Australia is in the news.
The images of police officers imposing themselves on the citizenry has drawn the attention of international critics. It has also raised admiration for those who have big government inclinations. Some have declared that Australia has fallen as a free society, that it should now be considered a police state. Australia, however, already had a history as a police state. The balance between individual freedom and an overbearing government has been one of constant, uneven sways over time and it usually takes a crisis to bring down the full weight of authoritarianism. And most Australians have always been fine with this.
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested both individuals and governments, and shown their true nature. The pandemic response has revealed a dangerous dependence that all of us have been forced to place on government monopolies, from health and infrastructure to security and in many cases, income. The lockdown culture of not only Australian state governments but governments the world over have shown an irrational and reactionary impulse to rule and control, not just to stop a virus but crush dissent itself. They claim it is for all of our health; it is scientific and it’s to save as many lives as possible. No room for debate, only obey and do as one is told. It is the science of law, order, and health.
In practice it has been random, arbitrary, inconsistent, unscientific and some lives really do seem to matter over others. The police have been a crucial element in the fight against the citizenry during the pandemic. It’s been the police that have enforced laws that have destroyed the economy and put lives indirectly in jeopardy. Last year entire apartment towers in Melbourne were instantly quarantined and the individuals inside only access to the outside world was via the police. Those trapped were treated as criminals and were sacrificed in an attempt to “flatten the curve.” Melbourne itself would soon suffer an almost indefinite lockdown cycle. The curve was never flattened.
Following the trend in liberal democracies, partisan politics alleviate blame from specific government departments. The police and experts are viewed as amoral objects who are wielded by incompetent and power hungry politicians. Regardless of the political leadership these technocrats, officials and police officers remain the same. Australia has a history of governance via experts and panels. The politicians usually help legitimize such measures when it comes to excessive policing. It is not a political leadership problem, it is a problem from the ground up. Morality, right and wrong, are exercised by the individual. “Just doing a job” or “Just following orders” is a coward’s shield by which to hide beneath.
It is not just an Australian phenomenon to see the police inserting themselves more and more into the citizen’s day to day. It is however an Australian tradition to lean heavily onto policing for numerous crises. The police are an important tool for the state and federal governments in Australia and act as the aggressive arm to both impose and implement policy while also to protect the government itself. Australia projects itself as a free society that values human rights, but at times in its own history it has a patchwork of authoritarianism which is more common than many wish to admit.
“Australian police forces were similarly founded on violence: racist violence, imperial violence and settler colonial violence. Some of the earliest forms of state policing were established with the specific purpose of extending the colonial frontier.”- Amanda Porter, Senior fellow at Melbourne Law School.
Many historians on colonial Australia consider that the early policing models were not based upon British community methods and organization but instead were a paramilitary model that was used during the same period to impose imperial oppression in Ireland. A lot of these traditions have remained in Australian policing and in how the various governments have continued to wield it. Public health and safety mandates are often the fixture of policing in Australia along with the ever aggressive War on Terror.
Beyond the state level Australia has numerous federal agencies that are granted great powers which obey the Department of Home Affairs and will in the coming years grow more powerful in reach, focus, and powers. The boundaries of colonial expansion may have been fulfilled but those into the individuals private life and against their rights are a frontier that Australian police agencies are continuing to encroach upon. To understand the Australian “police state” we must also understand certain aspects of Australian history and social norms that have made the modern situation possible and why it really is neither unusual or unexpected.
Australians are now in a society where they need to tune in to government officials to find out what they can and cannot do. It is a nation that is run on press conferences, where most Australians watch the television with an obedience to find out the infection and death numbers while hanging on to every word of experts and government ministers. In a recent incident those from regional NSW found themselves under lockdown mandates with only a tweet as the official announcement. The tweet posted at 3pm and stated that by 5pm all of regional NSW would be in a 7-day lockdown. The police perpetrated an ever active enforcement on those who do not have Twitter or didn’t hear about such a spontaneous announcement.
