Australia punching above its weight through global leadership

Australia is a middle economic power in the Indo-Pacific, geographically distanced from Europe and the US. Regardless of its relatively small population and military, Australia has galvanised international attention and support regarding its recent call for an international inquiry into the coronavirus. In Australian colloquial terms, the nation is ‘punching above its weight’ to pursue their own interests through advancing global cooperation. Though Australia faces increasingly tense relations with China, this reality has not prevented Australian officials from taking a stand on the world stage to criticise Beijing for its management of the coronavirus. This week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged the international community to support an inquiry into the origins and transmission of COVID in addition to the WHO’s response. 

China, fearing that such an investigation would harm its international reputation has responded to Australia’s suggestion for an independent investigation with threats of economic coercion. Chinese ambassador to Australia Jingye Cheng has threatened a freeze on tourists and students coming to Australia and a boycott on Australian beef and wine. While it would be easy for Australian officials to scale back their rhetoric in light of Beijing’s bullying tactics, Australia continues to remain vocal on the international stage, presenting a compelling case for the inquiry. At this early stage, Australia’s efforts appear to be successful in gaining international recognition with recent support pledged from the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.

Australia is a regional power with global interests. Pursuing this inquiry is within our national interest as we seek to uphold international rules and norms of transparency and rule of law. An international community which respects these values and has international institutions which support integrity and facts over politics enables peace and prosperity to flourish among nations. The COVID inquiry will help to achieve this vision by seeking to uncover the truth amidst a sea of informational warfare. It will hold China accountable for their negligent handling of the coronavirus and set a clear standard for China’s future cooperation, forcing them and others to think twice before censoring critical health information and delaying international coordination. The inquiry will also uncover problems with the World Health Organisation’s response to this pandemic, a needed step to ensure the institution can develop clearer guidelines and international expectations for dealing with future international health risks. 

Australia’s announcement to pursue the COVID inquiry follows in the footsteps of the successful Australian-led MH17 inquiry. In the aftermath of a transnational tragedy, Australia capitalised its seat on the UN security council by introducing resolution 2166, leading the international community’s response to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. The binding UN resolution called for a ‘full, thorough and independent investigation’ into the crash and demanded military actives in the area cease to enable site access. Through active and determined diplomacy, Australia put vital pressure on those who controlled the crash site to allow access for investigators and for the victims to be repatriated and returned to their loved ones. Australia’s leadership from the downing of MH17 to the coronavirus pandemic indicates a promising pattern of behaviour emerging within Australian Foreign Policy. Australia is filling a US leadership void and acting independently to help maintain regional peace and security. 

Australia’s foreign policy is predominately focused on the Indo-Pacific region. Australia seeks to increase the stability, prosperity and health within Pacific nations and such objectives will likely be advanced due to a COVID inquiry into the WHO. The WHO works to advance public health infrastructure within the Pacific. It is for this reason that Australia has not followed the US to halt the organisation’s funding as this would unnecessarily hurt the people we seek to empower most through Australian aid. Advocating for an inquiry on the other hand provides a more nuanced policy approach. Australia can criticise the inadequacy of the WHO’s response, demanding a higher standard for future compliance, whilst continuing to support the organisation’s valuable work within the Pacific. An inquiry into the management of COVID will help to ensure that the future work of the WHO is more transparent and therefore more effective at managing future health risks through improving infrastructure and resilience among vulnerable states.

Furthermore, an inquiry provides an opportunity for Australia to differentiate itself from China as a partner of choice for future trade and development partnerships within the Pacific. Over the course of the past decade, China has increased its presence in the Pacific providing new opportunities for the Pacific to participate in the Belt in Road Initiative and accept concessional loans to grow their economies. Australia now faces exceptional competition with China, particularly in the area of development. By standing up to China and exposing their negligent management of this pandemic, Australia is presenting a strong case for why it should continue to be a partner of choice in the Pacific. Australia’s display of leadership has outlined its priorities for transparency and international cooperation while exposing the risks associated with participating in trade and accepting development from China. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on Australia’s ability to lead the international community and contribute to global stability and prosperity. As a regional power, it is within Australia’s interests to hold states accountable for their disruptive actions and to build international institutions that promote transparency and integrity. In a time of great pessimism and uncertainty, Australia’s recent leadership provides hope for an international system more committed to truth, transparency and cooperation.

A global spread: novel strain of authoritarianism infects democracies

2020 has been an unprecedented year by all metrics. Reflecting on the few months endured so far, our current affairs would be better suited to the plot of a fictional novel or Netflix series than life as we know it. The Coronavirus has stretched medical services to breaking point, bound people to their homes, closed borders and suffocated economies. While it is not the intention here to minimise the human cost of this tragedy that continues to unfold, one of its most enduring effects could be to usher in an unsettling period of authoritarian politics.

At this stage, most countries have introduced some form of extraordinary measures to battle the coronavirus. Democratic governments and authoritarians alike are increasing their power by curtailing civil liberties. Procedures previously classed as dangerous expansions of state power are now being lauded by leaders and public health officials as the only way to curb the global pandemic. In ordinary times, significant increases in government power stir furious debate and protest. Yet, the Coronavirus has shown us that citizens are willing to accept mass curtailment of their freedoms in the interests of public health. It has been collectively agreed that extraordinary times, call for extraordinary measures. The key concern here is that while emergency responses can be swiftly introduced, such temporary measures are at risk of becoming the new normal.

