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Death threats and nooses: How a pandemic bill sparked far-right protests

Outgoing President of Liberty Victoria, Julia Kretzenbacher on what the pandemic bill is really about, and why it sparked such an intense backlash.

Everyday for the past week hundreds of protesters have camped outside the Victorian Parliament, protesting a new bill that would extend the state’s public health orders, the tools used to combat the pandemic.

Some of the protesters are far-right extremists, who have threatened violence against politicians and brought nooses to the steps of the parliament. 

But opposition to the government’s proposed pandemic bill isn’t only coming from the far-right. It’s also been criticised by civil libertarians and human rights lawyers.

Today, outgoing President of Liberty Victoria, Julia Kretzenbacher on what the pandemic bill is really about, and why it sparked such an intense backlash.


Guest: Julia Kretzenbacher, outgoing President of Liberty Victoria.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

Everyday for the past week hundreds of protesters have camped outside the Victorian Parliament, protesting a new bill that would extend the state’s public health orders, the tools used to combat the pandemic.
 

Some of the protesters are far-right extremists, who have threatened violence against politicians and brought nooses to the steps of the parliament. 

 

But opposition to the government’s proposed pandemic bill isn’t only coming from the far-right. It’s also been criticised by civil libertarians and human rights lawyers.

 

Today, outgoing President of Liberty Victoria, Julia Kretzenbacher, on what the pandemic bill is really about, and why it’s sparked such an intense backlash.

 

It’s Thursday, November 18.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Julia, the Victorian parliament is currently debating these new pandemic laws. They seem to have caught a lot of people offside, including human rights experts, lawyers, the state Opposition, and also tens of thousands of protesters. Why did the government decide to introduce the pandemic bill in the first place? 

JULIA:
Yes. So over the last 18 months or so, the different directions that have been put in place and the different restrictions have been put in place under the state of emergency part of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act in Victoria. 

Archival tape -- Dan Andrews:
“We are declaring a state of emergency in Victoria under the public health and wellbeing act, that state of emergency will be effective from 12 noon today, and will run for four weeks.” 

JULIA:
Now, that part was never really drafted to be used for a longer period of time, and it's meant that it's really a blunt instrument with how it's been implemented. 

Archival tape -- Dan Andrews:
“So under the state of emergency that is being declared it is an offense under the public health and wellbeing act to not comply with the orders that have been made…”

JULIA:
One of the big concerns over the last 18 months from different people have been whether the balance has been struck correctly with human rights and also transparency. 

So the state of emergency expires on the 15th of December of this year, and really, there need to be laws in place to ensure that the types of protective factors that are in place continue. So QR check ins masks in high risk areas. Vaccine mandates. And asking people to isolate if they've tested positive. So that's one aspect of why it's important to have a pandemic specific part. 

The other benefit of having a pandemic specific part is that we've learnt lessons over the last 18 months and we've seen where things have gone wrong. And the new bill really has an emphasis on transparency and has an emphasis on human rights. 

RUBY:
Ok, so can you talk me through in some detail what was in that bill when it was first introduced, what were the most significant parts?

JULIA:
So in terms of the most significant changes, one of the biggest changes is that the power to declare a pandemic goes to the premier and then the power to make pandemic orders goes to the Minister for Health. 

Archival tape -- Dan Andrews:
“We said that there would be pandemic specific laws and that's exactly what we’ve introduced into the parliament, they are based on some other models in other parts of our country and the world but they go further…”  

JULIA:
Now that's still done with the consultation and on the advice of the chief health officer. But the chief health officer, him or herself, doesn't declare or advise that there should be a state of emergency or declare a state of emergency that is done by elected officials now. 

The other big change from the state of emergency powers is that there is an emphasis on transparency and emphasis on human rights.  

Archival tape -- Dan Andrews:
“They go further in many ways, in terms of scrutiny, oversight and transparents… They are the right set of arrangements and there’s been widespread consultation.” 

JULIA:
So as part of a declaration and when pandemic orders are made, the government has to publish the health advice that underpins that declaration or those orders, as well as publish a statement on how human rights are affected and whether the any limitation on human rights is justifiable under the charter and is consistent with the rights under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. So they're quite significant changes. 

