OPINION | by Fiona Patten
The cynical hyperbole we’ve heard from the opponents of Victoria’s proposed pandemic-specific laws is disappointing.
In particular, the rhetoric of the opposition and some shock jocks is a disservice to Victorians, fuelling undue fear and loathing.
The proposed legislation, which has passed the Legislative Assembly, will come to the upper house where the government does not control a majority.
One woman said in an online discussion with one of my staff: “As a Jew I find it hard NOT to compare it to Nazi Germany to be honest. In fact, I’m just waiting for us to be wearing yellow stars.”
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy rejected the proposed legislation outright, without giving thought on how he could improve it.
“This bill is a very dangerous overreach, placing all power – all power –in the Premier, with no oversight. A massive threat to an Australian democracy,” he tweeted.
One of his key backers, former shadow attorney-general Tim Smith, said the government is “drunk on its own hubris” and the legislation is a “an assault on all freedom-loving Australians”.
I share people’s frustration about the lockdowns and uncertainty we’ve endured under the state of emergency. The state of emergency will expire in December, because in March I said I would no longer support further extensions and we that needed pandemic-specific legislation.
While the opposition and some commentators are exploiting the public’s fear and frustration, I am working in the public interest. I am carefully scrutinising the bill and consulting experts such as the Centre for Public Integrity and the Human Rights Legal Centre.
Victoria is poised to lead the country in replacing state of emergency powers with rules that vastly increase transparency and accountability. Other states are just continually extending their state of emergency month by month.
I have concerns about some elements of the bill. The independent pandemic management advisory committee must have proper powers and resources. The health advice must be made public in a timely fashion. The circumstances where large penalties can be imposed need to be clarified, and I would welcome further parliamentary scrutiny.
I voted for the state of emergency on the condition that it had an end date and would be replaced by pandemic-specific legislation that would ensure transparency and accountability.
This could be the fairest, most transparent legislation of its type in Australia.
All states and territories, except NSW, have declared a state of emergency, giving governments and health officials broad powers to limit individual rights and freedoms to protect public health. They are all in place today and without parliamentary oversight or public protest are constantly extended.
The bill, which I have been negotiating and advocating for, responds to pandemics – not fires, floods or other emergencies. Just pandemics. And who knows what those pandemics will be in the future.
Compared to a state of emergency, the pandemic legislation provides for a greater separation of power and transparency. It compels full publication of the Chief Health Officer’s advice as well as any reasons for the orders and human rights assessments.
It buttresses parliamentary oversight via the Scrutiny of the Acts and Regulations Committee, provides for an independent advisory committee, and allows Parliament to disallow health orders in certain circumstances.
We will be able to see how the government is assessing and seeking to balance the physical health, mental health, and economic needs.
If we didn’t have laws of this type, then there would be no way to curtail the spread of deadly disease. Many more Victorians would die.
Under this bill, only the Premier can declare a pandemic and only in response to the CHO’s advice. The Premier has no other role. Talk about a grab for power!
All the CHO’s advice must be published as an exercise in transparency. Only the Health Minister can make orders under the legislation.
If the Health Minister’s orders differ from the CHO’s advice, the Minister must publish reasons why.
At last, we shall all be able to see, in real time, all the advice behind public health decisions.
At last, the buck stops with the Premier and Health Minister, rather than unelected officials – notwithstanding their ability and focus on the public interest.
I am making a plea for civility, rationality, and honesty. Fear-mongering is the realm of the intellectually and morally lightweight, of the self-interested.
Should you not want the Premier and Health Minister accountable for these decisions, whom might you prefer?
Fiona Patten is leader of the Reason Party.