Inquiry into the Victorian Government’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Public Accounts and Estimates Committee

Mr D O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (10:29): I want to just speak a bit on the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee inquiry into the Victorian government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before I do, I just want to echo the comments of the member for Pascoe Vale, the chair of PAEC, in thanking and acknowledging the work of Dr Caroline Williams as our executive officer for this term and a large part of the previous term as well, in which I was also a member of the committee. Caroline has done a fantastic job. As the member for Pascoe Vale indicated, it is a thankless task sometimes. Clearly the pre-eminent committee of the Parliament is PAEC, but it is also one that tends to get the most attention and sometimes the committee hearings themselves can get quite feisty. Caroline has done a great job in managing all of us and presenting some fantastic reports, including this report into the COVID-19 pandemic.

What I wanted to touch on was the way the government has handled the pandemic and more broadly, in a sense, its overreach on a number of issues. These issues have been well canvassed in this chamber but also particularly in the minority report in this report. I think we all understand and accept the need for the various lockdowns and restrictions that have been imposed over the last 18 months up to a point, but time and time again when there has been an option to do something and balance the needs and rights of people to go about their business and of businesses to operate, this government has overstepped those rights in the name of COVID response. People will say ‘But we had to do that’—well, we can only look at the results. We have had the world’s longest lockdown here in the city of Melbourne. We have had the worst outcomes in terms of numbers of cases and deaths across Australia, and our economy is suffering as a consequence as well. By no measure could you say that the government’s approach has been successful.

I particularly want to add, on that issue of overreach, the current situation where the Premier is now saying that if you are not vaccinated, once we hit the 90 per cent mark of 12-year-olds and above you will effectively be locked out of the economy: you will not be able to go and buy shoes, you will not be able to go to non-essential retail or pubs or clubs or the MCG or whatever it is. That is overreach.

I think we all understand the need to get vaccinated. We are all pushing it. I have been pushing it in my community. I am double vaccinated. It is the way out, but the reality is there is going to be, as there always is with any vaccination, a small percentage—around 5 to 10 per cent, depending on the region and the vaccination we are talking about—that will resist. For the government to simply say that those people are to be excluded for a year is, I think, gross overreach. It is not just me saying that, and it is not just anti-vaxxer types saying that. The feedback I am getting from the community is that sensible people who are vaccinated, who accept the need for these restrictions, who accept the need for vaccinations, are concerned, and we have seen that. I got an email just this morning from a shopkeeper in my electorate. She says:

I am very nervous about when we are at phase D. That will be right as we get into our busiest month of the year and the requirement to physically check everyone as they enter my store will require me to put another employee on each shift potentially. Aside from the concern of having to deal with customers who may become irritated by this decision, I cant imagine the hurt I will feel at having to say no to a potential customer who can not enter my store based on vaccination status.

That is one of many messages that I am sure all of us are getting. On top of that, the experts do not even back this, and we see that both in the Age and the Herald Sun today. In the Age the director of the Doherty Institute, Professor Sharon Lewin, says that excluding people in the longer term will prove divisive and difficult. Epidemiologist Tony Blakely says:

… it would be unethical at that point to keep the people who are unvaccinated out of society—

he is talking about once we get past 90 per cent double dosed. Likewise, Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett said today that it did not make any sense to keep people out of cafes and the like when they can mingle freely in private gatherings. The experts are also saying that this is overreach. I think it is overreach. It is exemplified by the legislation that will be second-read shortly that this government is overreaching on all these COVID things, and it does need to be reined in.

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