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Policing a pandemic

Apr 7, 2020 • 14m 40s

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, police have been granted extensive new powers to crack down on public association, private gatherings and travel. Today, Mike Seccombe on how Australia is policing a pandemic.

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Policing a pandemic

198 • Apr 7, 2020

Policing a pandemic

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

The public health response to coronavirus has quickly become a law and order issue.

Extensive new powers have been granted to police in several states, to crackdown on public association, private gatherings, and travel.

Today, Mike Seccombe - on how Australia is policing a pandemic.


RUBY:

Mike, are we in a lockdown? What can and can't we do at the moment?

MIKE:

What we can and can't do varies widely depending on where we live. You know, the strictest regulations at the moment are in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, which is kind of logical because they're the ones that have the most cases of Covid-19. So they have very strictly enforced two person rules for public gatherings.

RUBY:

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

MIKE:

The Northern Territory at the other extreme is quite relaxed about it at this moment anyway, so they're allowing gatherings of up to 10 people and I think all the other states and territories fall somewhere in between those extremes. So there's a lot of rules…

… But there's also a wide range of exemptions and these are all different in the different states, too. So as much as we can generalise in most states, you can go out to get food or other goods and services. You can travel to work or for education, if you can't do those things from home and you can go out and exercise.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

And boot camps obviously will be reduced to two, which doesn’t really make it a bootcamp, that makes it a private session with your trainer...

MIKE:

Or you can go out for what they call medical or caring reasons, which, you know, these things tend to be vague and open to interpretation.

Archival tape -- 7 News:

There is so much confusion tonight around what is allowed in the community and what's not. And there are more changes coming...

MIKE:

So bottom line here is there's a lot of confusion about what these new rules actually mean. One question, for example, is around whether you're allowed to visit a partner who lives in another house. The New South Wales police commissioner said it was okay for people to visit their partner.

Archival tape -- NSW Police Commissioner:

I would put that under care. Absolutely, right? Mental health we get it. That's under care. Absolutely under care.

MIKE:

Meanwhile, in Victoria, the police minister wasn't okay and then reversed that position subsequently and said there was no problem with it.

Archival tape -- Press conference:

I guess, do you accept that if the messages are becoming too confusing people won't respect them and then won’t follow them?

Archival tape -- Victorian police response:

I hope the message is abundantly clear. The core message here is if you can stay at home, you must stay at home.

RUBY:

So, Mike, there's been confusion and a lot of questions as people try and work out what they're allowed to do. Where are we at with that now?

MIKE:

Well, yeah. There has been a lot of confusion. And, you know, part of that is the fact that just because of the rate at which the Corona virus crisis is, is evolving, the authorities have to evolve really fast. So in this case, the new regulations were signed into law late at night in New South Wales and Victoria, just hours before they were due to take effect. So there's not much public communication about what they actually mean. And importantly, of course, the people trying to enforce it. The police also have no real training in how to interpret it.

Politicians, meanwhile, are being deluged, I'm told, with people wanting to know what they can and can't do. And the advice that they're getting back is very variable, depending, I guess you would say, on the to some extent on the ideological predisposition of the politician.

The Liberal MP Craig Kelly from New South Wales, who's out on the right of the Liberal Party, but with a sort of libertarian bent. Essentially he's advising people on ways to get around the rules. I mean he shared one story of a constituent who rang to ask if he could go out fishing alone in his boat, and Kelly could see no reason why that would be a bad thing. So he said he told the man that if he was approached by the police, he should either stand up in the boat and do some calisthenics because that would qualify as exercise, which is permissible. Or else he should argue that he was out to acquire food, which is also permissible. And the underlying point here, I guess, is that the police need to use discretion when they're enforcing these regulations.

I mean, as the president of the Law Council of Australia, Pauline Wright, said on ABC radio. People are going along with this...

Archival tape -- Pauline Wright:

At the moment, they do have community support because we all want to ensure that this pandemic doesn't spread more rapidly and more severely than it has to. So people are accepting that.

MIKE:

But if you're going to continue to have community support for this kind of draconian limitation of people's personal freedoms, it's incumbent on the police to be reasonable…

Archival tape -- Pauline Wright:

Reasonable, to understand that people might not understand their rights and obligations because the law is evolving very rapidly in some cases.

MIKE:

And as she put it, if they come across as being heavy handed...

Archival tape -- Pauline Wright:

It's going to fall apart. You know, we we don't want to see our rights and liberties chipped away a little bit at a time until it's too late.

MIKE:

And, you know, I've spoken to various public health experts who say exactly the same thing. You know, it requires discretion. Otherwise, people are going to be less cooperative.

RUBY:

So, Mike, what do we know about the way that police are enforcing these new powers that they have? How are they using their discretion? And are there any reports of them being heavy handed?

MIKE:

Well yes, we've had a number of reports of overkill. I spoke to David Shoebridge, a Greens MLC in New South Wales and he had lots of examples.

Archival tape -- David Shoebridge:

My office has received numerous reports of quite heavy handed responses from police as well as people appreciating the fact that police have a hard job to do.

MIKE:

For example, a convoy of police cars, you know, with their lights flashing, went hurtling into a harbourside park at Rushcutters Bay and started dispersing people, you know. There were mothers with babies sitting quietly on benches, observing safe social distancing.

We've heard reports of police telling a mother she couldn't breastfeed in public. There's been fines in Victoria reportedly for, quote, driving without a purpose or being in a house you don't live in. So there are definitely some examples that would seem to me to be a little over the top.

