Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021
28 October 2021
I feel sick that we are having this debate. I do not think there has ever been a piece of legislation come before this chamber that I have been more vehemently opposed to. I feel sick that Labor MPs are not brave enough to stand up and speak the truth about this legislation. I do not care if you think that the Premier’s handling of this pandemic has been infallible. I do not care if you stand with Dan. I do not care if you think he is the greatest thing since sliced bread. The truth is that this legislation is about handing the Premier and the Minister for Health the ability to rule by decree. Is that power that you want to hand to every future Premier and health minister? It does not matter what you think about the Premier. This is not even about the current government. This is about the management of pandemics but also the ability to trigger these powers forever into the future. It is about the regime that it has the potential to set up here in this state. That is what is at stake here. Is that what we want as Victorians?
This bill allows the government to declare a pandemic in Victoria and make orders that lock down the state even when there is no presence of disease here. Yes, the chief health officer needs to publish his or her advice within 14 days of those orders being made, but that advice, even if it contradicts the order made by the Premier or the health minister, does not invalidate those orders if it does not support them.
The bill gives the government the right to make orders on the ability of attributes—things like race, gender, sexuality. How on earth can people support that? How on earth can members opposite support that? It is extraordinary. It offers no rights of appeal to courts for people who are incarcerated. It sets up a penalty regime of fines that would see an individual face more than $90 000. That would send most ordinary Victorians to jail. Who can afford a $90 000 fine? The government says, ‘Don’t worry. That’s just about the worst breaches’. Well, that is not what the legislation says. It is extraordinary. I cannot believe that those opposite are not brave enough to stand up and speak out about it. I imagine that the member for Altona is going to speak on this legislation. She has been the Attorney-General; she has been a lawyer. She cannot possibly agree with this; she cannot. Where are your values?
There is no parliamentary oversight of these powers. The bill sets up a consultative committee of people appointed by the Premier and the health minister, and they do not even need to take the advice of that—it is just a consultative committee. Central to a liberal democracy is a belief in shared power, and central to a liberal democracy is a suspicion of concentrated power. Central to a liberal democracy is the accountability of the executive to the Parliament. Central to a liberal democracy is the preservation of the following rights: freedom to criticise the government, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of worship, the right to a fair trial, the right of assembly, freedom of movement. This bill hands the government the power to throw out every one of those rights by decree, and there is no oversight of these powers. We are supposed to think critically in this place. We are supposed to come here, representing our constituents, thinking critically. That is why people elected us. Stop being sheep.
I find it inconceivable that a future Premier, for example, might determine that people with red hair cannot hold a job. I find that completely out of the realm of possibility. But do you know what? Two years ago I never contemplated that we would live in a world where someone who is not vaccinated cannot hold a job, cannot go into a shop, cannot go to an event. I never believed that we would come to a place as a state where we would see that—but here we are. These things do not happen overnight; they happen by degrees. Do I trust the Andrews government and all future governments to exercise these powers responsibly? No, I do not, and I think anyone who does is an absolute fool.
Labor MPs protest that this is what we asked for, that we called for elected politicians to be accountable for these decisions. What we called for was proper parliamentary oversight, and that is why we have proposed that the power to make orders should require the approval of a constitutional majority of both houses of the Parliament.
When the president of the Victorian Bar Council comes out and says that the Stasi would be happy with the powers that this bill confers, people need to sit up and take note. This is how he summarised it yesterday:
The Bill confers on the health minister in a practical sense an effectively unlimited power to rule the state by decree, for effectively an indefinite period, and without … judicial or parliamentary oversight …
That doesn’t add up to good democracy …
People might argue that ultimate accountability sits with the people at an election. If you do not like what a Premier has done, well, vote them out. But yesterday when we had the bill briefing, the department could not say whether this bill gives the power to the Premier to suspend elections. They did not know the answer to that, and they said they would have to come back and give us advice, which we still have not received. That remains unanswered.
The department does not know whether the Premier could use this bill to suspend an election. Do you realise how extraordinary that is?
The Irish philosopher Edmund Burke said, ‘The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion’. Those opposite tell us that unprecedented powers are required for unprecedented times. Governments always present compelling reasons to concentrate power. My grandmother came to this country fleeing Mussolini, and I am glad that she is not alive today to see what is happening. I genuinely am. I think she would be absolutely horrified. I honestly never believed that the people elected to this chamber would think that it is appropriate to hand the Premier and the health minister the kind of power to lock people up, to lock people down and to cancel protests without the checks and balances of Parliament—to strip people of their most basic rights without the oversight and the checks and balances of Parliament. The erosion of people’s liberties does not happen overnight; it happens by degrees. Streamline pandemic laws, by all means. We do not argue with that. We know that the government needs a certain degree of flexibility to control dangerous outbreaks of disease. We are not arguing about that. We are arguing for proper accountability and oversight. This bill does not deliver those measures.
Let me conclude with the proverb that we all know because it is inscribed into the foyer of this building:
Where no Counsel is the People Fall; but in the Multitude of Counsellors there is Safety.
That is the principle of this Parliament, and it is the principle that I urge members of the Labor Party to adhere to. Do not give this unchecked power not just to this government but to future governments. It is wrong.