Ahead of question time in federal parliament yesterday there were two contrasting speeches given. In response to a motion moved by opposition leader Anthony Albanese celebrating Victoria’s reopening after defeating a second wave of coronavirus infections, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, himself a Victorian, declared this was a victory for the people of the state. “It’s their victory and no one else’s”, he thundered. “The Victorian people have suffered so much, the pain, the cost, the loss of Victorian people. It should have never have come to this. The comparison is not with the United Kingdom, the comparison is not with the United States, the comparison is with New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, and South Australia.” Frydenberg added that children in Victoria had lost six months of schooling and 800 people had died. “It all comes back to the failures in hotel quarantine for which we still do not have any answers to,” he roared.
When the Prime Minister rose to speak to the motion, it could not have been more different. While warning that Australia should not embrace a “future of lockdowns” to manage the virus, he added: “Borders and lockdowns are not demonstration or evidence of success… they are evidence of outbreaks that have got out of control. They are evidence of things that have not gone as they should. We saw the issues of contact tracing and we saw Victoria descend into what was a cataclysmic second wave of this virus,” he said. Tellingly, however, Scott Morrisson said it was the “right decision of the Victorian Premier” and his government to impose the lockdown measures.
This insipid justification of the greatest violation of fundamental rights in Australia’s history by the Prime Minister should not come as a surprise. In fact, it is true to form, given his, and many of his fellow ministers’ silence, which goes as far back as March this year, in the face of governments around Australia imposing draconian measures which are a cure that is far worse than the disease.
As has been pointed out repeatedly, the overall ratio of coronavirus-related deaths when compared with other causes of death is minimal. In this regard I cite the group of 13 medical practitioners who wrote to the Victorian Government in August, urging it to lift stage 4 lockdowns and review its policy since the blanket approach was harming the general population. They urged the government to focus on the aged, the most vulnerable segment of the population, rather than continuing with stage 3-4 lockdowns for the whole community for no apparent scientific reason. In the letter, the doctors said specialist referrals from GPs had fallen dramatically as a result of patients fearing they would get sick if they went out. “As a direct consequence of this delay, many will have poorer prognoses. This has especially been the case with three consultants who treat cancer,” they wrote. “We now know that whilst COVID-19 is highly contagious, it is of limited virulence. We are told that since March 2020, 565 Victorian patients have died either with or from the virus (numbers as at 31 August). This compares with annual Victorian deaths of approximately 10,000 patients with cardiovascular disease and 11,000 with cancer.” The doctors also warned: “It is our professional opinion that the stage 4 lockdown policy has caused unprecedented negative economic and social outcomes in people, which in themselves are having negative health outcomes.”
Victorians have just now been allowed, with small steps, out of the harshest restrictions of any country in the world, which were imposed for four months, only as a result of the staggering incompetence of the Andrews government. Parallels have been appropriately drawn between George Orwell’s 1984 and the state of affairs in Victoria, where curfews and surveillance, not only via drones but even of social media sites, is ubiquitous to ensure any opposition is crushed. Unfortunately for Victorians, the “state of emergency” will now continue until March 2021. In fact, the Victorian Parliament has only sat effectively once since March, and that is to consider the extension of the “state of emergency”.
I need not remind readers of the disgraceful episodes that have emerged from Melbourne in recent months – episodes that one might have expected to see in Ceauşescu’s Romania, not in the Australia my forebears came to in search of a better life for themselves and for their children. Priests are being warned by police they will be arrested if they infringe the lockdown to administer the last rites to dying parishioners. Pregnant women are harassed in parks and even in their own homes and charged with “incitement”. Grandmothers chatting in a park are confronted by six police officers and have their phones confiscated. Unarmed women are dragged brutally from their cars. We have seen riot police, in full (black) gear (including Darth Vader-style helmets) as if they are going to quell a prison uprising, vastly outnumber (by 2 to 1, according to reports) and violently shove unarmed, peaceful protesters through the Queen Victoria Market. Add to this the sickening incidental episode of the mentally ill young man rammed by a police vehicle and then stomped on his head by police.
I also need not remind readers that the Victorian Government and Police had no issue with a Black Lives Matter protest attended by 10,000 people in Melbourne, marked by a lack of social distancing and face masks, giving them the proverbial “nod and wink” to demonstrate, even though Chairman Dan has said repeated that protests are unlawful. As Caroline Overington asked in The Australian on 3 September, police did not ask the mother handcuffed in her own kitchen, Zoe Buhler, in a reasonable and sensible manner, to take her social media post down? How many of the Black Lives Matter supporters got arrested, for posting, before their protest got the go-ahead? None. Why did their protest get the go-ahead, while all others are banned?
