Private Members' Statements - Wilcannia
Formerly heralded as the Queen City of the West, Wilcannia on the Darling was once home of the third largest port in New South Wales behind Sydney and Newcastle. The mark of the thriving town back in the day were 13 pubs to drink at and multiple car dealerships. The port is now silent, the doors of all the pubs have closed and you cannot buy a new car in town. Wilcannia once made headlines for world record wool clips and its thriving port; it now makes headlines like this: "Wilcannia: Death of a wealthy, thriving river port"; "The alarms sounded in Wilcannia long before COVID"; "Wilcannia in 'humanitarian crisis'"; "'Scared and angry': Warnings ignored before Delta ripped through Wilcannia."
Wilcannia is home to approximately 740 people, 70 per cent of whom identify as Aboriginal. Sadly their life expectancy is among the lowest in the country: 36.7 years for men and 42.5 years for women. The rate of domestic violence is 13 times that of other Australian communities, and the infant mortality rate is three times higher than for non-Aboriginals. Drug and alcohol use soars high above the national averages and there are alarmingly high rates of co-morbidities and respiratory illnesses. Wilcannia has been named consistently as one of the most disadvantaged communities in New South Wales. Given all that, COVID-19 making its way to a community like Wilcannia was—and I say this with all sincerity—my biggest fear. In March 2020, I wrote separately to the Premier, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and the Minister for Health and the Federal Government. I stated:
Aboriginal people are already facing issues such as a lack of disposable income, and overcrowded housing. Both factors significantly impact on their ability to adhere to the public health advice and protect themselves from COVID-19.
Should corona virus take foot in these communities it would have devastating impacts. Many Aboriginal people in these communities live with chronic health conditions, which would make fighting off the virus all the more challenging.
In May 2020 I received a response on behalf of the Premier from Gabrielle Upton, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier, who stated:
Together Aboriginal Affairs NSW and NSW Health are leading a coordinated NSW Government COVID-19 response to reduce the health and non-health impacts on Aboriginal communities ....
The public housing issues were not addressed, and the real kicker of the letter was a bunch of links to further information—links to online information in a town that relies on walkie talkies to communicate between healthcare workers because the phone reception is worse than some Third World countries. But I digress. Action from Government when the alarm was raised not only by me, but the Local Aboriginal Land Council, Central Darling Shire Council, Maari Maa, and others could have prevented Wilcannia being overrun with COVID-19. But the Government was far too slow off the mark in locking down Sydney, which allowed the virus to seed in the bush. It was a foreseeable and devastating outcome.
From where I and many others in the Wilcannia community are standing, there was no plan put in place to protect them by the Government, leaving the community to fend for themselves. Thank goodness the community of Wilcannia are tough and resourceful because the New South Wales Government was monumentally slow to provide assistance into the town. Volunteers—and there are many who deserve recognition—ought to be thanked for their selfless work. They threw up their hand at great personal risk to do what was right on behalf of their community. There are no amount of words that can capture what they have done. Lives were quite literally saved thanks to their efforts.
To the bureaucrats—with a fleet of white cars that flock to places like Wilcannia—I ask that they take a good hard look at the way they have conducted themselves during this pandemic. They were warned by the community and yet they failed to listen to them. They failed to advocate for their needs. They should consider why they did that, the privileged position they occupy and what it means to be in public service of the people of New South Wales. The Aboriginal affairs Minister, from my search, was totally silent on the crisis in Wilcannia. Overcrowded and poorly maintained housing, the product of decades of government neglect, meant people could not isolate in Wilcannia unless they slept outside.
In October 2020 the Minister visited Wilcannia on a whistlestop tour to sprinkle money about and told the community that housing was being prioritised. Not a single new house, of only five that were promised, has been built in Wilcannia yet. In 2017 the New South Wales Government funded a survey in western New South Wales to find out the extent of overcrowding. The survey showed 54 per cent of properties in Wilcannia were "often or always overcrowded" and 26 per cent said their living conditions affected their health. And yet when you talk to the department, it says only a handful of people are seeking housing. What it fails to consider is that applications for housing can be done only online—hard copy applications are not available in the Wilcannia community—and applicants are required to say they are willing to accept tenancy in another town when they apply.
The housing crisis in Wilcannia is really demonstrated through the overcrowding issue. Information from council shows that 35 three-bedroom houses in town are being occupied by three generations of the same family. Why do they not speak up about it? That is because they fear being split up. They fear losing government support. They fear having their children taken off them. I call on the New South Wales Liberal-Nationals Government to do better in this space—and I mean really do better. The announcement over the weekend is a drop in the ocean when there are over 50,000 people on the wait list and many more hidden in overcrowded homes. If we do not learn what needs to be fixed from COVID-19, what will all the suffering and sacrifice have achieved?