Mr BARTON (Eastern Metropolitan) (16:34): I rise to speak on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension and Other Matters) Bill 2020.
Recently someone described me as being an old Holden Kingswood. Compared to a modern car I am a little bit heavier, the body is a bit rough, been known to overheat when thrashed and has a few miles on the clock, but it is reliable—what we used to call in the trade an honest vehicle. I am hoping they meant I am an honest, reliable bloke.
When I came to this place I wanted to bring these very values with me. I was determined not to come to this place all bitter and twisted. I wanted to make decisions based on what was presented before me that reflected my constituents’ and my own values.
Many of my constituents are very angry, but some are allowing other issues to reflect their anger and frustrations towards this bill and me. So let us be absolutely clear: I think we have all got a responsibility here. I do have confidence in the chief health officer, I do have confidence in the government to be able to steer our way out of this mess and I do have confidence in this Parliament. COVID-19 is real. I believe when you make a mistake you admit it, and it is never too late to go back and fix it. This is why I am here. Mistakes have been made. Could have, should have, would have—it is all very well to be an expert in hindsight. If only we had that luxury.
What a storm this bill has created just getting here. My office, like yours, has been inundated with hundreds of calls and thousands of emails in the lead-up to this bill, and our social media channels have been running hot around the clock. This response is unprecedented, I am told by those who have been around this place longer than I. The message has been loud and clear that these people have had enough, and can you blame them? The coronavirus has up-ended everything about how we work, live and interact, and our public health response to controlling the spread of this disease has had a massive economic consequence. Businesses have been forced to shut down. Many will likely never recover. Family and friends have been separated for what feels like forever, with missed moments of shared happiness and sadness as life goes on—irreplaceable moments. The sacrifices that have been made have come at great cost, and through this there has been an unbearable loneliness, depression and despair. All people wanted was a light at the end of the tunnel, but what they faced when the announcement of an extension to the state of emergency was released was the prospect of an eternal Groundhog Day, rinse and repeat, with the added concern of utter financial ruin.
While I understand where they are coming from, the unbearable stress and uncertainty, ultimately it is clear from the correspondence we have received that many people have arrived at this position through confusion. The general and misguided perception is that an extension to the state of emergency would automatically extend the current restrictions and stage 4 lockdown and will prevent businesses from reopening. This is simply incorrect. We know it does not change how we go about our day to day. The level of restrictions imposed and the drivers for these decisions are the overall case numbers, the extent of community transmissions and the related health advice. Whether or not we are declared a state of emergency, we will climb out of these restrictions when the COVID cases are sufficiently low and well under control. This is what will lead us onto a path of recovery.
The state of emergency provides powers to enforce compulsory face coverings, workplaces to have a COVID safe plan and mandatory isolation for people who have tested positive—measures which have all helped to slow the spread of the virus. These and other key public health protections required to manage this pandemic are only available when the state of emergency has been declared under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008. We may not like the rules, but we must concede that they are necessary to ensure that we carve a way out of this mess. After all, rules on their own are meaningless and ineffective unless there are consequences for breaking them.
When the legislation was introduced in 2008, which applied a six-month limit to a declared state of emergency, it was perhaps done so never conceiving that we would be facing a pandemic with the potential to last years.
Let us also not forget that some other states and territories have no 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 the period on a rolling basis, and they can do this without Parliament involvement.
No-one has been up in arms there. It is accepted that these measures are introduced as required and for as long as needed to get to the other side of the crisis. However, this is not what we have in Victoria.
Perhaps what was lacking here in Victoria was better and more effective communication. The government has failed to bring the public along with them on this topic. This has caused suspicion and distrust and has exacerbated tensions and anxiety at what is already a very difficult time. When the government proposed to continue the state of emergency for 12 months, in addition to the six months already served, it was simply a bridge too far. The announcement was made without warning and without a clear separation of what this would mean for the current stage 4 restrictions. Also disappointing to those of us sitting in this chamber is that the public announcement and parliamentary bill briefing took place ahead of any legislation being circulated. I and others were placed in a situation of having to respond to the barrage of people demanding that they know where we sit on the bill, without us ever having laid eyes on the detail. It would have been nice to have had time to consider the facts so that we could have prepared ourselves for the onslaught.
