Before 2020, the idea of Australia all but forbidding its citizens from leaving the country, a restriction associated with Communist regimes, was unthinkable. Today, it is a widely accepted policy. “Australia’s borders are currently closed and international travel from Australia remains strictly controlled to help prevent the spread of COVID-19,” a government website declares. “International travel from Australia is only available if you are exempt or you have been granted an individual exemption.” The rule is enforced despite assurances on another government website, dedicated to setting forth Australia’s human-rights-treaty obligations, that the freedom to leave a country “cannot be made dependent on establishing a purpose or reason for leaving.”
The nation’s high court struck down a challenge to the country’s COVID-19 restrictions. “It may be accepted that the travel restrictions are harsh. It may also be accepted that they intrude upon individual rights,” it ruled. “But Parliament was aware of that.” Until last month, Australians who are residents of foreign countries were exempt from the rule so they could return to their residence. But the government tightened the restrictions further, trapping many of them in the country too.
Intrastate travel within Australia is also severely restricted. And the government of South Australia, one of the country’s six states, developed and is now testing an app as Orwellian as any in the free world to enforce its quarantine rules. People in South Australia will be forced to download an app that combines facial recognition and geolocation. The state will text them at random times, and thereafter they will have 15 minutes to take a picture of their face in the location where they are supposed to be. Should they fail, the local police department will be sent to follow up in person. “We don’t tell them how often or when, on a random basis they have to reply within 15 minutes,” Premier Steven Marshall explained. “I think every South Australian should feel pretty proud that we are the national pilot for the home-based quarantine app.”
Other states also curtailed their citizens’ liberty in the name of safety. The state of Victoria announced a curfew and suspended its Parliament for key parts of the pandemic. “To put this in context, federal and state parliaments sat during both world wars and the Spanish Flu, and curfews have never been imposed,” the scholar John Lee observed in an article for the Brookings Institution. “In responding to a question about whether he had gone too far with respect to imposing a curfew (avoiding the question of why a curfew was needed when no other state had one), Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews replied: ‘it is not about human rights. It is about human life.’”