I rise this afternoon to oppose this bill, which seeks to extend the period of a state of emergency. The Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008, section 198, provides that the Minister for Health on the advice of the chief health officer may declare a state of emergency, and when that is declared it allows the chief health officer to then impose a range of directions which, as all Victorians know, are draconian in nature. They restrict where people can go and what people can do. They can direct that people be detained in certain ways. They can even direct health treatment.
When the original act was put in place and that provision was made, it was with a view that that would be used in exceptional circumstances and typically in a targeted, short-term way. In fact the act provided that a state of emergency could only be declared for one month and it could be extended, renewed, for a maximum of six months, and that was done for a very particular reason—because the Parliament recognised that the powers granted to the chief health officer through the declaration of a state of emergency were enormous, they required enormous trust and they required appropriate constraints.
We saw last year in September the government come to this Parliament seeking to extend that six-month maximum to 12 months, and that was passed by this Parliament in September—or just passed by this Parliament in September. Now the government is back wanting to add a further nine months to that maximum state-of-emergency period.
As I said, the powers the state of emergency grants to the chief health officer—effectively to the government—are draconian. Their imposition on the lives of Victorians, the way in which Victorians live and move about, and the way in which visitors come to this state or do not come to this state, as we have seen, are enormous. The exercise of those powers requires enormous trust by the people in their government, and that trust over the last 12 months has been comprehensively broken.
We have to ask: why is this needed? When this state of emergency was first declared in March and April of last year, it was on the basis that we needed to flatten the curve. We do not hear that phrase anymore, but back in March and April of last year we were told we needed to flatten the curve, which meant we had to slow the growth in the rate of COVID infections so that our health system was not overrun. We were told by the then health minister, who was subsequently thrown under the bus and has left, that we had limits on the health system capacity, the number of COVID cases was growing and we needed to slow that growth rate so that the health system would not be overrun.
Well, we jump forward 12 months to March 2021, and there is no pressure on the health system from COVID. There are few, if any, people in the health system, in hospital or in intensive care in relation to COVID. If there are any, there might be one or two people. There is not the pressure on the health system that we were warned about a year ago. In fact the number of deaths in Victoria over the last 12 months is lower than it was in 2019. For the last eight months in particular it is down by about 6 per cent—1500 fewer people died in Victoria in the last eight months compared to the same period in the previous year. So the crisis the government predicted a year ago has not come to pass, but enormous damage to the Victorian community and the Victorian economy has as a consequence of the way in which this government has used the restrictions under the state of emergency.
When the government came to the Parliament last September seeking an extension, the opposition opposed it—as we will oppose it today—because we had seen the way in which the government had used the state-of-emergency powers to that point and in fact was using them at that time, with an unprecedented lockdown which went for more than 100 days and was arbitrary in nature. It was badly managed, and it had no regard to the impact it was having on the Victorian community and on the Victorian economy. We saw the then Minister for Health, who took the legislation through at that point in time, before she was thrown under the bus, answer questions in committee about the bill—about the way in which the government made decisions around the use of the legislation and the use of those powers. It was clear from her answers that there was no consideration of the broader impacts of the state-of-emergency declaration—the broader impacts on community health, the broader impacts on the economy. The government was using the health advice as a fig leaf, and they continue to do it to this day. We heard the Minister for Small Business in question time today do as much.
Well, health advice is not a shield for the government, because it is the government’s role to make decisions which are bigger than simply the advice from the chief health officer or the Department of Health. The impacts of what you are doing and what you have done over the last 12 months are far bigger than just the COVID pandemic, because the impacts on the Victorian economy and the impacts on Victorian families are far wider than simply the COVID situation. The best example of that was the five-day lockdown we endured a fortnight ago, where because of two or three cases in the community in a population of 6 million we saw impacts on every single household and every single business in this state which were dramatic, long term and in many cases irreversible. To hide behind the fig leaf of health advice is simply a dereliction of leadership on the part of this government, because there are far more considerations, far more factors, which need to be taken into consideration in exercising powers under a state of emergency than we are seeing from this government.
When the legislation came forward last September, the Liberal-Nationals coalition proposed that any extension should only be on a one-month basis, with reviews by the Parliament. That was to ensure there was a check and balance on the government in the way in which it exercised the powers under a state of emergency. The Parliament, this chamber, voted not to go down that path. We saw three members of this chamber—Dr Ratnam, Mr Meddick and Ms Patten—vote with the government, vote with the Labor Party, to pass the extension to the state of emergency. Those three members are complicit in the damage and destruction which has followed with the state of emergency since it was passed in September of last year.
One of the requirements of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act at section 9 is the requirement for proportionality. Section 9 of the act says:
Decisions made and actions taken in the administration of this Act—
(a) should be proportionate to the public health risk sought to be prevented, minimised or controlled; and (b) should not be made or taken in an arbitrary manner.
