Last week a locked-down pizza house across my street put up a banner: “Unlock hospitality now”. That same night the restaurant’s glass door was smashed — after curfew, mind you.

It was a vivid illustration of Victoria’s descent into moral confusion, a state where law-breaking vigilantes are the ones shutting down dissent.

The anti-lockdown sentiment is becoming harder to contain, and the concerns of a restless population were hardly appeased when last week premier Daniel Andrews rebuffed concerns that lockdown rules infringe basic human rights.

Human rights, he said, “are not the first consideration”.

It was a galling brush-off, coming from the leader of the same Victorian Labor that enacted Australia’s first state-based human rights charter.

Even more galling was Andrews’ comment: “It’s not about human rights; it’s about human life.”

Galling because this is the party that put “abortion rights” ahead of human life with its 2008 Abortion Law Reform Act, a law that legalised ending the life of an unborn infant up until birth, and stripped doctors of their right to conscientiously refuse to participate.

It’s the party that put those same abortion rights ahead of human life when it outlawed peaceful protests by those who by their presence outside abortion clinics seek to save the lives of unborn children and offer expecting mums an alternative choice.

And it’s the same party whose “Voluntary Assisted Dying” laws put “the right to die” ahead of human life by legislating that some lives aren’t, in fact, worth living, and sometimes when a Victorian wants to take their own life, we should let them — even give them a final nudge.

In this context, Andrews’ protestations of “life before rights” reflect a brazen — and convenient — deviation from Labor’s modus operandi.

For many Victorians who have long thought Dan was the man, lockdowns have highlighted just how inconsistent and fickle Labor’s respect for human life and rights really is. 

For anyone who has been following the score, it’s no surprise at all.

Remember the 2015 and 2016 attempts to force faith-based adoption agencies and faith-based schools to violate principles of their faith?

What about last year’s laws forcing priests to violate solemn vows and incur excommunication by breaching the confessional seal?

And in advocating LGBT rights, Andrews has declared he will make it illegal for same-sex-attracted people to seek help to change their orientation, even where they freely choose to — a policy that seems to reject the notion of fluidity in sexuality and gender — while in the same breath avidly supporting the “Safe Schools” program, which encourages children towards gender fluidity, even against parents’ wishes.

Each of these initiatives contravenes essential aspects of universal standards of ethics, including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the consistent natural law teachings of all mainstream religions, the Hippocratic Oath (which for two millennia bound the conduct of doctors), the Declaration of Geneva, and the aforementioned Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.

A government that rejected these moral and ethical standards in favour of purely populist or utilitarian principles might be a dangerous thing, but at least you’d know where you stand.

But one of the hallmarks of Victorian Labor’s reign has been its incessant insistence that it is doing what’s “right”, even while jettisoning the moral and ethical heritage many of its constituents still hold dear.

Google “Dan Andrews” and “it’s the right thing to do” and you won’t just get hundreds of hits — you’ll find parody websites explaining how to craft the perfect Dan Andrews speech or social media post by incorporating this exact phrase.

No matter what he does, it’s always the right thing to do. Fancy that.

Yet as Andrews’ arbitrary treatment of human life and human rights shows, this strong sense of moral rectitude is unmoored from any objective standard.

It is a reminder that the role of government is not to decide what is ethical. The most dangerous demagogues, dictators, oligarchies, communist and fascist states of history have all arrogated to themselves the power of defining morality. 

“They shall be like Gods, knowing right and wrong,” has been the deadly aspiration of Adam and Eve, Adolf Hitler, Lukashenko and every other ruler who has sought not just to legislate, but to redefine right and wrong. 

We can add the 2020 Victorian government to this list, facilitated by an all-too-compliant opposition, and a radical crossbench.

This is not just a Victorian thing. It is part of a broader trend in liberal democracies to deny the existence of objective right and wrong, and reject the tenets of the “natural law” upon which the legal and political systems of modern liberal states were founded.

This heritage is what keeps societies like ours on an even keel. It offers a standard against which all of us may be judged — from monarchs to prime ministers to premiers, down to the lowliest among us — and that gives us confidence that those who govern us will do so fairly, respecting equally the dignity each of us shares.

The pandemic lockdowns have awakened many Victorians to the prospect that their government might not be quite as committed to these ideals as you’d expect.

Voters shouldn’t stand for it. Unethical rulers forfeit their right to rule, lest, as Plato wrote, “Democracy passes into despotism.”

Victorians deserve a government that really does try to do the right thing, not one that claims the authority to rewrite the rules of right and wrong at the expense of its own people.

Andrew Mullins

Dr Andy Mullins used to teach English. Now he teaches formation of character in the Masters program at the University of Notre Dame Australia. His doctorate investigated the intersection of neuroscience...