I rise to speak today on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021.
And to start this speech in the words of pandemic laws supporter Fiona Patten on 3AW recently “the devil will be in the detail”. Indeed it is.
I’d like to say at the outset that Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party agrees that throughout this pandemic, we’ve needed to take unprecedented steps in order to keep people safe from what we knew is a dangerous virus. We only have to look at the ICU’s in our state, and across Australia currently, to figure that out. However, there are measures that have been taken that go well beyond this goal and encroach on the freedoms that we’ve fought extremely hard for and which have been taken away unnecessarily.
Our disappointment that three crossbench MPs would try and sell this Bill as ‘not another State of Emergency’ is frankly misleading. Mr Meddick even stated on Facebook “It is not an extended state of emergency. It removes the requirement for Victoria to be in a State of Emergency for a pandemic ever again.” Ms Ratnam said: “These new laws mean that there will be no more state of emergency for COVID”.
This Bill is absolutely a legislated State of Emergency for pandemics. It allows the Government the same powers as conferred by the State of Emergency and for Ms Patten, Mr Meddick and Ms Ratnam to state otherwise to justify their support of the Bill is just plain wrong.
These comments are akin to putting lipstick on a pig. It’s the same stuff as a State of Emergency, just gift wrapped.
I’ll talk more about those three key crossbenchers later, but I just wanted to touch on some of the statements Mr Meddick made recently on radio in relation to this Bill.
Firstly, Mr Meddick has agreed that this Bill is flawed, admitting that it should be improved, even stating he’s been asking the Government to improve it since its introduction. In fact, he’s asked for an additional oversight mechanism to the Bill. This would contrast his immediate support of the Bill, even stating on Facebook “I will be supporting the bill when it comes to our house”. The House amendments do not bring in additional oversight apart from finally ensuring the bill complies with human rights and that making a pandemic is ‘reasonable’.
Mr Meddick also claimed that once a pandemic disease ceases to be a pandemic disease, the pandemic declaration will be revoked. This is false, given that the definition of pandemic is quite literally that a pandemic declaration can be enacted where only a ‘disease of pandemic potential’ exists in the world. A point I’ll mention further later.
Firstly, I’d like to start as I do with most Bills these days and talk about the lack of consultation. I said it a few weeks ago and I’ll say it now: our Party was never consulted on this Bill, nor were we afforded that opportunity.
We received a 30 minute briefing by the Health Minister’s advisers the week before last but unlike three crossbenchers, we never knew about the ins and outs of the Bill until the media reported it.
A Government Minister said in the other place that the Government only consulted people who put their hand up and said ’yes, we want to work with the government. We want to work through the challenges on this bill.’ But it wasn’t until Ms Crozier was accidentally sent an email about the existence of the planning for this Bill back in March (I’m lead to believe) that we found out what was happening.
If that mistake hadn’t been made, we would have never known about it. We would have welcomed consultation about this Bill, but because we didn’t support the first two State of Emergency extensions, we were never afforded the opportunity. And this needs to be put on public record, that once we disagreed with the Government’s position, we were struck out of negotiations and consultation.
On this note, I’d like to give a shout out to The Age for posting the Bill online so I could look at it at the same time as others in the community. Why was I in a position to have to read the Bill from the media rather than the Parliament or the Government even?
This was incredibly disrespectful to those MPs who are tasked with voting on this important Bill. It just shows arrogance and disrespect to elected members of parliament.
Like I said the day after hearing about the Bill briefing undertaken by Mr Meddick, Ms Patten and Ms Ratnam – apparently we are not part of the cool kids in school group.
To push the Bill through shows us that on this occasion, the Government has not afforded other parties the consideration of adequate parliamentary oversight and scrutiny. This is what this chamber is for. We had three sitting weeks left when the Bill was introduced in the other place and so there was ample time for debate if they had chosen to adjourn for the week. This was a poor decision.
Lastly on this lack of consultation, it isn’t only MPs who are annoyed about the lack of consultation on this Bill. Notably the Victorian Bar Association have said the “appalling” Bill (in their words) caught out the Government in a lie.
The President of the Association, Christopher Blanden QC, said he was offended that the Bar was referred to as an organisation that was part of the “expert reference group” when they only had a 45-minute online meeting about the Bill in June.
Although the broad issue of declaration of pandemics was raised in their meeting, the Bar say there was no further contact, so their concerns were never resolved.
They further said:
“The Victorian Bar was never provided with a draft bill. Two members of the Victorian Bar Council were registered to attend a one-hour ‘consultation workshop’ in September 2021. This workshop was cancelled at short notice and was never rescheduled.”
Apparently, this is what consultation looks like.
THE BILL’S PROBLEMS:
I have to say that the Bill is somewhat an improvement on what we have now. These State of Emergency powers caught us all by surprise in March last year when we had severe restrictions placed on our lives that we didn’t know were possible. I think we all understood that some things had to change; large gatherings and events needed to be reduced, density limits to some extent and mask wearing in high-risk settings. This has happened all over the world.
In places where there were few restrictions, like Brazil, we were seeing mass graves being plotted which was just gut-wrenching.
But then things got ridiculous. Hotel Quarantine was botched. Decisions were made with no health advice whatsoever – does curfew and playgrounds ring any bells? We didn’t get the 4000 beds we were promised about 18 months ago that would have assisted us in opening up sooner. So, no wonder the public trust has diminished significantly in the last few years.
Speaking of not getting what was promised – why are our schools still waiting to get the air purifiers they were told they would get in order to reduce the risk of contracting this infectious disease?
