Overreach and bubbling scepticism a hurdle for pandemic laws

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For a state weary of endless lockdowns, it should have been an easy sell for the government.

It is proposing laws that effectively reduce the power of an unelected health official to limit our rights and freedoms, and put them in the hands of elected members of Parliament who are answerable to Parliament and forced to face the public on polling day.

So, how did the government get its pandemic laws so wrong?

On the weekend, thousands of Victorians took to the streets furious with the proposed legislation that will ultimately deliver more accountability and scrutiny and improve a broken system.

As it stands, Victoria’s chief health officer is given extraordinary powers to detain people, restrict their movement and prevent anyone from entering the state the moment a state of emergency has been declared.

A new system is long overdue.

It’s been six months since we learnt the Andrews government was secretly negotiating with three crossbenchers to introduce specific pandemic laws that would permanently replace the broken state of emergency powers.

It should have been a positive step forward, but initial secrecy and overreach by the government, coupled with entrenched community fear sparked by months and months of lockdowns, have triggered a backlash the government can no longer ignore.

Under the government’s proposed pandemic laws, the premier will be responsible for declaring a pandemic, after which the health minister can make pandemic orders. Any health advice used to justify these orders will be made public within a fortnight. The government would also be required to provide an explanation of how the orders affect our human rights.

While these are all positive steps towards greater accountability, the legislation would also mean non-compliant Victorians face the harshest fines in the country. Anyone who knowingly breaches a health order, leading to serious health risks, could be jailed for up to two years.

Then there’s the boosted powers for “authorised officers” to pre-emptively detain people suspected of breaking health directions. Alarmingly, such authorised offers could include any number of low-level public officials.

Victorians have been left with two unsatisfactory choices and are being asked to accept the lesser of two evils.

It’s no surprise that after months of lengthy lockdowns, Victorians want further protections from a government that has not always struck the right balance between protecting health and an individual’s rights.

While some of those protesting the pandemic legislation represent the fringes of society, the wider response reflects a deep and justifiable suspicion from a distrustful public fearful of further lockdowns.

For an opposition battling disunity, the pandemic legislation presents it with a political opportunity.

Opposition Leader Matthew Guy is rightly asking: “Why would the government pass legislation to enable lockdowns if they are saying they will never lock us down again?”

It’s likely to strike a chord with the public.

While Guy might be in desperate need of political capital, the opposition should also be wary of going too hard. In 2011, then-federal opposition leader Tony Abbott was criticised by his colleagues for addressing an anti-carbon tax rally supported by extreme right and anti-Semitic groups.

At the time, Mr Abbott described the demonstrators as “good people” who had merely gathered to protest against the carbon tax, but his decision to stand in front of a sexist placard reading “ditch the witch” haunted him for years.

The Victorian opposition can play an important role in improving this bill, but it would be wise not to appear to endorse the extreme sentiments of some protesters.

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