Menu

The truth about coronavirus fines

Apr 22, 2020 • 16m 30s

Analysis of the fines for the Covid-19 public health orders reveals a disproportionate number have been issued in places where Indigenous Australians and those from migrant backgrounds live. Today, what the pandemic is revealing about racial bias in policing.

play

 

The truth about coronavirus fines

207 • Apr 22, 2020

The truth about coronavirus fines

Archival tape -- Legal Aid:

Good morning, Legal Aid. Can I help you?

Archival tape -- Osman:

Oh, hi, my name's Osman Faruqi. I'm just looking for a Bill Dickens. I have an interview with him scheduled for this morning.

Archival tape -- Legal Aid:

Okay. Osman Faruqi, how do you spell that, doll?

Archival tape -- Osman:

F- A- R- U- Q- I

Archival tape -- Legal Aid:

Okay, won't be a moment.

Archival tape -- Osman:

Thank you very much.

RUBY:

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

Thousands of Australians have been fined by police under Covid-19 public health orders.

New analysis shows that these fines overwhelmingly target people in areas defined by inequality and disadvantage.

Today - Osman Faruqi on policing and racial bias.

Archival tape -- Bill Dickens:

Uh Good morning, Osman, how are you?

Archival tape -- Osman:

Hi, Bill, I'm good, how are you doing?

Archival tape -- Bill Dickens:

I'm very well, thank you.

Archival tape -- Osman:

Do you mind just saying your full name and your role?

Archival tape -- Bill Dickens:

My name’s Bill Dickens and I’m the solicitor in charge of the Dubbo Regional Office of Legal Aid, New South Wales.

Archival tape -- Osman:

Who’s actually getting these fines?

Archival tape -- Bill Dickens:

It’s aboriginal people in these townships that are being issued with these fines and I'd be prepared to bet the sheep station that all of these fines are issued to Aboriginal people. There's more police in those towns per head of population than anywhere else in New South Wales.

RUBY:

Os - tell me how you got started on this story?

OSMAN:

Yes. So back in March, countries across the world started locking down in response to COVID 19. And they were banning activities like gatherings outdoors in large groups. And you couldn't leave your house unless it was for very specific reasons.

RUBY:

Osman Faruqi wrote about Covid-19 and policing for The Saturday Paper.

OSMAN:

In Australia, our version of the lockdown was announced by the prime minister. Scott Morrison on March the twenty-ninth, he basically outlined all the social distancing regulations that we've been living under for the past three weeks.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

You must stay at home except for the following reasons:
A: Shopping for what you need, food and essentials
B: For medical care

OSMAN:

But he said that the enforcement of those rules would be left to the states because in Australia it's state and territory governments that manage policing and enforcement.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

Well, where there’s localized action they will be handled by the state jurisdictions themselves and they can take whatever further actions they think are necessary.

OSMAN:

So the next day after Scott Morrison's announcement, state premiers around the country said that they would be issuing what are called public health orders.

Archival tape -- Gladys Berejiklian:

I’m pleased to saw NSW will be acting quickly to enforce those provisions that were discussed last night.

Archival tape -- Dan Andrews:

There are many complex things in the world. This is not one of them - stay at home. Hopefully no fines need to be issued.

OSMAN:

These are instruments of government signed into law by the minister for health that say that to stop public health crises, the government can restrict what you can and can't do in public. And they were due to take effect at midnight that night, the night that the state premiers were making the announcement? And, you know, that night, like a lot of other people, I think throughout this crisis, I was having trouble getting to sleep. And I thought, well, if I'm up, I may as well be refreshing state government websites to see exactly what's in these orders.

RUBY:

OK so you're sitting there hitting refresh on your laptop. So when did the public health orders appear online?

OSMAN:

They were due to take effect from 12:01 so just after midnight. But the New South Wales health orders, which were the first ones to be published, weren't published until about 10:40 PM. So basically most people who go into bed, these orders were due to take effect when you - by the time you woke up, you would be bound by them. But they hadn't been published till less than 90 minutes before they were due to take effect. And I found that to be an indication, I guess, that the government was doing this quite quickly, that they were making these decisions on the fly.

RUBY:

Right. So when you did read them - what struck you?

OSMAN:

the thing that was interesting was that there was inconsistencies between the state orders and what the prime minister himself had said. For example, Morrison said that you would be able to visit your family members if they lived in another household. But these orders didn't make any exception for that at all. So I already started to become a little bit concerned about the level of confusion that there might be in the community around these orders.

