At the beginning of April, I wrote in these pages that Labor Premier Daniel Andrews, in response to COVID-19, had created a “police state” in Victoria. The column ran with the standfirst: “Economic devastation, house arrest and a police state. Surely there could have been a better way.”
I described how under Andrews the most extreme home detention laws in the country had been enacted and enforced without public debate or parliamentary scrutiny, and how the government regulations that controlled every aspect of Victorians’ lives were being made and then changed, literally “hour by hour at the whim of politicians and bureaucrats”.
In April, Victoria – and indeed the whole country – was still gripped by the fear of a virus about which little was known. Six months ago, as politicians, scientists and the media stoked that fear, those who expressed concerns about the impact of what governments were doing to control COVID-19 on the rule of law and individuals’ human rights were dismissed as “irresponsible”, and worse.
Hugh Riminton, the national affairs editor of 10 News First, claimed that to question the Victorian government was “dangerous” and “ignorant”.
In April, according to Newspoll, 85 per cent of Victorians believed that Andrews was handling the coronavirus “well”, compared with 10 per cent who believed he was handling it “badly. With such approval ratings, it’s little wonder that at the beginning of the crisis the media and those organisations claiming they are concerned about human rights applied so little scrutiny to Andrews. It would have been unpopular.
In June, 10,000 people in Melbourne broke the law to assemble and protest for the cause of Black Lives Matter. The Victoria Police, for all intents and purposes, endorsed the protest and no one was arrested. Three of its organisers were later each issued a $1652 infringement notice.
Those who argued a dangerous precedent has been set, as the police appeared to be willing to treat the government’s political allies one way and its opponents another way, were largely ignored.
And so it came to pass that three weeks ago Zoe Buhler, a pregnant mother, was arrested and handcuffed by three police officers in her home, in front of her two infant children, in Ballarat and charged with the crime of “incitement”, not because she had actually breached any of Victoria’s health regulations, but because she had dared express her support on her Facebook page for an anti-lockdown protest.
If Buhler is convicted she will have a criminal record and be liable to a $19,000 fine. Dozens of anti-government protesters have been arrested by Victoria Police in the past month.
All of this is the context in which the Andrews government’s COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020 must be understood. It has already passed the Victorian Parliament’s lower house, where Labor has an overwhelming majority, and it will be voted on in the next new few weeks in the upper house, where independents hold the balance of power.
Two aspects of the law are particularly abhorrent.
The first is the power it gives the government to authorise anyone it chooses to exercise – without oversight, accountability, or the right of appeal – the draconian powers of Victoria’s health regulations, which include arrest, detention, entry into homes and workplaces without a warrant, and the seizure of property.
The second is the power it gives to those so authorised by the government to arrest and indefinitely detain a person who is suspected of being someone who could potentially breach the health regulations.
Such a law has no place anywhere in Australia, ever.
This week, in a powerful statement to the Victorian Parliament, fourteen of Melbourne barristers, including QCs Michael Borsky, Stuart Wood AM, Philip Crutchfield, Georgina Schoff, and former High Court judge Michael McHugh AC, wrote: “Authorising citizens to detain their fellow citizens on the basis of a belief that the detained person is unlikely to comply with emergency directions by the ‘authorised’ citizens is unprecedented, excessive and open to abuse.”
To think such a law could even get as far as it has is incredible. It demonstrates, again, the nature of the police state Victoria has become.