However, perhaps what is even more disturbing than all of this is the refusal of the Prime Minister to criticise Daniel Andrews in keeping with his strong belief in “national leadership unity”. The Prime Minister has publicly backed the Victorian Premier, including his imposition of de facto martial law across the state. Indeed, Morrison not only has refused to criticise the Victorian Premier for being unable to stop the spread of the virus, he has further encouraged political arbitrariness and oppression in Victoria by, in his own words, “encouraging the Victorian government to ensure that there are appropriate penalties for those who do break public health notices.” Therefore, by saying that the oppressive lockdown was the “right decision”, the Prime Minister is being consistent in his authoritarian bent.
Morrison’s lack of criticism of the other State Premiers must also be condemned. Queensland is effectively closed because Annastacia Palaszczuk wants to be a hero. How heroic is it, will someone tell me please, for a state to be open for AFL footballers and officials, but where sons and daughters are refused entry into the state, even if they come from places in Australia that have not recorded corona infections in more than a month, to see their dying fathers and attend funerals? How heroic is it when a mother pregnant with twins, who lives near the Queensland border, cannot cross it to get urgent medical treatment, but instead has to travel 16 hours to Sydney and as a result, tragically lose one of her babies? Morrison only spoke up about these outrages when it became politically expedient, due to the fact that there is an election to be held in Queensland this coming weekend.
In WA, we have a Premier who has effectively decided he does not want to be a part of the Commonwealth. However, Mark McGowan was caught with his proverbial pants down a fortnight ago by his own Chief Health Officer who told a parliamentary committee that he had advised the government that travel bubbles with some states were feasible, but the advice had not been followed. To save face, the Premier resorted to shameless fearmongering in The West Australian, which is building up a cult of personality around McGowan that is scarily starting to resemble that which surrounded a certain Georgian peasant named Djughashvili during his rule of the Soviet Union. The Premier claimed one of his great fears was that coronavirus would return to WA and that he would have “mass deaths on his conscience”. Excuse me? WA has had NO community transmission of coronavirus since April 11, more than six months. Marxist Mark claims he wants to protect the health of Western Australians, yet the mental health costs of shutting the State off from the rest of the country are staggering. A very significant number of FIFO workers who drive WA’s mining industry are from interstate, yet for seven months children have not been held by their fathers and families have not been able to be together in the same room. Funerals, weddings have been missed, dying grandparents have not been able to see their children and grandchildren for one last time. Yet, as recently as the Diggers and Dealers conference in Kalgoorlie earlier this, McGowan trotted out once more, as he has done ad nauseum, the secessionist line that the WA mining industry “funds the nation” and that “Western Australia still subsidises the rest of the nation under the GST deal even as it is currently constructed.” It is on the back of those interstate FIFO workers that the WA economy is being propped up, yet McGowan insists on playing politics with their lives, brazenly using fear to convince West Australians that the hard border is the only way to protect them from a horrible death and that the monsters from the East want to take our money away.
What has been Mr Morrison’s response to this squalid political bastardry? Capitulation, with a faintly expressed hope that WA will open up by Christmas. One would rightly expect the Liberal party to stand up for the Constitution, yet on Mr Morrison’s orders the Commonwealth has withdrawn from the High Court challenge to the WA border closure. As Janet Albrechtsen noted in The Australian only oday:
Australians might reasonably expect Morrison to test an issue of major national significance for its constitutional implications. Shutting state borders will become an unfortunate precedent for the future. And, as day follows night, the threshold for doing so again will get lower and lower. It won’t be a once-in-a-generation pandemic that leads to borders closing next time. In other words, a functioning federation is at stake.
I wrote in a previous article for this publication about the ‘quiet Australians’ being scared into submission by this Prime Minister, the same quiet Australians who gave his government an unexpected victory at the May 2019 elections. Along with economic management, always at the forefront of an election contest, issues of freedom of speech and religious freedom were considered to be important in the government’s unexpected victory. However, those same quiet Australians would have reason to feel aggrieved, since the Morrison Government’s record on freedom of speech and religion issues is nothing short of lamentable, coronavirus or not.
