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The fate of the Victorian government’s pandemic legislation could become clear as early as Thursday afternoon, with Health Minister Martin Foley and Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes preparing to meet a group of crossbench MPs pushing for substantial changes to the proposed laws.
The meeting also looms as a potential showdown on Victoria’s vaccination mandates, with independent MPs Rod Barton, Clifford Hayes and Catherine Cumming all pushing for an end to the state’s no-jab, no-access rules that ban unvaccinated people from non-essential retail outlets, restaurants and other public venues.
The fate of the Victorian government’s pandemic legislation could become clear as early as Thursday afternoon.Credit:Justin McManus
The government needs to find one extra vote to pass its legislation before December 15, the expiry date for the state of emergency powers that underpin the state’s pandemic response.
However, Mr Barton said the government should listen to the concerns of everyone on the crossbench.
“It will be a group thing,” he said. “We are not going to allow them to pick us off one by one. We’ll put our cards on the table and see what they have to say.”
The meeting is the first time that Mr Foley, who as Health Minister would be given sweeping coercive powers to respond to a pandemic under the proposed new regime, will be questioned directly by MPs frozen out of the government’s initial consultations on the bill.
The proposed Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021 would empower the premier and health minister of the day to declare pandemics and enforce health directions.
Under the existing state of emergency framework, the chief health officer issues the health orders required to enforce lockdowns, quarantine return travellers and isolate positive COVID-19 cases.
Mr Hayes, from Sustainable Australia, and Mr Barton, from the Transport Matters Party, are demanding improved oversight of the proposed regime, including the establishment of a joint parliamentary committee with a non-government chair and majority to scrutinise government decisions taken in response to a pandemic.
They want to give the Ombudsman jurisdiction to review pandemic decisions and judicial appeal rights to anyone detained by a pandemic order. They will ask for a sunset clause and a disallowance provision that would enable either house of parliament to scrap a pandemic declaration or order.
Crossbench MP Catherine Cumming at the freedom rally on Saturday.Credit:Jason South
Mr Hayes said he still expected any potential agreement would be days away.
Dr Cumming, a prominent figure in Saturday’s protest march against the pandemic legislation, is fiercely opposed to vaccine mandates and wants them scrapped for all settings.
“I will not support the bill in its current form,” she said.
Mr Hayes and Mr Barton want to see a clearer exit strategy for the broader vaccine mandates for non-essential retail and restaurants, with Mr Barton suggesting that, like NSW, they should be removed when the vaccination rate reaches 95 per cent.
“We are very uncomfortable with the vaccine mandate,” he said.
Ms Symes said on Wednesday vaccine mandates were not open to debate with the crossbench and would be decided on the basis of public health advice.
She said mandates were fundamental in driving Victoria’s vaccination rate towards 90 per cent for everyone over the age of 12 and in keeping the state free from COVID-19 restrictions and the health system afloat.
The Australian Retailers Association urged the government to back away from its lockout of unvaccinated Victorians after increasingly aggressive run-ins with customers over the past week since the requirement was introduced in non-essential stores.
A cup of hot coffee was thrown over a worker in one instance reported to the association, prompting chief executive Paul Zahra to write an open letter to Premier Daniel Andrews. A retail worker was also bashed and another had a trolley thrown at them, Mr Zahra said.
Leading pandemic specialists Julie Leask, Catherine Bennett and Tony Blakely argued in The Age on Wednesday that a vaccination rate of 90 or 95 per cent could be high enough to protect the state from any increased transmission that might occur if unvaccinated people were given the same rights as those who’ve had their jabs.
All three public health experts support continued vaccine mandates in high-risk sectors, such as aged care and healthcare.
The government is selectively targeting crossbench MPs it considers most likely to support its legislation and has enlisted one of the state’s leading administrative law experts, Jason Pizer, QC, and Burnet Institute infectious disease expert Joe Doyle to assist its negotiations.
Tim Quilty, one of two Liberal Democrats staunchly opposed to mandatory vaccination, and Jeff Bourman from the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party said they hadn’t heard from the government since the events of last week, when former Labor MP Adem Somyurek returned from parliamentary exile to scuttle the government’s working majority in the upper house.
Stuart Grimley, the leader of the Justice Party, said there needed to be an inquiry into Victoria’s entire pandemic response and proper consultation before any new powers were drafted.
“This is so rushed,” he said. “There are 90 amendments and there will be more. It is just crazy.”
The government has not formally approached the opposition, which has vowed to repeal the bill if it is elected next year.
Ms Symes said it was “vitally important” for the government to have the new laws in place when the current state of emergency lapses on December 15, with just one final sitting week to do so.
“We need to have a system, and we are focussed on those negotiations this week with a view to having that bill pass through Parliament next week,” Ms Symes said.
“I would say there is a general acceptance that we must have a framework to ensure public health and wellbeing.”
With Paul Sakkal
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