Mr NORTHE (Morwell)
Speaker, I rise to speak on the Public Health and Wellbeing (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021. First, can I commend every single Victorian who is has been working on the response to this pandemic. Your ongoing work and efforts are valued and respected and we say thank you. And prior to providing my own comments on the Bill itself, I want to briefly give an overview of what the Bill intends to do. So the Bill seeks to replace the need for regular extensions to the State of Emergency under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (PHWA). According to the Government it is seeking to introduce these measures to provide for a fit-for-purpose pandemic management framework comprising powers appropriate to ensure Victoria is equipped for the ongoing COVID-19 response, as well as future pandemics. However there are many who disagree with this assertion including myself!!
As has been previously debated in this chamber the current State of Emergency was extended until 15 December 2021 and as such will have been in place for approximately 21 months with the Act being amended for periods of time along the way to allow for extensions to the COVID-19 State of Emergency. Supposedly the Bill establishes mechanisms to improve the transparency of pandemic decision-making and accountability of decision-makers to Parliament and the community, but again this is questionable as articulated by a myriad of persons including legal experts.
For the purposes of persons reading my speech the Government states that the Bill provides for the use of the same powers currently available under the State of Emergency through Chief Health Officer Orders, however, this specific bill provides the Minister for Health with broad powers to make pandemic orders where reasonably necessary to protect public health, on the advice of the Chief Health Officer.
I want to also highlight my disappointment with the actual passage of this legislation. As a matter of course, legislation is introduced into this chamber one day, second read the next day and then Members of Parliament, industry groups, businesses and Victorian citizens are given a minimum of two weeks, that is a minimum of two weeks to digest the legislation, consult with the community, consider the legislation, receive a briefing before coming back into the Parliament to debate and vote upon the said legislation. Even for the most mundane and unimportant legislation this two week window is afforded to members of Parliament and the Victorian community which is vitally important for the above-mentioned reasons.
Yet here we are, arguably with the most important legislation this Parliament has had to consider, certainly in this term of Parliament and effectively only having one day to read hundreds of pages of information, and then somehow consider all the same information, and consult our communities before coming back today to debate and vote upon a Bill. A Bill that affords extraordinary almost open ended powers to the Premier, the Health Minister and health officials in Victoria who can in turn impose restrictions and orders upon Victorian citizens that significantly affect their employment, their health, their emotional and mental health, their social networks and their liberties and freedoms.
On the basis of this alone I will oppose this Bill. Generally we are informed on the Thursday prior to a Parliament sitting what Bills will be debated in this place and this was again the case last Thursday; however the Public Health and Wellbeing (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021 was conspicuous by its absence because the said Bill had not even been introduced into Parliament. Now I had expected the Government might introduce a Bill this week that sought to extend its State of Emergency powers beyond 15 December but to introduce, second read and debate and vote on the Bill in three consecutive days is simply unacceptable and undemocratic. To say I was surprised, shocked, stunned on late Monday when the process for this week was laid out for such important legislation – well that’s an understatement. Many people are angry at the lack of transparency and opportunity and this sentiment has been conveyed across various platforms and forums. I can’t actually recall a subject where I have received more emails or messages about given the Government intent to ram this legislation through the Parliament.
As an Independent Member of Parliament, and as the Member for Shepparton noted in her contribution, I haven’t had time to read and consider the full legislation and I simply don’t have the people or resources to do so. This really is unsatisfactory and undemocratic. As a basic principle I am not opposed to the fact that Governments should have powers to deal with emergency events. Within reason of course they should have the ability to apply restriction of movement where absolutely necessary. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, Victorians have endured 21 months of heartache with some of the toughest lockdowns anywhere in the world and you can understand the intention to minimise virus outbreaks across Victorian communities. But at the same time no-one can argue has impacted people financially, emotionally, mentally and socially.
