The Victorian Labor government looks to have won over the final crossbencher it needs to secure passage of its contentious Pandemic Management Bill.
Debate on the proposed law will resume on Nov. 30, after the government delayed discussion two weeks prior, after estranged Labor state MP and factional rival to Premier Daniel Andrews, Adem Somyurek, made an unexpected return to Parliament.
His move, and vote, would have forced a split 19-19 vote in the upper house, consigning the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill back to the drawing board.
However, after two weeks of negotiation and deal-making with crossbenchers, Rod Barton of the Transport Matters party emerged as the crossbencher willing to do a deal.
“What we’ve done is fundamentally change the bill,” Barton told 3AW radio, saying that while he would have preferred even more changes, he noted that “we can’t have everything.”
“People are going to be better off. There’s more clarity, we’ve curbed the powers of the premier,” he added.
Barton has said he secured six further amendments to the Bill, including the creation of a cross-parliamentary committee with a minority of government members and a non-government chair and deputy chair.
Parliament can also disallow pandemic orders but will require an absolute majority in both houses of the state Parliament.
An independent detention appeal panel will also be set up, and the state’s Ombudsman will be able to receive complaints regarding the detention of individuals infringing pandemic orders.
A two-year review will be carried out within 18 months of a pandemic declaration and will be carried out by independent legal and health experts.
All aggravated offences have been removed, for which individuals were to be fined AU$90,870 and businesses up to AU$454,350. However, details around two-year jail terms and lower end penalties ($21,809 and $109,044) were not available.
The Pandemic Management Bill is supposed to set up a permanent structure for the government to deal with future outbreaks.
While the new law purports to offer more transparency around public health advice provided to the 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.
The proposed new laws have received widespread condemnation, with the legal community deeply concerned over the wide-ranging powers it gives state leaders.
Further, the Bill has been one focus of ongoing protests in Victoria.
The other key crossbencher in negotiations with the Andrews government, Clifford Hayes of the Sustainable Australia party, said he would not support the amended Bill.
“While the government’s proposed changes are a welcome improvement over the original Bill, in my opinion, they do not go far enough to protect the important principle of Parliamentary oversight responsibility, human rights, civil liberties, and fairness,” he said in a statement.
Tim Quilty of the Liberal Democrats, wrote on Twitter, “While these amendments are better than what was originally tabled, we will still vote against giving ANY government absolute power over the people.”
Victoria’s Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said the Bill would not meet the needs of everyone.
“What’we have managed to achieve is a piece of legislation that is going to be the best in the country,” she told reporters on Nov. 30.
“I suspect other jurisdictions will be looking to Victoria calling for this type of framework to manage a pandemic in their states.”
The Bill is set to replace State of Emergency powers under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008, which is set to expire on Dec. 15.