Sweeping new pandemic powers are set to become law following a marathon debate that dragged late into Tuesday evening, as human rights and law experts ‘cautiously’ welcomed last-minute amendments to the Andrews government’s controversial bill.
LAW SET TO PASS
Debate on the bill in the Legislative Council began at 3pm on Tuesday, after the Opposition failed in its attempt to delay the proposed legislation further.
MP Rod Barton has stepped forward and agreed to support the legislation, allowing for the numbers the government needs to pass the legislation.
Under the deal with Mr Barton — which the government hopes will quell public turmoil that has led to daily protests on the steps of the Victorian Parliament — a new ‘independent panel’ would be established to review detention orders imposed during a pandemic.
A joint parliamentary committee, chaired by a non-government MP, would also be established to review public health orders, and aggravated offences would be erased.
These changes were decried by the Opposition as “Mickey Mouse amendments”.
There were hopes the government would fail to secure the support of a fourth crossbencher to pass the bill, which could have led to Victoria becoming the only jurisdiction in the country without powers to enforce health orders, including quarantine of cases and vaccine mandates.
However, Rod Barton has crossed the floor and the bill is all but expected to pass.
Former Labor minister Adem Somyurek, who scuppered the state government’s plans at the 11th hour, arrived at the Victorian Parliament late in the day to debate the legislation — which he described as “Orwellian” and gave governments “unfettered” and extreme powers.
Legal and human rights groups broadly welcomed the concessions, but some raised concerns that it fell short on two significant fronts:
The requirement for an absolute majority of the two houses to disallow public health orders, and the appointment of detention appeals officers to review detention orders.
Paul Hayes, QC, one of the 60 barristers who signed an open letter opposing the government’s pandemic legislation in its original form, and the president of the Victorian Bar, Roisin Annesley, QC, said it should be judges and magistrates who routinely presided over hearings about the infringement of people’s civil liberties — not appeals officers — who reviewed detention orders.
“Why has the government stopped short of fixing two of the bigger and more substantial problems?” Mr Hayes said.
“When you’re dealing with the democratic process and the liberties of people, near enough is not good enough.”
The Victorian Opposition unsuccessfully sought 18 amendments to the bill, and said the proposed legislation did not appropriately address concerns around scrutiny, transparency and accountability.
“Politics is not what’s needed to manage COVID – sensible commonsense discussion is,” leader Matthew Guy said.
“Sadly this Parliament got none of that. What they got was yet again the government playing favourites and yet again the government seeking to get one or two votes and throw the rest of the wind.”
The Human Rights Law Centre welcomed the changes, but wanted an outer-limit on how long a pandemic declaration could be extended.
“The new bill isn’t perfect, but it is a big improvement on the existing law,” legal director Daniel Webb said.
The moves come after the legislation was previously stalled while the government hoped to gain more support for the controversial legislation.
Rod Barton locked his Twitter account late this afternoon to prepare for a barrage of abuse after declaring his support for the amended bill.
He will be facing considerable backlash for his decision to side with the government.
Screenshots of threats against Mr Barton began circulating online as soon as his position on the bill was made public, while the name and mobile number of his chief of staff had also been published.
“I’m comfortable with what we’re putting up. This is a very different beast than we had previously,” Mr Barton said outside the Parliament on Tuesday morning.
Crossbench MPs who were locked into negotiations with the government from the beginning — Fiona Patten, Samantha Ratnam and Andy Meddick — have been decried for their support over the past few weeks, as protesters gathered at the steps of Parliament for #OccupySpringSt.
Some demonstrators carried gallows and nooses during the rallies, performed mock hangings of Daniel Andrews and some shared the home addresses of Labor MPs on encrypted apps.
Under existing laws, which expire on December 16, the chief health officer makes binding health orders under a state of emergency.
The Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021 transfers those powers to the premier and health minister of the day
The only difference now is they will be ‘accountable to Parliament’, who they say, are accountable to the Victorian public.
If that doesn’t raise red flags..
Stay tuned for updates.
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