The liberties of Victorians are now more restricted than we have ever seen. And the Victorian Government is spending more of our money in a shorter time than ever. So do we have more scrutiny of government actions than we have ever? Well, no.
Despite other jurisdictions in Australia and New Zealand setting up a non-government controlled inquiry to scrutinise their response to the pandemic, Victoria is using an existing committee –- the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee, or PAEC, which is controlled by the government.
How did we get here? In the last parliament sitting week, the Greens tried to set up a new committee for this purpose. I strongly supported this action. I have often said that when libertarians and the Greens team up, people should pay attention as there is a disturbance in the force.
The proposal failed because it was opposed by three crossbenchers in the upper house — Andy Meddick from Animal Justice Party, Rod Barton from Transport Matters Party and Jeff Bourman from Shooters, Farmers and Fishers Party. Their reasoning is a complete mystery, as they chose to remain silent on the issue. The coalition also tried to set up an inquiry that was similarly defeated.
The Government acknowledged that some form of scrutiny was necessary, so the Premier requested an inquiry by PAEC. As a compromise, they allowed one extra crossbencher to be elected to the committee. That was me.
The inquiry has just finished two weeks of public hearings. They were tightly controlled by the government from start to finish. In terms of stage management, this experience fits somewhere between an Apple product launch and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
Nearly every day a large spending announcement would happen just before witnesses would appear before us to talk about that subject. By doing this, the government was able to dominate the media cycle.
But if you watched carefully, you might have learned a few things.
We seem to be betting the farm on a vaccine being available in a reasonable period of time. The Premier indicated a willingness to extend restrictions as long as necessary – which raises the question, what if there is no vaccine?
The Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 specifies that while special measures can be taken in a pandemic, “such measures must be specifically aimed at preventing disease or injury and must not be arbitrary or unreasonable.”
It is difficult to conclude that all of the actions the Government have taken during this pandemic meet this standard.
When I spoke to the Chief Health Officer, I asked about the evidence used to ban certain activities such as fishing and golf. As it turns out, there is no real scientific evidence backing these decisions. There is some “arbitrariness” apparently, and golf and fishing aren’t really sports. Someone had better inform the Olympic golfers about this.
I also learnt that Victoria wasn’t using the CovidSafe App at all yet. It’s a bit like a digital crystal healing pendant, but not as pretty.
I learnt from the Police Commissioner, Graham Ashton, about the process for reviewing fines issued for breaching emergency restrictions. Apparently, if they feel that the fine won’t withstand a challenge in a court, they drop it. I am not a lawyer, but if I had a fine issued to me, I think I’d have a go at challenging it.
Although the military aren’t spying on us with their mysterious systems, the police certainly are using drones. They’ve been using them at beaches to check if people are getting too close to each other. According to the Police Commissioner, they have received lots of complaints in the process. The drones aren’t marked though, so you would have no way of knowing if the person looking at you is a police officer or just a regular voyeur.
Transport Minister, Jacinta Allan told me that while public transport usage is down 85 per cent, we are still running a full timetable. Apparently burning coal to make electricity for empty trains to travel around the city is fine. The electricity is a fixed cost, so they wouldn’t save any money by being more efficient anyway. And we are ploughing ahead with infrastructure projects, despite the fact that population and economic assumptions used in their business cases are now probably wrong.
On the plus side, the Premier made a commitment to me that he would return all liberties that have been lost during the pandemic. My challenge now is to hold him to that.
David Limbrick is the Liberal Democrats MP for Victoria’s South East Metropolitan region.
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