NSWCCL is engaging with the fast moving covid-19 crisis on a number of fronts. The maintenance of core democratic processes to ensure adequate parliamentary scrutiny of the government’s responses to the crisis is a high priority for us and other civil society organisations. Our intention is not to hinder the Government’s capacity to act with necessary speed in the face of the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic. Rather, our aim is to give confidence to the community that government responses are being scrutinised for lawfulness, proportionality and fairness through transparent parliamentary processes. Without this confidence public trust in the Government over this period is likely to be weakened.
Like many others, we have urged both the NSW and the Australian Governments to rethink their decisions to close down their parliaments over the next crucial months. The NSW Parliament is not scheduled to resume until 15th September and the Australian Parliament not until 11th August. The Australian Parliament will sit for one day next Wednesday (8th April) to approve the latest tranche of emergency spending.
We have also called for the establishment of a strong, bipartisan Senate Select Committee to scrutinise and report on the Government’s responses to the pandemic crisis. NSWCCL joined 7 other legal and civil society groups in a public call for such a committee to approved when the Parliament sits on Wednesday:
The Senate must establish the Select Senate Committee when it reconvenes, for potentially just one day, next Wednesday. A Select Senate Committee will provide a vital avenue to business, civil society groups and individuals to provide information to inform Government decision-making and feedback on the impact of those decisions, so that no one is left behind and no one is left in the dark.
The NSW and New Zealand Governments have already established committees to oversee their Governments’ response to COVID-19.
A Select Senate Committee is just a part of the solution – Australians also need regular parliamentary processes to continue. It is vital that our Parliament sit, in a way that is safe, so it can make decisions rapidly as the pandemic unfolds.
Participating groups in addition to NSWCCL were Human Rights Law Centre, Centre for Public Integrity, Amnesty International, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, People with Disability Australia, GRATA Fund and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
Other groups – including eminent ex judges - have made similar calls for such a committee.
At this point of time we are hopeful that the Senate will set up such a Committee next Wednesday to provide the much-needed and focused scrutiny on Government actions over this extraordinarily challenging and scary period in Australia’s history.
Statements from NSWCCL on COVID-19 responses, links to up-to-date information and resources
For NSWCCL in the media visit THIS PAGE.
NSWCCL Statements on COVID-19
The right to protest should not be curtailed - statement re car convoy protesting COVID-19 risks to refugees held in detention
Actions and campaigns
NSWCCL recently signed on to support the #GameOver campaign by Craig Foster to get those held in offshore detention to safety, and endorsed the 'Open letter to Australian governments on COVID-19 and the criminal justice system’
National Coronavirus Helpline - Call this line if you are seeking information on coronavirus. The line operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week - 1800 020 080
Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order 2020 - Signed 10:20pm 30th March
Law Access NSW LawAccess NSW is available on 1300 888 529 between 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday to help with legal issues including those arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Policing COVID in Australia - Have you been stopped by police or had any interaction with police since the new public health rules were introduced in your area? Do you feel you have been treated unfairly? Do you know of an incident that concerns you? Visit the Policing COVID website.
Australian Women Against Violence Alliance - COVID-19 resources for a range of at-risk and minority communities
Australia at Home - A resource to bring together people from across Australian civil society. Hosting lunchtime briefings and online series of conversations with some of Australia’s most experienced and interesting thinkers.
Aboriginal Legal Service NSW ACT Free Our People - Petition: Stop COVID Aboriginal Deaths in Custody before it's too late
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre - Petition to protect people seeking asylum and refugees in COVID-19 crisis
NSWCCL supporter and esteemed retired physician, Dr Alex Wodak*, has called for the Commonwealth Government to immediately close all immigration detention centres and remove all non-violent inmates from prisons across the country or risk a major public health crisis of COVID-19.
"An outbreak of COVID-19 is many, many more times likely in a detention centre or prison than in the general population."
"You have overcrowding, outdated facilities, lack of readily available hand sanitiser, and a population prone to chronic conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and asthma."
"We cannot afford an outbreak. We owe these people a duty of care".
Dr Wodak called for an immediate, high level meeting between the Prime Minister, Department of Home Affairs and state Ministers for Corrective Services with a view to facilitating the speedy transfer for detainees and inmates from these centres to the community.
Read Dr Wodak's statement HERE.
*Dr Wodak is Emeritas Consultant at the Alcohol and Drug Service, St Vincent's Hospital (he was Director of service from 1982-2012). Dr Wodak has been a fierce advocate for the prevention of HIV among people who inject drugs, prevention of alcohol problems and drug policy reform. He is President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and was President of the International Harm Reduction Association (1996-2004). He helped establish the first needle syringe programme and the first supervised injecting centre in Australia when both were pre-legal and often works in developing countries on HIV control among among people who inject drugs. Dr Wodak helped establish the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, the Australian Society of HIV Medicine and the NSW Users AIDS Association.
