Thank you, President.

To quickly end any suspense for those people who are watching and listening right now, let me say that Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party will not be supporting this COVID Omnibus Bill.

Actually, I’ll repeat that – so that even those few numbskulls on Twitter and Facebook who still seem to think Mr Grimley and I supported the recent State of Emergency legislation (when we most certainly did not) can try to better wrap their minds around things this time!

Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party will be opposing this Bill!

I’ll outline the reasoning for that approach in more detail shortly.

As many people will know, today’s debate actually marks the culmination of weeks of discussions, consultations and representations on this Bill – and the many and varied elements of it.

During that time, the emotions of people right across Victoria on this Bill have run high.  Just like they did on the State of Emergency legislation a few weeks ago.  Again, those of us on the crossbench have felt that as keenly as anyone.

Over recent years, many people interested in politics and government have (quite rightly) lamented the growing apathy of many of their fellow Australians toward parliamentary democracy.  However, I can legitimately say that I’ve observed only the opposite trend over recent months as a member of this House.  That’s a great and very refreshing thing in itself.

There have been a very small number of people who have resorted to directing some particularly vicious threats and some absolutely vile personal abuse our way in the process.  I would encourage any of that small group who might be listening today to reflect on your behaviour – and how it does your cause absolutely no favour or credit whatsoever.

To everyone else who has contacted me, both from within and outside this Parliament, to express their positions on this Bill and how they would potentially like me to vote on it, I say thank you.  I won’t please every one of you with my decisions on this Bill, especially those of you from within the ranks of the Government.

However, generally speaking, those discussions and that lobbying has been both constructive and important.

That said, I’ll admit that, from as soon as I first saw the original version of this Bill (and that was before it had garnered much public attention), I was immediately very concerned about the proposals around the preventative detention of people, in particular.

To be frank, I don’t think too much lobbying from anyone was going to change my mind that those provisions were grossly unreasonable, they had no place in a country like Australia, and they needed to be eliminated from the Bill forthwith.  Nonetheless, I am certainly glad that many people did ultimately speak out to that effect, too.

I am also heartened that the Government did, indeed, subsequently listen to, and act on, these concerns.

Being an Omnibus Bill, there are actually many things within the revised version of the legislation that are quite reasonable and logical in their own right.

I certainly want to acknowledge that I am very pleased, above all else, with the inclusion in this Bill of the child reunification changes.

That part of the Bill has actually been badly misrepresented, or at least misinterpreted, quite a few times in public commentary.

This is not somehow about creating a widespread potential for the confiscation of children from their parents for 30 months.  It’s actually the opposite.  It’s about giving parents with children already in the out-of-home care system sufficient opportunities and time to prove they have the capacity to safely and effectively resume caring for their child.

The potential addition of an extra six months of time to the standard 24 month allocation for the reunification process is designed purely to offset the problems caused by the COVID restrictions this year to the way these arrangements traditionally work.

I am very heartened by this because I suspect these changes have ended up in the Bill – at least in part – on the basis of questions that I asked in Question Time on 2 September that essentially called on the Government to take this kind of action.

Far beyond and far more importantly than my own involvement, the changes in this area in the Bill also respond to concerns raised by many affected parents and many other stakeholders quite widely across the child protection sector.

Journalist Michael Fowler also did a superb job in The Age on 9 August in giving voice to some of those people and their concerns.

So, given that background, I’d actually like to thank the Government for responding very sincerely and effectively to all of that advocacy.

That’s not by any means to pretend I’m happy (in fact, far from it) with all aspects of child protection at the moment in Victoria.  There are actually an extraordinary number of problems that need to be addressed.  In my view, the reunification aspect should be embedded in another Bill which could also address other legislative changes required to improve DHHS and their systemic failings to protect children.

I am also utterly horrified when I contemplate just how many cases of child abuse and family violence will have inevitably occurred in Victoria during the lockdowns of the past seven months.

Nevertheless, I do genuinely thank the Child Protection Minister, Mr Donnellan, and the Government, as part of this Bill, for seeking to fix this particular, and very significant, set of problems triggered by the COVID restrictions to child reunification.

Again, there are various other parts of the Bill (especially in an administrative sense) that are perfectly reasonable at face value.

However, there are simply too many problems with it, overall, for us to allow it to pass in its current, consolidated form.

Let me explain the four main sets of reasons why.

