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Thematic Issue: Rights Protection amidst COVID-19 / General

Wars, Pandemics and Emergencies: What Can History Tell Us about Executive Power and Surveillance in Times of Crisis?

Author

Yee-Fui Ng and Stephen Gray

In the fight against coronavirus, the Australian government has enacted a series of measures that represent an expansion of executive powers. These include the use of smartphone contact-tracing technology, mandatory isolation arrangements, and the closure of businesses.?Critics have expressed concerns about the long-term implications of these measures upon individual rights.?This article will analyse the validity of such concerns in the context of other historical uses of executive power in Australia in times of crisis: during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the First and Second World Wars, and the ‘War on Terror’ post-September 2001. Drawing its conclusions from these historical precedents, the article argues that clear legislative safeguards are a minimum necessary step both to prevent police and governmental abuse of privacy, and to foster and maintain trust in the government’s ability to manage their ‘emergency’ powers in a manner consistent with human rights. 

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