One of the early Australian casualties in the coronavirus crisis was parliamentary democracy. Before widespread economic lockdowns or public health restrictions were established, our Parliaments were quietly adjourned – cancelled, effectively – for months and months and months. In some instances these adjournments had no stated time limit, effectively postponing the functioning of the Parliament for an indeterminate period. The ease with which this was effected was disquieting, but in comparison with the then looming public health crisis it seemed pretty inconsequential.
One of the latter casualties of the crisis – in NSW at least – has been the right to protest, with stricter and more stringent restrictions on public gatherings for political purposes being imposed even as similar restrictions on gatherings for other purposes (shopping, for example, or watching football) were being lifted.
The political and legal drama surrounding the Sydney Black Lives Matter protest highlighted how unstable and uncertain rights most Australians consider to be fundamental really are.
The global coronavirus pandemic has given us cause to reconsider whether democracy – in the parliamentary and participatory sense - is an essential service. Whether, in times of extreme health and economic stress, these institutions help or hinder our collective community response. It has also demonstrated the way in which the stress of the public health crisis on our democratic institutions can exacerbate unequal access to a public voice.
In my view the current COVID-19 crisis is proof of the enduring necessity of our democratic traditions and the collectivist values that underpin them. Health, economic and social responses to this utter catastrophe must be coordinated.
Every person for themselves is death, literally. We cannot manage this on our own. We are relying on each other to observe physical distancing and proper hygiene practices to limit the spread of the virus. We are relying on each other to check in with friends and neighbours, to make sure people have what they need and aren’t falling through the cracks.
This coordinated response must be delivered by government. The state is the only institution capable of such a monumental task, proof of its relevance and centrality in our lives. It is only by working together that we can deal with this crisis - and it is our parliamentary system that provides the framework for that co-operation.
Across Australia, this parliamentary framework experienced massive disruption because of the public health crisis. In the short-term, even the most dedicated Parliamentarians accepted this as entirely necessary. As time passed, we began to see the detrimental impact of this limited community input into the development of public health and economic responses.
Members of Parliament have a much broader role than participation in Parliamentary sittings, but this task is foundational to what we do. You cannot be a Member of Parliament with no Parliament. We don’t sit all the time, but our work representing the community is built around our engagement in the parliamentary process.
One example of the importance of defending our democratic traditions are the Public Health Orders executed from late March. These Orders are without question the largest peacetime restriction on our civil liberties. They imposed significant restrictions on our movement, on our ability to go outside our homes, to gather with our friends and family. Breaches of these restrictions - enforced with a significant degree of police discretion - result in substantial fines, or even a prison sentence.
These restrictions were and are necessary, however access to information on what these restrictions mean and how long we will be subject to them is unclear and difficult to ascertain.
When asked at a hastily convened NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into the NSW Governments’ response to COVID-19 to provide details on what constitutes a reasonable excuse to leave your house under one iteration of the Order, the Police Commissioner took the question on notice. How can the community be assured these restrictions are being administrated clearly and consistently? Who can the community rely on to ensure these unprecedented restrictions are not normalised? The community rightfully expects their elected political representatives to provide these assurances.
Another example of the importance of parliamentary oversight is the nature and scale of the economic response to the serious downturn caused by the pandemic. The public expenditure is unprecedented, changes to laws around tenancy, planning, public infrastructure, small business support have been pushed through truncated Parliamentary sittings with limited debate. In such circumstances, how can the community have confidence that these policies are properly targeted and fairly delivered? The old adage ‘no taxation without representation’ comes to mind, it is only reasonable for the community who is funding these initiatives through taxes to be represented in decisions around expenditure through their elected Members of Parliament.
The reality is that for people who are well-resourced and relatively privileged, whilst these restrictions and the limited public information around them can be annoying, they are able to function reasonably well. It’s those who are already disadvantaged, who don’t have the luxuries of safe and stable housing, who can’t read the newspapers, who are already alienated from our social fabric, they bear the brunt of the serious downsides of this difficult new world. The further disenfranchisement of these people from our community undermines the strength of our democracy.
