Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria) (20:15):
The Greek philosopher Plato said, ‘He who does not desire power is fit to hold it’. The Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021 is an unparalleled power grab by the Andrews government, and Victorians are gravely concerned about these draconian laws. Now, if you believe some from the other side, if you believe some who are going to vote for this bill, they would say that Victorians are dumb. They would say that Victorians cannot understand and are influenced by some force that says we reach into them and we say, ‘This is all scary; it’s all taboo’. And I do not believe that. I believe Victorians are savvy, are smart and can make up their own minds, and we will hear in my speech some of the very wise Victorians and the concerns that they have for this bill.
Why does Daniel Andrews want this unfettered power? Last week it was 170 years since the Legislative Council came into being, a house of scrutiny and democracy. This bill is turning that democracy on its head. The Nationals will oppose this bill. We apparently see that house amendments have come in at the 11th hour, last night, and we’ve been told: ‘Just take this sandwich and swallow it’. Well, Victorians are not swallowing it.
The bill reaches down and puts a stranglehold on the liberties of Victorians, including rural and regional Victorians in my Eastern Victoria regional electorate. And they have done it tough. We have had lockdowns, we have had school closures, we have had businesses close, we have had very stressed people, we have had dislocation and families separated, we have had job losses and anxiety and the mental health of our people has been shredded. We oppose this flawed overreach of democracy.
The Victorian Bar Council—I refer to them in my contribution because they are learned, they are knowledgeable. They are not fools. They interpret the law, and they have some grave concerns, even with the 11th-hour tweaking and amendments by the government. The bill, and I quote:
… authorises extreme limitations of … liberties of … Victorians and confers enormous powers on the executive.
Replacing the current state-of-emergency laws, it removes the fundamental rights on which our democracy and our state are built. The Minister for Health and the Premier can make any order that they see being in the interests of public health. This is oppressive in the extreme, and it removes the judicial system of having that particular oversight and strips away Victorians’ right to judicial appeal. When we are in government in a year’s time, we will repeal this bill—the Nationals and the Liberals.
The legislation hands the Premier and the Minister for Health power to rule by decree. This bill allows the government to declare a pandemic and instruct orders of lockdown within the state even if there is no presence of a disease in Victoria. Victorians will be ruled not by the Parliament and not by the executive government but by two specific individuals—the Premier and his or her chosen minister. These wide-reaching powers can make any order, any order that they believe is reasonably necessary to protect public health. This is open, and it is subject to interpretation and will. The bill bestows the power to incarcerate Victorians with no right of appeal through the courts.
If this bill is enacted, it will permanently entrench—and I go to the bar council again, and I quote:
… an effectively unlimited power to rule the state by decree, for effectively an indefinite period, and without effective judicial or parliamentary oversight.
Now, the penalties are $90 000 for individuals for not wearing a mask or following directions. ‘But wait’, the government says, ‘we’ve brought in some house amendments. It’s okay; it’s only $45 000 per person for Victorians’. Lucky Victorians—but wait, $45 000 is the average annual wage of an Australian.
So, you can just whack on $45 000. Who can afford such a magnitude of cost? The Attorney-General says, ‘We’ll give you certainty’. This bill should be conveying a very limited time period for unforeseen emergencies, but what it does is entrench a method for dealing with a pandemic for extended, extended and extended periods of time. The bar says again, and I quote:
… the rule of law, the sovereignty of Parliament and the checks and balances of our democratic Westminster system of government must be respected, even in times of emergency or crisis. While broad emergency powers that circumscribe ordinary checks and balances of our democracy may be justified to deal with an unforeseen crisis in the short term, they are not appropriate for the management of risks over extended periods.
Christopher Blanden, QC:
This represents the biggest challenge to the rule of law that this State has faced in decades.
A recent letter signed by 60 eminent QCs, including the Black Saturday 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission’s Jack Rush, QC, refers to the government ruling the state ‘by decree’.
The Law Institute of Victoria says the bill, and I quote:
… does not sufficiently protect the rights of Victorians.
And Liberty Victoria has similar views. Even the Victorian equal opportunity and human rights commissioner, Ro Allen, has weighed into the debate. She is concerned about designated time frames, the lack of safeguards and the need to adhere to the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006.
