From bail reform to Covid: the five issues missing from the Victoria state election campaign

The Victorian state election has largely been focused on two issues: improving the health system and cutting the cost of living.

Both major parties are promising billions of dollars for new hospitals and power bill relief, as well as initiatives such as $2 public transport fares and free pads and tampons in public places.

But as Saturday’s election draws near other important issues are noticeably absent from the campaign. Here are five issues the major parties haven’t been talking about.

1. Bail reform

After 2017’s Bourke Street massacre the premier, Daniel Andrews, announced what he called the country’s “most onerous” bail laws. Intended to target violent men, they have instead disproportionately affected Aboriginal Victorians, young people and women. As a result, prison populations have swelled, largely with people who are yet to be sentenced. It’s now costing about $1.1m to keep unsentenced people in custody.

In an interview with Guardian Australia, the state’s attorney general, Jaclyn Symes, said she had “unfinished business”, including the possibility of bail reform. But there has been no commitment by Labor.

“There are always difficult balances to be struck, and we have taken a position that’s about keeping the community safe and crime statistics would support that contention,” Andrews said during the first week of the campaign.

The Coalition has committed to “overhaul the prison system that is failing women” as part of its “real solutions” policy document, which does not mention bail reform.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service has urged whoever is elected to urgently reform the laws, describing them as “punitive” legislation that “destroys lives, families and communities”.

Vals is among a group of legal and human rights organisations calling for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 14. So far, only the Greens have committed to doing so.

The chief executive of Vals, Nerita Waight, said raising the age would give “so many Aboriginal children a better chance to build a good life”.

It’s been dubbed a “health election” but community health services say they are being neglected. They want the parties to pledge serious money to help take the pressure off hospitals.

The Coalition has promised $7.7bn in health policies so far, including 20 new or upgraded hospitals, while Labor is promising to fork out $4.4bn – on top of its commitment to spend $6bn over 12 years to build new campuses of the Royal Melbourne and Royal Women’s hospitals. But neither party has offered up a cent for community health services.

“We are anxiously awaiting election commitments that strengthen community health services, which help keep people and communities healthy,” said Christopher Turner, cohealth’s acting chief executive.

“The political lure of a hospital announcement can be difficult to resist but it plays into the entrenched narrative that healthcare equals hospital care and that’s simply not the case.”

The Productivity Commission estimates that in 2020-21, primary and community health services could have prevented 560,000 presentations to Victorian hospital emergency departments.

As the largest of 26 community health organisations around the state, cohealth is asking for $25m to redevelop its Collingwood health centre in Hoddle Street, which treats 12,000 people a year, including residents from local public housing towers.

The Greens have promised $500m to employ more free GPs and allied health professionals. In Richmond they’ve promised to fund the redevelopment of the Hoddle Street health centre if elected.

The deputy chief executive of the Victorian Healthcare Association, Juan Paolo Legaspi, called for a more holistic approach to health: “Whoever wins the Victorian election would be wise to invest in community health services as a long-term, cost-effective strategy to reduce demand for more expensive emergency and hospital services.”

3. Child protection

Weaknesses in Victoria’s child protection system have been exposed in several reports this year, including three by the auditor general.

The first found that the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing does not meet minimum standards for data collection, with the addresses of hundreds of children in its care missing from the system, while the second that found child protection workers were overstretched and under-resourced and were unable to keep up with demand.

The third dealt with kinship care, whereby family members look after a child when parents cannot. It found that only 14.2% of kinship care assessments were able to meet targets of checking within a week whether a placement was safe, while less than 1% of annual assessments to check on the progress of a child were being done on time.

Indigenous children are disproportionately in care in Victoria, with one in 10 Aboriginal youth in care and one in three known to child protection. Children who end up in care are also more likely to end up in the youth justice system.

While the government has spent about $2.8bn on children and families services in the past three state budgets, advocates argue that much more is needed to overhaul the system.

Neither major party has addressed the issue, though an uncosted commitment to reform residential and kinship care was included in the Coalition’s election policy document.

4. Housing for all

There has been a lot of talk about the cost of living but little about rent rises, low rental vacancies and the high cost of housing.

The waitlist for public and community housing has ballooned from 35,392 in June 2017 to 54,945 in March this year. This 55% increase has been almost entirely in the area of priority need, with 18,574 households added to the priority list.

The chief executive of the Victorian Council of Social Service, Emma King, said 100,000 Victorians were “sleeping in tents, in caravan parks, on the streets or crammed into other forms of temporary and crisis accommodation”.

“Suitable and affordable rental properties are hard to find, especially for those on low incomes, with rents increasing faster than wages,” she said.

The parties agree it’s an important issue but community groups say the number of homeless Victorians will increase without substantial policies in place.

Labor has not made any new commitments beyond its $5.3bn “big housing build”, announced in 2020, to fund the creation of 12,000 new social and affordable homes in four years. It had a plan to tax developers to create a long-term pipeline for more housing but this was scrapped amid fears of a scare campaign.

The Greens have committed to introducing the levy and building 200,000 public and affordable homes in the next 20 years.

The Liberals have promised to “reduce taxes and reduce red tape” so more affordable housing can be built, and to engage with community and social housing providers to “unlock their own funding potential” and increase supply.

King said the state needed least 6,000 new public and community housing properties annually over the next decade to keep pace with demand.

“Labor is backing itself to fully deliver the Big Housing Build, but neither major party is talking about what will happen after that current pipeline of works is complete,” she said. “And neither party seems willing to revisit the prickly topic of a mechanism to make big property developers help pay to deliver social housing.”

5. Covid-19

Last month Andrews said: “The era of Covid exceptionalism is over,” while the Liberal leader, Matthew Guy, has promised to scrap the government’s pandemic legislation if elected.

But as another wave of cases hits the state, epidemiologists are concerned that sensible public health measures are being ignored.

“They’ve got their heads in the sand,” said Prof Mike Toole. “We had 30% increase in cases in the past week despite the fact it’s no longer mandatory to report a positive RAT test.

“Politicians have decided the public are tired of it. But the public are tired because they’re being told it’s over, so they’re just feeding on each other.”

Toole said politicians should be encouraging people to wear masks in crowded spaces, get their fourth shot if they are eligible and stop the messaging that suggests the pandemic is over.

The Coalition has pledged $400m to build an infectious diseases hospital, while the Greens are promising a national centre for disease control headquarters in Melbourne, and a plan to reduce Covid-19 cases. This involves a public health information campaign about the importance of vaccines and better ventilation and “actively following the recommendations of the chief health officer as a default position”.

As of last Friday, there were 2,132 people in hospital with Covid in Victoria, a sizeable jump on the week before when it was 1,796, and 1,395 two weeks earlier. Toole said the campaign had ignored one of the key reasons the hospital system was swamped.

“If I was a hospital worker I would be dreading Christmas or postponing my celebrations,” he said.

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