Written by: Luke Nottage (Sydney Law School) and Tom van Laer (Sydney Business School)
We welcome this opportunity to provide a Submission to the Australian Parliament’s “Senate Committee on COVID-19” inquiry into the Australian government’s response to the outbreak and pandemic. It seems very early to begin making such an assessment. But we o1ffer from our respective disciplines (comparative law and narratology) some preliminary observations as well as lines for future investigation that may assist Parliament and others contributing to this ongoing debate.
- Our analysis builds partly on our recent joint contribution to USydney blogs (here and forthcoming). One key message from that contribution is that this pandemic and its response have created a new narrative world, rather like a peculiar disaster movie, that prioritises only certain types of heroes and “expertise”. Another key point is that different countries nonetheless have been able to respond well if they have and can mobilise citizens’ trust in communities and (generally well-run) government. A third lesson is that as Australia keeps trying now to move into a phase of socio-economic revitalisation, a new narrative will emerge and could be framed by political and other leaders.
- In addition, more broadly, basic methodology in comparative law highlights the importance of working out what to compare and why. This is not obvious even if we try to focus on health outcomes. For this parliamentary inquiry, one question is whether to focus on death rates (which are easier to measure and compare, and the ultimate concern) or infection rates (varying widely depending on national testing regimes, but still maybe useful for projecting rates of deaths and serious treatments). On either measure, Australia has been doing extremely well by global standards.
- If focusing mainly on COVID-19 death rates in assessing a current or future response, however, another aspect is whether and how to count deaths that are indirectly caused by the virus even over the short- to medium-term. These could include deaths from deferred or delayed surgeries or treatments, a greater than usual number of suicides (prompted by extended isolation) and more fatal traffic accidents (found eg in some parts of Japan despite an overall drop, as travel restrictions emptied streets so cars were driven faster). Even greater complications come from trying to assess long-term consequences for the health and related welfare systems, from lockdown measures that result inevitably in severe economic slowdowns, as the stress from long-term un(der)employment is known to be extensive but hard to measure. It is even more complex to compare such effects across countries, as they have very different baselines regarding unemployment and health/welfare systems.
- Contemporary experts in comparative law are also very attuned to considering what is being compared in terms of law. It is usually not enough to just compare the “black-letter law” rules set out in primary or secondary legislation. (This is well illustrated by Australia’s public health orders restricting movement, which needed to be further “interpreted”, eg as to what constitutes permitted “exercise”, by health ministers and/or police commissioners.) Nor is it even enough to consider case law interpreting legislation (for which anyway there has been hardly any in Australia relating to pandemic responses, unlike countries like France or Germany with constitutionally-protected civil liberties). We also need to compare norms that are “law-like” in terms of origin (from or supported by the government) and impact. Our blog posting mentions Sweden and Japan as countries where social distancing and travel restrictions are being implemented effectively, even among growing death and infection rates respectively, largely without police-enforced criminal or administrative sanctions. A question for this inquiry is therefore what Australia’s more narrowly legalistic response says about how we operate and our values as a society.
- Japan’s pandemic response, which mostly appeals to communitarian norms of self-restraint rather than having the government and police enforce strict legal rules (as in Australia, albeit with local differences), is reminiscent of John Haley’s argument that Japan even in modern times is governed quite effectively by Authority Without Power (OUP, 1991). Regarding limited “power”, through legal enforcement mechanisms, legal sociologist Takao Tanase’s Community and the Law (co-translated for Elgar, 2010) highlights that Japan remains acutely aware that rigorously extending a “modern” legal system into socio-economic ordering can often be a double-edged sword – even as it has embarked on another wave of justice system reform this century.
- Relatedly, a final general lesson from comparative law methodology is to be aware of who we are comparing, ie which legal systems. The US is often an outlier, in its law and related socio-economic system, so this Inquiry and later analyses should probably not focus much on that country. Australian jurists (and others) also often compare the UK, as the “mother country” still especially for basic legal principles, but we now borrow more instrumentally and widely, so should keep looking at other (continental) European as well as Asian countries. In particular, we can learn from the comparatively effective yet diverse pandemic responses adopted in East Asia, as mentioned in our joint blog posting added to this Submission.
