OPINION

Have we given up our individual freedoms too easily?

People have accepted a general right of police to inquire where they are going and what they are planning to do. Picture: Karleen Minney
People have accepted a general right of police to inquire where they are going and what they are planning to do. Picture: Karleen Minney

When a learner driver is fined more than $1650 for "non-essential travel" by going for a driving lesson despite the general coronavirus lockdown, what lesson should we learn?

That the most important thing is not preventing the spread of coronavirus, it's following the rules.

Eventually common sense prevailed and the fine was dropped, but only after media pressure. After all, the driver was enclosed in a car with her mother: the chance of either contracting coronavirus or infecting others was indistinguishable from zero.

And the number of counter-common-sense instances of police enforcement is growing.

A cyclist, who was travelling alone to a mountain bike trail, received a similar fine (also dropped after media pressure). The Guardian reports that three people in Muswellbrook and Moree were fined for sitting in their car without reasonable excuse.

A man was fined for sitting on a bench eating a kebab; although he, at least, had received two prior warnings. Another person who might attract less sympathy is the chap in Albury who was in a minor traffic accident and allegedly told police he needed to leave home to visit his drug dealer. Five men were fined $8000 for playing backyard cricket.

NSW police have also issued warnings to people sitting alone in a park, as well as a breastfeeding mother sitting on a bench, while the Victorian Premier and Police Minister suggested couples who lived apart were banned from visiting each other.

The so-called "bonk ban" barely lasted a day.

And just in case you think this is a problem restricted to Australia, a Colorado father was reportedly arrested by police for going outside. His crime? Playing softball with his six-year-old daughter at a park near their home.

Some may seek to minimise the intrusiveness of these acts as isolated incidents, arising as a result of the progress of the pandemic and the need for a rapid response from politicians and police.

Never again will it be unthinkable that the government could ban people from consensual relationships or family barbecues.

That is nowhere near good enough.

The level of government intrusion into the lives of ordinary Australians that has occurred in the past three weeks would have been unbelievable just three weeks before that.

At a minimum, this situation should have required three things from government: serious and credible evidence that the limitations were necessary; extraordinary care in drafting legislation and police implementation to avoid overreach (i.e. not leaving it to individuals' discretion); and clear and unambiguous signposts for when the restrictions will be lifted.

Arguably, not a single one of these things have been done. The second and third were clearly ignored in the rush to give power to police. The rate of new infections has now fallen below the level on March 18, when the restrictions on large gatherings were announced - yet no end is in sight.

The escalation of anti-coronavirus measures was dizzyingly fast. The first set of widespread restrictions came into place on March 23, following on from the March 18 restrictions, closing pubs, gyms, cinemas, and eating in at restaurants.

Just three days later, this was extended to most other businesses and venues. On March 29, these restrictions were again extended to funerals, weddings, and limiting indoor and outdoor gatherings to just two people. By the start of April, police were issuing four-figure fines for non-compliance.

Yet the median incubation period for the virus is five to six days. Consequently, we cannot expect to see a substantial reduction in new cases from any government measures for at least this period (or perhaps longer). And such an impact grows over time, as each initial infection prevented prevents several fewer downstream infections.

This means that the escalation from Stage 1 restrictions to Stage 2 restrictions and then to Stage 3 restrictions occurred before we would have expected to see the benefits from the Stage 1 restrictions.

Moreover, the new infections peaked on March 28. By April 3, a clear downward trend had already emerged. To the untrained eye, the far less intrusive measures in Stage 1 and 2 seem to have been effective in breaking the exponential chain.

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What then was the justification for Stage 3? Not the general "this is a crisis" type of justification; but specifically what evidence suggested the Stage 1 and 2 measures had failed or were otherwise not enough?

Obviously, this is a constantly evolving situation - and government may have more information than they are letting on - but how can we possibly accept a lack of transparency and detail in the face of such extreme measures?

The concern is that such measures are not actually justified at all medically, only politically. The fear, so potent a motivator at times like this, is not the enduring imposition of a police state (as some seem to be claiming), but the permanent, partial, erosion of the expectation of individual liberty.

People have accepted a general right of police to inquire where they are going and what they are planning to do; something that apparently no longer requires police to have reasonable grounds to suspect you have broken the law.

Communities have aggressively asserted the right to ban outsiders from using their public spaces. States have attempted to lock their borders. Never again will it be unthinkable that the government could ban people from consensual relationships or family barbecues.

In the next crisis, which is unlikely to be a severe pandemic, people will be less resistant to the imposition of serious restrictions on their freedoms. History tells us such powers, once successfully asserted, will be used again.

To date, much of the focus of those critical of the coronavirus response has been on the economic and fiscal damage caused by the lockdown. There is no question this is a real issue: our economy may take several years to recover.

Compared to this, some poorly thought-out fines may seem unimportant. But it's not the small absurdities like copping a $1000 punishment for eating a kebab (which has been punishment enough on occasion) that should make us worry about the latest expansion of government.

It's the redrawing of the boundaries between individuals and families and the government. Our personal freedoms will take many years to recover, if we can recapture them at all.

  • Simon Cowan is Research Director at the Centre for Independent Studies.
This story Have we given up our individual freedoms too easily? first appeared on The Canberra Times.