Public Health and Wellbeing Bill

Last week, the Public Health and Wellbeing (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021 passed in the Assembly after being the source of both public and parliamentary debate. Personally, I think you would be hard pressed to find a better contribution about both the bill and the nature of the debate than that of my colleague, Jill Hennessy MP, the Member for Altona and former State Attorney General (see video below).


Ms HENNESSY (Altona) (11:47): I am grateful for the opportunity to get up and to make a contribution on this bill. And boy, we have heard some florid speeches in the chamber today. I would ordinarily enjoy such generosity, in some cases verbosity, if any of it was correct, if any of it had any factual basis in what the bill actually says and what the bill actually does. Fundamentally what this bill does is it takes an imperfect public health model and it improves the accountability and the transparency. Despite all of the very florid speeches that we have heard from the other side—and boy, it is a little bit of a shock to hear the Liberal Party re-finding their liberal roots in many of those contributions, a welcome change, I would say—none of those criticisms are actually factually based in what the bill actually does.

Yes, I heard the Leader of the Opposition come in and try and micromove his way out of accountability for the fact that he did call for the changes that are in this bill. Now that that has become politically inconvenient, he has had to crab-walk away from that. In fact many of the calls that the opposition and many others have made in the course of this pandemic have been advanced through this bill, but what they have done is they have said the political opportunity to try and make sure that they go and confuse people about what is in this bill is a far more attractive proposition to them than actually factually reflecting on this bill and arguing if they have a different point of view. But many of the contributions have been factually incorrect, many of them have been wrong and many of them have been based on them putting the primacy on political convenience and short shrift political opportunity over genuine policy debate.

That I think is a reflection upon the opposition when there are incredibly important issues. And there are. I make no quibble with the fact that many of these issues might and should be the subject of debate, that people might have a different point of view as to what the appropriate tools are to get to the outcome of protecting communities during a pandemic or other public health outbreaks. I do not have a problem with that. But let it be based on fact, and that is not a feature of what we have seen in the contest and the debate thus far.

Let me put a couple of home truths back on the table about what this bill does. But in order to do that I need to factually reflect what the current regulatory regime is when it comes to public health orders. The current regulatory regime of course is not fit for purpose to deal with what we have all learned have been some of the needs and the requirements of dealing with a global pandemic, one that no-one could have estimated the length, the duration or the ferocity of, and, as the member for Mill Park rightfully made the point, one that is not over yet. But those tools were developed with a certain public health emergency in mind, and there were extraordinary powers.

Extraordinary powers were given to the chief health officer under the existing regime for a number of reasons. Because it is about an emergency. It is about urgency. You need to have a breadth in some of those powers because you do not know what you can contemplate. The fact that we are here having to reimagine what those tools might be and how we can improve their accountability and transparency just proves the fact that in pandemics the use and the need for emergency powers requires proper parliamentary oversight and proper judicial oversight. I argue that that is what this bill does. That is the fact of the matter: the bill does do that. That is in fact an advancement of the current system, which we know has had significant shortcomings.

Let us not have a beat-up and the use of unnecessarily inflammatory language. Let us not have a disproportionate description of what those powers might be. Let us not have the powers in this bill abstracted and then used to reflect and doff the hat to certain horrific historical incidents and argue that that is what this bill will cause, because of course these powers are established in a framework. They are established in a framework where there is parliamentary oversight. That parliamentary oversight includes the fact that the executive government is in fact accountable to the Parliament. We see that in question time, we see that through the scrutiny of various parliamentary committees and we see that through the fact that if people do not like what a government has done, they can democratically throw us out every four years if that is what they choose to do.

To argue that there is no oversight by the Parliament is factually wrong. You might want to quibble about what the quality is of that oversight, and I could make a whole range of cheap shots about the shortcomings of the opposition when it comes to parliamentary oversight, but we are debating structure, and what this bill does is it enhances that very structure. It puts in place powers and roles

and responsibilities that are given to an independent assessment committee that has some expert advice. It puts in place and empowers the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee in order to be able to provide commentary and advice to the Parliament should there be any rights that have been the subject of an unnecessary incursion.

What it does not do is take away any rights of judicial review, and we have heard a lot of misconceived descriptions of what the separation of powers looks like. This bill in fact reminds us that we do have in the state of Victoria a charter of human rights that all forms of executive government action are subject to, and indeed actions have been the subject of appeals to the courts in the current pandemic. That right remains. In fact any derogation or any deviation from any human right (a) is required to be the subject of advice and transparency from the requisite minister, (b) can be the subject of advice and response from the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee and (c) a person can scrutinise and challenge the actions of government by taking action with the independence of the courts, who can review and in fact strike down the use of any such power. It has been a little galling to hear the wheels of the human rights bandwagon creaking and screeching as so many newly found friends jump on board.

I feel very strongly about the preservation and enhancement of human rights in this country. I have deep respect for the many stories that people have shared—even people I have disagreed with—about their families and their communities, but what I will not countenance is the misuse and the transformation of those stories of pain and historical egregious acts of abuse towards certain communities. I will not have them used as factually inaccurate swords in the course of this debate without challenge. That is the low road that is being taken. Come in here and debate that you think that there is a better tool, that your concept of scrutiny is a more superior one than in this, but do not come in here and start to question the commitment and the legitimacy of the contribution of people on this side of the house, who also come from families that have been subjected to those sorts of issues. It is offensive and insulting, and it shows that you have taken the low road.

Another example of something that was factually incorrect: we have just seen a member from the other side stand up here and try and say that the bill potentially gives the right to the Premier to suspend elections. It does not. It does not, and that advice has been provided. So yet again, every opportunity has been sought and taken by those opposite to try and go the politics rather than the policy on these issues. A lot has also been made of the comments of various representative groups and sectors. Now, that is always the case. I know of many bills, particularly when those from the other side were in government, where it might have been the Victorian Bar Council or it might have been the Law Institute of Victoria who were very critical of now-opposition bills. In fact many of the sentencing regimes, for example, were I would argue an incursion of the separation of powers, taking away judicial discretion and judicial oversight. Many of those changes to things like the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, all of those things I disagreed with, but I did not come into this Parliament and start accusing people of trying to reflect some of the worst of humanity that we have seen in our history and the history of those that came before us. So let us have a debate, but let us make it factual and let us make it one that is imbued with decency and not historical inaccuracy.