SENIOR Labor and LNP politicians were quizzed about their long-term strategies to support vulnerable Queenslanders emerging from the COVID-19 crisis, during an online election debate organised by social services peak body Queensland Council of Social Service.
“We’ve heard concerning stories about growing homelessness for older women, kids struggling to re-engage in school, and a lack of support services for people exiting prison,” QCOSS chief executive officer Aimee McVeigh said introducing the debate, and sharing her observations following a fact-finding road trip through Queensland.
“There is not sufficient public housing, there are too many people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness. Unemployment is continuing to rise.”
Introduced into the debate, Labor’s Minister for Communities, Disability Services and Seniors Coralee O’Rourke admitted 2020 had been “a very challenging year”, with “people finding themselves in situations they never thought they would find themselves in before”.
Ms O’Rourke, did not speak of her personal circumstances – she will not contest the coming election in the seat of Mundingburra because of an ongoing battle with breast cancer.
She said Labor’s health response to COVID-19 during recent months put Queensland “in a much stronger position” than other states, enabling the Government to now focus on a strong economic response.
Ms O’Rourke (pictured) highlighted a non-interest loans scheme available to Queenslanders, financial counselling support now on offer, and emergency relief being distributed through agencies across the state.
She also pointed to rental and tenancy law reform.
Industry consultations had been stalled because of the pandemic, Ms O’Rourke said, but a re-elected Government would push ahead with the reforms aimed at “equitable” outcomes for renters and property owners.
Ms O’Rourke claimed Government success in providing a major boost to energy efficiency in public housing – putting solar panels on about 840 public houses.
“Homelessness is a huge issue and we know that there is more social housing required,” she said, adding that appropriate disability accommodation was “incredibly important and is the foundation for supporting people moving forward in their life”.
“Without a roof over their head everything else seems to come crashing down around them,” Ms O’Rourke said.
Asked during questioning about the 25,000 Queensland families on public housing lists and an estimated 22,000 people sleeping rough each night, Ms O’Rourke admitted there was “definitely more work to be done”.
A major project to build public housing for 4500 people was started in 2017, and the Labor minister said “we are well on track to meet our five-year target”.
Post-COVID-19 recovery is also receiving a boost with a “Work for Tradies” program – a $100 million injection to build a further 215 public houses across the state.
LNP Shadow Minister for Communities, Disability Service and Seniors Dr Christian Rowan said Queensland’s economic woes pre-dated the onset of COVID-19 restrictions.
“It must be remembered Queensland had the nation’s worst unemployment well before the coronavirus pandemic and Queensland also had the highest number of bankruptcies and the lowest level of business confidence,” Dr Rowan, the Member for Moggill, said.
Dr Rowan (pictured) said the State Government decision to postpone this year’s Budget meant “they are flying blind through the biggest economic crisis in almost a century”.
He said the public housing waiting list under the Government had jumped from 9000 to the current level of more than 25,000.
“In comparison the previous LNP government reduced the public housing waiting list by 7000,” Dr Rowan said.
“Labor’s rental returns and property taxes have also discouraged further investment in residential property.”
He headlined the LNP’s economic stimulus plan aimed at boosting jobs based on “investing for growth, unleashing Queensland industry, supercharging the regions and securing our children’s future”.
“By building a stronger economy and providing for good, sound economic management this means we can invest more in social services,” Dr Rowan said.
He promised a $14.5 million boost to community and neighbourhood centres during the COVID-19 recovery, and committed the LNP to a social isolation and loneliness strategy informed by a parliamentary inquiry set up within 12 months.
On several occasions, Dr Rowan referred to the absence of a 2020 Budget, making it difficult to cost and compare LNP promises.
“Once we know what the books look like we will be able to give further detail,” he said in answer to one question.
He committed the LNP to 16 key targets of “Closing the Gap” to deal with Indigenous inequalities.
Party representatives agreed to take a strong bi-partisan approach to curbing domestic violence by boosting support services.
Dr Rowan was questioned whether the LNP would reconsider a controversial plan to overhaul the child safety department with compulsory drug-testing for some parents in the system.
It would entail testing for illicit substances such as methamphetamine for parents already part of intervention with failed drug tests resulting in mandatory rehabilitation, while their children would be put into care.
“Those policies are policies we are taking to the state election,” Dr Rowan said.
“We also have a strong focus on prevention and dealing with recidivist offenders, however the LNP believes there needs to be strong accountability, and communities need to be safe and people need to be dealt with by a justice system.
“However if we are not only to ‘Close the Gap’ when it comes to First Nations people or deal with other young offenders who exist out there we certainly need to be ensuring that they get the opportunities they need – safe houses, access to education, access to good health, job and employment opportunities that they need for the future.
“That’s why in Queensland part of the conversation needs to be who is best placed to deal with the economic circumstances … to rebuild Queensland and ensure that the Government has sound economic management and provide services and supports that are needed to ensure that people don’t fall into a life of crime … and that people who do commit offences need to be held to account.”