Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension) Bill 2021 - Legislation

18 February 2021

I too join my colleagues to speak on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension) Bill 2021. I would like to join my colleagues the member for St Albans and the member for Footscray in reflecting upon friends who are living a long, long way away from Australia at the moment. The member for Footscray talked about family and friends in the UK and San Francisco, and the member for St Albans talked about family living in the UK. Well, I am going to talk about some great friends of the Connolly family that live in Paris. We had many, many conversations last year with them—living the dream in Paris. Well, last year I can tell you was an absolute nightmare for them. What struck me most about the situation they were facing there in Paris during a very, very extreme lockdown—I think they even had the military in the streets checking people as they left their homes—was that the hospitals in Paris were so full of sick people with COVID, they were shipping them out into regional and rural France, to hospitals many, many kilometres away from their family and friends. That was because the hospitals in Paris could not cope.

Now, the sole purpose of this bill is to extend the state of emergency for a further nine months. I recall last year when we were right here and we debated an extension of the state of emergency we compromised on a six-month extension, with the Premier then being called at the time a dictator from every angle of right-wing Victoria, including here in this chamber. After listening to the debate here this afternoon all I can say is, ‘Here we go again’. No sooner had we introduced this bill two weeks ago than the media and every other opponent of our government started going on about a ‘power grab by Dictator Dan’. I was really hoping over Christmas and the new year that we had reached a point where this kind of petty pandemic politics and fearmongering had ceased. I think today what I have seen is that that is actually not the case. It is still here, and those opposite still continue to play down in the weeds.

It is also fair to say that the last few days alone are proof enough that the amendments in this bill are needed. Because what we have learned, despite those opposite thinking that the virus will soon be over, is that the virus is far from being over and that it remains a threat to our state and our communities. We have only to look to countries like the United States and the situation they have found themselves in. Hundreds of thousands of people are now dead—people that should not be—and this could have been prevented. This is exactly what our Premier every single day is getting up and working so hard for Victoria to ensure—to ensure we do not end up in a situation like in the United States. We know that the virus is mutating into more infectious strains like the one from the UK that we are fighting at this very moment, and we know that this strain is at least 70 per cent more contagious—to the point that once we have successfully identified a positive test result, their primary contacts are already infected.

And I wish I could say this was the worst of it. We know that the strain from South Africa is even more severe. The commonwealth’s chief health officer told us recently that this strain will become the dominant COVID strain in the world. It is an understatement at this point to say that the virus is still a clear and present danger, but that is why we have in place these types of arrangements with the state-of-emergency powers: to make sure that our government is well positioned to respond to outbreaks when they appear, just like we have successfully done in the past five days. Now, we have had three minor community outbreak scares in the last couple of months. Each time our government has been empowered to crack down with some restrictions, and each time it has worked. I thank Victorians for getting behind these restrictions and doing the right thing.

The last few weeks alone have been an example of what these state-of-emergency laws allow us to achieve. They are what have allowed us to close our borders to prevent interstate transmission should an outbreak arise. Now, the member for Warrandyte talked a little bit about closing the borders, and I can say from firsthand experience how difficult that was for many, many families. I was spending time with my family up in northern New South Wales; I had not seen them in 18 months. My home town is right up near the Queensland border. Now, my hubby and I had to cut our holiday short, and we drove back to Victoria. And, let me tell you, it was not a whole lot of fun. We were pretty grumpy there in the front seat of the car. But, looking back, we appreciate the gravity of the situation, because the Black Rock cluster that we saw take form on New Year’s Eve soon resulted in nearly 30 cases. If we had not acted quickly, it could have been even more. The reality is those border restrictions are there for a reason. I note that it was only quite recently that we finally removed the last hotspot in New South Wales from our travel restrictions.

I think we should all be agreeing that we cannot have a system where Victoria’s border is porous enough to allow the virus to sneak back into the community through interstate travel. Now, it is not going to be like this forever, but we need to have some perspective and we need to have some truth telling in this house. The truth telling is really important because the community is listening to us. They are listening to the things we talk about here—the things we argue about. We need them to remain vigilant. The member for Footscray just talked about a bumper sticker on a car encouraging people not to get tested. I mean, you know, it beggars belief how that kind of message ends up in the western suburbs on a bumper sticker—not to get tested. Now, if we were in a position where the state of emergency could no longer apply, we would not be able to stop potentially infectious people from entering our state. There it is; that is the reality of it.

Another thing that our state-of-emergency powers do is help facilitate a hotel quarantine program. A lot has been said about the cluster at the Holiday Inn hotel and the resulting circuit-breaker that we have just come out of. But if the last couple of months have shown us anything, it is that no state quarantine program, no matter how efficient or how ironclad it seems to be, is immune from a breach, because we have seen a hotel quarantine breach in nearly every single state jurisdiction in a matter of months. We have seen it in New South Wales, in South Australia, in Queensland and in WA. I am not saying this—I am not pointing this out—to knock those other state governments, who are trying to do the best they can in what is a terrible, terrible situation. They are with us in this fight against the virus. No-one—no-one—wants to be like the US. No-one wants to be in the situation I just talked about in Paris, where they are shipping very sick people out into regional and rural France. Just like us they are doing what they can to keep their communities safe, but unlike us none of them have a time limit on their state-of-emergency laws. Now, we do, and even after this bill is passed we still will have a time limit on these laws. We once again have a functioning hotel quarantine program running in Victoria, and until the vaccine is fully rolled out to all Victorians we are going to keep needing that. The state-of-emergency laws are what facilitate this program and, most importantly, they are what is protecting Victorian families from catching and from spreading the virus.

Another reason why this extension is so important is that the state-of-emergency laws are what will allow us to ultimately facilitate the rollout of the vaccine to Victorians. Now, we are just weeks away from preliminary vaccinations for some of our most vulnerable workers, including our brave healthcare workers and hotel quarantine staff. And I think we can all agree that the vaccine cannot come soon enough, because again there will be no normal until enough of us get vaccinated.

This is an incredibly important bill before the house. I wish those opposite would support it. It would be working together. It would stop the playing of silly pandemic politics. It would help bring the community together, and it would get rid of bumper stickers in the western suburbs talking people out of getting tested. I wholeheartedly commend the bill to the house.