Naps, confusion and two sunrises in marathon pandemic bill debate

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“It might be the case that you’ve had a nap … but can you please refrain from yelling at me?”

Debate on the Andrews government’s pandemic bill was already 14 hours deep when Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes, who has led negotiations with the crossbench for six months, made the plea at 5am on Wednesday.

The upper house had a marathon debate overnight on Tuesday into Wednesday.Credit:Joe Armao

She was part-way through an all-nighter. It would be another seven hours before the Legislative Council adjourned, limping through the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021, its 58 clauses and 145 amendments.

The bill, which attracted intense views and triggered daily protests on the steps of Parliament, and will now return to the lower house as a formality, was designed to transfer the powers to make public health orders from the chief health officer to the premier and health minister of the day before the existing framework expires on December 15.

What is the definition of contact tracing? And of a disease of pandemic potential? Could the bill stop a voter taking part in an election if they have not been vaccinated? (The answer to the third query was “no”).

These were the questions answered — or frequently ignored as a statement — for 21 hours straight in the Legislative Council from 3.05pm on Tuesday until midday on Wednesday.

Fatigue sets in as upper house MPs, including Liberal Democrat Tim Quilty, debate Victoria’s contentious pandemic bill.Credit:Joe Armao

“I think I’ve seen half the chamber napping,” Liberal Democrat Tim Quilty said that morning. “I’ve fallen asleep half a dozen times now. David [Limbrick] kicks me in the ankle.”

Between naps in the chambers and walks around Parliament — with half a dozen MPs posting photos of Christmas trees decorating the upper house and of sunrise over Melbourne — the Legislative Council was restless enough to agitate deputy president Wendy Lovell in the early hours of the morning.

“Sorry, can we have some decorum?” Ms Lovell asked at 4.45am. “I know it’s getting to be, now I can no longer say very late, I’m saying very early.”

Fatigue set in and the MPs, sometimes confused over which clause was being debated, and sometimes calling one another “deranged”, tripped over their words. But the debate was broadly respectful.

Catherine Cumming and Fiona Patten, of the Reason Party, celebrate the end of debate.Credit:Joe Armao

It was midday Wednesday by the time debate finally wrapped up on Wednesday, to celebrations, but it was still the sitting day of Tuesday under the eyes of the Parliament, with the order of business for Wednesday erased.

“We’ve had two sunrises,” key crossbench MP Fiona Patten explained.

Ms Symes was so prepared for the marathon sitting she changed her top. While Rod Barton, the Transport Matters Party MP that achieved significant concessions from the government and handed the government the necessary support to see the vote through, left the building on Wednesday with his tie undone.

All-night sittings aren’t new to the Legislative Council. In 2018, debate on the government’s fire services bill stretched to 11am on Good Friday and the year prior, the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill passed after 28 hours of debate.

After more than 24 hours in the chambers, 21 debating the pandemic bill, Transport Matters MP Rod Barton left the Parliament.Credit:Joe Armao

But is it seriously a good idea for politicians to be debating and voting on critical laws that provide sweeping powers without a good night’s sleep?

Shadow treasurer David Davis said in the garden behind Parliament House: “I don’t think it’s ideal.”

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