The Victorian government is in talks with crossbenchers to amend its controversial pandemic legislation ahead of the debate in state parliament’s upper house.
The government is relying on the support of Animal Justice MP Andy Meddick, Reason Party MP Fiona Patten and Greens leader Samantha Ratnam to pass the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021 this week.
If passed, the bill will replace the state of emergency powers due to expire on December 15 and will give the premier the responsibility of declaring a pandemic, which can be extended for three months at a time for as long as considered necessary.
Once a pandemic is declared, the health minister will be given “broad powers” to make public health orders. Such powers currently reside with the chief health officer, who is not an elected official.
However, both the premier and the health minister must continue to consult with the chief health officer and the advice behind the orders must be made public within a fortnight.
The bill has become a lightning rod for anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination groups, with thousands gathering in Melbourne’s CBD on Saturday to rally against it, including a man seen carrying a homemade gallows with three nooses in an apparent reference to the three crossbenchers.
Mr Meddick, Ms Patten and Ms Ratnam have all reported receiving death threats from some in opposition to the bill.
Protesters gathered outside Mr Meddick’s home on Friday, while dozens have vowed to camp outside parliament for the sitting week.
Members of the legal fraternity and human rights group have also raised concerns about the broad powers given to the health minister and their ability to make orders based on people’s “characteristics”, such as age, location, vaccination status and occupation.
AAP understands negotiations continue between the government and the three crossbenchers to improve the transparency and oversight of the bill, including publishing advice sooner than two weeks after an order is made.
The definition of “characteristics” could also be narrowed down to the unvaccinated or specific groups, such as those in aged care or health, penalties for breaching orders could be reduced, and the government could make it easier to appeal detention orders.
Senior government minister Danny Pearson on Monday confirmed discussions were ongoing with the crossbench but he was not privy to them.
“We’ve developed this legislation based on everything we’ve learnt over the course of the last 19 months, we’re presenting to the parliament and ultimately it will be a matter for the Legislative Council whether they seek to support, reject or amend the bill,” he told reporters.
Greens MP Tim Read said while the bill offered “more transparency, accountability, and oversight” than the emergency powers, there was definitely “room for improvement”.
“The bill will never be perfect, it does have flaws, some of those flaws it sounds like are going to be fixed with amendments this week and that’s fantastic,” he told ABC Radio Melbourne on Monday.
The Victorian opposition has also announced it would be moving 18 amendments to the bill, including limiting extensions to pandemic declarations to one month, subject to a three-fifths majority vote of both houses of parliament, and the removal of the “characteristics” clause.
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy said the bill would hinder the state’s recovery from COVID-19.
“Having a great, big, new pandemic law to bring about more lockdowns is not a way to bring security or peace of mind to Victorians who have lived through the world’s longest lockdown,” he said.