COVID-19 Legislation Amendments

(Debate, 12 May 2020, Legislative Assembly NSW Parliament)

The COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures—Attorney General) Bill, the COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures—Treasurer) Bill and the COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures—Miscellaneous) Bill are about stopping the spread of COVID-19, looking after the economy and ensuring the State can continue to function. Those are essential outcomes but I am concerned with the way laws are being changed without proper oversight of Parliament or the ability to fully consult with stakeholders.

The bills before the House are densely packed, with around 40 significant changes across multiple portfolios and Acts. They confer sweeping and unchecked powers on the Executive Government. We were given a summary of their provisions late last Wednesday, the draft bill over the weekend and additional provisions overnight. I thank Government Ministers and their staff for briefings on the detail of the legislation being debated. I acknowledge that these are extraordinary times, with members of Government working hard, but we must never bypass democracy. At this time basic human rights are being overridden, a large portion of the population is living on the edge and government spending is high. We need strong accountability mechanisms now more than ever and I welcome the plan to return to a more normal sitting schedule.

These bills give Ministers broad regulation‑making powers across any Act to change statutory documents, certification requirements, submission obligations, the need for face-to-face meetings and due dates. There appears to be no oversight and few limitations on the powers, other than sunset clauses and some connection to the COVID-19 response. The budget can be postponed until 31 December this year and the Treasurer can continue to spend consolidated revenue without regular reporting. In comparison, fixed financial reporting is still in place for companies and corporations whose boards would rarely delegate such a risk. We need rigour and transparency in how public money is being spent. The House could be recalled to pass the next budget. The Public Accounts Committee should hold regular public hearings and maintain oversight of spending as well as require the Government to provide it with regular financial reports. The Treasurer and the head of his department should give members regular briefings, like those given by the health department.

Extending powers of arrest to sheriff officers and security guards is of serious concern, and I have not had the opportunity to properly consult on those provisions. Healthy democracies limit the occupations that can deny citizens' liberty. I am worried about the lack of accountability, the setting of new precedents and the lack of qualifications, especially in the case of security guards. While the Government moves to give itself sweeping powers, it is restricting the autonomy of democratically elected councils. The COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures—Miscellaneous) Bill would prevent councils from carrying out capital works on their administrative buildings and chambers for two years. There is no adequate justification for this change. Any capital works can help stimulate the economy and some councils will want to bring forward works while their buildings have no workers. Furthermore, postponing upgrades in older buildings can significantly add to costs. If the Government is worried about how councils are prioritising expenditure, rather than imposing blanket bans it could introduce checks and balances such as Office of Local Government approval for capital works beyond a certain threshold.

Ministerial powers to make orders limiting how a democratically elected council can apply different rates in its local government area are unnecessarily authoritarian and have a tenuous connection to COVID‑19. There are many reasons that councils apply different rates to different business regions and they should be able to continue to determine their own rating structure. I ask for commitments around the limited use of those powers. The planning Minister will have powers to direct councils not to collect infrastructure contributions before a construction certificate is issued. Councils will have no leverage to secure funds and there are compliance risks, including if a developer or builder goes bankrupt, and where private certifiers are issuing construction certificates. This significant change could see future communities deprived of needed infrastructure, yet there has been no consultation and no sunset clause.

I am concerned that changes to public health orders to enable the testing of a person by force for a category 4 or category 5 condition will unfairly and unjustifiably impact on people with HIV, which is the only category 5 condition. Category 4 conditions cover a range of highly infectious diseases with high death rates that present serious public health risks of mass contagion, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, as well as COVID-19. HIV is no longer a death sentence and its spread has been largely contained, thanks to advancements in medicine and measures to stop needle-sharing and encouraging safe sex. Successful campaigns have taken a harm minimisation approach and punitive measures should be taken with caution and following extensive consultation. This amendment has not had adequate consultation and has no sunset clause; as such, the power should be limited to category 4 conditions. I understand that my successful amendment for a statutory review of certain STI‑related provisions passed in 2017 will ensure that those new forced testing provisions will be reviewed. I welcome the Government's commitment to that.