That is exactly opposite to what this government has done, and again, the five-day lockdown two weeks ago for three or four cases is the best example of that. When the Premier was asked why was it statewide, the answer was essentially, ‘Because it’s convenient. We have a statewide lockdown because it’s convenient. We haven’t got ourselves organised to have a barrier between metro and regional areas, so for convenience we’ll have a statewide lockdown’, which is in no way consistent with the principle of proportionality which the Public Health and Wellbeing Act requires. So what we have seen in that instance and in numerous other instances is an illegal use of the state of emergency, a use which is in contrast with the requirements of section 9 of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act.
We saw the debacle on New Year’s Eve, where suddenly, in mid-afternoon, the Acting Premier closed the border between Victoria and New South Wales, with no regard to the impact. We saw people who were New South Wales—Victorians in New South Wales—having to suddenly pack up their camps over the border in Moama and Albury and elsewhere, people who may already have started festivities for New Year’s Eve, having to drive back over the border to get to Victoria by midnight and the government having no regard to those impacts and the danger created because of the directions it was issuing—again, no regard to the proportionality requirement of the act, no regard to the consequences, the broader consequences far beyond the impact of COVID, that these directions it has been making are having.
We already know that 150 000 jobs have been lost in Victoria. We have a dozen cases currently in the community, and we have 150 000 jobs lost. For every day the economy is shut down, for every day we are in lockdown, the estimate is $300 million to $400 million lost from Victorian businesses. That five-day lockdown, that so-called circuit-breaker the Premier declared in a panic a fortnight ago, cost the Victorian economy well over a billion dollars—for four or five cases—because this government is so incompetent it cannot even manage its contact tracing. We shut down the whole economy for five days at enormous cost to the community and at enormous cost to businesses.
We saw this morning, with the release of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System report, the hypocrisy of this Premier and the hypocrisy of this government, because no-one has done more damage to the mental health of Victorians over the last 12 months than Daniel Andrews has. No-one has done more damage in the history of this state to the mental health of its citizens than Daniel Andrews has, as we saw over the last 12 months. In fact I received on this issue an email this afternoon from a constituent of mine who lives in Dingley. I will read the three relevant paragraphs onto the record. It arrived at 3 o’clock this afternoon:
Hi Gordon. I couldn’t agree more. Both my 53 year old wife and my 14 year old daughter are now suffering from extreme depression. That last 5 day lockdown was the final straw for my 14 year old. They are now both about to begin 12 weeks psychological counselling, my daughter actually mutilated her wrists with a screw driver. And the irony is that the Andrews government created the problem in Victoria. How can the government not even understand the basics of quarantine which have been established since time immemorial?
That is the impact your lockdowns are having on the community, and you have no regard to that impact. Jenny Mikakos, the former health minister, stood in this place when the extension was given six months ago, saying, ‘Oh, we got the health advice from the chief health officer and we haven’t looked at the other factors’.
For four or five cases in the community you locked down the economy for five days, and as this email shows you have a 14-year-old girl attempting to harm herself with a screwdriver as a consequence of the impact that had on her. And there are thousands of families, thousands of people, in Victoria with a similar story to tell because of this government’s first inability to manage the COVID situation last year but also its complete disregard for the need for proportionality in the use of state-of-emergency restrictions and in managing the impact of the COVID situation versus the broader impacts in this state.
This is having an enormous impact on confidence—confidence for investors, confidence for citizens. Talk to any Victorian about their willingness to travel, to book a motel, to go into state or to go to a regional city. Their confidence is shattered. That five-day lockdown a fortnight ago has shattered confidence across this state because people know it can happen at any time, with no reason—an arbitrary decision by a panicked Premier. Three or four cases and the state is shut down. That is not the way to run a state. That is not the way to ensure confidence in the community, to ensure confidence in business. We have heard today the impacts of people leaving the state, professionals leaving the state, business investment which is going to be deferred or diverted to other states. In that lockdown we saw florists who had planned for Valentine’s Day with tens of thousands of dollars of stock going to waste, restaurants and cafes that had planned for Valentine’s Day with tens of thousands of dollars of stock going to waste. You seem to think you can turn it back on a couple of days later. It does not work like that. Some of those businesses which closed two weeks ago will not reopen at all because of your inability to manage and your inability to recognise the need for proportionality in the restrictions that you are imposing ostensibly because of COVID.
We are very much of the view that if there is any extension to the state of emergency beyond the expiration in mid-March it needs to be tightly limited and there needs to be tight oversight. That is why we will again be proposing amendments to restrict the length of any state-of-emergency extension to no more than one month at a time, with the government to come back to the Parliament for future endorsement.
I would say to those members of the crossbench who voted with the government six months ago and who have done enormous damage and share culpability for the enormous damage which has occurred in this state over the last six months—enormous damage to mental health, enormous damage to families, enormous damage to jobs: now is not the time to stand with Dan. Now is the time to stand with the people of Victoria and reject this extension of the state of emergency.