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2 December 2021

Legislation granting the Victorian government permanent emergency powers has passed the Legislative Council of the Victorian Parliament.

Under this bill, the Premier and Health Minister can declare public health emergencies for three-month periods, that can be renewed, with broad-ranging powers, with citizens who refuse to comply slapped with large fines or two years behind bars.

READ MORE: Pandemic Bill Likely To Pass As Panic Over New Variant Is Pushed

The Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021 passed 20 votes to 18, with the Andrews government securing the support of four crossbenchers to make this possible.

This follows a 21-hour debate in Parliament on the bill, which has been stuck in the upper house for several weeks.

The decision by disgraced Labor-turned-Independent MP Adem Somyurek to vote against the bill surprised the Labor leadership, who were confident that he would not oppose it.

Somyurek’s decision forced the Labor government to spend time bargaining with Transport Matters MP Rod Barton and Sustainable Australia MP Clifford Hayes.

As neither the Labor government nor the Liberal-National opposition have a majority in the upper house, they have to cooperate with crossbenchers, who belong to minor parties or are Independents. As the crossbench controls the balance of power, they have considerable bargaining power

Reason Party’s Fiona Patten, The Green’s Samantha Ratnam, and Animal Justice Party’s Andy Meddick were the three crossbenchers to originally support the government’s proposal, and were given considerable influence in drafting the bill. However, Somyurek’s decision meant that it had to be amended to gain Barton’s support. These include a greater degree of oversight from independent or parliamentary bodies, and reduced fines.

Even with the amendments, the bill is concerning.

One amendment requires a parliamentary committee to review and evaluate public health orders that are issued under the legislation. The government can only have a minority on the committee, with the majority of members and the chair being drawn from the opposition and crossbench.

Although they can recommend that parliament should repeal public health orders, for that to come into effect the proposal must pass both houses. So giving the government a minority on the committee has little effect, as they would have a majority in at least the lower house of Parliament, so would be able to stop any efforts to repeal the orders.

The Victorian Bar Association, a legal organisation containing the state’s barristers, has supported the amendments, but stresses that they are insufficient. Many QCs, who are the highest-ranking barristers in the state, penned an open letter to the government in opposition of the Pandemic Bill. The Bar Association’s request to only require one house, rather than both, to vote against the public health orders to nullify them when unanswered.

Fiona Patten defended the bill against the QCs, claiming that they were “disappointingly naïve” to oppose it. This outright dismissal of senior lawyers by a politician is disappointing, as the legal system exists as a check on the power of the Parliament and its politicians.

Fiona also stated that human rights must be limited in the name of safety. This is an interesting stance for a self-proclaimed libertarian to take, especially when compared to the stance of the two Liberal Democrat MPs, David Limbrick and Tim Quilty, who are among the most vocal critics of the Andrews government and the Pandemic Bill. The Liberal Democrats also claim to be libertarian.

Under the amendments, the maximum fine for a breach of the public health orders has been decreased from $91,000 to $45,000.

The Pandemic Bill does little to enshrine human rights, merely providing a higher threshold that the government has to meet to abrogate them. And that threshold is likely to only be effective if the government does not have a majority in either house of parliament, which is unlikely.

With the next Victorian election almost a year away, the passage of this bill on the second-last sitting day of Parliament for the year means that the Andrews government has the legal authority to declare public health orders with a broad range of powers, infringing upon the rights of the citizens. Hopefully the backlash against this bill is sufficient to prevent his government from keeping their majority after the election next year.

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Stuart Jeffery, aka LibertyDownUnder, is the founder of the Australian Liberty Network. He is also the host of the Gumtree of Liberty and Gumtree of Liberty Live podcasts, and is editor of the Liberty Review. Stuart is currently studying a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Arts, majoring in international relations, at the University of Southern Queensland.

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