This is the first sitting of parliament for the year and therefore the first sitting since we celebrated Australia Day. Australia Day is an occasion to celebrate the things that are great about our nation—our democratic freedoms, our mateship and egalitarianism, our spirit of volunteerism and our fantastic lifestyle. It is also an opportunity to welcome new citizens to our country and to recognise through various awards and honours the Australians who have made significant contributions to our nation or to their local communities.
Each Australia Day, I attend the Kingborough Council’s awards and citizenship ceremony. At this event Elspeth Haughie was awarded Kingborough Citizen of the Year. She was recognised for establishing and expanding the Kettering walkers group, an active group of about 30 people who walk for fun and fitness and who also lobby for improvements to local tracks and footpaths. The Kingborough Young Citizen of the Year, Connah Johnstone, was recognised for his advocacy for mental health. Connah recently appeared in a video to promote mental health and seeking help, and very bravely spoke about his own personal experience with depression.
While councils acknowledge contributions to the communities, citizens are also acknowledged at a national level through the Order of Australia. I am pleased that two recipients of Australian honours are people I have known for some time. Former Tasmanian Treasurer Michael Aird received an AO for his significant contribution to the Tasmanian economy, securing a AAA credit rating for the state and driving major reforms in water and sewerage and shop trading hours. Also, my former colleague in the House Geoff Lyons received an OAM for his current work as a West Tamar councillor and for his longstanding commitment to surf lifesaving.
Another aspect of Australia Day is being able to see people become Australian citizens. On Australia Day this year, we welcomed 16,000 new citizens, including 279 citizens in Tasmania, from 53 countries. I truly believe Australia is a great country, and there is no better evidence of this than witnessing a citizenship ceremony and the pride that our new citizens take in becoming Australian.
The other thing I do on Australia Day every year is head down to Kingston Beach for the annual event A Day on the Beach. Usually I get up at about six, go down, help do some setting up, go off to the citizenship ceremony and then go back down to the beach. A Day on the Beach is one of Tasmania’s biggest Australia Day events, and this year it attracted a crowd of 11,000 people. I am extremely proud to have served as patron of this event for the past six years. The popularity and continued success of this event never cease to amaze me. Although I have spoken before about A Day on the Beach, I think it is worth repeating that it is run entirely by volunteers and is put together on a shoestring budget.
The Kingston Beach Regatta Association, the organisation that runs the event, turns over no more than about $15,000 each year and still manages to organise an event that attracts thousands of people—as I said, about 11,000 this year—while sticking to the principle that all activities are free. That is right—free. People who come to the event do not have to pay a cent, unless they want to purchase food or merchandise. Some of the regular activities that are major features of A Day on the Beach include an ocean swimming competition, another swimming race which features inflatable thong-shaped lilos, a beach volleyball competition and a sandcastle or sand sculpture competition. This year’s A Day on the Beach also featured a Lego beach scene constructed by Lego artist Marcus Vanson.
One of my favourite aspects of the day is judging the sandcastle competition, which I have done for many, many years. My fellow judges this year were Kingborough Mayor Steve Wass and Councillor Dean Winter. It was a tough job because there were some really amazing entries. People had sculpted various animals, like dolphins, octopus and various kinds of fish. There was a ute—and we are not talking little sandcastles; we are talking very, very large sandcastles. One of the more creative entries was a Star Wars Millennium Falcon. Some family groups start at about six o’clock in the morning and take hours and hours to work on their projects. So there is a lot of work that goes into them.
For the last couple of years, the Tasmanian detachment of the Royal Australian Navy Band has provided some fantastic live entertainment for this event. Usually the words ‘navy band’ conjure up images of a brass band, but they are actually a high-energy rock band, playing modern songs like Happy and Uptown Funk as well as a few classic hits from the eighties. They were an absolute hit with the crowd, with hundreds of people crowding around the stage and dancing and clapping to the music.
A Day on the Beach would not be possible without the support of many generous sponsors and local not-for-profit community and sporting organisations. The biggest in-kind contributors were the Kingborough Council, the Lions Club of Kingborough and the Rotary Clubs of Kingston and D’Entrecasteaux Channel—the latter of which I am a proud member. I also acknowledge the generous financial support that is given to the event by the Tasmanian government.
Each year, I have a stall at A Day on the Beach, mainly for anyone who wants to approach me with queries or concerns. This year at my stall, I encouraged people to sign a petition—and Senator Siewert would be interested in this—that was started by my colleague in the House the member for Franklin, Julie Collins. The subject of this petition is the recently announced closure of the Centrelink and Medicare service centre in Kingston. I joined with Ms Collins in lobbying for this service centre to be established back in 2010, but now it has fallen victim to the Abbott-Turnbull government’s cuts. This service centre is the only one in the Kingborough municipality, and it simply does not make sense to close a service centre which services the fastest-growing municipality in Tasmania.
The population of Kingborough is now around 35,000. It is an ageing population: roughly 30 per cent of the population are over 55 years of age. For Medicare and Centrelink customers wanting to access face-to-face services, the nearest service centre is in Hobart. In fact, closure of this office will leave all of the people south of Hobart, around 50,000 people, with no face-to-face Medicare service—not any. Not only does the distance—the fact that they want people to go to Hobart—add further time and inconvenience to dealing with Medicare and Centrelink; it adds additional costs as well. The cost of public transport to and from Hobart, or petrol and parking, may seem relatively small to us, but it can be a big impost for someone on social security payments or a fixed income. This is particularly an issue for elderly residents, or people with mobility issues, who feel that they have no other option.
Many people have reported to me horrendous wait times for Centrelink phone services. We just heard Senator Siewert go though some emails she had received about it. I think that we are all receiving those sorts of concerns. It is up to two hours on some occasions. The growth of digital transactions with Centrelink was supposed to reduce demand for call centre services, but a recent report from the Australian National Audit Office shows that 40 per cent of all incoming calls to Centrelink resulted from failed online or self-services. In any case, online services are not an option for everyone. Some people do not own a computer, while others do not feel confident enough or secure enough doing business with Centrelink or Medicare online. The closure of the Kingston service centre comes at a time when the Department of Human Services should be making themselves more accessible to the public.
What I find really amazing is that, besides the fact that we have probably received more than about 2,000 signatures to our petition so far, this decision was announced without any consultation with the local community about how it would affect them—not even with the mayor, let alone the federal member, Julie Collins, knowing anything about it. What I find even more incredible then that is the deathly silence from the government senators, especially those based in southern Tasmania. I am referring to Senator Abetz and Senator Bushby. I know that Ms Collins has written to these two senators, inviting them to join the campaign to save the service centre and, as far as I am aware, she has not received a response and they have made no public comments about the issue. And the endorsed Liberal candidate for Franklin has also been surprisingly silent on the matter. I can only judge by the silence that one of two things are happening: either they have failed to appreciate the depth of feeling in the community over this decision being made with little warning and no consultation or they know that Kingborough residents are angry but they are embarrassed and ashamed at their government making such a ludicrous decision and they are trying to keep a low profile, hoping it will all blow over.
I remind anyone who would accuse me and Ms Collins of opportunism on this issue that we started lobbying for this service centre long before it was government policy. We will stand up for the people of Kingborough and continue to campaign for quality services in Kingston, no matter which party is in government. It is not too late for Senator Abetz, Senator Bushby and their Liberal colleagues to join us and help us to make sure that people have access to these services that are so important to them.