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Defending Civil Liberties from COVID-19

World governments have an opportunity to usher in a new wage of progress in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. But it's up to them to take the chance. Matt Byrne explores the history, and the risks, of massive social change.

Governments use crises as opportunities. How governments respond to crises can determine whether they will usher in new waves of progress and liberty or periods of regression and authoritarianism. Take the Great Depression of the 1930s as an example. In the United States, the Great Depression brought the New Deal of 1933, and in Sweden, the Social Democrats created the much celebrated ‘Swedish model’. Conversely, the poor response to the Great Depression in other European countries led to the rise of fascism with disastrous consequences for the world.

While it is to be expected that governments will take legislative, regulatory and policy action in response to a crisis, we must be vigilant in ensuring that such measures are proportionate and strictly necessary. We can’t be naive to the possibility that, in a time of crisis, new laws and measures may be enacted that will have long term detrimental effects on our human rights, our civil liberties and the very nature of how we live our lives. Even the New Deal, which saved American capitalism and allowed the United States to become the preeminent global power of the twentieth century, had the consequence of deepening already entrenched racial inequities because it explicitly excluded supporting sectors of the economy that were represented by majorities of African-Americans.

On the extreme end of responses to the coronavirus crisis we can already cite the measures introduced by Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán that will allow him to effectively rule by decree, but we also need to be concerned by decisions made by governments around the globe – including Australia – that explicitly limit liberties, that have immediate consequences, and which have been enacted with little-to-no explanation of their duration or oversight going forward.

Most people accept that in an emergency like this, governments should have the necessary powers to do what must be done to protect lives and support our society. Citing research from Imperial College London, the World Economic Forum shows that the most effective measures to reduce the spread of coronavirus are “a combination of case isolation, social distancing of the entire population and either household quarantine or school and university closure.”

Whilst it is clear that some coercive measures are required to halt the spread of coronavirus, we cannot allow this be used as a leave-pass for governments to tread all over our freedoms. We must ensure that policies introduced now don’t harm the people most exposed to illiberal measures including women, migrants, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, the poor and the homeless. We must also ensure that beyond this crisis we have not walked blindly into a more authoritarian state of affairs and that such new powers do not remain in place, even in slightly watered down forms.

As UK political commentator and contributor to the London Review of Books James Butler recently put it:

“[the fear] lies in the implications of hastily drafted laws which by their nature tend to omit the people who usually get omitted and forget those usually forgotten. And it lies in the permanent alterations that they make at a level below parliament or the ability to rule by fiat, it’s the way it can permanently shift whether and how we can be searched or detained or which rights can be lodged against the government and that’s why defending scrutiny matters.”

In the United Sates, the Texas and Ohio Executives have used the need for a lockdown as an excuse to stop women from accessing abortion services by classifying abortions as ‘medical procedures that must be delayed’. This is despite the fact that that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommended that abortion not be included in the list of medical procedures that could potentially be postponed.

The Coronavirus Bill, which recently passed the UK parliament, will give the UK Government emergency powers to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. The bill provides the state with a range of new powers including the ability for police and immigration officers to detain and isolate potentially infected people. The new powers in this bill have caused concerns amongst migrant and civil liberties advocates, as well as the proposal to allow the emergency powers to remain in place for the next two years, seemingly well beyond the time needed to deal with the crisis.

Another example is Thailand where a state of emergency was declared this week giving the Thai government extra powers to implement curfews, disperse gatherings and, most concerningly, censor the media and allow the deployment of the military for enforcement.

The situation in Australia at the moment requires us to be vigilant and to examine how current measures could be affecting vulnerable people. The recent decision by a majority of states to close their borders to interstate visitors appears to unintentionally leave people who require treatment by interstate fly-in and fly-out health specialists without the ability to access essential healthcare. This is particularly the case for women in regional areas who require reproductive health services.

The potential long term implications and unintended consequences of rushed policies like those mentioned above make the decisions to suspend parliament in the UK and Australia ones that should raise concerns. Scrutiny is one of the most important roles that our parliament plays in our democracy and we shouldn’t suspend that lightly. One possible way of maintaining scrutiny whilst putting most of the parliament into recess could have been to follow the lead of the New Zealand parliament in setting up a cross-party committee chaired by the Leader of the Opposition to question ministers and key public servants whilst measures are being implemented.

Going forward it is essential that members of our party and our movement should keep front of mind a series of questions that will enable us to frame our response to the crisis and the terrain in which we hold the government to account:

  • What measures are being enacted through parliaments that increase the powers of the authorities to move, detain or inhibit people and are they justified?

  • What, if any, protections or limitations are being placed on such measures?

  • What is the plan to restore the rights and liberties of citizens and residents currently curtailed as a consequence of the government’s coronavirus response?

  • Who will such measures affect and what are the consequences of these measures in terms of accessing healthcare, legal advice and other social support services?

  • What are the long term consequences of governments playing a more corporatist role in organising social life, managing the economy and overseeing and directing industry on the democratic and social rights of citizens and residents?

  • How can the resources of the state and the community be mobilised to deal with the crisis that also promotes democracy, cooperation and solidarity as opposed to fear, atomisation and oligarchy?

The coronavirus crisis is seemingly going to have a radical impact on the nature of the world economy, the role of the state and how people live their lives. By focusing now on the immediate impacts of coercive measures implemented to deal with the crisis, and considering how the Left should respond in the short to medium term, we might be able to ensure that the future is a fairer, more cooperative and progressive one than the one that existed before we entered this crisis.

Matt Byrne is the former Secretary of ACT Labor. You can follow his Twitter at @Matt_oByrne

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