- With these methodological principles in mind, one conclusion that emerges from a preliminary comparative analysis of the pandemic is the importance of “proportionality” and “subsidiarity” principles in regulatory responses (including in international law, such as investment treaties – often examined recently in Australian parliamentary inquiries). As in public and private health, it is risky to jump in quickly with stronger measures, especially where there are uncertainties; to minimise side-effects and unexpected consequences, it is usually better to begin with less intensive interventions. Even when we set a short-term public health goal (like COVID-19 infection or especially death rates), and re-set goals as evidence becomes available or circumstances evolve, the response should be proportionate. It should seek to minimise adverse longer-term health effects (eg physical or mental health problems or suicides from sustained social isolation) and other adverse socio-economic impact (including economic contraction impacting on funding for the health and related social welfare systems). To get the balance right often means devolving decision-making authority to lower levels in government, with better information about constraints and impacts: the subsidiarity principle, well-developed say within the EU.
- Japan seems to have pursued quite a proportionate response, only increasing restraints after infections started to escalate in March, rather like Sweden (but the latter with a much higher death rate). Yet Japan shows less devolution, arguably due to quite a centralised polity, despite the important policy-making contributions by Tokyo and Osaka governors. As a federal system, Australia has displayed more subsidiarity. Prime Minister Morrison and the federal government did usefully innovate around the Constitution by creating a “national cabinet” including premiers or leaders of all states and territories, to help coordinate pandemic responses in light of public health and economic advice. But states and territories across this huge island continent have still differed in timing, scope and implementation of pandemic responses, linked to infection and death rates but also arguably politics (with more centre-left states intervening more, notably Victoria eg not allowing solo fishing as golf as permitted “exercise”). Responses also vary even at local council level (with eg some even in New South Wales closing off city beaches to surfers, even if not necessarily at risk of police closing them down for exceeding state-level restrictions on crowds).
- By contrast, New Zealand, a much stricter lockdown was implemented nation-wide with no regional variation, aiming at “eradication” rather than “management” of the virus. In hindsight so far, given similar health outcomes so far compared to Australia, the policy seems less proportionate given the necessarily much greater adverse socio-economic impact (even in a more agrarian economy). Perhaps the policy was influenced by the electoral cycle, with Prime Minister Ardern before the pandemic viewed as facing a close election in September this year – leaders don’t want to go to the polls amidst escalating death rates. But the policy could be implemented nation-wide because New Zealand still probably has what former constitutional law professor (and later Prime Minister) Geoffrey Palmer criticised as “the fastest law in the West”. New Zealand still has a unitary state with only one house of parliament and no constitutional bill of rights, and quickly enacted new lockdown legislation, attracting some belated and muted criticism.
- Another conclusion from a preliminary comparative analysis is that countries and their residents often tend to display a curious nationalism regarding their respective pandemic responses. New Zealanders mostly still seem very happy with their government’s measures. Perhaps this reflects a psychological defence mechanism to deal with a tough lockdown, or an undercurrent of historical deference to authority (“conservative reformism”, as put in an analysis comparing Japan’s “reformist conservatism” in legal education), or a sense of nationhood premised on New Zealand leading the world (eg first to give votes to women, expanding the welfare state over the 20th century, then deregulating dramatically in the 1980s while going “nuclear-free”), or more risk aversion generally. Another factor is that New Zealanders may feel a bit threatened by bigger resource-rich Australia. On the last point, it would be interesting to see how say smaller countries with closely linked larger neighbours (like Korea and Japan, or Japan and China) perceive comparative responses. It would also be interesting to research how emigres perceive the pandemic responses in their new countries. Perhaps they are very optimistic and supportive because they want to subconsciously justify their immigration choice (Nottage, as a New Zealander who emigrated to Sydney two decades ago, may be an example), or instead very critical (perhaps linked to different disappointments in having moved country).
