By: Staff Writer…Harvey Fewings.
These three words are the essence of our democracy. An assumption that these fundamentals exist, are understood and are protected in our Commonwealth, is essential to the proper function of Government.
In Australia, the Government's govern, Police enforce legislation, law courts dispense justice, denying personal freedom when necessary, because our citizens' consent to them doing so!
Broad community acceptance and trust of our elected representatives and the authority they exercise over us is a matter of consent by the citizens.
If that trust is broken, corrupted or frittered away by petty and irritating bureaucracy, then widespread anarchy waits for us all.
It is a precious jewel this trust.
Trust must be earned – it can never be assumed.
During this trying period of personal quarantine, the Commonwealth National Cabinet has put in place, through various States and Territory Governments, some laws restricting the movements of every citizen – for the common purpose of preventing the spread of COVID-19 within the community and throughout the Nation.
And that is good.
And. As usual, the task of enforcing this legislation falls upon the shoulders of our various State and Territory Police Forces.
So far, so good.
But this wretched disease is placing an enormous strain on people and their personal lives. Businesses have closed, the entertainment and hospitality industries have been pretty much obliterated for the time being, as is the airline industry, and this is not easy to accept for the many talented and committed people who make their living in these industries. Thousands of different businesses have been affected. Some a great deal, some not much but all have been affected in some way.
The Federal Government has moved swiftly to provide income support, passing unprecedented legislation to enable a flow of cash through the community to support those people who have, through no fault of their own, lost their income and their jobs. This legislation has benefited from bi-partisan political action in the Federal Parliament, and the Australian Labor Party Opposition's contribution to this terrible mess visited upon us must be acknowledged as positive and in the National interest.
So, we shoulder our burdens and get on with what life we can.
But, and it is a significant but………… recent specific small actions have let loose a worm of doubt which has begun to wriggle its' way into our thoughts.
We have some examples of zealous police action in a couple of the Southern States which gives this worm some traction. It is reported that a funeral service in Victoria was visited by Police who counted the numbers of people at the service…the report has substance. It is also reported that General Duty Police Officers searched an old lady's shopping in a Melbourne Shopping Centre to determine if she was purchasing essential items…this report also has substance.
We, as a community, are asking our Police to perform duties that are unprecedented in Australia's history; duties that impinge directly on the three words that I used at the beginning of this article.
LIBERTY – TOLERANCE – DIGNITY.
Conducting a headcount in a funeral parlour during a funeral service offends the liberty, tolerance and dignity of those citizens at the funeral and it opens up a gap between those citizens and the Police Officers conducting that activity. I emphasise that I do not suggest that the Police acted outside of the law or outside of their authority.
I think it is also difficult for Police to determine what is essential shopping and what is not – without clear definitions – which are not apparent. But I don't think it is the place for a General Duty Police Officer to have to determine what is an essential shopping item. These acts place the Police under challenging positions and offend the liberty, tolerance and dignity of the old lady in question.
Therefore it is incumbent upon the legislators to ensure that the laws they enact in this challenging time are unambiguous in intent and have absolute clarity of definition.
And, of course, that idea exposes the cracks in the Constitutional solidarity of what we are trying to achieve, during the time of this pandemic – which is, a universal standard of legislation applying to all stakeholders.
The sovereignty of the States ensures that universal standards of legislation are challenging to achieve; simply because each State has its own idea of what that legislation should be.
We know that recently Queensland Police interrupted a party/gathering on a rooftop on the Gold Coast – and, again, I emphasise that the Police were acting lawfully; there is however a great deal of unease developing over this kind of action. Men and women whom I have known for many years and have occupied senior positions in the Australian military and Australian business have indicated that, in their opinion, lines are being crossed that don't need to be crossed.
Of course, judgement is easy from an armchair or a desk; these are serious matters, however, and we should not shy away from confronting them, Is there a sunset clause in the legislation or regulation that allows Police to act in this fashion? If not, why not? Does the legislation make it clear just where and when these gatherings can occur? If I live in outback Western Queensland on a cattle station and I want to have all our ringers and other staff around a campfire for a beer, is this illegal? If it is not illegal, then what is unlawful about a few people on a rooftop?
Australians, unlike citizens of the USA, have an inherent trust of their Government, obviously with some healthy scepticism. We accept, as a necessary reality for maintaining public health, the need for laws that are intrusive at this time.
This acceptance is not universal, nor is it timeless.
As always, our Police are asked to do challenging work; they depend upon comm unity co-operation and acceptance for their work to be successful.
The Police, as well as the community, need some explicit legislation to protect the community and the Police…it is simply not good enough to impose measures of control over activities, which in ordinary times would be quite legal, without some specific timelines in place which make it clear that these control measures are temporary and will be removed expeditiously when the public health threats are removed.
It would be naïve, indeed bloody foolish, for any Government to assume that Australians will just continue to accept these freedom curtailing impositions on their lives without some kind of end game in place.
In closing, I remind you all, Governments govern, Police enforce legislation, Courts dispense justice with the freely given consent of all Australians.
This consent is dependent upon continuing respect, by all our citizens, for the institutions mentioned above.
Remove or dilute that respect and consent begins to be withdrawn.
The withdrawal of community consent and the consequences of that are actions which invite serious consideration.
All of us, the living and the yet to be born must hope that that situation never occurs.