By Fiona Patten, published in The Age
Premier Daniel Andrews’ move to extend the current state of emergency out to 18 months was mishandled from the moment he stepped up to the podium on Monday, in the latest episode of the mandatory television viewing that has become Victorians’ Daily Dose of Dan.
Like many Victorians, of all political persuasions, I have watched with some admiration as the Premier and Chief Health Officer Professor Sutton have taken to that stage every day and delivered us the facts about this pandemic. They have talked us through frightening case numbers and hopeful statistics. They have compassionately delivered the tragic news of the growing death toll that COVID-19 has inflicted on our community. I think the public has appreciated it.
In broad terms, I have had no real issues with the current declaration of a state of emergency, or with the way that the Victorian government has exercised powers under that declaration. They have had to make decisions on the fly, and I get that. For the most part, we have seen an appropriate response to the crisis we are facing, and it has allowed us to stem the transmission of COVID-19 – which is the aim of all of this.
The state of emergency gives the government extraordinary powers – an almost unchecked ability to make new laws and override existing laws administratively, without Parliament. To extend those powers to 18 months, without checks and balances is a misstep. In my view it’s an overreach.
To think that for a year and a half Victorians will not be living in the state of Victoria but in the ‘‘state of emergency,’’ is unacceptable to me, and nearly all my crossbench colleagues and most importantly the Victorians we represent.
My first preference would be for COVID-19 specific legislation that deals directly with the issues at hand. Something that deals directly with the effects of the crisis we are experiencing now and measures to enable us to continue to live, work and play safely in this state of COVID-19.
If that cannot happen, an extension of a state of emergency, could be achieved in a safer and more democratic way – with appropriate checks, balances and oversight. I want to see this bill re-drafted to permit three, or possibly six month extensions, but only if supported by a majority in Parliament.
That way we are not dispensing with democracy and we are not removing civil liberties without a safety net. Parliament is not the government and they should welcome oversight during this difficult period – not shun transparency.
When someone can have a sexual partner to their home for the evening but can’t have just one friend or relative at a safe distance at their residence for a meal, the mental health impacts of which cannot be underestimated, then something is wrong. Restrictions like this are an example of why we cannot be allowing the government to continue without the oversight of the Parliament and to take input from the community.
I will continue to advocate for a more reasonable amendment to the Public Health Act and I am confident that many members in the Legislative Council share this goal – but if the government presses ahead with this bill in its current format, I will be unable to vote for it.
Over the past few days my phone hasn’t stopped ringing nor my social media buzzing. If I could get a vote for every email I received in the past two days about the government’s proposal to extend the state of emergency, I would be a shoo-in for the 2022 election.
The public is rightly outraged and they are scared and fed up. They know we will be living in a state of COVID for a very long time but they do not want to be living in a constant state of emergency. We can do better, we can find a more reasonable solution.
Fiona Patten is the member for Northern Metropolitan and leader of the Reason Party.