Greens back state of emergency extension, secure reform for disadvantaged communities

Australian Greens

The Victorian Greens have secured a reduction in COVID fines for young people, a commitment to review fines given to disadvantaged communities, an appeal process for detention orders, and a confirmation of the right to protest, following successful negotiations with the government.

The Greens have also secured a commitment that specific legislation will be developed for managing COVID-19 in nine months’ time.

On this basis, the Greens will support the government’s proposed nine-month extension to the state of emergency.

While the Greens have backed a public health-led response to the pandemic, we have had several concerns about the ways the state government has implemented it.

These concerns include heavy-handed policing and the disproportionate impacts of lockdown on disadvantaged members of the community, including public housing residents, people of colour and young people from low-income backgrounds.

With the government seeking to extend the timeframe in which the Chief Health Officer is able to continue to implement public health measures, the Greens have been negotiating with the government about changes to ensure people’s rights are protected while also keeping people safe from COVID-19.

We have had constructive discussions with the Health Minister in recent weeks and have agreed on a number of reforms that now give us confidence in supporting the government’s proposed nine-month extension to the state of emergency.

The reality is the pandemic isn’t over, and we appreciate the need for the Chief Health Officer to continue to make appropriate public health decisions based on expert advice, to keep Victorians safe.

While the virus remains a global threat, we’re going to need measures like hotel quarantine, social distancing and rules around mask wearing to reduce the risk of transmission in the community.

Through our discussions with the government, we are pleased to have secured the following important outcomes for the Victorian community:

  • Going forward, fines for breaching health directions for people under 18 will be reduced by roughly half, and set at a maximum of five penalty units, the amount enforceable by the Children’s Court.
  • The government has committed to ensuring Fines Victoria will review all COVID fines for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, including people who experience homelessness, people with mental illness, and people from low-income backgrounds, including young people. We expect these reviews to relieve many people of the burden of excessive COVID fines.
  • The government will implement one of the key recommendations of the Ombudsman’s report into the public housing lockdown, ensuring anyone subject to a ‘detention order’ (as public housing residents were during the hard lockdown) can appeal this within 24 hours.
  • The government has also now publicly clarified the right to protest during the pandemic for the very first time, by releasing guidelines on its coronavirus website. This is an important back down from the government, as it has previously sought to deter public protest. The right to protest is fundamental to any democracy and a key way members of the community have a voice, and allowing public protest was a key element of our negotiations with the Government.

The Greens have also secured a commitment for alternative legislation which will replace state of emergency powers with public health powers for the ongoing control of the pandemic, particularly if vaccine-resistant variants emerge. States of emergency will no longer need to be declared once this is enacted.

As stated by Leader of the Victorian Greens, Samantha Ratnam MLC:

“When I came back from maternity leave last year to vote for the state of emergency extension, it wasn’t a decision I took lightly.

“At the time the Greens recognised the ongoing need for the Chief Health Officer to make public health decisions to keep Victorians safe, but we were also concerned about the impacts these restrictions were having on disadvantaged communities.

“Public housing residents were being locked up without notice, young people were being slapped with fines they had no realistic prospect of paying, and protestors were consistently being threatened with fines or arrest.

“That’s why I haven’t taken our decision lightly this time around either. For weeks I’ve spoken with the Health Minister about our concerns, and am today pleased that the government has agreed to address them.

“While COVID is still a risk in the community we must continue to keep people safe, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of people’s democratic rights and rights to social justice.

“That’s why the Greens will support a nine-month extension to the state of emergency, on the proviso that we work on new laws that mean this is the last time the state of emergency is used for COVID in Victoria, and on the condition that the Government reduces fines for young people and implements important recommendations from the Ombudsman’s inquiry into the public housing lockdown.”

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