Preserving freedom in a democratic culture
There was considerable controversy recently when the Australian Border Force announced a joint operation with Victoria Police to allow for large-scale Border Force random checks of the visa status of people in Melbourne’s central business district. As it turned out, the plan was not for random checks, and it is not the purpose of this blog post to discuss the issue itself. However, in terms of understanding democracy, the overwhelming opposition to the plan, or to how it was understood, is useful.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott quickly stepped in to say,
I want to make it absolutely crystal clear, as far as this Government is concerned, people will never be stopped in the street randomly and asked for their visa details.
He said this in response to a media and public outcry. His words expressed a view on the parameter of what isn’t acceptable in terms of our everyday rights, and the relationship between the state and the people.
Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, summed up the most important lesson in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald. He said:
… preserving freedom doesn’t sit with the government. A healthy democracy is a constant negotiation between the government and the governed. We negotiate the terms of the agenda at the polling booth. But our responsibilities don’t end there. We have an ongoing obligation to hold the arms of government to account. We periodically have debates about the merits or otherwise of laws to protect rights and freedoms. But freedom doesn’t solely live in laws. It sits in the hearts and minds of the body politic.
The dominant Australian culture assumes that we should not be stopped by police or Border Force officers while going about our normal business without having done anything wrong. Generally speaking, we have the right to remain silent in such situations; the only obligation in most cases being to provide our name and address if requested.
The recent Border Force incident suggests that, in the hearts and minds of the body politic, the proposal was going too far and crossing a line. There are perhaps precedents in our recent political history, such as the rejection of government attempts to introduce a national identity card, the Australia Card, in 1980s.
We want the democratic state to provide the basics that keep us well but we want to determine the extent to which the state can tell us what to do and interfere in our daily lives. We want space to allow us to question, challenge and rebel – and to change things.