And the final thing that stood out to me was how punitive they were in terms of their enforcement. For example, in New South Wales, the punishment for breaching the orders is $1000 fine and you could be jailed for up to six months as well.

And that's pretty extraordinary just on its own. But it's also pretty out of step with what we've seen in other jurisdictions around the world, in the UK, for example, where there's a much stricter lockdown than we have in Australia. The punishment for breaching the regulations is only £60.

RUBY:

And so since these public health orders came into effect you've been looking at how they’re enforced by police. What have you found?

OSMAN:

Yeah, I've previously reported on police powers in the way that some laws in Australia can be used quite differently by different police forces and in different communities.

And given how broad and discretionary these kinds of powers were and how mixed some of the messaging was, I was pretty curious to see how that would actually play out in the community. And even though I had a gut feeling as to how that would operate, I was really shocked when I started looking at the data, at the patterns that started to emerge.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

[ADVERTISEMENT]

RUBY:

Os, you’ve been analysing the use of police powers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Let's focus on one jurisdiction - what did you find out about the way public health orders are being enforced in NSW?

OSMAN:

So the first thing that becomes really obvious is you see these discrepancies between different suburbs, really starkly. Areas like Sydney's eastern suburbs and northern beaches have very few fines and they tend to be relatively wealthy, less culturally diverse parts of the city.

On the other hand, most of the fines are in Sydney's western suburbs. The three local government areas of Fairfield, Liverpool and Canterbury Bankstown have 15 per cent of the total fines issued. And they're all suburbs that have lower levels of educational attainment and much higher proportions of people from migrant and nonwhite backgrounds than other parts of the city.

The other hotspots for the fines are in regional and remote parts of the state. Towns like Walgett, Bourke and Coonamble have some of the highest rates of fines per capita, and there are also areas that have very high indigenous populations ranging between 35 to 45 percent of the total population.

I spoke to Bill Dickens, the solicitor in charge of Legal Aid in Dubbo, which services the region a lot of these towns are in, and he told me that there was a real inequity to the way the fines work.

Archival tape -- Bill Dickens:

BILL: Isn't it extraordinary that so many fines issued in these regional and remote communities and relatively so few funds have issued to undoubtedly the white people, Bondi or to Temora, I'm a beach walk.

And the thing about the fines is that they're regressive in nature. So a person who's fined a thousand dollars, who's a company director from Vaucluse, is in an entirely different position to Aboriginal person from Bourke is fined $1000. Clearly, that's quite a different kind of penalty for those two persons.

RUBY:

So is there a concern here, that there might be some bias in the way these penalties are being enforced?

OSMAN:

When I showed this data to a number of policing and legal experts, that was definitely a concern that they raised.

Tamar Hopkins, who worked as the founding lawyer at the Police Accountability Project in Melbourne, which is attached to the Flemington Kensington Legal Center, said that the fines fit a pattern of racialised policing.

Archival tape -- Tamar Hopkins:

I see no reason why these public health powers would be exercised and why we wouldn't see the same patterns as we see with the rest of the way policing operates

OSMAN:

What Tamar is speaking to, there is data that we have in Australia, though limited in the quantity. It's still pretty stark and it shows that there are significant differences in the kinds of communities targeted by police

Archival tape -- Tamar Hopkins:

The way that they define a suspicious person is intensely racialised. So that will play out in these cases too.

OSMAN:

Basically, what that says is that there is an implicit bias already within the police force. And what we're seeing with the public health orders is that bias being replicated through these new powers.

RUBY:

So Os, all of your analysis so far has focused on data from New South Wales. Do we know much about how other states are enforcing these public health orders? Is there much uniformity here?

OSMAN:

It's a really great question. And the problem is we actually don't know what's going on in other states because New South Wales is the only state that's actually releasing this information.

I asked all other jurisdictions and all police forces across the country for more detailed information, but they all refused to release it.

And that lack of transparency is a concern because it means we just don't know how these extraordinary new powers are being used. I have been able to analyze, though, the number of fines issued in each state and territory. And it shows these huge discrepancies across the different jurisdictions

In Victoria, for example, there have been three times as many fines issued per capita than in New South Wales. But we don't know in Victoria who is being fined where they live, what their background is. We don't know, for example, the proportion of people who are indigenous who have been fined.

And that lack of data has led to calls from the Victorian Human Rights Commissioner for demographic information to be collected by police and released to an independent organization or agency. So the way that these laws are being used can actually be scrutinised.