While Australia is in the media abroad, most Australians are oblivious to the condemnation and the risk that lies ahead for them. It is a future uncertain but with the promise of safety nets and blankets provided by a scientific government of planners and scientists. It is a government that is based upon altruistic welfare and reactionary impulses, while also being steered by careful trends of academic hubris. It is a nation of public servants and an ever dependent public. The police exist to protect not so much the individual (and certainly not freedom) but the nation state itself. And in an expression of true democracy, perhaps the mob of the majority welcome and embrace this because many are apart of it in some way.
“Australia’s federal constitution does not protect fundamental human rights nor does it regulate the use of force by the police. Australia‘s federal rules on police use of force generally comply with international standards although an amended law in New South Wales allows use of firearms against suspected terrorists where no imminent threat is perceived.”- Policing Law, The Law on Police Use of Force Worldwide
For the advocates of government, especially an all powerful one that is responsible for every aspect of human life, a powerful and active police force is crucial. It is the ugly truth that confuses utopian governance with the dystopian truths of practical history. In the past, besides aspects of moral puritanism, the individual’s health and body was their own domain. But in the modern era of public health we are seeing the unification of the health and police state.
Australia has a populace that believes in the existence of a public health system. It is an ideological abstract which is rarely challenged. It is considered a right to all Australians to have access to “free health” regardless of any failings, scarcity, and prohibition of choice that such a system presents. Because of this the individual’s body becomes a shared entity, one that the state is expected to care for and in many aspects control. Despite the majority wanting such a powerful health system, the past belief in individual body autonomy still lingers in the minds of even the advocates of public health.
So Australia is going through a cross roads between human rights and the call for greater power to the healthcare system over the public and individuals themselves. The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the conflict between these two perspectives. Those who advocate public health as a right also want the individual to have the right of health autonomy. The reality is that a powerful public health system controls what medication and treatment an individual has access to. It also creates extended waiting periods and it has the ability to determine treatment based on wider concerns than the individual’s own health. Those concerns often being cost, time, resources, and the fatigue-availability of health practitioners.
It is an almost impossible fight for individual liberty when public health is entrenched in Australian society as a “collective good.” The wider implications of costs, shortages, and a lack of alternative treatments are disregarded in favour of a one-payer system that homogenizes and centralizes medicine. It is assumed that a free market of health would leave the poor under the bus and become expensive but it is the health state that creates dependence and makes it harder for many to actually get treatment, not to mention lengthy waiting periods and a lack of accountability when things go wrong.
The police and at times the military have been used to quarantine entire cities and states, separate families, and treat individuals as criminals because they “may” be sick. This is the new reality that health mandates and a powerful health state brings with it. Whatever pretence of human rights is lost and ignored because it is declared a crisis. Just as the War on Terror allows the police to trample on the freedoms that terror organizations threaten, a powerful police state can snatch those liberties away in the name of security. In matters of public health the individual is isolated and condemned as being selfish and placing others at risk, should they seek independence and autonomy. So as is in the War on Terror, those who question government overreach or act differently are marginalized as being a threat to the wider community.
It is not a too distant future in Australia where individuals may be forced to take medication against their will, receive procedures that they do not want, or are denied access to friends and families based upon health status. The public health system has become so important that the private citizen has little choice and say over their own body. The imperial approach and dominion over the individual is always done with a benevolent parental tone, assuming that all individuals are childlike or a risk to everyone else. That is the hallmark of the public health system in the first place, a one way street with little regard to individual needs, wants, and complexities.
The emergency powers of government allows it to disregard international laws and domestic laws that it has promised to uphold. These are the special, exceptional powers of all government, not just Australia’s. War allows a nation to declare martial law, impose curfews and grant itself extraordinary powers. The health crisis and mandates are treated as if the rule of law never really existed. It is an illusion that dupes those who romance government and believe that it stands for human rights. But it always serves itself and grows. The health state is just another aspect of the leviathan’s reach and control.
