November 18, 2021
Ronald Reagan famously said that “freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction”. For many Australians, until recently, freedom has been something we have largely been able to take for granted in our daily lives.
But with millions of Australians only recently emerging from lengthy lockdowns, and every single one of us still living with restrictions that would have been simply unimaginable only a few short years ago, it is worth reflecting on freedom – what it means to us now, and what we want it to mean in the future.
To say the past two years have been challenging right across the world is underestimating the sheer impact of Covid-19. The statistics alone paint a stark picture. To date, there have been more than 251 million confirmed cases and more than five million deaths reported around the world.
The International Monetary Fund recently reported that the global economy shrank by 3.1 per cent in 2020, resulting in the deepest global recession since World War II. In the Asia-Pacific region alone the International Labour Organisation estimates that 81 million jobs were lost in 2020 and an additional 22 to 25 million people were likely to fall into working poverty. On a global scale the impact of Covid-19 has been profound.
While the loss of rights and freedoms can be harder to quantify in statistical terms, that does not make them any less real. Governments across the world have assumed sweeping powers and imposed significant restrictions on their citizens in response to the pandemic. The Democracy Index 2020 described citizens across the world as experiencing “the biggest rollback of individual freedoms ever undertaken by governments during peacetime”, and observed that “the willing surrender of fundamental freedoms by millions of people was perhaps one of the most remarkable occurrences in an extraordinary year”.
When we look at Australia’s overall pandemic response there is much to be thankful for. While every death is grieved, our total number of deaths is still comparatively low from a global perspective. Similarly, while the impact of job losses and business closures on individuals and families has been immense, the economy overall has weathered the pandemic better than many others, and the prospects for continued economic recovery are strong.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Australians have also had to live with some of the most restrictive response measures in the world. While these measures have been imposed with the important aim of protecting public health and saving lives, that doesn’t change the fact they have been imposed at a significant cost. Or that in many cases it has been our most marginalised and disadvantaged who have been asked to bear a disproportionate burden.
Rights and freedoms we previously took for granted have been either limited or entirely removed. While we can all appreciate the importance of keeping each other safe, we also need to recognise that the pandemic restrictions themselves have caused significant damage of a different kind. For families that have been separated, Australians overseas who have been unable to return home, people forced to close businesses they have poured everything into, students forced to spend long periods learning from home, and children who weren’t allowed to play with friends in the local playground, these are not just minor inconveniences. These rights and freedoms aren’t frivolous or merely optional extras. They are part of what makes us human. They are the connections that give meaning to our lives so we are actually living, and not just merely surviving.
Of course, rights can be legitimately restricted in times of emergency, including to protect public health. But this should only ever be temporary, and limited to restrictions that are necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, we should be aiming to leave untouched the greatest possible realm of freedom for each individual. And, where restrictions are needed, they need to be applied with both common sense and compassion.
Importantly, the situation we face today is very different to the one we faced at the start of the pandemic. As our national Covid-19 response transitions from pre-vaccination to post-vaccination settings over the coming months our focus will naturally shift. The primary focus over the past 18 months has been on protecting lives, and reducing the economic impact of the pandemic.
But the post-pandemic recovery is about more than just public health and the economy. We also need to be talking about rights and freedoms – recovering the rights and freedoms that have been lost, and ensuring they are protected in the future.
Human rights cannot be merely an afterthought when decisions are being made about ongoing issues such as vaccine mandates and passports, border closures and travel restrictions and mandatory check-in apps (to name but a few). Importantly, those wanting to restrict rights always bear the onus of justifying those restrictions. Even when restrictions are proposed for the most principled and important reasons, it is essential to ensure human rights are a central part of that conversation and that all proposed restrictions are scrutinised.
That is the very essence of the job of the Human Rights Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. It is why a key focus of my role as the incoming Commissioner will be to consider rights and freedoms in the context of the pandemic. As we move into the post-pandemic recovery we need to reflect on the lessons that can be learnt, and ensure that our planning for future emergencies places human rights at the very centre.
Of course, Covid-19 is not the only human rights challenge we face. The AHRC deals with a wide variety of issues and this workload is shared among the president and seven commissioners, who each focus on particular areas. As the Human Rights Commissioner I will have particular responsibility for protecting and promoting traditional rights and freedoms in Australia, including a focus on fundamental freedoms such as freedom of speech, religion, movement and association. I also intend to focus strongly on tackling human trafficking and modern slavery, for the simple reason that while Australia is a global leader on this front, every country can – and must – do more.
Ultimately, my focus will be on making sure the protection of rights and freedoms is a key part of our national conversation. Human rights are inherent, but they are not inevitable. We must never take them for granted. The pandemic has reminded us all of this in a very real and tangible way. In this environment, the role of the AHRC in promoting and protecting human rights is more important than ever.