While a lot of workplaces have had to slow down and many have closed during the coronavirus pandemic, others are busier than ever. This is certainly true of the offices and staff of our local elected representatives. Last week we published an interview with Local Councillor, Jonathan Sri, about his role during the shutdown. This week I spoke with our Federal representative for the electorate of Griffith, Terri Butler[1]. We talked in some detail about responses to homelessness, refugees, the issues constituents are raising with her office, and what we can learn from this pandemic about responses to climate change.

Covid-19 and homelessness

I started our conversation by asking Ms Butler about the impacts of the COVID-19 shut down on our homeless population and whether she sees this as a Federal issue.

“It’s definitely a federal issue.

“I was in the domestic violence portfolio for a few years, and one of the things that I found most frustrating in that portfolio was the cuts to homelessness spending from the Feds.

“Obviously, the answer to homelessness and domestic violence isn’t just building shelters and temporary accommodation, but I think that is an important part of the response. And when the government cut the capital expenditure component from the National Partnership, I thought it was a really regressive thing to do. We’re now in a situation where we’ve had a conservative Government at the Federal level for seven years, and we’re seeing some of the consequences of that right now, because there has been under-investment in homelessness support and that’s included under-investment in building housing”.

States rely on Federal Government funding to enable them to build social housing and provide the services for homeless support Ms Butler said.

“So, when the Federal government cuts money that was going to homelessness, that has a material impact on the State’s ability to deliver those homelessness services and build housing,” she said.

Ms Butler said that that while not sufficient on its own, bricks and mortar housing is an important part of the response to homelessness.

“People say, well, ‘it’s not just enough just to have housing’, and of course that’s right. You’ve got to have supports. You’ve got to think of it as a really multidisciplinary approach to housing. You’ve got to find ways to deal with mental health, and you’ve got to deal with domestic violence, which is a driver of homelessness for a lot of people. You have to think about anti-poverty measures, you have to look at welfare spending, you have got to look at the Social Security spend. Fundamentally, I think you have to have a physical bricks and mortar housing response as well. You can’t just leave it to the market to provide the sort of housing that people need.”

Ms Butler said her office liaises with organisations across the electorate on homelessness issues.

“Having Micah in the electorate is fantastic, because you can always have a chat to Karyn [Walsh], who always knows exactly what’s needed and is a very forthright advocate”.

As to recent calls to focus post-pandemic stimulus spending on social housing, Ms Butler said she thinks this should be supported.

“I think right now, everyone’s got ideas about different forms of stimulus to take us out of the crisis, and certainly, I think social housing is an obvious one, because the building process itself would immediately create construction jobs.

“I think, whatever you do with the stimulus, and this is just my personal opinion, is you would want to have that stimulus spending create a legacy”.

Ms Butler said that funding for school halls and libraries by the Rudd Government during the global financial crisis (GFC) provided an example of funding that leaves a lasting legacy.

“Go to any school across the electorate, you can see the building that they got as a consequence of that stimulus program. It didn’t just save jobs during the GFC, it created a legacy, and I think social housing would fall into that category”.

The Griffith Electorate Office

Ms Butler listed dealing with Centrelink, Disability Support Payments (DSP), Job Keeper payments, Child Care, schools, and visa issues as the key reasons people are contacting her office. 

“It is hard to navigate Centrelink and MyGov. So, we certainly have been getting a lot of Centrelink inquiries. That’s not the fault of the frontline staff at Centrelink, of course, but the fact is, we’ve had a Government that has under invested in staffing at Centrelink now for seven years. It becomes incredibly difficult to see some of the really long queues that we saw at the beginning of the crisis.

“It’s always been quite difficult to get the DSP under this government. So, people on the DSP have been contacting us, and people who want to get onto the DSP but have had trouble getting it.

“The next thing that we’re getting a lot of inquiries about is the Job Keeper payments – eligibility for that, and things like not being sure how the rules work, not sure who’s in who’s out.”

Ms Butler said that an unintended consequence of free childcare under the Covid-19 arrangements, is that it is making it harder for those childcare centers that have additional charges for extra services, to offer childcare.

“So, a lot of childcare centers and parents have been contacting us worried about the future of childcare for their kids during the crisis, and after the crisis – what happens if their childcare centre shuts down?

