Mr BARTON (Eastern Metropolitan) (16:35): I rise today to speak on the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020. I will be supporting this bill today after negotiations between the crossbench and the government led to the removal of the extended powers to detain. The government has not communicated this bill as well as it should have.
In these times when many of us are disconnected from friends and family, fatigued and suffering financially, government communications and transparency are more important than ever. We need to do better. Victoria just does not seem to like itself right now. While our shared experience, and all that entails, brings us together, it is the misinformation, the miscommunication and the lack of clarity that drive us apart. The government has failed to bring the public on board with the measures initially outlined in this bill. Because of that my office, like yours, has been inundated with emails from concerned citizens. The announcement of this bill has created great anxiety, suspicion and unrest, all of which could have been avoided.
The controversial powers initially outlined in this bill were not dissimilar to the practices that are accepted in New South Wales and Queensland. However, it is clear that Victorians have interpreted those provisions differently. This can only be attributed to the lack of effective communication surrounding this bill. It is disappointing to see the government fail once again at informing the public of the problems we face to justify the solution. In this case it was explained after the bill was proposed that there were people openly undermining the COVID and health protocols and putting our community at great risk. This conversation needed to happen earlier. The public must have the opportunity to understand the problem and what is at stake before such a bill as this is introduced.
Reading the bill in its current form, it is clear the bill’s controversy stems from the lack of understanding and misinterpretation. This has only been made worse by the diminishing trust of the public. This trust must be repaired if the government is to lead us out of the pandemic. Victorians should be able to have faith in their government to protect them from the abuses of power and overreach. Trust is the key if we are to improve compliance with government directives. Introducing a bill in this way has undermined public faith and consequently undermined the intention of the legislation. The government has to improve communication channels with the public to avoid this state of affairs.
I cannot help but acknowledge that today feels a bit like groundhog day. Last month when I rose to speak on the state-of-emergency extension, I spoke of the suspicion, the distrust, the exacerbated tensions that Victorians are feeling and how this can be addressed. I asked many questions: who will have oversight moving forward, how can we reassure the public that powers will not be abused and how can we enhance communication channels? Standing here today, it is clear the government had no answers to these questions. There is yet to be an appropriate mechanism for consultation and independent oversight. To reassure the public and build confidence in this process the government should focus on measures that provide genuine transparency and sufficient scrutiny. Are we to be surprised that this bill has had so much backlash? I urge the government to consider how they can better approach policy debate, education and effective communication in the future.
This bill is necessary if our society is to continue to function through this pandemic. Many of these provisions will help stop the spread of the coronavirus and allow society to open up safely. It is a great shame that the misinformation has prevented this bill from being seen clearly for what it is—vital. Fairness is what has driven me to this very place. It is what motivates me to listen to the concerns of my constituents and act on their behalf. It is also what drives me to engage with the government and my fellow members of the crossbench to achieve fair outcomes and improve legislation.
We as crossbenchers have worked with the government to address key concerns held by the public, the legal community and human rights advocates. In particular it was through negotiations with the government that provisions such as the pre-emptive detention of high-risk individuals and the vague expanded powers of authorised officers were amended.
Previously there was a provision that allowed government to appoint anyone as an authorised officer. The revised bill clarifies who can be named as an authorised officer and the specific limits on the powers of those authorised officers. This is a significant victory. Through working with government to improve this bill we have contributed to the upholding of our liberties as outlined by the human rights charter. This is what we are in Parliament to do—carry out democracy and find a balance between human rights, freedom and effective legislation. This revised bill is proof of that.
The provisions in this bill are needed if we are to come out of this lockdown. This bill will, among other things, enable courts to restrict physical access, enable local councils and libraries to meet virtually, extend the time period in which recipients of infringement fines have to pay, extend workers compensation payments for those who cannot work and appoint authorised officers in regional areas where there is an insufficient workforce. Many of these provisions are already operational, and this bill is merely extending those procedures until the expiry date in April 2021. Working with the government to ensure transparency and demand clarifications on the powers of each authorised officer has ensured that officers will have the appropriate skills to support vulnerable and disadvantaged people through the pandemic.
These amendments have addressed the key concerns shared by the legal community and human rights advocates. These professionals are experts in their field. I understand the human rights implications and with a clear conscience have decided to support the revised bill. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission as well as the Law Institute of Victoria are among those now comfortable with the provisions outlined. The intent of this legislation has been effectively upheld while potentially excessive and unchecked powers have been eliminated. This goes to show how collaboration with the crossbench and stakeholders from relevant sectors can lead to improved outcomes that will address key issues faced by Victorians. A willingness to compromise from all sides leads to better government and better policy. To see the legal community come around on this revised bill speaks volumes.
I have a commitment to judge each bill on its merits and meet with many stakeholders to further understand the implications of each piece of legislation. This case has been no different. From speaking to and reading the opinions of lawyers who make great contributions to their sector I found their initial concerns to ring true. After lots of work to address these concerns the bill now strikes the right balance between human rights and practical legislation. This is why I will support this bill today.
Many of my constituents have still not gotten on board with this bill, but who can blame them? For those who have lost their jobs, who miss their family and are doing it tough through no fault of their own, seeing the government risk an overreach of power feels like a step too far. These people cannot trust the government to stop them from falling through the cracks. We can see this clearly in the complete lack of support for the majority of sole traders and the financial devastation they have experienced as a result of that. How can we expect the public to support a bill that has not been explained but, rather, sparked fierce debate and unease? The consequences are too great not to make changes moving forward. A great shadow was cast on this bill, and unless the government can do better to inform Victorians on the state of affairs, this controversy will continue to shadow more bills in the future.
I do not believe this bill as it stands unduly trespasses upon the rights or freedoms of Victorians. Rather, this bill is made up of many positive measures that will facilitate our democracy functioning remotely for the foreseeable future.
This bill intends to sufficiently address those who openly rebel against COVID-safe measures that protect our community and will help us get out of this lockdown sooner. By focusing on having trained authorised officers with clearly defined powers we can better engage with members of the community that may have mental illness and substance abuse. This bill will help keep everyone safe by improving procedures that encourage social distancing, allowing people to work from home and mitigating risk to health. These practical measures will benefit Victorians and make life a little bit easier.
No government or policy is ever perfect. I came here to engage with the government, the crossbench and the opposition to improve government and better legislation. I did not come here to throw rocks and stifle progress. This revised bill stands as proof of our democracy and just shows you how valuable the crossbench is in representing our constituents in policy debates. This bill is necessary if we are to continue to function smoothly through this pandemic. I commend the bill to the house.