Image by William WEST / AFP
Victoria’s state government has won a six-month extension of its emergency powers, allowing the chief health officer to continue issuing legally binding health directives to help contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Under current laws, a state of emergency can last for a maximum of six consecutive months—meaning Victoria’s COVID-induced state of emergency, which commenced on March 16, was fast approaching its expiry date. That being the case, Premier Daniel Andrews made a controversial appeal to Parliament in August for a permanent, 12-month legislative change prolonging state of emergency powers. Many criticised Andrews’ proposal, suggested that it constituted power-hungry overreach.
Following some amendments to the bill, a clarification of the technical details, and a marathon Parliamentary debate that lasted from 9PM Tuesday to 2AM Wednesday, Victoria’s upper house finally decided to extend the government’s state of emergency powers on a one-off, rather than a permanent basis—granting them a further six months.
The extended state of emergency power allows the Victorian Government to continue enforcing physical distancing and isolation requirements as well as other directions from the chief health officer—with people facing on-the-spot fines of up to $20,000 for breaching stay at home directions.
This does not mean Victoria will remain in lockdown for another six months. Rather, it means that the executive decision-making powers will remain in the hands of a small few—most notably the chief health officer—and such decisions will not need to go through Parliament.
The amended bill is specific to the COVID-19 pandemic and includes additional transparency measures, according to Health Minister Jenny Mikakos, who described it as “the most important bill … in the 21 years I have been in the Victorian Parliament”.
Mikakos denied suggestions the bill would give additional powers to the chief health officer or the government.
“We have an ongoing public health emergency. The case numbers are trending down but we know there is still some way to go,” Mikakos told Parliament. “This is about extending the time to exercise the current powers under the Health and Wellbeing Act. This pandemic will not be finished in two weeks’ time, it won’t in fact be finished in six months, this will be going into 2021 because we know in all likelihood there will be no vaccine …. within that six-month period.”
As part of the compromise deal, Mikakis agreed to provide Parliament with the chief health officer’s advice each time the government renews the state of emergency. Under the current laws renewals are required once a month.
The bill now just needs to pass the lower house, where Andrews’ Labor government has a large majority, later this week.
It is as yet unclear how the extension of these powers will affect Victoria’s current lockdown restrictions—stage four in Melbourne and stage three in greater Victoria—which are set to end on September 13. Andrews announced this week that the state government will release its plans on Sunday to move Victoria out of those restrictions.
The state recorded 90 new coronavirus cases and six deaths on Wednesday.
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