coronavirus police state covid-19
(Image: AAP/James Ross)

I’ve been writing about Australia’s sleepwalk into a police state for so long, you’d think I’d be the least surprised now that it’s finally happened. But, like everyone else, I woke up on Tuesday morning and the reality hit me with its full dystopian force.

Brave new world indeed: police cars circling inside public parks, lights flashing, ordering stationary people to either get on with their exercise regime or go straight home. A tense debate on social media about whether visiting your boyfriend who lives in a different house qualifies as a “reasonable excuse” to leave yours.

Reasonable excuse. Let’s dwell on that choice of language, because there is the key to what’s wrong with this sudden descent into uncontained authoritarianism.

First though, the necessary disclaimer. The lockdown is necessary, proportionate and life-saving. I have quibbles about the details, like everyone, but we could never all agree on such vexed questions as whether that girl in the park is planking or just having a lie-down.

But remember why we are doing this, why we are surrendering our most fundamental right — freedom of movement — outside of wartime and for an indefinite period. That is for one reason only: to get us through this public health emergency as quickly and with as little death and damage as possible.

It is the perfect exemplar of communal action, requiring all of us to sacrifice precious elements of our humanity for the greater good. The point is that it is good.

Which is why it grates so horribly that the message we keep receiving is that it’s all bad. Specifically, we’re all bad.

In the COVID-19 world, the persistent failure of our leaders to communicate effectively has led to confusion, complacency and bad behaviour. These outcomes the same leaders have reflexively blamed on the public.

The roots of that reflex lie much deeper; they can be seen in every step that has been taken down the path of authoritarianism since September 11, 2001. In this moment of deep crisis, it is flourishing.

For that reason, when it came to “Stage 3” as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews called it, the lockdown was automatically treated by lawmakers as if it is a punishment for our recalcitrance. We cannot be trusted to stay home, so they’ve made it a crime to go out.

It is necessary, in a public health emergency, to arm the state with the ability to enforce what is needed to be done. So, a legislated lockdown is appropriate, as is the availability of sanctions for those who flout it.  

However, what we have is not a regime that enshrines our collective decision for the public good to stay indoors. What we have is a law that makes it an offence to leave home. Unless we have a reasonable excuse.

I object to the prospect of being stopped on the street by a police officer and required to satisfy him or her that I have a good enough excuse for being outside, to be determined at his or her discretion and with the possibility (in NSW) of a $1,000 on the spot fine, or an $11,000 fine and six months’ imprisonment if I get arrested and convicted.

I wouldn’t object to a regime under which I was required by law to remain home, with the proviso that I was able to lawfully leave home and go outside if I had a legitimate reason for doing so, subject to all the rules of physical distancing. I also wouldn’t object if that regime gave the police power to reasonably determine that my reason was not legitimate and to order me to go home; or to fine or arrest me if I refused and they reasonably believed that I may be presenting a danger to public health by my actions.

Am I being stupidly legalistic about this? To put it another way, who gives a shit? I’d say we all should. The lockdown regulations rushed into force by NSW, Victoria and other states are not just extremely draconian; they start with the premise that it is we who should bear the burden of proving that we’re behaving with social responsibility at all times.

That is unnecessary and wrong. There is no evidence to support the assumption that we wouldn’t as a community do the right thing in this extreme crisis, if our leaders gave us the facts and communicated clearly and consistently about why we need to take these measures.

It is also wrong in principle. Rights are hard-won and easily lost. We have almost no human rights in Australia, but freedom of movement is one that has always been at least assumed (for white people). We must suspend that right for the moment, but in a necessarily qualified way (so we can still eat, exercise, go to the doctor and stay slightly sane).  

The onus should not be on us to prove we are doing the right thing, but on the authorities to prove we are doing the wrong thing. Then, the law may descend with appropriate consequences, as harsh as are needed.

As for NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s protestations that the NSW Police really don’t want to have to enforce this law, sorry, but we’ve got no reason to share that faith.

Peter Fray

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