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Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension and Other Matters) Bill 2020

I rise this afternoon to oppose this bill, where the government is seeking unfettered power to extend the state-of-emergency provisions in the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 for a further six months.

The circumstances we find ourselves in today are entirely as a consequence of the mismanagement and incompetence of the Andrews Labor government. It is their mismanagement and incompetence that have plunged this state into the dire situation we have been in over the last six months, and this should not have happened, as it has not happened elsewhere in Australia. And it is sobering to talk to people who live in other states and other cities, to understand that they are living relatively normal lives.

They are not walking around with face masks on; they are not under house arrest. Yet the reason we are in this situation is: in March and April when the Premier was berating Victorians about the need to social distance, his own government was botching the hotel quarantine program. He was condoning a mass protest of 10 000 people on the front steps of Parliament at the time when everybody else was being told to social distance, and his government was covering up the corona outbreak at Cedar Meats, describing it as ‘perfectly handled’—conveniently noting that it was a major ALP donor.

All these failures by the government undermine confidence, undermine the community’s confidence in this government and in this Premier to be able to lead this state out of the debacle they have led us into. So while other states return to relatively normal lives, Victorians are now enduring the most draconian, heavy-handed restriction in Australia’s history. Five million Victorians are under effective house arrest. Businesses have been decimated. One hundred and fifty thousand Victorians have lost their jobs, to the beginning of August—that is, even before the mandatory shutdowns of businesses occurred. Mental health is deteriorating across the state. Physical health is deteriorating as people delay medical appointments. And responsibility sits with the Premier.

The proposition we have before the house this afternoon has been brought forward with no explanation from the government as to why they want to go down this particular course of action rather than other courses of actions which have been outlined and are available. It has been brought forward with no apology from the government for its multiple failures over the last six months.

What the government is seeking in this legislation today is not only to extend the state of emergency period by up to six months, it is also seeking to extend it in circumstances where COVID does not exist. The bill includes an explicit amendment that would allow a COVID state of emergency to apply where there are no COVID cases. So this is an extraordinary grab for further power done without explanation, done without justification.

Last week we saw the Premier say, ‘We want an 18 months state of emergency’—so an additional 12 months—and a draft bill was released to that effect last week. Yesterday we saw a different bill, a draft bill circulated which had a six-month extension, again with no explanation, and then we get a different bill again—the actual bill we are debating now—dropped in Parliament this morning with further, albeit minor, changes.

What we have not seen from the government is justification and explanation for this. On the key issue of extending the state of emergency, the minister in her second-reading speech devoted two sentences, two sentences’ justification, for extending the state of emergency—not a mention of what is happening with the COVID situation; no numbers on cases, fatalities, trends or expectations; and nothing about where this situation is heading and where the government wants to take it—two sentences effectively about how it would be administratively convenient for the government to have these powers extended. Well, this cannot be about the government’s convenience.

The government’s message of ‘trust us’ is not acceptable because this government is not entitled to the trust of the people of Victoria. It has abused that trust over the last six months. And it has failed the most basic leadership test, because in a crisis like we have seen, what leadership requires is a calming influence, a uniting influence and an inspiring influence. But instead of words of encouragement and words of hope from the Premier, what we have received is hectoring, bullying, threats and accusations. Daniel Andrews has divided this community. He has set regional Victoria against metropolitan Victoria, and he has scared and intimidated the Victorian community into submission—and for that reason alone he should go. He has refused to apologise for his government’s multiple failings in this issue, and he has abused the powers that exist under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act for the establishment of a state of emergency. Because as we heard this morning from Mr Limbrick, that act requires that where these powers are used—and section 9 of the act is very explicit around the principle of proportionality—the powers need to be used at their minimum to achieve the outcome with the public health situation.

But instead this government has described this response as shock and awe. When the announcement was made of stage 4 lockdowns the Premier actually used the phrase of ‘shock and awe’ to intimidate and to scare the community. We saw an unprecedented curfew introduced in metropolitan Melbourne, again without justification other than the shock-and-awe headline and reaction that the government was seeking.

We have seen incoherent responses. From March through to August we were told there was no reason for people to wear masks, right up until the point where they were mandated. Is it any wonder that we are seeing a lack of confidence in the government and in the Premier from the Victorian community? And we have also seen a lack of accountability for the use of the powers which have been in place over the last six months.

The point was made to me earlier this week that Victoria Police’s standing in the community has been diminished as a consequence of what this government has required Victoria Police to do with the COVID powers. At a time where we see Victoria Police needing to respond to IBAC investigations and we see the Lawyer X royal commission raising questions about Victoria Police it is to all our detriment that the government is acting in such a way that the standing of Victoria Police is diminished. We heard earlier in this debate about the way in which directions from Victoria Police—ostensibly from Victoria Police but most likely from the government—have been promulgated with respect to firearms owners and the language there seeking to link infringements for COVID to fit and proper testing for firearms licences, all of which undermined confidence in the community about the way in which this event is being handled and the way in which the government is responding.

