THE Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021 has been the subject of vigorous debate within the halls of Parliament, among legal experts, and in our community.
When the bill was sprung upon the Legislative Assembly at short notice and on an urgent basis on Tuesday, October 26, 2021, I was affronted by the government’s failure to enable enough time for debate. I had no time to consider the bill or take it back to my electorate for consultation and neither did any other member of the crossbench or opposition. On this basis alone, I voted against the bill and criticised the government’s handling of the matter.
The bill was then debated in the Legislative Council and the government made amendments that had been negotiated by the three crossbenchers who had been included in the negotiations throughout the drafting of the bill. However, there remained much concern and criticism of the bill.
It was only when the government realised it did not have the numbers to pass the bill that it adjourned the debate to undertake further consultation with members of the upper house with the aim of getting additional support for the bill.
The bill provides a process for managing a pandemic instead of declaring a State of Emergency, which usually covers natural disasters like bushfires or floods.
The new bill is similar to legislation in New South Wales and New Zealand in the way the Health Minister is responsible for making public health orders. This was a change that the opposition had been calling for on the basis that orders would be made by someone directly accountable to the Parliament and the people in a way that the Chief Health Officer was not.
Concerns were raised about powers of detention and rights of appeal. The part of the bill that I believe is deficient is in the scrutiny of the decision-making processes contained in the bill. They are insufficient because the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee, which would oversee these orders, is dominated and chaired by the government of the day. A disallowance can only be brought into the lower house by the government of the day and not the opposition or crossbenchers. The government is unlikely to seek a disallowance of its own orders and therefore the clause as it stands is meaningless, making this process undemocratic.
For this oversight to be fair, any member of the Legislative Assembly should be able to move a motion of disallowance against an order that is a concern to the oversight committee.
I have been working to make improvements to the oversight provisions in this pandemic bill and am heartened that bodies such as the Law Institute of Victoria, the Centre for Public Integrity, and the Human Rights Law Centre can all see the need for such legislation but have done a great deal of work to show the government how it can be improved from a human rights perspective before it becomes law.