Statement: The Omnibus Amendment Bill and human rights
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve advocated for human rights to be at the centre of the government’s decision-making. Proposed amendments to the Public Health and Wellbeing Act contained in the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020, currently before the Victorian Parliament, raise some potential risks for Victorians’ human rights.
24 September 2020
The amendments proposed in the Omnibus Amendment Bill will expand the pool of people who can be given the authority to detain people under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008, as well as allow for detention based on suspected future conduct. While these amendments are designed to safeguard public health in the months ahead, they could significantly impact on individual liberties and – in the absence of proper safeguards – potentially violate human rights.
Our first key concern is that the Omnibus Amendment Bill expands the scope of detention powers under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act. Under the amendments, authorised officers would be able detain ‘high risk’ people (people who are COVID positive or close contacts) if authorised officers form a reasonable belief that the person will not comply with public health directions.
While we recognise the need for measures to protect the community from people who are wilfully ignoring public health orders, the Bill focuses on suspected noncompliance in the future, rather than actual refusal to comply. This heightens the risk that people could be detained arbitrarily, resulting in a breach of section 21 of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
We are also concerned that these expanded detention powers may result in discrimination, with certain groups being disproportionately affected, such as people with mental health conditions, people with disabilities and people who are experiencing homelessness.
Our second concern is that the Omnibus Amendment Bill expands the range of people who can be appointed as authorised officers. This runs the risk of individuals without the requisite skills and experience in public health being given those functions, including to authorise detention on public health grounds. Greater precision in the legislation regarding who can and cannot be authorised to exercise particular powers could go some way to reducing this risk.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have advocated for the government to keep human rights at the centre of its decision-making. When considering measures that will restrict human rights, the government has a responsibility under the Charter to ensure that limitations are necessary, justifiable and proportionate, and to ensure safeguards are in place for transparency and accountability.
In light of these human rights concerns, we have sought further information from the government on the rationale for these measures and the additional safeguards that could be employed including clear rights of review for any person subject to a detention order.
We have also written to Parliament’s Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee in relation to our concerns, in order to inform their review of the Bill for compatibility with human rights and their report to Parliament.
We will continue to monitor the situation and work with civil society, the Parliament and the government to address possible impacts on Victorians’ human rights in the weeks ahead.
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