Freedom and protests in 2020 Australia

Sep 10, 2020

Where is the national outcry at the erosion of our freedom to protest?

What have things come to in Australia? Police turn up at the home of a Ballarat housewife who had called for an anti-lockdown protest, arrest her, handcuff her and execute a search warrant on her house… and there’s no national outcry?

“Incitement” is allegedly Zoe Buhler’s crime. And if it is indeed a crime it means that in Victoria today we cannot call on any of our fellow citizens to gather around and protest about anything.

It used to be the case that the left in Australian politics asserted its right to protest. I protested for years against the war on Vietnam, was arrested in anti-Apartheid demonstrations, opposed the war on Iraq and earlier this year attended the Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne.

But today, sadly with the divisions in Australia, the right – Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, The Institute of Public Affairs and so on – speaks up against the latest erosion of our freedom and the liberal left lies low.

A few civil libertarians and lawyers have made their views known. The president of the Victorian Bar, Wendy Harris, said they were concerned by Buhler’s arrest.  “The Bar is concerned that the enforcement action of the police … appeared disproportionate to the threat she presented,” Harris said.

Buhler’s post has been taken down and I have not seen the original but from what I can gather she called for a peaceful protest and wanted protesters to abide by social distancing and wear masks. In Ballarat, where there are only a tiny number of Covid-19 cases, the protest would have posed no threat to public health. If the event had gone ahead and if anyone had failed to comply with the social distancing and mask-wearing requirements, police could have arrested the non-compliant.

The general public barely notices the erosion of our freedom.

Fear drives governments across the political spectrum. They must be seen to be doing something. Since September 11, 2001, the “threat of terrorism” has been used to enact a host of new laws and amend existing laws. These laws have created new criminal offences, new detention and questioning powers for police and security agencies, new powers for the Attorney-General to ban organisations and control people’s movement and activities. The left speaks up. The right applauds the laws.

The “national security” laws can be used to criminalise journalism and punish whistleblowers for telling the truth. A secret trial – that of Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery – is currently running in Canberra.

Equally, fear drives the Covid-19 laws. When governments first heard that people died from this virus, the immediate reaction was that they must do something. What government wants to be held responsible for the death of its citizens?

The initial Australian response to “flatten the curve” was reasonable. Little was known about the disease, how quickly it would spread and who it would affect. The government response aimed to win time to co-ordinate a full medical response.

But it led to Covid-19 tunnel vision. The task became stopping Covid-19 and concentrating on Covid-19 alone, not reducing deaths and trauma across the community. Cancers could go undetected, domestic violence increase and unemployment jump dramatically while we aimed for the impossible – to eliminate the virus.

As more information has become available, it has become clear that Covid-19 is not going to be eliminated in the foreseeable future.

But, as a dozen senior medical practitioners of various specialities have pointed out in a letter to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, while the virus is highly contagious it is of limited virulence.

This disease primarily kills old people and people with compromised health. It rarely kills young people. The median age of death in Australia is well above 80. More than 97 per cent of the Covid-19 deaths are of people aged over 60; people over 80 account for 67 per cent of all Covid-19 deaths.

In their letter to Mr Andrews the medical practitioners pointed out that between March and August 31 this year, 565 Victorians had died either with or from the virus, compared with 10,000 Victorian deaths a year of people with cardiovascular disease and 11,000 deaths of those with cancer.

Every suggestion of alternative policies to those brought down by Premier Andrews is met with the threat that people will die. Playing golf or fishing alone, we were told, would cost lives. Andrews’ over-reaction to the Covid-19 threat and his hysterical response, particularly in the early lockdown days, did more harm than good.

And today public respect for Victorian authorities is not helped by comments such as those by Victorian Assistant Police Commissioner Luke Cornelius who said that police would not tolerate “batshit crazy” anti-coronavirus theories. He then warned people planning to attend protests that their feet “won’t touch the ground” before they were arrested.

I am not an anti-vaxxer, as can be seen from my earlier writings; I do not believe that 5G spreads the virus; or that the virus is a myth.

I do not know why Zoe Buhler called for a protest but she is not alone.

Young working-class people in Dandenong and elsewhere have demonstrated against the lockdown by walking the streets. They are not crazy. They have shown remarkable restraint. They are entitled to their views. They largely comply with the intent of the laws, mostly wearing masks and social distancing and saying (probably untruthfully) that they are just taking their daily exercise.

Although they have social media at their disposal, today young people – particularly those employed in the gig economy – are not organised and we do not have the unions wielding the influence they did in the 1960s.

 Isolated and threatened, our youth, who have lost most from the lockdowns, have been relatively compliant. But as time goes on I have no doubt that many will look back and be angry. And so they should be.  They have been swindled and told half-truths.

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