VICTORIA'S PROPOSED PANDEMIC LAWS
WHY DOES VICTORIA NEED THE LAWS?
* Victoria has been in a continuous state of emergency, which gives the chief health officer power to issue public health directions such as lockdowns, mask-wearing and quarantine, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
* Victoria is the only state that caps the length of a state of emergency. The current extension expires on December 15. Crossbench MPs requested pandemic-specific legislation to replace the state of emergency.
* The Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021 passed the lower house last month and will be debated in the upper house this week.
HOW DO THE PANDEMIC LAWS WORK?
* The laws give the premier the power to declare a pandemic after consulting the CHO, and extend it by three months at a time.
* Once declared, the health minister can make pandemic orders after consulting with the CHO. Orders can be specific to "classes" of people, based on characteristics such as age, location, vaccination status and occupation.
* An aggravated offence has been created for people or businesses who fail to comply with orders.
* The laws also introduce safeguards for the collection and use of QR code and contact tracing data, and a reduction in fines for those who met eligibility and hardship criteria.
WHAT ARE THE LATEST AMENDMENTS?
* After public scrutiny, the government made seven changes to the bill.
* Adds "on reasonable grounds" in the premier declaration clause.
* Reduces reporting time for pandemic order documents from 14 days to seven for publishing and from six sitting days to four for tabling in parliament.
* Enables parliament's Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee to consider any pandemic order when it is made, not only once it is tabled in parliament.
* Cuts the maximum financial penalties for not complying with a pandemic order from 120 penalty units for individuals to 60 ($21,809 to $10,904) and 600 penalty units for businesses to 300 ($109,044 to $54,522) and the maximum penalty for aggravated offences from 500 penalty units for individuals to 250 ($90,870 to $45,435) and 2500 penalty units for businesses to 500 ($454,350 to $90,870).
* Clarifies the application of pandemic orders based on characteristics, attributes or circumstances must be relevant to the public health risk.
* Clarifies the application of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities to confirm the role it has in decisions made under the legislation.
* Removes references to the Equal Opportunity Act in the above section and insert examples of how a pandemic order may differentiate between classes of persons.
IS THERE ANY OVERSIGHT?
* Reasons behind the orders and the CHO's advice must be published and if orders differ from the CHO's advice, the health minister must publish their reasons.
* Parliament's Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee can review orders and recommend suspension or disallowance if they are incompatible with human rights or lack legal authority. Both houses of parliament have to vote for a disallowance.
* An Independent Pandemic Management Advisory Committee made up of experts will review the orders and provide advice to the health minister, which will be published.
HAS ANYONE RAISED CONCERNS ABOUT THE LAWS?
* The Victorian Bar says the amendments address "low-priority issues" and not "fundamental problems" with the bill, including a lack of effective parliamentary control over orders and no provision for an independent review.
* The Law Institute of Victoria says the additions move the bill in the right direction, but terms of imprisonment should be scrapped. It wants decisions relating to detention to be externally reviewed by VCAT and says there should be stricter controls on the use of information gathered for public health reasons.
* Ombudsman Deborah Glass says, even with the amendments, provision for independent oversight is "insufficient" and another independent body, preferably a court, should review pandemic orders. She says handling of complaints and minimum standards for people being detained also need to be addressed.
* Human Rights Law Centre says the bill is a "significant improvement on the current law" and praised the amendments for including human rights and accountability safeguards that will help the government make better decisions and "build and maintain public trust".
* The opposition argues the bill is "the most dangerous piece of legislation we've seen" and has vowed to scrap it if elected at the 2022 state election.
* The Centre for Public Integrity says, while the amendments are positive, issues remain around a lack of independent review, sunset clause or independent mandatory review process and called for the creation of a cross-party committee to scrutinise the bill's powers.
WILL THE LAWS PASS PARLIAMENT?
* The government requires the backing of three of the 11 upper house crossbenchers to pass legislation and has the support of Animal Justice MP Andy Meddick, Reason Party MP Fiona Patten and Greens leader Samantha Ratnam, with whom they have been negotiating for months.