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.”
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."
Media coverage: The New Daily
Civil liberties experts have raised concerns over draconian new laws that heavily limit freedom of movement in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
NSW Council for Civil Liberties spokesman Stephen Banks described the restrictions as “extraordinary” and “obviously extreme”.
“We’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetimes,” he said.
The idea of making it illegal to leave your own home except with a reasonable excuse is the most severe kind of restriction that could be imagined.’’
Although the coronavirus pandemic is a valid reason for the restrictions, Mr Banks said that governments and police must “do everything that they can to maintain community support … because if the community ceases to support it, then it becomes unworkable”.
Media coverage: 7 News
The NSW Council for Civil Liberties wants the Bail Act amended to ensure courts take into account the fact that the pandemic has caused major delays in finalising cases.
"An express provision ... which provides that the court must take into account the risks posed by COVID-19 to inmates, correctional staff and other gaol workers, their families and the community more broadly, would send a clear message to police and the courts," council president Nicholas Cowdery QC said in a statement.
Media coverage: The Weekend Australian
NSW Council for Civil Liberties spokesman Stephen Blanks says any extraordinary powers used by health officials to curb the COVID-19 contagion must be subject to 'clear, short sunset clauses'.
"These tracking powers have been effective in other countries,” Blanks told The Weekend Australian. “This is an extreme situation. “I think it’s appropriate for this data to be used, provided it’s used only for this purpose and subject to strict oversight.”
Media coverage: SBS News
"Police should be trying to promote understanding of the new regulations and new restrictions and doing everything they can to get voluntary compliance," spokesperson for the NSW Council for Civil Liberties Stephen Blanks told SBS News.
"It shouldn't be a revenue-raising exercise for the government," Mr Blanks said.
"And it's so important that when restrictions are imposed, that proper notice is given to a community, that restrictions are clearly available on government websites. So people can see what it is that they are allowed and not allowed to do."
But he said in this instance, officials "have been struggling to achieve clarity".
"This confusion makes it hard for members of the public to know what they are allowed to do," he said.
Media coverage: 9 News
Staff at a detention centre in NSW are ignoring fears cramped conditions will aid the spread of coronavirus, detainees and advocates say.
The NSW Council for Civil Liberties says overcrowded detention centres are ripe for the spread of infectious diseases.
Media coverage: Information Age, Australian Computer Society
Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton has once again invoked the spectre of paedophiles and terrorists in calling for an expansion of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD)’s powers that would allow the foreign-focused agency to conduct domestic investigations for the first time.
A long-simmering policy change, the ABC reports, would allow the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to enlist the services of the ASD – the government’s overseas surveillance and signals-intelligence unit, which “operates in the slim area between the difficult and the impossible”, as its Web site puts it – to investigate certain matters within Australia’s borders.
Privacy advocates such as the Law Council of Australia and NSW Council for Civil Liberties, labelled metadata laws “indiscriminate and excessive” warned about the “cumulative chilling and intimidatory impact of the Government’s expanded surveillance powers and secrecy offences”.