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Ministers, police commissioner to be handed sweeping powers

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EXCLUSIVE | Rent increases will be outlawed in SA for up to six months, with the Police Commissioner being handed unprecedented new powers under draft legislation being prepared by the Marshall Government.

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A draft bill titled COVID-19 Emergency Response Act 2020, seen by InDaily, details the proposed implementation of a range of resolutions from the national cabinet, while also streamlining the State Government’s ability to implement key economic stimulus measures.

These include handing sweeping new powers to the state’s emergency co-ordinator, Police Commissioner Grant Stevens, by amending existing emergency management law.

The draft legislation, which is likely to have been considered by cabinet today and is expected to form the basis of the Bill to be introduced to parliament as early as tomorrow, also contains provisions that give Treasurer Rob Lucas the power to circumvent existing Public Finance and Audit law for the duration of the coronavirus emergency – and for an unspecified period of time thereafter.

It will also allow ministers to bypass parliament’s Public Works Committee when green-lighting major projects deemed “necessary or desirable as a result of circumstances brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic” or measures to address it.

The Bill seeks to formalise arrangements between tenants and landlords, both commercial and residential, asserting that from March 30 “a lessor cannot take any prescribed action against the lessee on grounds of a breach of the lease” if they are “suffering financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic”.

This includes a failure to pay rent or outgoings, or the business not being open during the hours specified in the lease agreement.

In either situation, it will be illegal for landlords to increase the rent payable.

This also applies to operators of supported residential facilities, who cannot increase fees and charges payable in relation to a resident contract.

The proposed Act also gives broad regulatory powers to the Government, the Chief Public Health Officer and the State Co-ordinator.

That includes giving the latter a raft of powers “even if to do so would contravene another law of the State”.

“The State Co-ordinator or an authorised officer may use such force as is reasonably necessary in the exercise or discharge of a power or function under this section or in ensuring compliance with a direction or requirement under this section,” the draft states.

It also inserts a paragraph that appears to wind back various civil liberties enshrined in existing law, noting there is “no obligation to maintain secrecy or other restriction on the disclosure of information” when someone “is required to disclose information by a direction or requirement” issued under the new powers.

Similarly, the Treasurer is given new scope to “suspend or modify… any provisions” of the Public Finance and Audit Act or “any requirements under another Act or law relating to financial reporting or auditing”.

This change will maintain effect even after the health emergency has subsided, noting Lucas and the Auditor-General must be “satisfied that the suspension or modification is necessary as a result of circumstances brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic… or to provide economic stimulus during and after the COVID-19 pandemic”.

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