Institute of Public Affairs in Australia speaking out about a Victoria’s draconian lockdowns

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Institute of Public Affairs in Australia speaking out about a Victoria’s draconian lockdowns.

By John

A letter from the Institute of Public Affairs.

Yesterday was so busy for the IPA that it’s only until now on a Saturday afternoon that I’ve had the chance to tap out a few remarks about the last week. And as this is coming to you from the city (Melbourne) that (as far as I can tell) has the strictest and most draconian lockdown laws in the world, I hope you’ll understand if I say a few things about what’s happening in Victoria.

I realise that 70% of the IPA’s members are not Victorian, but even if you’re not Victorian you might be interested in some comments about what happens when Parliament is suspended; when the police raid people’s homes and decide who is arrested according to the political beliefs of those arrested; when the government invokes a law which gives it the authority to suspend the operation of any other law, and when nearly all of the media (both government and privately-owned) support what the government is doing. I’m not going to draw historical parallels, but I am going to say I find it difficult recognising much of a notion of democracy or the rule of law in Victoria in 2020.

Yesterday afternoon the IPA released a two-minute video with Gideon Rozner, the IPA’s Policy Director – Give Us Back Our Lives – that’s already been watched more than 8,000 times across the IPA’s social media channels. At the end of the video, Gideon gives the details of an email address at the IPA that people can use to contact us ‘’ to tell us their stories. The ability for people to talk about what’s happening, and to find out whether other people are thinking the way they do, is something that dozens of IPA members in Victoria have told me is necessary. Which is one of the reasons the IPA made the video. I think it is one of the most important videos the IPA has ever produced.

The IPA’s chairman, Janet Albrechtsen, wrote today in The Australian that in Victoria the social contract is broken – “We are witnessing in Victoria potentially dangerous changes to the social contract around power and accountability”. That is so right. The ‘social contract’, at least as it applies to the relationship between the citizen and the state, assumes that the power of the state will be used carefully, proportionately, and reasonably. None of these principles have been applied by the Victorian government. For example, as Janet wrote in relation to the 8 pm to 5 am curfew that Melbournians are living under:

The Andrews government has not put forward a single scientific reason, let alone a proportionate justification, for imposing a nightly curfew on the people of Melbourne. The coronavirus is not more contagious at night.

Janet made reference to a significant article published in The Australian Financial Review on Wednesday – ‘Don’t let COVID-19 be a state of disaster for democracy.’ It was written by Michael Borsky, a leading barrister in Melbourne. If you get the chance please read the whole piece, but here are some of its key lines.

Before this year, no Victorian Premier had ever declared a state of disaster. Premier Andrews has now done it twice.

This is precisely not the time to diminish democratic checks and balances. They are our best hope of finding policy settings to navigate out of this terrible crisis.

COVID-19 is the challenge of our generation. Lives are at risk. In a civilised society, we must all make sacrifices to mitigate that risk. The psychological and economic hardship arising from those sacrifices is real, and growing, for so many. As is too often the way, the hardship falls disproportionately upon those already suffering from disadvantage.

But our society has confronted greater challenges before, without derogating from fundamental democratic protections. Parliament sat during both world wars and the Spanish Flu. Curfew has never been imposed across Melbourne – not even during the wars or police force strikes.

The declaration of a state of disaster purports to give the Police Minister powers that are hard to reconcile with orthodox conceptions of the rule of law.

They include powers to: suspend the operation of any legislation passed by Parliament; control all movement into, within and out of Victoria; take possession and make use of any person’s property, and direct any government agency to do or refrain from doing any act…

Autocracy often creeps in at times of crisis. It enables decisions to be made quickly, but not always in the best interests of the community… [I’ve added the underlining.]

Perhaps even more important and less commented upon, are the difficult moral and political questions raised by the pandemic: How much sacrifice by how many are warranted to protect lives? Should we be entitled to incur debts that will have to be paid by younger (and even future) generations? Is an increased prevalence of suicide an acceptable consequence of our attempts to reduce the number of lives lost to one particular illness?

We must grapple with such questions, and can only do so properly guided by democratic and human rights principles.

Decisions as to which businesses are forced to shut should not be made by the executive in closed dialogue with unions or industry lobbyists. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

None of our leaders should be discouraging “comment about human rights”, as the Premier did last week.

