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Speech: COVID-19 Emergency Reponse Expiry & Rent Amendment Bill

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (15:40): I rise as one of two speakers for the Greens today to speak to this important bill. Six months on from the time we debated emergency legislation in several incarnations, we are now seeing the need for an extension of a further six months, or perhaps less, depending on what shape this bill makes it through this council.

This has been an extraordinary time. We are in what time and time again has been called unprecedented times, although there are learnings we can take from history and from other jurisdictions about how to do this better. No-one has had it right first time with the COVID-19 pandemic and we have all had to learn as we go. I am hoping that we have learnt as we went with this piece of legislation, ensuring that we have the appropriate accountability and transparency that a parliament should be ensuring for the people of South Australia this time round.

The previous powers included the unprecedented and extraordinary power for the removal of children. The Greens opposed that when it was previously debated in this legislation and we are yet to be provided a reason why it was necessary, other than the commissioner—or, in this situation, the State Coordinator—wanted the power. When we asked in our briefing whether the power had been used under the pandemic, at first we were told that that information was not being collected and recorded. That is an extraordinary answer to receive.

In the hours that followed, we have been informed that the power has not been used. What is the real answer? Is the power being used and data being collated about its use, or is there no transparency and accountability about the use of this power? One of those answers was incorrect. One of those answers misled members of this parliament. One of those answers will be true, but both of those answers are unacceptable. What was the reason for the SAPOL commissioner wanting the power for the removal of children and has it actually been used? If it has been recorded that it has not been used, what data is being collected by those empowered to remove children? But I digress.

We are in a very good place to have this debate and I absolutely commend the State Coordinator, the Chief Public Health Officer, the Premier, the Minister for Health and Wellbeing in particular, for what has been an extraordinary and outstanding effort to keep us all safe. But in keeping us safe, of course, that has resulted in the necessary restriction of what we would call our civil liberties, our freedoms, what some have called in submissions to this legislation extraordinary Henry VIII-type powers, and it has necessitated this parliament to play a back-seat role.

Six months in I would have expected this legislation to come with some of the bells and whistles that were not attached last time, bells and whistles that are necessary for a healthy democracy, bells and whistles such as proper transparency, proper record keeping about these extraordinary powers, detailed information, not confused information that changes from one hour to the next about whether or not these extraordinary powers have or have not been enacted and, indeed, a proposal that was lacking in the first round for something like a COVID oversight committee of both houses of this parliament.

A COVID oversight committee was, of course, enacted, through the opposition's work, in a separate motion to the previous legislation. This COVID committee has been told by the Transition Committee of the state—those empowered to help us get through this crisis—that it cannot have the Transition Committee's minutes, to see their workings as to why certain decisions are made and certain outcomes negotiated, which sometimes do beggar belief in terms of public health reasoning why those decisions are being made and who is in the room when those decisions are being made.

The very minutes of that committee have been denied previously to the oversight committee that was set up by this council for the parliament to ensure that the people of South Australia know the decisions that are being made to keep them safe. If there is nothing to hide, why has there been such resistance to ensuring that data is collected, minutes are made transparent and those who are in the room at the time the decisions are made are known?

We cannot go on for another six months without those safeguards, and that is why the Greens and SA-Best have said we will not sign another blank cheque without appropriate safeguards. It is time to ensure that the parliament is able to do its job, and that the people of South Australia are not only protected and kept safe but also safeguarded against inappropriate exercise of power.

The Greens will have many questions at clause 1, and we recognise that this particular piece of legislation, in the form it has been brought before us, does not allow us to make detailed amendments to powers that have been afforded, in this unprecedented time, to non-elected people without the scrutiny of the parliament. We do recognise that this blunt tool can be used in terms of setting another time frame, by which I would hope that the government will sit down with members of parliament, the opposition and crossbench and negotiate a better way forward under this pandemic, because this pandemic appears to be here to stay for quite a while to come.

When I first debated the very powers that we now have implemented in this state, it was one of my first bills in parliament, and I remember the Hon. Stephen Wade, now the minister charged with implementing these extraordinary powers, was a member of the opposition. I remember both of us had quite grave concerns about civil liberties and human rights being protected under such a situation as we now see with this pandemic.

I urge the government to stick by those values they held in opposition and not to rush another piece of legislation through this place, simply finding it all too hard to ensure the appropriate protections and accountabilities because we are faced with yet another time deadline that is pressing, rather than appropriately dealing with it.

I note that other parliaments have oversight committees for this pandemic. I point particularly to New South Wales, where the ministers of various portfolios, not just the health portfolio but certainly Minister Hazzard, have appeared before that committee. The members of that committee have been able to have their questions answered and to have information provided, and have not been refused that information or told that they will get it when the person in the position of power being asked is good and ready, as I have found to my disappointment in South Australia.

I would hope that we will see moving forward for the next six months—possibly 12 months to come, potentially longer—that we will start to put democracy back into our decision-making when it comes to this pandemic because that is what we are actually here for as parliamentarians elected to ensure those rights are not trampled on when the going gets tough.

I will not speak for too much longer on this bill because I absolutely guarantee to the government that it is our intention to get this done in the next three days, but it is not our intention to continue to sign blank checks of unchecked power with answers like, 'We don't know why we want this extraordinary power, we don't know if we've used it, we don't collect the data on it,' to be accepted by this parliament.

I do not think that is good enough. We do deserve better than that. We understand the extraordinary pressures on people under the pandemic but we also understand the extraordinary importance of our democratic system, particularly when we are talking about potentially at least six months, if not a year, if not longer to come. We cannot accept a rough, shoddy job any further.

I note the words of one of the co-commissioners for mental health at the COVID committee just last week, that the original legislation was 'all containment and little care.' That is a grave concern, particularly if we find ourselves in a situation as Victoria has where we slip back. Where is the safeguarding in the legislation before us? That safeguarding comes with transparency and accountability.

I cannot see that without transparency and accountability we can continue to all pull together with the COVID pandemic. It is beholden on government to ensure that negotiations go on in these next coming days, that no longer will those on the Transition Committee in the various positions of authority and power who have these unprecedented powers over the lives of all South Australians, can answer to the parliament that they are either not going to tell us or they do not have to tell us or they will tell us when they are good and ready.

That is not good enough. South Australians deserve better and we deserve better from our democracy. Simply, and not to create division, I am disappointed that the government did not come before us, over five months in, with a better framework for going forward for the next six months than a simple extension of all the powers that we rushed through in those several pieces of legislation at the height of the anxiety and legitimate fear as we stared down the barrel of this particular pandemic.

I look forward to the committee stage and clause 1 of the bill. I look forward to answers that are appropriate and informative and that indicate, as we move through this crisis, we will have more care as well as the containment.

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