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/.
This post presents an interesting perspective to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on democracies across the international system, an ongoing event that has caused a series of issues to come out into the limelight. While I agree with you on the concept of governments having overstepped their legal bounds in order to ‘keep public health/safety in order,’ it’s hard to find a specific example of democratic backsliding within the post, as democratic erosion involves the use of democracy to unravel it.
Your post makes it very clear that there are numerous examples of the Australian federal and state governments overreaching beyond their constitutional bounds, but the post also emphasizes that there were no conventions or committees petitioning these actions; There are no elections, no voters, and no accepted ability to protest without being arrested, fined, or potentially killed if actions from either group become exacerbated; Alongside these conditions, there is no whiff of a particular party vying for control within the provided texts, or of the president/prime minister declaring themselves the sole ruler of Australia. Though I agree that such actions are undemocratic, based on our definitions of democratic backsliding, the moves of the Australian government don’t seem to breach these terms. Does that therefore make these conditions acceptable? Absolutely not.
The pandemic hit every nation with severity, some worse than others, no matter their economic status. Despite this, it seems some nations were willing to abandon their constitutional rights in order to enforce public safety as a priority, and that is where concern lies in this post, with or without a specific definition of democratic erosion being infringed. As we have seen in Australia and even in the U.S. arguably, federal powers have repeatedly moved to enforce vaccine mandates, quarantine procedures, and mask requirements without a vote or discussion of agreement in place beforehand, leaving the debate for such measures to come afterwards once the sense of urgency has worn off.
Your post is one of the most popular topics in the political realm today, so I think it is a great topic to post about. However, I think this is a very subjective topic and we must take each caseas a separate one to examine. Each country requires a different approach to a pandemic solely based on the infrastructure of that country, so there can’t be one standard that elicits a democratic response across the board.
However, I think your post doesn’t hit enough on why the pandemic opened up doors for democratic erosion and, instead, touches more on how. I would’ve loved a deeper analysis of why countries can use a pandemic situation for anti-democratic means and if these means are really anti-democratic.
Moreover, in your focus on Australia, you leave out a key component: they did a swift eradication of the virus multiple times. So, can you prove that what they did was anti-democratic if it, in the end, saved lives of potentially hundreds of thousands of people? By our class discussions on democratic backsliding, does Australia really breach these dynamics enough to be considered in backslide? I am not arguing that what they did was correct, but I am noting that it was in the best interest of the health of the country, which was their top priority in moments where the rest of the world was losing patients by the thousands.
I think a deeper analysis is needed here, and maybe a case other than Australia. You could have also looked at the 2020 election and how voter suppression was exacerbated by COVID.
Hi, Caleb! I found your post relating democratic backsliding to Australian COVID-19 policies to be very interesting. I think that considering democratic backsliding in the United States through the lens of the pandemic is important as well. The COVID-19 pandemic began during the lead-up to the latest presidential election, and both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party used this global crisis for their political advantage. The COVID-19 vaccine quickly became a political issue, and I believe that this has been a detriment to democracy as well as public health in the United States.
Affective polarization, which is characterized by citizens’ disgust and distrust of the other political party, has grown rapidly in the United States in recent years. I would argue that partisan divisions in regard to the pandemic have strengthened affective polarization. One political party believes that the other does not care about public health and the safety of others. The other political party believes that the first is encroaching on their bodily autonomy and freedom. With such serious concerns in regard to the motives of the other party, affective polarization has grown.
When there are high levels of affective polarization in a democracy, citizens stop voting for their party because they believe in their policies. Instead, they vote for one party to keep another out of office. This reality has dangerous implications for elections’ ability to hold policymakers accountable and is a huge concern in the United States today.
Hey Caleb, your post was particularly interesting because you highlighted something that has not really been covered on by news media and newspapers. Like you stated, many of the restrictions and actions done during the COVID-19 pandemic are done for the purpose of what governments call public health safety but fail to address concerns of democratic backsliding due to their actions. I think you had great examples regarding Australia’s lockdown and restriction. While I knew that Australia had harsher restrictions on it citizens, I did not know how they handled those who were not abiding them. I think that we both can agree that while the COVID-19 pandemic has caused countries to face stressful situations and decisions, I believe that countries like Australia should still oversee any potential small steps towards democratic backsliding that could rise from the decisions made. Having tough restrictions on one’s own citizen could be viewed as a sign of democratic backsliding. I think if we were to return to any more lockdowns, we would see more protest then we previously had in the United States.