Second Reading: Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension and Other Matters) Bill 2020

This is one of the most important bills I have spoken on in this place, and this bill will have the biggest impact on the lives of Victorian people that any of us will probably make in this place. I support the amendments moved by the Leader of the Opposition because they ensure that the rights of Victorians are protected and put in place appropriate scrutiny of decisions that will impact the lives of Victorians by the people they have democratically elected to represent them.

I want to make it clear from the outset that under no circumstance do I believe we should do nothing to manage this pandemic—I want to make that very clear. There will be some measures that we will have to put in place that will be with us for some time. As a nurse of some 30 years experience I have a decent understanding of viruses and their transmission, and I know that a virus like this needs to be managed. I have said right from the outset of this pandemic there will be virus cases, outbreaks and clusters until we get a vaccine, and the way these outbreaks are managed is the key.

But those measures need appropriate scrutiny, and the best way to do that is by this place sitting every month to allow the elected representatives of the community to make these decisions—not unelected bureaucrats—clearly after advice from the experts has been delivered and considered. Discussions like ‘suppress or eliminate’ are a debate that is not being had. The community are not even aware of what the strategy is. It is all being decided by those who are not willing to share the rationale, put the evidence in place or tell us how the data stacks up. That is why I support the amendments that propose a month-to-month extension and that require the Parliament to sit and approve those extensions.

When you see examples like the farmers markets, where at 8.30 on a Thursday night, I think it was, a decision was made and all those who were ready and geared up to have their produce ready for sale were told that the farmers market was cancelled, to then 35 minutes later have that decision turned around because of the pressure, it shows you there is not an evidence-based, planned approach. There are decisions being made on the fly, and that is not how good decisions are made. In here with good decisions—that is where debate should occur.

This bill proposes to lengthen the total period from six months of emergency to another six months. It was originally 12, now six. Whether it is three or whatever, it should not be lengthened without the month-to-month oversight. There is also a push in clause 6, which I support the removal of, to make something, instead of being ‘necessary’, ‘reasonably necessary’. Now, you have a think about that. On first thought it does not seem much different, but when you think it through there is a very big difference. It gives the chief health officer a wider scope to keep restrictions in place, even if there is not the evidence to suggest that we need to have those restrictions still in place. It is just one man’s decision with very, very little oversight or no oversight. There is no evidence provided; it is just his opinion.

I do not think I have had more contact about a piece of legislation in my five years as a member in this place on any other issue. My emails are being flooded. My phone is running off the hook both in the office and my personal phone. People are deeply concerned about how this pandemic has been managed and do not understand how Victoria is now in this position. The way the Premier has gone about seeking this extension has angered people. The Premier has known that the clause that caps a state-of-emergency declaration was going to be an issue for months now, but rather than consult he stands up at a media conference and lectures people about what they have done wrong and tells them it is because he needs these powers. He waited until the last minute to do anything and has pushed this through the Parliament, no doubt with some sort of dodgy deal with the Greens and the minor parties in the other place. Rather than telling people how he is going to bring us out of this crisis, the Premier said, ‘Give me the power first, and then I’ll tell you’, and that has angered people.

The community recognise we are in this position because of the failings of this government to properly manage hotel quarantine and contact tracing. That is how the virus got back in the community, and they know that the government’s response to and management of the clusters and outbreaks has been poor. That is why in my region we did not wait when there were cases; we just got on and got it done. The people, the businesses and the local health services worked cohesively and very well.

In Portland two outbreaks have been managed expertly by Portland District Health under the leadership of Christine Giles and the unwavering support of her team and the local community. The same thing happened in Warrnambool when a cluster developed. South West Healthcare CEO Craig Fraser and his team managed the situation incredibly well. These two health services did not sit around and wait for the government to tell them what to do; they got on with it, and they knew what needed to be done. Contacts were traced quickly and put into isolation. Businesses acted immediately, proactively closing and testing all their staff and isolating close contacts.

What could have been explosive outbreaks like we have seen in Melbourne did not grow out of control, because the local health services, businesses and community knew what had to be done and got on and worked together and did it. And when one of the initial positive cases in Portland proved difficult to contact trace for a variety of reasons, Portland District Health made testing more accessible to the community in high-profile locations—a nimble and flexible response. They were open and honest and gave the community the information they needed, something else we have seen lacking from the Premier’s approach.

We had businesses like Midfield Meats take proactive steps when there was potential exposure to a positive case. They shut down the production for three days and tested every single member of their staff, despite the department’s advice that they could continue. Midfield had also taken extensive proactive measures before the exposure, including extensive cleaning and PPE, but they were rewarded by government ignoring them, not picking up the phone, not talking to one of the largest abattoirs in our state, and found out that they had to compromise their business by cutting 30 per cent of production without any consultation. It was appalling, and we had to work very hard to get some sensible outcomes for that business, which employs many people in my community—the largest employer in the private sector—to actually be able to continue. No consultation, just an order from above.

A local hairdresser in Port Fairy had a staff member test positive and again proactively closed and tested contacts and contact traced herself, despite the department saying she could continue. The same thing happened in Heywood. They did not wait; they got on and got it done.

I keep saying I am incredibly impressed by the way our hospitals and businesses and community have responded, but I am not surprised, because it is what our community always does very well. Unfortunately, though, despite the exceptional response locally, a Portland man in his 50s died from the virus. I want to put on the record my deepest condolences to the man’s wife and his children and to his friends and colleagues, who will still be feeling the shock of this loss.

I want to make it very clear that the results in my part of the world are not because of this government’s response; they are because of local people getting on and doing the work. To highlight just how little impact the government’s response had on controlling clusters in my electorate, I want to share this with you. I spoke with a person in the Portland region who had been identified as a close contact and subsequently tested positive themselves. Their first contact with the Department of Health and Human Services was 10 days after they were confirmed positive. That contact was telling them that they needed to isolate and start the process of contact tracing. They had already been in isolation. They had done all the contact tracing, and if they had not done that, that is when we would have seen explosions. I repeat: this happened 10 days after that positive test.

Thankfully the team at Portland District Health was on top of the situation. They identified all the close contacts with the person involved. The initial positive case in the first couple of days was isolated and asked to be tested, as were all the people around them. The person who had tested positive also did their own contact tracing and isolation. Can you imagine what would have happened if we relied on the government’s response? The cases in Portland and indeed Warrnambool would have exploded, and our small community’s mighty hospitals could have been overrun and unable to cope with the demand. There is a lot to be learned from these localised responses, and I hope the minister and the department look at this closely and take it on board.

Victoria is in this mess because of the failings of this government. It was the government who let the virus out of hotel quarantine and poorly managed the subsequent outbreaks, and the second wave is gripping Victoria—not Australia, but Victoria. Other states are now returning to normal while Victorians are locked in their homes. Now we are back here with government asking for another six months and asking for us to trust them to get it right. No, sorry; I will be supporting the opposition’s amendments to protect the rights and freedoms of Victorians and ensure that decisions are being made properly and properly scrutinised and there is appropriate accountability in place. We must manage the virus, but the way this government is managing it is not okay.