I rise to contribute to debate on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment Bill which has been the subject of much contention.

I have heard that a week is a long time in politics, and we have all been living that motto lately.

I would like to start by acknowledging that whilst a State of Emergency does not equate to lockdown measures, it does however provide for the opportunity for such measures to be in place. I would also like to place on the record that Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party notes the need for a state of emergency to exist beyond mid-September, as many have noted, this virus will unfortunately be with us for some time.

I stress that point, we need the State of Emergency to continue – but the time frame proposed here by the Government is a bridge too far.

I do briefly want to also acknowledge the work of the Clerks and the President who have continually sought to find consensus where possible. I am sure I speak for the entire chamber when I say that none of us are envious of your jobs at the moment, but you have dealt with each issue without fear of favour. Thank you.

To say that our lives have changed forever due to this virus would be an understatement. The way Victorian’s work, interact, exercise and socialise has dramatically changed. On my way into Parliament yesterday, it hit me just how silent the CBD is. Shopfronts vacant, trams empty and laneways deserted.

Indeed, COVID-19 has changed the way that Parliament functions. This has been a positive for those of us who have been able to find digital solutions to working remotely.

Equally, there has also been some concerning trends which have arisen from COVID-19. The sidelining of the Parliament. The Governments inability to adequately consult non-government members. The politicisation of our top health officials. The lack of consistent, reliable and researched information from the Government in particular to members of the crossbench.  The list goes on and on.

In speaking to this legislation, it is also important to understand the way in which the crossbench was engaged for support on this legislation. A courtesy call was made to crossbench MP’s minutes before the Premier made his announcement that he was introducing this bill. On the same day, crossbench MP’s and staff were offered a briefing in which public servants and advisors attempted to answer questions.

That’s pretty much it.  We were then left to sell complex legislation to an understandably anxious public.

No roadmap for a way out of stage 4 restrictions was provided.

No modelling to suggest that restrictions could be eased in some rural communities without a single positive COVID case.

That was simply it.

In seeking clarification of the State of Disaster powers with various members of the Government (in relation to the ‘edge of the cliff’ scenario), I was verbally advised that such advise was principally privileged from the Solicitor-Generals office and was unable to be supplied to myself in writing.  Here, we have to go on the word of the Government that a State of Disaster had a higher threshold for restrictions to be put in place, for a ‘little while’ and that is why a State of Emergency is the preferred option.

Such ambiguous details without substance make it near on impossible for us as minor parties with limited staff and minimal access to lawyers – in order for us to make informed decisions on such important pieces of legislation.  It is incumbent on the Government, I would have thought, to ensure that every Member of Parliament was afforded full and complete disclosure of information surrounding legislation for us to make these decisions.

If we, as MP’s cannot get this significant information, then what hope has the mums and dads and everyone else for that matter at home got?  We don’t have the luxury of lawyers at our fingertips – we rely on the hard work of the EO staff and our own research into legislation to review and analyse at times extremely complex and complicated information.

Every time, I ask a member of the Government for information it was provided verbally only and in scarce detail.  Help me here.  How can we make important decisions based upon this?  Well, the only was we can is to listen.

And listen we did.

We listened to the hundreds of phone calls to our office in the past week.  We have read and (are still replying mind you) to over 5,000 emails we have received in the past week.

The majority of which weren’t the usual robo-emails we are used to, but instead individually typed (at length) from people willing to put their name and address and contact details to and overwhelmingly in opposition to this legislation.  I have seen nothing like it.  Not to mention the reaction and comments on social media as well.

It has been an avalanche of frustrated, angry, and desperate people.  All wanting a sense of hope and optimism.

One of the emails I received was from a 12 year old – young Bella, who had a question.  She was asking why it was okay for those with boyfriends and girlfriends to get together, but it was not okay for grandparents to see their grandchildren.  She wrote about her grandmother who lives alone and wasn’t allowed to see her and this made her miss her.  She writes that grannie is 81 years old, she lives by herself and is lonely.  Bella was questioning why we don’t pass laws like in New Zealand where people living alone are allowed to have one family to interact and visit.

Well Bella, I wish you and your grannie well during these tough times, and I’ll be ever hopeful of some safe and socially responsible ways that you can see your grannie soon.

