Thank you, Acting Speaker. I am pleased to speak today on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension and Other Matters) Bill 2020. What an extraordinary year 2020 has been. Some of us have experienced recessions before—several of them—but not a pandemic such as this.
The impact of this pandemic has been worldwide, and it continues to be devastating. In the first few months of the pandemic there was almost universal support for the fact that our leadership both at a state and at a federal level had been outstanding, and while the lockdowns during the first wave were unprecedented and difficult to deal with, they were largely adhered to with an acknowledgement and a confidence that our governments were doing the best they could for us in the circumstances. But as time moved on we became aware that many mistakes were being made, that there were serious deficiencies in some of the areas of the management of the pandemic.
Early on we saw the disastrous results of the mismanagement by the New South Wales government of the Ruby Princess saga. We saw images of thousands of people pouring off the Ruby Princess, who then made their way to their homes across Australia, coming into contact with so many people along the way. We saw how the virus could and did spread. We saw the impact of the virus early on in aged care at Newmarch House and Dorothy Henderson Lodge in Sydney. The subsequent inquiry into the management of those outbreaks highlighted serious mismanagement and underlying problems that had not been addressed and which continue to be highlighted as the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety continues to sit.
Then here in Victoria we saw the second wave of the virus take hold, firstly in Melbourne and spreading out into regional Victoria. The inquiry into the hotel quarantine process is showing that there was poor organisation and mismanagement along many steps of the way. It is showing that employing unskilled, undertrained security guards was a poor decision and that they were not provided with the knowledge or training to keep the virus at bay.
We are now seeing this play out on a small scale in quarantine hotels in New South Wales. Both New South Wales and Queensland are now facing their own smaller outbreaks of coronavirus and are desperately trying to manage them without resorting to the very harsh lockdowns that Victorians have had to endure to control the spread of the virus.
We have seen that the majority of deaths in Australia have been in aged care—an aged-care system that federal governments have largely turned their back on, not demanded accountability from and allowed to fester for years to the extent that in a crisis such as this the aged-care facilities were poorly equipped and unable to deal with the wild spread of coronavirus.
So now we find ourselves at the end of a six-month period of a state of emergency. The government asks us to extend that period of the state of emergency and take us through another six months. The question is: why should we extend the powers of emergency? From members’ speeches so far it seems to me that most are in agreement that we cannot go from a stage 4 lockdown to no restrictions whatsoever.
There is a broad understanding that restrictions will be needed, that those returning from overseas will need to continue to quarantine, that the wearing of masks will need to be continued and that there will be restrictions on gatherings for some time yet. People are desperate to get back to normal, but most understand that this is not possible and that there will be a COVID normal, which will hopefully be much less restrictive going forward.
When this legislation was foreshadowed I was instantly opposed to the extension of the state of emergency for 12 months. I favoured a three-month extension, possibly up to six, but only on condition that Parliament resumed its sitting timetable throughout the remainder of that period, and more if necessary. We have seen the progress of the bill through the other place and are now presented with a bill that will enable the government to extend the state of emergency for a further six months.
The Independent member for Morwell has circulated amendments to the bill before the house, and I support those amendments for the reasons he has articulated. A further reason for supporting the extension of powers for only three months is that to me the ongoing scrutiny by Parliament and the reporting back to Parliament is essential. Parliament must now continue to meet every month in accordance with the existing timetable. We have found ways to meet this week, and adjustments can be made as we go forward.
The government must ensure Parliament meets. We must restore the confidence of Victorians. It is with the regular sitting of Parliament where the people’s voice can be heard that confidence will be restored. Should circumstances continue such that the chief health officer recommends regional members not travel to Melbourne to attend Parliament, then we must find a legislative or judicial solution that will enable those regional representatives to vote and to have that vote actually counted without being present in the Parliament. There are ways this can be done, and I urge the government, the opposition and others to come together in a bipartisan approach to ensure that it does occur. It cannot continue to be the case that regional electorates are deprived of having their elected members available in Parliament to vote, and we need to do something about that as soon as possible.
I also support the notice of motion given by the member for Morwell that is on the notice paper today. There is a need for a joint oversight committee, perhaps never more so than now as we work through the ongoing challenges that we are facing. We have the pandemic, we have an accompanying recession, and there is much work to be done as we move towards a recovery stage. It is not to be a committee set up to criticise the government; it is there to enable discussion, constructive planning and policymaking and to provide a forum whereby the government comes back, accounts for its actions and enables bureaucrats, the chief health officer and other agencies to report back so that Victorians know in detail what is happening.
The time for blame is not now. Blame does not alter the trajectory of the pandemic. It will distract us from future planning and the using of resources available to us to move forward. It is important to take advantage of the incredible knowledge and advances we have made since previous pandemics, especially the Spanish flu of 1919.
The Victorian parliamentary library has prepared an excellent research paper this year on epidemics and pandemics in Victoria. It is interesting to see how in some ways history can repeat itself and to note that when Parliament resumed in July 1919 the government was faced with a strident attack from the opposition over its handling of the crisis. Critics said that the Parliament should have been consulted earlier and criticised the shortage of nurses and inconsistent messaging. Some members attacked the ineffectiveness of regulations that closed bars and hotels and caused unemployment. Doctors and the public argued over the most effective methods to combat the pandemic, especially the wearing of masks and inoculation.
Having the capacity to declare a state of emergency going forward will be very important for the government. We have seen what happened in New Zealand—102 days with no active cases reported, and then suddenly an outbreak. No-one is immune from this virus. The New South Wales government had the powers it needed to act, and it did so swiftly.
While we are being challenged now by the virus itself, we know that there will be many challenges ahead associated with the economic fallout that is occurring and that more is to come. I fear for many in my community who are suffering from the impacts of this pandemic, whether it be the impact on their businesses, on their health, including their mental health, or on the prospect of future unemployment.
I know the pain that has been suffered by those who have lost family members, some from coronavirus, and who have not been able to be there with their loved one as they died or to appropriately honour them at a funeral service. Australians and Victorians in particular have shown great resilience and trust, and we all come together wanting to see this virus defeated and perhaps find new and better ways of doing things in the future.
I rarely quote from others, but the words of a medical historian, Michael Bresalier, resound with great common sense when we look at this situation. He has commented on previous pandemics, and he concludes, in relation to this one:
We are in a better position than ever before to tackle this pandemic. We have the science, medical technology, and systems to mitigate its impact. But they will not be effective without political will, cooperation, and the sharing of vital medical and scientific resources … Putting COVID-19 in historical perspective reminds us that each pandemic brings with it unique problems—