In Australia, government policy throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has consisted of keeping borders closed and implementing snap lockdowns any time new cases emerge.

Throughout the pandemic, Australia’s government has chosen the path of increasingly severe restrictions to combat COVID-19. However, a year of authoritarian policies such as stay-at-home orders, the closure of workplaces, and the prohibition of most leisure activities have not only failed to reduce the infection rate but have also taken their toll on the continued cooperation of a weary population.

In spite of these efforts and despite being largely cut off from the rest of the world, the infection rate has risen across Australia over the past two months.

Freedom of expression must not become a casualty of the pandemic

While restrictions on public gatherings vary between states, much of Australia’s population has seen its freedom of assembly suspended for as long as their government sees it necessary. In Sydney, individuals now face on-the-spot fines of up to $3,700 (A$5,000) for not complying with stay-at-home orders, up from A$1,000 previously.

As such, despite an effective ban on protests, an increasing number of Australians have taken to the streets to voice their opposition to draconian lockdown restrictions. Sadly, rather than upholding the right to protest, a crucial component of a free society, the authorities’ response has been one of further escalating repression.

Last week, in Sydney, numerous protesters were arrested as they attempted to assemble and march to a park. The organizer was subsequently sentenced to three months in prison. Many attempted protests have been quashed by the authorities, who have made extensive use of pepper spray.

By criminalizing peaceful protest and compelling the authorities to intervene, the current government policy is increasing the risk of violent altercations and even the risk of spreading the virus amid the ensuing chaos. The authorities are also undermining social trust by appealing to members of the public to report friends and family for breaches of lockdown regulations.

When governments remove the right to protest against their policies, it creates a dangerous lack of accountability on top of the obvious infringements on what should be considered a fundamental human right in any free society.

Draconian lockdown restrictions inflict a massive economic and social cost

The recent surge in protests is understandable in the context of the severity of Australia’s lockdown restrictions. At this point, it should go without saying that stay-at-home orders, particularly over any prolonged period of time, carry disastrous economic and social costs which can far outweigh the benefits.

In Australia, due to extremely strict travel restrictions, many people have been unable to reunite with loved ones abroad for the duration of the pandemic. However, Australia’s most recent period of lockdown provides some particularly poignant examples of the costs of lockdown restrictions.

For instance, it is illegal to travel into locked-down regions under any circumstances, even to attend a funeral. This is enforced through the numerous police checkpoints across the country, and authorities pledging to take a “no-nonsense approach” to dissent.

Furthermore, a particularly disturbing story recently emerged whereby authorities shot dead several dogs in an animal shelter in order to prevent volunteers from leaving home to care for them.

Even in those parts of Australia where people are still allowed outside, restrictions have wandered into the realm of the absurd. For example, in a rant about people using outdoor pop-up bars for “pub crawls,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews asserted that patrons are banned from removing their masks to drink.

When months of draconian lockdown restrictions have not proven effective at eliminating the spread of the virus, we must wonder at what point will governments understand the unsustainability of policies based on constant social and economic disruption and realize that a different approach to the pandemic is needed. One that encourages individual responsibility around risk mitigation instead of indefinite periods of house arrest.

The people of Australia must have the right to go out and earn a living.

Australia’s snap lockdowns are an attempt to deflect from earlier poor decisions

What is clear about Australia’s current situation is that it is far more rooted in poor decisions by the government over the past year than it is about irresponsible individuals. A particularly prominent example of this was the government’s mistaken idea that by remaining isolated from the rest of the world, Australia could eliminate the virus entirely, thus placing less emphasis on ensuring that Australians have access to vaccines.

When considering the vaccination rate of other developed countries, Australia lags far behind. This is a result of a slow vaccine rollout, with previously low infection rates contributing to government complacency in procuring an adequate supply of vaccines, as well as regulatory delays. As of August 2021, largely due to supply shortages, only around 25% of Australians have been fully vaccinated, as opposed to upwards of 50% in other developed countries.

However, after the number of daily cases hit record highs, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stated that the country will only begin to implement a strategy of living with the virus once the vaccination rate reaches 70% among the adult population. This means that any meaningful reopening, even just on the scale of what is seen in some parts of Europe and North America, remains a long way off.

Politicians and state authorities continually try to deflect attention away from the shortcomings of the government’s vaccine rollout program. Instead, they will gladly lay all of the blame for the rise in cases, and thus the draconian lockdown restrictions they insist are the only option, on the Australian public.

The Australian government’s heavy handed response to dissent against its current lockdown policies is not something one would expect in a supposedly free society and must cease immediately.

If the Australian government is allowed to violate the rights of Australian citizens due to an emergency, what’s stopping them from creating an emergency to break the law in the future?

Students For Liberty supports freedom of expression and the right to protest. We stand with those opposing the recurring cycle of draconian lockdowns in Australia.

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This article was first published on the Students For Liberty website.

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.