Victorian proposed pandemic laws explained

·3-min read

VICTORIA'S PROPOSED PANDEMIC LAWS EXPLAINED:

WHY DOES VICTORIA NEED PANDEMIC LAWS?

* Victoria has been in a continuous state of emergency since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, which gives the chief health officer the power to issue directions to manage risks to public health. This includes measures such as lockdowns, mandatory mask-wearing and quarantine

* Victoria is the only state that caps the length of time a state of emergency can remain in force, with the current extension due to expire on December 15. Crossbench MPs have requested pandemic-specific legislation to replace the state of emergency.

* Last month, the Victorian government introduced the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021. It passed the lower house 51 votes to 26 and will be debated in the upper house this week.

HOW DO THE PANDEMIC LAWS WORK?

* The laws will give the premier of the day the power to "declare" a pandemic and extend it for three months at a time. The premier must consult with the CHO before declaring a pandemic.

* Once declared, the health minister will be given powers to 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 despite knowing it would lead to a "serious risk" to the health of others. Individuals could face two years in jail or a $90,000 fine.

* 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.

IS THERE ANY OVERSIGHT?

* The reason behind the orders and the CHO's advice must be published within 14 days. If orders differ from the CHO's advice, the health minister must publish their reasons.

* The 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 if passed, the bill will give the health minister "extraordinarily broad" powers with "grossly insufficient" parliamentary oversight. "It authorises extreme limitations of basic liberties of all Victorians and confers enormous powers on the executive," it says.

* The Law Institute of Victoria says the bill "does not sufficiently protect the rights of Victorians". It recommends the Victorian Ombudsman or another independent officer review, investigate and report on the impact of orders in real-time.

* The Centre for Public Integrity has also called for an independent statutory agency to oversee the exercise of powers.

* More than 60 top lawyers have signed an open letter opposing the bill, saying it could mean Victoria is "ruled by decree" for the "foreseeable future".

* Human Rights Law Centre says the bill is a "significant improvement on the current law" but further improvements are needed, including a requirement the health minister act within the Human Rights Charter when making pandemic orders.

* The Victorian 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.

WILL THE LAWS PASS PARLIAMENT?

* Without the support of the opposition, the government requires the backing of three of the 11 crossbenchers in the upper house to pass legislation.

* The government is relying on the support of Animal Justice MP Andy Meddick, Reason Party MP Fiona Patten and Greens leader Samantha Ratnam, who they have been negotiating with for months.

* AAP understands amendments will be made to the bill to further strengthen transparency and oversight.

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