Controversial legislation to replace Western Australia’s COVID-19 state of emergency powers passed the lower house after a marathon debate that lasted to midnight on Wednesday.
The McGowan government’s Emergency Management Amendment (Temporary COVID-19 Provisions) Bill 2022 will allow the government to stop using state of emergency powers to manage the pandemic.
During the at times bitter debate, the opposition lashed the government for ramming the laws through parliament within 24 hours and giving its MPs less than a day to scrutinise the bill.
Liberal leader David Honey accused the government of abusing the parliamentary process.
“The way the government is handling this bill is an absolute disgrace and an absolute abuse of Parliament, it is a complex bill with the most serious provisions,” he said.
Emergency Services Minister Reece Whitby accused the opposition of undermining the government throughout the pandemic.
“If it were not for the government standing up for the policies, approaches and provisions that we have, we would have seen the economy in Western Australia destroyed and we would have seen large numbers of lives lost due to the deadly virus,” he said.
“That is not an extreme thing to say.”
The bill, which has been sent to the upper house for debate in October, was described as “draconian” by Honey because of a lack of oversight and the powers afforded to police.
The bill would allow continued enforcement of most COVID-19 restrictions bar the ability to raise a hard border.
It allows the State Emergency Coordinator, who is currently the WA Police commissioner Col Blanch, to make a COVID-19 declaration to give the government the power to continue enforcing COVID-19 restrictions.
The declarations could be issued for rolling three-month periods until the laws expire in two years’ time.
It also states a COVID-19-authorised officer could compel a person to provide their identification and can prohibit their movement or order their evacuation from a declared area.
An officer could also break or enter into any place or vehicle to execute COVID-related powers.
Deputy opposition leader Shane Love said these police powers meant people could be removed from their homes.
“These are not trivial powers, many of the powers seem to have just been grabbed from other sections of the Emergency Management Act. Whether they are appropriate to the COVID response, they have been put in the legislation word for word,” he said.
Love also blasted the lack of transparency in the legislation.
“We know that the State Disaster Council will continue to operate. I wonder whether the deliberations of that council will be public or will they be shrouded in cabinet-in-confidence or some other confidentiality?” he said.
“It is now 900 days, or thereabouts since the first declaration of the state of emergency and the government has had plenty of time to consider the best way forward.”
Whitby refuted the criticisms about police power in the act and said they were rarely used even during the pandemic.
“He painted an extreme, frightening and alarmist picture of this bill and what it represents, in fact …we have had similar provisions throughout the COVID pandemic and we have not seen that alarmist Orwellian picture emerge,” he said.
“Taking control of a vehicle does not mean the ability to seize. It means that, on some occasions, there can be a direction to an owner of a vehicle, or an occupier of a property to give an authorised COVID-19 officer reasonable assistance to exercise the officer’s power.”
Whitby said the ability to access property was essential for WA Police’s efforts on New Year’s Eve to stop an illegal gathering occurring at the George Hotel in the Perth CBD.
“That was an extreme virus-spreading event, yet the Leader of the Liberal Party would prevent that power from being used to protect citizens in Western Australia,” he said.