MR RICH-PHILLIPS (South Eastern Metropolitan) (16:45): I rise this afternoon to oppose this bill, and I do so because it seeks to impose more heavy-handed and draconian provisions to restrict the lives of Victorian citizens in the name of the COVID response.
The provisions in this bill include, as we have heard other members state, an attempt to introduce what is effectively preventative detention, providing a mechanism whereby authorised officers designated under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 would be able to detain citizens of this state or people in this state on the belief that they might breach a COVID direction—not that they have or they have threatened to but because an authorised officer believes they might.
The bill further seeks to expand the provisions of who may be an authorised officer to lower the threshold of who may be appointed as an authorised officer. The current act requires that the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services be satisfied as to the experience and qualifications of an individual appointed as an authorised officer.
The bill as drafted, as in the house now, seeks to substantially lower the threshold of who can be appointed an authorised officer and expand who can be appointed an authorised officer. I might point out that that is not just a theoretical concept, because this is a power which the government is seeking to put into the hands of the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. This is a person who got up at the hotel quarantine inquiry and could not remember the most basic details about what had been going on in her department, and this government is now coming in here saying to this house and to the Victorian community that we should have confidence in that secretary to exercise these expanded powers in the appointment of authorised officers and, if the house was to take the bill as the government intended, to give those authorised officers powers to make decisions on preventative detention based on who they believe may want to breach a COVID restriction.
Now, the government seemingly has backed down in the face of public opposition on the issue of preventative detention. There has been an extraordinary outcry in the Victorian community about this latest proposed restriction and imposition on the rights of citizens. But the other provisions remain. The provisions with respect to authorised officers, although they are changed, are still an expansion of who can be appointed an authorised officer by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and of course that is the same person who a month ago could not answer the most basic questions at the hotel quarantine inquiry.
Some members have said there are other provisions in this bill which have merit. They are provisions which were enacted by this Parliament in March largely to allow many functions of government which have required traditionally face-to-face contact to be undertaken online. Various court proceedings have been used as an example, where they have been able to be conducted online as a consequence of the legislation that was put in place at the beginning of this year, of the need to continue those provisions. Now, the opposition does not oppose those provisions, and if they were in a separate bill it would be happy to support them. But while the government chooses to package those provisions with a bill which seeks in the first instance to impose preventative detention as well as expand the scope of authorised officers, we will not support it.
We were happy to support a separate bill that extends those COVID provisions for online et cetera, but we will not support it while it is combined in a bill with these other draconian powers.
Over the last six months Victorians have seen government at its worst. Australians often suffer from mediocre governments. We have seen that all around the states over the last 20 or 30 years. Usually the cost of that is hidden in lost opportunities. But we are now seeing that changes in a crisis, and Victorians are now seeing the real cost of having a mediocre government in place.
We have seen damage and destruction caused to the Victorian community at an extraordinary level—damage and destruction caused to the fabric of our community, to the mental health of our community and to the physical health of our community as people have delayed being tested for conditions, delayed seeking treatment or testing for physical ailments. We know that the number of people presenting with cancer diagnoses is well down because people are not going to their doctors, and that is a ticking time bomb that we will see in the coming 12 months. And of course there is the impact on the economy. The impact has been enormous.
It is important to recognise that the damage was not caused by COVID-19. It was caused by the government’s response and the conscious decisions this government has made. Because if you look at other states and look at other jurisdictions around the world where governments have made different decisions, they have not suffered the impacts, the damage and the destruction that we are now seeing and have been seeing in the state of Victoria.
Of course one of the key points in what we have seen over the last six months has been the government’s failure to manage the hotel quarantine program, and I do not intend to go over that. But it is worth putting on record that Victoria has experienced five times the number of cases of New South Wales. So this government cannot pat itself on the back as having handled the situation with COVID well, because it has not. With a smaller population we have had five times as many cases in Victoria as New South Wales has dealt with.
