Mr Deputy Speaker – 2020 has tested our resilience in ways that many of us have not experienced before.
In fact, on the back of a prolonged drought and before we ticked over to 2020, thousands of people across Eden-Monaro were woken on New Year’s Eve by a firestorm that came and took so much from us all.
Not only did the New Year’s Eve bushfires decimate more than 750 homes across Eden-Monaro – people were killed, livestock was lost, fences were trashed, and communities were displaced.
As the Black Summer bushfires unleashed their fury on Eden-Monaro over the following month – people lived through a deep sense of fear and heartbreak that in many cases – has changed us forever.
For the thousands of family members whose homes and belongings were destroyed, this year has seen them re-live their trauma by trying to navigate the complex web of support that is available.
Bushfire-affected people often describe to me the challenges of trying to understand their Bushfire Attack Level or dealing with neighbouring government owned land agencies – all while living with what they call ‘brain fog’.
And for those of us who weren’t directly affected, many were forced to evacuate their homes three or four times, shut down their business in the height of the busy summer period, or support family members or friends who had lost everything.
The stress on our community and on our systems was unfathomable.
And for many, the stress has continued, while 2020 has continued to throw us curveballs.
The COVID-19 pandemic meant that just as bushfire-affected communities started coming together to process the shock and pain – they were separated again.
The pandemic pressed the pause button on cups of tea, or a friendly schooner in the pub, with those closest to us.
But most devastatingly, it meant that many of the support services, like counselling, couldn’t happen on the ground where it was needed most.
It has only been the last few months where people have been able to gather, socially distanced, to support one other.
And the toll that delay has taken on people’s mental health cannot be understated.
We know that our services across Eden-Monaro are stretched to their limits and in some cases were stretched well before the incidents of 2020.
Headspace has been overwhelmed, domestic violence and housing support services can’t keep up.
More funding for these services – especially after cumulative natural disasters – is an absolute must.
I was pleased to see this government announce a plan to provide an additional 10 Medicare rebate sessions for people with a mental health care plan in this year’s Budget.
It means Australians will get access to 20 subsidised psychological therapy sessions each year, under a doubling of the current arrangements.
This is sensible and I support it entirely.
However, those of us living in regional communities know that getting access to psychological services, counselling services of psychiatrist’s services are near impossible. We need more of these professionals in our regional communities.
On top of this, it has been disappointing to see Federal money slowly trickle into bushfire-affected communities – when it should have flowed quickly.
According to the National Bushfire Recovery Agency – only 39 percent of the more than $53 million dollars announced to support the mental health of Australians affected by bushfires has been spent.
Only 39 percent.
Another bucket of money includes $13.5 million dollars to boost emotional and mental wellbeing support locally for people affected by the bushfires.
Again – according to the National Bushfire Recovery Agency – only 38 percent has been spent.
I appreciate that bushfire recovery takes time – but it’s now been nearly a year since those fires bore down on us – and less than half of the money has been spent.
And it’s something I hear all the time from communities – whether I’m in Batlow or Cobargo – people constantly tell me that more mental health support is needed.
Teachers constantly tell me that more mental health support is needed in their schools.
And we know that those on the front line – the heroes who risked their lives for us – deserve proactive and ongoing support.
I urge the government to fast track this spending – it is vital and desperately needed by so many.
While many of us joked about turning our clocks forward to 2021 when daylight savings came into effect recently – perhaps there are some positives we can gain from this year.
One clear positive for me is the understanding and acceptance of seeking support for our mental health.
For a long time, health leaders have been telling us about the need to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
As this motion states, 45 per cent of Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime.
3.8 million Australians live with a mental illness and 54 per cent of people with mental illness do not access any treatment.
Well after the year that we have all just had, I truly believe the message from health professionals has sunk in.
It is OKAY to say you are not OKAY.
I hope this community empathy and understanding continues and grows into the future.
Thank you to all the health care workers who have put in a massive effort this year to support our community.
In many cases, it has been the traumatised supporting the traumatised.
As we look towards a wetter summer than last year, I hope we can all take a break and enjoy the wonders of the mighty Eden-Monaro this coming holiday period.
As I said at the start of my remarks, 2020 has tested our resilience in countless ways.
But it’s also been a timely reminder of what’s important.
Check in on your neighbour, check in on your colleague, be with your family and support each other where you can – a smile can go a long way.