Firstly – and very simply – we believe that it should have been split up into separate Bills.  Items like child reunification and teacher registration, for instance, and/or others on which there would be unanimous consensus across the chamber, should have been carved out from elements like the OH&S changes and the introduction of the new authorised officers.

Mr Grimley and I have made that point clear right from our very earliest discussions with the Government on this legislation.

The exercise of voting clause by clause on the Bill, which will instead occur later today, is much more confusing, unwieldy and time-consuming.  It’s also unreasonable to expect most Victorians to follow, understand (and therefore have confidence in) how this is being done.  It’s on that basis that we, in Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, will essentially continue to vote ‘no’ on each clause contentious enough to be the subject of a division in the consideration of this Bill.

Secondly, and putting it simply, this Bill is essentially premised on a series of ad hoc fixes to try to deal with what are really much deeper structural problems in Victorian public health administration.  In our view, these structural issues actually require a much more holistic response.

At the very least, what are still needed right now as immediate priority improvements are much more effective, comprehensive and far less archaic systems of COVID testing and contact tracing.

Thirdly, the Bill (like the recent State of Emergency one) again reflects a mentality in the coronavirus response that, in our view, continues to be misconceived.

This idea that it’s prudent to just continue to postpone a desperately-needed return to normality for several more months here, and several more months there (particularly with winter now behind us), should have been abandoned a while ago.  More to the point, the consequences of this inertia are proving just as damaging and dangerous as COVID ever has.

Yes, there have been more than 800 deaths in Victoria attributed to COVID – albeit that a closer inspection of those numbers suggests the overwhelming majority of them have involved people with co-morbidities.

Yet, for every death that might have been caused by this pandemic, we also see all around us numerous examples where the cure has proved worse than the disease.

By that, I refer to the consequent neglect of all manner of other types of individual suffering, illness and long-term societal damage.

Among some of the many examples of this are:

  • the sidelining of many elective surgeries;
  • diminished levels of care for cancer and other chronic disease sufferers;
  • the alarming spikes in post-natal depression;
  • the community-wide increase in family and domestic violence incidents and onset of many mental health conditions, including the roughly three-fold increase in cases of mental anguish, despair and suicidal ideation among children; as well as
  • surges in job losses, business collapses and bankruptcies and the extraordinary overall shocks to our economy that will now take decades to truly overcome.

These problems will also undoubtedly escalate exponentially for every day, week and month that Victoria’s cruel COVID restrictions continue – and that’s not even remotely acceptable, as far as I’m concerned.

In turn, I also find it especially difficult to vote for the six-month extension to most of the measures in this Bill for a variety of operational reasons.  Above all, for a member of a justice party, this includes what will inevitably be their continued, adverse effects on the functioning of Victorian courts.

I imagine that not many people who are listening to this debate will readily know this – because it hasn’t been publicised particularly widely.  However, for the past six months, the coronavirus response has had a profoundly worrying impact on both the scheduling and the conduct of Victorian court cases.

Dozens of accused and convicted criminals have had their sentences commuted and/or walked free altogether because of the mere spectre of a possible COVID outbreak in our prison system and/or because of the significant new delays now associated even with arranging court hearings.

It also turns out that even the two big-ticket, justice-related items that were touted in the first COVID Omnibus Bill back in April as providing potential solutions to these kinds of problems have subsequently barely been used.
Specifically, those two measures were judge-only trials and the imposition through the Magistrates’ Court of new electronic monitoring arrangements for people on community correction orders.

From discussions with the Government in recent weeks, my understanding is that just one judge-only trial has proceeded to full completion in that time.  One.  As of a week or so ago, I also understand that only around five people on CCOs have been subjected to the new electronic monitoring arrangements.

Frankly, I think those developments on their own are enough to say that we need to shelve those alternatives and return to conventional processes and trials in the courts – allied, of course, to sensible procedures around physical distancing and the maintenance of good hygiene within court facilities.

Let’s put it this way: if I was a defence lawyer representing serious or violent criminals, I imagine I’d be absolutely overjoyed at the arrival of this legislation.  In fact, I’d be wanting the kinds of COVID-specific arrangements incorporated within it to keep being extended and extended, just as the Government is doing.

Fourthly, and most disturbingly of all, the changes within the Bill equip the Government and their officials with even more control, again, over the lives of Victorians.

