Rising vaccination rates in Australia continue to edge most states towards ever more significant easing of restrictions in time for Christmas.
Hopes are high in some parts of the country that COVID-19 lockdowns will now be consigned to history, never to be imposed again.
However, thanks to the zeal of Premier Daniel Andrews and his government, the people of Victoria face the prospect of a very different future.
Victorians have endured some of the longest lockdowns in the world, together with some of the most absurd and seemingly futile restrictions.
But now, in a new bill making its way through parliament, the Andrews government wants to claim even more stringent pandemic powers than it has wielded to date. Clearly, once habits of power are acquired, they can be tough to kick.
The government’s Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management Bill 2021), introduced in the state’s lower house this week, is being hurried through the parliament before the current emergency powers expire in the middle of December.
But opponents of the Bill—alarmed by many of its draconian provisions—are attempting to apply the brakes to ensure the measure receives complete and appropriate scrutiny.
Intended to “protect public health and wellbeing in Victoria,” the Bill seeks to establish a regulatory framework for managing “the serious risk to life, public health and wellbeing presented by the outbreak or spread of pandemics.”
The proposed framework promises greater transparency and accountability, but what it will actually deliver, in three worrying steps, is legal authority to engage in the unreviewable and arbitrary exercise of power.
Step one in this framework is to grant the premier full power to make a “pandemic declaration”—even if there are no cases of pandemic disease present in Victoria.
And once in place, the Bill sets no time limit to the duration of such a declaration. If the premier says there’s a pandemic, there’s nothing the Victorian people can do about it.
Step two is to ensure that even though the premier is required to seek advice before making a pandemic declaration and is then required to set before parliament reasons for the declaration, any opportunity to question or challenge the advice received or the reasons given is denied.
All the premier will need to do is declare that they are “satisfied” that a serious risk of pandemic exists, even if it’s well in the future.
Step three is punishment in the form of 10-fold hikes in fines and the possibility of imprisonment.
An individual who breaks “pandemic orders” will face a new maximum fine of nearly $22,000 (US$16,300)—which will be unaffordable for most people. The new penalty for a business will be $109,000 (US$80,700). Breaches of quarantine attract the most severe fines: $90,500 (US$67,000) for an individual or two years in jail.
Fired up by its management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Andrews government wants to ensure it has all the powers in place and is ready to be used in plenty of time for the next one.
And the government’s message is clear: nothing less than total and submissive obedience to its orders and directives will be tolerated.
Dissent will be deemed a threat to public health and safety. There will be no more flouting of public health orders, no more taking to the streets to protest the destruction of lives and livelihoods, and no more slipping the bonds of quarantine captivity.
Smooth assurances have been issued from the government that the legislation is intended only to secure “public health and wellbeing” in the face of a future pandemic. It also argues that the impact of pandemic orders can be reviewed by a new body, the Independent Pandemic Management Advisory Committee (IPMAC).
But not only is the IPMAC purely advisory; it will comprise human rights and public health experts hand-picked by the health minister.
However, such assurances have done little to quell concerns expressed by peak bodies, such as the Victorian Bar Association.
They argue that the Bill, in fact, poses a massive threat to the rule of law in their state because it sidesteps the kind of full parliamentary scrutiny of pandemic declarations, health orders, and the exercise of ministerial powers that ought to be a feature of parliamentary democracy. Instead, the Bill transfers power from parliament to the non-reviewable decision of a single person.
Andrews’ drive to seize more power bears out the old adage that once seized by a government in a time of crisis; power is seldom surrendered when the crisis abates.
As most of Australia begins to emerge from the long shadow of COVID-19, now is the time to be restoring freedoms and lifting the heavy hand of authoritarian government from the shoulders of all Australians.
Instead, clouds of discontent are already lowering over the people of Victoria.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.