The NT Government has passed extraordinary amendments in Parliament Thursday night to retrospectively “validate” the Chief Health Officer’s vaccine mandate directions, raising suspicions the government had not properly enacted the orders the first time, which one legal expert said has “demolished the rule of law in the NT” and would most likely draw the attention of the Federal Government.
The orders were used to mandate vaccines for working Territorians and resulted in hundreds of public servants and others being sacked for not complying.
The new amendments to retrospectively validate the directions will also have implications on legal action challenging the CHO’s vaccine mandate orders currently before the courts.
The Fyles Government circulated the surprise amendments to the Public and Environmental Health Legislation Act less than an hour before raising them in Parliament to pass.
The government was passing already controversial legislation to extend the CHO’s extraordinary powers for the next two years, despite the COVID-19 situation not currently requiring a public health emergency.
The new laws will see the unelected public servant Hugh Heggie given sweeping powers until June 2024, including to mandate mask-wearing and other health advice, to search homes and seize items, to restrict the movements of citizens and the power to forcibly remove people from their homes.
The last-minute amendments to the legislation, included a part called “Validation of Chief Health Officer Directions”, which will retrospectively validate Dr Heggie’s previous directions, including the vaccine mandate for all workers to attend a workplace.
“The purpose of this part is to confirm the validity of the provisions of the directions … and ensure their effectiveness,” the amendments to the legislation state.
“The directions … given or purported to have been given under section 52 by the Chief Health Officer on 13 October 2021 entitled COVID-19 Directions (No. 55) 2021: Directions for mandatory vaccination of workers to attend the workplace (a) were, and are taken to always have been, valid under this Act; and (b) had, and are taken to always have had, full force and effect on and from when they were given by the Chief Health Officer until 22 April 2022.”
Opposition Leader Lia Finocchiaro hammered the government over the move, demanding to know if it had previously acted beyond its powers and why it would have to insert a new part in the legislation to validate the orders.
Health Minister and Chief Minister Natasha Fyles repeatedly refused to answer many of the Opposition’s questions about the amendments, including why they were brought forward at the last minute and who the government had consulted with.
Ms Fyles said the new amendments to retroactively validate the CHO’s directions would not affect people who have already been fined or charged or lost their jobs as a result of the vaccine mandate and enforcement laws.
Lawyer Danial Kelly, who is representing clients currently suing the NT Government over the vaccine mandate, called the government’s surprise move an abuse of power, after repeatedly seeking to delay the legal action.
“They realise they blundered terribly,” he said.
“They’re abusing they’re powers to legislate to patch up extremely poor and most likely illegal decision making.
“The bill proposes to demolish rule of law in the Northern Territory and may well get the attention of Canberra sufficient to revisit self governance. It is the government’s clear admission that they have something to hide in regards to the CHO directions and demonstrates their fear of being held to account by the court.
“This is the last parliamentary sittings before the court case in June and the Fyles Government is in desperation. A wiser government that actually cares for people would not abuse the legislative process just to save face.”
United NT Businesses, the group backing the legal action against the mandates, said the government was “scrambling to cover its own unlawful actions” by retroactively validating the CHO’s orders.
“The issues at play here go far beyond vaccination mandates and cut to the heart of what it means for the rule of law and proper democratic processes,” said UNTB president Mario Tsirbas.