There are many things to say about this Bill.
I’ll start simply by pointing out that it will undoubtedly be one of the most important pieces of legislation on which we will be required to vote during this term of Parliament. Both practically and symbolically.
I make that observation because this is a debate that relates not just to a serious public health problem – but also to the very essence of how government should be allowed to function and operate in a democracy.
More to the point, it’s a debate that requires us to address questions about the extent to which it is appropriate for governments and public officials to seek to impose their own will over the rights, freedoms and liberties of citizens.
Given the way that the Bill deals with those issues in various different respects, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party will not be supporting it. There are a number of reasons as to why we are taking that position.
One of those is that we believe, absolutely fundamentally, in the primacy of the people over their elected representatives in any democratic system. As I’ve said a number of times before in this Parliament, we are here at the voters’ pleasure. No MP here at Spring Street should ever forget that they are a servant of the people – and that it’s not the other way around.
In keeping with that, I believe that extensive checks and balances should always be in place to guard against the misuse of power and authority by any government in Victoria or, indeed, anyone acting on its behalf.
Unfortunately, in my view, the measures being proposed in this Bill conflict with those fundamental principles.
There is certainly no clear or demonstrated reason, in my view, that the Chief Health Officer should – especially through Clauses 4 and 6 of this Bill – be granted even more personal power over the people of Victoria than he already possesses.
In fact, the accumulation of more and more power in the hands of a chosen few creates multiple risks. Among those is that we will move even further away from recognising that people’s liberties and freedoms do need to be urgently restored, not to be shackled for even longer.
I worry that it may also further entrench a mode of thinking among Ministers and their officials that, as soon as anything else goes wrong, the option of locking Victorians in their homes for a very long time again remains perfectly acceptable and is only ever another stroke of the pen away.
At the end of six months of austere restrictions, we are actually still in a worse position in the management of COVID case numbers than we were in as far back as at least April. That’s not the way that we should continue to be governed (nor how we should be made to live) for much longer. We have to pursue ways now of sensibly living with this virus, not permanently retreating and hibernating from it.
The proposition here in Clause 3 of the Bill is that COVID-19 can be cited as a serious risk to public health, and a precursor to the declaration of a State of Emergency, even in circumstances where the rate of community transmission is low or even where there have been no recent cases at all.
That proposal is simply too open-ended. The Government has suggested to me that this is mainly to help ensure the future management of visitors ultimately coming back into the State in higher numbers again. Unfortunately, though, I don’t have confidence that the Victorian public is adequately safeguarded from the possibility that this provision could be exercised (and a
COVID-related State of Emergency therefore declared), without meaningful justification, at any moment that a government or the CHO happened to see fit.
Then, of course, we come to the most famous (or perhaps I should say infamous) part of the Bill, which is the one that attempts to lift the current maximum, six-month threshold on the use of the State of Emergency power in Victoria.
I do understand the basic dilemma for the Minister and for the Government here. Namely, that the current State of Emergency is due to end on 13 September, with no obvious, legally-foolproof or fully comprehensive way for the Government of replacing it other than obtaining this extension.
However, I would also argue that this is a dilemma essentially of no-one else’s making but their own.
In addition, there are also very good reasons why there is a six-month limit on the State of Emergency power in the first place.
Indeed, in the 2008 Second Reading debate on the introduction of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act, the then Health Minister, a certain Daniel Andrews, made quite clear (and I quote) that: it “enables a proportionate response to matters ranging from small incidents to emergencies, such as an influenza pandemic”. Let me repeat that he said, quite clearly, a “proportionate” response.
With all of these considerations in mind, I stand together with all of those in this Parliament who want a pragmatic (and indeed a proportionate) solution to the issues at the heart of this Bill.
It seems to me that, in the current circumstances (where the Government insists that an immediate end to restrictions on 14 September is impossible), the most viable option is for the State of Emergency to be extended by a month. The Parliament can then revisit whether any further monthly extensions are even necessary any longer.
Given the manner in which events have transpired over the course of this year, and the severe infringement of the basic freedoms and civil liberties of Victorians in the process, the very idea that, first, another 12 month or, now, even another six month State of Emergency extension should be handed to the Government is simply not palatable to me.
I don’t know if enough people in here have satisfactorily worked this out
yet – but it needs to be remembered that Victoria’s levels of lockdowns and restrictions have been the harshest in Australia and yet by far the least successful.
For every day that this continues, our economy is further decimated, more jobs are lost, more businesses collapse, mental health problems more rapidly escalate, our schoolchildren face more setbacks, more domestic and family violence ensues, more relatives and friends are separated from one another, sometimes never to see each other again, and Victorians everywhere lose more hope.
Any further extensions of the restrictions and lockdowns that have already decimated this State must therefore be an option of last resort; not the automatic, ongoing, default option from which the Government and the CHO have shown themselves to be very disinclined (for half a year, already) to deviate.
Whilst I acknowledge that these judgements are made far more easily with hindsight, and we know much more about the virus in September than we did in March, that also highlights the point to me that there has not been nearly enough flexibility in the response over the past six months.