Why the delay on these important tools against Covid especially within an area where children are at a risk and are continuing to get the virus and at times, incredibly sick.
Why do we have air purifiers here in this place – a place where we are vaccinated and in a large open area, when classrooms containing our children and amazing teachers have nothing. Absolutely nothing.
It is disgraceful and a slap in the face of schools, teachers and students who we have been (and remain so) very proud of the work they have done in these incredibly trying and unprecedented times.
I am very tempted to load up my car with the air purifiers here and deliver them myself to schools who need them more than what we do here.
If it wasn’t so serious, it would be an absolute joke.
This Bill comes at a time when people are sick and tired of Governments interfering in their lives. They want some accountability placed on individuals to make their own choices rather than the Government giving them an ultimatum of: you get the jab or you lose your job or get the jab or don’t step foot into retail until at least the end of 2022. When does it end?
Onto the specifics of the Bill.
Firstly, the definition of pandemic is so loose and so broad. A pandemic can be declared when – somewhere in the world – there is a disease floating around that our Health Department could deem having ‘pandemic potential’.
Whilst the precautionary principle could be applied, we have to consider that by invoking a pandemic declaration, the Government have the power to make unfettered pandemic orders on the Victorian community.
The ‘oversight’ here according to the Government is that the Chief Health Officer needs to provide advice that the disease has pandemic potential or that there is indeed a pandemic. But we need to remember the CHO is a Government-appointed bureaucrat.
Given the definition of ‘pandemic’ is so broad, this also raises the question around the length of time a pandemic can be declared (which the Bill says is 3 months at a time). We could literally have a pandemic declaration that allows restrictions on our lives as long as COVID exists somewhere in the world. It doesn’t matter if 99% of us are vaccinated and there are 0 deaths. Just having this option available to any Government is extremely worrying.
Secondly, to the health advice that is frequently cited in the legislation. I think it’s a great thing that the Government have finally succumb to the realisation that the Victorian people need REASONS for being locked in their homes and being unable to do things like play at a park, travel more than 5km from their home and wearing a mask out when playing golf or fishing.
We. Need. Reasons.
I couldn’t have summed it up better than Shannon Deery’s recent piece in the Herald Sun, titled “What don’t they want us to know?”. Basically, he questioned the authenticity of any health advice we’re going to see under this legislation, if at the same time, the Health Department are fighting tooth and nail to not release advice that they used to base the February lockdown on. They are fighting so hard to not have to release the advice citing the reason that it would jeopardise the trust between public officials and ministers. Further it would reveal “high level deliberative processes of Government”.
Deery said “Something smells… [if] the Government is so committed to releasing future advice – to the point it is making it illegal not to do so – then why not start now?”
I absolutely agree.
He further states “How are we to trust that the future advice [under this Bill] will be the whole of the advice relied on?”
And this is exactly my point. I welcome the parts of the Bill that will finally force the Government to tell us the reasons behind all of its pandemic powers, but I don’t hold my breath that this advice will be authentic or the whole truth. Why am I perhaps ‘cynical’? The Government is not only NOT releasing health advice relied upon in February, but it has also not released advice and Human Charter assessments to this place as resolved by the Chamber on a number of occasions.
Everyone has asked for the advice for two years now and we’ve received donuts.
Lastly, we also have concerns about detention which Ms Maxwell will talk to further. My greatest concern with this part of the Bill is that where you are falsely detained, there is no ramification, penalty or punishment for the bureaucrat who put you there. Talk about a lack of accountability. There is also no definition of ‘detention’ except for the fact that it isn’t necessarily isolation or quarantining as outlined in section 165BE – so what is detention?
As you can see that there are a plethora of issues with the Bill.
Before I conclude, I want to remind all those who are watching that Mr Meddick, Ms Patten and Dr Ratnam have – according to these crossbenchers themselves – been working to ‘improve’ the Bill with the Government since its introduction.
Ms Patten has even agreed to support amendments and Mr Meddick has admitted on radio that there are flaws in the Bill in relation to detention, the 3 month unlimited extensions and so on. This is despite their support for the Bill when it first came out; no questions asked.
This morning, the ‘three’ have come out saying they’ll support the Bill what all the fantastic new changes they’ve been able to secure… well in our opinion, the Government’s House amendments don’t go far enough. They were the absolute minimum and all but completely ignored suggestions by our prominent legal bodies including the Victorian Bar Association and the Law Institute of Victoria.
It is clear the community are paying very close attention to the voting for this Bill, as we all are, given that this will almost certainly be enacted mid-December this year for who knows how long. After all, this is probably one of the most important Bills MPs have voted on in the last number of decades.
On this, to say that we have been inundated with emails over the past weeks would be an understatement. And no, they are not campaign emails with the same words and narrative. They are mainly individually scribed by community members with legitimate concerns.
We have been elected by the people to represent members of our constituency.
The people have well and truly spoken.
It is imperative that we give our constituents a voice rather than prioritising our own political agenda. To those who have contacted my office, in particular those from the Western Victorian electorate, I thank you for sharing your concerns about this Bill with my office.
Lastly, I want to put on the record how disappointed I am that we have been presented with such a flawed Bill, to the extent we have over 90 amendments – and those are just the ones I knew about as I wrote this speech.
This Bill will take us a few days of our precious time in Parliament to debate. What this means, is that we lose time to debate things around victims of crime, our legal system (which is in shambles), mental health and so much more that our Party was elected to fight for.
Rest assured, we will continue the fight in these areas – something of which has sorely been absent in the Government agenda put forward in this place.
So, to conclude, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party has made our position very clear that we do not and will not support this Bill.