Balancing Democracy in a State of Emergency

This blog post is a part of the #WeCanDoBetter Campaign. We’ve partnered up with MSA Environment and Social Justice Department to explore how we can advocate for a more fair and just society post-pandemic. We’ve returned to our past COVID-19 and the Law panel with Melbourne University’s Public Interest Law Network and explore the impact of policing during COVID-19.

Disclaimer: This blog was written on June 10th 2020, prior to the second Victorian wave of COVID-19 cases. Since then, there has been new developments in the Victorian and federal government’s response to COVID-19.


We are in a State of Emergency. No doubt about it. Things have changed as they had to, but where do we draw the line? What is a proportionate incursion into our democracy for the sake of public health? The PLN panel on Human Rights and Democracy in COVID gave some insight.

On 18 March, a human biosecurity emergency was declared by the Governor-General. Referring to broad powers which flowed from this declaration, George Williams, the NSW Dean of Law, noted that, “Right now, Greg Hunt, our Health Minister is essentially a dictator”. Without a Bill of Rights to keep checks and balances, or the ability to litigate on his decisions, Mr Hunt is in the position to implement any measures he deems appropriate. Only when this pandemic is ‘over’, will his reign end. So, until then we are relying on trust that our government will do the right thing. Have they done so?

In terms of satisfying the majority, absolutely they have. Infections are low, business is tentatively returning to normal, and most people have been supported by JobKeeper or JobSeeker. So, no complaints, right? Well, not for everyone. Not if you are one of over a million ineligible for government benefits including international students, temporary visa holders, Asylum Seekers or other undocumented workers.[1] Not if you live in an area of disproportionate police presence. Not if you get a fine you cannot pay. Not if you are an undocumented migrant and are worried to go to hospital because your admission might alert the Department of Home Affairs, placing you at risk of deportation. If you are reading this you are probably fine, and it won’t bother you to download the COVID app either, but many operate on a different playing field.

The ambiguity of laws has afforded police a huge discretion with respect to their laws. Affluent suburbs saw less policing, even though COVID was far more prevalent in these areas. Tim Lo Surdo, Founder of Democracy in Colour explained: Bondi Beach, one of Sydney’s most affluent suburbs saw 15% of Sydney COVID cases but just 1.8% of total Sydney fines. This is compared to marginalised communities of colour including Bankstown and Canterbury representing 5% of COVID cases but seeing 15% of Sydney’s fines.

Tamar Hopkins, founder of the Police Accountability Project, noted that, “In the past police got away with [increased surveillance in these areas] because they could say there was more crime, but recently it is obvious it’s not just that.”

We know that fines affect low income earners disproportionately more than high income earners. A $1,652 infringement for someone earning $80,000 per year is inconvenient but manageable. The same cannot be said for someone on the $1,115.70 fortnightly JobSeeker payment. Some people might even have no option but to go to jail for unpaid fines. Imagine that, going to jail because you couldn’t pay a fine. A fine for not voting is $20, so why not make all fines (including COVID ones) $50, or make them income based?

On a return to normality we will notice a few things. As expected, a reel back of social welfare. The Jobseeker payment will return to the “Newstart Allowance” which at around $550 a fortnight is well below the poverty line of around $1,000 a fortnight.[2] However, some things are here to stay. The government is keen to extend the expanded PSO powers post pandemic.[3] Quick math tells me that means less monetary assistance to the vulnerable, but more surveillance on them. Another legacy to stay is the normalisation of government tracking and the dismissing of privacy. Yes we can be followed in many ways such as Facebook and Google Maps, but this just adds another layer of societal normality to surveillance.

As Tamar said, “During the peak, even white people were at risk when walking in groups of two or more, whereas people in racialised communities have always had to deal with this. Now those of privilege finally realise the extent of policing racialised people deal with”. My hope is that the privileged can now better sympathise with those who live under constant surveillance.

Written by Conan Peterson.

Footnotes

[1] Jennifer Duke & Eryk Bagshaw, The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Expanding JobKeeper to visa workers and casuals could cost $25 billion’ (available at: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/expanding-jobkeeper-to-visa-workers-casuals-could-cost-25-billion-20200412-p54j50.html)

[2] Dominica Sanda and Finbar O’Mallon, The Caberra Times, ‘One in Eight Australians living in poverty’, (available at: https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6641748/one-in-eight-australians-living-in-poverty/?cs=14231)

[3] Tammy Mills & Simone Fox Koob, The Age, ‘Police push for expanded PSO powers to continue post pandemic’, (Available at: https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/police-push-for-expanded-pso-powers-to-continue-post-pandemic-20200520-p54uu2.html)


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