Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos has refused to answer a series of questions during a heated parliamentary question time which was held against health advice.
- The Labor-dominated Lower House did not meet as scheduled due to the advice
- But in the Upper House, the Opposition decried Ms Mikakos’s “appalling contempt of the Parliament” for refusing to answer questions as they were asked
- A parliamentary inquiry recommended new laws so information about people’s health could be disclosed if it was in the interests of public health
Victoria’s Upper House sat in defiance of advice from the Chief Health Officer that it was not safe to do so during the pandemic.
The Labor-dominated Lower House heeded the advice and did not meet as scheduled.
In the Legislative Council, however, a sitting was held, with the Opposition and some crossbench MPs arguing that it was important for democratic institutions to scrutinise the Government during the declared state of disaster.
“At a time when the Government is exercising unprecedented powers that we have never seen in Victoria, we need unprecedented scrutiny,” Liberal Democrats MP David Limbrick told the Parliament.
Opposition frontbencher David Davis noted it had been seven weeks since the Parliament sat.
“There has been a deterioration in the position of health across the state because of the COVID-19 crisis, because of the errors in the processes concerning contact tracing and because of the enormous blunders that occurred with quarantine in this state, and it is critical that the Government is held to account on those matters,” Mr Davis said.
Many Labor MPs did not attend, including ministers Jaclyn Symes, Gayle Tierney and Jaala Pulford, who are based outside metropolitan Melbourne.
Ms Mikakos said the Government did not want to be at Parliament.
“I do think that the position that the Government has been forced into in relation to today’s sitting has been one that has set a very dangerous position — not just in terms of putting staff at risk but also sending a clear message to the community that the Chief Health Officer’s advice can be ignored,” she said.
But it was the refusal to answer a series of questions in question time that enraged the Parliament.
Instead of answering in the chamber, Ms Mikakos replied to every query that she would provide a written response tomorrow. This is not the usual practice.
“That is an appalling response by the Minister, an appalling contempt of the Parliament and a contempt of the community. This is a very serious matter,” Mr Davis said.
Coronavirus inquiry finds doctors left in the dark on Cedar Meats
The heated exchanges came as a parliamentary inquiry recommended new laws so that information about people’s health could be disclosed if it was in the interests of public health, after issues around the outbreak at Cedar Meats.
An interim report by the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee into the Government’s response to the pandemic has made 23 recommendations to Government.
The committee examined the Cedar Meats outbreak, which came to public attention in May but may have begun with a case in a worker on April 2.
The report found the Health Records Act had, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), limited its ability to notify staff at Cedar Meats of the initial positive case, who had told DHHS they had not spent time at the abattoir while infectious.
As a result, it recommended the Government “consider options” to amend the Act “to more effectively facilitate the provision of warnings and contact tracing during pandemics and other public health emergencies”.
The report also highlighted concerns expressed by Australian Medical Association Victoria president Julian Rait that general practitioners were learning about the Cedar Meats cluster in April through people presenting for testing, not through being informed by public health teams.
It recommended DHHS establish better protocols to communicate with doctors during the pandemic.
It also called for more information to be released around the Government’s rent relief program, economy support programs and for an evaluation of the effectiveness of the state’s pandemic plan.
A minority report authored by Opposition MPs Richard Riordan, Danny O’Brien and Bridget Vallence accused the majority report of glossing over Government failures and failing to hold it to account.
The Coalition MPs said the integrity of the report had been “severely compromised” by the Andrews Government’s decision to create a committee dominated and chaired by Labor MPs.
It said the committee should have been reconvened to examine for itself the role that failures in hotel quarantine played in fuelling the latest wave of infections.
“Unless the Government is willing to learn from the mistakes it has made, it will be condemned to make them again,” it said.
Meanwhile, the judicial inquiry examining the state’s hotel quarantine program announced it would hold an extraordinary hearing on Wednesday to provide advice on the impact the recently imposed state of disaster would have on its activities.