Just as a person consuming or selling “illicit materials” is considered a public threat regardless of their actual actions, so too can the benign existence of those individuals who do not want the same medical procedures or medications, whether because of ethical reasons or because it may be a direct danger to their health. Elements within the wider community have recently reported on such individuals and tar them as being selfish and “super spreaders” of the virus, which is apparently the greatest threat to human existence. “Dobbing is the new patriotism,” as one commentator put it.
Because a large part of the populace supports the government regardless of political affiliation and consider the experts the absolute authority regardless of human rights and individual liberty, the health state has a large community of active ‘dobbers’ who will inform the police on businesses, families, and people that are defying the mandates and rules that are constantly being amended during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Those doing the “dobbing” are often doing it because they genuinely believe that those in breech of such laws are dangerous and reckless or as is often cited, being selfish. And in other instances a more cynical aspect of jealousy and spite likely steer the dobber’s actions.
One police officer during the last South Australian state lockdown claimed that their phone lines were non-stop with members of the public reporting number plates of vehicles driving during the period or giving information on those who were suspected of being in breech of the lockdown. In 2020 wives were informing on their husbands who dared to sneak in a late night dog walk and beach goers were filmed swimming on their own in the sun. It is not just a legal problem but a cultural one.
Why is all of this talk about public health so important? Because it is one key aspect of modern Australian culture, the ingrained importance of the government to most people and what empowers the police force in their present conduct. The sword and spear of the Australian government are their police forces and the military. Both are becoming more of a Swiss Army Knife apparatus with so many uses to be wielded, removing the key conceptual function of such entities. The public belief in what the police and military do or should do is often in contrast with the reality of what they are being asked to do and continue to do.
The anti-lockdown protests in Australia have become a divisive issue. The protesters are accused of being “conspiracy theorists” and “anti-vaxxers” in an attempt to label them as simpletons. While some some certainly are, not all. Such simplified claims ignore very real grievances and frustrations. Those sympathetic and wary of police powers can see a heavy handed response and a media backlash that has not given a balanced perspective. In an age where diversity and being inclusive is promoted when it comes matters of political opinions, dissent about one’s own health is not allowed.
The war on the virus has created a paranoia and obsession with defeating an entity through laws and violence against individuals. It is the belief that more government can somehow make people healthy and safe. Just like the War on Terror it looks to erode the freedom that it boasts to safeguard and instead empowers the police state to the point that a nation becomes a prison full of either compliant and eager subjects who believe in such measures or those who are forced to suffer it despite their instincts and desires for liberty (or to be left alone).
What empowers the police state is its benevolent claim of safety and security. Public health is extremely important to the Australian government and the wider public. To question the public health system is taboo and often political suicide. It is a civic religion. The wider implications and dangers of such a system are ignored and denied and inevitably more funding and overhauls are demanded. This in turn gives all control to the government in regards to individual and community health. Because no real free market exists, regulations are so extensive and so many laws are in place that not only are alternatives impossible but people become dependent on the government for all their needs. In a pandemic this empowers the government during and after to such a point that it is impossible to turn off the spigot of dependence.
Lock in Hospitals of World War Two
The police and policing powers for health and moral emergency were ever present before our Federation, when women were subject to humiliation and medical imprisonment because they may spread “venereal disease.” Not to mention the segregation of whites and non-whites in hospitals and other aspects of society (often for reasons of health, according to the experts of the time). During the World War II the Australian government and especially the state government of Queensland treated VD and sexually transmitted disease with an authoritarian approach.
During parts of World War II Australia was in many regions under martial law. Oftentimes this was by the U.S. military as well as the Australian government. From segregation to abuse against anyone who was suspected of being an enemy agent, the police state was in full effect. It was with a perverse intrusion when VD was raised as being both a health crisis and a moral panic that individuals were abducted, examined, and quarantined in humiliating ways and with no regard for their rights.
