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COVID-19 Emergency Response Bill 2020

Madam Speaker, I wish to speak briefly to three separate parts of this bill.

First, this bill proposes to amend the Working with Vulnerable People (Background Checking) Act to make sure that workers and volunteers can remain lawful during the COVID-19 emergency period. Registration for those whose certification will expire during the emergency or in the six months thereafter will be automatically extended until six months after the emergency period ends. Those whose registrations have expired in the past 12 months may be eligible to have their credentials renewed by the commissioner if this is deemed appropriate. These are reasonable responses in the current situation.

This bill proposes similarly reasonable amendments to the Family Violence Act and the Personal Violence Act. These changes include allowing the court to extend interim orders for a period of not more than six months. In addition, when parties are required to be present in the court, this can now be done by telephone or other electronic audio-visual means. Consent may be given in the same way, and undertakings may be given in writing. These are excellent amendments, and when this crisis ends, making these changes permanent should probably be explored.

This bill proposes a much larger raft of amendments to the Children and Young People Act. Many of these provide time extensions considering difficulties that may occur because of COVID-19. Extensions to carer approval and voluntary care agreements are certainly reasonable, as are court-determined extensions to certain government activities such as appraisal and assessment orders. In these last cases, it will be necessary, however, to monitor these processes to make sure they are not unduly blowing out timewise. There are, after all, very good reasons why these processes have very strict time limits in current legislation. It is likewise reasonable for this bill to exempt people from being subject to the offence provision if the emergency makes is impossible to comply with the order.

Two other amendments to the Children and Young People Act proposed by this bill related to Bimberi Youth Justice Centre. The second of these empowers the director-general to issue a leave permit to detainees ‘because of the COVID-19 emergency’, and this permit can be longer than current law allows. As we know, places of detention are at risk for outbreaks of infection, and the ability to remove young people to protect them is wise.

The other proposed amendment would empower the director-general to make an emergency declaration in relation to COVID-19, essentially locking down our detention centre and granting emergency powers. This lockdown could last for the duration of the public health emergency. This is very serious business, Madam Speaker. Currently legislation limits the length of an emergency declaration to three days for a very good reason. Research is clear that locking down a youth detention centre for a long period of time is harmful to young people and increases the chance of riots and other serious troubles.

Having pointed that out, I understand that it could be necessary for health reasons to exercise the power allowed under this amendment. But the government must be very cautious in exercising this power, a decision that must be subject to intense scrutiny. Emergency powers include restricting activities, blocking access in and out, and cutting off communications – all very serious actions with enormous impacts on young people.

When concerns were raised in a briefing with the minister, she gave an assurance that the director-general would only take reasonable steps and pointed out that the Human Rights Commission would be overseeing the whole process. Unfortunately, Madam Speaker, this is an area where public trust in this government has been significantly eroded. For some time now, Bimberi has been characterised by regular lockdowns because of poor staffing levels and other issues, and the impacts have not been good.

And unfortunately, oversight by the Human Rights Commission is no longer much comfort in the ACT when those opposite increasingly pay no heed to the commissioners. In a submission to a committee hearing last year, the Human Rights Commission noted that they were struggling to get needed child protection information from this government and were being sidelined when it comes to exercising their oversight responsibilities for young people. Just this morning, all four Human Rights Commissioners issued a signed letter, along with twelve other experts, reprimanding this Labor-Greens government for, and I quote, ‘deny[ing] vulnerable children and their families their basic human rights’.

In such a context, Madam Speaker, oversight by the Human Rights Commission sadly means little to Canberra’s families, and I take the opportunity to put this government on notice that the Canberra Liberals will be keeping a close eye on their management of youth justice under these proposed changes.

Finally, Madam Speaker, it was confirmed in a briefing with the minister that COVID-19 is interfering with children in the territory’s care and protection system having regular contact with their birth families. I understand the health reasons behind this, and I’ve been assured that the government will be putting alternative contact arrangement such as video chats into place, but this is another area where this government simply cannot get this wrong. Alternatives need to be genuinely robust, and again the Canberra Liberals will be keeping a very watchful eye on whether the current ACT Government rises to this challenge.

Thank you.

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