As early as 23 April, in a speech in this place, I was directly raising the point that this Parliament needed to recognise that many Victorians believed, even by then, that there needed to be an easing of the worst of the restrictions.
Of course, that presupposed that things like the serial failures in contact tracing and the hotel quarantine disaster wouldn’t subsequently occur.
Since at least the start of June in here, I have also been calling repeatedly for the Government to urgently consider allowing regional communities to experience less restrictions and/or particularly for our businesses to re-emerge from them earlier than our metropolitan counterparts. I know that Ms Symes, as the Regional Development Minister and as my fellow MLC from Northern Victoria, absolutely understands the groundswell of local support for this.
But, until a few hours ago at least, I still hadn’t been sure that was true of enough other people in positions of power.
Of course, the problems associated with the restrictions in Northern Victoria have been further exacerbated by the nonsensical decisions of the New South Wales and South Australian governments to inflict hard border closures on our regions. The generally poor and inefficient practical administration of these border closures has created even further ripple effects.
People around the borders are frustrated and, in many cases, angry. And I am not talking there simply about the thousands of people whose basic lives and livelihoods have been the subject of total dislocation and upheaval – but also about many other thousands of people less immediately and practically affected at a day to day level as well.
I have talked to the Government about these issues, and asked questions about them, on a very regular basis. Given that I had been talking about this specifically to the Government again last week and over the weekend, I was therefore heartened by the Premier’s comments yesterday that the Government is now looking at new exemptions for businesses and industries.
I am also very pleased by his comments earlier this morning that he will apparently make some more announcements on Sunday about how things will look very different for regional Victoria, restrictions-wise, shortly.
Similarly, I spoke to the Government over the weekend very directly about the potential of implementing something akin to the traffic light system used in Denmark. This could potentially free up, in a safe and practical way, those parts of the State (including many in Northern Victoria) that have had low (or no) coronavirus cases. I was therefore encouraged to hear the Premier now talking openly yesterday about this, too.
It seems there may be some important movement ahead (both literally and metaphorically) – and I’m thrilled to think that the voices of regional MPs are now being loudly heard.
I might also add that I am even happier that a joint letter that I co-signed to the Prime Minister with the Member for Mildura, Ali Cupper, and New South Wales MLA, Helen Dalton, seems to have been met with a positive response, too.
In turn, I would also argue that – across the State – there needs to be less exclusive concentration in the response on the disease itself as opposed to a broader, more holistic view of all elements of policy from a risk management perspective. In other words, there has not been a sufficiently holistic approach that has appropriately balanced COVID-19 specific considerations with the wider-ranging impacts of locking down the State.
That has not only caused the response to COVID to become disproportionate to the overall risk, but it has spawned many other challenges to Victorians, including substantial reductions in our quality of life as a whole.
The basic point here is that Victorians can not endure many more months of coronavirus lockdowns; indeed, we can not do many more days of coronavirus lockdowns. In the wake of droughts and terrible bushfires as well, I despair at just how much of my electorate, especially, will be left behind if these restrictions and the locking down of our areas continues much longer.
Yet I can’t escape the conclusion that each of the key elements of this Bill will consolidate the opposite strategy.
Of course, I’m glad that the Premier hinted yesterday that the much-needed roadmaps on the thinking and metrics around getting us back to something resembling normal life as quickly and as effectively as possible will also now be released next weekend.
But it has not been good enough that, through nearly six months, the principal strategy really seems to have been to wait for a vaccine, for as long as that might take. As most of the rest of us (and indeed the rest of the world) has come to realise, that’s simply not tenable. Especially when there’s no guarantee that such a vaccine will ever be produced.
The initial priority of ‘flattening the curve’ was the right one but, beyond that, the fundamental job of governments and their officials was to lead us out of this mess safely (of course) – but also as efficiently, as effectively and as quickly as reasonably possible.
The CHO’s suggestions at PAEC on 11 August, for instance, that Victorians might be required to endure this approach and to continue to do things like wear masks until there is a vaccine (and therefore to do so potentially for years) is just not an acceptable attempt at a resolution to me – and I know to many thousands of other Victorians as well.
At times like these, and for all the incredibly complicated challenges involved and all the difficult decisions that they do have to make, governments also need to provide some optimism and hope, too.
Notwithstanding that there will always be a very small minority who will do the wrong thing, governments also need to maintain a basic level of faith in the intelligence and capacity of their citizens to take their own prudent steps, to exercise sensible judgement and caution, and to adequately protect themselves in the midst of a health crisis.
Because these latter things haven’t been evident over the last two months, in particular, there is no doubt that the Government has lost trust among some elements of our communities. And I would have to say that has probably been truer of regional communities, indeed of border communities, than anywhere else.
As much as I regret to say this … across our communities, it has unfortunately been the continued over-reach of health bureaucrats and of governments that is the thing that has been proving the most contagious of all.
I thank the House.