more pedestrian-friendly.

Locals say they’ve been blindsided by the decision as there was no mention of removing trees and building new car parks when the People’s Loop consultation was held 6 years ago.

They’re fighting hard to save the trees, with a petition asking Parramatta Council to intervene gaining more than 1,000 signatures. Thanks to their efforts, work on the project will stop for at least five weeks to allow for further community consultation.

Parramatta Park is a significant heritage site, with thousands of years of Aboriginal Heritage and the World Heritage listed Old Government House within its boundary, and it deserves to be protected.

The removal of trees anywhere in Parramatta is a cause for concern. Poor planning decisions and the explosion of heat intensifying infrastructure such as carparks are compounding the consequences of climate change and in 2019, Parramatta sweltered through 47 days over 35C.

If we want to reduce this ‘urban heat island’ effect, we need to protect the tree cover and green spaces we have and create more.

Sadly, the Morrison Government is trying to push through changes that will undermine federal protections for environment and heritage, devolving decision-making powers in NSW to a state government that seems hell bent on replacing trees and heritage buildings with concrete and glass.

I want to thank the locals who are fighting to protect Parramatta’s heritage and save these trees, including North Parramatta Residents Action Group, Save Willow Grove and the unions backing the Green Ban on Willow Grove.

They are fighting to make Parramatta a better place to live and when it comes to saving trees, doing all they can to ensure Parramatta remains liveable. 

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.