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The future of crisis response under the spotlight

The balance between ensuring public safety and allowing individuals to exercise civil liberties has been rocked in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The principles of freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and the right to privacy have all been contested as governments seek to protect lives and preserve health resources with restrictions on travel and gatherings and the introduction of technology to identify and contact people who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

As the country begins to emerge from the peak of transmission and we learn to live with various (and changing) state-based versions of restrictions, how can the past six months inform the future of crisis responses and policy, from a governance perspective?

This will be one of the questions to be addressed at Governance Institute of Australia’s upcoming Tasmanian Governance Forum , on October 26. Topics including the future of the economy, technology, and governance and risk-management will be explored from the perspective of the Tasmanian experience.

To provide context for the upcoming forum, two high-profile Tasmanians – Police Commissioner Darren Hine AO APM, and barrister Greg Barns SC – have shared their own views on management of COVID-19 crisis.

As the Tasmanian government’s senior administrator of the emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Commissioner Hine is closely involved in public governance during a ‘hazard’, which encompasses pandemics, defined in the State’s Emergency Management Act. In Tasmania, the Secretary of the Department of Police, Fire and Emergency Management also holds the positions of Police Commissioner and State Emergency Management Controller.

“With all of these extensive powers – including regulating the movement of people in and out of Tasmania and also regulating people going into quarantine for 14 days, that’s significant powers. But this is a disease we’ve never had to deal with before so it is about protecting the Tasmanian community,” Commissioner Hine said.

Meanwhile, Mr Barns’ view is that powers provided to police in the pandemic have gone too far, that protest marches should and could safely proceed as Australian transmissions reduce, and that freedom of movement can and should be reinstated as the most recent peak of transmissions has passed.

“[The government] has been far too reliant in recent times on public health officials and not enough on the fact you’ve got to allow people greater freedom of movement when the worst elements of the crisis have passed.

“I think people should have been allowed the right to protest because you can do so in such a way that it’s safe. The longer you impose draconian measures on people, the less likely you are to get compliance.”

We take a look at the insights of Commissioner Hine and Mr Barns on the governance responses and the future of crisis management across the following key areas:

Governance in the pandemic

Police Commissioner Hine: “In emergency management we need to use our resources wisely, we also need to make sure we maximise community resilience and work with the community to make sure the community is safe. We can’t do it all alone, we need their support. There’s always going to be differences of opinion and in an emergency you’ve got to be able to make timely decisions rightly or wrongly in reaction to an emergency, and sometimes the only wrong decision is going to be no decision. The community wants good governance and leadership during an emergency so you’ve got to make sure you make those decisions, and adapt your approach to those situations you’re dealing with, within the confines of the legislation.”

Greg Barns SC: “It’s quite fraught, it’s been lawmaking on the run… Parliament is not optional, and the rule of law is not optional, and you have to keep in mind both of those key factors when you’re legislating in this area. [At the forum] I’ll be talking particularly about the need for parliamentary scrutiny which has not been what it should be, especially in the early days of this crisis.”

Policing in the pandemic

Greg Barns SC: “You’re giving powers to police officers to detain people, giving powers to interfere with the freedom of movement and fine people. You just have to make sure these are the least intrusive means of dealing with the crisis.”

Police Commissioner Hine: “As the pandemic hit, obviously we needed to divert resources to assist public health in the combat of this virus, for example in compliance checking those people who should be in home quarantine for 14 days. When there was the stay at home requirement from a public health direction, that was one of the things police don’t normally do, to enforce those directions. Policing had to change, and will change, no matter what emergency we’re dealing with.”

The future

Commissioner Hine: “Whilst we train and we plan for various emergencies, this pandemic is unique so therefore we’ve had to have a unique response, bearing in mind the legislation we have to work within… There has been some commentary about ‘Is the Emergency Management Act adequate?’. After any major event, there should be a major review to examine the response, including the powers used under the relevant legislation. We’ll go through that and we’re currently going through that process to ensure that the Act allowed us to combat this current emergency and that any changes may or may not be needed, that’s for Parliament to decide.”

Greg Barns SC: “One hopes that [the impact of COVID-19 on political governance] has enlivened more Australians to the need for robust human rights protections. On the other side of the ledger the risk is legislators and governments use the emergency powers type of law making in other circumstances.”

Tasmanian Governance Forum

Designed for governance and risk management professionals, the Tasmanian Governance Forum will be held from 11am on Monday 26 October 2020 and can be attended in person or online.

Session speakers include Alison Watkins, Chief Executive Officer, Coca-Cola Amatil Ltd; Saul Eslake, Independent economist and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Tasmania; and Rod Whitehead, Auditor General of Tasmania.

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