SPEAKING ON A BILL | COVID-19 OMNIBUS (EMERGENCY MEASURES) BILL 2020

Mr Melhem: I also rise to speak in support of the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020. I want to take the opportunity to commend the Andrews Labor government on taking proactive measures to support Victorians and ensure essential services are able to function efficiently and safely throughout this pandemic. COVID-19 is one of the gravest threats to public health that Victoria has ever faced. Around the world we are seeing health systems overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cases and the tragic human cost of failing to prevent the virus’s spread. Data modelling suggests that without preventative measures Victoria would be facing 9200 hospital admissions every day and as many as 36 000 deaths. This is why our response to the pandemic has been drastic and all-encompassing. As well, you know the response to this crisis has fundamentally altered the way in which we live. The measures we are taking are saving lives. The curve is flattening, but now is not the time for complacency. The temporary measures introduced as part of the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020 go a long way to supporting Victoria in expanding preventative and protective measures.

I will go briefly through some of the main elements of the bill. But it has been interesting listening to Mr Davis. I think on one hand he is supporting the bill, from my understanding. His biggest grudge is he does not get his own subcommittee, or his own committee, where he can chair it, presumably, and basically be David Davis. This morning our motion was put to establish a select committee, and that motion was dealt with. But obviously Mr Davis wants to have another go—fair enough. What I am worried about is that Mr Davis and his colleagues, and maybe some of the crossbenchers, want to use the day as ‘Let’s go and talk and talk and talk’—and we will be here until midnight—instead of focusing on the real issue. They are trying to sort of paint a picture that the matters contained in the bill are draconian measures that may be in comparison to the North Korean regime or the Chinese regime—that basically we are going to a dictatorship. Let us stick to the facts. The facts are that these are only technical issues to make life easier for Victorians and to give effect to decisions made by the national cabinet.

By the way, I want to congratulate the Prime Minister and also the leadership shown by our Premier, Daniel Andrews, throughout this epidemic. His leadership, to me, is second to none. He has led from the front. Having that united approach nationally has paid dividends, and it has saved many lives in this country and in this state. The Premier should be congratulated and so should the other premiers and chief ministers, and the Prime Minister and his team.

I do not think it is time to play politics. It is time to actually get behind the program, get behind the effort of the national cabinet—behind the Premier and this government—to make sure we continue the work we started a few months ago and to make sure we minimise the impact on Victorians and save lives. Hopefully before long we will be able to get back to some normality. The price we are going to pay economically is going to be huge. But do you know what—it is probably a small price in the scheme of things if we are going to manage to save many lives. It will be hundreds of lives, it will be thousands of lives, that we are going to save as a result of this. At the end of the day—yes, it is going to cost; it is going to hurt financially. But do you know what—if this is going to save one life, I think it is a great investment. But it is not going to save one life, it is going to save tens of thousands of lives. Look what happened in New York. Look what happened in Spain.

And, look, sure enough, I do not think anyone is happy with the current life we are living.

No-one is enjoying isolation. Some people probably do not want to spend too much time in the same house with their immediate family; sometimes they can drive you nuts. But to be able to go to work and perform our normal job, we have to do it differently.

The most tragic thing about the whole thing is that hundreds of thousands of Victorians and Australians will be without jobs. That is a big tragedy. But also nearly 80 people have lost their lives. The price is that we have to live in isolation and we have to change the way we do things—you are not able to do the things you have done. I can relate to that. Unfortunately I went through similar things when I was 10 years old in my birth country, Lebanon, when the civil war broke out. I was 10. I lived in a basement for months and months. It was hard. Bombs were coming down, but, hey, I survived and I am here. I think I have been very successful; I got over it.

Unfortunately with this enemy we cannot see it so we have to trust our leaders. Let us not paint a picture that Daniel Andrews and Scott Morrison are dictators—that they just want to use this as an opportunity to be like the leader of North Korea. That is not the case. I have trust and confidence in our leadership. They are doing the right thing.

Most importantly the chief medical officers are doing a great job. They are the ones who are setting the agenda, and rightly so. They are the ones who have actually saved thousands and thousands of lives. When Daniel Andrews makes a decision in relation to further measures or lockdowns he is guided by the advice he gets from the chief medical officer. Unfortunately people like Tim Smith from the other place attack the integrity of the chief medical officer—I think that is very low and I think that is uncalled for. I think we should respect their advice, because so far their advice has been good. It has saved a lot of lives and hopefully it will save many more lives.

Let me go through briefly in the next 7 minutes some of the changes this bill will actually put in place. It more or less confirms the decisions of the national cabinet. It talks about making some practical changes to allow the court system to basically function in a practical way, maintaining people’s access to justice. It is a bit like what we did this morning when we voted to change our standing orders to make sure the Parliament functions in an efficient manner and we are able to do our jobs. That is no different. What this bill does is basically allow our judiciary to perform their job and to make sure that the wheels of justice continue to turn, because we need a functioning justice system.

