‘In our society we have no major crimes… but we do have a detention camp full of would-be criminals,’ explains the head of the Precrime agency in Philip K. Dick’s short story The Minority Report. In a case of life imitating art, the Victorian parliament is this week debating a bill to give ‘authorised officers’ the power to detain ‘high risk’ people, not because they have done anything wrong, but because the authorised officers suspect they might do so at some point in the future. In other words, not only would the legislation abolish the presumption of innocence, it will dispense with the necessity of a crime.
Under the proposed Covid-19 omnibus bill, an authorised officer is not just a police officer, who spends years training for the responsibility, they could be a union hack, a health care worker – think Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or anyone else a departmental secretary decides to authorise as an enforcer of public health directions.
That’s right. The same departmental secretaries who have no idea who decided to use barely trained and regulated security guards who haplessly spread coronavirus around the state, are now going to appoint whoever they see fit to detain innocent people that they don’t trust to comply with Victoria’s draconian health directions.
Once anointed, they would be empowered to use ‘reasonable’ force to detain people – crash-tackling them to the ground – or to enter premises –battering down doors – without a warrant and to interrogate people to determine if they are complying with public health directions.
What could possibly go wrong?
To be a ‘high risk’ person you don’t need to test Covid positive, you just have to be a ‘close contact’ of someone who has tested positive. According to a government spokesperson, those who might arouse suspicions of non-compliance include the drug-addled, the mentally impaired, or ‘conspiracy theorists’.
Who constitutes a conspiracy theorist hasn’t been defined. People who believe the government is using the coronavirus as an excuse to deprive law-abiding citizens of their liberty have been dubbed conspiracy theorists although you don’t have to wear a tinfoil hat to subscribe to that theory.
Federal Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly has been accused by ‘public health experts’ of pushing a ‘dangerous’ conspiracy theory for claiming that hydroxychloroquine could be effective at treating Covid-19. Last week, the chief executive of the Australian Communications and Media Authority was asked whether social media platforms should remove such posts and she responded, ‘Yes – and I think anybody would.’ Well, maybe not anybody. Last week, Dr Scott Atlas, a member of the White House coronavirus task force.said, ‘What’s happened with hydroxychloroquine is that the system has gone mad. …we all know objective journalism is basically dead in this country… And now what we’re seeing is that objective science is nearly dead.’ His speech was censored by YouTube.
High-risk people could be detained in Victoria’s Covid gulags for as long as the authorised officer reasonably believed the detainee was likely to fail to comply with an emergency direction. This would not only prevent them from infecting other citizens with the virus but their dangerous ideas, which judging by past performance, the government sees as the greater threat. How else to explain that when members of five families in a suburb with many Afghani residents failed to comply with the health directions and 34 people were infected, three of whom were hospitalised, they weren’t even fined. On the contrary, the chief health officer publicly apologised for ‘inadvertently’ revealing that some were members of the Afghani community. No such apology has been issued for assaulting and arresting without cause a journalist who just happened to be a vocal critic of the government or for harassing him at home. Police have handed out more than 23,000 Covid fines worth millions of dollars but none to 10,000 Black Lives Matter protesters.
A key lesson of the Covid pandemic has been to expose the unchecked power vested in incompetent public health officials. Over the months the pandemic has dragged on, they have been incapable of formulating a strategy to deal with a virus with an age-variable risk factor. Covid-19 is far less dangerous than an ordinary flu to children and only slightly more dangerous than the flu to people aged over 70 with underlying health problems but all they have been able to come up with is a one-size-fits-all lockdown more appropriate to pneumonic plague, which has a mortality rate of 90 to 95 per cent. They have also been unable to learn over time – their response has largely been set in amber since March when they wildly overestimated deaths by a factor of ten or more. When they have altered their advice it has still been stupid, forcing people to wear masks when they are on their own or limiting the amount of time they can spend outside getting fresh air, sunshine or exercise. They have been incapable of formulating questions of risk in terms of economic costs and benefits even though this is the bread and butter of health economists. They have abandoned the scientific method, founded on empirical observation and scientific debate. Instead, they have adopted policies such as lockdowns on the basis of no evidence. Worst of all, the fact that their unchecked powers were invoked to protect public health leaves open the possibility that they could be used to justify the abrogation of basic freedoms for other reasons in the future; climate change, terrorism, capitalism, all that is required is that an issue be framed as a threat to public health and the chief health officer could suspend our freedoms and our democracy to save lives.
This time around an eminent group of retired judges and Queen’s Counsels has denounced the power grab. ‘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,’ they warn. Such a proposal ‘should sound alarm bells,’ wrote law professor Gideon Boas in the Age last week. Not to Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy, who says the changes are ‘necessary’ to protect Victorians, or to Minister for Health Jenny Mikakos, who wants the new power ‘to enforce the rules that are keeping us safe.’ While other premiers are getting on the bus to Covid recovery, Premier ‘LockDan’ Andrews wants to get on the omnibus to an authoritarian dystopia. Even the left-leaning Washington Post calls him ‘Dictator Dan.’ One thing you can be certain of, when it all goes horribly wrong the departmental secretaries will have no idea who dreamed up this brilliant idea.
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