This is a free country.
It’s a phrase we’ve all used, even from schoolyard days—often to stand up to a bully trying to exert their control over us. “This is a free country” are words I repeated countless times as a child, long before I understood the concept of liberty.
I guessed it had something to do with the opening line of our national anthem, which I knew by heart: Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.
Whatever we know about liberty, the idea of freedom and a free country has certainly been brought into sharp relief over the last month. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, previously unheard-of rules now limit our interactions, trade, worship, travel, and much more besides.
We all know that these are temporary measures aimed at addressing a public health emergency—and our government has provided a cohesive rationale as to why they are needed.
You might agree wholeheartedly with the restrictions we currently live under; you might be an outspoken critic, like the recent protesters in many American cities. Either way, there is something we can all surely agree on: freedom is precious.
At least I hope we can all agree on this.
If I’m honest, I have been surprised at how quickly Australians have adapted to these stringent new rules with almost unquestioning obedience. In my heart of hearts, I hope this is because of widespread goodwill—the desire to protect the vulnerable among us from the spread of disease.
I can’t help but wonder, though, if we might have grown apathetic about our freedoms. Do we actually know which liberties are protected in Australia? And if so, do we value them?
The most fundamental truth for us to grasp is that freedom is not something provided to us by the government. Liberty-loving nations have always understood that individual freedom is part of the very fabric of the universe. In other words, humans are born free, regardless of what any person or parliament decides.
In the words of the American sage Benjamin Franklin, “Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature.”
The idea of individual liberty has a long and rich history in the West. Major movements such as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment made important contributions to this. But Christianity—with its insistence that each person has been made in God’s image—has played a leading role in the West’s emphasis on freedom.
The role of our governments, then, is simply to protect the freedoms that are already ours.
The United States has famously enshrined many freedoms in their Bill of Rights. These first ten amendments to its Constitution include freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, protection from cruel and unusual punishment, and many others.
In Australia, we have no Bill of Rights. Our Constitution protects a limited number of liberties such as freedom of religion, trial by jury, and the right to vote. As Aussies, many of our freedoms are actually safeguarded by common law—decisions that have been made by the courts in the years since Federation.
So what are the freedoms that have currently been restricted in Australia due to the pandemic?
Freedom of assembly: With ‘non-essential’ gatherings now limited to two people, the freedom for us to meet together in person to share, discuss and debate our common interests has been severely restrained.
Freedom of movement: The right to freely travel from place to place within Australia and to leave our nation and return to it has been temporarily revoked. While returning Aussies are welcomed home, most Australians are not allowed to leave the country or even cross state borders.
Freedom of religion: There are aspects to this liberty that have not been affected by current restrictions, such as the right to freely change our beliefs. But our freedom to gather for communal worship, either publicly or privately, does not exist for the time being.
Freedom to peacefully protest: Under normal circumstances, Australians are free to meet for peaceful, public protest. This freedom has also been suspended for now. To peacefully protest would, in many parts of the country, result in severe fines as the law currently stands.
Freedom from arbitrary detention: This liberty, sometimes referred to as security of the person, normally relates to arrest and punishment. It is presently the case, however, that Australians have been told only to leave their homes under very limited circumstances, regardless of whether they are sick or healthy. This, it could well be argued, is a form of arbitrary detention.
There are many other freedoms that could be listed that are impacted by current restrictions, such as the right to trade freely, the right to work, and the right to self-determination.
If you have read through this list of liberties, fearing that I am about to recommend a riot in the streets, you can take a deep breath. I am not suggesting that.
But if you have read through this list of freedoms and not once thought, “I am grateful to live in a free nation like Australia,” then you may need to check if your heart is still beating.
We live in an incredible country, even in the midst of a partial lockdown. This can be said by the citizens of most Western nations. What so many of us have forgotten is that freedom, as we understand it, is historically peculiar.
Step back and survey the great sweep of history, and you will see that the period of time in which our liberties have been so strongly guarded is little more than a blip. We could measure it in just decades and centuries—though empires have been rising and falling for millennia.
Still today, many of the world’s inhabitants don’t know their rights, and don’t enjoy their freedoms.
Most of the world’s nations pay lip service to liberty, on documents both domestic and global. But “the free world” is a concept as relevant as ever, still limited mostly to the nations that make up North America, Western Europe, and East Asia.
Many forces have caused us to grow apathetic about liberty. Surely a recent one is our culture’s increasing obsession with ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ that are unworthy of the name. Biological men competing in women’s sports, and people compelling their peers to address them with new and strange pronouns are several examples that come to mind.
Taking our freedoms for granted, we have become bored with what we had, and enticed by passing fads. The risk is that now, emerging generations can hardly see freedom’s forest for the trees.
The question for all of us then, is this: will the restrictions we now face will reawaken in us a gratitude for liberty? Will the lockdown lead to further apathy, or will it wake us up to defend and protect our precious freedoms for future generations?