In a strange political twist, Adem Somyurek, estranged Labor MP and factional rival to the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews will return to Parliament vowing to torpedo the controversial Pandemic Bill—which has sparked ongoing protests and opposition from senior legal figures in the state.
Debate is currently underway for the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill, which passed Victoria’s lower house in late October and is set for a final upper house vote on Nov. 19.
Currently, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has control of the lower house, but holds only 17 seats in the 40-seat upper house, meaning he requires support from crossbenchers or independents to pass new laws.
Negotiations with three crossbench members, the Greens’ Samantha Ratnam, the Reason Party’s Fiona Patten, and the Animal Justice party’s Andy Meddick, have been ongoing with their support secured earlier this week after the Labor government agreed to seven amendments to the Bill.
Somyurek’s return to Parliament, however, has thrown a spanner in the works.
Somyurek, who’s suspension from Parliament has been lifted after he provided proof of his COVID-19 vaccination status, will see his vote added to the count, and if he votes “No” it will see the upper house split 19-19.
This will restart the entire process and send the Bill back to the lower house.
However, the timing will be a problem for the Victorian government as the Pandemic Bill was introduced to replace ongoing State of Emergency (SOE) powers under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act, which was due to expire in Dec. 15.
These SOE powers have underpinned much of the government’s response to COVID-19 and have allowed authorities to implement a range of public health directives.
The new Pandemic Bill was supposed to set up a permanent structure for the government to deal with future outbreaks.
The consequences of the Pandemic Bill not passing however, is the state government could be left without the authority to enforce any more COVID-19 public health directions, including lockdowns, vaccine mandates, or border closures.
While the new law purports to offer more transparency around public health advice provided to government and additional protections to contact-tracing data, it also bestows expansive powers to the premier, health minister, and “authorised officers.”
One power is for police to enter private premises without a warrant to enforce public health directives.
Somyurek, a member of Victorian Labor’s Right faction—the major rival to Andrews’ Socialist Left—warned that the Westminster parliamentary system was set up in a time when political party allegiances were not as entrenched and that it could not cope with the rise of a “strong leader.”
“Commentators’ proclivity to sing the virtues of a ‘strong leader’ in a system that was not designed to accommodate them has created autocratic leaders who have ruled by decree, undermining parliament as a mechanism to hold the government to account,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Herald Sun on Nov. 17.
“Because Labor has control of both houses and Parliament can no longer perform its scrutiny functions, internal scrutiny and collective decision making through cabinet and caucus is even more critical,” he added.
“But I have been in three Labor governments, and never has the caucus and cabinet been sidelined as much as during this term,” he said. “The three crossbenchers are likely to be consulted before caucus members and cabinet ministers. This leaves Andrews as the sole decision-maker, which is not acceptable in complex modern government.”
“I will not support this bill in its current form, and I would encourage the government to go back to the drawing board and consult more broadly.”
His stance was met with scenes of jubilation by protestors outside Parliament.
In response, Reason Party MP Fiona Patten said, “Who knew that parliament could be used for exacting revenge on former colleagues?”
“Now we’re in a very precarious situation that we may have no controls and no regulations during a global pandemic,” she told reporters.
David Limbrick of the Liberal Democrats wrote in a post on Twitter, “Wow. Will @AdemSomyurek really #killthebill?”
Government Scrambling to Salvage Bill
A fourth crossbench MP, who was not privy to earlier discussions on the Pandemic Bill, is now being courted by the government, as Labor MPs delay debate around the Bill to buy more time.
Clifford Hayes, state MP of the Sustainable Australia party, revealed he was currently in discussions but said the problem was entirely of the Andrews government’s making.
“We will talk to the government, but we will make sure that anything that they come up with if they want our support it has to have proper checks and balances,” he told reporters.
“It’s got to have proper parliamentary oversight, independent oversight as well.”