Legal groups have warned against Victoria’s plan to extend its state of emergency by 12 months, arguing that to comply with human rights obligations parliament should favour the “most limited possible option” when granting extraordinary powers.
Victorian law currently allows the government to declare a state of emergency for four weeks at a time and to extend that declaration for up to six months.
The state government declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic on 16 March and has renewed it six times in four-week increments.
The current state of emergency declaration expires on 13 September – three days before the six-month time limit expires.
On Monday the premier, Daniel Andrews, said he would ask parliament to extend the allowable period for a state of emergency to 12 months, and then renew it, allowing Victoria to remain in a state of emergency until September next year.
Separately, he indicated the AFL grand final would be held outside Melbourne for the first time.
It comes as Victoria recorded 15 deaths and 116 new Covid cases, the lowest daily increase in case numbers in seven weeks. To date, 517 people have died in Australia after testing positive to Covid-19, including more than 400 in Victoria’s second wave.
NSW recorded three new cases, two in hotel quarantine and one person who was a close contact of a previously identified case. Also, a hotel quarantine security guard who tested positive for Covid-19 last week was fined twice for allegedly breaching self-isolation rules. One case was recorded in Queensland.
The state of emergency declaration, made under Victoria’s Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008, allows the chief health officer to issue enforceable public health directions – like the stay at home orders, rules around mass gatherings, the requirement that people with the virus self-isolate, and the requirement to wear face masks.
The requirement for international travellers to self-isolate for 14 days is also enforced under the state of emergency powers.
“We simply can’t have those important rules and the legal framework that sits behind them, we cannot have that end on 13 September because this will not have ended on 13 September,” Andrews told reporters.
Andrews said it was “not an unlimited extension” and the government would continue to have to apply the order in four-week blocks. But he said that if a vaccine is not found by September 2021, it may need to be extended again.
“If there is a vaccine before then, or if circumstances change dramatically, you would always adjust your rules, according to that,” he said. “But I think we have to accept that this is with us for a considerable time in one form or another.”
Isabelle Reinecke, the executive director of the Grata Fund, which is part of a group monitoring the laws introduced under Covid-19, said that while she believed the Andrews government was acting with public health in mind, the underlying principle of emergency powers is that parliaments should enact “the most limited possible option” to minimise the impact on human rights.
Reinecke said the government could ask parliament to allow it to extend the state of emergency for a further six months, and then ask for another extension in March should it prove necessary. That would be less efficient, she said, but preferable to being in a situation where the parliament “let things slide for convenience rather than really holding itself strongly to the highest standard of democracy”.
“What we don’t want is for them to give themselves 12 months, it only goes for another four months, and then it is on the government themselves to give up the power,” she said.
Anthony Kelly from the Police Accountability Project said he had seen “too many incidents of discriminatory policing,” including the hard lockdown of nine public housing towers, to be comfortable with a 12-month extension. “Until the government is able to guarantee a genuinely respectful, health-led response to the crisis, that fully complies with international human rights standards, then short-term extensions will be safer for all of us,” he said.
The proposed extension would not apply to the more serious state of disaster laws, which Victoria has been living under since the stage four lockdown was introduced on 2 August.
The state opposition has indicated it will not support the proposed extension. Andrews has appealed to crossbenchers to “protect public health”.
The health minister, Jenny Mikakos, said the Victorian government would start releasing public data about the location of coronavirus outbreaks and naming “high risk locations,” rather than just general figures on the number of active cases per local government area. It will bring Victoria in line with other states, which have for months been publicly listing locations visited by active Covid-19 cases.
“For example, people will be able to search and see if a known case has been in the local shopping centre, local cafe, workplace or another location,” Mikakos said.
There are now 3,731 active Covid-19 cases in Victoria, of which 1,568 are connected to aged care and 476 are healthcare workers. Andrews again delayed the release of data around whether healthcare workers contracted the virus at work or in the community, which was due to be released last week, saying it was a “considerably bigger piece of work” than originally thought and would be released “over the next few days”.
Source: The Guardian