In response to the coronavirus pandemic, governments here and abroad are increasing their powers purportedly to keep their citizens safe.
O, what joy, to be a dictator in the time of coronavirus: citizens beating each other up in the corridors of the supermarket over toilet paper, no longer getting together for racing, shows or music. Or anything they actually like. Voluntarily! Panic without you having to induce it. Nothing better to oppress a population than fear.
When people are scared, they let you do anything. Close the borders, put up a wall, lock up whomever you want without even having to give any explanation. Because it is for their own good, you can say. Lovely, fabulous, brilliant. Since Friday, Australia has been the proud ‘owner’ of a National Cabinet. The Australian calls it a war cabinet, and although nothing this paper says makes much sense these days, in this case, it is almost right.
The last time we had a government body like this was during WWII, when first Menzies and then Curtin called their federal colleagues on the other side of the aisle into the hallowed halls of the Cabinet Room to tackle a major crisis. Then, of course, it was a war. Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, 75 million casualties worldwide. Now it is a virus, that seems to kill mostly old and sick people.
There is a lot to say about COVID-19. The point I would like to make today concerns our freedoms. The ones we will give up in the next few weeks and might never get back.
But first, let me explain something about that national cabinet. The reason, I suspect, we’ve got it, is because the Australian Commonwealth (the Federal government) has no power to declare a national emergency. Only the states can do this in their own territories.
So, when Morrison calls COAG (the meeting of Premiers and Territory First Ministers) together (now apparently on a weekly basis) it is because that is where control really lies in our country. Under the Public Safety Preservation Act, Premiers are ‘allowed to make any desired regulations to secure public order and safety’.
While under the Essential Services Act, Premiers can ‘operate or prohibit the operation of any essential services, like transport, fuel, power, water and gas’.
We’ve seen part of what that means during the recent bushfire crisis: people can be forced to evacuate, authorities can enter houses when they want to, take possession of properties, close streets, shut off the supply of water and yes, use force against people if they resist. Morrison can’t do that, which must annoy the hell out of him. This is why he is now chairing the group of people who can. Hoping, I’m sure, that by being at the head of the table he can take the power and authority any self-respecting populist leader desires more than anything else.
Ask yourself a question: once we give away our rights and freedoms, how certain are we that we will get them back?
For the moment, the Australian government is mostly advising us to do things. That is, by the way, partly driven by money. If you tell people that it would be better not to fly, or not to meet at big gatherings, it is different from banning those activities outright.
When you ban them, people can claim their money back from their insurances. That is not the case if there is no prohibition, but only a strong suggestion of it. So far the only person with stronger language has been Australia’s chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, who says that he thinks that some people should be ‘required to go into isolation’, or wear a mask.
But like Morrison, Murphy is not in control here, and I think that is a good thing. Because look at what can happen if you give your government more powers than we do. Yesterday, the New York Times called for a ‘national emergency’ to be pronounced. That was interesting because its lead story was a commentary on Trump’s ‘microbe meltdown’; an analysis of the way the President of the US had used the virus to score political points, not protect the population against a health scare.
Trump, as we know, thinks COVID-19 is a ‘foreign disease’, that has to be treated like he treats anything foreign: ban it. Build a wall, pull up the drawbridge. This is how the travel ban for Europeans came into being. Trump doesn’t like Europe, because it is a community of countries working together. The man with the enormous signature prefers nationalism and the world run by one country, his own, led by one man, himself. The UK has somebody at the top who agrees with him there. Boris too is very convinced of his own dictatorial capacities. Which is why Trump made an exception for the UK. Logical, of course: Croatia, part of the EU, has 19 cases of the virus, while the UK, at last count, has 456.
Despite the fact that the President is obviously not the most rational person alive, this didn’t stop the New York Times calling for a national emergency. And that is concerning, because in contrast to Australia, in America this gives the federal government, and especially the President, far-reaching powers.
As Trump said himself when he followed the Times’ lead on Saturday, he can ‘unleash the full power of the federal government’. This means that an extra 123 special provisions become available for the top man. He can declare martial law, shut down the internet, use the military against anything and anybody he wants to. In times of national emergency, many of the legal limits to the President’s authority are set aside.
He can freeze bank accounts, override the courts and lower branches of the government. He can limit or even do away with civic freedoms, the cornerstones of democracy: freedom of speech, of choice, of religion, association, and press. He can start locking people up, torture them, suspend laws, tap phones. In fact, in America, this has already happened. After 9/11, then-President Bush put in an Executive Order, prohibiting transactions with anybody who was suspected of helping out terrorists.
That meant that once somebody was ‘designated’ under the Order, nobody could give them a job, medical care, rent out a house or even sell them a loaf of bread. Mostly, these people weren’t told of their predicament, and because the evidence against them was classified they could also not defend themselves against the charges. This is what we normally call a dictatorship. George Orwell had things to say about it and if you’ve seen The Handmaid’s Tale, you know what can come next.
For the moment, we are protected against these Americanisms in Australia. But every time you see Morrison take the best seat at the table of the new cabinet, I want you to watch carefully.
When you switch on your television and see him address the nation, an Australian flag in the background, his hands folded like in prayer, I want you to be vigilant. And ask yourself a question: once we give away our rights and freedoms, how certain are we that we will get them back?
For this story I have used the following sources: