In the last two years the people of Australia, like most citizens of free and open democracies, have seen their liberties curtailed in one form or another. Things like mandatory confinement, electronic tracking, and coerced medical procedures (no matter how minor) – all done in the name of protecting our health.
No, wait… It was to protect our health then it morphed into protecting ‘our dysfunctional health systems’. I am not sure of the exact reasoning anymore.
Either way, for what is becoming some vague health reason we have been governed by bureaucrats and not our elected officials as one would expect in a representative democracy. A very worrying trend for someone who believes in individual liberty and free and open societies. While the ‘why’ is a muddled mess of health reasoning, the ‘how’ is largely an unaddressed issue in the public arena.
In Australia, the ‘how’ is relatively simple – state of emergency declarations or emergency powers acts. Each state has a slightly different version of the same blunt legislative tool. Broadly speaking a state of emergency can be declared that then transfers an extraordinary amount of legal authority to a state of emergency coordinator, usually a relevant minister, or as in South Australia, the police commissioner.
These laws were initially enacted to allow quick and decisive action by the authorities during a bushfire or a flood etc. A situation where the police or state emergency providers could understandable control your movement even to or from your own property. An acceptable compromise on freedom and liberty because we are amidst a disaster and action is needed. A state of emergency is often declared by one person, that state’s premier or health minister (in the case of Covid). Again, an acceptable compromise on the democratic process because often at the beginning of an emergency quick and decisive decisions are needed. All fine so far for freedom-loving individuals. Quick decisions are needed, drastic steps that impede liberty may be needed temporarily … temporarily?
Herein lies the problem. The state of emergency acts in all states were designed to last a week or two and then things would go back to normal. But Covid is different, and we all have to accept a ‘new normal’ I hear you say. This may well be the case, but I believe we are sophisticated enough to tackle an ongoing emergency in a nuanced manner that does not compromise the basic principles of a representative democracy. After all, what will we do when the next pandemic strikes?
The following proposal is South Australia specific (my home state) and via my state parliamentary member, has been forwarded to the state attorney general. Thanks to correspondence from my state representative, a reply from the state Attorney General informs me ‘my suggestions have been noted’. While incremental democratic change might be occurring behind the scenes in South Australia, I think the basic principles suggested could apply equally in all those Australian states that are currently falling short of accountable democracy.
A state of emergency should be declared by the premier initially. Often, in the beginning of an emergency difficult decisions need to made quickly and this is both effective and practical. That should, however, have a sunset clause of one month. I think a month is more than enough time to appraise the emergency in question and have an idea of the key providers needed to address said emergency. If authoritarian control is needed beyond a month then one person should not be deciding this. It should be the parliament – our elected representatives, who are ultimately accountable to their constituents and get to debate all the pros and cons of such measures. Then a parliamentary declared state of emergency should have a three-month sunset clause. Long enough so as not to be a parliamentary burden, but short enough to adapt to changing knowledge of said emergency. Also, three months is a nimble enough time frame, on a bureaucratic scale, to allow for adjustments due to unintended consequences of initial decisions.
These amendments to the state of emergency laws have two major benefits for those who believe in liberal democracies.
Firstly, it broadens the debate so all (or at least most) aspects of a modern society are considered, not just one or two sectors. An individual making a complex decision may, through personal preference or incomplete advice, make a poor decision. This is less likely to happen if many, often politically opposing people, debate the issue.
Secondly, it puts more overall control back into the hands of each elected representative instead of one elected official and various unelected bureaucrats. The citizens, under this method of emergency declaration, would also get to see the debate. They would get to understand the necessity, or not, of forgoing certain liberties. More importantly, they get to contribute to the debate via their local representatives and hold them accountable at election time if necessary. The way democracy should be.
Democracy… That thing that can be a bit messy around the edges. That thing that better than any other system respects the individual and provides the freedom to pursue their lives as they see fit. That thing that gets a robustness from gradual improvement. That thing that is sometimes abused by its main players. That thing that refocuses those main players at election time.
Yes, it is election time. South Australia has an election in March and the federal government must go to the polls by May. So, now is the time to refocus our elected representatives. In a representative democracy you don’t have much of a say, but now is when you have it. Let your local member know that you do not like authoritarian rule by unelected bureaucrats. Let your local member know you want changes made to the state of emergency laws – changes that prevent one person from perpetually enacting a statute that hinders the liberty of an individual.
Let your local member know that you prefer democracy the way it should be.
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