Government MPs giving crossbench ‘a cuddle’ as Labor tries to keep bill alive

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The Andrews government will have to wait until the final sitting week of the year to try and pass its pandemic legislation through Parliament as a week of drama – which included an alleged attack on an MP’s child – ended in an impasse.

There are signs the government will gain the support of the one extra crossbencher required by the time Parliament meets again on November 30 with negotiations set to continue over the weekend with little-known upper house MPs Clifford Hayes and Rod Barton.

Transport Matters MP Rod Barton appears crucial to the government’s pandemic legislation.Credit:Joe Armao

Mr Hayes from the Sustainable Australia party and Mr Barton of Transport Matters are both demanding the government add more stringent oversight measures to the bill.

That includes the ability for Parliament to overturn any decisions during a pandemic and the creation of an independent advisory panel that is not chaired by the government.

Mr Barton said he was working on a united position with “the grown-ups” on the crossbench, who have all been allocated Labor MPs “to give us a cuddle”.

“They’ve got to give us all of next week to mull this over,” he said. “We may not be able to come to terms with the government, we may not get there. But I have to say they’re certainly listening.”

The last-minute negotiations come as Reason Party MP Andy Meddick, one of three crossbenchers who helped draft the bill, revealed his daughter was allegedly assaulted late on Thursday night.

He said he had reason to believe the incident was linked to his stance on the pandemic bill, which The Age has not been able to verify, following escalating threats against him and other MPs.

All MPs were invited to a security briefing with Victoria Police on Friday afternoon, unrelated to the incident, following growing safety concerns. One MP who attended the video call told The Age that members across the political divide expressed deep concerns about heightened tensions and wanted to understand what was being done to support members, their families and staff.

The proposed pandemic laws – the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021 – would replace existing state of emergency powers, empowering the premier and health minister of the day to declare pandemics and enforce health directions.

Protesters at Parliament House.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Under the current system, the state’s chief health officer, who is not elected, has these powers.

After former minister Adem Somyurek upset the government’s careful plans of needing three friendly crossbenchers to get the legislation passed, Labor was forced into negotiations with the entire crossbench.

Labor must now work urgently to reach an agreement. If the existing powers lapse on December 16 without replacement legislation in place, the government will be unable to enforce crucial public health guidelines, such as quarantine and vaccine mandates.

Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes, the leader of the government in the upper house, said negotiations with the crossbenchers including Mr Hayes had been “productive”.

“I think that there’s room to move on what he’s suggesting,” Ms Symes said.

Three crossbench MPs told The Age they expected to see a new draft bill early next week after a weekend of discussions they believed would end in a compromise.

Outside Mr Barton, Mr Hayes and the trio who worked on the bill – Mr Meddick, Reason Party MP Fiona Patten and Greens leader Samantha Ratnam – the remainder of the 12-member crossbench, many disgruntled at being excluded until this week, have been unwilling to negotiate.

In a statement released after Parliament concluded on Friday, Mr Meddick said his daughter was in hospital until the early hours of Friday morning. She received three stitches.

“Like many others, I’ve been desperately worried about the comments, threats and intimidation that have been levelled at me and my family, as well as staff and, of course, my colleagues,” Mr Meddick said on Friday afternoon. “And now, my worst fears have turned into reality.”

In a statement, Victoria Police said the 25-year-old woman was spray-painting a poster on Smith Street in Fitzroy when she was approached by an unknown man about 11pm on Thursday and an argument broke out. The woman threw the spray can towards the man and attempted to leave the scene, police said, before the man followed her and threw the can, hitting her in the back of the head.

Political leaders including Premier Daniel Andrews, Opposition Leader Matthew Guy and Prime Minister Scott Morrison – whom Mr Andrews accused of “double-speaking to extremists” the day before – condemned the attack, which remained under police investigation.

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