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Public Health And Wellbeing Amendment (state Of Emergency Extension) Bill 2020


"We recognise the ongoing need for the chief health officer to have public health powers to control coronavirus transmission during the remainder of this year. And recognising that, the Greens determined to support the state of emergency extension bill if the government would address issues that have concerned many Victorians about how some of these powers have been enforced."

Dr READ: I have just been slightly confused. As I understand it, we are discussing the amendments to the state of emergency extension bill, but I have not really heard much debate about the actual amendments. So just to summarise, they represent improved human rights for people who are directly affected by the exercise of state-of-emergency powers under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008. In brief, fines will be reduced for children under 18—they have been too high, particularly because many were levied on children from low-income families—and the appeal process for detention orders creates a timely process for urgent appeal for those who believe they have been unjustly detained. I think most of us have worked out now it is going to take most of this year to vaccinate the Victorian population, and by the end of the year we should have a better understanding of how well protected we will be against emerging viral mutant strains. Some of these could well be vaccine resistant, but we should know a lot more about that by Christmas.

Now, most of us also recognise the ongoing need for the chief health officer to have public health powers to control coronavirus transmission during the remainder of this year. And recognising that, the Greens determined to support the state of emergency extension bill if the government would address issues that have concerned many Victorians about how some of these powers have been enforced. These concerns include the heavy-handed policing that we have seen occasionally and the disproportionate effects of lockdown on disadvantaged members of the community, particularly public housing residents, people of colour and young people from low-income backgrounds. So as a result of these discussions, the Greens have secured the above-mentioned appeal process for people who receive detention orders, a reduction in COVID fines for young people and also a commitment to review fines that have already been given to members of disadvantaged communities.

We have also secured a confirmation of the right to protest. And I might just refer to the member for Caulfield’s earlier speech, where he was wondering what sort of protest that applied to, and stress that that applies to all protests and that that can be found on the Department of Health website. And for the benefit of the member for Caulfield, I just quote Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who says that:

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.

These rights to protest apply to everyone, whether we agree with them or not.

We have also obtained a commitment that specific legislation will be developed for managing COVID-19 in nine months time or ahead of that time. We do remain concerned though that almost all complaints against police are investigated by police rather than by an independent agency such as IBAC and that IBAC is under-resourced for the very small percentage of complaints that it does investigate.

Now, we put all this information out in our press release yesterday, but I repeat it here for the benefit of the Leader of the Opposition, who asked the Greens to come clean on our deal with the government. Apart from putting it out in a press release, I am not really sure how else we can come clean on it. No other matters were discussed other than what I have outlined here, and I urge all members on both sides of the house to support these very straightforward amendments, which strengthen the rights of anyone affected by the enforcement of state-of-emergency powers.

Now, the speakers from the opposition have spent little time or perhaps no time discussing these actual amendments, which I hope and assume that they will support. We certainly would not want them to be opposing any strengthening of the rights of those who have been detained or fined. I also thank the earlier Liberal speakers who have given some advice to the Greens, and in the collegiate spirit with which they have offered that advice to the Greens, I will offer a little of my own, which is to steer clear of anyone who opposes the use of PCR testing. Polymerase chain reaction testing is the foundation of modern microbiology, and there are some groups doing the rounds disputing the accuracy of PCR testing. The PCR is the modern version of the Petri dish. Let us not throw that out. Keep well away from anyone who might be opposing that. I refer you to the Reignite Democracy Australia website if you want to know more. Ever since Louis Pasteur showed that bacteria form the basis of fermentation and you can transfer bacteria from one site to another there have been proponents of what is known as ‘germ theory denialism’. This exists even this year in the COVID pandemic. My advice to members on all sides of the house is: steer clear of germ theory denial. It is a very short step to the anti-vaxxers. Now, I do not intend to verbal the opposition. Not for a minute do I suggest that you are upholding these viewpoints, but I reckon it is best to keep a wide berth between you and anyone who does. It is very important not only that you make it clear which way you going to be voting on these amendments but that, at a time now when we are really keen to get the whole population vaccinated and to really strengthen our public health response, we all state very clearly what side we are on.

In the end, as I understand it, the opposition does not oppose the existence of these powers for the chief health officer. Really what all of the rhetoric and sweat and bluster has been about is whether we should extend it for one month or six months or nine months. In the interests of all of our sanity, I do not really want to have to repeat this very circular debate where we say how brutal lockdowns are—and I do not for a second dispute that lockdowns are brutal—and then all agree that the chief health officer should have the powers for another month. I reckon that the government has shown, particularly this year, restraint in lockdowns. The five-day lockdown is a very good example. As the percentage of the population that is vaccinated increases, the probability of lockdown will diminish accordingly. I think therefore that it is appropriate for the chief health officer to have these powers at least up until Christmas and until they can be replaced with alternative legislation.

Most Victorians have seen what is happening overseas. It is worth remembering that 820 Victorians died of COVID last winter, but in one day in January 1820 British people died—in one day, on 20 January. In the US in one day, 4 February, over 5000 people died. In some hospitals in the Northern Hemisphere—

Members interjecting.

Dr READ: I do appreciate the further advice coming from the Liberal Party, but they will understand if I talk over them while I am on my feet.

I will just point out that in the Northern Hemisphere some hospitals have run out of oxygen. So lockdowns are indeed brutal but the alternative is catastrophic. That is why it is important that we state what side we are on and that we do not hang out with people who might venture onto the other side—onto the germ theory denial side—and that we point out that we understand the need for these public health powers because we do not want to go down the path of the countries in the Northern Hemisphere where they have had trouble finding places to bury the bodies.

No-one is suggesting, for example, that we get rid of our navy because we have not got a war, but we read this morning that the government is going to be spending something like $80 billion on a dozen new submarines to replace the half dozen that we have not used, and that is a little bit what these public health powers are like. The chief health officer needs to have these powers whether or not they get used—and I very much I hope that they will not be. So I will not verbal the opposition; I will merely ask that they make it clear what side they are on. I will stop there.

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Dr Tim Read
Greens MP for Brunswick
10 March 2021
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