The end of the pandemic is in sight. After two years of lockdowns, border closures, curfews and mask mandates, Australians are finally regaining the freedoms many us once took for granted.
But just as governments throughout history have held on to increased power following wars and financial crises, some state political leaders – such as Victoria’s Daniel Andrews – are desperately clinging to the powers they’ve used during the pandemic.
Earlier this week, the Andrews Government introduced the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021. According to Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley, the bill replaces the existing state of emergency powers with “the most accountable, transparent and public health-focused system in the Commonwealth”.
In reality, it grants the Premier extraordinary new powers that far exceed those used over the past two years. These include the power to make pandemic declarations and extend them every three months, without ever having to seek approval from the Victorian Parliament. There doesn’t even need to be a pandemic causing disease in the state.
There are a few positives. The bill transfers the power to sign off on public health orders from the Chief Health Officer to the Health Minister – meaning it will no longer be in the hands of an unelected bureaucrat; there will be greater measures preventing police from accessing QR code data; and the requirement for all relevant public health advice to be made public.
But these are outweighed by the lack of judicial and parliamentary oversight, with the Andrews Government instead subjecting itself to oversight from a committee of its own hand-picked public health and human rights experts. No doubt the same public health and human rights experts who were conspicuously absent from the public conversation about the encroachment upon individual liberties over the last two years.
The Health Minister will have the power to make “any order” the minister “believes is reasonably necessary to protect public health”. This is a virtually unlimited power that will allow the minister to rule by decree for as long as a pandemic is deemed to exist. The minister will be able to impose restrictions on movement, limits on public and private gatherings, mandate that businesses close, impose curfews, or enact measures that weren’t even contemplated over the past two years.
In the words of the Victorian Bar Association, it authorises “virtually unlimited interference with the liberties of Victorian citizens.”
People who fail to comply with the pandemic orders, despite knowing they risked public safety, could face fines of up to $90,500 or two years imprisonment. Businesses could be fined up to $452,500.
Surely this is an excessive way to punish someone for not wearing a mask, or a business that fails to check a person’s vaccination status.
The bill could potentially lead to a pandemic being declared and protesters put in jail, despite the disease not existing in Victoria.
Surprisingly, the bill even includes provisions that allow health orders to be targeted at “specific classes” of people. This means the Andrews Government wants to exempt itself from its own anti-discrimination laws, so it can discriminate against people based on their race, sex, religion, political beliefs, or any of the 14 other attributes currently protected under Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act.
This could be used to subject conscientious objectors to compulsory vaccination; it could be used to require any specified person, or any group of people with a common attribute, to be deprived of any or all liberties. That common attribute could be anything from neighbourhood of residence to physical appearance, political view to ethnic background. This is not a power any government should have.
It should scare the socks off every Australian, even those supporters of Daniel Andrews who believe he has their best interests at heart.
Governments that seize greater power during a crisis rarely give it up once the crisis ends. This is not only true of dictatorships, but democracies as well.
Unless the extraordinary powers used during a crisis are immediately repudiated, they tend to remain on the shelf and become normalised, ready for use by future governments.
As the past two years has revealed, the politicians, activists and academics that have been talking about the importance of human rights for the past 20 years cannot be counted on when governments are deciding between fundamental freedoms and public health. The academics and discrimination bodies have gone missing, and the Victorian Charter of Human Rights has proven useless.
They remained silent as state governments took away fundamental freedoms in the name of public health – causing seething anger in even the most compliant people. There is no reason to assume things will be any different in the future.
The only way to prevent these powers being misused is to prevent the government from having them.
We ought to be responding to this period of hardship by restoring the tolerant and open society that has made us the freest, fairest and most abundant country in the world. We should observe the public health measures that worked, and heed the lessons of the measures that had little impact on spread or severity but tore families apart, savaged mental health, and caused enormous economic harm.
The Andrews Government has instead responded with a bill the Victorian Bar Association calls “The biggest challenge to the rule of law that this state has faced in decades.” This power grab speaks volumes about the big-government authoritarian instinct that lies just beneath the surface of Labor’s so-called “compassionate” veneer.
Amanda Stoker is the Assistant Minister to the Attorney General, and an LNP Senator for Queensland.
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