Mr O’DONOHUE (Eastern Victoria) (14:31): I am pleased to say a few words about this important legislation. This legislation is—I do not want to use the word, but it is—almost unprecedented in this chamber. The power that it is being provided to the executive and ‘the gang of eight’—as Mr Melhem referred to the eight ministers in charge of the government at this moment—is significant; it is a concern and it must be scrutinised adequately.
I think it is most regrettable that the chamber voted against Dr Ratnam’s motion for an oversight committee. I cannot believe that three Independents—so-called Independent members of this place—would vote against such a motion. And I frankly do not know how they can live with themselves and their duty as members of this place to scrutinise the executive and vote against such a motion. I would call on all members to support Mr Davis’s motion for a non-government majority subcommittee of the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee with the power to report directly to the chamber rather than having to go through the usual process of the full committee adopting a subcommittee report. It is important that a non-government majority be able to report to this house—a non-government majority reporting directly to this house, scrutinising these extraordinary powers and the tens of billions of dollars that are proposed to be spent with these powers. They must be scrutinised.
Now, it is important—and I thank Ms Crozier for highlighting this to me—that in the commonwealth there is a Senate select committee on COVID-19 chaired by Labor senator Katy Gallagher, with a non-government majority. In New South Wales, a non-government majority committee is chaired by David Shoebridge of the Greens and deputy chaired by Robert Borsak of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. It is similar in New Zealand.
I mean, it should not need explaining. It should not need explaining that when the Victorian community is looking to the government to do the right thing there need to be some checks and balances and accountability on these extraordinary powers that this bill is going to provide to the government. And you can hear from the contributions around the chamber that there is a degree of goodwill toward the government to respond to the situation at hand, but that does not mean carte blanche. It does not mean we all pack up and go home and come back when this is all over. It means that we wish this to be dealt with in the best possible way, and for that to be achieved scrutiny must be part of that.
So given the decision of the chamber to vote down the committee as proposed by Dr Ratnam I would urge members to support the motion by Mr Davis to allow a Public Accounts and Estimates Committee subcommittee, with a non-government majority, to do this important work. And for Mr Melhem to say it is all the same and it does not matter whether it is a government majority or not is nonsense. It is absolute bunkum and nonsense. We know the dynamic is different. We know the questions are harder. We know the probing is more when it is a non-government majority—fact.
So let us dispense with that quite frankly ridiculous argument, and I implore all members to support Mr Davis’s amendments.
Like other members, and in particular as Mr Limbrick said, I am very concerned about the loneliness, the isolation, people who are struggling at this time. I think of my personal friends but also my constituents who have mortgaged their homes for their small businesses and the viability of those small businesses and their homes is subject to the whim—and I do not say that disrespectfully—of government regulation, whether their businesses survive, whether they can trade, whether they can open. I do not second-guess the reasons why those rules are made, but I am very concerned for the wellbeing of so many in our community as part of the effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus who have been so adversely affected, and whenever it is safe to do so regulation must be lifted. We are legislating for a six-month period. Let us hope everything continues to go in the way it is. If this six-month period is not needed, I would implore the government to not use these powers unless absolutely necessary.
Mr Davis covered some significant parts of the bill, particularly residential and commercial tenancy issues from our perspective and others. Ms Crozier has dealt with the health and nurse-patient ratio issues. I just want to touch on some of the justice amendments. This bill gives the Attorney-General enormous power. Clause 4 of the bill creates a regulation power where the Attorney across all of the justice portfolios can make regulations dealing with virtually every aspect of the justice system—from the courts and the way warrants are issued, family violence intervention orders, the witnessing of documents, conduct of how proceedings take place in courts, and so it goes on. Now, we recognise that things need to change in this environment, and indeed things have changed. I pay tribute to our police, people on the front line, court workers, judges and magistrates, who have all done their best to respond and operate, at times remotely, and keep the wheels of justice going, because that is absolutely critical for the community—that the wheels of justice keep going.
A few issues that I have include the regulation-making power. I will pursue this more fulsomely in committee. Minister Symes and I have had a discussion about this, but the test for the exercise of that power is a very low threshold. The Attorney’s opinion must be consistent with the advice of the chief health officer. It does not need to implement the recommendations of the chief health officer, just be consistent with the advice given et cetera. We will pursue that further, but I just make the point: the test that the Attorney must meet in meeting these regulation powers is a low-threshold test and therefore gives her enormous power.
