In what is an increasingly febrile and tribal debate about pandemic restrictions, maintaining a nuanced position on the impact on basic freedoms of government lockdowns is a risky endeavour.
The version from the right and the government, backed by News Corp and The Australian Financial Review, is that Victoria’s lockdown and state border closures are a disastrous left-wing assault on the economy.
That version is carefully edited to leave out that a non-Labor state like Tasmania is every bit as aggressive on border closures, and that Scott Morrison’s own North Korean-style border blockade is far more economically damaging than people being unable to visit Queensland. But don’t sweat the detail.
The version from the left is that any criticism of Daniel Andrews or the Palaszczuk government is part of a corporate death cult that would sacrifice seniors for the sake of shareholders, combined with a government playing politics with the greatest crisis since the war.
That version is edited to omit the absurd excesses of the Andrews government and its police force, including handcuffing and arresting people in their homes for Facebook posts, citywide use of numberplate recognition technology to track motorists, mobile surveillance cameras and a dramatic expansion in police powers.
Confusingly, this is a Freaky Friday role-swap of traditional positions in what passes for the national security debate.
In national security, the right — self-styled advocates for small government — are enthusiasts for ever-greater state power and hardline policing at the expense of basic rights, relaxed about police raids if they’re aimed at journalists or opposition politicians, and regard any critic as a supporter of terrorism, while the left are automatically suspicious of government claims about the need for crackdowns and resistant to increased powers for security agencies.
Health security and national security, though, are just variants of the same idea — that a government official, possessed of greater expertise and knowledge than the public, can and should be able to suppress basic freedoms in the name of defeating a threat to the whole community.
Just to strengthen the analogy, they both involve a resistance to disclosing information to the public. Morrison spent much of March refusing to release the modelling that formed the basis of the “national cabinet’s” decision-making, on the basis that the public couldn’t handle it, before relenting in April. Now Andrews is refusing to release the modelling that informs his decisions.
All very reminiscent of national security — especially that, in both cases, we can legitimately suspect that political considerations are driving at least some decision-making, and the “operational secrecy” is intended to hide that, not protect the populace. Plus, more generally, our politicians and bureaucrats, more than most around the developed world, prefer to keep the rest of us in the dark.
At least, as economist Saul Eslake recently noted to Crikey, with national security — according to the government — there’s some sinister would-be terrorist or spy who might benefit from “operational information”, whereas it’s not as if coronaviruses are sitting around watching Dan Andrews’ press conferences to work out how best to attack us.
The reversal of health and national security roles partly reflects who is affected by government actions. The right is relaxed about national security because white people, at least until recently, never had to worry about the attention of security agencies. But white people are treated no differently to radical Islamists under a pandemic lockdown; privilege counts for nothing when everyone is confined to their homes. There’s nothing like being subjected to apparently arbitrary police power to convert enthusiasts for Laura Norder into civil libertarians.
The other part is that we don’t have a developed public discourse around civil rights and protecting them from governments. Our rights policies and debates focus more on the government itself regulating interactions between people, rather than preventing government from infringing on citizens’ basic freedoms.
Accordingly, watching politicians, journalists and lawyers in Australia try to discuss issues affecting basic freedoms is, with only a handful of exceptions, like watching children perform Shakespeare.
As I’ve noted many times before, we don’t have a deep civil society with the capacity to seriously push back against government overreach; some bodies notionally committed to freedom are funded by corporate interests so come to debates with bad faith and inconsistency; and the debate about a bill of rights — something that unites even the most adversarial of tribes in the United States — is marked here by partisanship and culture warring.
The US, though, is founded upon and marked by a scepticism of government and a fascination with ways to limit its power — at least domestically, and primarily in relation to white people; black Americans and other minorities have rarely been afforded the kind of basic protection from government overreach that white Americans assume as their right.
That’s very different from white Australians, who have always relied on government to protect and support them and instinctively feel aggrieved if such backing isn’t forthcoming. And very different from Australian companies, which have always sought to use influence and cash to secure their own protection and support.
Ultimately Australians may be too addicted to government to ever properly protect themselves from it.