An inquiry into ‘fit-for-purpose’ legislation that would allow the ACT Government to continue to manage the pandemic once the public health emergency has ended has attracted record numbers of submissions in opposition to the bill.
But according to the Legislative Assembly’s committee report, which recommended the bill be passed, the majority of the 1175 submissions received were from people who resided in other states and territories or overseas.
Most were stridently opposed to what they perceived as government overreach and many were anti ‘vaccine mandates’.
Only around 160 of the public submissions were from people with verifiable ACT residential addresses.
According to the report, the key arguments raised in the bill are that the “ACT community is largely vaccinated and that the powers in the Bill are excessive”.
One witness who presented arguments against the bill to a committee hearing last month was Aleksander Rajak.
Mr Rajak described giving the government the ability to require someone to quarantine or isolate – which would still be possible under the new bill – as a “gross overreach of power”. He said it was his view that forcing a person into isolation is akin to detention and should not be left for the executive to determine.
“This is something ordinarily left for courts. In my view, these extraordinary powers are a breach of the separation of powers between the executive and, particularly, in this case, the judiciary, as it [is] sidelined and the executive is provided with court-style powers,” he told the committee.
According to Mr Rajak, the high vaccination rates in the community also means there is no real need to have any vaccine mandates at all, and indeed, many public submissions opposed vaccine mandates.
But it’s the ACT Government’s view that a vaccine mandate is necessary in limited settings to protect the most vulnerable.
Currently, staff in primary schools and early childhood settings, healthcare workers and disability and aged care workers must be vaccinated.
Proof of vaccination has never been required to access services and sectors such as hospitality and retail in Canberra, and Chief Minister Andrew Barr has repeatedly called a community-wide vaccine mandate and the use of vaccination passports a “solution looking for a problem” given the high levels of voluntary participation in the vaccination program.
Mr Barr told the committee it’s a “balancing of rights – rights for those who are vulnerable and at significant risk of disease, illness and potentially death if they are exposed to unnecessary risk from an unvaccinated person”.
One of the reasons for the new legislation is to allow the government to continue managing the pandemic into the future and ensure there are greater opportunities for scrutiny and oversight than are available under the current emergency powers.
For this reason, the proposed bill – and the stepping down from emergency powers in favour of legislative powers – has been welcomed by bodies such as the ACT Law Society, the ACT Council of Social Service and the ACT Human Rights Commission, among others.
However, a number of amendments were proposed by the committee.
Along with increasing the oversight of the Assembly by making notifiable directions disallowable instruments, the committee also recommended COVID-19 management declaration should be in force for a maximum of four weeks at a time, with a provision for four-week extensions.
Initially, the proposed legislation had allowed for six-month-long extensions.
“While the declaration of a COVID-19 management period is necessary for good public health outcomes, it must be balanced with the negative impacts it can have on individuals, businesses and the community,” the committee’s report read.
It also recommended that additional review rights be provided for in the bill in relation to vaccine directions.
The Public Health Amendment Bill 2021 (No 2) will likely return to the Assembly for debate in the coming months.