What laws forged during WWI have to say about today’s pandemic response

History repeating itself: How laws written in the First World War became about abuse and control.

History repeating itself: How laws written in the First World War became about abuse and control. Photo: Getty

In a time of great crisis, governments must take drastic actions.

But sometimes laws passed overreach, discriminating unfairly and stripping freedoms.

Occasionally, they aren’t wound back when disaster passes.

As we stare down the barrel of long months indoors, policed by punitive fines and coerced to download a government app tracing our very movements, Catherine Bond, associate professor in the faculty of law at UNSW Sydney, cautions us to be vigilant.

“This balance between how much privacy we’re willing to give up for hopefully public health benefit, those are the same kind of sacrifices people were willing to make in World War I, to give up certain rights and freedoms in the name of victory and law,” she said.

“But today, with how much data can be stored, it opens the floodgates.”

Her new book, Law in War, details the onerous legal ramifications of the War Precautions Act passed in 1914.

Significantly increasing the power of the government to write laws as they saw fit, it resulted in thousands of prosecutions.

Though technically repealed in December 1920, its tentacles still curtail our rights today, with particular relevance to the pandemic response, the curtailing of protests, and the indefinite detention of refugees.

Bond wrote the final chapter of Law in War in September, when climate change protests spread across the country, inspired by Greta Thunberg.

“Seeing how state and federal governments were responding, bringing in stronger anti-protest laws, I couldn’t have imagined that now we’d be seeing laws where it’s as easy as stopping during exercising, sitting down on the beach and potentially being fined.”

Centring on the government of former prime minister Billy Hughes (1915-23), he was a controversial figure during his record-breaking 51-year political career.

A man who leapt from party to party, he led the nation at the head of both Labor and the Nationalist Party. The latter gave birth to the Liberals.

Law in War by Catherine Bond

Bond believes there is a lot to be learned by looking back. Photo: NewSouth Publishing 

Despite his divisive nature, he was a popular public figure, affectionately dubbed “the little digger” for leading Australia through the war.

But there was a period when he was howled down, sparking outrage over a 1929 news report detailing his apparent abuse of the act.

An accusation he appeared to confirm in a 1937 address reported by The Mercury.

Hughes said, menacingly, “It was my privilege in those days to make with a fountain pen all the laws under which you lived. And you were never so happy as in those days.”

Not everyone was happy.

Suffragettes Jenny Baines and Adela Pankhurst (daughter of famous Emmeline) were punished for breaking of a restriction zone placed around the Victorian Parliament.

“The government found these extraordinary measures worked really well, so they immediately introduced them again when repealing the War Precautions Act,” Bond said.

Former Greens senator Scott Ludlam fell foul of the very same law during Extinction Rebellion protests in Sydney at the end of last year.

His (ultimately thrown out) bail restrictions included an exclusion zone around Sydney Town Hall so large it would have prevented him from attending court.

Then there are the legal restrictions on the use of the term Anzac.

Introduced in 1916, they persist today.

The Hughes government also used the act against Franz Wallach, a German expat who became a naturalised British subject, but found himself subjected to the wrath of the Attorney-General over his international business dealings.

Dr Catherine Bond

Bond’s first book is called Anzac: The Landing, The Legend, The Law.

“That highlights the increased reactivity when the government wasn’t getting what they want,” Bond said.

“They wanted to keep Franz in turn. They tried to do that under the law they had already passed.

“That didn’t work. So they added in a new provision that allowed the internment of individuals on the basis of any hostile origin or association. His indefinite detention is something that continues today with refugees.”

The government also considered, but did not go through with, deporting Wallach.

“Again, we see that in laws that allow the deportation of individuals that have made a life for themselves in this country,” she added, pointing to the recent spat with New Zealand over bikie laws.

“We expect that when things go wrong, our governments will be there for us, then you have the rug pulled out entirely,” Bond said.

“And there are examples of that ranging from how the Australian government has dealt with Julian Assange, through to getting flights out of countries for individuals who have been stranded during the pandemic.”

The title of Hughes’ memoir, Policies and Potentates, with its reference to an autocratic ruler, shows he thumbed his nose at accusations of overreach.

Bond suggests our government must be wary of following in his footsteps.

“It’s absolutely possible that as these restrictions continue, people might start feeling more negative towards our politicians when we’re not given enough information as to why they are so important,” she said.

“We could really start to resent these laws.”

Law in War by Catherine Bond, published by NewSouth, is out now

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