Opposition plans to derail ‘rush job’ on pandemic law

Opposition plans to derail ‘rush job’ on pandemic law

11/10/2021

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A plan by the Andrews government to pass its controversial pandemic laws next week could be derailed as pressure on Labor to amend the legislation builds, prolonging a toxic debate that has raised security concerns for politicians.

The Opposition will refuse leave to debate the new laws when they come before parliament next week, effectively delaying debate until at least Wednesday, limiting the time crossbench MPs will have to amend the controversial bill.

Premier Daniel Andrews’ proposed pandemic-specific laws have raised a backlash.Credit:Getty Images

Key crossbench MPs are expected to seek amendments following consultations and the sticking point is expected to relate to the sweeping powers and their impact on human rights.

The Coalition’s plan – confirmed by shadow treasurer David Davis, the leader of the opposition in the legislative council – will mean the government has just days to pass the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (pandemic management) Bill 2021 before existing emergency powers expire on December 15.

The government hoped to pass the bill through the Legislative Council next week — having passed the Legislative Assembly last month.

Pushing the bill back could also expose the government and crossbench MPs to more weeks of community pressure.

Premier Daniel Andrews was on Wednesday forced to abandon a press conference on police advice after a small group of protesters picketed the opening of Bendigo TAFE, brandishing posters with mottos such as “kill the bill”.

Victoria Police confirmed officers responded to a small group of people conducting a peaceful protest, which was cleared without incident.

On Monday night, COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton were also escorted through a crowd of protesters on the steps of the Victorian Parliament.

The proposed laws will replace existing state of emergency powers, empowering the premier and health minister of the day to declare pandemics and enforce health directions. Under the current system, the state’s chief health officer, who is not an elected official, has these powers.

Labor needs the support of three crossbenchers in the Legislative Council, and will rely on Reason Party MP Fiona Patten, Animal Justice MP Andy Meddick and Greens leader Samantha Ratnam to support the bill.

Ms Patten, who was hesitant to comment on the abuse she has received because speaking openly had previously incited attacks, said she had consulted human rights and legal experts on the legislation and “there will be amendments”.

In a statement to The Age, Dr Ratnam said the Greens had received important submissions after consultations with human rights and community law organisations.

“We will continue to advocate to the government for improvements in the bill,” she said.

The Human Rights Law Centre on Wednesday broadly welcomed the bill as an improvement on the existing framework, but with nine recommendations.

The centre wants the bill to impose a time limit on how long a pandemic can be declared without parliamentary approval, to require the minister to act in accordance with the Human Rights Charter, to enshrine the right to protest and to allow for people to seek reviews of their detention.

The Centre for Public Integrity has also made 10 recommendations that include ensuring the proposed legislation is not exempt from the Equal Opportunity Act.

Following criticism from the Victorian Bar, 60 top silks have now joined an open letter calling on the Victorian Parliament to amend the bill or vote against it, arguing it would give politicians “a blank cheque to rule by decree” in its current form.

Mr Meddick – who has gone public with abuse his office has received in an increasingly toxic debate – declined to speak about ongoing negotiations, but said he was having productive conversations with the government.

In an escalation of attacks on him and his staff, Mr Meddick’s office this week received a condom in the mail enclosed with a letter accusing him of being “a dildo to Dictator Dan”.

The Department of Parliamentary Services in its 2020-21 annual report tabled last month said security incidents targeting MPs and their staff were growing significantly as a result of COVID-19 protests.

Mr Davis, who joined protesters on Tuesday night when hundreds of people chanted “sack Dan Andrews”, said he was opposed to the “rush job” that saw the bill pass the Legislative Assembly just days after it was first detailed in public.

“This breaches all good proper democratic practice,” he said.

Dr Ratnam said she had received at times violent abuse, which she said was the result of misinformation that deliberately misled and scared voters.

“For the most part I’ve avoided giving these trolls any oxygen and reported the more serious abuse to the police,” she said.

Senior government minister Martin Pakula on Wednesday said he expected “spirited debate” in the upper house, but made clear all members of Parliament should be free to engage without threats of violence.

Opposition Leader Matthew Guy on Wednesday described the bill as “the most dangerous piece of legislation we’ve seen” in Victoria, but said voters should not be verbally abusing public health officials or MPs.

“People have got to get their frustrations and take them out at the ballot box.”

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