There appears to be a general acknowledgement that an extension of the state of emergency may be needed and even necessary. What remains in question, however, is the approach that was taken, coupled with an underlying sense of unease. Who will have oversight across this going forward? How can we improve the communication channels between the decision-makers and the general public? How can we reassure people that the powers effective under a declared state of emergency are used for the purposes intended and not abused? Trust has been eroded and must be repaired. Above anything else, trust and understanding are central to how the public behaves and responds to government directives. This will also improve compliance—so too would further financial support for the members of the business community who have fallen through the cracks of receiving any assistance and are in freefall. I speak to many of them daily. Non-employing sole trader businesses in the taxi and hire community say to me, ‘We are the have-nots—always forgotten yet expected to carry the burden without complaint’. These businesses are haemorrhaging without so much as a bandaid. Is it any wonder that they oppose the government and the extension of the state of emergency? They have been backed into a corner and are understandably throwing rocks at anything that comes their way.
I am reminded often of just how easy it would be to accept these circumstances, as one of the laptop brigade sitting on our salaries, unaffected, in the comfort of our own homes. The reality is that we are all in this together, but sadly the impact is far greater on some than others. The only declaration that many of my people are considering is a state of bankruptcy. Given how badly the public mood has been read, the most considered way forward is to create a mechanism for consultation and independent oversight. It is my view that these matters should have—and have been—referred to the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee. However, I made a recommendation to the government that a non-government crossbench member should be appointed to the position of chair. The reason I say this is that it is important not only to do what is right but to be seen to be doing what is right. This would provide genuine transparency and a level of scrutiny which could calm and reassure the public as well as serve to re-establish a level of confidence and trust in the whole process. But this proposal was rejected by government.
Those of us on the crossbench have been put in this place, I believe, to hold both sides to account. We will need to run an independent ruler across the decisions that will present as we rise up out of this crisis. More importantly, we need to take the politics out of these discussions. The government has not got everything right, but it has helped no-one to have the opposition cause panic and alarm by twisting the information to suit themselves and playing on the fears of others. People are bleeding out there. This is not a game for them. This is not the time for political grandstanding. The opposition, as I understand it, will be proposing a number of amendments. After careful consideration I had to ask myself, ‘If the opposition was the government, would they accept those proposed amendments?’. I suspect they would not. Therefore I will not be supporting those amendments.
It is a time for a sensible, collaborative approach so that decisions are made with the utmost care and consideration for how long they will impact the world outside these walls. The consequences of not doing this are far too great. We have seen the world over the health crisis that ensues when the virus is not given the respect it deserves. We have also seen the economic destruction that has been caused in responding to this attack on public health—whether or not restrictions have been applied and enforced. What is equally damaging and often overlooked is the effect of poor confidence in our decision-makers, distrust and a suspicious and pessimistic outlook for what the future holds. We cannot change where we have come from, but we can change our approach going forward. Any extension to the state of emergency must be well justified and communicated effectively in a more digestible way. There must be independent parliamentary oversight across the process and regular points of review to determine the next course of action. Just as we must control this virus, control measures must be in place to ensure that the decisions made which affect us all are arrived at via consensus and through the appropriate democratic channels.
I come to this place from the taxi and hire car industry, which was thrown to the wolves not so long ago without any regard to the catastrophic financial and emotional consequences for the many individuals involved. I have not forgotten what it feels like to have your concerns ignored and have all your principles and values shattered which you were raised to believe in. Now that I am here and the shoe is on the other foot I cannot do the same. I say to those people who are suffering and to those who have sacrificed on a disproportionate scale: I hear you because I know what it is like to lose your business and your home through no fault of your own.
I do appreciate the intent of this bill, but I reject the time frame for the extensions to the state of emergency and I absolutely reject the way the bill was drafted to deliver unfettered powers to the government without adequate checks and balances. As it stands I cannot and I will not support this bill.