Victorian premier given power to declare pandemics under proposed pandemic laws
The Victorian premier will be given a “huge sweep of power” to declare pandemics and have public health orders enforced for three months at a time, under proposed new laws.
- The government says it is introducing the bill to manage pandemics after examining other jurisdictions and working with an independent panel
The Victorian opposition will introduce a private member’s bill limiting the government’s ability to declare an emergency or pandemic for no more than 30 days
Supporter Samantha Ratnam, the Victorian Greens leader, says the minister’s decisions will be reviewed by an independent panel including human rights experts
New pandemic laws to replace the controversial state of emergency powers are expected to be introduced into the Victorian parliament on Tuesday.
Under the new laws, the health minister would sign off on public health orders, rather than the Chief Health Officer, providing the health minister with “broad power” to make orders where reasonably necessary to protect public health.
A summary of the bill seen by the ABC reveals the premier would be given the power to make pandemic declarations and extend them for “three months at a time, with no outer limit on the total duration of a declaration”.
The new laws also include an independent oversight committee which includes public health and human rights experts to review public health orders.
“After examining the powers in other jurisdictions like NSW and New Zealand and working through issues with an independent panel, we will introduce a bill to parliament to manage pandemics into the future and keep Victorians safe,” a government spokesperson said.
The bill also states that all public health advice must be made public and tabled in parliament so the community can better understand the reasons behind the decisions made by the government.
The Victorian government has come under criticism earlier for its heavy-handed response to the pandemic, including the sudden lockdown of public housing towers.
Premier Daniel Andrews said the new laws were drafted to reflect the lessons learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you’re in this stage of this pandemic, you need to have a broader focus and that’s exactly what these new arrangements will underpin,” he said.
“They also set us up, having learnt many things along the journey, for whatever that next pandemic might look like, whenever that might be into the future.”
The opposition has repeatedly refused to support the government’s extension of the state of emergency, calling it a “power grab”.
‘Unprecedented’ level of power: opposition
Victorian opposition leader Matthew Guy accused the Andrews government of drafting “the most extreme” pandemic legislation of any state or territory in Australia.
“We see these laws as an incredible attack on democracy, usurping the parliament, usurping the cabinet process, which is what exists in New South Wales, and then allowing the Premier to effectively rule by decree, for months on end.
“In short, this bill is the most extreme of its kinds that we’ve seen in Australia. While a pandemic requires different approaches, it doesn’t require a law as extreme as this.”
The state government has been negotiating with crossbenchers to introduce the laws, including Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam.
“The new laws will mean QR code data can only be used for health purposes, not accessed by the police for other reasons,” she said.
“The new laws also mean the minister’s decisions will be reviewed by an independent panel that includes experts in human rights and health.”
One MP who wanted to remain anonymous told the ABC they were “very angry” that the state government had waited until 6pm the night before the bill was due to be introduced into parliament to brief them on the laws that affect every Victorian and give “huge sweeps of powers for the premier”.
The Victorian opposition will introduce a private member’s bill into parliament to limit the government’s ability to declare an emergency or pandemic for no more than 30 days unless it has a special majority vote in both houses of parliament.
The bill would also require the premier to provide every non-government party leader and independent MPs with regular briefings justifying the use of state of emergency style powers.
“Daniel Andrews wouldn’t be taking more powers for himself unless he plans to lock us all down again,” Shadow Attorney-General Tim Smith said.
“Our liberties and freedoms have been under assault from this Labor government for 18 months. It must end.”
Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam says the new laws will mean QR code data can only be used for health purposes.(ABC News: Stephanie Anderson )
Health Minister Martin Foley dismissed criticism from the opposition as “hysterical”, saying they had “chased every conspiratorial rabbit down every tin foil hat brigade rabbit burrow over the course of this pandemic”.
“The leader of the opposition stood about right here two weeks ago calling for precisely what the crossbenchers have delivered: a Westminster-style engagement process that has the executive accountable to the parliament, and through the parliament to the people of Victoria for the decisions that governments make.”
The bill also allows the government’s hotel quarantine scheme to be extended beyond December 31.
The current state of emergency extension which has been in place for 21 months is due to expire on December 15.