But in having triggered that spike, that second wave in Victoria, the government’s subsequent response has been over the top, it has been high handed and in many respects it has been irrational, with no health basis to the restrictions that have been imposed.
We have seen that with the curfew, we are seeing it with the 5-kilometre restriction on movement for Victorians living in metropolitan Melbourne and we have seen it with the virtual shutdown of almost every small business and larger business—with the loss already of more than a quarter of a million jobs, as reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, to the end of August. Of course that number is going to grow even more when the September data is released.
In the minds of Victorians this has been compounded by what we have seen from the Premier. The bullying and intimidatory conduct of the Premier and the increasingly irrational daily media conferences have just increased the anxiety of the Victorian community. We now have people who are tuning into those daily conferences just to see how the Premier will today contradict what he said yesterday, which is becoming more and more the case.
Victorians are frustrated, they are angry and they are scared. And they are not scared of the virus; they are scared of the irrational and arbitrary approach that their government is taking to address the COVID situation. They are scared of the arbitrary restrictions which have been imposed on their lives, particularly in the last three months, and which continue to be imposed as the government and the Premier move the goalposts, as we have seen with the so-called road map. It has been repeatedly changed in the last couple of weeks, with the suggestion that ‘restrictions could be lifted even if the numbers are not achieved’ and then ‘the restrictions are going to be pushed out later’. It changes day to day, and that is scaring the Victorian community.
Six weeks ago this house had a chance to impose some accountability on the Premier and the government in their use of the state of emergency and the restrictions which were consequently being imposed on Victorians. We had a chance as a house to ensure that month by month the government came back to this place and accounted for how it would use and how it was using that state of emergency, to provide accountability to the Parliament and thereby provide accountability to the people of Victoria. But instead we saw a vote in this place where Ms Patten, Mr Meddick and Dr Ratnam gave the Premier, gave the government, a blank cheque to impose whatever restrictions the Premier wants, however he wants, for the next six months. We are now seeing the consequences of that. Those members—Ms Patten, Dr Ratnam and Mr Meddick—share with the Premier culpability for the damage and the destruction that is now being inflicted on the Victorian community.
In the debate today, if this bill passes the second-reading stage, the Leader of the Opposition has foreshadowed that he will move an amendment which will seek to lift the 5-kilometre limit on the movement of Melburnians—a limit which was imposed without a rational basis, which was imposed arbitrarily by the Premier in the same way as the curfew was imposed and which is having enormous impact on the lives of Victorians.
This house will again have an opportunity to restore some balance in the response, to restore some balance in the restrictions which are imposed on the citizens of Melbourne, to ensure that we can move through this COVID phase, which has been caused by the mismanagement of this government, in a way which does not continue the same destruction and damage in the community to mental health and to economic wellbeing that we are seeing today. Lifting that 5-kilometre restriction by way of legislative change today to prevent that 5-kilometre restriction continuing is a sensible move which will have a dramatic impact on the wellbeing of our citizens and will not impact the COVID situation.
Medical expert after medical expert has said that the 5-kilometre restriction is not impacting number of cases—is not reducing the number of cases. It is an arbitrary imposition which is doing more harm than good. So the opportunity is there today for this house to express its will on behalf of the people it represents and lift that restriction to ensure there is some more balance in the way this COVID situation is being addressed.
The bill as drafted—and the government has flagged it will seek to make some changes but even with the government’s amendments—seeks to expand the powers, to expand the basis for authorised officers in this state. Powers like that require the community to trust its government. We have seen over the last six months that the powers which already exist in the Public Health and Wellbeing Act—the use of those powers, the arbitrary use of those powers, the irrational use of those powers—mean that this government and this Premier have forfeited any right to expect the trust of the Victorian community. So to come to the house today and say, ‘We would like those powers further expanded; we’d like to lower the threshold by which we can appoint authorised officers’, is simply unacceptable.
It is unacceptable to the Victorian community, and it is unacceptable to this side of the house. For that reason we will oppose those provisions, and while they are in this bill we will be opposing this bill.