Democratic backsliding is best understood as the opposite of democratization or the loss of democratic institutions. This is happening today in countries one would not expect. This can either be a slow process over time or happen very quickly, occurring frequently through promissory coups, executive aggrandizement, and strategic insider election manipulation (On Democratic Backsliding, 2021). Although these three are the best and most easily noticeable ways to determine whether democratic backsliding is happening or going to happen, there are other smaller indicators which could be explained as pre determinants of backsliding as well. For example, the decline of a democracy can be related to a government overstepping their bounds and taking away certain rights of the people. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and assembly are some of the most vital individual rights that the government ought not infringe upon. Certain countries governments have arguably overstepped their boundaries in the name of protecting its people from the Coronavirus pandemic. For example in the case of Australia, peoples rights to assemble and have privacy are under attack. Some would argue that it is worth giving up rights in the name of public health, but at what point does this go too far?
To claim to know all truth about the way to handle the public health crisis at hand would be ignorant. The point of this post is to provide an account in the context of Australia of how governmental overreach is a dangerous game. Authoritarian governments have plagued society since the beginning of time. The developed countries are the most sheltered part of the world. In the United States and other developed countries, every person and group is awarded the same rights. The freedoms seen in many developed countries is unprecedented. Most people for a vast majority of human history have not had the right to vote, express opinions in regards to politics, and assemble to fight for change. Take for example every monarchy or dictatorship ever, including around half of the world today (Democracy 2021). Something like authoritarian rule could happen in developed countries. Denying that this is possible is the exact way something bad happens because those that do not pay attention to history are bound to repeat it.
In the case of Australia, the country has taken harsh measures in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. As stated in an article on this, “getting fresh air and watching sunsets can land Australians an infringement fine”. The country has been on lockdown since the onset of the pandemic, and there is no end in sight. The government has made some debatably rash decisions in the name of this. One troubling example of this is the local government of a town killing dogs due to be sheltered in a nearby town over “concerns that the shelter’s employees could spread the coronavirus by traveling to pick up the animals”. Allegedly, the workers were planning on taking precautions not to spread the virus, but the government proceeded to act without warning. The government doing this, however small or unimportant, is still going over their legal bounds. It is argued that this went against the Animal Care and Protection Act of 2001 (Fisheries, 2021).
Moreover, a group of teens were arrested in Sydney for gathering after dark during the lockdown. These boys were hunted down by a “terrorism” unit that used a helicopter and thermal imaging to locate the teenagers. This restriction of citizens’ rights to do something so simple as hanging out with their friends is an example of government overreach. There was another example of a 3-year-old being unable to reunite with his parents due to travel restrictions during the lockdown. These are also examples of people gathering outside, where the transmission of the virus is far less likely (Participate 2021).
Authoritarian measures such as deployment of troops also has happened throughout the country. The state of Victoria also had very stringent rules like a curfew where citizens can only be out 9am-5pm and were only allowed in a 3-mile radius. Moreover, a woman was arrested for “creating a Facebook post calling for a peaceful anti-lockdown protest”. This is a clear violation of the freedom of assembly and an even clearer indicator that the government may be on the road to becoming fully undemocratic. The government allegedly also tracks its citizens through an app, and officers will come to people’s house if they do not respond within a short period of time, a clear violation of privacy (Raleigh 2021).
There are countless more examples of the government of Australia violating its people’s freedoms. Fining people for being outside is inherently undemocratic. This is not to say that these people are in the right for violating their stringent lockdown restrictions, but rather to point out that a government taking away the rights of its people is a serious topic and ought to be discussed.
These authoritarian lockdowns have sparked public outrage, and there has been an uptick in protests, as one would expect. These protests and riots spread throughout the country, which in many cases, the government has used force to stop. It makes sense that when protests get violent, the government must intervene. However, the protests are happening for a reason and the government should consider adjusting in the future. Indicators of democratic backsliding include civil discontent in the form of riots or protests, a government trying to silence opposing views and infringement of personal liberties; all seen here.
Democracy countries 2021. Accessed October 14, 2021. https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/democracy-countries.
Fisheries, Agriculture and. “Cruelty, Duty of Care and Abandoning Animals.” Business Queensland. corporateName=The State of Queensland; August 17, 2021. https://www.business.qld.gov.au/industries/farms-fishing-forestry/agriculture/livestock/animal-welfare/law/cruelty.
“On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy. Accessed October 12, 2021. https://journalofdemocracy.org/articles/on-democratic-backsliding/.
“Participate in Outdoor and Indoor Activities.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed October 14, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/outdoor-activities.html.
Raleigh, Helen, Affairs, World. “Pursuing ‘Covid Zero’ Has Turned Australia into an Authoritarian State.” The Federalist, September 9, 2021. https://thefederalist.com/2021/09/09/pursuing-covid-zero has-turned-australia-into-an-authoritarian-state/.