This is exemplified, most clearly, by the provisions in relation to authorised officers.  These were, as everyone knows, actually far worse before the so-called ‘preventative detention’ elements of them were stripped from the Bill last week.  However, even in their revised form, they still create another new range of emergency powers and directions – and allow for an expanded group of enforcers of them.

After seven months, the Government and its officials should actually be trying to relinquish many of their COVID controls and dictates; not seeking to wield even more of them.

There are also some changes in the OH&S area of the Bill that are not palatable to us, either.  Specifically, we can’t see any justification for the inclusion of Clause 15 of the Bill.  This would allow for new prohibition notices or directions to be issued by an OHS inspector for perceived non-compliance by a workplace with any COVID-19 direction – yet it appears that such sanctions already broadly exist.  We must also remember that many are currently working from home, which could mean an invasion of your own personal private space.

Mr Grimley and I did not come to this Parliament to be oppositional, unreasonable or hostile by any means.  We will always be interested in, and happy to, support government legislation that is genuinely in the best interests of Victorians.

Frankly, we would also much prefer it if there was no cause for dispute (and therefore not a compelling need to speak out) on these kinds of Bills at all.

However, as things stand, it would be a dereliction of our duty not to say some of the things we’re saying today.  That applies not just to a level of
ever-increasing encroachment of the State into areas of personal freedom and liberty that remains deeply disturbing – but also to what we regard as an urgent and clear need for the Government to alter its thinking in its COVID response.

People need to face up to the basic reality that this virus will undoubtedly be with us in some form for years.  That’s even if there happens to be a vaccine.

The belief among the government (and their health officials) that their ongoing subjugation of the population is justified because it will help them to eradicate, control and disrupt every instance of COVID forever more is preposterous.  Quite clearly, it is also totally disproportionate to the risk.

I would also say to the Government that I would have more faith in its arguments and strategies if I saw more consistency (and far less contradictions) in its approach.

I have lost count, for instance, of the number of times I have spoken publicly and in this Parliament about the lack of enforcement of the so-called ‘ring of steel’ around Melbourne.  I have also raised these issues privately with Ministers and their advisers on numerous occasions.  If the virus was as uncompromisingly lethal as this Bill again implies, then there presumably would have been swift action on fixing this issue a long time ago.  Yet there still hasn’t been any change.

Most people in regional Victoria have become well aware that these checkpoints are being routinely bypassed by thousands of people travelling out of Melbourne every day – whether in cars via back and side roads, or on public transport on which next to no checking continues to this day to be done.

I also marvel that we have the completely perverse situation that hordes of dangerous individuals are walking away from jail early amid the COVID period while the rest of the population is not only effectively being treated with enormous suspicion but still effectively confined to a form of house arrest.

Remember that in 2017, no-one in officialdom did anything to stop James Gargasoulas from killing six and seriously injuring another 27 innocent pedestrians in Melbourne despite countless warning signs.  The likes of extraordinarily dangerous individuals like Adrian Bayley, Michael Cardamone, Sean Price and so many others have, in recent years, been allowed – fatally – to roam free in our communities.

And, in 2018, we learnt – after the Bourke Street terror attack – that there’s not enough resourcing in Victoria even to comprehensively monitor individuals on terror watch lists.

Mr President, in each of these respects, many of the provisions in this Bill (if passed) will only serve to prolong the severe pain and hardship being endured by individuals, businesses and communities across the State.  So let me say this to members of the Government and to anyone else in here thinking of supporting this Bill.

If you were to come to my office in Wangaratta, or with me while I travel across Northern Victoria, I would show you truly heartbreaking examples every day of people in utter agony and despair.

Moreover, I would show you that, in each and every such case, their distress emanates NOT from what COVID has done to them or literally to a single person they know.  Instead, it is the consequence of what the crushing State-enforced restrictions and lockdowns have done to them in the way of completely dispiriting them, their families and/or their livelihoods.

Mr President, unlike some others here, I always intend to argue in these kinds of debates for those Victorians – that is, for Victorians who, for seven months and counting, have felt like they have had little or no say at all in what is meant (after all) to be a democracy.   And who, in many cases, have been irretrievably damaged as a result.

On behalf of them, I say that this can’t go on and that I therefore can’t support this Bill.  I only hope that enough other MPs on the crossbench have the decency and the basic common sense to do the same.