Let me reflect on what happened last night. Four police officers lost their lives while performing their duties. We had a driver doing 140 kilometres an hour. He needs to be dealt with. I cannot comment in relation to the truck driver because an investigation is ongoing. We need to make sure that our justice system is able to function. Yes, in some cases if they are able to run a trial where it is agreed between parties, or where it is possible to do so, they should be able to do that without a jury like other jurisdictions are able to do. I think videoconferencing is working pretty well. I think everyone has discovered that it is probably the way of the future. A lot of people are using that, including the legal system.

The bill also extends automatic cover for injured workers—which I think is very welcome—for a period of six months. In these cases their pay might have stopped halfway through the next six months, so I think that extending that is very welcome, to make sure we look after our injured workers.

In relation to residential tenancy reforms, I do not think anyone can argue against them. I know some other jurisdictions have talked about it. We are putting half a billion dollars to assist landlords and tenants to make sure that no-one is evicted in the next six months, and I think that protection is very welcome. The bill will give effect to that decision, and I do not think that anyone can disagree with that.

It also, in relation to some sort of pragmatic changes in relation to the Education and Training Reform Act 2006, allows for continued operation of education services by allowing for a flexible teacher registration renewal process, a more flexible process to renew registration of a training organisation et cetera. Another change is the commencement of the majority provisions of the Environment Protection Amendment Act 2018—it pushes that out from 1 July 2020 to 1 December 2021. And it also allows local governments to meet using videoconferencing, because otherwise they will not be able to function.

These are some of the changes this bill is providing. And going through it I cannot find anything there where Premier Daniel Andrews is going to be a dictator any day soon. Well let me tell you, if we are going to have a dictator I will have Daniel Andrews any day, because what he has actually done in the last few months to steer us through this period—standing up in front of the press on a daily basis with various ministers to brief Victorians on what has been done, what is proposed to be done et cetera. To me, he made himself available and accountable to the people of Victoria. He did not leave anything uncovered. He has basically been up-front and been truthful. Mr Davis talked about trust; I will tell you who Victorians trust—they trust Daniel Andrews. Would they trust David Davis or Michael O’Brien? I do not think so.

But look, we are all for accountability. I think it is very important, and that is why the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee is the right committee to actually deal with that. And I welcome Mr Limbrick’s appointment this morning to PAEC. We all know his view about government accountability, taxation and government expenditure. You could not ask for a better person to actually question the government on that.

And there is this argument about, ‘Oh, the government’s got five members out of 10—the casting vote—and the committee can’t operate’. That is absolute nonsense. I am the chair of a committee. It does not work like that in practice. Every single member of any parliamentary committee has got the same right as the chair or the deputy chair to ask questions. And these hearings are public hearings, so if the chair of a committee tries to shut the debate down, the whole world is going to know about it. You reckon that is going to happen? PAEC is established under our system to hold government to account, to hold ministers to account. By adding Mr Limbrick to it, by the government giving one of its positions, that is a welcome thing. Let us give them a go. And that reference is going to PAEC to make sure all ministers will be made accountable. PAEC has got very broad terms of reference, so they will do the job on behalf of the Parliament

A member interjected.

Mr Melhem: But, ‘No, we want a subcommittee now. No, we don’t want a select committee by the upper house. We want a subcommittee. Let’s call it the David Davis subcommittee’. It is just a tool that can be used by Mr Davis—a fishing expedition by Mr Davis. He is very well known for that.

Mr Finn: We’re not allowed fishing in Victoria.

Mr Melhem: Well, hopefully the fishing ban will be lifted soon, Mr Finn. I hope things will track in the right direction and we maintain the improvements we have had. So hopefully we will be able to ease some of these restrictions. So I just want to conclude by again—

Members interjecting.

Mr Melhem: Well, he talked about the gang of eight. I mean, Mr Davis failed to actually explain that the purpose of having the new described council is these ministers will be able to direct the 22 ministers to be able to specifically coordinate a response. Each of these ministers is given a responsibility to coordinate their response to COVID-19. Instead of having 22 you will have eight, but the cabinet process has not changed, and that will not change. The cabinet still meets every week.

Ms Crozier: The gang of eight.

Mr Melhem: The decisions are made by cabinet, not by ‘the gang of eight’. But, hey, do not let—

Ms Crozier: Not by the government.

Mr Melhem: Well, that is according to your principles; I do not think you would choose. But do not worry about the truth, because it does not matter for the Liberal Party.

So I commend the bill to the house.