I rise to speak on the Liberal Democrats State of Emergency Powers Bill, which Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party will be supporting.
In the spirit of Mr Quilty who is bringing this Private Members Bill before us today, I will be brief.
Lockdowns hurt people. Whatever walk of life you come from, lockdowns and our restriction of freedom is not something we take lightly. Australia should be the freest country in the world and yet, a once in a lifetime pandemic has not made this so for a long period of time.
I’ve been lucky during this pandemic – I’ve kept my job, I’ve been locked down BUT with my family, I’ve had a roof over my head and I’m not in a high-risk category should I get the virus. I know there are people who have not had any sense of stability or support in this pandemic and so our support for this Bill is with those people in mind.I sympathise with the Government to some extent, in that there is no manual on what to do in a pandemic when things go south. However, I’d like to stress that there needs to be regular scrutiny on Government’s – and not just ours, but across the globe – to ensure those restrictions are not enforced beyond what is required.
This scrutiny, in Victoria’s case, has resulted in the Coate Inquiry. Whilst this was a disappointing Inquiry to some extent, it did have a number of recommendations on how to improve the systems we were using at the time. These included things like better PPE protocols and not having Hotel Quarantine workers employed across multiple sites. It became that this inquiry was needed to push accountability onto Ministers, public servants and employees in Hotel Quarantine and we saw this through many resignations.
But we really should not have needed an inquiry.
There should be regular impartial oversight over arguably the most important program in the state right now. But we aren’t seeing that oversight. Just recently, two senior Department of Health officials were stood down. They were supposed to be ensuring the correct protocols were being followed by everyone else, but couldn’t even adhere to the rules themselves. It’s these examples of distrust in the Government and its employees that make the people of Victoria hesitant and resistant to the continuation of lockdowns and state of emergency powers.
Section 24AA of the proposed Bill creates an offence for a person who issues an unlawful direction or in situations where directions are made that are not necessary to address a serious risk to public health. The penalty holds a maximum of 5 years’ imprisonment and is aimed at Ministers, the CHO and other officials. This unfortunately won’t keep Minister’s accountable for their departments and some poor decision-making by officials.
I think it’s more reasonable though, that this penalty is limited to those situations where that responsible person knew or was reckless to not have known whether their actions were lawful. And further to that, as we all know, even in the most awful circumstances of rape, murder and all other serious offences, it’s rare the maximum sentence is ever given.
I also note an interesting point the Liberal Democrats have cited in supporting this penalty, in industrial manslaughter laws which the Government strongly persisted with (and passed) in this parliament. These laws brought in penalties of up to 25 years’ imprisonment or $16M fines for employers or other duty holders who are negligent and it results in a death in the workplace. The Government has now set a standard through their Industrial Manslaughter Bill where they believe accountability should be placed on managers and Ministers, with serious consequences. At the crux of this Bill is increased oversight and regular scrutiny of the extension of a State of Emergency requiring parliamentary approval for all extensions to a State of Emergency. Our Party has always voted down extensions of emergency powers.
We just cannot believe these powers cannot be specifically legislated rather than letting their declaration rest in the hands of an individual (via the Government). As Mr Limbrick consistently points out, the Government refers to health advice regularly as the catalyst for enacting restrictions on us, yet this health advice hasn’t been provided.
And what about the Mental Health affects these irregular lockdowns are having upon our communities. For how long will the negative impacts of a virus (which we now have a vaccine for) override the negative impacts upon the livelihoods and emotional well-being of community members?
It is widely known and accepted that the lockdowns affect our most vulnerable communities in a disproportionate rate to the wider community. In particular, women and young people are most at risk of succumbing to mental health issues and family violence. In fact, The Australian reported on the 4th of June this year, that there had been around a 50% increase in the number young people admitted to hospital following self-harm or suicidal tendencies as compared to pre-COVID levels. In March this year the ABC reports that in relation to family violence incidents increased 9.4 per cent to 92,521 – the highest number on record. There was also a reported 10% rise in sex offences.
The ABC report referenced a quote from Liz Thomas from Wayss, a domestic violence support service in Melbourne, who said “the violence they saw during the lockdown was more sustained — lasting days, not hours — and the women were more traumatised.” Given all of that, there must come a time when the consequences of lockdowns become more of a health concern than the virus itself. Mark my words, the consequences of lockdowns on the mental health of our vulnerable community members will last well beyond the years that this virus is any risk to us.
Why we haven’t pursued other options, such as soft lockdowns, baffles me. Why we can’t have, in the first instance, a soft lockdown in the identified ‘hot spots’ where the measures are more targeted to the one area rather than the one state? If the numbers rise during the soft lockdown, then widen the zone more nuanced to the targeted areas and introduce stricter measures. Instead we seem to be more interested in a broader, heavier lockdown across the state affecting millions of people, rather than protecting the limited numbers at risk of being infected.
The effects of lockdowns have affected every moment of every Victorian’s life for over a year now. School children haven’t been able to go to school or see their friends or play sport, those with undiagnosed illnesses have put off check-ups and families have been separated for births, deaths and marriages.
It’s been heart-wrenching. Most recently, the family of Cooper Onyett (who tragically drowned in a pool in Port Fairy) had organised to hold his funeral in Warrnambool on the Friday – which is the first day of the state’s seven-day lockdown. Had the funeral been one day prior to the lock-down, all of Coopers friends and family could have come together and grieve the loss of their loved one.
Their request for an exemption was denied. I cannot imagine the hurt that community and family felt losing a precious child only to have their request for a full and proper farewell denied.
To have regional Victoria (which in many parts has maintained zero cases) under the same lockdown measures as a hot-spot in Melbourne is bizarre. Like I said before, at what point does the negative impacts of a virus (which has never existed in some parts of Victoria) override the negative impacts upon the livelihoods and emotional well-being of rural and regional members? The request for the exemption to Coopers funeral was denied, and mourners limited to only 10 people. At the same time the funeral was to proceed, you could find many a crowd throughout parts of Melbourne within supermarkets, on public transport and even some high-profile sporting clubs being exempted to train together. It makes no sense.
The effects on small business have been indisputably enormous. I’ve been in contact with a number of small business owners and sole traders and they are bleeding. Not only financially, but mentally; many feel they are getting no support, no confidence and are frankly ready to shut the doors.
Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party has always stood by small businesses and the impacts of COVID have made our support for them even more important.
We also stand with regional and rural Victorians who have suffered and continue to suffer from a virus of which many have never been subjected to directly.
On that note, I commend this Bill to the House.