It’s not just the curtailing of our parliamentary traditions that we need to concern ourselves with. We all know that political expression means much more than Parliament. We also have civil society and the courts – amongst others – to make our voices heard. Our capacity to express ourselves politically in these ways has been severely limited as well. Traditional tactics to express civic unrest – street protests, public rallies, organising door to door amongst communities and neighbours – are all illegal. Our courts have been wound back and curtailed, only the most pressing and urgent matters listed for hearings.
The restrictions on the right to protest have been particularly problematic in NSW. Despite positive progress on COVID management and the decision to ease restrictions on things like social gatherings, shopping and football games, an extremely hard-line against political protests was taken by the NSW Government. Police were told to aggressively enforce limits on gatherings.
One of the most concerning elements of the NSW Government approach to prohibiting protest gatherings was the very limited details as to how long this approach would be adopted and what people who wanted to engage in political protest could do to ensure their activities were safe. For basic democratic rights like freedom of assembly, it is not unreasonable that restrictions should be as limited and light-touch as possible. With no clear end to the persistent and looming threat of COVID-19 in sight, continuing restrictions risk becoming normalised. ‘Road-maps’ back to ‘normal life’ are important for our economy and our community, and they’re also important for the civil liberties we have curtailed.
Again, these restrictions have the most significant impact on people already disadvantaged within our political systems. It is often people who don’t have contact with elected representatives, who can’t get their voices heard in the media, who don’t have resources to take matters to court, who rely on public protest to express their views. This is why protests like Sydney Black Lives Matter are so important. In prohibiting protests the Premier Gladys Berejiklian encouraged people to find ‘other ways’ to have their say, without recognising that this is considerably easier for some people than others
In these circumstances it is even more important we have confidence that our democratic institutions are doing their job, and one of those jobs is meeting as Parliament. In historic times of massive social and economic unrest, the community in Western democracies has been able to rely on these institutions to endure. The Australian and British Parliaments sat during the World Wars. Westminster sat during the Blitz, as German bombs rained down on London. They sat during the Spanish Flu. The British Parliament continued to sit during the Black Plague in the 1600s, but relocated from Westminster to Oxford.
Our Parliaments are more than capable of making arrangements to endure in this crisis as well. Measures to ensure physical distancing and healthy workplaces are eminently implementable. With a little creativity and some commitment, we can ensure the Parliament can meet with limited risk to Members of Parliament and their staff. Businesses, schools, families have all had to adapt to the new environment, our Parliaments should be capable of doing the same.
Times of massive disruption to established orders can be opportunities to innovate and adapt in ways and at speeds previously thought impossible. The underlying values of our democracies are enduring and must be defended, however the form and processes of our parliaments are capable of evolution and change to meet modern requirements. It has been pleasing to see some genuine and creative effort in recent months to get our parliaments back on track – including allowing electronic access to the chambers in the federal Parliament and new arrangements around voting in the NSW Parliament.
Similarly, if we’re deeply committed to the idea that political protest is essential we can find ways to make sure it’s able to continue. This can firstly be done through a sensible, consistent and risk- based approach to approving and conducting protest activity. If organisers are serious about the risks of mass gatherings they can utilise tactics like ensuring crowds gather in large venues and move around, rather than clump together, they can strongly encourage masks, they can provide hand sanitiser. This can also be done by thinking creatively about the way smaller gatherings can make a big impact. Authorities should be open to working with those groups taking this issue seriously–just saying ‘no’ often makes it harder to sensibly regulate and control what is occurring.
A debate about the future of our democratic institutions isn’t always in fashion or a top priority. We tend to take these things for granted, to be dismissive and even a bit contemptuous about the role of politicians and parliaments. We also have a tendency to take things like our right to protest and organise politically for granted, they seem so natural to our Australian values and way of life. Times like this force us to confront the reality that these values are not immutable, they remind us that Australians fought to secure and died to defend the democratic freedoms. For the first time in many years, Australians were unable to gather to acknowledge that sacrifice on ANZAC Day. The least we can do to honour this service is ensure the democratic values they fought for aren’t forgotten, jettisoned or undermined at a time when we need them most
Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 1
Author: Rose Jackson MLC