The other concern Shoebridge had, of course, was that if you look at the longer record of policing, it tends to be the case that certain kinds of people are targeted.

Archival tape -- David Shoebridge:

Often that's homeless people. It's First Nations people. It's people who come from poorer communities or it's people with a mental illness.

MIKE:

And given how much discretion police have in enforcing these regulations, that could be a particular concern in this case as well.

Archival tape -- David Shoebridge:

And unfortunately, we've seen people from pretty much all of those categories raising concerns already with the way that the police have been exercising powers.

MIKE:

And I think that after an initial flood of what we might call overenthusiasm from some officers, the authorities have begun to realise that they've got to bring this back a bit. I mean, the New South Wales police commissioner has promised now that he will personally review all fines that have been issued for alleged breaches.

Archival tape -- David Shoebridge:

Yes, we understand that rules were in place for a good reason. Yes. If people are deliberately flouting the rules and deliberately, potentially causing a public health concern, well, then there's a role for police. But if people are making innocent mistakes going about their daily lives, the best response is education, not a fine of six months in jail. You cannot police your way out of a pandemic.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Mike, we've been talking about the fines that people face for not observing the new regulations that are in place to stop the spread of Covid-19. There's also potential jail time, too. So what could people go to jail for and for how long?

MIKE:

Well, that also varies by jurisdiction around the country. In New South Wales, the maximum penalty for breaching social distancing regulations is six months. And there's also a fine of $11000.

In Western Australia would see jail terms for up to a year for people who flout the social distancing regulations. It's also possible that in Western Australia you could put tracking bracelets on people who refuse to self isolate.

But the particular concern here is banging people up in jail.

RUBY:

And so what other concerns then in the current environment about sending people to jail for Covid-19 related offences?

MIKE:

Well, I mean, we've seen what happens when Coronavirus breaks out on a cruise ship. Right. A confined environment with a lot of people. Prisons are cruise ships times 10. The absolute worst thing in the view of various health and criminal justice experts that I spoke to would be to start putting more people into jail. Instead, we should be getting them out.

Logic dictates that jails are bad places for the spread of disease, you know, that tend to be overcrowded, particularly in this country. Prison populations are disproportionately affected by other health conditions. You know, hepatitis C, AIDS, other things. They're in generally poor health and prison officers told me that they're a bit short at this stage of personal protective equipment. So there's a lot of concern on the behalf of the corrections officers.

And 150 lawyers, criminologists, health experts and others have signed an open letter to governments urging the early release of some selected low risk prisoners, which would both ease the overcrowding in the jails, but also reduce the risk of coronavirus spreading there. And from there into the broader community. So, you know, there's a very strong push from the experts to get as many prisoners as we can out of here.

RUBY:

Okay. So, Mike, do we know how long police will have these powers for how, you know, how long is this likely to be our new reality?

MIKE:

That's a very good question. I mean, at least three months. The New South Wales Police Commissioner, Mick Fuller, who's running the coronavirus response in New South Wales, who's obviously, I must say, being concerned that there's a lot of talk in the community about a creeping police state has been at pains to say that it will end after 90 days.

But this is a bit curious, really, given that other measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic are predicated on longer timeframes. I mean, the federal government is talking about at least six months of economic relief. So my suspicion is that three months is a minimum and it could wind up being longer.

Archival tape -- David Shoebridge:

Every time I've seen police powers added in the 10 odd I've been in the New South Wales Parliament. I've never yet seen them removed. I've never yet seen the sun ever set on an extra set of police powers.

Maybe this will be different because that's so extreme. But the concern is that some elements of them will stick after the pandemic and the police will be getting used to you know, more or aggressively policing everybody in a public place.

MIKE:

The important thing, of course, is that once the crisis has passed, these restrictions go away.

So I think we're stuck with them for a while and possibly longer than than the cops are currently telling us. The only thing that needs to be emphasised over and over again is that these laws have to be exercised with discretion.

RUBY:

Mike, in all your years reporting… have you ever seen anything like this?

MIKE:

No, I haven't. And that's saying something because I spent my university years in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland, where there were street march bans and the police could go and crack heads for any number of minor infractions. But I've never seen anything like this.

On the other hand, of course, none of us have ever seen anything like Covid-19 either, so whatever people say about the necessity of these laws and to be frank in my personal view they’re quite reasonable frankly... But they're certainly the most extreme police powers to infringe our civil liberties that I've ever seen.

RUBY:

Mike, great talking to you today.

MIKE:

Thank you very much.

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RUBY:

And the latest in the response to Covid-19.

At least two-hundred members of the one-thousand crew on board the Ruby Princess cruise ship are displaying symptoms of Covid-19.

The ship docked at Port Kembla in NSW on Monday morning and will likely stay there for 10 days as health professionals inspect and treat the patients on board.

The cruise ship is responsible for hundreds of cases of Covid-19 across the country.

**

Hundreds of fines have been issued as police enforce social distancing regulations.

More than 300 fines have been issued in Victoria, with one learner driver fined $1,600 for undertaking a driving lesson with her mother.

Victoria Police have announced they’re reviewing that fine.

**

And state and federal education ministers will meet today to discuss how Year 12 assessments will be modified.

Concerns have been raised about how the disruption related to Covid-19 could impact student’s results.

Proposed changes include extending the academic year or postponing exams and changing university application procedures.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

The public health response to the coronavirus has quickly become a law and order issue. Extensive new powers have been granted to police in several states, to crack down on public association, private gatherings and travel. Today, Mike Seccombe on how Australia is policing a pandemic.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

Covid-19 lockdown and police powers in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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198: Policing a pandemic