Proposed Victorian laws will strip the chief health officer of the power to have a final say on health restrictions and give more power to elected representatives during pandemics.
The laws, introduced by the government on Tuesday, would shift central powers away from the public service, giving the premier power to declare a pandemic.
The declaration, lasting four weeks, can be renewed for three-month periods until the pandemic no longer poses a threat, replacing state of emergency powers that currently must be renewed every four weeks up to a maximum of only six to nine months.
Once the declaration occurs, the minister can issue health restrictions after seeking advice from the chief health officer, including limiting movement, detaining and quarantining infectious people or groups and regulating activities.
The opposition labelled the laws as intended “to control people’s lives” but chief health officer Brett Sutton was neutral about the proposal, saying he would be “just as happy to work under whatever legislative framework” emerged from the bill.
“It’s the case where any jurisdiction in Australia, it’s for the parliament to make the laws the population works under,” Sutton said.
“It’s been my pleasure to have worked under the existing framework, but if there are improvements to make or if there are some changes to make that better reflect the elected representatives in parliament to make them, then that’s how it should be.
“I think there have been opportunities to learn a great deal through this and there are opportunities to look at legislation in Australia and across the world.”
He said shouldering responsibility for decisions and health orders could be a “heavy burden” and there were expectations that elected representatives “should have accountability for the final form public health directions take”.
“Somebody needs to make the decision, I think everyone accepts that expert public health input into those recommendations and decisions and needs to be central,” Sutton said.
An independent committee, made up of experts and community representatives, would also scrutinise decisions and make advice.
Premier Daniel Andrews said the government was applying lessons learned during COVID-19 to manage future pandemics.
“This is modelled on the New Zealand law; there are elements of what happens in New South Wales and other states, also. But we have gone beyond that in terms of accountability and transparency,” Andrews said.
“That shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of anybody who has been involved in our pandemic response, particularly our public health team.
He said as vaccination rates rose the legislation enabled a “broader approach” and set the government up for future pandemics.
Liberal opposition leader Matthew Guy claimed the legislation was a power grab by the government.
“These new laws aren’t about streamlining State of Emergency powers but about making it easier for the state government to control people’s lives,” Guy said.
He highlighted fines he claimed could reach $21,909 for failing to wear a face mask and $109,044 fines businesses could receive if a customer failed to check in properly.
Andrews criticised the opposition of playing political games in rebuffing the legislation.
“This is exactly what the opposition asked for and now it’s the wrong thing,” he said.