Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been an advocate for Victorians doing the right thing & respecting the rules in place. That doesn’t mean agreeing every decision or that implementation of rules is always easy, but we have nonetheless accepted that there are experts working hard to give their best advice to the Government.
It won’t surprise anyone to note that there are always some Victorians who will do the wrong thing, no matter the social or legal compulsion. However, the overwhelming majority of the people are adhering to the rules, despite the significant costs.
As the months progress I fear that what is already a difficult year is becoming a greater burden for huge numbers of Victorians. I am not making light of COVID-19 and the detriment it is to peoples’s lives; it is a serious disease. It is important to also highlight that a pandemic is never one dimensional; it impacts lives and communities in multi-dimensional ways. These costs are mounting: 100,000s of Victorians are unemployed, suicides related to the lockdown have been reported, mental health services are struggling, the economic picture is becoming more bleak with each passing week. On top of this, after 6 months of living under tight restrictions, the general wellbeing of people has been tested.
For those have secure jobs and whose physical and mental health is unaffected, it is relatively easy to go along with any and every decision coming from Spring St. Not everyone is facing such a comfortable position. Indeed, eventually their costs will become ours.
Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday announced that he is requesting a 12 month extension to the State of Emergency, which will give the Government ongoing control over the everyday and personal lives of 4.9 million Melbournians, and a further 1 million Victorians who live in regional areas. This doesn’t mean that the Government will enforce all these powers for the full duration of time, but it does mean that they can do so at any time.
The announcement is a clear indication that the Government doesn’t trust the people to do what right. I understand the logic behind the thinking but I believe there is an alternative to extending this extraordinary set of powers: we trust the Victorian people to continue behaving in safe and appropriate ways. Victorians have had several months of practicing social distancing and learning to wear masks. The Government can provide detailed guidelines for businesses, schools, churches, and for outdoor activities. The Department of health and human services can provide regularly updates and inform the public of outbreaks and concerns. It remains in everyone’s interest to keep acting responsibly. Those who don’t are, for the most part, probably the very same individuals who are currently flouting the rules.
If after 6 months the people of Victoria are facing staggering costs, how much more are we prepared to pay should another 12 months be added? Some are suggesting a compromise, perhaps allowing for a 3 month extension; the proposal has warrant. Let’s be clear, the issue isn’t only about public health and safety, nor can it be reduced to economics, but there is an issue here that drives to the very heart of democratic government. Should the people relinquish their civic freedoms and responsibilities and hand it all to the Government and to unelected officials? This may not feel like an urgent matter right now, but it rarely does. Isn’t that the point? The strength of societal freedoms and responsibilities are most tested during a trial such as this. It is a dangerous precedent that we would do well to avoid.
It is no small thing for millions of citizens to give up their democratic and social freedoms to a tiny few. No Government in Australian history has ever assumed such power. No Government in modern history, outside authoritarian regimes, has taken it upon themselves to exercise this kind of absolutist rule. Keep in mind, this includes two World Wars and the Great Depression.
At yesterday’s conference Premier Daniel Andrews made the following admissions:
- If there is no vaccine available in 12 months time he will consider extending the emergency powers for another year. That would make a total of 2.5 years, ending in September 2022.
- Should a vaccine be found, it will take considerable time before it is available for the public to use.
- Should a vaccine be found and made available, no one knows how effective it will be and whether it require subsequent tops ups.
I appreciated the Premier’s candour on this occasion. I’ve noticed in recent days that the Government has taken on board some criticisms and requests that are coming from various quarters of the State. For example, more information is now being provided at daily press briefings and Government websites are about to include more detailed data and information. I’ve also appreciated my local MP who is regularly keeping his constituents informed about COVId-19 related issues. I hope that the Government will now listen to these concerns.