Senator HENDERSON (Victoria) (21:48): I rise in this adjournment debate to raise concerns about the scope of the restrictions being imposed on Victorians under the state of emergency declared in March.
Victorians understand that we need to be in this together, that to get through this pandemic we need to work together and care for each other and do everything possible to combat this second wave and suppress the alarmingly high rates of community transmission we have seen in recent weeks. We have seen the daily number of new active cases drop, and that is encouraging, but I think it’s well understood that the Victorian government’s management of hotel quarantine has been nothing short of a disaster. The evidence is that almost every active case in this second wave has emanated from the breakdown in hotel quarantine.
I remain bitterly disappointed that Premier Daniel Andrews told a parliamentary inquiry that the ADF never offered to support Victoria with hotel quarantine, which of course we learned was simply not true. There’s never been an adequate explanation as to why Victoria accepted, and then rejected, help from the ADF, which could have made the difference in stopping the second wave.
But just as big an issue and perhaps even more serious is the failure of contact tracing. Unlike in New South Wales, where the contacts of every active case are vigorously pursued and required to self-isolate so as to suppress community transmission, in Victoria we seen have thousands of mystery cases with no known source, which means the source of the virus can’t be identified and isolated to stop further spread. People who should have self-isolated were told they could go into the community. There’s been no publication of COVID-19 hotspots. That has now just been remedied. People in isolation, including those who were positive, were told for many weeks they could leave home to exercise. That, too, has been remedied. I spent 27 days in quarantine all up as a result of coming into close contact with a positive case and then needing to quarantine to come to Canberra. I saw firsthand the confusing messaging, the muck-up with the IT systems and the failure to alert a local community when a person who was positive had visited.
Our government have proudly demonstrated we have your back, the backs of Australians, with our unprecedented health response and the more than $300 billion we have delivered in economic support. The states and territories have also pulled their weight but, as the Governor of the Reserve Bank said last week, states and territories need to invest at least another $40 billion in infrastructure in order to reinvigorate their economies.
I’m deeply saddened by the loss of life in aged care in Victoria. Despite the Labor Party’s best efforts to improperly attribute blame to our government, these are deaths of the most vulnerable in our community which have been principally caused because of the very high rates of community transmission, mainly across metropolitan Melbourne.
Today I’ve spoken out about another issue that is causing deep concern: the Victorian government’s use of emergency powers and whether they have been exercised properly in every respect. We have seen the outrage which has erupted in Victoria over plans to extend the state-of-emergency powers by another 12 months. The Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Act provides that the maximum period for which a state of emergency can be declared is six months. The Victorian Premier is now proposing to extend that period, which runs out on 13 September, for another 12 months. The notion that the Premier can place the state in a state of emergency for a total of 18 months, during which time he can essentially impose any restrictions, is extremely concerning, particularly when you consider the draconian nature of some of the directions—the 8 pm curfew, the prohibition on travelling more than five kilometres from home and the shutdown of businesses and worksites, which in this second wave will cost the Australian economy another $10 to $12 billion and up to another 400 lost jobs. I am deeply concerned many Victorian residents and businesses have suffered loss as a result of unreasonable restrictions—that is, the improper exercise of emergency powers.
Section 204 of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act provides that any person who suffers loss as a result of a decision by the Chief Health Officer under his emergency powers can apply for compensation if that person considers there were insufficient grounds for a particular decision. Restrictions should only be imposed insofar as they are absolutely necessary. It is so important to open up the economy in Victoria as much as is possible. Many important questions remain unanswered. Why is a private contractor prohibited from mowing lawns but such work is permitted by a council worker? Why can building and construction workers move freely between places of work but not people working in other occupations? What is the public health rationale for imposing an 8 pm curfew across Melbourne or harsh restrictions in regional communities where no active cases exist?
Section 204 provides an incredibly powerful remedy. It gives every Victorian who has suffered loss the right to hold the Chief Health Officer to account. All that is required is an application to the secretary of the department of health, not court action. If the secretary agrees there are insufficient grounds for a particular restriction, she must pay just and reasonable compensation and has 28 days to reach a decision. Importantly, her decision can be appealed in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, which is a relatively inexpensive legal avenue of redress.
As broadcast on the Nine Network earlier tonight, Jim’s Mowing has vowed to rely on this section of the act to seek compensation, not just for Jim’s Mowing franchisees but for other contractors. That’s because his private gardeners in Melbourne are prohibited from working, yet council gardeners are permitted to work. The question the secretary of the health department needs to consider is whether there are insufficient grounds for this decision. Jim Penman, who owns Jim’s Mowing, says these laws are arbitrary and have no legitimacy. This provision of the act is, I understand, yet to be tested, and this is a very important test of the accountability of this government.
Just hours after I raised my concerns on Channel Nine news, I received messages from a number of business owners who are suffering badly despite the economic support our government is providing, including this message from Georgie. She writes: ‘It has been extraordinarily difficult to have our arboriculture business closed by the Victorian Premier whilst we have many of our clients in four councils calling us and stating that council contractors are happily pruning and maintaining council parks, trees and gardens whilst ratepayers suffer and their trees are desperately requiring routine pruning, which can only be done at this time of year and, of course, cannot be done. We just hope and pray we can reopen our doors and stay in business after this catastrophe is finally over. Thank you again for being our voice.’
For people living in regional Victoria, including those in border communities who have been hit hard, for families who can’t cross the border and get their children to school, for people with cancer who can’t travel to medical appointments, for farmers who can’t travel freely, including to move machinery or feed their stock—despite the work we have done to introduce a code of practice for the agriculture sector—this provision of the Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Act may provide additional support. It may also provide a much-needed fetter on the exercise of arbitrary powers by reinforcing the requirement on the Victorian Chief Health Officer that he must properly impose restrictions and impose only those which are necessary to combat this pandemic and nothing more.