Waging war on the Corona virus also means defence against rising authoritarianism

By Joe Montero

Concern over Australian government’s extraordinary control and policing measures being applied to the Corona virus outbreak is rising.

These unusual and dramatic times do call for some inconveniences we’d rather not have. Most people are ready to take the on the chin. after all, we’re all in the Corona virus crisis together.

But we can become too complacent, and be lulled into accepting what we shouldn’t accept and not necessary to combat the pandemic.

Some of the actions coming form Canberra, pose a significant threat to our democratic rights, during the immediate crisis and after.

People are complaining about the suspension of parliament, which could last through most of this year, if not longer. Suggestions are being made that this is a suspension of democracy. They have a point, when a great deal of power has been transferred to the executive and there is little accountability, even if the real practice of democracy is really quite limited.

Can those in charge be trusted not to abuse this new authority they have given themselves?

Modern technology provides the capacity for the parliament to keep on meeting. There is no need for a shut down, and we must question why this has been done.

Even more so, whith the track record over recent years: Measures to attack journalists, publishing and whistelblowers; watering down due process in the justice system; putting refugees into concentration camps; hammering down our rights at work; targeting First Nations peoples, increasing surveillance of citizens in general; and an overall shift to decreasing transparency and a rising big brother style of government.

And we have a highly monopolised media, trumpeting the politics of division, scapegoating and egging on all the above.

Only the extent of the opposition coming from the broad community has stopped these developments from being even worse.

Then came the Corona virus. Can we trust those who were already attacking our rights to do differently now? We can’t. It would go against their DNA to take a new path.

Australia must come to terms with the fact, that a government already set on eroding our rights, is going to take advantage on the opportunity to push its agenda further.

In NSW, someone can already be locked up for up to 6 months for being out without an accepted excuse. Most states have brought in 14-day detention without or hearing The other states and territories are moving in the same direction.

The armed forces have taken effective command of all policing, through the new Covid-19 Taskforce. It has come into existence to coordinate this new power. The overall commander is Major General Kenny. He was previously in charge of special and counter terrorism operations. It means he is closely tied to the military secret police, and so will the Taskforce be.

Reinforcing this, is the appointment of Lieutenant General John Frewen to command operations. He is the top military person at the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), the premier overseas spying agency, which was given the power to to spy on Australians in 2018.

Photo from the Australian Defence Force: Lieutenant General John Frewen

This change has been introduced through the back door and hardly anyone’s noticed. New power has been handed to the intelligence organisations, which are undoubtedly very busy building a more extensive network to enter into the lives of Australians, listen to what we say and watch what we do.

Stories about increased monitoring, interference and blocking on social media are beginning to do the rounds. I have experienced it myself, when it comes to critical comments on the handling of the pandemic. It may happen with this article.

Extraordinary measures might be needed. But the best way to deal with the situation, is to confide with the public, be transparent about what is being done, and win trust for a cooperative effort involving the whole of society.

This is not the Morrison government’s way. If it was, it would engage the population much better and there would be far less need for compulsion.

Given the extent of the impact on people’s lives, something we are only getting the first taste of so far, social discontent will rise. Demand on the government to make life easier will strengthen, and it could well be, that the economy will enter an extended period of steeper decline, with a huge bill to pay for the current round of expenditure.

One must conclude, more authoritarianism is the goal of the government, for dealing with the post pandemic period.

If we don’t want to go down this road, the only option is to speak out now. At the least, we must demand transparency, accountability and a sunset on extraordinary measures taken.

We must insist that government allows the voice of citizens in taking on the health crisis. There is no excuse. Consultation can take place at all levels of government, and it can take place outside government.

This needn’t break the need for self-isolation. We have computers and mobile phones. They can be used to communicate in an organised way. Some are already doing starting to do this. More can join in.

An opportunity to build new social networks exists. It can bring large numbers together, build a base in society, which in addition to strengthening the effort to overcome the present health risk, will provide a foundation to defend our basic rights, and act as a barrier to the rise of authoritarianism.


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