COVID-19

Pandemic Bill is battered, bruised and better

In spite of the rallying cries of “Kill the Bill” which have emanated relentlessly from the steps of Parliament House for weeks, it lives.However compared to the draft Bill publicly unveiled late last month, it’s a slightly battered and bruised version.And that’s a good thing for Victorians.Ongoing negotiations with two key crossbenchers, in a desperate bid to break the deadlock that threatened to see the Bill defeated, has delivered a raft of proposed changes that will ensure a much more robust Bill.Many of the concerns by lawyers, legal bodies, civil liberty groups and the Victorian Ombudsman has now been addressed in some way.The biggest of these is the mooted establishment of a new panel that will independently review appeals to detention enforced by public health orders.The change will remove any control from the state government or the chief health officer over the appeal process.Another amendment will clarify the powers of the Victorian Ombudsman to receive complaints regarding detention.A new parliamentary committee, with a minority of government MPs, will now also review public health orders.However it will remain virtually powerless, because it would need the approval of both houses of parliament to block pandemic orders found to be unreasonable.The removal of an “aggravated offence” for breaching pandemic orders should remove jail terms as a potential sentencing outcome.And a two-year review of the new laws will also be brought forward by six months.Some other much sought after changes have been ignored.Transport Matters Party MP Rod Barton agreed to flip his opposition to the vote in exchange for the suite of amendments.He had been targeted, along with Sustainable Australia MP Clifford Hayes, by the government has the most likely to change their vote.Of the nine cross benchers opposing the Bill, only those two showed any sign that they could be swayed.And in giving the government it’s desperately needed majority, Victorians should rightly ask, at what cost?When the Bill was introduced to the Upper House earlier this month Barton was vehement in his opposition to it.He lashed the government for its selective consultation process, choosing to involve just three crossbenchers in the drafting of the Bill, and rejected the way in which the Bill was being rammed through parliament.“I say to the government, and it is not the first time: you do not have to act on what I say but you should at least give me the professional courtesy of listening,” he said.“My constituents and the tens of thousands of people who have contacted my office in the last two years have been denied a voice.“They have a right to be heard. I have not been convinced by the government that this bill is needed right now.“We are coming out of this pandemic. This bill is not the be-all and end-all. I do not accept the urgency.”Barton was also highly critical of powers in the Bill that will allow pandemics to be declared even if virus is not in Victoria.“To have this completely open-ended leaves us having to rely on faith that future leaders will not exploit this vague legislation. This is not good enough.”This appears not to have been addressed under the proposed amendments.However Barton, and his constituents, have well and truly had their voices heard.But nothing comes for free.Victorians should rightly be asking what, if any deals, have been done beyond the proposed amendments to secure Barton’s vote.Is it the $600 million bailout package Barton has been chasing for the taxi industry since he entered parliament in 2018?Are preference deals at play?Is it something else?Many will inevitably now aim at the Upper House voting system which allows a virtually unknown MP to help the government pass the laws.Barton secured less than 3,000 votes at the 2018 election, representing .60 per cent of the vote.To be fair, many MPs from the major parties, including Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes managed fewer votes.But Barton has shown the potential for negotiation to improve controversial laws.And he’s highlighted why the government should have consulted and far and wide in the first place.

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