Archival tape -- Dan Andrews:
“They also set us up having learnt many different things across the journey, for whatever that next pandemic might look like whenever that might be into the future…” 

JULIA:
Some of the other big changes and good changes are that private medical data and QR check in data is protected so it can't be accessed by Victoria police, and that's expressly included in the bill. 

And there's also going to be the appointment of an independent pandemic management committee, which will sort of oversee what is happening and give advice to the parliament and to the premier and health minister and report to the parliament about what's been going on.

RUBY:
Right - so you're saying there are some parts of this bill that will actually improve transparency. But what about the more contentious parts of the bill - the parts that have sparked criticisms, raised concerns.

 

JULIA:
Well, some of the contentious parts are that, for example, there doesn't need to be any cases of a pandemic in Victoria for a pandemic declaration to be made. So some people have said that's controversial because if there's no risk in Victoria, why declare a pandemic? 

Others are that the there's detention powers, which are similar to the emergency, the state of emergency powers, but there's no limit on the time that somebody can spend in detention or in isolation, so that is a concern to a lot of people that there's no time limit. 

Some people have said that the power given to the minister is too broad, that they can make any order as well. So they're some of the concerns that people have raised. 

RUBY:
And you can see, I suppose, why some of those things would be significant. Can you tell me a bit about who was raising these concerns and what they were saying about that?

JULIA:
Yes. So they were different organisations that have raised concerns. 

Archival tape -- 7:30 Report:
“I feel that when I see legislation that has made such significant inroads on civil liberties..” 

JULIA:
One of the organisations, for example, has been the Victorian bar. 

Archival tape -- 7:30 Report:
“and has such significant impacts on the operation of representative democracy that its incumbent on me and colleagues share my view to bring that to the attention of the public”  

JULIA:
They've been quite vocal in their opposition to parts of the legislation.

Archival tape -- 7:30 Report:
“I’ve been practicing law for 20 years and I’ve never seen 60 QCs sign a letter to express concerns about the operation of legislation.” 

JULIA:
There's also a group of other barristers who've signed a letter independently from the Victorian bar who've also outlined their concerns. There have been different views from the Law Institute of Victoria, for example, as well as some of the changes have been welcomed, but improvements were also suggested by them to the bill.

RUBY:
Mm-Hmm. And it hasn't just been lawyers and human rights experts who have rights concerns. There's also been people protesting about this bill. Can you talk to me about that, what we saw on the weekend? 

JULIA:
Yeah. So we've seen quite a cross-section of people protesting against the bill, 

Archival tape -- Protest audio:
“for our future”

JULIA:
as well as protesting against vaccine mandates and really the government itself. 

Archival tape -- Protest audio:
“kill the bill!” 

JULIA:
So that has ranged from your average mum and dad protesters to far right linked agitators

Archival tape -- Protest audio:
“rat dog!”

JULIA:
who have really said that the bill to them is evidence that the government is going too far and is close to a dictatorship. 

Archival tape -- Protest audio:
“this is what happens 21 months of mainstream media feeding the public a bullshit narrative, we’ve had enough….” 

JULIA:
There were quite big protests over the weekend outside parliament, in particular on Saturday. There have also been some concerning reports from some MPs that they've been threatened, that they've had pretty horrendous mail sent to them. 

And we saw nooses representing the crossbenchers taken to these protests on the weekend, 

Archival tape -- Protest audio:
“this is what the public really thinks of you!” 

JULIA:
we saw a noose being brought to Parliament, so that has been quite concerning to see 

Archival tape -- Protest audio:
“people get pushed and pushed and pushed, and we’ve had enough.” 

JULIA:
that kind of really hijacking of what might be some legitimate concerns about aspects of the bill by far right agitators. 

RUBY:
We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:
Julia, the Victoria government has faced a lot of resistance to its proposed pandemic legislation, from far-right protesters to legal experts. So how has it responded?

JULIA:
Yes. So on Tuesday, the government announced that there would be some changes to the bill. 

