Wednesday, 17 May 2023

Statements on tabled papers and petitions

Remembrance Parks Central Victoria

Remembrance Parks Central Victoria

Report 2021–22

Wendy LOVELL (Northern Victoria) (17:15): I rise to speak on the annual report of Remembrance Parks Central Victoria that was tabled in the Parliament on 20 December 2022. On Tuesday this week a number of families from Bendigo travelled to Parliament to hand over a petition bearing more than 15,000 signatures condemning the board of Remembrance Parks Central Victoria for the desecration of graves of their loved ones by the trust. Unfortunately the petition was conducted via, and therefore it is not in a format that can be tabled in the Parliament. So instead I personally delivered the petition to the office of the Minister for Health. Regardless of its format, the intention of the petition is clear. Families do not have faith in the board of RPCV to manage their cemeteries with the compassion required, and if the board will not resign then the minister must sack them and appoint a more competent and compassionate board.

In January this year the board of management of RPCV caused unimaginable pain to members of both the Bendigo and Shepparton communities when they desecrated graves where families had created small memorials or placed cherished personal items and, on some graves, modest floral tributes. Many of the graves targeted by RPCV were graves of children, and some of the personal items placed on those graves had very personal meaning. These items included small toys that the children had played with or a comforter the children could not sleep without. Some were solar lights for children who were afraid of the dark. These items were taken and destroyed with no prior warning to families. In some cases the items were smashed on the spot and the broken pieces left to upset the family even more. Families were distraught and felt these precious items had been stolen from their children.

RPCV’s board chair Marg Lewis has shown no compassion to families and initially doubled down on the policy in interviews where she defended RPCV’s right to remove items without consultation, claiming they did not fit with the board’s adornment policy. It was only after A Current Affair backed the distraught families that Ms Lewis and the board did a very poorly executed backflip and blamed the CEO for implementing the board’s policy. This board under the so-called leadership of Marg Lewis has a history of failure in governance. In May last year they put forward a proposal to increase the cost of funerals by 300 per cent. That went down like a lead balloon, and the board was forced to do a backflip. During that process the then CEO suddenly disappeared and was replaced by the board chair’s captain’s pick as acting CEO, and later the same person became the official CEO. Now after this latest debacle, this new CEO has gone, when the board actually should have been the ones to lose their jobs.

Under pressure, the board commissioned a review of their operations. But they set the terms of reference themselves, which no-one has seen, and they appointed the so-called independent reviewer. A meeting was recently held to report the outcomes of the review. However, the board made it clear that they would not be releasing the report. The meeting was a disgrace, and the board spent most of the time speaking at people rather than listening. The reviewer Lucas Robertson reported on his 12 recommendations, but we never heard what the findings of the review were. The recommendations centred around community engagement, communication and relationships, but it was clear the board did not intend to change their ways when they only allowed 10 minutes for questions. After the audience made it clear how they felt about the question time, that time was extended for a further 15 minutes. But it was not long enough, and people left angry. I actually said to Lucas Robertson that I felt it was a waste of his time conducting the review, as it is clear from the board’s behaviour that they do not intend taking his advice.

I hope the minister will take on board the level of concern in the community about the competence of this board, as evidenced by the more than 15,000 signatories to the petition. The only action that will resolve the situation is for the minister to remove this board and replace it with a new, compassionate board that will have the confidence of the community to manage their cemeteries, and I call on the minister to act with haste to sack the board of RPCV.