Warnings from Hungary

Take Hungary, the first democracy to fall under this Pandemic as a preliminary warning. Last week the Hungarian Parliament passed a law by a 2/3 majority affording the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rule by decree for an indefinite period. Hungarians found to spread information deemed to be untrue, interfere with the protection of the public or alarm large groups will face several years’ imprisonment. While the Hungarian government insists that these measures will last only as long as the crisis does, the duration is entirely up to Orbán as emergency powers can only be lifted by a Parliamentary supermajority, which Orbán happens to hold. There is a line between using emergency powers and outright authoritarianism, one that Hungary has undoubtedly crossed. With a failing democratic state in Hungary, what could this mean for the world’s remaining democracies?

Authoritarian responses to crises within democracies

Two decades ago, 9/11 shook the world to its core. The international community responded by introducing wide-ranging counter-terrorism laws. The US Patriot Act expanded the surveillance powers of the United States government and established a system of indiscriminate global surveillance. Surveillance technology developed by the US during the Cold War was later used by the FBI to track civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, and in the 1970s, anti-crime warrants that were initially approved in response to violent crime were later used against protesters during the Vietnam War. In Australia, equally significant changes took place. To date, Australia has some of the most draconian anti-terrorism laws in the Western world and is the only Western liberal democracy that allows ASIO, the domestic intelligence agency to detain persons for seven days without charge or trial and without reasonable suspicion that those detained are involved in terrorist activity. If repressive government responses to 9/11 are any indication of how new legislation will impact a post-COVID world, the future strength and endurance of our democracies is in jeopardy.

Freedom of Assembly  

 Freedom of assembly, a fundamental right, has now been severely restricted in most countries. Celebrations and significant events such as weddings and funerals have been banned in the UK or drastically restricted in other countries. Government orders have also seen a global freeze on religious meetings, impacting the way individuals gather in their faith communities and evangelise. Elections are also being postponed in the interests of ‘flattening the curve’. The Democratic presidential primary in the United States has been postponed in at least 12 states and territories. In Britain, local elections scheduled for May have also been postponed. While postponing elections is the better choice given the risk of mass disease transmission, it is important to consider that delaying elections indefinitely could deprive governments of their legitimacy and allow incumbents to use these delays to entrench their power and hold elections when convenient.  

Police powers

Across the democratic world countries such as Australia, the UK and France have seen increasingly repressive social distancing measures. In Australia, the federal government has left enforcement to the states, creating uncertainty and a space for arbitrary policing. Police in Victorian and New South Wales are handing out ‘on the spot’ fines of up to $20,000 and terms of up to six months’ imprisonment for failure to follow self-isolation rules. There are also police powers to conduct random checks. France recently commenced a 15-day lockdown, deploying 100,000 police officers across the country. Citizens are required to present identification paperwork to police to prove they can leave their homes to buy necessities or attend work. The United Kingdom’s coronavirus bill gives police, public health and immigration officers sweeping powers to detain people suspected of carrying the coronavirus. Police in Warrington said it had issued six court summons for offences, such as shopping for “non-essential items” and going “out for a drive due to boredom,” while Derbyshire Police admitted using drones to monitor citizens out walking. While it is important for people to adhere to social distancing to maximise their health and the health of the broader community, rushed laws that expand arbitrary police powers have several inherent risks. In India, police brutality has been widely publicised. In an appalling video that went viral, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh force young boys to perform frog jumps as punishment for violating the state curfew. A video shared in March this year displays police waiting outside a mosque in the southern state of Karnataka, beating worshipers with a stick as they leave. Similar cases of oppressive law enforcement have been reported around the country. Social media accounts display messages of people running out of food yet afraid to leave their dwellings, fearful of the police. While abuse of police powers varies throughout the democratic world, all democracies must protest police abuse and pressure law-makers to clarify COVID laws, removing the risk of arbitrary application.

Surveillance powers

Akin to increased surveillance powers post-9/11, democracies are acting swiftly to keep a close eye on their citizens. Israel’s counterterrorism unit will use technologies like phone tracking – typically used on Palestinians – to track citizens, sending a text to their phone when they breach quarantine rules or may have come into contact with an infected person. South Korea, has employed web developers to build detailed maps of citizens’ movements using CCTV, phone-tracking and bank transaction data. Taiwan has built an electronic fence using phone-tracking data to enforce quarantine measures. Strict surveillance measures adopted to monitor citizens during coronavirus lockdowns could result in the long-lasting erosion of personal freedoms. United Nations’ privacy chief Joseph Cannataci warned of the danger with sweeping surveillance laws introduced to protect citizens in exceptional circumstances. The privacy chief cautioned that while most civilians accept the need for emergency measures, they could outlast the current crisis. While health data can be useful in assessing citizens’ vulnerability to COVID-19, it could also be abused by governments and hackers to vilify vulnerable minorities. Cannataci describes a situation where such information could be abused to identify HIV-positive people in countries where homophobia is widespread and this condition is seen as an indicator of homosexuality. Additional surveillance during emergency crises such as the coronavirus are demanded however, by accepting such laws, we open the possibility of further encroachment on our civil liberties.

Government intervention to close businesses, enforce social distancing, postpone elections and ramp up surveillance may be required to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus and protect the medical system from inundation. However, these measures may come at the incredible cost of weakening our democracies and steering a new wave of authoritarianism within the international order. The true test of time will reveal how many emergency measures will linger and continue to shape our world post-COVID-19. In the meantime, developing laws and regulations must include the necessary safeguards to ensure that measures are proportionate and temporary.