This research paper describes and contextualises the kinds of powers used by the Victorian and Commonwealth governments during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is intended as both a resource that captures the emergency response to COVID-19 and a primer on some of the wider issues related to that response.

The paper has three sections. The first section describes the broader landscape of emergency powers in Australian and Victoria. This section draws attention to the tension between emergency powers and normal democratic processes; the distinctive nature of public health emergency powers; and recent trends in centralising emergency powers in the hands of the federal government. The second section looks in greater detail at the biosecurity and public health emergency powers available to the Australian and Victorian governments, and how they and other emergency frameworks have been implemented in response to COVID-19. The final section contextualises the use of these powers within a wider set of constitutional, human rights and administrative issues that experts have raised in relation to the COVID-19 response.

This paper focuses on the use of public health emergency powers. It does not consider in detail the workings of a 'state of disaster' declared under the Emergency Management Act 1986 (Vic). It does not cover the wider health, economic and social assistance measures to counteract the dislocations of lockdown. These measures have been extensively considered (in Victoria) by the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee and (nationally) by the Commonwealth Senate Select Committee on COVID-19. Details on emergency directions and developments are current at the time of publication.

Publication Details


License type:
Research Paper No. 2, August 2020