Media coverage: Sydney Morning Herald
A lockdown restricting the movement of people is critical to stemming the spread of COVID-19. The virus jumps from person to person after close contact, while it can also live on surfaces for long periods. By temporarily changing behaviour through physical distancing, people can slow the rate of infection. The practice has worked against outbreaks in the past, including the Spanish Flu of 1918. While the curve is flattening, experts say the virus cannot be defeated without a vaccine, which could still be 18 months away. Until then, social distancing will save lives by preventing a surge of cases overwhelming the healthcare system.
NSW Council for Civil Liberties spokesman Stephen Blanks said the restrictions were justified to keep the community safe from the pandemic, but that they should only be in place "so long as they are appropriate."
"These restrictions are extreme and extraordinary. We've certainly never had anything like this in our lifetime," he said. "When it is safe for them to be lifted, then they should be."
On Thursday (2nd April) Fuller said the NSW lockdown, supported by the enhanced police powers, would continue for 90 days, ending by June 30. He added that he would not seek to extend them. Berejiklian has confirmed the number of new cases has continued to stabilise, but said restrictions in NSW could be in place for as long as six months.
Media coverage - Kate Allman for Law Society Journal (LSJ)
At this early stage in Australia’s experience of the global pandemic, it is hard to tell whether laws that dramatically restrict our citizens’ freedom of movement will be proportionate to the impending health crisis. Most medical experts agree severe “social distancing” measures are justified – for now – to prevent the rapid spread and devastating loss of life that COVID-19 has caused in countries such as China, Italy, Spain and the US.
But their impact on civil liberties and the rule of law has advocacy groups concerned.
“I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime and I am not aware of any previous restriction on movement and basic freedoms, ever, such as we have seen today,” Stephen Blanks, a spokesperson for the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, told LSJ.
Blanks spoke to LSJ on Tuesday 31 March, the morning after the Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order 2020 was signed into NSW law.
“There will be situations where people need to leave the home – not just to access services, but just to get out of the home,” Blanks said, indicating research by Women’s Safety NSW that has already reported a 40 per cent spike in calls for help to domestic and family violence services since the COVID-19 outbreak.
Blanks said he was also worried about the lack of oversight or accountability mechanisms for police enforcing the new orders.
“Am I concerned about police not enforcing the law appropriately? Yes, I am. There is a great danger when extraordinary powers are given in an unconstrained way to authorities. It will take great discipline on the part of the police, and great management by police of people on the ground, to try to minimise any abuse of these powers.”
April 2, 2020
No fresh air, no exercise, no access to mental health professionals - concerns about conditions for citizens held in enforced quarantine in Sydney
NSWCCL is greatly concerned about the experiences and conditions of those in enforced quarantine in NSW. The Council advocates for measures that, at the very least, maintain individuals access to daily fresh air for a certain period per day, and the ability to exercise.
The Council acknowledges the importance of containment and understands the necessity to quarantine Australians returning from overseas. However, those in quarantine should have access to fresh air, exercise and mental health professionals. The conditions of quarantine should be compassionate and respectful rather than arbitrary.
NSWCCL has been contacted by a Victorian resident Stephen, and his wife, who are being held in quarantine in a Sydney Hotel. The couple recently returned from Peru (31st March), where they had already been held in lockdown there for 14 days after the Peru government imposed a state of emergency on 16 March.
Stephen contacted NSWCCL for assistance in ‘advocating for all those others in enforced quarantine in Sydney to ensure that our basic human rights and civil liberties are not being infringed in such an arbitrary and inhumane way.’
Stephen goes on to add, “I am not disputing the government’s right to force us into quarantine. What I am disputing is the conditions they have imposed on us. We are not convicted criminals, we just had the misfortune to be overseas at the time the world went into crisis.”
Stephen informed the NSWCCL about the conditions under which they were being quarantined;
- We are literally locked in our room for 24 hours per day. We do not even have a key for our room.
- Police and army patrol our floor to ensure our compliance.
- We have no access to fresh air. We are in a room on the 26th floor with no window that can be opened.
- We have no ability to exercise.
- We are being denied access to alcohol.
- I have my wife with me, but many people are on their own – they are essentially in solitary confinement.
“There are no support services for us. Nobody is checking on us as regards are physical or mental wellbeing,” Stephen said.
“Yesterday one of our friends in Sydney bought us some fruit, muesli, milk, tea and a couple of 6 packs of beer. The police stopped her leaving the alcohol. Apparently those in quarantine are banned from having alcohol.”
The police quoted legislation in the NSW Government Gazette, Number 62, Saturday, 28 March 2020, apparently telling Stephen that the Police Commissioner has authority under clause 6(2) to determine what those in quarantine can/cannot eat and drink.
