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Devaluing freedom

  • 29 September 2022
  Recently many people have expressed disquiet about the trend to authoritarian rule throughout the world. They have good reason for doing so. Australian critics have questioned the harsh laws passed by State Governments in Australia affecting demonstrations against forestry and mining operations that contribute to climate change. At issue is the right of people to personal freedom of movement and to freedom of association for expressing ethical convictions.

These laws have been passed in the aftermath of COVID during which Governments legislated emergency powers to restrict freedom of movement, and imposed further conditions on dress and bodily integrity as conditions of employment and access to public transport and eating houses. They attached penalties to breaches of these restrictions.

In ensuring that COVID did not spread, Governments appealed to two popular responses. Initially they publicised the self-sacrificing behaviour of health workers and others in caring for the ill and in preventing the spread of the virus. They represented them as models of placing the good of the community and particularly its most vulnerable members above their own health and leisure. They appealed to these altruistic values. As the pandemic spread and mutated, however, Governments generally appealed to the fear of being caught and fined. They publicised police presence, the daily number of people fined, and the risk of being caught. Police became the public face of the restrictions.

It is easy to see how this emphasis on restrictive law could encourage governments to introduce punitive and restrictive legislation to deal with such other situations as public demonstrations. The bridge to this expansion of law may have been the often violent and unpopular demonstrations against mask wearing and other infringements of individual liberty involved in the restrictions. Though these demonstrations were libertarian in character and so differed from the ecological demonstrations that are communally motivated, the path was open to address both by punitive legislation.

The advent of Coronavirus, however, did not initiate but only intensified an already firmly entrenched trend by Governments to limit human freedoms. The restrictions imposed on strikes in industrial disputes were only one example. Refugee policy, and particularly indefinite mandatory detention and the principle of deterrence that underlay it, were the furnace in which the steel of punitive detention was hardened. It set the Government against the Law and its tradition of habeas corpus and its role of custodian of the human rights of persons in the face of State power.