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State Liberal MPs have encouraged a large and angry group of protesters gathered on the steps of Parliament House, some of whom had earlier chanted violent slogans around a full-sized gallows and called for people to “dance on the end of a rope”.
Right-wing Liberal MP Bernie Finn, who last week shared a picture of Premier Daniel Andrews dressed as Adolf Hitler, posted a selfie on Tuesday mingling with protesters as members of Parliament readied to debate the bill in the upper house. He captioned it saying they were “a couple of thousand of my closest friends”.
Opposition spokesman for community recovery Craig Ondarchie also mixed with protesters on Tuesday, posting online that he was: “Out thanking these wonderful Victorians, outside their house – the People’s House, who have had a gut full of Daniel Andrews controlling their lives, their happiness, their freedom.”
Other Liberal MPs to appear at the protest, included shadow ministers Nick Wakeling and Roma Britnell.
On Monday night, a truck pulled up outside the protest with an apparently operational gallows, as the crowd chanted slogans such as “Kill Dan Andrews” and “Hang Dan Andrews”.
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy said on Tuesday, “without equivocation in any way, protests should be sensible, and they should be reasonable, and they should be conducted in an Australian way. Have your point of difference, do it respectfully, get your point across, and do it properly,” he said.
But he did not ban his MPs from attending, and said the actions of the “few” should not tarnish everyone who attended.
The protest has formed in response to the Victorian government’s pandemic bill, which is intended to replace the state of emergency legislation that has given the government power to enforce health orders so far in the pandemic. The emergency laws expire in December, and the new bill is intended to allow the government to keep enforcing policies, such as isolation requirements, while also being available for any future pandemic.
The government announced late on Monday that it would amend the bill which had attracted strong criticism from lawyers and human rights activists for overreach. However, the amendments did not satisfy the civil society opponents, nor quell the anger of protesters.
The crowd on Tuesday included many ordinary Victorians concerned at vaccination mandates and other elements of the legislation, while their message has been co-opted by a small but noisy extremist element.
Shadow treasurer David Davis – who addressed protesters outside Parliament last week – would not rule out attending future demonstrations. He said they should remain peaceful but declined to criticise his colleagues for joining them on Tuesday. “Are we going to say we can’t peacefully and respectfully protest? I’m in favour of democracy.”
But one Liberal MP, who spoke anonymously to reflect frankly on their colleagues, said opposition MPs had the potential to harm the perception of the Coalition among mainstream voters by associating with fringe groups.
“Some MPs appear to be playing footsie with some of the ratbags at these protests, but that is massively exposing the Liberals’ reputation and credibility,” the MP said.
Mr Andrews, whose effigy was being placed near the makeshift gallows on Monday night, accused the opposition of “cuddling up” to far-right anti-vaxxers in a heated parliamentary debate over the pandemic legislation.
Mr Andrews said the opposition was currying favour with fringe groups in an attempt to win the preferences of right-wing minor party voters at next November’s election. Far-right extremists were a growing worry for Victoria Police, he said.
“There are some who called for exactly these measures just a few weeks ago, and then as soon as the government did it they changed their position.”
Shadow spokesman for housing and planning Ryan Smith, who was elevated to the frontbench by Mr Guy, encouraged his colleagues at Tuesday’s party room meeting to engage with the crowd, according to two MPs speaking confidentiality because these meetings are private.
Mr Smith addressed the protest last week and claimed the Premier had “broken” the state’s children through school lockdowns amid cries of “vaccines don’t work” from the crowd, according to audio heard by The Age.
Victoria is the only state government in Australia that has attempted to create pandemic-specific legislation, and states, including NSW, are still using emergency laws that contain less oversight and transparency mechanisms.
A similar debate was playing out in NSW, where Dominic Perrottet’s Liberal government plans to extend the state’s emergency powers into 2023.
Bernie Finn posted this to Facebook on Tuesday afternoon.Credit:Facebook
Inside Victoria’s Parliament, debate went into the night on Tuesday and was expected to continue late into the week. MPs in both houses could be hauled back into Parliament for an extra sitting day to ensure the bill’s passage with amendments.
Labor’s eleventh-hour amendments, confirmed late on Monday night before Tuesday’s debate, received mixed reactions from human rights and law experts who have broadly viewed the bill as flawed, but still an improvement on the existing framework.
In a rare move, the government declared the bill “urgent” without the support of the opposition on Tuesday to bring on debate after agreeing to last-minute amendments.
Mr Davis described the move as an undemocratic breach of process, pointing out that just nine bills have been declared urgent since 1996, including four during the pandemic, and only ever when there was a consensus in the upper house.
Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes, the leader of the government in the Legislative Council, said there would be real consequences if the bill did not proceed and the opposition had engaged in “theatre” to ensure they were “seen to be opposing the bill at every juncture”.
Speaking for the amended bill on Tuesday night, Reason Party MP Fiona Patten said, “we should not let the perfect get in the way of the good” after continued complaints the proposal was yet to be perfected through the proposed changes. She goaded Mr Finn by arguing pandemic powers would protect the “right to life” against COVID-19, in a reference to an anti-abortion adage.
The Premier defended the handling of the bill after key crossbencher Andy Meddick said the government had failed to communicate the positive elements of the proposed law, opening the door to misinformation and claims from Mr Guy that the bill was proof the Premier wanted to enact another lockdown.
Ombudsman Deborah Glass, speaking on Nine’s Today program, said the bill still fell short and needed a greater level of independent oversight and review.
The Law Institute of Victoria said the proposed amendments went some way to addressing their concerns, but further changes were necessary to ensure the bill is “fit for purpose”.
President Tania Wolff said she wanted a strengthened independent oversight of the exercise of pandemic powers — potentially by the Ombudsman — and external review rights of detention through the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
The Law Institute also believes no offence under the pandemic powers should attract a jail sentence. If those changes cannot be made, Ms Wolff said the bill should include a sunset clause and expire within the next two years.
The Victorian Bar — which has been vocal in its criticism — said the government’s proposed changes still contained ineffective parliamentary and independent oversight and review rights.
“The proposed amendments largely address low priority issues and not the most fundamental problems with the Bill,” newly appointed President of the Victorian Bar Róisín Annesley, QC, said on Tuesday.
The Human Rights Law Centre said the amendments would help governments make better decisions and maintain public trust, but that “the law still isn’t perfect”.
The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission welcomed the amendments and their strengthening of human rights commitments.
Former Supreme Court judge Lex Lasry attacked the protesters on Tuesday, calling the display of nooses and makeshift gallows “obscene”.
“But I think we are better than that, really … Surely we are?” he said on 3AW.
On Monday night the three independent upper house crossbenchers on whose vote the fate of the bill rests, released a statement slamming radio “shock jocks” for “knowingly, dangerously inciting and fanning angry civil unrest with lies”.
Responding to the claim, 3AW host Neil Mitchell told The Age he had expressed opposition on his program to certain elements of the bill but had always argued against public demonstrations.
“I strongly deny the crossbench allegation of deliberately lying to promote rubbish like this,” he said. “The gallows, the nooses, the threats and the Hitler images disgust me. They have no place in debate or protest in Australia.”
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