Victorian Parliament protests
With some time spent in the city, I decided to go and have a look at the protest taking place outside the State Parliament in Melbourne.
The state government’s controversial Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021 has been a source of great controversy in Victoria since being introduced by Health Minister Martin Foley in late October. Its purpose is to enshrine in law certain pandemic management procedures currently enacted as part of the State of Emergency that has been used during this pandemic, but has to be regularly renewed.
The bill essentially moves the decision-making about pandemic management from the Chief Health Officer, who is an independent statutory office holder, to the Premier and Health Ministers who are MPs. The arguement for this is that they are elected and therefore accountable to the parliament and the people.
The crossbench in the upper house (Legislative Council) were unhappy with various aspects of the bill and obtained several significant changes including reductions in fines for breaching public health orders, a stronger threshold for declaring a pandemic, strengthened human rights protections, the right to protest to be enshrined in regulations, guaranteed resourcing for an independent oversight committee, faster publication and tabling of public health advice and orders and stronger powers for parliament’s Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee.
Nevertheless, many still have concerns. Victoria’s Ombudsman, Deborah Glass, says the proposed oversight committee lacks independence. Victorian Bar president Róisín Annesley QC told the ABC that there is a “lack of effective parliamentary control over the minister’s pandemic orders and the lack of provision for an independent review of authorised officers’ exercise of power”.
The most public of responses to the bill have been the protestors who have gathered outside on the steps of State Parliament. Whilst lawful, the protestors have shocked many with the use of horrifying symbols of vigilantism including a false gallows. Some in the opposition Liberal Party have stoked these vile sentiments.
It’s fair to say that Victorians are absolutely worn out after such a long period of lockdown. (I took this week off work because I am in desperate need of some respite myself). The struggle has taken its toll on everyone and is evidenced by less-than-civil aspects of public debate taking place at the moment.
Nevertheless, MPs of all persuasions are seeking to do the best to represent the interests of their constituents, whether they support this bill or oppose it. Some have reported being threatened, including the Premier. There is no place for this sort of conduct in a democracy. None.
I have mostly supported the government’s actions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as being both reasonable and neccessary to avoid widespread death. I think for the most part it has worked, but clearly has come at a cost to everyone’s mental health. That is a given. But I do have some concerns about the bill’s transfer of power to the Premier and Health Minister. I agree with others that there needs to be a very careful balance struck between granting such powers and ensuring there is sufficient oversight and review. Some of the provisions in the original bill were an obvious overreach such as the provision stating that people found guilty of “intentionally and recklessly” breaching public health orders would face two years in jail or a $90,000 fine.
What was not clear to me was whether the protests were composed of ‘ordinary’ people carrying legitimate concerns about powers that may be vested in two MPs or whether there was a “fringe” element at play. Many have suggested that ‘far right’ organisers have been involved, or anti-vaxxers.
So whilst in the city this morning, I decided to go to State Parliament and take a look. It was clear within seconds that this was a group of noisy fringe-dwellers; a collective of anti-vaxxers and anti-science sorts looking to create some noise. There was a heavy police presence and a barracade had been placed between the protestors and the parliament. I’d estimate that there was about 200 people there.
I was the only person with a mask (aside from the police). As I took photos and wandered about, no-one spoke to me. From my experience at previous protests (I have been to a few in my time), people are usually keen to have a chat and talk about what concerns them. Not so this time.
There was some offensive graffiti chalked on the signage and footpath and many banners were on display. Signs reading “freedom” or “kill the bill” or “Dictator Dan” were present. Sometimes a passer-by in a car would toot their support but it was not a representative cross-section of the Victorian community they were tooting to.
The upper house will debate this bill late into the night. We’ll know soon whether it passes and in what form. Let’s hope that there’s no further ugly scenes outside this state’s home of democracy; an institution that we must all cherish and nurture because it makes these protests and debate possible.
I suggest that protestors reconsider the appropriateness of the”dictator” term that has become so prevalent amongst this group who in all likelyhood have no real understanding of what that term really means. For one, it denies the right to protest.
Here’s hoping for a peaceful outcome.