Therein lies the big issue here.  Families are struggling, people are lonely and they just want some sense of hope.

This bill is not complimented by additional support measures for those needing additional mental health support or enduring family violence.  Suicide rates continue to rise and it is our young people and those in regional centres in particular who are suffering the most.  Geelong has a disproportionate rate of suicide with young people.  This is not acceptable and despite the great work of local mental health organisations, certainly in Western Victoria, there is still a lot more needing to be done.

I was not elected to Parliament because of my views on States of Emergency. However, I was elected to represent my party members and constituents.

These powers should not be used lightly, Melbourne is subject to some of the strongest lockdown measures in the world. They are working and of course no life can be measured in dollars and cents. However, debate on this bill should be mature enough to note that the total cost of Victoria’s lockdown this quarter is estimated to be as high as $12 billion. Money pulled from our economy which is the future source of funding for schools, hospitals and social services.

Now on to the legislation before us. I must admit that its 7-page length is somewhat misleading, what appears to be a physically small bill, has ended up being the source of much conversation and debate over the past week.

As stated before, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party notes the need for a state of emergency to exist beyond mid-September. The initial bill sought to legislate a State of Emergency to exist for an additional 12 months.

18 months in which one government can declare a state of emergency is a worrying thought. These are monumental powers in which the Government wants to exercise without adequate checks and balances.

The amended legislation tries to find some ‘middle ground’ by giving the Government the ability to declare a state of emergency for an additional 6 months, however I think these amendments still miss the point.

As mentioned before, some members of the public simply don’t understand the difference between a state of emergency and lockdown measures. This needs to be addressed by the Government.  Clearly the communication from the Government to the community is seriously lacking.  How else could you explain the level of anxiety we are currently seeing among hard-working and stoic Victorians?

Additionally, the Government has been unable to provide written advice to me from the Solicitor General (or AG for that matter) about whether or not a State of Disaster can only exist in conjunction with a state of emergency.

Again, this needs to be addressed by the Government.

It is my belief also, that even with the passage of this bill, the state of emergency would still have to be declared by the Government in four-week blocks, as it is now, but I stand to be corrected.

Whilst ministers are aided by a large party organisation, electorate staff, ministerial staff and government departments, crossbenchers like Ms Maxwell and I have to assess each piece of legislation with limited staff and resourcing.

My staff do a brilliant job, but there are times where minor parties simply have to take the word of our public servants. Therefore, the independence of these public servants is vitally important.

The government argues that this bill simply lengthens the total period for which a state of emergency declaration may continue and clarifies the power of the Chief Health Officer in respect of directions. If only.

Some of the additional powers which are included within this bill are:

  • the ability to restrict movement,
  • the ability to search premises without a warrant
  • the ability to enforce mandatory quarantining for those who have tested positive to COVID-19
  • the ability to enforce mandatory face masks
  • and the ability to detain any person “for the period reasonably necessary to eliminate or reduce a serious risk to public health”.

The Government has known for some time that they only had 6 months to exercise such extraordinary powers.

They had time to properly consult the crossbench and draft COVID specific legislation which finds consensus between public opinion and health advice. Having left it this late, they are now entirely dependent on the passage of this legislation.

In our discussions with the Government, Ms Maxwell and I have espoused the opportunities for regional areas to be exempt with restrictions, in particular those areas that have a zero Covid-19 cases for some time.  In Western Victoria, the council areas of Glenelg, West Wimmera, Grampians – just to name a few.  The feedback from those communities has been overwhelming with desperate pleas to end (or at the very least) ease restrictions.  To those in regional areas, rest assured that we are listening and continually advocating on your behalf wherever and whenever we can.  Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party supports you.

In wrapping up, I would like to thank the incredible work all our frontline workers have been doing during these tough times…the health workers and emergency service workers…..and I thank Danny Hill and Wayne Gatt for their advocacy on behalf their respective associations.  It has been very interesting to note that while the organisations have recently called for a 6 month extension, my discussions with former colleagues suggest a smaller time frame.

I would like to conclude by stating that while Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party will not be supporting this Bill, Ms Maxwell and I look forward to working with members of the Government to ensure that our lives return back to normal as soon as it is safe to do so. The health and safety of all Victorians is of the utmost importance. Regardless of what happens with this Bill, I truly believe our best days are still ahead of us.