Today Stephen and his wife received a delivery of prescription medicine from a local pharmacist. The police opened and inspected the package before giving it to the recipients. Stephen said her felt this was ‘a gross breach of privacy and completely unwarranted – the package was clearly from a pharmacy and contained nothing but medicine’.
Stephen and his wife are seeking:
- Access every day to fresh air for a minimum 30 minutes
- Access to an area we can exercise in for a minimum of 30 minutes each day
- Access to moderate amounts of alcohol (which of course we pay for ourselves)
- Daily checks on our health and mental wellbeing.
“Surely this is not too much to ask for people who have committed no crimes and are otherwise complying with the draconian conditions imposed on us,” Stephen added.
NSW Council for Civil Liberties - email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Media coverage: The Guardian
The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, has called for parliament to continue to sit and scrutinise government emergency powers to deal with coronavirus, as concerns about unchecked executive power in Australia grow.
The call on Wednesday comes as the bipartisan delegated legislation committee resolved to establish an inquiry into non-disallowable instruments including new Covid-19 public health orders, citing research by the legal expert Andrew Edgar that they are putting federal government actions beyond the reach of parliament.
The New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties president, Nicholas Cowdery, has urged the commonwealth and NSW parliaments to resume before August and September, warning the current extended adjournments are “unacceptable and dangerous for democracy”.
Cowdery wrote to the federal and NSW governments and opposition, warning that the current adjournments of parliament were “unacceptable and dangerous for democracy”.
He cited the constitutional law expert Anne Twomey, from the University of Sydney, who has warned that “there will be very little parliamentary scrutiny of the government for nearly five months, a critical period during which extreme powers may be exercised”.
“Even the darkest days of the world wars did not force parliament to close for extended periods,” Cowdery said.
“NSWCCL believes Australia needs more democracy and accountability in these difficult months, not less.”
Media coverage: Sydney Morning Herald/Brisbane Times
The president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, former NSW director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery: "Even the darkest days of the World Wars did not force parliament to close for extended periods."
He called on the federal and NSW parliaments to make use of their committee processes for "more democracy and accountability in these difficult months, not less".
A group of former judges is also urging Australia's parliament to set up a bipartisan committee to scrutinise the government's epidemic responses as it faces one of the longest shutdowns on record.
The six judges, including former High Court justice Mary Gaudron, have proposed Canberra adopt New Zealand's approach of setting up an all-party select committee of parliament to scrutinise the government's epidemic responses.
Media coverage: SBS News
What are your rights as Australia goes into stage three lockdown and authorities begin enforcing stricter social distancing restrictions?
Rights groups have called for Australians to understand their rights as social distancing restrictions ramp up and new penalties are introduced to enforce them.
The message from authorities is don't leave your home unless absolutely necessary - that means going to work or school if you can't do it remotely, buying essentials, seeking medical care or exercise.
Breaking the rules will now carry stiff financial penalties across state jurisdictions as police warn they are not afraid to enforce the measures.
NSW Council of Civil Liberties spokesperson Stephen Blanks told SBS News the measures are set to have a “most serious impact” on people's freedoms and fundamentally change the public’s relationship with police.
“The way in which they’re enforced is going to have a huge impact on whether the community continues to support these laws,” he said.
“The issuing of the fines must really be a last resort where compliance cannot be achieved any other way."
April 1, 2020
Mobile device tracking of COVID-19 infected persons
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed that the Commonwealth government is progressing with Singapore-style digital options for contact tracing: the identification, contacting and monitoring of those who may be infected with COVID-19, and their contacts. In addition, the Australian government has now launched a Coronavirus Australia app and WhatsApp group, to provide Australians with information, and advice, about the pandemic. The Coronavirus Australia app permits the voluntary registration of a person’s self-isolation but does not, currently, provide for contact tracing. At present, in Australia, contact tracing is conducted manually and directly with the affected person.
NSWCCL supports the appropriate and generalised use of aggregated, anonymised map data for tracking people’s movements; to assist health services and determine where to target critical medical resources. Contact tracing is essential. However, any collection or use of a person’s sensitive personal data for digital contact tracing must come with the imposition of strict limitations.
The move to monitor citizens’ movements may set a dangerous precedent. Contact tracing and the wider application of mobile device tracking would enable the Australian government to assemble a person’s location history into a single, searchable database. Mobile device tracking, in Australia, could involve tracking infected persons to ensure compliance with self-quarantine, as in Israel (see below). South Korean authorities publicly share details of the age, gender and location of persons infected with COVID-19, by mobile phone alert and on the government’s health website. Often that information is sufficient to identify the infected person.
NSWCCL calls for complete transparency from the Australian government of its development and use of any mobile device tracking technology in this emergency.Read more