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Keeping an eye on police powers

  • 18 April 2020
On 18 March, a human biosecurity emergency was declared in Australia, which has a duration of at least three months. This gives health Minister Greg Hunt unprecedented powers along with the states, after declaring ‘states of emergency’, which has been extended in Victoria until at least 11 May.

The enforcement of such laws lies with the police of each state, ranging from warnings to infringement notices to possible jail time when people, including children as young as ten, are outside their home without a ‘reasonable excuse’ or as part of a gathering. In Western Australia, the police have begun using drones to surveil public gatherings.

Most people would agree that certain measures are necessary to both protect those who face the greatest health risks and so that our health systems don’t get overwhelmed. However, these astronomical limitations on civil liberties raise concerns.

Victoria Police have said they will continue to enforce ‘deliberate, obvious and blatant’ breaches of restrictions. There were 552 infringements passed over the Easter long weekend, including under ‘Operation Sentinel’, 500 police responsible for policing mass gatherings and breaches of isolation orders.

Cases so far include a 17-year-old learner driver booked for non-essential travel while out driving with her Mum. While the fine was subsequently withdrawn, Victoria Police defended their actions, noting that the publicity around the fine had raised public awareness and provided clarity around these circumstances.

This begs the question: should the fine in itself serve as an educational tool or could police utilise their community reach to educate people and clarify doubts around these new laws through conversations rather than moving to fines? After all, the messaging from the federal government has been confusing and these laws are still a recent and drastic phenomenon. Notably, going out as a learner driver to buy groceries would have been considered lawful under one of the four exemptions in Victoria.

As the police have the power to ‘apply discretion’, these laws are likely to disproportionately disadvantage already vulnerable groups, particularly culturally diverse people, homeless people, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and First Nations people. As Samantha Lee of Redfern Legal Service in Sydney stated, ‘The impact of fines often propels already marginalised people straight into the criminal justice system, simply because they are unable to pay.’ With not enough publicly released data, a group of human rights and advocacy organisations have created a website where people can report interactions with the police.


'The question