Wednesday, 8 February 2023

Statements on parliamentary committee reports

Integrity and Oversight Committee

Integrity and Oversight Committee

Performance of the Victorian Integrity Agencies 2020/21: Focus on Witness Welfare

Tim McCURDY (Ovens Valley) (10:19): I am delighted to rise to speak on the Integrity and Oversight Committee’s report, and I particularly want to focus on witness welfare. I certainly want to begin by acknowledging the sensitivity of the subject and the importance of ensuring adequate mental health –

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! Which report?

Tim McCURDY: The Integrity and Oversight Committee report.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: There are two.

Tim McCURDY: Sorry?

Kim Wells: Witness welfare.

Tim McCURDY: Witness welfare.

Tim McCURDY: Thank you, member for Rowville. I would also like to say how important fair, transparent and open proceedings are in a democratic society – something we should never take for granted. This report, whilst focusing on the need to provide welfare support for integrity agency witnesses, also touches on a much broader issue of mental health and welfare support for all Victorians. Statistics on mental health are scarce, and very good data is even more scarce; however, the best research indicates that one in five Victorians have experienced a mental health condition in the past year, with instances of anxiety and depression increasing yet again. We know why there has been this large increase in mental health issues: with the Andrews Labor government’s record-breaking lockdowns, almost half of Victorians reported moderate or severe depression, compared to 32 per cent in other states. This is particularly prevalent amongst the younger generation, who we know are forced to adapt to a rapidly changing world – and when you think about it, three years ago the world was an entirely different place. Despite all the data pointing to a rapid increase in mental health issues and the government talking about the work they are doing, we are still hearing about the desperate need in our communities for greater mental health support. Indeed paragraph 2.3 of the report speaks about the need to provide welfare proactively, and I believe this can be expanded certainly to the needs and the welfare of all Victorians.

Accessibility is the largest reason for regional Victorians not getting the support they need, and many people have to wait months if they are fortunate enough to be seen by a professional. If you want an example of where the failure of this support happens, in the remote area of Falls Creek, at Bogong High Plains Road, there has been a landslip, and those communities are cut off from Mount Beauty and their normal communities. When I talk to them they tell me how they are struggling and how isolated they feel at the moment. They cannot easily access mental health support, let alone in the short term when they need it the most. The government should be proactively going to places like the Falls Creek community and offering mental health support that they otherwise would not have access to. ‘We are offering proactive support to witnesses’ – well, we should be proactive about reaching out to the most remote Victorian communities, who need it the most.

Regional Victorians are worried, and they are worried because of the track record of cutting mental health support where it matters the most. We have had a royal commission into Victoria’s mental health system and seen the need for major changes to that system. I acknowledge that progress is being made, but I remind the government to ensure that regional Victorians, like the constituents in the Ovens Valley, are certainly not left behind. Rather than following their federal counterparts, who are keen to slash Medicare-funded psychologist appointments, I urge the government to take a leaf out of those on this side of the chamber’s book and deliver a plan that will fix the mental health system and beef up our integrity agencies to deliver for all Victorians.

I also take a moment to note the minority report put together by my colleagues the member for Sandringham and the member for Rowville, which raises several worthy recommendations around transparency in the event of private hearings and submissions as well as the powers and roles of the Integrity and Oversight Committee. Whilst it is important to respect the welfare and wellbeing of witnesses, we must also respect the need for transparent and open investigations and hearings. We know how easy it can be for the government to cover their tracks. We cannot allow this to continue without a reasonable explanation for such privacy. Integrity is the cornerstone of our democracy, something we should cherish and never take for granted. It is also at the same time important to respect the huge mental health challenges faced by witnesses and by Victorians – and the sensitivity.

I conclude by urging the government to ensure that any increases in consideration of witness wellbeing do not come at the cost of integrity and free and open hearings. Victorians have a right to know about the slippery slope the government walks and are sick and tired of having the wool pulled over their eyes. Mental health needs to be taken seriously and dealt with proactively but not used as an excuse to cover up corruption from Victorians, who deserve to know the truth.