Australia

Rights groups in Australia alarmed at new coronavirus police powers

Beaches around Australia have started to close. Source: Getty

Rights groups say the country needs strong government action during the coronavirus pandemic, but Australians should never forget their civil liberties.

Rights groups have voiced concern about Australia's rollout of COVID-19 restrictions and how these are being policed.

This week, a number of states announced they were issuing on-the-spot fines for individuals and businesses flouting new COVID-19 rules.

Fines will be issued for not quarantining for 14 days after returning from overseas, attending or organising mass gatherings, and disobeying other government directions such as wedding and funeral sizes.

Depending on the state, individuals face $1,000-$13,345 fines and businesses can be fined up to $66,672.50.

While agreeing the crisis necessitates a strong government response to protect the community, rights groups said these heavy fines should be a "very last resort".

A number of beaches around the country are starting to close.
A number of beaches around the country are starting to close.
Getty

"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.

The Federal Government also announced the army has been brought in to make sure returned travellers isolate for 14 days.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison stressed on Friday that defence personnel would not have the power to issue fines, but would assist state and territory authorities.

Mr Blanks said the military's presence could add to the tension. 

"It's not a situation where you want to see members of the army on the streets with weapons."

The Human Rights Law Centre said civil liberties should not be forgotten in a crisis. 

"As governments across Australia adopt emergency powers to lead us out of this crisis it is important that any response is transparent and proportionate," the centre's senior lawyer Alice Drury told SBS News.

"Any emergency powers or legislation passed in this time of crisis must be clearly expressed, narrowly confined to deal with the immediate public health issues, time limited, and independently reviewed on a continuing basis.

"This crisis must not be seen as an opportunity to advance the infringement of our democratic freedoms. We cannot allow a situation in which Australians emerge from this over-policed and under state surveillance with their democratic rights curtailed."

A number of states annouced new on-the-spot fines this week.
A number of states annouced new on-the-spot fines this week.
AAP

Associate professor of law at Flinders University Marinella Marmo researches human rights issues.

With family members in virus-hit Italy, she is well-aware of how important a government response is to COVID-19.

"Obviously, I am anxious but I also think that human rights are here to stay and we need to fight for them every single day," she said.

"Emergency measures [are] introduced quickly and this does not allow for a healthy debate on if and how they infringe civil liberties. Unfortunately, in the eye of the storm we lose track of these matters, but we need to remain vigilant.

"We now know that most emergency measures quickly introduced in the past by different governments around the world have not been withdrawn or completely withdrawn, see terrorist measures, for example.

"Any kind of COVID-19 emergency measure needs to be considered in light of ethical standards and human rights. And if now is not the time, as dismissively we may be told, then soon after the emergency is over."

In laying out the new measures, authorities have stressed that enforcing the rules will save lives.

On Saturday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said giving police the new powers was very important as cases continue to rise in the state. 

"Everyone's got to take this seriously," he said.

Victorian Police Minister Lisa Neville said "we sincerely hope that Victoria Police does not have to issue one of these fines, and people do the right thing".

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Hotels and other facilities to be used for 14 day quarantine for new arrivals: PM
Hotels and other facilities to be used for 14 day quarantine for new arrivals: PM

While NSW Police Minister David Elliott told reporters on Saturday that "everything we have done over the course of the last couple of weeks has been to save lives".

"Whether it be closing Bondi Beach, whether it be closing our pubs, these are there to stop people from transmitting disease.

"These rules and regulations are not there to punish anybody. They are not there to issue intermittent justice. They are there to protect lives, they are there to save lives."

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