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State of Emergency – If You Believe in Democracy You Must Not Support an Unconditional Extension

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MR MORRIS (Mornington) (11:26): The Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension and Other Matters) Bill 2020—a rather benign title for such a draconian piece of legislation—is a bill the like of which if it has not been seen before in this state certainly has not been seen since the Eureka rebellion.

It is a bill that amounts to an effective suppression of democracy in this state. A bill that cements the executive authority of government over this Parliament and in the process sidelines the people of Victoria and renders their views redundant.

This is a bill which will allow the chief health officer to direct that this Parliament cannot meet—that elected members of Parliament may not do their job. We have already seen an attempt to shut down electorate offices on the so-called medical advice from the Premier’s office. When this legislation is passed there will be a legal backing to enforce that type of ban.

On this side of the house we accept the need to manage this crisis. We accept the government needs the tools to get the job done. We accept that those tools require the government to have extraordinary powers. What we do not accept is the need for the government to hold that power, that extraordinary power, without accountability.

Any government must be accountable, and accountability is not dropping an unaudited ministerial report on the table or tabling it out of session. Accountability is showing up. Accountability is submitting yourself to cross-examination. Accountability is being required to answer the questions you are asked, not the questions you would like to be asked.

This is a government that is allergic to accountability and prepared to use its numbers in the Parliament to avoid it.

We find ourselves at one of the lowest points in the history of this state. The human cost of this crisis is immense, but I anticipate the ultimate toll will prove far greater than the price that has already been exacted. As of today, 650 Victorians have lost their battle with this virus—650.

Lives have been smashed. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs. Small business has been decimated—thousands of individual businesses destroyed. How many small retailers struggling with fixed overheads and zero sales will ever open their doors again?

How many people have lost their savings, lost their working capital, had their life plans destroyed? How many people are now condemned to stay in the workforce for years past their intended retirement date because this virus was allowed to get out of control?

The Mornington Peninsula has been hit particularly hard, on some estimates as badly as any region in the nation. In May, after the first wave, the shire commissioned economic analysis that estimated there would be a 20 per cent reduction in local economic activity. Yet the government’s reckless and completely unnecessary decision to include the peninsula in the metropolitan area and impose stage 4 restrictions has made our circumstances immeasurably worse.

As others have mentioned, the national accounts tell us that state final demand fell by 8.6 per cent in June. Clearly far worse is yet to come: by some estimates an 18 per cent contraction in the Victorian economy. We are going to lose one-fifth of the Victorian economy.

For some the pain will only be temporary. It will be, even for them, an expensive if tolerable interlude. But for far too many it will become, as the Premier loves to say, the new normal, and some will never work again.

The first duty of any government is to keep its community safe—safe physically and safe economically. This government has failed dismally on both counts.

As of today, 19 417 Victorians have contracted the coronavirus. Three quarters of all cases in Australia have occurred in this state; 292 people per 100 000 have been affected. Yet across the Murray, in New South Wales, that figure is just 50 per 100 000— less than a fifth of ours—and New South Wales is the next worst hit state. In Queensland the figure is 22.1 per 100 000, less than 10 per cent of Victoria’s rate.

The numbers of deaths make bleak reading, and they are even bleaker with today’s figures: 9.8 deaths per 100 000. In New South Wales that figure is 0.6. It is 9.8 in Victoria, 0.6 in New South Wales—why?

The government likes to draw international comparisons to suggest that we are well off compared with the United Kingdom or the United States or a selected European nation. That is a completely bogus comparison. Those nations have very different living conditions, different social practices, different geographic circumstances and particularly different health systems.

The only valid comparison that can be made is with other members of the federation, and using that comparison, the government has comprehensively failed our community. It has failed to protect our health, it has failed to protect the economy and it has failed to protect each and every Victorian.

The state of emergency has prevailed for almost six months. For all of that time the government has had every power it needs to control the virus. In that time every other state in the commonwealth, every state except Victoria, has succeeded in controlling the virus.

This government has failed, and now the Premier wants the Parliament to reward his failure by giving him and his colleagues another six months of unfettered power, another six months without accountability, another six months of policy failure, another six months to complete the task of comprehensively destroying this state.

This bill hands the government unbridled power, unprecedented power. It will allow a middle-ranking public servant to shut down the Parliament without explanation and without any opportunity even to challenge that decision. The last person who tried something like that was King Charles I.

At least that king had the courage to be up-front. That king did not attempt to hide his machinations behind the advice of others or to exercise his power through others. We all know how it ended for that king. Anyone who seeks to emulate him, to govern without parliamentary oversight, without the trust and without the consent of the citizenry, should heed that story, and they should think again.

The opposition accepts that these are extraordinary times, that extraordinary powers are required, but we are not prepared to cast aside the checks and balances of the Westminster system. These are checks and balances that have evolved over centuries to ensure the accountability of the Parliament to the people and of the government to the people.

The amendments proposed by the Leader of the Opposition are the absolute minimum changes to this bill required to safeguard our democratic institutions: renewal of the State of Emergency on a month-by-month basis and the removal of clause 6.

Parliament must be free to meet. It must not be proscribed by government. Its independence must not be undermined by allowing a public servant—any public servant—to say when we are permitted to meet. And the government must be truly accountable to the house and to the Victorian community for each and every action it takes.

Without those changes this bill is a genuine threat to democracy.

Every member needs to think carefully about how they vote on this bill. Do you believe in democracy or do you believe in autocracy?

If you believe in democracy, you must not vote for this bill.