The Griffith electorate office is also getting a lot of rental inquiries from both residential renters and small business renters, both of which Ms Butler says are under a lot of pressure.

“One of the small businesses in a shopping strip was telling me that once the wage subsidy was announced, rent really was the biggest issue for them.

“For residential renters, obviously there’re questions around how you come to an agreement with your landlord. And we have had landlords contacting us who are not sure about how the arrangements are going to work.”

As rental issues are a State Government responsibility, callers are referred to Jackie Trad’s office for follow-up as necessary.

Ms Butler said that at the beginning of the crisis one of the biggest issues being raised with her office came from people with parents or family members who live overseas, and people on short-term visas in Australia who didn’t know what was going to happen to them.

“We’re still getting people who are on short term visas not sure what’s going to happen – people overseas whose visa is expiring, who now can’t get back into Australia, who are trying to work out what they can do about getting a new bridging visa and whether they would then be able to get through one of the exemptions to be able to travel back here”.

There are three main things the electorate office can do for people making inquiries Ms Butler told me.

In the case of a Centrelink inquiry for example, she said her office provides information so that the caller knows how to navigate the system. Secondly, if needed, the office will liaise directly with a Centrelink contact person. And thirdly, if it is a policy related issue, the office will do a ministerial representation.

“The other thing that we sometimes do is help people to go to the Ombudsman if they think they’ve been treated unfairly by Centrelink… it’s usually more of a policy problem than the way the front-line service person has acted.”

The Role of the Opposition

I asked Ms Butler how Federal Labor achieves a balance between supporting new Government measures and holding the Government to account, without appearing to be obstructive.

Ms Butler says that the Opposition has a duty to try to find the most constructive approach, “because the decisions that are made will affect how people survive this crisis and what the recovery looks like. And ultimately, if you are guided by what you think is in the best interest of the Australian people, you can’t really go wrong”.

“We were excluded from the National Cabinet which I think is actually pretty silly from the Government. If this were wartime, you’d have the Opposition on a body like that.

“We back in ideas where they’re good ideas and provide criticism where we think there’re problems but try to provide it in a constructive way.

“And yes, it is difficult. There have certainly been some people who have criticised us for expressing any criticism at all, and by the same token, there are people who think that we should be more loudly critical – that we should be attacking the government”.

Ms Butler said that Labor was pleased that the Government introduced a wage subsidy scheme but was critical of the Government for taking too long to introduce it, and because of workers who have been excluded.

“We think that the government has quite properly taken on board some of the suggestions that we made, and we were very happy when they agreed to the wage subsidy for example, it’s something that we campaigned on for a significant amount of time before they took it up.

“There were about 1.1 million casuals who were excluded from the wage subsidy – we fought really hard to have those eligibility rules expanded, so those people would be included.

“But we’re not happy with the fact that there’s still, we think, too many exclusions from the wage subsidy process”.

Collaboration between levels of Government in the overlapping electorates of the Gabba, South Brisbane and Griffith.

Jonathan Sri raised in an interview with the Westender that he would like to see more collaboration between the overlapping, Federal and State electorate offices, with the Council ward office. I asked Ms Butler how she thinks that would work.

Ms Butler said that the offices do refer matters to each other when necessary.

“That works fine. But the Greens Party spends all of its time attacking Labor. For example, the recent stuff about how they’re going to launch an all-out assault on Labor seats at the State Election. You can’t say that with one breath and in the next breath say we want to collaborate.”

Refugees detained during COVID-19

Ms Butler said that the process of detaining refugees in hotels like those at Kangaroo Point Central in Brisbane has been handled terribly by the government. She said she visited the APOD[2] last year, before COVID-19 because she thinks it’s important that the Government understands that the local member is applying scrutiny.

“I also continue to lobby the government about the conditions at the centre. We’re currently trying to get a guitar for one of the people who is staying there, but I can’t seem to get an answer on even that straightforward request.”

Ms Butler said that it is important that the Government explains how they will ensure the health and wellbeing of people in immigration and community detention during this health crisis.

“I share concerns expressed by many people and groups who have been in contact regarding the circumstances of people in immigration detention, particularly following reports that a staff member at Kangaroo Point has tested positive for COVID-19.

