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Opinion

Why I no longer call Australia home

The Lucky Country's unbearable slide into paternalism

| Australia
Members of Victoria Police perform random checks in Melbourne in July 2020: Australian police have a insidious method of breaking the human spirit.   © Getty Images

Ian Lloyd Neubauer is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia.

One of Australia's most senior law officers, New South Wales police commissioner Mick Fuller, proposed an app last month that would enable consenting couples to formally record their consent before engaging in sexual activity.

"Just as we've had to check-in at the coffee shop to keep people safe [from COVID-19], is there a way consent can be confirmed or documented?" Fuller wrote in Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper, adding that the tool could help courts prosecute rising sexual assault allegations. "The app could be a terrible idea, but maybe in 10 years' time, that will be seen as the normal."

While the idea was rejected by women's rights groups who said the app could make it harder for women to prove rape, for me, it was yet another reminder of why I quit Australia years ago and happily remained abroad during the pandemic, even though I would probably be much safer back home.

You can no longer get drunk in a pub in Australia. You cannot take your dog in the car without a special harness. You cannot ride a bicycle without a helmet or lights on -- even during the day. Australian police rarely mete out the brute force common in other countries, but they have a far more insidious method of breaking the human spirit: crippling fines.

A Sydney man was recently fined 114 Australian dollars ($87) for accidentally leaving a car window down past the regulated 20-mm threshold. In the state of Queensland, you can be fined AU$112 for leaving your car doors unlocked. Honking a car horn without a good reason -- illegal use of a warning device -- carries a fine of AU$298 in NSW.

According to Wheels magazine, Australians pay a staggering AU$1 billion in speeding fines every year thanks to so many speed cameras hidden in the back of unmarked police vehicles, often strategically parked at the bottom of hills to catch drivers at the exact place they might pip the speed limit.

Before escaping the so-called Lucky Country, I gave up driving altogether in order to avoid all these fines. But one day, riding my bicycle 200 meters to the corner store, I was stopped by a police officer and fined AU$330 for failing to secure the chin strap on my bicycle helmet. I was then fined another AU$106 for failing to carry identification.

There is a joke about overregulation in Australia, that "One day, you'll need a license to fart." But after Commissioner Fuller proposed regulating sex, I believe it is only a matter of time before this loony idea and others like it, cut straight out of the Netflix social-media horror series Dark Mirror, are passed into law.

Think I am being paranoid? Well, consider the way Australian authorities turned the screws on rebellious subjects during the pandemic.

In December, nine people were fined AU$349 for using their cellphones while waiting in their cars in hourslong queues to get tested for COVID-19 at Sydney's famous Bondi Beach. "I felt like [telling the police officer to go] get stuffed. I am trying to do the right thing," a woman in the queue told The New Daily. Had she done so, she would have been fined an additional AU$660 or sentenced to up to six months in prison for breaking the state's controversial offensive language laws.

During Melbourne's second lockdown last year, nearly 20,000 fines of up to AU$5,000 were issued for failure to wear masks in public, failing to self-isolate, and other health protocols. These included fines for 3,000 people who breached a dubious 9 p.m. curfew, and an Indigenous man who was crash-tackled by police for the purported crime of riding his bicycle to work half an hour after the curfew had ended at 5:30 a.m.

Police officers in Melbourne, pictured in September 2020: nearly 20,000 fines of up to AU$5,000 were issued.   © Getty Images

Freedom of speech even became a crime in Victoria, as evidenced by the case of a pregnant woman who was handcuffed in her home in front of her children and charged for incitement after she created an anti-lockdown protest event on Facebook.

Another pregnant woman was given a move-on order by police when she tried to sit down on a park bench for a break, while the small number of people who actually attended protest rallies were met by Victorian police with the same kind of unrestrained violence we were used to seeing in Russia. "Rights should be upheld and reinforced during a pandemic, not abandoned," said Elaine Person, Human Rights Watch's Australian director.

In the face of such paternalism, is it any wonder that every single time a new COVID lockdown is announced Down Under, panic-buyers strip supermarket shelves clean despite repeated pleas by politicians that there is absolutely no need to hoard food in a country that produces so much of it that three-quarters of it is shipped overseas?

In one incident, two women got into a punch-up in a supermarket over a packet of toilet paper. When toilet-paper hoarding continued, supermarkets were forced to impose legislation of their own, limiting purchases to two packs per customer. The lesson to me is clear: treat people like petulant children and they will act that way the moment Big Brother turns his back.

Australia might still be the luckiest country on Earth. But for myself and tens of thousands of expatriates who have flown the coop and chosen liberty over security, Australia is also the most overregulated -- and least obliging -- nation on Earth.

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