The reference to the premier Daniel Andrews dismissing comments about ‘human rights’ followed his remarks at a press conference when he was asked about someone who refused to wear a mask at Bunnings. Andrews said this:

Seriously, one more comment about human rights – honestly. It is about human life. If we continue with this stuff, standing in the car park of Bunnings reading whatever nonsense you have pulled up from some obscure website.

Sure. It might be proportionate and reasonable for the government to require people to wear a mask when they go shopping. But…but…if masks at Bunnings are not the right time to talk about human rights – when is the right time? Is it when tenants in public housing are confined to their apartments for days on end? Is it when Melbournians are
not allowed outside after 8 pm?

Borsky’s article appeared on Wednesday. Yesterday it was revealed that the Victoria Police had arrested two people for planning a protest against the lockdown laws and police raided their homes and seized mobile phones and a computer. The two people were arrested with incitement to commit an offence. A spokesman for the Victoria Police said

This selfish behaviour will absolutely not be tolerated. Be assured Victoria Police will be responding and will take appropriate action. We will have no hesitation in issuing $1,652 fines or making arrests on the day, if necessary.

But that was not the attitude of the police to the Black Lives Matter protests in Melbourne. As IPA Adjunct Fellow Professor Sinclair Davidson wrote in Catallaxy Files this is what the police said in June about the Black Lives Matter protests in Melbourne:

Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius said police respected people’s rights to protest, but would have preferred the action be postponed until after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.

He urged those planning to attend to follow public health directions on social distancing to prevent any more coronavirus infections.

(In The Age this week, Sinclair explained something that few politicians understand – “Economies are not about businesses, and unions, and shops, and goods and services.
The economy is about people; their plans, their expectations, their relationships. For all the talk about competition, the economy is about co-operation. The economy is not a machine that can be switched off and on at will.”)

The failure of the Victoria Police to enforce the law at the Black Lives Matter protest in June was the subject of a legal advice the IPA commissioned from Stuart Wood QC.

The advice identified that by the police not taking action to stop the protest the police may possibly have been acting unlawfully, and now there is the latest instance of the police taking the law into their own hands – irrespective of what the law is. But as Gerard Henderson pointed out in his column today in The Australian, the Victoria Police doing things their own way is sadly nothing new. From the Pell case, to the ‘Lawyer X affair’ in which the police paid a defence lawyer to become a police informer (which is the subject of a Royal Commission), to various other criminal investigations, as Henderson writes, – “It’s a devastating critique of Victoria Police”. And to this day neither the police nor the state government have explained why in December 2017 the Victoria Police demanded the organisers of a speaking event in Melbourne by Milo Yiannopoulos
pay the government $50,000 after a riot at the event which was caused by radical left-wing activists. Once you start transgressing the rule of law the way the Victoria Police did in the Milo case – ever-larger transgressions, as are occurring now, don’t seem too large after all.

At some level, it is perhaps understandable that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been reluctant to criticise the Victorian government and so shatter the façade of ‘national unity’. But as the IPA’s Director of Communications, Evan Mulholland, said on Paul Murray Live on Thursday evening, it is starting to dawn on federal Coalition MPs just how bad the situation is in Victoria.

As David Kemp, a minister in the Howard government and former president of the Victorian Division of the Liberal Party (and my former boss!), wrote in The Australian Financial Review this week:

The enormous economic, social and psychological costs Victorians are being asked to bear because of government failure are unprecedented. Government, from being a constructive force at the start of the pandemic, led by the Prime Minister and Treasurer, in Victoria is now wreaking social and economic destruction on the state, converting the incompetence of its hotel quarantines into the worst administrative failure in Australia’s history.

The federal government is making a great mistake if it does not call this out. It apparently believes that the priority is to maintain unity in the national cabinet. There is no true unity, and the pretense is inhibiting the national debate about this vital policy that we have to have.

This pretense is now dividing the Liberal Party and demoralising its supporters, in Victoria at least. It is also undermining national economic recovery by sanctioning gross policy overreach.

The danger Australia faces at the moment is not from the virus but from governments that either do not know what they are doing or are unwilling to be transparent with the people about their goals, and that are discouraging public debate.

Subjecting a policy with such enormous costs to rational analysis is essential. As initial fears are replaced by frustration and doubt, the discovery of more viable alternatives, of which some seem eminently practicable, must be a priority.

Thank you for your support.

kind regards John

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