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Human rights and pandemic lockdowns

  • 08 September 2020
  Ballarat resident Zoe Buhler does not see herself as a zealot who urged Victorians to protest the coronavirus lockdown rules last week. ‘Here in Ballarat we can be a voice for those in Stage 4 lockdowns [in metropolitan Melbourne],’ she put in a Facebook post. ‘We can be seen and heard and hopefully make a difference.’

Victoria Police duly made their way to her home in Miners Rest. Their intention: to arrest and charge Buhler under the incitement provisions of section 321G of the Victorian Crimes Act 1958. One officer explained the reason for being in her home. ‘It’s in relation to a Facebook post, in relation to a lockdown protest you put on just that day.’ A shocked Buhler expressed confusion and promised to cooperate. She would take down the post, not realising that she had done anything wrong and not knowing the meaning of ‘incitement’. Buhler noted the presence of her children as she was cuffed. She also claimed to have an ultrasound appointment in an hour.

The Buhler arrest stirred a range of responses from across the political divide, many troubled. ‘You can accept lockdown and support saving lives,’ wrote associate editor of The Australian Caroline Overington, ‘but you should still oppose cuffing anyone — much less a pregnant woman.’ Janet Albrechtsen of the same paper suggested a turn to fascism in the state, with thirteen senior medical specialists warning Premier Daniel Andrews that the ‘stage 4 lockdown policy has caused unprecedented negative economic and social outcomes in people’. Health bureaucrats, she warned, had turned into ‘health dictators’.

Legal representatives and human rights advocates were similarly disturbed by what they regarded as a lack of proportion and restraint in police action. Rosalind Croucher, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, expressed dismay, arguing that a crisis such as the current pandemic made it all the more urgent to respect rights. Temporary limitations on rights and freedoms in controlling infections might have been necessary but ‘must always be proportionate to the risk — and managed appropriately.’

Similar sentiments were echoed by Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch, who went further in seeing dark parallels. ‘Arresting people pre-emptively for the act of organising peaceful protests or for social media posts is something that happens all too often under authoritarian regimes, and it should not be happening in a democracy like Australia.’

President of the Victorian Bar, Wendy Harris QC, reiterated the position that ‘enforcement