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Rod Barton says changes that give parliament power to disallow pandemic orders make it ‘a much better and fairer bill’
Victoria’s controversial pandemic laws are set to pass parliament after the crossbench MP Rod Barton agreed to support the legislation, securing amendments to give parliament power to disallow pandemic orders.
But parliament will only be able to exercise that power if the disallowance has been recommended by a cross-parliamentary committee and then supported by an absolute majority in both houses of parliament, a scenario which is unlikely unless there is a change of government.
Barton said the amendments made it “a much better and fairer bill” than was originally introduced by the government earlier this month.
He told Guardian Australia the creation of a cross-parliamentary committee with real-time oversight of how the pandemic powers were exercised was “a very powerful thing”.
“It puts a spotlight on the government that stops them from putting this through quietly on the side,” he said.
With Barton’s support, the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill is expected to pass the upper house. Debate will begin at 3pm and is expected to run late into the night on Tuesday.
The Andrews government says it needs the legislation in place before the state of emergency expires on 15 December in order to ensure it can still make and enforce public health orders.
Debate on the bill was suspended two weeks ago after the former Labor MP Adem Somyurek returned to parliament, having belatedly proved his vaccination status, and indicated he would vote against the bill.
That left the Andrews government one vote short of what it needed to pass the legislation, having already secured the support of three other crossbench MPs – Reason party’s Fiona Patten, Greens leader Samantha Ratnam and Animal Justice party’s Andy Meddick – who negotiated a raft of reforms including a significant reduction in fines for breaching public health orders and a fully funded independent oversight committee.
The premier, Daniel Andrews, did not express relief at the deal, saying “we’ll wait and see what happens in the legislative council”.
He said the emergence of the Omicron variant showed the pandemic “is not over”.
“These are extraordinary arrangements because a pandemic is an extraordinary thing,” Andrews said. “It’s not something we face all that often although it has dominated our lives, I know, for the last couple of years.
“This is a one-in-100-year event, if you like. Who knows when the next one will be? Who knows when the current things will end?”
Andrews said vaccine mandates “won’t be here forever” but indicated they may need to remain in place until booster shots were rolled out and children under 12 were vaccinated.
“It’s going to keep changing, and our response will need to be nimble,” he said. “And the inherent protections that come from encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, well, the hospitalisation numbers tell you all that you need to know.”
Barton said on Facebook that the version of the bill he was supporting was “fundamentally a different bill” than what was originally introduced by the government.
“We have absolutely curbed the powers of the Government,” he said.
Barton locked comments on that post and also locked his Twitter account.
The proposed amendments include replacing the current detention review panel with a new independent review panel, clarifying that complaints made about detention can be filed with the Ombudsman, and removing the aggravated offence clause which initially carried penalties for individuals of $91,000 or two years jail. Those penalties were reduced under earlier amendments negotiated by other crossbenchers.
The Law Institute of Victoria said it supported the amendments, which mirrored changes it had called for, and now supported the bill.
“The LIV believes that the proposed amendments to the Bill are an improvement and the government has come a long way in addressing the concerns raised by the LIV and other bodies who have been consulted,” LIV president, Tania Wolff, said.
“There are notable changes in important areas of independent oversight, scrutiny and review proposed. Given what we are seeing in these additional amendments, this is an improvement, and, on balance, the LIV would support this Bill.”
The Sustainable Australia party MP Clifford Hayes was also in talks to support the bill, but said on Tuesday that while the government had negotiated in good faith and made “commendable” amendments, “the final position of the government was not enough to garner my support”.
Tweets from anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine protesters branded Barton a “traitor” and told supporters to “know their faces”. Others urged people to email Barton and beg him to reconsider, saying the legislation would be used to “target and oppress unvaccinated Victorians”.
A modest group of protesters had gathered outside parliament but at the time the legislative council began sitting they appeared to be outnumbered by police officers.
Barton said he and his staff had spent the morning “dodging threats” after their phone numbers were leaked. Some had been referred to police.
“We have had threats to kill and threats against our families. It’s quite brutal,” he said. “It is not acceptable and we should not tolerate it, and it is a matter for police.”
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He said this decision would be more scrutinised than any he had made in his public life so far. “There’s a lot of angry people out there, but ultimately what we are trying to get through is a very different bill than what the government attempted to get up last sitting week.”
The state opposition leader, Matthew Guy, earlier accused Barton of doing a deal to support the legislation. Guy also criticised the government for not consulting with the Liberal party, saying “our phone never rang”.
Barton rejected Guy’s comments and said he did not strike a deal with the government.
“It’s typical of the opposition to come up with something like this when they haven’t got anything else to say.”