Those changes had been negotiated with the crossbench 

Archival tape -- Sky News:
“the victorian government’s controversial pandemic laws look set to pass parliament after”

Archival tape -- Seven News:
“The laws have been watered down in an 11th hour deal, but critics say the changes don’t go far enough…”  

Archival tape -- Fiona Patten:
“We have legislation that is accountable, that is transparent, that I believe other states will follow with.” 

JULIA:
So one of the big changes is that in order to declare a pandemic, the Premier has to be satisfied on reasonable grounds that there is a risk to public health.

 Very significantly the Charter of Human Rights is expressly made to apply to pandemic declarations and orders, as well as any act done under the pandemic specific legislation. And when it comes to interpreting the orders, they also have to be interpreted in the context of the charter in the context of human rights. 

Some of the other changes that are proposed that there was some controversy about and a part of the bill that allowed a pandemic order to discriminate between groups on the basis of particular attributes. There was a concern that that could be used by somebody to discriminate on the basis of attributes that weren't related to public health. That's been clarified so that those discriminating or differentiating rather between different groups of people on the basis of particular characteristics is only appropriate if those relate to a serious risk of public health. So, for example, differentiating between vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

And also there is a reference to the charter and the reference to the Equal Opportunity Act is removed. So that will hopefully address some of the concerns that people have had. 

RUBY:
Mm-Hmm. And so taking all of that into account, then Julia, where do you land on the pandemic bill as it stands? What do you think of the way it looks now versus the original proposal and whether it needs to go further?

JULIA:
So in Liberty Victoria's view, it's definitely a step in the right direction. We're glad to see that the charter is now made expressly central to the decision making process and central to acts done under these powers. It's also good to see that they've halved the fines, but we are still concerned that there is more work to be done. 

They've kept in the aggravated offence, which is something that we oppose. That offence carries with it imprisonment, and we don't think that when it comes to public health, that the response should be a punitive or policing response, but it should be a public health response. 

So it's good to see some of these changes being made. They are absolutely a step in the right direction, but they don't go far enough in some respects and could go further.

RUBY:
Mm-Hmm. And what do you think it is about this bill and this moment in time that has elicited such a strong response from people? Because these protests on the weekend, they were bigger than I think a lot of people, including myself, would have anticipated. So why do you think that we saw such a vehement backlash? 

JULIA:
Well, it's probably cliché to say that the last 18 months have been unprecedented. I think that a lot of the frustrations that have come across from some of the protesters relate to having been locked down over the last 18 months. Um and people have lost their jobs, lost their livelihoods, lost their businesses. So that will feed into frustration and concern about what the future holds for them, which is understandable. 

Some of it is related to what we've seen in terms of a rise in the anti-vax movement that in some respects has been linked to the far right as well, or those far right agitators who are jumping onto the anti-vax movement. 

And really, this is the first time in certainly my living memory that we've had these kind of widespread vaccine mandates, so some of the frustrations and concerns come out of that as well . 

The hope is that now that there will be this increased transparency and publication of the human rights assessments of these pandemic orders or decisions made that will hopefully increase transparency overall.

A lot of the issue over the past 18 months has been that some of the directions haven't made sense to people and perhaps hav en't. The underlying rationale for some of the restrictions haven't been properly explained and how those restrictions are compatible with human rights. 

So the hope is, is that with this new bill with an increase in transparency that will also increase the communication to the people and people can read those documents for themselves and come up with their own views as to whether or not their decisions made up appropriate in their view. 

RUBY:
Hmm. Julia, thank you so much for your time.

JULIA:
No worries. Thanks for having me.

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RUBY:
Also in the news today,

 

Former federal MP Craig Thomson has been arrested and charged over allegations of facilitating a significant visa and migration fraud scheme.

 

Authorities allege the former Labor politician profited more than 2 million dollars from the scheme and have charged Thomson with providing false documents relating to non-citizens. 

 

Mr Thomson was charged with 30 fraud-related offences, including 20 counts of providing false documents or misleading information relating to non-citizens.

 

And the Northern Territory has recorded six new Covid 19 cases, including five in the remote community of Robinson River on Wednesday. 

 

Authorities are on high alert as the Katherine and Robinson River cluster grew to 19 cases.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

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