The Victorian government has proposed legislation to cover the management of pandemics, replacing current emergency powers.
It’s been touted as a way to make measures more transparent and democratic but the new law would enshrine the authoritarian response that has characterised the state’s handling of COVID-19.
It has also provided a new focus for the anti-vax conspiracy movement, which has mobilised rallies of thousands through central Melbourne.
The Bill, which has passed the Labor-controlled lower house, would shift the power to declare a pandemic from the health minister to the premier, acting on the advice of the Chief Health Officer (CHO) that there is a serious risk to public health.
There are some new, minor democratic measures, such as an obligation on the premier to report on their decision to parliament. There will be lower fines for those on pensions.
But overall, the Bill cements in place the idea that fighting pandemics requires substantially strengthening the power of the state.
As the 60 lawyers put it: “The Bill, if passed, may allow the Victorian government effectively to rule the State of Victoria by decree for the foreseeable future, without proper Parliamentary oversight or the usual checks and balances on executive power …
“It is one thing to allow temporary rule by decree to deal with an unforeseen and extraordinary emergency in circumstances of extreme urgency. It is something else altogether to entrench rule by decree as a long-term norm.”
The new legislation, for example, allows unelected “authorised officers” to “take any action or give any direction, other than to detain a person, that the authorised officer believes is reasonably necessary to protect public health”.
As the lawyers wrote: “An individual authorised officer will single-handedly have the power to shut down a political protest if the officer subjectively believes that this is ‘reasonably necessary to protect public health’.”
Their alternative to the current Bill is for ministers to be given “specific powers to do specific things” (such as border closures or mask mandates), subject to a parliamentary veto.
Liberty Victoria has not rejected the Bill outright but has raised a series of concerns, including about the right to protest.
It states: “COVID-safe forms of protest should be encouraged, with the 2020 BLM [Black Lives Matter] protest and the [Refugee Action Collective] Mantra Car Convoy being examples of peaceful protest and assembly where the risk of spreading infection was limited through actions taken by protest organisers.”
The Victorian government has relied on repression throughout the pandemic, prioritising lockdowns and huge numbers of fines over public health measures.
In total, Melbourne was locked down for 262 days. Police issued nearly 39,000 COVID-19 fines up until mid-June this year, with Indigenous people and new migrants the worst hit.
In one of the worst incidents, residents of nine public housing towers in Kensington and North Melbourne last year found themselves in “hard lockdown” without warning, surrounded by dozens of police who stopped people shopping for urgent supplies.
And last month, the government announced the country’s toughest vaccine mandate, covering more than 1 million workers.
The new legislation would not stop any of this happening again.
Rather than putting millions more dollars into a public health system under enormous stress, the Andrews government is beefing up the legal basis for a police response.
The fate of the Bill in the upper house rests in the hands of three MPs—one each from the Greens, Animal Justice and the Reason Party.
They have previously criticised the use and extension of emergency powers and the restrictions on COVID-safe protest.
They want amendments but have already indicated that they are almost certain to deliver Labor the votes it needs, given they share the view of most on the left that top-down state measures are needed to defeat COVID.
Those measures have recently included the unprecedented deployment of riot police with vicious new weapons to break up anti-lockdown protests.
The far right is trying to take advantage of the anti-lockdown and anti-vax movement. But most of those concerned by the proposed Bill are not fascists or scabs.
The failure of the left to respond to the crackdown on democratic rights during the pandemic has emboldened Andrews to entrench greater state powers. It is shocking that the Greens are supporting this Bill.
The left’s failure to challenge Andrews will only mean that the right gets a greater hearing.
The left needs to oppose this Bill and launch a fight for more money for public health, a rolling back of casualisation, sick pay for all, free rapid antigen testing and other measures that can help us fight the virus.
By David Glanz