THE state government has agreed to a compromise on its plans for extended state of emergency powers, The Age newspaper was reporting on Thursday.
Premier Daniel Andrews on Monday announced the government would move to extend the state of emergency for up to 12 months, sparking strong opposition from a number of quarters.
Upper house crossbench MPs had indicated they would vote with the Coalition when parliament returned next week, scuttling the government’s plans.
Health Minister Jenny Mikakos has been trying to reach a deal with crossbench MPs to extend the state’s power to renew the COVID-19 state of emergency beyond September 13.
The Age reported as a compromise, the government offered to accept a six-month extension of its powers, instead of the 12 months it wanted, among other concessions.
It reported “sources with knowledge of the talks” confirmed that Ms Mikakos suggested a six-month extension, with the government to produce the health advice each time it renewed its state of emergency powers every four weeks.
The government will need to pass amendments to the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 through both houses of parliament to enable public health directions to be enforced beyond September 13, when the state of emergency is currently set to expire.
Labor controls the lower house, but needs the support of at least four non-Labor MPs for the amendments to pass the upper house.
Some of the key public health protections required to manage the pandemic are only available when a state of emergency has been declared under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 – such as mandatory face coverings, requiring workplaces to have a COVIDSafe Plan and the current and former restrictions that have helped slow the spread of the virus.
Since being introduced in March 2020, the state of emergency has been extended six times, but under current legislation it can only remain in place for a total of six months.
The state government had been seeking amendments to the Act which would have allowed the state of emergency to be in place for a total of up to 18 months – encompassing the six months these arrangements have already been in place, with an extra 12 months to help ensure we see out the other side of this pandemic.
“Without a vaccine, this pandemic is far from over,” Mr Andrews said earlier in the week.
“These legislative changes will mean we continue to have the right protections in place until it is.
“From face coverings to density limits – these measures are fundamentally about keeping every single Victorian safe.”
But the state Opposition vowed to oppose the extension of the state of emergency, which leader Michael O’Brien labelled as a “power grab”.
“This is the act of a Premier whose power has gone to his head,” he said.
“We will stand with Victorians whose rights and freedoms are threatened by this extraordinary power grab.
“Daniel Andrews caused this second wave by his government’s incompetence managing hotel quarantine, and now he wants to extend his power without being accountable for it.
“Victorians deserve democracy, they deserve accountability, they deserve transparency, but instead what we get from Daniel Andrews is another attempt to extend his power over the lives of Victorians.”
Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien said a 12-month extension would mean extraordinary power over Victorian lives would be placed in the hands of the Premier and a small number of un-elected officials.
“No oversight. No accountability,” he said on Facebook.
“There’s no argument that public health must be a priority, but we can’t keep shutting down our economy and our society indefinitely.
“We have to look at other ways to protect the vulnerable, ensure the health system can cope, and allow our society to function.
“To learn to live with this virus until there (hopefully) is a vaccine.”
Gippsland East MLA Tim Bull said the government’s proposal for a 12-month extension was “over the top”.
However Eastern Victoria MLC Harriet Shing said extending the state of emergency would not change how long the current lockdown would last or increase restrictions.
“At the moment, the rules we rely on to keep Victoria safe – things like face coverings, requiring workplaces to have a COVIDSafe plan, and mandatory isolation for people who have tested positive to coronavirus – are only possible when a state of emergency has been declared,” she said.
“The state of emergency essentially gives government the ability to implement the protections needed to keep Victorians safe.
“Without it, these changes could take weeks or months to pass through parliament – but in a health crisis like this, where the situation changes daily, that just isn’t workable.”
Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation state secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick called on opposition and crossbench MPs to pass the extension of the state of emergency law.
“The state of emergency law has provided the Chief Health Officer and the Victorian government the ability to compel us all to follow measures that are bringing the spread of the virus under control and saving the lives of our health care workers and many more Victorians,” she said.