Victoria’s State Of Disaster declaration brings with it fears from increased police powers and an uncertainty of exactly what those powers may be.

Since March 16 this year, Victoria has been deemed to be in a state of emergency, falling under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 this declaration confers a long list of responsibilities onto the shoulders of the Chief Health Officer. The exercise of these powers has so far been witnessed in the prohibiting of mass gatherings, the quarantine of individuals and other such limitations on the movement of people. Up until now, the steps taking by the Victorian government have been ones deemed reasonable and necessary in the ongoing protection of public health.

However, on Sunday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews took the extraordinary next step by declaring that until September 2 Victoria would be deemed to be in a ‘State Of Disaster.’ Parts of regional Victoria were declared disasters zones in January due to the bushfires, however this was not state-wide, and at the time lasted just two weeks. Melbourne now feels like it is a city under siege, with an 8pm curfew having turned this once bustling night-time metropolis into an eerie ghost town with law enforcement officers patrolling the streets after dark.

Where a state of emergency addresses issues of public health a state of disaster in effect goes further, falling under the Emergency Management Act 1986. A set of laws which is set out to deal with emergencies such as natural disasters, explosions, terrorism or sieges, but it can also be used to deal with “a plague or an epidemic.”

The declaration this time hands over an unprecedented amount of power to the police minister, giving them responsibility over all government agencies alongside the allocation of recourses necessary to respond to the disaster. Now, the directions given by the police minister prevail over any state laws that may be to the contrary.

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 “We have this continual minority of people who are knowingly doing the wrong thing and putting people’s lives at risk by doing so. It’s ridiculous, it’s unacceptable and it is dangerous and that’s why we’re putting in place these extraordinary powers,” Victorian Police Minister Lisa Neville said at Tuesday morning’s press conference.

“Victoria police under the new powers will have the ability to not just fine people, they will be able to ultimately detain people if people continue to breach the directive.”

Not only is a State Of Disaster being declared in the interests of public health and safety, it is widely regarded by many that such a declaration helps in reinforcing the public understanding of how necessary it is to follow government directives. In line with this, Victoria police can now issue on-the-spot fines of up to $4,957 for individuals and up to $9,913 to businesses. Those who repeatedly breach the rules could also be faced with court proceedings and fines of up to $20,000.

At the Tuesday morning press conference, Neville continued by issuing a stern warning to those wanting to flout these new directives.

“Just to be clear, Victoria police will be out there enforcing the curfew. They’ll be out there enforcing whether you can go to work and will be out there enforcing the stage 4 restrictions and the stage 3 restrictions in regional Victoria.”

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 For many within the LGBTQI community there comes an ingrained distrust for the police force, borne from years of abuse and being let down by the powers which are meant to serve and stand in protection of all.

The LGBTQI communities’ increased reliance on chosen family, as well as non-traditional relationship and support structures means that there can be heightened anxiety for some around the new increased police powers. For example, some people have expressed fears around being fined by police when leaving the home in order to provide informal mental health support to peers experiencing suicidal ideation,” said Sam Elkin, Coordinator for the LGBTQI Legal Service at St Kilda Legal Services.

Others have expressed concern about their reduced capacity for exercise due to chronic illnesses, and the possibility of being fined by police for taking a break while exercising. The fact that Victoria Police can now enter people’s home without a warrant due to the declared State Of Disaster has necessarily raised fears for some due to Victoria Police officers leaking sensitive images of Dean Laidley earlier in the year and the fears caused by the raid on Hares And Hyenas.

The utility of the Stage 4 lockdown depends on community co-operation, and it will be more important than ever for Victoria Police to engage sensitively and professionally with our diverse LGBTQI communities.”

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