Today I tabled a petition where we had almost 12 000 signatures in about as many days. Twelve thousand people voiced their concern through an e-petition in Parliament, calling on the government to reject the bill. We have seen other petitions. We have seen people demonstrating, largely safely and largely respectfully. That is the way to go in this place, that is the way to go in our democracy and that is the way to go in Victoria. I call on the protests to continue respectfully. The Nationals condemn anyone who makes threats to or intimidates our citizens—that includes MPs, that includes journalists. It also includes those people who live and work on livestock farms, where their home is also their farm. We condemn violence of any sort.
The one key thing that many people—those thousands upon thousands of people who have written to me and contacted my office, rung the office—are quite generally afraid of is that this bill descends into the dark hole of an Orwellian 1984 via this ability to take attributes, as defined by the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, and for the government to be able to section them out and make pandemic orders specifically on them. Now, these are not based on a personal health risk profile. It can be based on a person’s race, religion, political belief, industrial activity or personal association with others. Again: but wait! The government has come in with some amendments at the last hour and said, ‘No, no. It’ll be all right. We’ll fix this. We’ll fix it. Just trust us’. Well, I think Victorians are getting very low on trust for this Andrews government. And it is not just this government. This legislation is ongoing. This legislation is our children’s children’s children’s pandemic response by a government unknown. We see that there have been, as I said, thousands of emails, and I thank the people for sharing their views. As I said, I think they are savvy.
Again, let me go back to the Victorian Bar Council—learned, learned people. They say, again concerned about the charter of human rights, that the bill, quote:
… must comply with the obligations under s 38 of the Charter to give proper consideration to human rights and to act accordingly and that failure to do so will constitute jurisdictional error.
Now, I believe that this government has just thrown caution to the wind. They are incredibly arrogant, and they will do what is their will.
In terms of oversight, transparency and scrutiny this bill is sadly lacking; it is wandering around out there all on its own. We have heard about the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee. I was on that for the 58th Parliament. It is controlled by those in government. It is always chaired by those in government. At the moment there is a Labor chair and Labor hold the balance of power. So when the government says, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got it covered’, well, they have got it covered from a talking piece. Victorians have been told that the oversight for this bill is like in New South Wales and it is like the best of New South Wales and the best of New Zealand. Well, the New South Wales and New Zealand legislation both contain cross-party parliamentary oversight specifically designed to examine pandemic orders. There is a non-government majority. There are safeguards that this bill does not contain.
The panel appointed by the government by its nature brings into question its independence. It is hand-picked by the Premier to advise the Premier. Again, the QC William Partlett, an associate professor at Melbourne Law School, says:
… the bill rejects a key parliamentary safeguard that is used in NSW and NZ.
Also I have a grave concern is around the detention review officer. You can be put in jail, you can be put away, and who is looking at that? It is not the judiciary system. It is a detention review officer. The Premier and the minister are in effect both the jailer and the judge, and we have members of the Andrews government blindly following their leader. The Ombudsman, Deborah Glass has gone and spoken on radio this morning, and her concerns are around that she and her office will not be able to have oversight, that she will not be able to have oversight of the Premier and the minister. ‘I cannot review decisions by ministers’, she said, and her concerns are raised.
Once upon a time, when I was a girl, there was a builder in our town of Fish Creek. His name was Charlie Vagi. In the 1950s he escaped under gunfire from a repressive regime in Europe. He said he was forever grateful for being in this place, in this town, in Australia, because he cherished democracy more than ever. I shudder to think what Charlie Vagi would be thinking of this legislation.
Tinkering with the bill will only tinker with the bill. It will not fix its fundamental flaws. I will go back to where I started. I return to here: ‘He who does not desire power is fit to hold it’. The Premier is drunk on power. It is a power grab of unparalleled precedence in our state. When this Parliament was built many, many years ago, the proverb inscribed on the vestibule floor was very carefully chosen. It says:
Where no counsel is the people fall but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.
We need to create safety, within this bill, that is not there.
My great-great-great-grandfather was a member of the Legislative Council in the 1870s. He was in this place when our state as we know it was created. This is not the Victoria he envisaged. It is not the Victoria I want to be and live in. It is not the Victoria I want my children and grandchildren to live in. We need to oppose this bill. I call on the members of the crossbench to oppose this bill. I understand that they have done deals with the government. It is a sad state of affairs when they have swallowed the pink pill along with the government members and bought the Premier’s key drivers in this. The Premier and his minister will become the law in this state—unprecedented power. Many, many learned people have made those comments, and I think we should be listening to them.
The Nationals oppose this bill. We will debate this in the committee of the whole, we will debate it clause by clause. This bill must be defeated. It does not merit passing.