Adjusting to COVID-19, while not forgetting our environmental concerns, and looking ahead to a better future
By Hon. Diane Evers, MLC, Member for South West
We are living through a strange and difficult time. Understanding the need to support the entire state of Western Australia during the COVID-19 crisis, my thoughts have been with regional areas over recent months. We have endured the challenge to date of remaining connected as a community while we distance ourselves from one another. This is a challenge made even more difficult by regional border restrictions, employment and financial uncertainty, and the general anxiety in society as this dreadful virus has moved from the horizon to our daily lives.
The South West Region has been impacted in a number of ways during this crisis. Members of the community have told me of issues with the supply of goods, to the point of a local store owner driving to a regional centre to shop at the larger supermarkets in order to stock their own shop. Some not-for-profits have been forced to close, support services have been cut back or shuttered, while one of the regions lifebloods – the tourism industry – has been decimated. How small towns and businesses recover economically after this pandemic is on the mind of many, affecting the mental health and wellbeing of so many.
I want to speak for regional people and develop strategies to adapt to these challenges. With only one-quarter of our state population in regional areas, I sometimes worry that services and stimulus packages will focus on the urban areas, where service delivery is easier. This is a time to accelerate and resource so many areas I have advocated for during my term, such as getting more metropolitan jobseekers into the regions and agricultural work, and supporting our regional community and environmental organisations.
We must also consider the people who are in precarious situations and give them every opportunity to maintain their health and wellbeing by providing regional support services and promoting diverse economic opportunities. This is why I’m excited to announce I have launched the Regional Regeneration WA Facebook group to provide a space for people to come together and share ideas to address the issues and capitalise on the opportunities facing regional WA. I remain hopeful of the community spirit that comes to the fore in regions during times of need and I encourage those who wish to engage with new regional ideas to join the conversation.
Don’t forget the environment
It is important to keep in mind issues important to the environment do not disappear while we combat a crisis. In March, the WA Government committed to a freeze on karri logging for approximately 9,000 ha of forest in the South West. This good news was yet another victory stemming from the years of tireless work by WA Forest Alliance, The Greens (WA) and an array of commited protesters who have been involved in direct actions on the ground. While this news is a first step, a temporary freeze needs to become a permanent cessation. I will continue to hold the Forest Products Commission accountable on how it intends to maintain logging volumes despite excluding two-tiered karri from this year’s harvest plan and mature trees in the region’s jarrah forests must also be protected.
An outcome from our forced adaptation to the COVID-19 crisis is a shifted perspective on how the environment is managed as the land is given time and space to heal. The changing economic landscape as we plan for recovery from the COVID-19 crisis has created an opportunity to take action now and end native forest logging in WA, highlighted by news that the independent Victorian Parliamentary Budget Office has estimated that ending native forest logging in Victoria would save taxpayers $192m over the next decade. This is money that, if implemented in WA, could be used to help regional communities create new employment opportunities by implementing a transition of the industry to ecologically beneficial plantations and farm forestry.
Now is not the time to rest on our laurels. It is imperative the Forest Products Act must be repealed and the Forest Products Commission disbanded ‒ I will not be satisfied until commercial logging of WA’s native forests is finished.
In other positive environmental news, it was wonderful to see the Rights of Nature movement having an impact in New South Wales at local government level, with the Blue Mountains City Council voting to investigate integrating the Rights of Nature into future operations and planning! Present and future generations deserve to live in a safe climate system and have a right to a healthy environment. I introduced the first Rights of Nature and Future Generations Bill in Australia to WA Parliament late last year – as we are forced to redefine how society operates during the COVID-19 crisis, so too must we redefine what environmental protection means into the future.
A better future means adequate resourcing for how we care for our environment. While the McGowan Government’s recently announced plans to increase total funding for the Community Stewardship Grants by $1.5 million is a welcome increase to the existing funding of the state’s environmental management, there is a need to do so much more. Right now the state’s NRM and Landcare groups are all doing their very best to fill the gaps between government management of the environment in regional communities, but the organisational costs and competing priorities make financial resourcing difficult.
