One of the few positives of the pandemic in Australia is the social solidarity it has generated. Most people have been more than willing to endure economic hardship, social deprivation and considerable inconvenience so that as few people as possible get sick and die. The mass acceptance of health as the overriding priority of society illustrates the long-term support for the public health system and its proper funding, a phenomenon that has endured even as resentful politicians have tried to make politics about stopping boats or ending the “age of entitlement”.
But while most people accept health is the overriding priority, not everyone does. In response to the Victorian government’s largely reasonable “road map” out of stage four restrictions, big business unceremoniously spat the dummy. The heads of the Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia and the state chamber of commerce, as well as various companies, have had enough of people’s lives being put before their all-important profits. They want to exercise their God-given right to make money, and they want to do it now. Whether the Victorian government throwing billions of dollars at the corporate world to prop up their Christmas bonuses calms the CEOs remains to be seen. But regardless, their belligerence has shown where their loyalties lie and has changed the dynamic of pandemic politics in Australia.
This offensive comes off the back of whingeing from similar quarters about ongoing border and travel restrictions. The importance of international travel to the Australian economy, whether for migration, education or tourism, is creating tensions between the federal government and business and university heads. Again, it is a case of bosses using their considerable economic and political weight to lobby against important health measures.
In New South Wales, the dynamic is different. The Berejiklian government is recklessly committed to maintaining business as usual regardless of risks to the public. There is not even the pretence of health taking precedence, except when it comes to cracking down on dissent and creating a repressive new normal. While bars, restaurants, casinos and sporting stadiums are now open to hundreds of people, protests of more than twenty people are banned. Students have been fined and arrested for demonstrating against fee increases, while simultaneously being packed into classrooms in large numbers so that universities can keep raking in tuition fees. Political actions—most pointedly the Black Lives Matter protests—continue to be maligned as dangerous and irresponsible even though not a single incidence of COVID-19 has been traced to any of the rallies in the various cities in which protests have taken place. This is not about keeping people safe, but keeping them quiet.
The crackdown in New South Wales is part of a broader trend of authorities using health measures as a cover to erode democratic rights and curtail political expression. Pro-refugee protesters have been arrested, fined and dispersed by police in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, despite extensive efforts to ensure the actions were safe and socially distanced. In Victoria, concerns have been raised over the use of remotely monitored mobile police CCTV units to spy on people in public places. While the units have been justified on the basis that they are enforcing necessary COVID-19 restrictions, they betray a punitive mindset, rather than one focused on public health. Worse, police have admitted that the units can also be used to collect evidence of unspecified “other crimes”.
Police everywhere have used the new powers available to them to throw their weight around, particularly in Victoria. Youthlaw, Victoria’s free legal service for under 25s, is contesting many fines, including one given to a 16-year-old refugee who asked a stranger for directions, a young woman with developmental delay who was fined for shopping more than five kilometres away from her home (despite it being the nearest shopping centre) and multiple cases of homeless people being fined for not being at their place of residence.
Those running the prison system have also abused democratic rights. In Queensland, riots broke out at the Borallon Training and Correctional Centre near Ipswich and the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre in Brisbane, where inmates are subject to stage four lockdown and confined to their cells 24 hours a day. A similarly strict lockdown of public housing towers in the Melbourne suburb of Flemington in July, involving a heavy police presence and the restriction of food, medicine, mail and other supplies, also caused tension with residents.
But it’s been the anti-lockdown protesters who have been on the receiving end of some of the heaviest repression. Dozens of people have been arrested and charged at anti-lockdown actions around the country. In Melbourne, there have been massive police mobilisations against them, even though the protests have failed to attract more than a few hundred people. A Ballarat woman was arrested and charged with incitement for setting up a Facebook event, while two Melbourne men were arrested and charged after encouraging people to attend an anti-lockdown protest.
While these protesters’ opposition to health measures and their association with a variety of right-wing ideas and conspiracy theories are objectionable, they have nevertheless become a test case for how profoundly civil liberties can be violated in the current climate. The pitiful levels of support they attract make them appealing events for the authorities to use to establish a new normal level of state repression. It is especially galling considering bosses who argue a similar line to the protesters—that lockdowns are wrong and must be ended—get treated with the utmost respect, including interviews broadcast nationally and think pieces in major newspapers. The subtext is that ordinary people should follow orders and bosses should be listened to.
Concerning as all this is, it’s not just the democratic right to organise and protest that is under threat in the era of COVID-19. The National COVID-19 Commission advisory board, stacked out with representatives from big business and set up to oversee the government’s response to the pandemic, has now been incorporated into the cabinet despite having been elected by no-one. This has nothing to do with containing the virus. Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to be able to have frank conversations at a national cabinet level about how quickly he can reopen the economy and how many lives he can put at risk without the threat that such information will be leaked to a concerned public. And he wants a forum in which to plan, free from scrutiny, a post-pandemic economy that is most favourable to the big business concerns he serves.
Serious measures to deal with the pandemic, including critical support for lockdowns and other restrictions, shouldn’t mean sacrificing important democratic rights or allowing the government free rein to erode civil liberties. This is not just an abstract proposition. The right to organise and protest will be essential if we are to ensure governments put public health before the demands of business. And they will be indispensable as we move into a post-pandemic world in which bosses will try to push the cost of the recovery onto the backs of workers and the poor. We cannot afford for them to become another casualty of the pandemic.