Prominent legal figures are continuing their vocal opposition to impending pandemic laws that will allow the government to “rule the state of Victoria by decree.”
The letter, signed by 59 members of the Victorian Bar, warned that the Public Health and Wellbeing (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021 gave “unlimited and practically unreviewable power” to the health minister and premier.
It follows earlier concerns raised by Christopher Blanden Q.C., the president of the Bar Association, in an internal newsletter to members.
The Bill would allow the Victorian premier to place the state under a “pandemic declaration” when he is satisfied there is a serious risk to public health. These declarations can last three months at a time and can be renewed as many times as possible.
When a declaration is in force, pandemic orders can be issued where it is deemed “reasonably necessary to protect public health.”
“Not only is this threshold low, but it does not need to be satisfied objectively—it is enough if the Minister subjectively believes that the order is ‘reasonably necessary,’” the letter stated.
The content of an order is “unlimited,” according to Bar members, who noted that it includes issuing decrees around closing borders, mask mandates, and even detention of individuals.
The letter also outlined concerns around how orders can target specific classes of individuals even based on “political belief or activity.”
It also decried the weak accountability measures built into the Bill, saying two committees set up to provide oversight, the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee, and the Independent Pandemic Management Advisory Committee, are flawed, with the latter comprising members chosen by the government.
The Bill also gives “broad and unchecked powers” to authorised officers, including the power to take any action, give direction, or detain a person for the sake of protecting public health. The Bar said there were 382 such officers in the state.
“It is one thing to allow temporary rule by decree to deal with an unforeseen and extraordinary emergency in circumstances of extreme urgency. It is something else altogether to entrench rule by decree as a long‐term norm,” the letter said.
“In our view, this is antithetical to basic democratic principles and should not be allowed to happen,” it continued.
“We are now more than 18 months into the pandemic. It has become clear what sort of powers might be required to deal with it. There is no need to give the government of the day a blank cheque to rule by decree.”
The Bar called on the Parliament to amend the Bill or vote against it.
The Bill has already cleared the lower house of the Victorian Parliament, with the Labor government having negotiated for some time with enough members of the upper house to ensure the passage of the proposed legislation is likely.
Thousands of Victorians have protested publicly against the proposed Bill, among a slew of issues related to the government’s handling of the pandemic.
A petition to repeal the Bill, on the Rebel News website has garnered 82,000 signatures as of Nov. 11.