RUBY:

Okay so while we wait and see whether that data about those fines that are being handed out will be made public, are there other ways that we could think about approaching the enforcement of these rules?

OSMAN:

There are and actually are other examples right here in Australia. Interestingly, the ACT hasn't issued any fines, even though they have very similar public health orders to the other states.

The A.C.T. chief police officer Ray Johnson, he told me that police in the Territory were going had decided very intentionally to go down a path of communication and education rather than the more punitive approach we've seen in other states like Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales.

RUBY:

So that's stopping people and talking to them instead of finding.

OSMAN:

That's exactly right. Over the e-tolling weekend, for example, there were hundreds of passengers in cars that were stopped by police who were being questioned about whether they were going on holiday or they were traveling for nonessential purposes. But police told me that they spoke to those people and those people responded positively and went back home, or they confirmed that they were traveling for an essential purpose and no fines were issued.

RUBY:

Ok so there are different approaches to the enforcement of these rules, even here in Australia, do we know which approach is actually the most effective in terms of encouraging the kind of behaviour we want to see?

OSMAN:

At this stage it’s too early to tell whether one strategy of policing is better than the other at encouraging social distancing, and until we get more transparency from police we might never know. But it’s worth acknowledging that the ACT hasn’t seen some explosion in Covid-19 cases, despite taking a much less punitive approach to enforcement. In fact they have some of the lowest rates of infection in the country. But there is a real risk with the more punitive approach.

I spoke to Julie Leask, a professor of public health and risk communication at the University of Sydney, and she told me that if these powers aren't enforced in a consistent way and there isn't transparency around them, that can actually undermine your public health goal. Because it means people are less likely to trust what police and the government are trying to do.

Archival tape -- Julie Leask:

Having transparency on the sort of information say that we have from New South Wales is really important so that those institutions can be held to account.

OSMAN:

She also said that even though pandemics might require quite dramatic government intervention, it’s actually even more important to make sure the impacts on marginalised communities aren’t overlooked

Archival tape -- Julie Leask:

You know, a pandemic is no excuse to reinforce existing inequities. with infectious diseases where you wear your punitive, where you stigmatize, you can end up with people sort of going a bit underground and you can end up with a backlash in behaviours,

OSMAN:

If there's a sense that these powers are being used in a way that targets certain communities and there isn't transparency around how they're being used, then there's a real risk that trust is undermined and trust is undermined. That means the public become less acquiescent. They might chafe against the laws. They might disregard them because they don't see them as being about stopping the spread of a virus, but about the police just exerting power in a particular way. And that's the real concern here beyond just the fact that, you know, police might be targeting certain communities if we end up losing public trust and we end up not having faith in the social distancing guidelines that we have. We also risk this morphing into a bigger health crisis.

RUBY:

Thanks so much for your reporting on this.

OSMAN:

Thanks heaps.

[ADVERTISEMENT]


RUBY:

Elsewhere in the news...

The federal government has announced that elective surgeries, including IVF, will be able to resume after Anzac Day.

The decision follows a decline in the spread of Covid-19 and the arrival of more protective equipment for medical staff.

It's also been revealed that since March 16the, the government has processed 517,000 claims for the jobseeker payment.

**

It comes as ABS figures show 780,000 jobs have been lost in the last three weeks.

Younger Australians have been hardest hit with 10 per cent of workers aged under 20 losing their jobs since March 14.

The worst-affected sector is accommodation and food services, where more than a quarter of jobs have been lost.

Arts and recreation was the next hardest-hit, shedding 19 per cent of employees

**

And Reserve Bank governor Philip Low has warned that the Covid-19 lockdown will lead to a “staggering” 20 percent decline in total hours worked by Australians in the first half of 2020.

He also said Australia is likely to experience the biggest contraction in national output since the great depression.

However, Low said that Australians can quote “be confident that our economy will bounce back and we will see it recover.”

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

Thousands of Australians have been fined by police under Covid-19 public health orders. New analysis shows that a disproportionate number of them have been issued in areas largely populated by Indigenous Australians and those from migrant backgrounds. Today, Osman Faruqi on policing and racial bias in a pandemic.

Guest: 7am editor Osman Faruqi.

Background reading:

Compliance fines under the microscope in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

Listen and subscribe in your favourite podcast app (it's free).

Apple podcasts Google podcasts Listen on Spotify

Share:

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. New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app. I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week.

Tags

auspol covid19 policing race coronavirus




Subscribe to hear every episode in your favourite podcast app:
Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify

00:00
16:30
207: The truth about coronavirus fines