Women who were suspected of being infected with a VD were examined thoroughly and then imprisoned in what was known as “Lock in” hospitals. They remained here until they were either cured or held for extended periods afterwards. The concern was that such women may infect the men and thus harm the war effort. The public health of the nation was crucial to victory.
As a contrast, men, especially servicemen who had contracted the diseases, were treated as outpatients. It was for the women that a confusing double standard was imposed. On one hand a woman was meant to be chaste and moral and not participate in sexual acts. On the other hand a vast number of women were expected to function as ‘whores’ or women to comfort the Australian and Allied servicemen. Those women who had contracted a VD were locked away until they were cured, and then put back out so that they may continue to service the Allied soldiers. And at other times women who were considered spreaders of VD were shamed and humiliated and in some government propaganda considered a greater threat to the war effort than the Japanese military itself. The police were often used to ‘hospitalize’ women suspected of being spreaders and placed them in medical custody where they were locked away.
“When the sense of national danger was most acute in those initial months of 1942, the Australian people revealed a virtually unanimous and unequivocal willingness to accept this unprecedented regimentation, restriction and restraint.”- Kay Saunders, War on the Homefront, State intervention in Queensland 1938-48
A health emergency was both a national crisis and a moral one. Whether it is against sexually transmitted illness or against recreational drugs, it is a matter where both police and the legal powers of government are used in an excessive way. It is the only way that Australian governments on a state and federal level tend to know how to conduct themselves. It is commonly thought that individuals forced into ambulances and then locked into medical facilities is something that would happen only in despotic nations like the People’s Republic of China, and yet the Australian government has done it in the past and likely will do it all the more in the near future.
War on Drugs
Australia has been an extremely enthusiastic nation in the war on drugs. It has used the prohibition of certain substances to justify a lot of excessive policing and put many people in jail because of these laws against substances. Such a war has also helped to create the ‘bikie’ culture, giving many forms of organized crime a cash cow to profit on the black market. Like everywhere that has attempted prohibitions, it has been a failure and lead to wider, unexpected consequences.
Australia has one of the worse crystal methamphetamine addiction rates among the developed world, a result of a heavy handed approach and harsh prohibitions. While in the past marijuana was the fixation of law enforcement, the black market has developed harsher strains of the plant while finding alternatives to many other party drugs, leading to the current “ice” or “meth” “epidemics.”
Before COVID-19 the Australian drug problem was the public health emergency. A tough on crime attitude and a pariah status for anyone that has participated in drugs has created a “them” and “us” culture. Even though most individuals have experimented with one form or another of the many prohibited substances at sometime in their lives (those among government included), all drugs are deemed as being highly additive, harmful, and a threat to the public health system.
The Australian police are enthusiastic drug warriors at every level. The Federal Police on more than one occasion have gone abroad to purchase heroin and brought it back into the nation where they could then use it to entrap dealers. Breaking their own laws and with little regard of the morality of such actions, the only outcome that matters to police and prosecutors is getting the bad guys. The Australian media and public lavishly swallow up the reporting on successful operations where drugs are denied entry onto Australian streets.
Every banned and controlled substance is treated with the same level of danger and threat. The ever expanding list of banned substances creates less choice for individuals and gives the police and government greater control and means to intrude into their personal lives. A resentment of those who profit from the drug trade helps to spurn on the prohibition war. It is one of envy towards those who are able to make a tax free income. Lost in the middle, as always, are the real victims and room for reasonable debate and consideration.
The “Bali Nine” are Australian citizens who were arrested in Indonesia for transporting drugs. Two of them have been executed by firing squad, one is dying of cancer in prison and another was deported while five are likely to rot for the rest of their lives inside an Indonesian jail. The Australian Federal Police were responsible for tipping off the Indonesian authorities which lead to the extrajudicial killings and heavy punishment of the Australian citizens. The widespread indifference to the plight of these individuals at the time revealed a savage forecast of things to come, where those who go against the laws of the land are viewed with little to no regard and empathy at all.