Regulation‑making powers introduced in the other place by non-government parties and passed without any consultation have meant that much of the Government's tenancy reforms bypassed Parliament and members have not been given the opportunity to change and improve protections. There can be no reform more important during this health crisis than housing reform. A safe and stable home is essential for social distancing and hygiene practices. We must prioritise keeping a roof over the head of those facing financial hardship at this time. My electorate has the largest proportion of renters. I am increasingly hearing from tenants whose landlords will not negotiate beyond accepting a brief deferral of rent, after which full rent is resumed with the shortfall to be reimbursed. There are no requirements for landlords to cut rent and ensure tenants do not experience housing stress, poverty or hardship. If tenants do not accept harsh conditions, they have few options because the tribunal cannot order a rent reduction and can evict tenants for rental arrears in 60 days.

I have been in ongoing discussions with the Minister's Office about how poor negotiations have left tenants with debt and no security, including cases where landlords have used threats and intimidation. I welcome the Minister's response, with new information from NSW Fair Trading published last night that ensures the tribunal will consider matters such as tenant hardship and vulnerability and public health objectives before determining eviction applications for rental arrears. This is excellent progress and I thank the Minister and his staff for responding to these serious concerns. Notwithstanding, tenants remain vulnerable because they can be evicted for no reason, including during the moratorium.

No‑grounds eviction provisions give landlords an option to take retaliatory measures against tenants who do not accept their conditions. I have presented to the Minister case studies of landlords already using this provision. High vacancy rates caused by the COVID‑19 crisis cannot address tenants' inherent lack of security from being bound by enforceable leases that they can no longer pay and landlords' capacity to evict them for no reason. The solution is to establish guaranteed enforceable outcomes that prevent tenants going into housing stress or incurring debt and to introduce a moratorium on no‑grounds evictions where impacted tenants have tried to negotiate with landlords.

I welcome new provisions in the bill to address concerns I have raised that tenants on fixed leases signed before 23 March could be charged up to six weeks' rent for breaking a lease. Six weeks' rent in the inner city can be astronomical. The change will ensure that any tenant experiencing hardship who has attempted negotiations will only pay a fee of two weeks' rent if they break their lease to find a more affordable solution. The bill introduces much‑needed provisions to facilitate management of residential apartments. I raised concerns early on with the Minister for Better Regulation and Innovation about the pandemic's effect on strata communities and his office understood many of the challenges and worked hard on these changes.

Allowing owners corporations to meet and vote electronically and giving them more time to replenish funds after money has been transferred between them will go a long way to help those in buildings get through this pandemic. I remain concerned that apartment owners will suffer financial hardship and not be able to pay levies, which can be high. We will have to monitor the situation, as it presents further risks of homelessness and hardship. The COVID‑19 emergency has exposed the fragility of our housing system: rental affordability has been rapidly eroding with more people renting for longer and for a larger proportion of their income. Few rental homes in Sydney are within the means of the lowest income households.

New South Wales has a social housing waiting list of over 60,000 and a prolonged recession will put more people on that list. The Government must urgently expand social housing stock. This would stimulate the economy with thousands of new jobs. We must also increase major housing development targets to at least 15 per cent to deliver more social and affordable homes. Environmental protections have significant economic benefits and I welcome changes to restore the Energy Savings Scheme and the Energy Security Safeguard to encourage energy efficiency and demand management.

The Committee on Environment and Planning has seen strong evidence of economic and environmental outcomes from these measures and how strong investment in renewables, clean energy and transmission will help ease energy prices. This pandemic presents major challenges and I understand the Government is working in extraordinary circumstances. I pay particular tribute to the health Minister and the Chief Medical Officer for their ongoing briefings of MPs on the health response. I will not oppose the bill, however I hope to see greater transparency, accountability and oversight of the non‑health responses, including legislative changes and Government spending of public money.