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Public Health & Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension ) Bill 2021

Mar 2, 2021 | News, Parliament

Mr BARTON (Eastern Metropolitan) (17:16): I rise to speak on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension) Bill 2021. It saddens me to be standing here once again discussing yet another state-of-emergency extension. We have had a year to get this right.

The Victorian people share a trauma. The lockdowns we all experienced last year have not been forgotten and have scarred many people. Whilst last year proved how adaptable we can all be, it did not come without immense cost. It is understandable that many feel anxious at the prospect of being locked inside their homes once again. We went months without seeing close family. For some they went for months without seeing anyone at all. Parents struggled as they not only transitioned to working from home but were also responsible for the homeschooling of their children, essentially attempting to manage two full-time jobs. This had an impact even on my own team. That is not to mention the financial suffering that plagued many Victorians. This was a time of perpetual uncertainty. No-one could tell you when this suffering would end. This is nothing short of a shared burden we must all carry. That is why I am not surprised at the enormous response that this proposed state-of-emergency extension has had. However, let it be known: I know nobody on the crossbench that will be intimidated by bullying, harassment and threats.

Given Victorians can now enjoy the fruits of their labour—visiting cafes, going on holidays and spending valued time with family and friends—there is of course a deep-rooted fear that this could all be taken away again. While I know this bill does not guarantee another lockdown, nor does it take away the COVID normal we live in today, the public pushback to this bill indicates an entirely different perception. The same controversy that cast a shadow over the last state-of-emergency extension and the omnibus bill continues to shadow this bill today. Likewise, the same concerns I had with the last state-of-emergency extension bill are just as relevant today as they were six months ago. The public has not been brought onside for this bill; rather this bill is characterised by a complete lack of understanding, misperceptions and outright lies.

I have always believed that effective communication is the responsibility of the communicator. Now, I just want it noted that I have not been involved in any of the negotiations with the government—no input whatsoever—and like everybody else in this place, I believe, we all got the amendments at 10 past 10 this morning. The anger felt by some in the community regarding this bill is not a reflection of the public but rather a reflection on the communication of the government on this matter. What is needed right now is a light touch by government to bring the community along. This is not a time for a sledgehammer. Likewise, unworkable amendments—for example, a month-by-month extension—in my view are impractical and unworkable. That is why I will not be supporting the opposition amendments today.

However, I will be supporting the Liberal Democrats amendments on the basis of fairness.

Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension) Bill 2021

Today Rod spoke against the State of Emergency extension.

Given the trauma carried by the public I think it is frankly unfair to allow this misinformation and emotional debate to play out as it has. The public deserves transparency, the assurance of independent oversight and clear information on what this bill actually entails. There is no argument government needs to maintain legislation that can mandate masks, operate hotel quarantine and maintain public distancing measures. This is a responsibility that has been borne by all states. However, Victoria seems to be unique in that it is the only state suffering from this immense backlash. Some states do not even have a limitation on the time frame for a declared state of emergency—Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania and the Northern Territory are all free to extend this period on a rolling basis. This is done without Parliament involvement.

The public accepts that these measures are introduced as required so that we can get to the other side of this pandemic. However, this state of emergency fails to resonate with our reality. For many, the phrase ‘state of emergency’ brings forth images of tanks rolling down the streets and sirens blaring. This is not at all similar to the COVID normal that we are experiencing today. Many are returning to their workplaces, attending weddings, going to the footy and getting back to normal. This does not seem like a state of emergency to me. Perhaps simply acknowledging that we are not in emergency is the first step to bringing the public onside.

The next step will be recognising the importance of public trust in maintaining cohesion, introducing legislation and improving compliance. Public trust is absolutely critical in our democracy. To see this trust eroding concerns me. COVID-19 is not over. For us to get through this the public need to have faith in their government. We cannot continue to let suspicion inflame existing tensions and anxiety. Whether or not this occurs will have a great effect on how quickly we overcome this virus. Given that the current vaccine rollout is a ticket out of this pandemic, the government must have the trust of the public for this to work. Because of our failures of the past we have disenfranchised large sections of our community, who are now resisting the vaccination process. We all have a responsibility to make sure this vaccination rollout is successful. Our future depends on it. Trust is hard earned. The government must make a genuine commitment to independent oversight. This also means engaging with the crossbench for better policy outcomes and to understand the experience of our constituents.

I have come to this place to judge each bill on its merit, to be fair and to be true to my own values. I did not vote for the state-of-emergency extension the first time, and I will not be voting for it today.

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