The Victorian state government has agreed to tinker with its broad-ranging Pandemic Management Bill to win over crossbench MPs and secure safe passage for the proposed law through the state’s Parliament.
Seven amendments have been made to the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill after negotiations with crossbench members from the state’s upper house.
The Bill has been criticised heavily by leading legal figures with senior members of the Victorian Bar Association warning the proposed law would allow the government to “rule the state of Victoria by decree.”
The government’s crossbench partners, namely MPs from the Greens, Reason Party, and the Animal Justice party claimed that “prominent shock jocks and tabloid commentators” knowingly and “dangerously incited” civil unrest around the risks posed by the Bill.
In a statement released on Nov. 16, the crossbenchers outlined several changes including significant reductions in maximum fines—currently set at AU$90,000—for breaching public health orders; higher thresholds for when the government can declare that the state is in a pandemic; ensure the Charter of Human Rights is applied to all government actions, and enshrine the right to protest.
Further, amendments include guaranteeing resources for oversight committees; faster publication and tabling of public health advice that underpins the government decision-making; bestowing stronger powers on the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC); and “resolving concerns” around a clause in the Bill that allows public health directives to target classes of residents based on their “attributes and characteristics.”
However, details were scarce and there was no mention of changes to other contentious proposed powers including two-year prison sentences for individuals deemed to have breached public health orders and posed a risk to public health. Or around new powers for police to enter private premises without a warrant if they are enforcing a pandemic order.
Health Minister Martin Foley said the amendments were the result of consultation with public health, human rights, and legal experts.
“We’re confident that the package we have put together will both secure the rights of Victorians but, more importantly, keep Victorians safe in any future pandemic,” he said in comments obtained by AAP.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said concerns around the Bill, particularly the characteristic clause, were overplayed and that detractors were playing “political games.”
“The thing about these laws and our management of this pandemic is, it’s not a game. It’s very much about keeping people safe,” he told reporters on Nov. 16.
State opposition leader Matthew Guy has vowed to repeal the Pandemic Bill if they win government at the next election in 2022.
“These laws have been widely criticised by legal and social experts including the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, Law Institute of Victoria, the Victorian Bar, Human Rights Law Centre and several multicultural organisations,” he said in a statement on Nov. 14.
“The Victorian Liberal-Nationals have committed that a future Matthew Guy-led government will repeal these laws as its first act.”
The opposition is also moving 18 amendments to the current Bill.
The Pandemic Management Bill will establish a permanent structure for the government to manage pandemics in future.
While it streamlines certain operational aspects of the government and establishes new safeguards around privacy rights, it also contains wide-ranging provisions that give the premier and health minister unprecedented power over the state.
According to Victorian MP Neil Angus, the Bill has managed to galvanise the state opposition and federal MPs to speak out on civil liberties, an issue that has been side-lined for the past two years.
Tens of thousands of Australians also mobilised on the streets of Melbourne on the weekend in protest against ongoing restrictions—some of the toughest in the world—and additionally, the Pandemic Bill.
Protesters even camped out overnight on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament holding “Kill the Bill” signs.