Daniel Andrews rebuffs Greens ultimatum, saying he won’t be rushed on bail reform

<span>Photograph: Diego Fedele/AAP</span>
Photograph: Diego Fedele/AAP

Daniel Andrews has rebuffed an ultimatum by the Greens to overhaul the state’s bail laws within three months, and ruled out reinstating the presumption in favour of bail for all Victorians accused of a crime.

As parliament resumed on Tuesday, the Greens introduced a private member’s bill to overhaul the state’s bail laws, declaring they would bring it to a vote if the government doesn’t introduce its own reforms in the next three months.

With four Greens MPs in the upper house – up from one in the last parliament – and the opposition flagging an interest in pursuing criminal justice reform during this term, it is possible the bill could pass the upper house, although it’s unlikely to then clear the legislative assembly.

Related: ‘Complete, unmitigated disaster’: inquest into Veronica Nelson’s death urges overhaul of ‘discriminatory’ Victorian bail laws

Brunswick MP Tim Read, the Greens’ acting justice spokesperson, said the party was keen to work with all parties to progress “urgent” bail reform.

“What we’re after is meaningful reform to bail, which will lead to a significant drop in the number of unsentenced people in prison,” he told Guardian Australia.

“The government ought to be able to put a bill to parliament within three months that can do just that.”

Andrews said the government was working on draft legislation but would not put a timeline on when it will be introduced.

“It’s got to be done right. In trying to do it on some unrealistic timeframe, that doesn’t benefit anybody,” he said. “Giving the government ultimatums, that doesn’t achieve anything.”

The Bail Act, tightened in the wake of the 2017 Bourke Street massacre to keep repeat violent offenders out of the community, has led to significant rises in the state’s unsentenced prison population.

This is due to the “reverse onus” tests, introduced in 2018, which impose a presumption against bail for a wide range of offences including repeat, low-level wrongdoing. Under the change, instead of police having to show a reason for bail to be denied, the accused must demonstrate why it should be granted.

First Nations people, women and children have been disproportionately affected, with many remanded in custody for minor offences that would not ordinarily carry a sentence of imprisonment.

They include First Nations woman Veronica Nelson, who died in custody after being arrested on suspicion of shoplifting and refused bail.

The coroner who investigated her death last week handed down damning findings, in which he described the changes to the Bail Act as a “complete and unmitigated disaster”, and recommended urgent reform.

Nelson’s long-term partner, Uncle Percy Lovett, was in the lower house gallery as Read pressed the premier on the issue.

Andrews said he was “not in the position nor will I ever be” to remove the presumption against bail for all offences.

He said the government’s bail reform would provide a better distinction between violent offending and non-violent offending.

Lovett said he was hopeful the government would completely overhaul the bail laws.

“The premier has got to change the bail laws, he just has to. They can’t just make small changes and then do nothing else. Everyone should be presumed innocent, they should have a right to get bail,” he told Guardian Australia.

“Veronica shouldn’t have been in prison, she should have been at home. If it weren’t for the bail laws, Veronica wouldn’t have been in prison, she would be alive.”

“I want to make sure no one else goes through what Veronica went through.”

The Greens’ bill is largely unchanged from one the party introduced to the upper house in 2021, which lapsed before the November state election.

It abolishes the “reverse onus” test, replacing it with a simplified process in which the prosecution would need to establish an accused person was an unacceptable risk to the community in order to deny bail.

The bill also adds other additional factors that may be considered in determining bail, including any parental responsibilities the accused may have; the likelihood of a custodial sentence should they be found guilty of the offence they are charged with; and any relevant human rights under the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.

Related: Unsentenced prisoners make up a third of Australia’s prison population as bail refusals boom

The Greens will need the support of 17 MPs for the bill to pass the upper house. Other crossbenchers, including Liberal Democrat MP David Limbrick and Animal Justice party MP Georgie Purcell, have flagged their support for reform that would prevent people accused of minor crimes from being remanded in custody.