As the emergency recedes, the animal spirits of the Morrison government reemerge. In the past few days one has made a couple of bold statements of intent and it’s the rollout of the COVIDSafe app that seems to have caused the outbreak of explicit moralising.
First it spoke through the Health Minister, Greg Hunt, who has been a model of ecumenical dispassion through most of the crisis.
He was sorely provoked, however, by a form of popular resistance to the app.
He was coping fine with the in-principle and practical objectors, rejoicing instead in the very rapid early take-up by the populace. But some citizens’ response wasn’t restricted to just not downloading it. They rolled out their own viral text messages ostensibly triggered by operating the app.
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One such message warned that the app had detected the recipient was more than 20km from home and required them to immediately register their reason for travel.
Hunt did not find this funny, calling it “deeply unAustralian”. Whether the text was objectively amusing or actually treasonous, we can probably agree that now isn’t the best time to be pranking the punters about coronavirus.
Given how many Americans have been hospitalised for ingesting disinfectant, we know it’s not possible to underestimate the lowest common denominator of public comprehension.
Indeed, quite a few Australians think COVIDSafe will detect the virus in its users.
Hunt said he’d called the cops, claiming that “any misuse of telecommunications for a hoax is illegal”. Incorrect. While the law does criminalise some types of hoax communications, there’s no general prohibition on electronic mischief.
The relevant possible crime that the Australian Federal Police could prosecute is one that was put into the Commonwealth criminal code after the Mediscare campaign at the 2016 election.
It is now an offence for a person to falsely represent that they are, or are speaking on behalf of, a Commonwealth body (which includes a Commonwealth government program and so, probably, picks up the app rollout campaign).
There’s a two-year prison sentence, provided the person intended or was reckless as to whether their conduct would create a false representation. There is an exception for conduct engaged in for genuinely satirical purposes, but satire died some time ago so that’ll never fly.
There is no requirement for proof of harm, or that anyone even momentarily fell for the hoax. The offence applies if the Commonwealth entity in question doesn’t exist (you could potentially commit the crime by sending out emails purporting to be from the Department of Silly Walks).
That’s quite draconian, really. The Mediscare texts were bad, and required a legislative response because the conduct of all parties during election campaigns has become increasingly terrible.
However, the appropriate sanction should have targeted the wrongdoers by strengthening the insipid political advertising laws in the Electoral Act, not a sledgehammer assault on free speech.
COVIDSafe then made it on to centre stage, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this on Wednesday:
If you want to see us return to the more eased restrictions that I know you’re looking forward to and that I’m looking forward to, then it is important that you download the COVIDSafe app. This is the ticket to ensuring that we can have eased restrictions … ”
Well, this is new. Two weeks ago Morrison announced the conditions that the national cabinet had agreed would need to be met before restrictions on movement could start to be relaxed. They were more testing, expanding contact tracing and being ready to handle localised outbreaks.
COVIDSafe is, obviously, a mechanism for contact tracing, but until Morrison’s latest pronouncement it had not been touted as anything more than an optional take-up weapon that would (in the government’s view) help. Morrison had disavowed making it mandatory.
Now it’s a weapon of moral and practical blackmail. We can’t force you to download it but if you don’t then you’ll remain under house arrest. Presumably until enough of us see sense; presumably the 10 million who Hunt has said need to sign up for COVIDSafe to be effective.
I don’t have a problem with the government’s advertising campaign, or with anyone’s decision to download the app. It’s a clear personal and binary choice. However, since it’s not so critically important that it has been made mandatory, how can anyone be criticised for saying no?
As for Morrison descending into attempted moral shaming, let alone trying to coerce us into compliance by holding our freedom of movement hostage, that is ridiculous and insulting.
There’s room for sympathy for Morrison and Hunt — they’ve been running hard for weeks and are probably fraying at the edges. Their exasperation at the breaking down of the initial almost universal willingness of Australians to do whatever we were told is understandable. It’d make their jobs a lot easier if we just continued to silently comply.
But we’re not children and this is not a classroom. Like it or not, the government will eventually have to return to the normality of explaining, convincing and justifying its actions, and then being held accountable for the results.
These emerging signals of unwillingness to do the hard work of persuasion, defaulting instead to over-egged threats of prosecution and withholding our liberties if we don’t do what we’re told, are pointers in a disappointing direction.