Nearly 4,500 Australians have been fined thousands of dollars for breaching social distancing rules.
New police data suggests there are substantial differences in how each Australian state and territory is enforcing coronavirus restrictions.
While each state and territory has implemented similar social distancing rules agreed by the national cabinet on the basis of medical advice, the number of fines issued in each jurisdiction ranges from almost 2,000 to zero.
As of Thursday evening, Victoria Police had issued the most fines in the country, with a total of 1,955 infringement notices handed out. The state introduced the $1,600 on-the-spot fines at the end of March.
Queensland, where the fine is $1,334, has handed out the next highest amount at 1,321, while New South Wales, the state with the most confirmed cases of COVID-19, have issued 900 fines of up to $1,000 and 122 charges.
There was a steep drop in fines in the remaining states.
Tasmania has charged 144 people, there has been 119 in South Australia, 42 in the Northern Territory, and just 13 in Western Australia.
Police in the ACT have issued zero fines to date.
An ACT Policing spokesperson told SBS News the force had directed officers to not issue any cautions or fines until further notice.
“These experiences are new for everyone, so it is fair and right that ACT Policing continues to educate people about the health directions and social distancing guidance,” the spokesperson said.
“Most people are trying to do the right thing and ACT Policing’s job is to help them do so.”
Victoria Police said it intends to review every fine handed down to determine whether a caution would have been more appropriate.
The force has conducted 27,800 spot checks since 21 March.
“We can reassure the community that Victoria Police are using discretion where appropriate and only issuing fines for blatant, deliberate or clear breaches of the chief health officer’s directives,” a Victoria Police spokesperson said.
“We are still reviewing all of the fines issued to date, however, those that were not properly issued or do not pass the common sense approach will be withdrawn.”
Queensland has also committed to review each fine.
With 438 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the state, a South Australia Police spokesperson said the force was taking a “conciliatory” approach to enforcing the state’s restrictions.
“It is important to note that South Australia has been able to adopt less severe restrictions than other states due to high compliance and low community transmission of the virus,” the spokesperson said.
Calls for greater transparency
In response to calls for police to provide clearer information on what would constitute a breach of the new laws, each state and territory force maintained it was up to citizens to keep abreast of the changes.
A coalition of legal and humans rights groups have launched a project to collect accounts from Australians who have been approached by police officers around the country since the coronavirus restrictions were put in place.
The group said officers had been given too much discretion in deciding when and where to hand down fines, leaving many residents confused and intimidated.
"People stated that after their interactions with police they were left feeling singled out, treated unfairly, targeted, discriminated against, sad and hurt, angry, in disbelief, shocked, very traumatised, quite upset, scared," the group reported this week.
"Reports also bore out the degree of confusion about what the rules actually are and about inconsistent and unfair application of the rules - people felt they were treated unfairly when stopped while exercising and what they considered to be appropriate social distancing."
People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.
If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.
SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.