COVID law changes set to pass state parliament

Proposed changes to South Australia’s COVID-19 management are set to pass the Upper House as early as this week after the Malinauskas Government won over the crossbench in exchange for a series of oversight measures.

May 18, 2022, updated May 18, 2022
Picture: Tony Lewis/InDaily.

Picture: Tony Lewis/InDaily.

Premier Peter Malinauskas announced on Tuesday afternoon the government had struck a deal with the Greens and SA Best to get its Public Health Act Amendment Bill through the Legislative Council this week ahead of the government’s stated deadline of revoking the Major Emergency Declaration on June 30.

The Bill will see amendments made to the Public Health Act to enable COVID-19 restrictions – including seven-day quarantine for COVID-positive patients, mask mandates in high-risk settings and vaccination mandates for healthcare workers – to remain in place after South Australia’s Major Emergency Declaration is revoked.

The amendments will also allow maximum penalties of up to $75,000 for businesses and $20,000 and two years jail for individuals to be enforced for COVID-19 breaches.

Amendments successfully put forward by the Greens and SA-Best will see a parliamentary oversight committee – comprised primarily of non-government MPs – convened to provide scrutiny of how the Public Health Act laws are applied.

The committee can recommend to parliament that laws, directions or new restrictions under the Act be disallowed.

The crossbench also succeeded in enshrining an appeals mechanism for fines and breaches issued under the Act.

Speaking alongside Greens MLC Robert Simms and SA Best MLC Connie Bonaros, Malinauskas thanked the crossbenchers for their “thoughtful contributions” to an “urgent” piece of legislation.

“Both the Greens and SA Best took the time to actually draft amendments that gave us the ability to negotiate our way through their thoughtful suggestions that are in the best interest of the South Australian public as we continue to transition in a meaningful way of living with COVID,” he told reporters.

The move has sidelined the Liberal Opposition, who was working with the Office of Parliamentary Counsel to draft amendments to remove imprisonment and reduce the maximum penalties outlined in the Bill.

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“Our sensible amendments were in line with community expectations, but Labor did a quick backroom deal because Peter Malinauskas is desperate to have the power to lock up South Australians and dish out huge COVID-19 fines at the drop of a hat,” an opposition spokesperson said.

“Our important amendments were being actioned by the Parliamentary Counsel after a Party Room decision last night and Labor frantically bowed to crossbench demands to keep hold of overreaching COVID-19 powers.”

One Nation MLC Sarah Game also says she will not support the Bill, arguing it’s a legislative “overreach”.

“I’ve been working with legal experts on amendments to ensure this legislation doesn’t compromise the rights of individual South Australians, but Labor and the crossbench have ignored the warnings about the harm this legislation could cause,” she said in a statement, citing previous concerns about the legislation raised by the South Australian Law Society.

But Malinauskas labelled the concern about fines and enforcement a “red herring”.

“We haven’t seen any evidence whatsoever of either the court or South Australia acting in a way we would describe as heavy-handed,” he told reporters.

“Giving the court options to be able to punish people who break the law with impunity, when 99.9 per cent of the population are doing the right thing, I think is probably a reasonable course of action.”

Malinauskas said the government remained “open to other suggestions if they’re thoughtful ones” despite emphasising the legislation “will pass with or without the Liberal Party’s support”.

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