I intend to push this Government forward and continue to advocate for the enactment of significant reform of our, often community-led, environmental conservation. I introduced the Royalties for Regions Amendment Bill 2019 to Western Australian Parliament last year as part of efforts to enhance the state’s environmental legislation and ensure environmental purposes would be reflected by directing a minimum of 10 per cent of all royalties for regions annual funding for the stewardship of environmental rehabilitation and preservation by dedicated community groups.
There has been little emphasis on environmental programs in the application of the Royalties for Regions funding in the past, when such investment is vital for biodiversity and the health of our planet.
The Upper House sat during April for previously unscheduled sessions with the purpose of passing urgent COVID-19 response legislation. As part of these sessions, I rose as the lead speaker for The Greens (WA) to support the Pay-roll Tax Relief (COVID-19 Response) Bill 2020 and Commercial Tenancies (COVID-19 Response) Bill 2020.
The Pay-roll Tax Relief Bill provides payroll tax exemption for wages paid by small businesses between March and June, for employers or groups with taxable wages of less than $7.5 million in the 2019-20 financial year. Another major point of this bill is that it makes sure that JobKeeper payment scheme money is not part of the assessment for payroll tax.
The Commercial Tenancies Bill was to provide some relief and assistance to businesses in order to minimise the financial impacts on tenants and landlords. At a time when so many are looking for certainty. We are in an emergency period and work has to be done very quickly – and sometimes corrected afterwards. In order to give relief to commercial tenants and for them to respond to the impacts of COVID-19, making suitable agreements such as those in this Bill is necessary in order to assist in their longevity and give businesses a chance of surviving through this period.
In good news from the legislature, I was pleased to hear WA Parliament’s catering staff were being repurposed to assist OzHarvest WA to get food to those in need in these troubled times. Sometimes, the hardest of times brings out the best in people. With fewer staff at Parliament, hard-working staff have adapted to repurpose their work for the public good. Until Parliament sits again, I will be working from home in the Great Southern region and working with my staff remotely to ensure we continue to support the community and environment’s needs across the South West Region and my statewide portfolio areas.
As I hope many readers are aware, the results were announced in early April that I had been preselected as your Greens candidate once more for the South West Region! I have been humbled by the support that I’ve received over the ballot period and it will be an honour to represent you once again at the 2021 state election as I seek a second term. I thank all Greens members for your support, as it is your voice I take to the Western Australian Parliament in the pursuit of environmental protection and better governance of our state. When a community speaks, it is up to your parliamentarians to listen. This is why I am so proud to take your issues into the Legislative Council chamber.
There have been numerous environmental wins in the past three years, but so much more can be done, including securing funding for landcare, ending commercial logging of WA’s native forests, embracing regenerative agriculture, enacting equitable water management practices, getting freight off roads and back on rail, and directing government funding to targeted services in areas of need. These are just some of the areas I am so excited to build on during a second term – and I will count on your support to make this happen. I am a proud advocate for the South West Region and look forward to continued encouragement of rural regeneration and for people to live in regional communities.
Congratulations to all The Greens (WA) Upper House candidates – I wish each of you good luck over the next year as we work to ensure nobody in Western Australia is left behind.
Finally, I would like to look toward the future after the COVID-19 crisis. We are learning so much about how to adapt during this time. The mind boggles as to where we can go from here, but there are new paradigms to discover. Education and employment are two areas that maybe so different and will require new legislation in the future. These are just two of the areas we need to be thinking about and planning for. We don’t have to go back to how things were, we can make a better future. To everybody out there who has struggled through these recent months: you’re not alone. Western Australia has done some amazing work in flattening the curve and minimising the health risks of COVID-19. Please remember to also take care of your mental health during this time. Check in with friends and family – we’re going to get through this together.
Header photo: Diane at The Greens (WA) stall at the Hyde Park Fair on Sunday, 1st March