States Of Emergency: An Analysis Of COVID-19 Petty Restrictions

Written by:
30 April 2020
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Since the World Health Organization’s declaration of the coronavirus as a pandemic-level public health event Australians have been subject to an increasingly arbitrary, inconsistent and petty public policy response. The policy response has been felt by Australians in the form of enforced social distancing and isolation measures in order to delay the spread of the virus so that the number of active coronavirus cases does not at any time exceed the capacity of the health system to provide the appropriate level of care. The Commonwealth Department of Health has explained that keeping 1.5 metres away from other people and practicing good hygiene are essential to the social distancing which is necessary to meet this public health regulatory objective. However, many of the strict rules imposed by state governments have failed to take into consideration whether those activities can be undertaken while maintaining distancing of 1.5 metres.

Under Australia’s federal system, the direct responsibility for imposing a policy response to the coronavirus has mostly fallen on the state governments. In order to impose the extensive restrictions, the states have relied on a variety of emergency and public health powers which have been validated by existing legislation. For instance on 16 March the State of Victoria declared a State of Emergency, which was made possible by the Public Health and Wellbeing Act passed in 2008 and which was to last for a period of four weeks. On 12 April, the state government extended the State of Emergency for a further four weeks, a power available to the government and which it can repeatedly do for a cumulative period not exceeding six months. At no stage does the Victorian government need to debate or approve in parliament the oppressive measures that has turned Victoria into a “police state” as described by John Roskam, executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs.

In contrast to the strict approach of Victoria, Western Australia has adopted a relatively more relaxed approach to responding to the coronavirus. While Western Australia also declared a state of emergency on 15 March, its policy response has been largely directed towards quarantining interstate travellers in government facilities and restricting travel between its nine internal regions, except where travel is undertaken for good reason such as work or compassionate reasons. Other states fall somewhere in between Victoria and WA level of restrictions: South Australia declared a public health emergency but has not refused to enforce the Prime Minister’s advice against gatherings of more than two people. Instead the South Australian government has prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people. Tasmania has implemented a broad definition of “social support” which is considered an essential and lawful reason for leaving the house.

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