Pandemic legislation amended but watchdog remains unsatisfied

By Jackson Graham

Tuesday November 16, 2021

parliament-house-victoria
The swastika ban is the first law of its kind to be proposed in an Australian state or territory. (Stephane Debove/Adobe)

The Victorian government has amended its controversial pandemic laws amid independent bodies, legal groups and protests taking issue with the bill. 

The proposed laws shift central powers away from the public service, giving the premier power to declare a pandemic and the health minister power to issue health orders after seeking advice from the chief health officer. 

But, as the bill reaches the upper house, changes now include lower fines for breaching health orders and the health advice behind public health orders now must be released in seven days, down from two weeks. 

Victorian ombud Deborah Glass said on Tuesday morning she remained unsatisfied the proposed laws contain enough independent oversight. 

“At the moment I have the power to examine decisions of the chief health officer — and I have done that in the course of the public houses tower lockdown, I am currently doing it in relation to border exemptions — because those are decisions of a public servant,” she told ABC radio. 

“With this legislation, I will no longer be able to provide that review on behalf of the public because decisions of ministers are outside my usual jurisdiction.” 

An independent committee, made up of experts and community representatives, would scrutinise decisions and make advice, while the bill also calls for Victoria’s Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee to review the legality of public health orders. 

The amendments bring strengthened human rights protections, regulations that protect the right to protest and guaranteed resourcing of the oversight committee. 

But Glass said she wanted to see a judicial body that could conduct rapid reviews of public health orders and make binding decisions.

“There’s nothing there that has the power to provide an effective review function,” she said. 

“You’d expect that kind of body to not only be independent, but to be agile, to be skilled, to be resourced, to undertake a timely review, and be able to report publicly.” 

Health minister Martin Foley said the changes were the result of “good faith negotiations” with the crossbench, human rights groups and lawyers. 

“We think the rights of Victorians were in fact protected in the bill as it was originally introduced,” Foley told ABC radio on Tuesday morning. “The changes that we’ve made make that more explicit.” 

He said provisions in the bill were capable of being considered by the Supreme Court. “What we want to make sure is that whatever system of review that we have in place is timely and really quick and bespoke to the needs of individuals,” he added. 

He defended the proposed oversight committee as being the only of its kind in any Australian parliament.

“I have tended to find that parliamentary committees, regardless of who is on them, regardless of who has the numbers, operate as per their charter and they hold governments, and departments, and agencies; they hold their feet to the flame of parliamentary accountability.” 


READ MORE:

Overreach: Victoria’s pandemic management bill

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