We have seen the government seek to frustrate the Parliament at every opportunity since the original state of emergency was declared. The lower house has not sat for months, and the government repeatedly tried to avoid this house sitting through August—particularly through August—but was unable to completely block the sitting. And of course we are only sitting today because the government needs this bill to extend a state of emergency.

What we do not know from the government is: what is the objective? In March we were told the objective of the government’s intervention was to flatten the curve—to delay the increase in the number of people contracting COVID so that the health system capacity could be expanded so there was not a point where the health system was overwhelmed—and that occurred. But since the second wave started all we have seen from the government is panic. We do not have a clear strategy, we do not have clear objectives and we do not have any adherence to the principle of proportionality, as the act requires.

We see no evidence at all that the government has weighed the cost of its interventions against the health outcomes. We hear the Minister for Health repeatedly say, ‘We listen to the advice of the chief health officer’. Well, back in March this may have been a medical issue, but because of the government’s mishandling over the last six months what was a medical issue in March is now affecting physical health, mental health and general community wellbeing and is having an enormous impact on the economy and on jobs in this state. So it is no longer something where the government can just rely on the advice of the chief health officer, because the implications of what is happening are now far broader.

We have estimates that the cost of the current lockdown is $300 million to $400 million a day to the Victorian economy. We have seen 150 000 jobs lost through to the beginning of August, without even seeing the impact of the most recent shutdowns. We saw the shutdowns of business at the beginning of August implemented without any planning at all. The list of closed premises was changing by the hour, but the final list was not even published until 2 hours after it came into effect. The government had months and months and months to plan for the potential of a shutdown of business, yet on the day it came into effect they were still shifting the goal posts. So the community does not have confidence in what the government is doing and for no reason would give the government trust for a further six months of a state of emergency.

The data we are fed each day in the press conferences is also something that needs further examination. We heard the Minister for Health this morning talk about a total of 565 deaths from COVID in Victoria, of which she said 425 were in aged care. The chief health officer has already confirmed in his press conference that for accounting purposes a death from COVID is someone who dies with COVID, not necessarily from COVID, and he even cited the example of people in palliative care—that is, people with terminal illnesses with a short period to live. When they die, if they had a positive COVID test, they are counted as a COVID death, which calls into question the numbers we are being given.

We know that there are 45 deaths a day in aged care as a baseline in this state every day. What we do not know is how many deaths that have been attributed to COVID are actually above that baseline or whether they are consistent with normal trends. In fact the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages has reported that, as far as Victoria goes, for the month of July 2020 there were a total of 540 fewer deaths overall than for the month of July last year. So there is certainly overall not a spike in fatalities in Victoria, and again we need to know what is the basis of the numbers that the government is talking about.

Likewise with the infection rates, what we do not hear about is the false positives. There is now a body of research—the Public Health Laboratory Network has published a paper on the issue of false positives around COVID testing—and that is something we do not hear the government talk about, so we do not know the veracity of the numbers we are given each day. We do not hear about the numbers of hospital admissions or the numbers of ICU admissions, and we do not know where the government is planning to go from this point. It tells us it wants a six-month extension to the state—of-emergency provisions, it does not tell us where it is going to go with them.

Bizarrely in the last 24 hours the government said suddenly, ‘On Sunday we’re going to announce the plan to back off the business lockdowns’ And as Dr Cumming said this morning, this bill should wait until that plan is promulgated, until we know what the government is planning for a further state of emergency, because we cannot trust the government with a blank cheque for the next six months. The government has failed to adhere to the principles of proportionality that the current health and wellbeing act requires in the implementation of restrictions. When the government is using language of shock and awe, it is very clear they are not adhering to the principles of proportionality, and we have seen the government fail to justify why it needs a six-month extension on a state of emergency when there are other mechanisms available where Parliament can provide oversight and allow for month-by-month extensions if they are necessary and if the case is made.

I listened with interest to Mr Quilty’s contribution earlier when he talked about history, and I go back to what I said in this place on 19 March when this house considered whether to adjourn to a date and time to be fixed by the President or whether to adjourn to a fixed date. I said on that occasion you need to look at history to see where this type of thing has happened before. If you go through history, in circumstances where extraordinary events have occurred governments have asserted the need for emergency powers. Legislatures have been suspended or abolished and democracy has been undermined. This has happened time and time again in history. I do not for a second believe that that is Ms Symes’s intention with her motion today or the government’s intention, but it never is. In history it has never been the intention, and we have seen since that debate six months ago the way in which the government has used those powers—the way in which that has impacted democracy, the way in which it has impacted freedom and the way in which the government has failed comprehensively to make the case for that and has failed to deliver the outcomes it has talked about.

So I say to the crossbench today we have seen over the last six months those concerns validated. If you vote today to allow the government to extend the state of emergency for six months, we run the same risk. Our democracy is too fragile and our freedom is too precious to allow that to occur, and I urge you to oppose this bill.

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