Democratic accountability in the COVID-19 recovery
A commitment to democratic accountability must shape the COVID-19 recovery. If human rights are about the relationship between government and the people it serves, then the pandemic has highlighted the importance of scrutiny of government decisions and public trust.
During the pandemic, a range of mechanisms have been in place to enable proper scrutiny of the Victorian Government’s response. Some of these have been more formalised investigations – for example, the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee’s inquiry into the government’s response to the pandemic, the inquiry into the hotel quarantine program, or the Victorian Ombudsman’s investigation into the treatment of residents in the public housing lockdown. In addition, the daily press conferences with the Premier of Victoria and the Chief Health Officer have provided a more informal scrutiny.
In practice, accountability of this type relies on two key things.
First, we must strengthen safeguards to address inequality and to protect people from discrimination. The pandemic has exposed some weaknesses in the way the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities protects Victorians from violations of their rights.
To effectively protect the rights of all Victorians, the Charter needs more effective remedies for breaches of the 20 rights it covers, including options for alternative dispute resolution. This would deliver a quick, cheap, accessible, informal and easy-to-navigate method of redress outside the traditional court system for those whose human rights have been violated.
Second, integrity and regulatory bodies must be empowered so they can effectively fulfil their accountability function, as they work to protect Victorians from discrimination, sexual harassment, vilification and other harm they may have experienced from state institutions. Strengthening these bodies would shift the burden from individual complainants and would allow regulators to more effectively tackle systemic issues.
As an example, strengthening the Commission’s powers under the Equal Opportunity Act would allow us to more effectively investigate discrimination, harassment and victimisation. It would allow us to compel people and organisations to attend conciliation or provide evidence, without needing to seek VCAT’s support. It would also allow us to issue compliance notices and seek enforceable undertakings. These kinds of powers could be used to investigate industries or workplaces where discrimination appears to be systemic – such as workplaces that refuse flexible work arrangements to their employees without proper consideration, or widespread discrimination in the property rental industry (one of the common issues we’ve heard about during the pandemic).
The breadth of the emergency powers currently in play and their likely impact also heightens the requirement for close and independent oversight of the Victorian Government’s response. Several oversight mechanisms were put in place through the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (State of Emergency Extension and Other Matters) Act 2020, passed by the Victorian Parliament in April, including the requirement for the Minister for Health to report to both Houses of Parliament on any extension to the state of emergency. We have also seen the value of the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee’s ongoing scrutiny of the actions taken by the Victorian Government so far, and this oversight will continue to play an important role in maintaining public confidence and assuring transparency.
Foundations for recovery
- Reform the Charter to provide remedies for breaches of Charter rights, starting with alternative dispute resolution – a quick, cheap, accessible, informal and easy to navigate method of redress outside the traditional court system.
- Reform the Equal Opportunity Act to strengthen the Commission’s investigation powers, by simplifying the jurisdiction for investigations, enabling us to compel attendance and evidence without VCAT, and giving us the power to issue compliance notices and seek enforceable undertakings.