Leading article Australia

Are we free yet?

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

There were some fine words from the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, this week when he spoke in Melbourne to a Victorian Chamber of Commerce event attended mainly by small business owners. Apparently there are still some left in that long-suffering city, home to the longest-lasting lockdowns in the world and easily the most draconian Covid restrictions in the Western world. After some typically Morrisonian ‘how good is Australia’ blather about getting your hair cut or meeting friends at the pub, he finally got to the point. ‘The taste of freedom,’ he announced; a sentence without a verb as if it were the title of a new book or movie. ‘It must never be taken from us again. That is why I put the national plan together. A plan based on the best possible medical science and economics to ensure we open safely and stay safely open. Australians have kept their side of this deal by getting vaccinated. Governments must now keep theirs and return to Australians their freedoms.’

Full marks for the sentiment. But the detail of his comments reveals the disappointing fact that our Prime Minister not only doesn’t understand the true concept of freedom, but worse, is trying to excuse and paper over the gaping black hole of genuine leadership that has engulfed the nation these last eighteen months.

Let’s start with the taste of freedom. Rather than being an ancient concept that millions of humans have died so that others may experience and cherish it, Mr Morrison instead sees freedom as akin to a new brand of Vegemite or a new Aussie beer (mid-strength, obviously). In the Morrison world view, freedom is as you-beaut-ripper as a Kingswood station wagon packed with the kids heading down to the coast for the summer hols (and about as irritating). Freedom is as convenient and as comfy as your favourite pair of tracksuit pants and thongs (and just as easily discarded).

Morrison’s ‘freedom’ is ‘part of who we are’, much in the same way that a burnt snag at a Bunnings sausage sizzle is.

And as such – and this is the disturbing bit – freedom is actually something the government manufactures, that the government owns and that the government will give you if you’ve been a good boy or a good girl. Indeed, in the Prime Minister’s mind, freedom is very much and very explicitly a bargaining chip. A token in a game of viral tiddlywinks. Freedom in exchange for being vaccinated.

That is a dangerous precedent. Freedom should be the inalienable right of every law-abiding Australian regardless of their health status. The Prime Minister, several months ago, claimed that the vaccines would not be mandatory. Although that may be technically correct in the most legalistic sense, the stark reality is that for the time being to all intents and purposes Covid vaccines are mandatory in Australia. Therefore the Prime Minister has broken his own word either through neglect or on purpose.

Depressingly, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has retreated on his own fine words that freedom was not a gift of any government, and now that he is in power has similarly using denial of freedoms and social isolation as forms of punishment by arbitrarily extending restrictions on the unvaccinated by a fortnight.

Then comes the prime ministerial non-sequitur, and it’s a real doozy. Mr Morrison claims that he put his much-prized ‘national plan’ together in order to ensure that our freedoms will ‘never be taken from us again’. That’s quite the claim! In fact, the self-stated purpose of the national plan was to ‘relink the states’ and ‘connect Australia to the world’. Nothing in there about ensuring our freedoms would ‘never be taken from us again’. In order to achieve that noble goal, the Prime Minister will have to do what he should have done last year when he was offered the chance (you only get one Clive Palmer in your lifetime) to challenge the Constitutional legality of closed borders. That would have been one crucial step towards  guaranteeing the permanence and inalienability of individual freedoms. Another would be to legislate – as has been done by the Republican governor of Florida, Ron de Santis – to make it illegal under Australia’s human rights laws to discriminate against any Australian citizen within this country based on their vaccination status.

So – no, Prime Minister, your national plan was not designed to ensure that the taste of freedom will never be taken from us again. That might sound good in the research focus groups, but it is a lie. Australians, and in particular Australian businesses, have no guarantee that their freedoms won’t be ripped from them again the moment that, for example, a new variant of the virus should appear, or even a new virus pops out again from a bowl of bat soup or any other delicacy being conveniently served up adjacent to a Chinese bio-weapons lab, or the efficacy of vaccines wears off or, for whatever reason, the public decides against immunisation boosters or other such measures.

Having ignored freedom when we needed it the Prime Minister is now waving it around on the eve an election. Australians may currently have the illusion of ‘freedom’ but, like that family trip to the coast, we’re definitely not there yet.

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