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Young, free and strong no more

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Overreaction? Covid lockdowns signalled the beginnings of what a tyranny can look like. PHOTO: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Something happened to us under restrictions of Covid – and it wasn’t good for us at all

One of the most unfortunate aspects of the way governments around the world responded to the Covid-19 pandemic was the way they imposed lockdowns, restricted people’s movements and compromised essential liberties and freedoms.

Melbourne, for example, became one of the most locked-down cities in the world and those unfortunate Australians caught overseas were denied the right to return to their homeland. Grieving family members were stopped from seeing dying family and citizens forced to accept home detention.

At a recent speech delivered at Melbourne’s Robert Menzies Institute, the former Justice of the UK’s Supreme Court, Lord Sumption, detailed how dangerous it was for governments to restrict citizens’ freedoms and liberties and why countries like Australia are in danger of becoming authoritarian states.

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Lord Sumption notes, compared to the time Menzies was Prime Minister, that we now live in a time of the nanny state where, more and more, citizens expect governments to do more and more instead of relying on their own resources.

As a result, Lord Sumption, argues, “When we transfer responsibility for our well being from ourselves to the state, we invite a much more authoritarian style of government”. To illustrate this the ex-Justice notes the difference between responses to previous disasters like the Spanish flu and what occurred with Covid-19 over the last 3 years.

Citizens, instead of cherishing their freedom and being wary of government control and overreach, accepted what amounted to significant and far-reaching restrictions with barely a murmur of dissent. Referring to a 2021 Lowrey survey, Lord Sumption writes “84 per cent of Australians thought their governments had handled it (responses to the pandemic) very well or fairly well”.

As to why Australians lost their sense of larrikanism and distrust of government and become so compliant Lord Sumption suggests two reasons: citizens now expect the state to do more and more instead of accepting individual responsibility and people have become increasingly risk-averse.

The resilience and self-reliance characteristic of the generation that experienced two world wars and a Depression exist no longer. Citizens now expect the all-powerful state to provide and to protect them. Also gone is a time when people accepted sickness and death were a normal part of existence and that it was foolish to expect they could live their lives free of suffering and pain.

When explaining why the overwhelming majority of citizens in the UK, Europe and Australia complied with draconian and unfair laws and restrictions, Lord Sumption writes “people who are sufficiently frightened will submit to an authoritarian regime which offers them security against some real or imagined threat”.

Much like the way Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 dominates and controls citizens by instilling visceral fear of the traitor Goldstein and the enemy states of Eurasia and Eastasia, governments portrayed Covid-19 as a deadly beast that, unless controlled with drastic measures, would indiscriminately kill hundreds of thousands.

In Victoria, such was Premier Andrews’ success in instilling fear and convincing people that only he, as the state’s leader, could ensure their safety that students missed a year of schooling, small businesses were bankrupted, police used rubber bullets and mace, parliament was shut and long-held liberties and freedoms denied.

While Australian governments’ responses to the recent emergence of Covid-19 and its variants have been less draconian and offensive, what most concerns Lord Sumption is the reality that once freedom is lost as a result of excessive and unwarranted government overreach it is very difficult, almost impossible, to regain.

After arguing “the use of political power as an instrument of mass coercion fuelled by public fear is corrosive,” Lord Sumption writes: “governments rarely relinquish powers they have once acquired”. As the saying goes, ‘while power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

This is proven by the existence of totalitarian dictatorships and oligarchies throughout history and those currently existing in China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and Venezuela where it is obvious, the liberty and freedom associated with Western liberal democracies like Australia are not guaranteed.

The compact between citizens and government is fragile, based on conventions, beliefs and laws often unwritten and taken for granted.

Once trust and confidence are shattered Lord Sumption warns that society descends into a Hobbesian world – one where compliant citizens are ruled by absolute governments and tyranny prevails.

As argued by Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers and statesman, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Lord Sumption concludes his Menzies Institute lecture with a dire warning:

“There is no inevitability about the future course of any historical trend. But the changes in our political culture seem to me to reflect a profound change in the public mood, which has been many years in the making and may be many years in the unmaking.
We are entering a Hobbesian world, the enormity of which has not yet dawned on our people”.

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