The government’s failure to invest in video link technology for our courts is coming home to roost. Magistrates and judges are having to make decisions about which matters to list and which matters to hear because the capacity in the video link system simply does not provide for the universal application of that technology at this time, even for those that need it for urgent matters such as bail/remand hearings and the like.
The fact that VCAT has not been provided by government with the resources to operate a proper IT system and is still largely reliant on a paper-based system is absolutely regrettable. I pay tribute to the president of VCAT, Her Honour Michelle Quigley, for the way she has tried to manage these issues, and indeed other judicial officers who are heading our courts. But the simple fact is you cannot take a broadly paper-based system and then expect it to operate remotely in a way that is going to keep things going in the way we would all hope.
It is interesting, as an aside, that because VCAT cannot meet VCAT is encouraging those with FOI applications to resolve matters themselves. Ms Lovell has an FOI matter in relation to the Shepparton school and other members of the opposition have had FOI matters. We make offers to the government’s legal representation to negotiate a settlement. Those offers are ignored. We make offers to the government through its legal representation that matters be determined on the papers. The government denies that. What does that mean? The government is not being held accountable through the FOI process because it is using the levers at its disposal at VCAT to shut down scrutiny. So all the high and mighty talk from the Premier about, ‘Oh, we’ve got transparency’ is absolute nonsense. If the government was interested in transparency during this period when VCAT cannot operate, it would release documents that are the subject of appeal through VCAT, particularly where the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) has recommended that those documents be released. That should be the starting point. If OVIC has recommended the documents be released, release them. But no, the government is using this as an opportunity to shut down scrutiny and the mechanism by which that scrutiny can be tested cannot operate. It is an absolute disgrace.
Moving forward, justices of the peace do an amazing job. They are critical to the functioning of our justice system, and we support very strongly volunteers like justices of the peace and the work they do. But do you know what JPs have had to do in the last little while? They have had to launch a GoFundMe page for protective equipment. Despite the government ramping up borrowing, looking to draw down billions of dollars or more, they cannot even afford a few thousand dollars for some PPE for volunteers in our community to witness documents and fulfil the functions of justices of the peace. What an absolute disgrace. Doesn’t that say so much about the government’s priorities?
As Mr Davis said, the move to judge-alone trials in criminal trials in the County and Supreme courts is appropriate at this time but should be seen as a temporary measure. The role of juries is very important in our justice system and any move to abolish them for the long term needs to be carefully reviewed, analysed and thought through. The ability for magistrates to order an offender to be GPS monitored is an appropriate step in this time, and it builds on the work of the Napthine government in introducing GPS technology for offenders in the County and Supreme courts and for post-sentence serious violent and sex offenders during its term in government.
The concept of open justice is critical to our justice system. The bill contains clauses that try and encourage open justice. The issue again is our courts are not fully equipped with the technology to enable live streaming from all courts where it is appropriate, so we have a technological issue because of the lack of investment in new technologies. I would encourage the government to provide the courts with the resources and capacity that they need to make our courts as open and transparent as possible while making them safe during this difficult time.
I am concerned that the use of emergency management days by prisons will see large cohorts of prisoners receive significant discounts on their prison sentence, because for each day of lockdown they will get a discount of four. The Minister for Corrections has said that that will be a matter for the corrections commissioner. The usual process is that where lockdown occurs the corrections commissioner will sign off on up to four emergency management days per day. That could see prisoners who are sentenced to eight, 10 or 12 months serving a fraction of that time in jail.
Finally, in the minute I have left, we have seen the corrections and youth justice system riddled with riots and issues under incompetent ministers and an incompetent government. The consequence of that at the moment is that there simply is not the prison capacity to deliver the appropriate social distancing that would be available if the government had made those investment decisions at the right time. We are still relying on the Parkville youth justice system, which the government planned to shut down but because of a lack of money is going to keep open. The Ravenhall prison, contracted for 1000 sentenced prisoners, is likely to hold up to 1600 prisoners in the near future, with up to half of that cohort being remand, and therefore less settled, prisoners. There are many issues in the justice system that this bill seeks to fix, but you cannot fix an underlying problem that has not been addressed for years and years.