Negotiations on pandemic bill pause for weekend deliberations

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The Andrews government has temporarily suspended negotiations with crossbenchers and is spending the weekend weighing up their demands in an attempt to end an impasse on its pandemic bill.

Transport Matters MP Rod Barton and independent Catherine Cumming – who on Saturday joined a “freedom” protest broadly against the bill, vaccine and mask mandates – have been in discussions with the government, which was working most closely with Clifford Hayes of Sustainable Australia.

Crossbench MP Catherine Cumming at the freedom rally on Saturday.Credit:Jason South

Labor MPs have been partnered up with independents who were previously cut out of consultations to secure an extra vote for the bill, which has stalled in the upper house, after being out manoeuvred by disgraced ex-minister Adem Somyurek.

A senior government source, speaking on the condition of anonymity while negotiations continued, was optimistic of an outcome.

Senior government minister Martin Pakula on Saturday said he hoped an agreement would be reached by the time Parliament returned for the last sitting week of the year on November 30, most probably with significant concessions.

“Obviously it’s the government’s view that it’s incredibly important that we get a version of the pandemic bill passed because if we don’t, December 15 will come and there’ll be no powers whatsoever, whether it’s for masks, vaccine mandates or to keep COVID-positive people at home,” Mr Pakula said on Saturday.

“I’m hopeful that by the time Parliament rises, we’ll have secured a majority for the passage of it.”

The proposed pandemic laws – the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021 – would replace existing state of emergency powers, empowering the premier and health minister of the day to declare pandemics and enforce health directions.

Labor has just one sitting week left to ensure it can enforce its health orders, such as isolating COVID-19 patients at home, before its existing framework — which empowers the chief health officer, who is unelected — expires on December 15.

Most of the crossbench understood the government needed some powers to see the pandemic through once the state of emergency expires, the source said.

Mr Hayes and Mr Barton of Transport Matters were both demanding the government add more stringent oversight measures to the bill.

Transport Matters MP Rod Barton appears crucial to the government’s pandemic legislation.Credit:Joe Armao

That includes the ability for Parliament to overturn any decisions during a pandemic and the creation of an independent advisory panel that is not chaired by the government. Mr Barton also wants an accessible reviews process of detention orders and fines, which human rights and law experts have recommended.

Dr Cumming’s support is dependent on there being no vaccine mandate, which the government is not willing to relent on.

Mr Somyurek, who has been approached by Labor to negotiate but did not respond, appeared in Parliament on Friday for the first time in months having promised to tip the vote against his party. His name made its way into Parliament’s official transcript after he momentarily entered the chambers and was asking to stop chatting during upper house debate.

Labor already has the support of three crossbench MPs, Fiona Patten from the Reason Party, Animal Justice MP Andy Meddick, and Greens leader Samantha Ratnam, who have warned of an increasingly hostile response to the debate, but now needs an extra vote after the re-emergence of Mr Somyurek.

Tens of thousands of people attended a “freedom rally” in Melbourne’s CBD on Saturday — chanting “sack Dan Andrews” and “kill the bill” — and were joined by Dr Cumming who addressed the crowd, saying: “Fascists, are we Daniel? Am I a Nazi am I, Daniel?”

At a counter demonstration supporting health measures, protesters chanted against “anti-vaxxers” and “Nazis”.

Mr Pakula asked for calm at Saturday’s protests, and called out the opposition for what he described as misinformation surrounding the bill. He rejected the government had added to the toxicity by failing to work across the divide.

“I think some of the heat and some of the really unacceptable behaviour we’ve seen could have been avoided by people not peddling some of the extreme sort of language and misinformation about it,” he said.

“Criticise the bill if you like, seek changes to it if you like. But some of the ways that it’s been described [had to have] an effect on whipping up some of the fear, and some of the anger, and some of the frankly completely unacceptable responses that we’ve seen.”

Police are investigating an incident involving Mr Meddick’s adult daughter Kielan, who was confronted in the streets of Fitzroy while she spray-painted over an anti-vaccination poster at 11pm on Thursday.

Police said an argument broke out and the 25-year-old woman threw the can towards a man as she attempted to leave, but was followed and hit on the head with the can — causing a gash to her head that required stitches.

The Age has not been able to verify Mr Meddick’s belief the incident was linked to his stance on the pandemic.

David Davis MP speaking to protesters at a Kill the Bill rally outside Parliament House.

Shadow treasurer David Davis, who said politicised threats of violence were “totally and completely and utterly unacceptable” and called on Saturday’s demonstrations to remain peaceful, described the draft legislation as “a lockdown bill”.

“That bill is a lockdown bill, and it’s a bill designed by Daniel Andrews to be used for further lockdowns.”

Victoria is storming towards its 90 per cent vaccine target after recording another 1166 COVID-19 cases and unwinding almost all restrictions.

Mr Davis said the opposition had not been formally approached to negotiate and wants 18 amendments to the bill, which he believes is irreparable, including a public inquiry before votes are cast.

He did not attend Saturday’s rally against the draft legislation, after an escalation in tensions, and reports in The Age a man had been charged by counter-terror police after encouraging demonstrators to bring weapons, but defended the right to do so.

“I would say to all protests, they’ve got to be peaceful, they’ve got to be lawful. And people are entitled to exercise their democratic rights, but they’ve got to do it peacefully and safely.”

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