“This is the harsh reality for Australians who go overseas and become involved in serious crimes.”- Australian Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin to the media in 2005 over the fate of the ‘Bali Nine’
The Australian government exhibits an at times caring and paternal attitude to those who have drug addictions, providing them with extensive treatment plans, outreach, and free needles for users. For those who “deal” and are involved in party or performance enhancing drugs the attitude is stern and extreme. Personal liberties are crushed. If one has a sudden spike in their electricity usage or a sudden income change, these can be grounds for a police raid or search. The onus is on the individual to justify and prove their innocence regardless of actual evidence.
As an example in NSW, part of the “Music Festival Harm Reduction,” police officers detain and search anyone suspected of being in possession of drugs while at a music event, including those under the age of eighteen. In February 2020, forty-four teenagers from ages 13 to 17 were searched, twelve were stripped searched, and of those six were found to have drugs on them. To have armed adults of the NSW police kidnap teenagers, hold them against their will, strip them and then molest them in the name of public health is a typical example of the measures that are often accepted by the public.
Because six were found to be violating the law, this somehow justifies the humiliation and trauma suffered by others. The Law Enforcement Conduct Commission said that strip searches conducted by police officers on children were ‘potential unlawful’. But they get away with it despite their own laws. In 2019 at the same music festival thirty teenagers were strip searched, but the amount who were in possession of an illegal substance is unknown. In some cases armed adults forcibly took the virginity of a teenager because they needed to internally search them for a banned substance. This is rationalized because it is somehow going to keep that individual and the wider community safe.
“What we know is that in the majority of strip searches absolutely nothing is found, and what we do know for sure is that strip searches are traumatic, invasive and…therefore should only occur as an absolute last resort.”- Samantha Lee, Redfern Legal Centre
Police always want to seem like they are the last resort, so it’s up to their discretion to decide what measures to take. They are used by the government in all means and especially for health matters and in doing so they have an authoritarianism that is of good conscience because it is for the “greater good.” This will ensure that whatever civil rights are violated are done with a measure of greater consideration. The abstract of “good” transcends the humiliation, shame, and worse of the individual in those intimate moments when they are violated. Many in the pubic support the cops and what they do, regardless.
“Prohibition has not worked. Our lawmakers know it, and admit it privately. Should they fail to countenance change publicly, they will merely be putting their own misguided self-interest above the public interest. That is a cruel betrayal.“- The Age editorial, November 29, 2016
With QR codes and contact tracing, the discussion of further surveillance of Australians to minimize the spread of COVID-19 will be accepted an condoned. And in the case of the war on drugs, placing members of the public on lists and denying them travel and the ability to mail or receive items from abroad will continue. In time we will have quaint memories of a more liberal time as the future brings far more dire and extreme measures of law and order. It will be done as an act of benevolence, for health and safety, and the mob of Australians in the greater community will welcome it with closed borders and locked down cities. It is for the greater good, and that is apparently the Aussie way. And now in the twenty-first century, to quote Dr. Steve Brule, everything can now be done “For Your Health.”
- War on the Homefront, State intervention in Queensland 1938-1948 by Kay Saunders 1993 (UQP)
- The Hillbilly Dictator – Australia’s Police State by Evan Whitton 1989 (ABC Books)
- The Salisbury Affair by Stewart Cockburn 1979 (Sun Books)
- The Origins of Police Surveillance in Australia by Frank Cain 1983 (Angus & Robertson)
- AFP Says More Australians Could Face Dealth Penalty Over Drugs – ABC News
- Teens strip-searched at Good Life, Lost City underage festival, despite past criticism – ABC News
- Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020
- Australia ‘has lost the war on drugs’ | news.com.au — Australia’s leading news site
- Australian Police: The History of Systemic Brutality Continues to This Day
- Coronavirus: Thousands of Australians dob in neighbours flouting social distancing measures and lockdown restrictions
- The Law on Police Use of Force in Australia
- Why We Don’t Hear About Australian Police Brutality & What You Can Do About It | Arc UNSW Student Life