By Professor Joo Cheong Tham, originally published in the Canberra Times on 13th April 2020.

Should democracy be deferred in the COVID-19 pandemic?

An unmistakable trend in this crisis has been to highly centralised, expert-driven government decision-making, with less space for democratic deliberation. The Commonwealth Parliament was adjourned to August (until it was recently recalled to pass the JobKeeper legislation). Cabinet is playing a lesser role, with decision-making centred upon the Prime Minister and a national cabinet comprising the Prime Minister and state premiers. The advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (a committee comprising of the country’s chief medical officers) has been highly influential.

Some of this is no doubt necessary, particularly cross-jurisdictional co-ordination and reliance on health expertise. Nevertheless, there is an acute risk that democracy is seen as a luxury the country can ill-afford in this pandemic – that democracy should be traded off in the interest of crisis management.

This will be a fundamental mistake. It expands the pandemic into a political crisis and undermines efforts to effectively deal with it.

Democracy is essential in this crisis in four ways.

First, power needs to be held accountable. Accountability is the lifeblood of democracy, and is all the more critical given the significance of the crisis and the measures taken to respond to it. At stake are tens of thousands of deaths (in best-case scenarios); many more infections; millions of jobs and livelihoods; billions of dollars of business and government spending; and unprecedented restrictions on movement.

The complex moral calculus also calls for accountability through public debate. How should the balance be struck between health, economic and social considerations? With limited resources, which group/s should be prioritised (e.g. who should get the ventilator)? Nobody has a monopoly of wisdom over such judgments, expert or otherwise.

Ensuring that all have a say is necessary to grasping the full dimensions of the crisis.

And while it may feel uncomfortable to say so, Lord Acton’s dictum that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” still applies – especially given the extraordinary nature of the powers being exercised. There is a danger here of a corrupting form of certitude – where those in the know think they know best. Such dogmatism lends easily to disregard of opposing views and holding on to extraordinary powers beyond their use-by date.

Second, parliamentary democracy needs to continue. There are no (insuperable) logistical obstacles doing so – parliaments can meet as “virtual” parliaments. Parliamentary democracy is even more crucial given the protracted nature of this crisis. We are at the early stages of the health crisis, which the Prime Minister warns will last at least six months; the economic and social crises will extend beyond the health crisis; and there is the terrifyingly real prospect of rolling waves of infections globally.

Third, all of us should have a voice. This gives practical expression to what the High Court has characterised as underlying the constitution – the principle of political equality.

Ensuring that all have a say is necessary to grasping the full dimensions of the crisis. How COVID-19 darkens our lives will depend upon a myriad of factors: our age group; health condition; socio-economic status; suburb; region and state.

Comprehending this (bewildering) complexity is beyond any centralised mechanism of information gathering, however well informed by expertise. What is needed is a decentralised system, harnessing the knowledge of the multitude.

Parliamentarians could submit weekly reports distilling the views of their constituents to the Parliamentary Library, which could compile them into a single public document, feeding into public discussion and policy-making.

Civil organisations should be aided to give voice to those suffering in this crisis, whether directly through government grants or through an increase in the tax-deductibility of charitable donations. The work of the “charities crisis cabinet” established by the major charities should also be supported by government.

Steps should be taken to ensure that those particularly vulnerable have a voice, including those have been “invisible” in this crisis (e.g. homeless people; prisoners; the 2 million temporary visa-holders, including New Zealanders) and, most importantly, First Nations people whose remote communities risk devastation.

Last but not least, it should be remembered that democracies are necessarily communities. Hugh Mackay is right to point out that the moral obligation to nurture and sustain supportive communities is at the same time a democratic obligation. This is fundamentally an obligation founded upon an ethic of care. Central to the principle of community is, as philosopher G. A. Cohen has explained, that “people care about, and, where necessary and possible, care for, one another, and, too, care that they care about one another”. This ethic of care most emphatically implies compassion to ourselves and others, and exacting solicitude for those suffering.

Care and compassion are vital in this crisis. They are essential to Australians acting in a cohesive and concerted way; to honouring far-reaching public health restrictions; to tempering the extremes of panic and indifference; to alleviating widespread hardship; and to preventing such hardship igniting into societal conflicts.

Care and compassion are key survival strategies in this crisis.

  • Joo-Cheong Tham is a Professor at the Melbourne Law School and a board member of the Centre for Public Integrity.