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Opinion: Our human rights still remain

Dr Bruce Chen writes in the Herald-Sun that we can still raise human rights concerns even while supporting Victoria's lockdown.

DANIEL Andrews has been seen by many as the Premier for a crisis. This was based on a willingness to front up regularly before the media, heed expert advice over politics, and communicate directly with the public.

But as part of his government's handling of the pandemic, one of the Premier's go-to comments is “it's not about human rights, it's about human life''.

This occurred when the debate over face coverings was at its highest. It happened again last week, in response to the curfew amid concerns over its legality and the right to freedom of movement. The curfew is now being challenged in the Supreme Court.

Similarly, when proposing laws to extend the power to declare a state of emergency for 12 more months (later compromised to six), the Premier said “these changes are about saving lives and keeping Victorians safe – nothing more, nothing less''. While such lines might be direct and cut through with the public, it is growing increasingly weary. Speaking in such absolutes does several things.

It diminishes the standing of rights integral to our dignity as human beings. Human rights are democratically recognised and protected by parliament under our Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006. The comments signal that in times of emergency they are politically, at most, a peripheral consideration. But they do not desert us during such times.

It also leaves unacknowledged that human rights under the charter are themselves not absolute, and can be subject to “lawful'', “justified” and “proportionate” limits – to be balanced against life, public health, and other private and public interests such as the economy.

And it shuts down reasoned debate. For much of last week, the Premier, Chief Health Officer and police spoke at cross purposes about whose idea the curfew was. Concern was raised about its legality, justification and proportionality. I make no comment on those issues, now they are before the courts.

Plus, it means the government lost an opportunity to explain to the public why certain restrictions were compatible with human rights. The issue of face coverings was largely left to human rights experts to fill that void, and assure the public it did not breach our rights.

It is possible to be broadly supportive of the lockdown, while at the same time raise human rights concerns regarding aspects of it. There is room for debate in between. This ensures government is kept accountable, particularly when extraordinary powers are being exercised with minimal parliamentary oversight.


Reproduced with permission.

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