Scott Morrison Coalition parliament
(Image: AAP/LUKAS COCH)

There is a time and a place to debate the winding up of coronavirus lockdowns and the reopening of Australian society. That time is now, and that place is the federal and state parliaments of Australia.

Coronavirus lockdowns were imposed by fedral and state governments at the start of this pandemic in Australia. That was done using regulation, the power of the executive to amend and extend laws between meetings of the legislative body.

There was broad public support for this. Indeed, the border controls and lockdowns didn’t happen fast enough.

Border Force decisively failed its stated mission with the Ruby Princess debacle. They, and the airports (and federal regulators of them) failed to rapidly modify airport entry procedures — mainly because the airports are now privatised shopping malls with a runway attached.

The Australian public has responded to the lockdowns with implicit consent, knowing or believing that they had to be imposed by fiat to be effective.

Now, as the possibility of, and pressure to have, a relaxation of such begins, there is the time to debate the principles, practices and priorities of continuing lockdowns.

That needs to be done in parliament. So that the government has to make its best case for the changes it is proposing. So that opposition and crossbenches can hold the proposed policy to account, offer alternatives, speak up for those who have been excluded from JobKeeper and other measures, raise the interests of those who may be treated as expendable citizens in the move to reopening: the aged, the chronically ill and disabled, remote-area indigenous people and others.

Governments in power have loved the de facto dictatorship of lockdown by regulation. Each side has channelled its own authoritarian tradition to do so.

The Coalition has returned to the role of imperial enforcer, a throwback all the way to Stanley Bruce days, enforcing a way of life on Australians with little consideration for their expressed desires.

Labor state governments have channelled their post-social-democratic authoritarian technocracy as a “left” version of this. The same cheerful disdain for the public that goes into things like their disastrous design of the Fair Work Commission and the misdirected violence-against-women campaigns, etc, has gone into the attitude displayed in lockdown.

These campaigns treat citizens as units to be behaviourally modified, because challenging the reach and control of capital is found too difficult (and the SDA juntas that constitute state governments’ right faction would not allow it). So people are managed and modified instead, and that has proved perfect preparation for the lockdown.

Both the Morrison and Victorian Andrews governments had to be pushed and pummelled and shamed into not suspending parliament indefinitely – possibly in part by dissenting pressure from within.

Now there is no excuse for avoiding a full “actually existing” democratic consideration of the laws we have been living under. The coronavirus lockdowns represent the greatest incursion by the state into the conduct of everyday life, outside the most extreme and demented regimes — Ceausescu’s Romania, the ISIS caliphate.

They haven’t falen equally on all, they have caused extreme suffering for some — greater than their risk of getting a major case of the virus, in many instances — and that “margin” of people have had their rights and lives actively excluded from consideration, for the greater good.

Now is the time that such measures get a thorough airing, and a real debate about how we will handle the next eight months of this and beyond. We need to hear, on the floor of the House of Representatives, the Senate and state assemblies, some general argument with some referenced science as to the speed and manner of reopening.

Quite aside from anything else, the governments are going to need the legitimacy of genuinely debated measures, if they are to retain the consent of the broad general public for further privations.

Furthermore, anti-lockdown arguments need to be considered thoroughly — not only because they may have merit, but also to bat away the whackier, more conspiratorial ones. And also to have the view considered that governments are moving to reopen too soon, with a second wave of virus and a flu season on the way.

Without some form of actual legitimisation and debate, the shared public-government commitment to rational process will fray, and the capacity to impose lockdown will fall apart.

The schools reopening debacle is an example. This is nothing more than a right-wing Trojan horse, a desperate attempt by the IPA and other forces to use the ministries they have control of to force reopening without debate.

Having utterly failed in the court of public opinion, and put up a pathetic and contentless opposition to lockdown, they simply want to bulldoze the issue. The result is that, amidst otherwise well-executed and consistent lockdown, school reopening has been claimed by the political-culture wars, sewing mass confusion.

We need parliaments to open, with appropriate use of quorums and pairings to minimise risk, and we need them to open now.

We have conducted one of the world’s best responses to the virus, and now we should be able to make the transition to the next stage an open and democratic one.

The federal crossbenchs, the Greens and Labor should make a joint statement calling for this, and opposition parties within the states.

Unity derived from dictatorial fiat is no unity at all. Faced with second and third waves of this disease, we may have to do this all over again. That will be far more difficult to impose.

Only with the legitimacy of unity after debate — an achieved and created unity, a shared responsibility — will we able to do what is necessary to avoid the disasters of the US and the UK.

The place for this is parliament and the time is now.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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