9 August 2017
It was National Homelessness Week this week - instead of making a genuine cross-party effort to take the complex social issues behind homelessness, the NSW coalition government chose to change the law to increase police powers to move on homeless people in Martin Place, in central Sydney, by introducing the Sydney Public Reserves (Public Safety) Bill 2017.
Here is my speech, complete with heckling, during the debate on this new piece of legislation.
Ms TAMARA SMITH ( Ballina ): I agree with The Greens housing spokesperson, the member for Newtown, that this is a very sad day. I am sure no member of this House could have imagined that during Homelessness Week we would be discussing legislation like the Sydney Public Reserves (Public Safety) Bill 2017. I say to the Minister and the Premier that this is a missed opportunity, which is incredibly disheartening and sad. I do not understand why the Minister for Family and Community Services decided that this bill was the way to go. Why did the Minister for Family and Community Services not see this situation as an incredible opportunity during Homelessness Week to draw attention to the problems faced by vulnerable people sleeping rough in this State? Thinking purely about politics, why did she not take it as an opportunity to show that her Government is compassionate and solution focused?
Every time I have heard the Minister for Family and Community Services speak she has made excuses. She should be saying, "You know what? You're right. This is a crisis. This is a problem and we need to work together to find a solution." She could have taken that approach when dealing with the Lord Mayor, the people in Martin Place and all of us. Instead, she has chosen to use homeless people as a political football and Martin Place as an example of where new police powers need to be exercised. The police will have no joy in moving those people on. This is a disgraceful and horrible issue to be debating in this House.
By finding a solution to the Martin Place situation the Government could have won the hearts and minds of everyone. This could have been an amazing moment. Instead, I note that no-one on the other side of the House is speaking in this debate to defend the bill. That says a lot. The member for Tweed, who is in the chair, knows that regional New South Wales has a similar housing affordability problem to Sydney. No-one can afford to buy a house in Byron Bay. In my community the waiting list for public housing is very similar to Sydney on a per capita basis. These are real and nuanced issues.
No-one is pretending that the Minister for Family and Community Services, the Premier or indeed the Minister at the table, who is taking pot shots at me, will find a quick fix. It is the tenor of this debate that makes it quite disgraceful. I note that none of my colleagues in The Nationals are in the Chamber.
Mr Paul Toole: Hang on!
Ms TAMARA SMITH: I am not talking about the Minister. In general, country people do not think that police moving on homeless people is appropriate. What has happened to The Nationals members to make them support this bill? We strongly oppose this heavy-handed bill. It is a heartless response to a social problem. In circumstances like this we know compassion is always the best response. Lanz Priestley, who is known by many as the "Mayor of Martin Place", was here yesterday. He could hardly be described as a professional activist.
TEMPORARY SPEAKER ( Mr Geoff Provest ): Order! The member for Ballina will be heard in silence.
Ms TAMARA SMITH: He has experienced homelessness in his life.
Mr Paul Toole: Tell us about it.
Mr Damien Tudehope: Is he a friend of yours?
Ms TAMARA SMITH: I get that we are rattling cages.
TEMPORARY SPEAKER ( Mr Geoff Provest ): Order! Government members will show respect to the member for Ballina. The member for Ballina will not respond to interjections. She will direct her comments through the Chair.
Ms TAMARA SMITH: We do not live in a totalitarian regime. We live in a country where we are allowed to protest.
Mr Alex Greenwich: Point of order: If members opposite have something to say they should make a contribution to the debate rather than interject and shout over the member for Ballina.
TEMPORARY SPEAKER ( Mr Geoff Provest ): Order! There is no point of order. The member for Sydney will resume his seat. This is an emotional and passionate debate. I remind Government members that the member with the call will be heard in silence.
Ms TAMARA SMITH: As I was saying, we do not live in a country in which people are bound and gagged or even killed for protesting peacefully. Even if Government members cynically think what is happening in Martin Place is purely an activist movement, so what? It does not justify this response. The Greens in the other place will be moving amendments to a bill that we think is a disgrace. The amendments will seek to reduce the penalty applying to people who resist their belongings being taken by police from $2,200 to $220 in recognition of the fact that their belongings are often all people have in the world and are of extreme sentimental value. Quite frankly, it is a little strange to think someone living on the street would be able to pay more than $2,000 to get their belongings back.
Mr Michael Johnsen: What about the people down there who own houses?
Ms TAMARA SMITH: It is disheartening to hear members jeering when I am talking about basic humanitarianism. In 2014, as part of a sleepout for the homeless, I spent a night in a park in Ballina. It was a disturbing experience. I felt incredibly unsafe even though I had a home to go to. We hear the message over and over that sleeping rough is extremely unsafe. Those Government members who jeered when I was spoke about the impossibility of homeless people paying large amounts of money for the return of their belongings have to look at themselves in the mirror.
The Greens will also be moving amendments to new section 8 (4) of the Act to specify that personal belongings must be returned rather than may be returned. If the intention of this bill is to ensure all possible protection and dignity for people experiencing homelessness the basic protection of their property should be supported by all members. We encourage the Minister to support it. We will also move an amendment that creates a two-year sunset clause on the powers in this bill. If the bill is intended to be a response to the specific circumstance of tents in Martin Place we can assume that all other parties will support that amendment.
In addition, we will move an amendment to include the limitations in section 200 of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act on the exercise of powers under this Act. That would make it clear that police cannot give a direction in relation to an apparently genuine demonstration or protest, a procession, or an organised assembly. They are the hallmarks of a democracy, and we want them protected. As it is currently drafted, this Act would authorise police to move on the Knitting Nannas who visit Martin Place most weeks to raise awareness about coal seam gas in their communities. If the intention is not to prohibit that type of protest then explicit protections must be put in place.
The City2Surf will take place this Sunday. We note that the Orange Group will meet at 9.30 a.m. in Martin Place on Macquarie Street. The cynic might think the Minister is introducing this bill to ensure that the runners do not see what is happening there. I say to the Minister that the event could have provided an incredible opportunity for a statewide and national conversation about homelessness during Homelessness Week. Again, it is a missed opportunity. The situation in Martin Place is uncomfortable and the tents are confronting to the eye, but members opposite should not look away; they should respond with compassion. This is not a moment to play political football and I am not using this debate to condemn The Nationals for having lost their way. I am saying that during Homelessness Week this is a very sad day. I know that my constituents will never condone this bill.