Whilst I do appreciate decisions in response to a pandemic are tough ones for Governments to make I have always believed you also need to understand the perverse or unintended consequences of such decisions. Many a medical expert has flagged to the Government that the impacts of their restrictions are causing harm to children, adults and seniors in various ways. As I have raised in previous State of Emergency debates in this place, the impact of children missing out on school, social activities and sport must be considered in the decision making process. As is the welfare and employment of adults many who are now caught up in the vaccinated and unvaccinated classes of people that have been created by the Government.
As I mentioned in my Members Statement this morning, business owners and employees are grappling with the inconsistency and illogical aspects of the rules that apply under different settings whether one is vaccinated, unvaccinated or single dose vaccinated. Business owners are contending with extraordinary anxiety as their emotional buckets are already full yet the confusion and mixed messages on what you can and can’t do is tipping people over. Our seniors who might be in care settings or even at home are struggling with the fact they are unable to see loved ones and being isolated for long periods is effecting their physical and mental health. So my point has always been that if the Government imposes restrictions on its citizens it also has to consider the outcomes of those same restrictions and the affect it will have on people financially, emotionally and socially and unfortunately I believe the application of many rules and restrictions have not given regard to this point.
I have always opposed previous State of Emergency powers, again not on the basis that rules and restrictions are not warranted in an emergency or a pandemic but for the fact it gave the Government and health official’s unfettered powers, for extended periods of time and without proper oversight and scrutiny including by the Parliament itself. It seems this Bill does nothing to allay my fears or concerns. I do hear the call that the Parliament will receive various reports from independent committees about the decisions made, but again the point I have raised is that Parliament itself has no influence on major decisions that affect Victorian citizens. When you read and hear some of the content of the Bill it is very troubling from my perspective. Two points of concern include enabling the Premier to declare a pandemic where the Premier is satisfied there is a serious risk to public health arising from a pandemic or disease of pandemic potential; and to provide for declarations to be renewed for up to three months at a time, with no outer limit on the total duration of a declaration.
I mean those two provisions alone should cause alarm to Victorian citizens. It seems in some respects the Government is seeking even further powers almost open ended and without having to come back to the Parliament for consideration of serious restrictions and directions imposed upon Victorian people. Whilst I don’t profess to be a medical expert, the fact that the Federal government has stated that vaccinations in this country are voluntary, the State Government has been able to, through its State of Emergency powers mandate that the majority of Victorians have to be vaccinated, without coming back to the Parliament for debate, consideration and voting upon. Again whilst I don’t profess to be a medical expert, something as serious as mandating vaccination for Victorians other than for MP’s has not even been bought to the Parliament for its consideration and I find that troubling.
So what have others been saying about this Bill. Victorian Bar president Christopher Blanden QC has said the following and I quote, “The bill confers on the health minister in a practical sense an effectively unlimited power to rule the state by decree, for effectively an indefinite period, and without effective judicial or parliamentary oversight,” Sound familiar – This is exactly what I have been saying throughout the whole State of Emergency debate!!
Mr Blanden went onto say, “That doesn’t add up to good democracy in my book. It’s a disgrace. What’s the urgency?” “If you’re going to interfere to this degree with people’s basic rights, then there ought to be some reasoned debate about whether it’s justified. “Not just that you do a deal with a couple of crossbenchers and because you’ve got the numbers you shovel it all through and you effectively stymie debate”, Mr Bladen said.
Speaker when you have the Victorian Bar expressing such significant concerns at a Bill that affords the Government such powers then in my view all Victorian’s should be concerned. As the Member for Shepparton noted and as Mr Bladen noted, what is the rush. The Government does have time to allow Members of Parliament, legal experts and Victorian citizens to further consider and consult about the merits or not of this Bill. Because that is not happening one can only be cynical of the Governments motives and intentions.
In conclusion, and in my opinion this Bill should not be debated and voted upon today, and it should not be supported for the reasons that I have consistently conveyed and that is, it continues to give the Premier, the Health Minister and health officials unfettered powers, without proper legal and Parliamentary oversight for an unlimited time whilst not understanding the real harm caused to Victorian citizens financially, emotionally and socially.