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12 March 1991 - Current

Page 1227
23 April 2020
ASSEMBLY Second reading Steph Ryan

Ms RYAN (Euroa)

When Victorians step through the doors of this place, one of the first things they see is the quote from Proverbs inscribed into the floor of the foyer: ‘Where no counsel is, the people fall, but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety’.

In these extraordinary times, the Andrews government has granted itself unprecedented powers.

This includes directions which confine Victorians to their homes, prevent them from associating with other people and from moving freely. Furthermore, it has granted the police broad discretion in how these directions are enforced.

The COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020, which is being debated in less than an hour and with no consultation with the wider public, makes further changes, the like of which we have never seen in this state.

The suspension of jury-based trials, for example, revokes someone’s right to be tried by a jury of their peers. This principle is part of the bedrock of our legal system and has existed for centuries.

The bill also grants the government the power to bypass and override decisions of the Parliament by giving sweeping power to enact legislative changes by regulation, and it allows for these measures to continue beyond the sunsetting of this bill.

The other legislation to be passed in this very short sitting of the Parliament grants the Andrews government the ability to borrow an extra $24.5 billion in the blink of an eye.

Labor has again rejected any additional oversight measures of how and where that money will be spent.

That we are being asked to pass these measures with no opportunity to consult with the public should be a cause of alarm for every single Victorian.

We recognise that extraordinary steps are needed to protect people’s lives in these very difficult times, but the fact that they are so very extraordinary makes it all the more necessary for appropriate accountability and rigorous checks and balances to be put in place.

In a few short weeks we have seen the Premier and his government begin the process of progressively dismantling the very structures which scaffold our democracy. That must not be left unchallenged.

Labor says that the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee—a committee which it controls—is an appropriate mechanism to oversight these extraordinary and unprecedented powers.

This is in direct contrast to what is occurring in other states and other jurisdictions, including both the federal and New Zealand parliaments, where genuine oversight committees with a non-government chair and a non-government majority have been put in place.

This approach was adopted by the federal government after six judges, including former High Court Justice Mary Gaudron, suggested Canberra adopt New Zealand’s approach of setting up an all-party select committee of Parliament to scrutinise the government’s responses to the pandemic.

I am gravely concerned by the Premier’s flat refusal to establish such a committee and his dogged rejection of the checks and balances necessary to make the government and the executive accountable to the people.

In fact, the Premier has gone even further to concentrate power in the hands of a few by sidelining many of his cabinet ministers and instead creating a gang of eight who are now charged with making all of the decisions in relation to this pandemic.

In New Zealand the committee is chaired by the opposition leader and has the power to compel witnesses, including government ministers, and subpoena documents. In New Zealand the government acknowledges this is vitally important. The Leader of the House, Chis Hipkins, has stated:

… scrutiny during this unprecedented time, when the Government is placed in the position of exercising such extraordinary powers, has never been more important.

When Mary Gaudron called for such a body to be established for the federal Parliament she said that the national cabinet:

… is fulfilling a vital national role. But the circumstances are not such as to require that its decisions are free of oversight, particularly as new and wide discretionary powers have been conferred on ministers of the Commonwealth.

The same can equally be applied to Victoria’s handling of this pandemic.

Today the Premier was asked to strengthen accountability by putting an oversight committee in place. When he turned to the opposition leader and said, ‘I’m not interested in what you think’, he was not dismissing the opposition leader; he was dismissing the thousands of people that the opposition leader represents and speaks for in the Parliament.

Anyone who thinks this is about parties or individuals is wrong. It is about preserving the voice of the people and protecting the foundations and the legal principles upon which our Parliament and our very democracy are built.

There is great danger in the precedent that is being set by the Andrews government. Even if you have supreme confidence in the small number of people in whom this power is not concentrated, what happens in the future when a future government or a future Premier relies on the precedent established to override the Parliament and elected representatives?

The unchecked power the Andrews government is handing itself poses this very real question for all of us: what happens when it is someone you do not agree with?

The construction of a totalitarian state does not happen overnight; it is an evolution. The erosion of people’s rights and the concentration of power occurs by degrees, often brought about by circumstances with a seemingly legitimate basis.

There is another old proverb, perhaps in these circumstances just as apt as that which is inscribed into the floor of this place: ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’. As parliamentarians we have a duty to protect the freedom and the voice of those we are elected to serve.