Why Australians Have Been so Compliant With COVID-19 Restrictions

September 2, 2021 Updated: September 6, 2021


As Australia’s death toll from COVID-19 passes 1,000, opinions about the efficacy of draconian lockdowns are beginning to diverge across the country.

“This is not a sustainable way to live,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared recently.

An increasing number of Australians, who have endured the pain of the world’s longest lockdowns, are inclined to agree with him.

Yet many weeks before, citizens in countries such as the United States, France, and the United Kingdom—which have higher case numbers and deaths along with higher vaccination rates—were already enjoying greater freedoms as restrictions were eased. And they also noticed that the heavy hand of government was keeping the supposedly authority-defying Aussie “larrikin” firmly under the thumb and locked up at home.

For the most part, from the start of the pandemic in 2020, Australians generally accepted government-imposed restrictions, which were accompanied by assurances from politicians and public health officials that they were intended to keep people “safe,” to “contain the spread,” and to ensure hospitals could cope with any surge in cases.

Even when police were granted extra powers, including the authority to impose hefty on-the-spot fines for trivial offences, few protested.

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A police officer speaks to a member of the public as part of public health order compliance operations at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, on Aug. 15, 2021. (Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)

And, of course, it is important to acknowledge that Australia had great success in keeping both case numbers and deaths very low throughout the first year of the pandemic compared to other countries.

However, as Australia now moves into 2021’s spring, and the 80 percent vaccination target begins to look achievable, the limits of a “COVID Zero” policy are more readily apparent.

It’s not just that the spread of the Delta COVID-19 variant that has proved impossible to contain; it’s that society is becoming aware of the immense burden—and social and mental anguish—caused by prolonged isolation.

No surprise, then, that a recent YouGov poll found two out of three Australians now believe vaccination, rather than a lockdown, offers the way out of the pandemic.

Why has it taken so long for Australians—especially politicians—to voice concerns about liberty and restrictions and about the unsustainability of lockdowns?

Two main factors help explain this late shift. The first is pragmatic: the negative impact of lockdowns is much more apparent in mid-2021. The second is historical: Australia’s view of rights is very different from that in countries such as France and the United States.

Three reasons account for the first factor. First, the sheer number of days millions of Australians have spent locked up at home has soared as “circuit-breaking” lockdowns have been extended repeatedly as cases of Delta surged across much of the country over the winter months.

Second, the economic impact on families affected by business closures and unemployment grew, especially as this year’s financial assistance was much less generous than last year’s JobKeeper aid. Third, we now see the mental health of children and young people declining dramatically with an increase in reported cases of self-harm and suicide, notably in Victoria.

But it is also necessary to look beyond recent events to Australia’s history.

One national characteristic to have emerged most vividly during the pandemic is Australia’s authoritarian culture.

“Australians are both the descendants of convicts and of their gaolers,” Aussie ex-pat commentator, Helen Dale, has observed.

But the roots of Australians’ compliance with authority go deeper than that and can be traced to the way we think about rights.

In countries such as France and the United States, rights are held to have a natural or even divine origin that is wholly independent of the state.

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Demonstrators march during a national protest against the compulsory COVID-19 vaccination for certain workers and vaccine passports. (Sylvian Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

For the French and the Americans, rights are what come first. However, in Australia, by contrast, rights are held to be the creation of the state while being dependent on it.

Rights—such as a right to religious freedom—can be conferred by Australian parliaments, but they can also be revoked and even swept away.

“Australia favours democracy and majorities over liberty and rights,” says Dale.

For example, take the steps already being considered here to require those who have been vaccinated to carry at all times a form of “vaccine passport” to prove they have been jabbed.

Some critics argue this will create a “vaccine apartheid,” enforcing an arbitrary distinction between those who choose to get vaccinated and those who choose not to.

But the value of vaccination is increasingly widely recognised, and those who opt for the needle want to prove they are protected. As a result, vaccine passports are viewed as a government-conferred right to liberty.

In France, by contrast, President Macron’s attempt to impose a compulsory vaccine passport—known as the passe sanitaire—provoked indignant protests from those who refused such an incursion by the state on individual liberty.

And in the United States, in addition to protests about vaccine passports, gun-toting protesters offended by attempts to compel mask-wearing and sheltering in place were joined by “anti-vaxxers” convinced that COVID-19, and the vaccines developed to counter it, were a conspiracy confected by government.

Far from being conferred by the state, the French and Americans see the government or state as posing the greatest threat to rights.

“Culture can be seen as a kind of social unconscious,” says literary critic Terry Eagleton.

The political cultures of France, the United States, and (to a lesser extent) the United Kingdom, were formed in the crucible of revolution; that in Australia was not, which helps explain the country’s distinctive, unique social unconscious.

Untroubled until now by the repressive restrictions that helped keep the country relatively free from COVID-19, Australia’s social unconscious is, at last, beginning to stir.

Anti-Lockdown Protesters Defy COVID-19 Restrictions To Rally In Melbourne
Protesters are seen marching, holding banners in Melbourne, Australia, on Aug. 21, 2021. (Getty Images)

The Delta variant looks to have been the game changer provoking an overdue reaction to the authoritarian actions of government, showing that even in Australia, the individual’s thirst for liberty is unquenchable.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Peter Kurti
Peter Kurti is director of the Culture, Prosperity & Civil Society program at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia. He is also an adjunct associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, Australia, and has written extensively on issues of religion, liberty, and civil society.