Let us not forget this is the only democracy in the world which has prohibited its citizens from leaving the country. We are now in the company of Cuba and North Korea. Remember on 19 August when the Prime Minister proudly trumpeted he wanted to make any coronavirus vaccine mandatory before having to back-track less than 12 hours later? Over the last seven months we have witnessed state and federal governments needlessly instil a sense of fear into most Australians, effectively facilitating the transformation of these governments into elected dictatorships. The operative silence of the Prime Minister and his government at the insidious attacks on fundamental freedoms in this country need explanation. Case in point, we have heard very little, as one might have expected, from the Commonwealth Attorney-General, who as the first law officer of the nation, should be vociferous in defending the Constitution and the rule of law, not stand idly by while they are being trashed. Only Josh Frydenberg, as noted above, has spoken up with any vehemence. Unfortunately, even before the arrival of the Wuhan virus, the Morrison Government has form when it comes to issues of freedom of speech and religious freedom.
With regard to religious freedom, the Morrison Government promised before the last election it would enact a Religious Discrimination Bill to protect religious organisations from anti-discrimination legislation so that they could employ people on the basis that they respected the tenets of the faith professed by that organisation. The Bill would also be aimed at protecting and people of faith generally from the same legislation that would undermine their right to practise their faith in their everyday lives, so for example, if such people posted on social media quotes or otherwise published views espousing their religious beliefs, they could not be accused of, and prosecuted for, discrimination. This arose out of the prosecution of the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous, for declaring his (and thus the Catholic Church’s) opposition to same-sex marriage under Tasmania’s anti-discrimination laws. The federal government has had two rounds of consultation with religious groups and released a second exposure draft of the legislation, yet the Bill has not progressed through the Parliament.
Another area where the federal government has failed to act is against the transgender ideology. In June, Health Minister Greg Hunt refused to support a joint federal/state inquiry into what advice is being given by gender clinics to parents of young children and to young people under 18 presenting for treatment. As noted by Moira Deeming in this publication, the increasing numbers of children and young people presenting to gender clinics is very concerning. The Royal Children’s Hospital’s Gender Service, Melbourne reported a 250-fold increase in new referrals to their service between 2003 and 2017 – from 1 to 250. Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory have now made “gender conversion” practices illegal. Victoria will soon follow suit. This is despite the evidence provided by a significant majority of medical professionals that almost all affected children will revert to an identity congruent with chromosomes through puberty. All that is needed in the great majority of cases is ‘watchful waiting’ in expectation of natural reversion, supported by individual and family counselling, and appropriate administration of psychiatric care. This view is supported by many individuals who have experienced a positive change from properly given and appropriate therapy. Under the above-mentioned legislation, access to such therapy will be denied and anyone with influence involved in a child’s life risks incarceration if they do not embrace “affirmative therapy”.
Why then is the government — and the Prime Minister in particular — so hostile to the exercise of fundamental freedoms?
To find a possible answer, we must go back as far as March 2017, when he was Treasurer in the Turnbull government. At this time, attempts were being made to amend section 18C of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which prohibits an act that is reasonably likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity. It had been Coalition policy to either repeal this law or amend it significantly, since it infringes the implied right in the Australian Constitution of freedom of political communication given that the language and emotions 18C targets – offence, insult and humiliation – go far beyond what is required in the international treaties most directly supporting this Act, they being the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
During the debate on the legislation to amend the Act, Morrison told The Sydney Morning Herald that changing section 18C would not help reduce unemployment or improve any other economic metric. He said at the time: “As a senior figure in this government … I know this issue doesn’t create one job, doesn’t open one business, doesn’t give anyone one extra hour. It doesn’t make housing more affordable or energy more affordable. I don’t see any intersection between that issue and those priorities.”
Well, as we have seen this year, oppressive measures to counter coronavirus which have failed to protect those most vulnerable and the Prime Minister’s support for them, have created economic disaster and numbers of unemployed not seen since the early 1990s. The fact is that this appalling result has been achieved with authoritarian provisions in denying the fundamental human rights of Australians, yet at the same time expecting their total obedience and acquiescence. M
The Prime Minister’s weak criticism of the Victorian government in the parliament while at the same time justifying is actions is consistent with that of a man who has in the past displayed his authoritarian tendencies on several occasions.
Scott Morrison’s gratitude for the ‘quiet Australians’ who returned his government can only be described as hollow words by a hollow man. I would go so far as to argue that, as Australia faces its biggest economic and social crisis since World War II, the biggest threat, along with Dictator Dan, to our democracy, the freedoms that underpin it, along with the physical, economic and social well-being of Australians, is in fact the Prime Minister himself.
Dr Rocco Loiacono is Senior Lecturer at Curtin University Law School.
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