Rights, law breakers, Scott Morrison, Sky News and the Covid lockdown

Jul 29, 2021

George Christensen and Craig Kelly, amongst others, have been spruiking false information about the pandemic, about vaccinations and about the lockdown, giving comfort to those who have proved more than a little capacity for anarchic behaviour. Given these exponents of controversy in service of self-promotion sit on government benches, one might have expected censure from the Prime Minister. There has been none.

The anti-lockdown protests held in Australian capital cities, most notoriously in Sydney, have been enacted in the same anarchic spirit that imbued those who stormed the US Capitol following the election of President Joe Biden. The conduct has been reprehensible, put lives at risk, and achieved the opposite of the stated outcome, namely the inevitability of a longer lockdown. At the heart of this arrogance and stupidity lies a total incapacity to understand what ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’ mean in a civil, democratic society.

 In what follows I am indebted to the work of Wesley Hohfeld who identified four incidents to the study of rights theory:

  1. Privilege: According to Hohfeld all rights should be considered a privilege allowing the individual, organisation, or community to do whatever they have no duty not to do. The idea of privilege thus puts rights within a context. Within a family, an individual member might indeed have the right to live as they wish, but within that family, certain responsibilities have to be fulfilled for the sake of the family unit which automatically curtails ‘rights’ the individual might otherwise wish to claim.
  2. Claim: Again, according to Hohfeld, a claim is related to duty. The Prince of Wales may indeed have the right to claim the throne of England, but should he be unwilling to accept the duties associated with that claim, the claim will be forfeited, the privilege needs to be recognised as legitimate by the people. I may claim rights as an Australian citizen, but if I refuse to accept rightful civil authority, my claim is diminished although hopefully never expunged.
  3. Power: Power alters privilege. Within Australia, three levels of government have power gifted to them, by the people at the ballot box, to legislate for common good. They have no power or authority to legislate for sectional or self-interest. Australian tax law curtails the right I might think I have to use all the money I accrue through my work and investment for my own good.  Tax law makes it mandatory, according to means, for all citizens to contribute to common societal needs.
  4. Immunity: Individuals can rightly claim immunity if an authority, be it a government, employer, family member, or other entity has lacked the power to enact regulations that have curbed individual freedoms. Immunity might also be claimed if the legislation or regulation is agreed by the majority not to have been for the common good and thus morally wrong.

Applying these four incidents to the action of the protesters it is clear they had no rights to act as they did, enjoyed no immunity, and were jeopardising the very freedom they claimed to be protecting. They had the right to protest. But in exercising this privilege they had the duty to protect the health of the wider community. By wearing no masks, flaunting authority, refusing to keep social distancing, the right was lost.

The freedom claim was false. People long for freedom, but the great paradox of freedom is that it is most often delivered by those who accept passing privation in the service of the greater good. This presumably is what the ANZAC tradition is about.

The State government not only has the power to enforce a lockdown, but a solemn duty to do so in the pursuit of safeguarding the health and greater wellbeing of its citizens. For the sake of all, essential workers are immune from the constraints of lockdown, not for personal self-interest, but in the interest of the good, they bring to the whole community.

Very few rights are absolute. The right to life, in the context of enjoying, and contributing to the greater good, is the only absolute.

Behind the lockdown is blights to what can be deemed acceptable standards by the political leadership and media presentation.

George Christensen and Craig Kelly, amongst others, have been spruiking false information about the pandemic, about vaccinations and about the lockdown, giving comfort to those who have proved more than a little capacity for anarchic behaviour. Given these exponents of controversy in service of self-promotion sit on government benches, one might have expected censure from the Prime Minister. There has been none. It is utterly disgraceful that he, for the sake of keeping his slim majority, will overlook, and at best slap on the wrist, colleagues who give comfort to actions that endanger the health and freedom of all Australians.

If the excuse for this gross lack of leadership is the defence of freedom of speech, this is a grave error. Like any other right, freedom of speech is not absolute. If it is used to ridicule, let alone incite anger and prejudice, it ceases to be a right. Freedom of speech, like all rights, is a privilege. When great responsibility is bestowed through the election box, freedom is tempered by duty to ensure every fact is checked, every opinion weighed on its possible effect. Every judgement must be weighed at the ultimate bar; does it serve the greater good.

Certain sections of the media have also been utterly culpable. George Christensen, Craig Kelly, Matt Canavan would have little or no oxygen if it were not provided by Sky News and its disgruntled, attention-seeking presenters. Why is this obnoxious news outlet not brought into line? I am fully aware it exists to serve a small minority of the population that revels in delusion, slur, mistruth, and conspiracy theory. But when an interview is conducted in which statements are made inferring it is more dangerous to be vaccinated than to remain unvaccinated, this is not freedom of speech, it is dangerous anti-social behaviour of the most reprehensible kind. It should have caused the media umpire to call time.

The pandemic has a life of its own. That is true. But it is also true that we live in a privileged era in which we are equipped with knowledge and tools to mitigate its effect. That at vital levels of society we are failing to do so, is a critical commentary on humankind’s supposed progress. We err in measuring progress in terms of individual rights, and life’s least important dimension – material wealth.

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