MORE than a year into the pandemic, why the COVID cover-up in Victoria? As far back as March 19, 2020, I asked then health minister, Jenny Mikakos: “What we need and what I want the minister to do is to commit to publishing the reasons, the background papers, the decisionmaking documents and the literature searches, the information from overseas — all of these items that are relied upon by the Chief Health Officer to make (his) decisions and the advice that is given to government” .
No such commitment was given and none of the documents have subsequently been published. Labor has hidden these critical documents. Why?
The truth is there are public health orders that are gazetted and have the force of law under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act (PHWA). These are made by the CHO or his delegate under the principles of that Act. These COVID-19 orders are supported by detailed briefings.
The often ramshackle nature of the process under this government, government by press conference, does not diminish the fact that the orders and briefings supporting them exist.
The Premier obfuscates at his press conferences, which don’t provide the structured legal documents that sit behind each of the PHOs.
A request for information supporting such is consistent not just with the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, but with the view that Victorians should not be deprived of liberties capriciously or without due process.
The extraordinary powers provided to the CHO are necessarily exercised from time to time in the interests of public health, but the quid pro quo is that the powers in the Act are to be exercised within its parameters.
The principles are in effect a check, a balance, against the capricious or arbitrary use of these powers. This is an important transparency and accountability measure.
An Upper House order of September 2, 2020 required the tabling of all briefs provided to or signed by the Victorian CHO, or his delegate and all briefs provided to or signed by the health minister relating to the public health and other orders made under the PHWA and other Acts up until August 20, 2020. The Upper House further ordered on September 16 the tabling of copies of the briefs and other material upon which the decision to impose a curfew was based.
On October 30, 2020 the Upper House directed, prospectively, that within 48 hours of an order being made during the period in which the state of emergency remained in operation, all briefs provided to or signed by the Victorian CHO or his delegate and all briefs provided to or signed by the health minister relating to the public health and other orders made under the PHWA be tabled.
The Attorney-General responded to each document’s order stating that the due date for the production of documents did not allow sufficient time for the government to respond. There has been no further formal communication. Silence for a year.
As COVID-19 case numbers and avoidable fatalities surged midyear after Labor’s hotel quarantine debacle, with daily cameo press conferences held by the Premier and the CHO continuing, as more and more draconian orders were introduced and, as the economic and social damage escalated, the need for greater scrutiny and examination of government decision making became stronger.
In short, the exercise of great power, albeit in emergency circumstances, required great scrutiny. This scrutiny was not possible through normal parliamentary channels. Labor closed down the Lower House.
Freedom of information requests became one of the few channels where the truth could be sought in the public interest. Pressed on March 2 this year as to why the government had not provided the briefings, the leader of the government in the Upper House said: “My advice is that the legal services are currently collating the documents to be provided to the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office. The advice is that it is likely to be in excess of 7000 pages, and an estimate on the time frame for responding to the order is under consideration. The response will likely have to be in tranches.”
Victorians are entitled to see in full the formal reasons for every PHO. After all, 801 Victorians died because of Andrews government incompetence. It is outrageous that Melburnians were clamped by curfew, rings of steel, restricted to within a 5km radius of their homes, the devastating business closures, the unprecedented schooling restrictions — all sharply curtailed economic and social activity.
I do not argue that these restrictions were all unnecessary. Many of these were necessary.
But, as required by legislation, PHOs must be driven by science, transparent and consultative. They must above all be proportionate.
The only way to be sure the right decisions are made is to see these background briefings. Yet not a single brief referred to in any of the Upper House directions, nor sought under FOI, has been made public.
Their release is being fiercely contested by the Andrews government before VCAT, but one salient question remains: why the cover-up ?
DAVID DAVIS IS LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL
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