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Australians lived under some of the most severe pandemic restrictions in the world which are still having a significant impact on people’s lives and must be rigorously reviewed to avoid unnecessary suffering in future, says Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay.
Her comments come after two days of attacks on the federal government for naming a panel of experts rather than a royal commission to look into the COVID response under terms of reference that did not mention school shutdowns, border closures, curfews, policing restrictions or other measures that involved state governments.
Police patrol Bondi Beach during a COVID lockdown in August 2021.Credit: Renee Nowytarger
Escalating her criticism about the scope of the review, Finlay said state police enforcement of pandemic rules – which in some cases involved $1000 fines for people sitting in the park – had disproportionately affected people in disadvantaged and vulnerable communities, some of whom were still in debt.
“Australian people deserve to have those stories told … Because there were so many examples where it really divided us and eroded trust in public institutions. It’s important to start addressing that,” she said.
Lawyers who have spent years trying to overturn unlawful fines issued during the pandemic also said the federal government had taken a “nothing to see here” approach by failing to include in the review’s scope high-level policing that discriminated against marginalised communities and incorrectly issued more than $30 million in fines.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese declined to take a question on the COVID inquiry when he held a brief press conference about the Voice in Sydney on Sunday – and his office removed the exchange from its official transcript of the event.
“Prime minister, could we just get you on the COVID inquiry?” a journalist from this masthead asked him.
“No, we’re doing this, mate,” Albanese replied. This exchange was not included in the official transcript of the press conference.
Finlay said Albanese had correctly asserted that the pandemic was the most significant crisis Australians had faced in decades.
“And that’s why it deserves a comprehensive inquiry,” she said. “Nothing should be out of scope, and the fact there are quite significant carve-outs is quite concerning. Secondly, human rights need to be front and centre. And they aren’t even expressly mentioned in the terms of reference at all.
“The enforcement of public health measures was done at state government levels. Those key decisions may be entirely outside the scope of this inquiry, and they had a really significant impact on people’s lives.
“Only a royal commission jointly established by the states, territories and Commonwealth governments would be able to show us that full picture and put us in the best position to prepare for future emergencies.”
Lawyer Tamar Hopkins – who researched Victoria’s COVID fines and found that African and Middle Eastern people were four times more likely to receive a penalty than their proportion in the population – said policing should be central to an inquiry’s focus.
“This is the pointy end of government decisions. The policing of these [public health] orders is critical: this is where the government meets the people,” she said.
Redfern Legal Centre’s senior solicitor in police accountability, Samantha Lee, said police powers and law and order were huge gaps that must be investigated so governments do not repeat mistakes.
“We know that there was unlawful action by police during the COVID pandemic … We saw laws made very quickly, without consultation and without transparency and accountability,” she said.
“We’re all for public health and keeping the community safe, but what’s really important is for society and government to adhere to the rule of law and procedural fairness during a crisis … If a pandemic happens again, which it quite likely will, we want the government and police to learn from this experience.”
Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers on Sunday said there was nothing preventing the states and territories from joining the inquiry to consider their decisions. But NSW Premier Chris Minns said his government was yet to decide whether it would make a submission, and he did not want to demand anyone appear at public hearings.
Former NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller in 2021 told officers they wouldn’t be held accountable for wrongly issuing COVID-19 fines, as he urged them to “go high-level enforcement” and put community policing aside. The approach led to people being fined $1000 for eating on the streets or sitting in parks, and 33,121 of the 62,138 fines were later withdrawn following a concession in court that some were not valid. Others are still subject to legal challenges.
Lee said her legal centre still received daily requests for advice about COVID fines. “People are still in debt for unlawful fines. Children were issued with enormous monetary fines. The impact of the pandemic, particularly on those of low-socioeconomic [backgrounds], continues,” she said.
“These are all things we could be learning from. The Commonwealth can be the facilitator for such an inquiry and bring states on board … But we need the federal government not to turn a blind eye to the impact law and order had on people, particularly those who were in the most vulnerable situations in our society.”
Hopkins said there was agitation around withdrawing fines in Victoria. “It’s huge amounts of very hefty fines that are outstanding,” she said.
But she said it was not the role of the court system to scrutinise what happened.
“It’s state governments that need to take responsibility for what’s gone on,” she said. “Police were stopping vehicles and people at their own discretion, and not only was it racialised, but when people are singled out they feel most oppressed and discriminated against … The effect of these orders was to cause particular communities to suffer greater burdens than others. Those questions are really critical and need to be considered in any inquiry about the real effect of the COVID-19 response.”
With David Crowe, Max Maddison
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