HomeVictoria bill: what is so different to other state policies?

Victoria bill: what is so different to other state policies?

There has been a lot of protest around Victoria’s proposed Covid-19 pandemic bill, which begs the question: what’s so different about it?

It’s not like they’re the only state to protest government changes around Covid, but they seem to be the only ones still going strong.

Let’s be honest, these protesters are mostly focused on being anti-vax and are so extreme it’s hard to take them seriously. In fact, Swinburne University senior media lecturer Belinda Barnet told the ABC that it was the same group behind these protests who organised the anti-lockdown protests in Melbourne — and also said they have ties to right-wing extremists.

“As a movement, [they are] really quick to respond to what people are afraid of, and kind of latch onto that and leverage it,” she said.

“I don’t think these protesters are very clear on the particulars of the bill or politics in general.”

However, they’re not the only ones concerned about the legislation. Legal groups and the state’s ombudsman have all been calling for the inclusion of greater oversight, and stronger human rights protections.

Which begs the question, is Victoria’s proposed bill so different from the policies in other states? Particularly in New South Wales, which is the other state dealing with the brunt of this pandemic.

Why was the bill proposed in the first place?

Thanks to Covid-19, Victoria declared a state of emergency on March 16, 2020, which gave the chief health officer broad powers to make changes that reduced the health risk — like stay-at-home orders, and mask mandates.

It was the first time this was ever done, using powers under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Vic) (the Act), and may be extended for four week periods up to a maximum of 12 months in response to Covid-19.

At the start of March in 2021, the parliament voted to extend the Declaration of State of Emergency until December 15, 2021.

Health Minister Martin Foley told parliament that it was important to build new legislation that was specifically for pandemics, based on what was learnt over the last couple of years.

“Inevitably, Covid-19 will not be the last pandemic faced by Victoria,” he said.

“The experience of responding to Covid-19, together with insights shared by the Victorian community and its leaders, have clearly demonstrated the need for pandemic management decisions to be transparent and accountable, proactive, protective of human rights, and guided above all else by the imperative of minimising risks to public health and the right to life.”

It gives more power over health issues to the premier.

The proposed legislation would shift the power of declaring a pandemic and making subsequent restrictions and changes from the chief health officer to the premier and Health Minister.

It would mean that the premier was able to declare a pandemic, at which point the health Minister could start making pandemic orders.

Both will still be required by the law to get advice from the chief health officer in the making of these orders, and that advice will be presented to parliament, as well as be released publicly.

How is it different?

Chief health officers — who are usually medical professionals, unlike health ministers and premiers — are given varying degrees of power in pandemic situations. In New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia, the chief health officer is more or less in charge of public health emergency responses.

It gives broader powers to the Health Minister.

The new legislation states that the Minister “may make any order … that the Minister believes is reasonably necessary to protect public health”.

While the Victorian government has said these orders will be very similar to what has been seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, the new powers given are very broad.

Earlier in November, the Victorian Bar Association (representing over 2000 barristers) raised its concerns about these “extraordinarily broad” powers, as well as there being no limit to the number of times pandemic laws could be renewed.

How is it different?

Well actually, New South Wales currently also gives its health Minister quite broad powers to enact Public Health Orders for public safety under the Public Health Act 2010 (NSW) (the Act).

There’s no limit to pandemic declaration renewal.

The new bill means that a pandemic declaration must be renewed every three months, but there’s no limit to how many times it can be renewed.

How is it different?

The Victorian government did point out that NSW had less limits on the length of a declaration than their new bill proposed.

It calls for an independent pandemic management board.

They’ve also introduced an independent pandemic management advisory committee, which will include public health, human rights and community representatives.

How is it different?

Led by the Deputy Police Commissioner, New South Wales established the State Emergency Operations Centre (SEOC) in response to Covid-19. It includes experts from more than 20 different professional agencies, including police, education and transport who are tasked with responding to the ongoing risks.

It proposed incredibly hefty fines and decent jail time for breaking health orders.

The initial proposal included fines of up to $90,500 for individuals and $452,500 for businesses who broke health orders. They could also face up to two years in jail. However, at the same time it did include protections on how QR code data could be used. These numbers were reduced, however, which we’ll get to in a minute.

How is it different?

All states and territories have fines in place for breaching the orders, however the next largest fines are in Western Australia, where the max penalty is $50,000 and up to a year in jail.

After that it drops significantly, with South Australia and Tasmania around $20,000, New South Wales at $11,000, Queenslanders face up to $1335, and in the Northern Territory it’s $5,056.

What changes were made on Monday, November 15?

After the initial push-back, fines were dropped to $21,800 for individuals and $109,000 for businesses over general noncompliance on orders. However, larger breaches — like breaking quarantine or going to a large gather when you’ve tested positive to Covid-19 — will still face fines of $91,000 or two years in jail for individuals. For businesses, the fine is either $454,000 or up to three times the commercial benefit gained from not complying.

More oversights were introduced to ensure transparency, such as a requirement to publish parliament’s reasons for orders, and statements on how they comply with human rights obligations.

Among other changes, there were also stronger thresholds put in place for when a pandemic can be declared, and the right to protest was put into the legislation.

Basically, all the changes were to protect human rights, ensure greater transparency and clarity, as well as privacy.

Addressing parliament, Premier Dan Andrews said, “The bill is filled with safeguards, oversight mechanisms, that far exceed any other state I think, perhaps any other country.”

“I’m hopeful that at the end of the week the Legislative Council will see fit to support the bill.”

What do experts think of the changes?

There’s still a little bit of disagreement, despite the changes. Legal director of the Human Rights Legal Centre, Daniel Webb, was for the amendments.

“These are the sorts of safeguards that ultimately help government make better decisions and also help build and maintain public trust in those decisions,’’ he said.

Meanwhile some still remain concerned, like Victoria’s Ombudsman Deborah Glass who told ABC Radio that “we haven’t seen the question of independent oversight properly addressed”. She feels there should be a judicial body overlooking pandemic decisions.

Victorian Bar president, Roisin Annesley, felt that the changes“largely address low priority issues”.

“The major issues include the lack of effective parliamentary control over the minister’s pandemic orders and the lack of provision for an independent review of authorised officers’ exercise of power,” she continued.

Will other states change their laws?

While it’s worth comparing the difference between states to understand why Victoria’s bill is causing such a big reaction, it’s also important to remember that this is brand new legislation based on the experience of a pandemic. Meanwhile, other states are still relying on old laws, like the 11-year-old act in NSW.

So while it seems like a big difference now, we may eventually see other states also update their own laws.

Read related topics:Melbourne


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