“I wrote to the Acting Immigration Minister, Alan Tudge, in mid-March after those reports were made public. I have also pursued the matter with the shadow minister, who has also raised it with the Acting Minister.

“The Acting Minister has not responded to my letter and nor has he provided to the Opposition any indication of how the Government will manage this issue and whether consideration is being given to community detention.  Labor has been consistently and urgently asking the Acting Minister to do so.

“I think the Government has been very, very lax in terms of reassuring the Australian people that the people in our care are actually getting the support that they need.”

Ms Butler said that Labor has been asking the government how they are managing the coronavirus risk within facilities and whether they’re considering community detention.

“I really want to encourage people to add their voices to this request by contacting the Acting Minister,” Ms Butler told the Westender.[3]

After COVID-19

Ms Butler said that COVID-19 should not be an excuse to try to ram through what she calls ‘an old-fashioned right-wing agenda’.

“We think the government is being really unrealistic when they say that they’re going to go back to the old rate of New Start after the crisis. We think that’s a really silly proposition. And it was clear well before you even heard of COVID-19, that the rate was too low”.

“We heard it last week with a Morrison minister saying we need to reduce green tape … regrettably when conservatives say reduce green tape, that’s code for reducing environmental protection. Now, we can’t just allow people to think that COVID-19 is going to be an opportunity to provide a sort of a cloak of respectability to old fashioned deregulation and Neo-liberalism. So, no, I don’t think we should be silent as a community when we see them try and do things that actually don’t serve the national interest”.

Responses to the pandemic and climate change

Ms Butler said she would like to see that the government learn from this crisis and put scientific knowledge front and center in the discussions about how we respond to climate change.

“You don’t see any false equivalence for COVID-19. They’re not giving a platform to the people who are skeptical about whether it’s even real – we’re hearing from the actual scientists and professionals who are able to advise us. That’s not necessarily true of climate change.

“I think the other thing that we’re really seeing in relation to the COVID-19 crisis is that members of the community feel as though they can make a difference during COVID-19. And one of the difficulties that we have in climate change is that people often feel powerless. They feel like they can’t make a difference. So, I’m hoping that the public will take from this crisis a feeling of renewed empowerment – the fact that what you’re doing your local area does make a real difference.

“I think one of the problems that we have with the climate change debate is if people think it’s all too big, and that they can’t have any impact on it, sometimes there’s a bit of a fatalistic response to that. People can take heart from this crisis – communities can actually make change…”

Good news stories

Ms Butler said that the good news from this pandemic is seeing people helping each other.

“It’s really lovely to see the extent to which people are willing to just put up their hand and look after their neighbours. There have been lots of people volunteering to make phone calls to elderly people in our community to check in on them, make sure they’re okay. There’s been people who are wanting to just help with running errands, doing shopping, that sort of work, which is really nice to see.

“And, of course, you know, all of the different people who are finding ways to try to maintain some normalcy during the crisis. On ANZAC Day, there was a lot of work in and around the community in relation to finding ways to do the Anzac service, even though they couldn’t go to the traditional services. We saw a lot of people out in front yards at the top of the driveway, with candles.

“Those sorts of things are really lovely, and it shows, I think, the community’s willingness to really help out and it can be just really small things like shouting coffees for healthcare workers.

“I want to say thank you to the community because everyone is doing just incredible work with the social distancing, working from home, trying to home school, thinking of ways to help people who are vulnerable, looking after your neighbors, everything that people are doing is making a massive difference. And I think we can be really proud of the community spirit that’s been shown during this crisis.

“People are right to be proud of [West End] … it takes deliberate decision making and mindfulness to create a beautiful community.”

[1] Terri Butler has held the seat of Griffith since winning the by-election in 2014. She was returned in 2016 and again in 2019. In 2015, along with cross-party colleagues, Ms Butler co-sponsored a bill to introduce same-sex marriage. Ms Butler has held shadow portfolios for Child Safety and Prevention of Family Violence, Employment and Youth and is currently the Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water.

[2] Alternative Places of Detention

[3] Ms Butler is asking people to write to The Hon Alan Tudge MP, Acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, PO Box 6022, Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600