Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

Fines and freedoms

Simon Cowan

16 April 2020 | Ideas@TheCentre

When a learner driver is fined more than $1,650 for ‘non-essential travel’ by going for a driving lesson despite the general coronavirus lockdown, what lesson should we learn?

That the most important thing is not preventing the spread of coronavirus, it’s following the rules.

Eventually common sense prevailed, and the fine was dropped, but only after media pressure. After all, the driver was enclosed in a car with her mother: the chance of either contracting coronavirus or infecting others is indistinguishable from zero.

And the number of counter-common sense instances of police enforcement is growing.

The level of government intrusion into the lives of ordinary Australians that has occurred in the past three weeks would have been unbelievable just three weeks before that.

At a minimum, this situation should have required three things from government: serious and credible evidence that the limitations were necessary; extraordinary care in drafting legislation and police implementation to avoid overreach (ie not leaving it to individuals discretion); and clear and unambiguous signposts for when the restrictions will be lifted.

Arguably, not a single one of these things have been done. The second and third were clearly ignored in the rush to give power to police. The rate of new infections has now fallen below the level on 18 March, when the restrictions on large gatherings were announced — yet no end is in sight.

Obviously, this is a constantly evolving situation — and government may have more information than they are letting on — but how can we possibly accept a lack of transparency and detail in the face of such extreme measures?

The concern is that such measures are not actually justified at all medically, only politically. The fear, so potent a motivator at times like this, is not the enduring imposition of a police-state (as some seem to be claiming), but the permanent, partial, erosion of the expectation of individual liberty.

In the next crisis, which is unlikely to be a severe pandemic, people will be less resistant to the imposition of serious restrictions on their freedoms. History tells us such powers, once successfully asserted, will be used again.

This is an edited extract of an opinion piece published in the Canberra Times as Have we given up our individual freedoms too easily?

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