Victoria’s controversial Public Health and Wellbeing (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021 has been passed after a marathon sitting in which upper house MPs negotiated a number of amendments.
However, the amended laws still give both the Victorian Premier and State Heath Minister sweeping powers to control the public.
Melbourne people have rallied outside Parliament house for weeks, expressing their apprehension over the Pandemic Management Bill which replaces the current State of Emergency laws.
It’s been reported that some of the upper house MPs who negotiated the changes, have been on the receiving end of abuse and even death threats in the lead up to
State Parliament’s vote on the bill.
Most dangerous law in Victoria’s history
The opposition has labelled the bill as the “most dangerous in Victoria’s history”, promising to repeal them if they are elected into power.
Other MPs have called the bill ‘draconian and unnecessary’, and many have said that despite the parliamentary debate they lacked consultation and are ‘too rushed’.
Peak legal body criticises the authoritarian laws
The Law Institute of Victoria has also expressed its concern about the wide powers the bill provides the Premier, Health Minister and other authorised officers, who will be able to detain people under pandemic orders for quarantine or when it is reasonably necessary to eliminate or reduce the risk to public health.
The state’s peak body is also concerned about the law’s failure to specify a timeframe for the maximum period a person may be detained under it.
The laws are concerning to many Victorians who have already endured more time in lockdown than any other jurisdiction around the world.
Why so controversial?
Under the current State of Emergency laws, which expire in mid-December, the Chief Health Officer had the responsibility for declaring a pandemic, and the State of Emergency powers had a definitive timeframe, meaning that the Government was required to seek permission through the parliamentary process to extend the State of Emergency and could only do so for a maximum of 12 months.
Under the new laws, the power to declare a pandemic has been transferred to the Premier and the Health Minister, will have the power to declare a pandemic and enforce orders such as lockdowns, mask-wearing, vaccination mandates, and quarantine.
This has been one of the most controversial points of the legislation, because under existing legislation, this is the responsibility of the Chief Health Officer, who is not an elected official.
However, under the negotiated changes, the threshold for declaring pandemic has been strengthened and a clause has been included in the bill so the Premier can only declare a pandemic if they are satisfied it is justifiable to do so ‘on reasonable grounds’, although, the declaration of a pandemic will be able to be extended on a three-month basis indefinitely.
Reduction of fines
The government also agreed to halve the exorbitant fines it had proposed for both general and aggravated offences.
The government originally suggested fines of up to $21,800 for individuals and $109,000 for businesses who failed to comply with orders under general offences.
The maximum fine for an individual who failed to comply with a health order, knowing it could cause serious health risks to others, will also be halved from the original proposal of $90,500, businesses $455,000.
Independent Oversight Committee
A new multi-disciplinary Independent Pandemic Management Advisory Committee (IPMAC) will review health restrictions. However there have been concerns about how effective IPMAC be with many concerned that it only creates the “appearance” of scrutiny, because while the committee will be able to provide recommendations, the health minister retains sweeping powers.
Negotiated changes also mean that Human Rights protections – as outlined in Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities – will need to be applied to all public heath orders made under the legislation.
The new laws will come into effect on 16 December 2021.
How the laws will be applied, particularly given that we are still at risk of Covid-19, the Delta virus and the new variant Omicron remains to be seen.
Victoria’s new laws could also potentially provide a model for the changes being proposed to New South Wales State of Emergency legislation by Health Minister Brad Hazzard, who had been seeking to extend emergency powers beyond their expiration date of March 2022, until the end of 2023.
The parliamentary discussion around the legislation has been postponed until next year, after a number of MPs pushed back describing proposed changes as ‘excessive over reach’.