15 February 2021

I rise to support the motion moved by the member for Dunkley. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought uncertainty to all of our lives. We've lost loved ones, we've been separated from family and friends, we've faced lockdowns, businesses have folded and jobs have been lost. As our country begins to show the first signs of recovery, there is a growing sense that we need to change how we measure the success of our nation—to move beyond the traditional metrics of national income, such as GDP, as indicators of success, and to develop a new way of capturing our overall wellbeing as a country. COVID-19 has been a stark reminder to all of us that it's impossible to separate our wellbeing from the health of our economy, our society or the environment. Considering more than just national account figures to capture our national success—to focus on the economy, of course, and the health of our society, our environment and the strength of our democracy—could provide the foundations for a post-COVID-19 or COVID-normal approach.

A wellbeing approach or wellbeing budget would provide an opportunity for a genuine whole-of-government, joined-up approach. The COVID pandemic has highlighted the need for such a joined-up, whole-of-government approach, especially in mental health. Mental health isn't just a health issue. Your mental health is impacted by where you were born, where you live, where you work and your age. These underlying causes can impact our lives suddenly and often without warning: insecure work, housing stress and financial hardship.

In its prebudget submission for 2020-21, Mental Health Australia said:

There is clear evidence for the need to address the social determinants of mental health in order to reduce the impacts of mental illness. … Australian research has found people who have recently experienced financial hardship are 23% more likely to experience decreased mental health in the next year, and people experiencing severe psychological distress are 89% more likely to experience financial hardship in the next year.

That explains so many people and their circumstances last year and into this year.

Even before the pandemic, inequality was rising and wages were stagnating; COVID-19 has only made things worse, exposing the fault lines in our society, particularly in regional and remote communities. At the height of the pandemic there were 36 jobseekers for every job vacancy on the Central Coast, where I live. There were nearly 5,000 businesses with close to 19,000 employees on JobKeeper and many are fearful of what may happen when support is cut in March. It is measures like a wage subsidy, called for by Labor, which led to the UN Sustainable Development Goals index ranking Australia well for our management of the COVID crisis. However, the same index ranks our long-term direction at 37th.

On Sunday, before parliament came back, the Treasurer appeared on Insiders and ruled out the possibility of extending JobKeeper, stating that it was always a temporary program. The Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe expressed concern about job shedding after JobKeeper is removed. The January Sensis Business Index highlighted 'increasing distress about the loss of the JobKeeper lifeline that saved hundreds of thousands of businesses from going under due to COVID-19 lockdowns.' From the survey, 60 per cent of transport owners said the loss of JobKeeper would have a major impact, up from 25 per cent in November, and 36 per cent of health and community services said the loss would have a major impact—again, up from almost 24 per cent. And 35 per cent of manufacturing businesses said it would have a major impact, up from 21 per cent.

The government can talk about a recovery and say that we are all in this together, but businesses and industry, particularly in some communities and sectors, are jittery. In the National Suicide Prevention Advisor's interim advice, one of the main recommendations was that the government should develop a Commonwealth process for reviewing new policies or initiatives to ensure that they assess any impacts, positively or negatively, on suicidal risk or behaviour.

The government has consistently declared mental health to be a priority, and I believe that the Prime Minister is genuine in this commitment. The release of the Productivity Commission's final report on mental health gives the government a pathway towards reform. In his Press Club speech on 1 February the Prime Minister declared that there would be a new national agreement on mental health and suicide prevention this year. But what people across Australia need is action now. It's urgent. The delayed release of the Productivity Commission report wasted valuable time in which to begin implementing recommendations and actions of the report and the chance to respond in the October budget. This delay has also meant that no announcements were made during the October budget. The May budget is now only three months away, and the government's response: a mental health committee to report on the findings of reports stemming from the committee which began its work in 2018.

We can't go back to the old ways of measuring wealth in society. We must look beyond income and start measuring our society as a whole. This will help us to emerge from this crisis a fairer, healthier society.