On March 30, New South Wales went to bed in a liberal democracy and woke up in a police state as with a stroke of a pen Brad Hazzard signed into law an Orwellian directive.
The Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order 2020 was signed into law on that day and was in full force by the morning. This directive effectively made it illegal to leave the house without a “reasonable excuse.”
The effect of this directive is that the people of New South Wales must be able to prove that they are leaving their house for food, exercise, education or work, or medical or caring reasons.
This law gave enormous discretionary powers to the police to enforce this directive and equips them with harsh punishments including fines of up to $11,000 and prison for anyone not complying.
The object of this directive is to enforce social distancing but does so in a manner that is completely disproportionate and vests excessive power with the police.
This directive restricts liberties above and beyond what is required to achieve the object. Making people to justify being outside, even when they are alone, is extreme. There is no risk being averted by restricting peoples movement to this extent that could not be prevented by observing them and their adherence to social distancing orders.
Likewise, activities such as walking the dog, reading a book, or getting some sun, are all activities which are illegal under this directive as they do not constitute a “reasonable excuse,” and can all be conducted whilst keeping an appropriate social distance.
The Police Commissioner Mick Fuller assured the public that the police would “show discretion,” but this is the same police force that was mired with scandal last year for strip-searching minors.
People were shocked to see footage of the enforcement activities of police so far. One couple in the footage had sat down to have a break from walking and was swiftly moved along. Surely resting between exercises is an instance for police to apply their much-promised discretion? Activities incidental to whatever “reasonable excuse” people should not be policed this harshly. By this standard, people checking out the specials on cleaning aisle when they are left their house to buy bananas could be reprimanded.
Mick Fuller defended the actions of the police saying they have not issued a single fine despite having the power to issue them on the spot. This is a point that ought to be emphasised. The average cop on the beat has empathy for the public are finding it difficult to keep up with all the changes in law. They understand that people have whiplash from all the dos and don’ts over the past month.
Other states have followed with similar pandemic measures of their own, all too often enforced with a contradictory ham-fistedness.
The more important concern here is the swiftness with which powers were gained and liberties lost.
It doesn’t take a dyed in the wool civil libertarian to be concerned that within 24 hours the Minister can magic up powers that can turn New South Wales in 2020 into Oceania in 1984.
Extraordinary times may justify measures that would never be acceptable otherwise, but should never be an excuse for excessive use and abuse of power.
A utilitarian might argue that the situation requires that we must trade our freedoms for the benefit of the many, but everyone suffers under mass house arrest by threat of fine or gaol.
The people of New South Wales should mark down the date of 29th of June, that is the day these draconian laws expire but, as with everything that is penned under emergency powers, it can be invoked quickly but slowly revoked.
Australians have a duty to hold their leaders to account and ensure that our liberties are returned to us swiftly as they have been taken. We must make sure that emergency powers are removed as promptly as they were acquired.
It is said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Health and finances for most Australians have become oppressively pressing, but it is essential that we keep an eye on our leaders.
A symptom of coronavirus is said to be a loss is our senses of taste and smell; a loss of our anti-authoritarian spirit must not be another. Those with power are not to get too comfortable with it, and the populace must not become accustomed to being lorded over.
If we don’t obstinately demand that our liberties returned, we might wake up to a police state every morning.