At least Mussolini made the trains run on time.

Fascism only has one allegedly positive attribute, and that is competent efficiency. Given that the Coalition’s one trumpeted achievement — its ability to stop boats — turns out to be a mirage (285 of NSW’s 1900 COVID-19 cases came off cruise ships), its sudden lurch to authoritarian rule is a bit of an unfunny laugh.

What I’m about to say is unrelated to the measures the government has taken in response to COVID-19, including the game-changing JobKeeper subsidy announcement. My point is about the hidden risks of expedient rule-making.

Lawyers, like everyone, are feeling heavily whiplashed by the pace of things being turned on their heads; not least the fundamental protections built into our legal system.

Parliament has declared itself irrelevant, after passing emergency measures handing unprecedented powers to the executive branch of government to see us through the crisis. The courts have mostly shut themselves down too. Police and the army patrol the streets enforcing the ever-changing restrictions on what we can and can’t do.

Of course extraordinary times require exceptional responses, and we’re all holding our breath hoping we won’t forget what normality was before we’re able to reclaim it.

But — and I do hate to say this — there is danger here that is being neglected in the rush. I tweeted a throwaway line about it, and was surprised by the response:

I sincerely meant the bit about it being a hilarious coincidence, because I don’t for a second hold Scott Morrison capable of constructing a plan to implement fascist authoritarian rule in Australia under cover of a national crisis.

The whimsy doesn’t make what I wrote invalid; it’s literally true. While our government’s philosophical heart is pure transactionalism, moderated by its inability to feel empathy towards anyone but people like itself, its instincts in a crisis push it quite naturally in the identical direction as your more self-conscious neo-fascist would tend.

Those instincts are: first, control of the narrative. Despite constant questioning, the government refused to share with the population any of the modelling or data on which it is basing its decisions in responding to COVID-19. That was until yesterday, when the deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly told journalists that the modelling would be “unlocked” later this week. But there is no doubt the government will continue to control the conversation — and be able to manipulate the fallout if things go wrong. It is founded in a failure of trust; a basic belief that people are incapable of selfless action.

Second, remove the ability of the counter-narrative to gain popular momentum. That is why parliament is seen as an irritant, not a resource for dialogue, questioning, accountability and better outcomes. It is also why the process of accountability, as the government understands that word, has been handed to a controlled group of business leaders. It’s all kept in the tent.

Third, saturate the airwaves with your own voice. While we understand and decry the high cost we are going to pay for the confusion that is being sewn by Morrison’s frequent and interminable press conferences, that confusion serves a specific purpose. At some point, the government will return to its default position: othering a section of the population and blaming it for the problem. Keeping us uncertain, and therefore somewhat divided, in the meantime has utility.

I repeat: Scott Morrison is not a proto-fascist. He’s more your benevolent dictator type, or rather a bumbling facsimile of that stereotype.

But there is a deadly seriousness in all this.

There is a manifest difference between our willingness, as a people, to suspend our liberties and legal protections in support of a whole-of-society defence against COVID-19, and the keenness of the government to follow its natural instincts down the path of authoritarian rule.

Our protections are being shredded along the way. No parliament, barely any courts, government by unscrutinised regulation and police state rule. These are now in place and functioning at speed, with no time to even grasp what’s happening, let alone argue against any aspect of it.

What would have been better? Parliament, sitting more, not less. Parliamentary committees checking up on the decisions being made by executive command. The courts, sitting more, not less, providing more, not less, of the bulwark of the rule of law to control executive excess.

And transparency. Way more transparency. Oh, to be treated like grown-ups, like people in dictatorships never are.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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