What does it mean to be a democracy during a pandemic?
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;
Story

What does it mean to be a democracy during a pandemic?

Stories/736 , Issues/Human Rights , Issues/Healthcare
Melbourne VIC
13th May 2020
What does it mean to be a democracy during a pandemic?
While public health is of the utmost importance, it must not be used to justify an "authority creep".

The numbers of new COVID-19 cases are dwindling and the end finally seems to be in sight. On the whole, the Australian public has been mostly supportive of the government’s implemented restrictions. Australia has thus far pushed its way through this crisis relatively unscathed. But the recent release of Australia’s own COVID-19 tracing app, ‘Coronavirus Australia’, has added to the increasing skepticism about the government’s gradual erosion of human rights.

A public health crisis like COVID-19 undoubtedly demands new restrictions. Implementing social distancing has meant that Australia hasn’t had to go to the same stringent measures as seen in Italy or China nor rely on the development of herd immunity. Ultimately, it has saved lives. Yet while temporary limitations on our freedom of movement are necessary, our human rights should not be severely curtailed. Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Ed Santow, stated in a speaker event  hosted by The Australia Institute that the restrictions must be “necessary”, “temporary”, and “proportional” and that the Australian government has to be wary of “a creeping rise of authoritarianism.”

In many ways, the slippery slope on which the Australian government now stands has a worrying precedent. The Assistance and Access Act passed in 2018 allows government agencies to access metadata of Australian citizens (although not the actual content of communication records). At the time, the telecommunications industry raised concerns about a potential “authority creep” as more and more government agencies requested access to companies’ metadata. Similarly, at the aforementioned speaker event, Lizzie O’Shea from Digital Rights Watch voiced concern about ensuring that Australia doesn’t see “a surveillance creep” with data collected during the COVID-19 crisis then misused once the crisis is over. In response to such concerns, the government announced  on 12 April that the Australian Signals Directorate would be releasing the source code for the new Coronavirus Australia app. But despite declaring that the privacy assessment would be completed in a matter of days, the source code still has not been released to the Australian public as of the publication date of this article. Open access to the source code would allow necessary public oversight and scrutiny of the new app.

Technological innovation certainly can be used to help countries through the current pandemic. And as Santow emphasised, “we don’t want to say you cannot innovate…we just want to say you need to innovate in line with our liberal democratic values.” To ensure that the government is using this technology for the benefit and welfare of its citizens, the onus must be on clear communication. Releasing the source code is a step in the right direction in demonstrating that the government trusts its own people and is looking out for their good. Yet the policing of Australians that have occurred thus far has highlighted the government’s inclination to treat the public with suspicion.

The streets may now be empty but institutional racial prejudice still patrols certain neighbourhoods. Racial bias in policing has a significant precedent in Australia which can be seen in the disproportionate indigenous deaths in custody. The enforcement of social distancing rules in Australia has ultimately been left up to the states. However, as journalist Osman Faruqi has observed, there are inconsistencies between Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcements on 29 March and the Public Health Orders issued by the states. Despite Morrison stating that it was acceptable to visit family members, New South Wales ruled  that people leaving their home for anything other than food, work, and education that can’t be done from home, exercise, medical or caring reasons, could face an $11 000 fine and possible jail time for up to six months. Faruqi then investigated the data on where fines were issued in NSW (the only state releasing the numbers) and found discrepancies between suburbs. The wealthier and less ethnically diverse Sydney suburbs such as the Northern Beaches and Eastern suburbs had fewer instances of fines whereas most of the fines issued were in Sydney’s western suburbs, concentrated in the three local government areas of Fairfield, Liverpool, and Canterbury-Bankstown. These suburbs have lower levels of educational attainment and high proportions of people from migrant and non-white backgrounds. Regional areas also have been experiencing high rates of fines per capita which, as Faruqi points out, have very high indigenous populations. Tamark Hopkins, who worked at the Police Accountability Project in Melbourne, notes that the fines seem to fit a pattern of pre-existing racialized policing that the public orders are now replicating. 

Again, there is a clear lack of transparency. The fact that no other state or territory other than NSW is releasing this information means that there is no way of knowing how these new police powers are being used. The Australian public is also more likely to be compliant with the new rules if they know that they are, in fact, being used appropriately, but this is impossible without the government being honest with the Australian people and opening itself up for appropriate scrutiny. 

In the meantime, the government is going full steam ahead in rolling out the new technology. Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy is strongly recommending Australians download the ‘Coronavirus Australia’ app so that restrictions can be eased more quickly. It is somewhat encouraging to see that Australia has followed in New Zealand’s steps in establishing an  oversight committee for the Australian parliament. The committee means that there is at least some accountability as to the implications the government’s crisis response has for human rights. Even – or especially – in times of crisis, Australian democracy owes the public honesty and transparency as it navigates its way out of the crisis. 

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