- A further point that emerges from comparative analysis is that wider narratives can differ even towards a global crisis with many commonalities. Trying with difficulty to discern Australia’s narrative towards disasters during its summer of bushfires, Tom van Laer was struck that the British government typically deploys a narrative of “we can endure this”. That was developed first doing the Blitz of London during World War II, and revived to deal with IRA and later terrorist attacks. The narrative in Australia seems much less definite and consistent, and perhaps this is because the country (let alone New Zealand) has fortunately had few natural and other disasters. The narrative response by Japan’s leaders nowadays seems quite British, but is worth investigating further in comparison also with Asian countries. We should also track how narratives are evolving as, at least in Australia and some countries, the COVID-19 pandemic shifts from being primarily a health crisis to being an economic crisis. The related narrative tension was highlighted quite early in Australia by Prime Minister Morrison talking about the pandemic being about both “lives and livelihoods”, but we should track how a new story-line develops compared to the countries, as suggested towards the end of our joint blog posting.
- In addition, drawing more directly on the disciplinary perspective of narratology (how people use stories to persuade each other), Parliament first would benefit from working more systematically and curatorially with academics in developing and supplying official narratives, props, sites and endorsements. Limiting the potential for contradictions, such collaborations increase the likelihood citizens will cope with returning from the pandemic in a similar way. Parliament too may creatively use the experience of the pandemic. For example, mementos can materialize the successful return from the pandemic to the everyday world, a transition of which to be proud.
- Second, emotionally distress because of the pandemic experience means that there is a vital role for Parliament to play in intentional interventions designed to help citizens cope with distress step by step. It is one thing to assert that citizens can be convinced that distress is cathartic; research findings instead show transforming that distress into benefits turns out to be complex and complicated, and may require a professional approach. To clarify, a reference to theatre may be helpful. In professional productions, trained actors typically are the ones to build narrative worlds. In “method acting” they blend their primary, ordinary lives into the narrative worlds and let the narrative worlds embrace them. Meanwhile they self-consciously realize the adopted narrative world is important but nonetheless different from the “real” world, a realization which eases coping with distress. The ease of getting out of the narrative of our pandemic world therefore constitutes a skill that drama schools teaching method acting could train citizens to do too. Meanwhile, extraordinary experience providers at large can consider offering intentional interventions like consultations, courses, counselling, discussions, therapies or training.
- Third, this Senate Committee inquiry speaks to impactful issues in experiential industries more broadly. For example, both COVID-19 and virtual reality involve narrative worlds, which may present a costly challenge. These parallels explain the rise in addiction to certain video games and particularly richer virtual reality (e.g., Zoom) to which citizens can return whenever they like, for as long or as short a time as desired. For them, these realities stand as continuous identity reaffirmation and renewal, which can occur in no other way. To stop is to diminish the self. By contrast, the pandemic world will not continue forever to place a mental or physical burden on citizens. They therefore must treat their recent extraordinary experience as a series of happenings that transported their self profoundly but temporarily. They then can process it with awareness and abandon. Resumption of disbelief in the everyday world lies close to the heart of such successful retainment of ordinary life. Citizens ought to analogise the pandemic reality as a temporary narrative world, and become (or be made) aware that their alternate reality can only contribute to transformation of the everyday world if they at least periodically withdraw and reflect. The government has many opportunities and resources to help their citizens in this endeavour.
 See https://japaneselaw.sydney.edu.au/2020/05/covid-19-in-asia-and-beyond-we-are-story-characters-living-in-a-new-story-world/ and forthcoming via https://sbi.sydney.edu.au/coronavirus.
 As Prof Francis Fukuyama notes in a recent interview, the effectiveness of COVID-19 responses lie less in regime type, but rather whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state: https://supchina.com/2020/05/01/francis-fukuyama-interview-covid-19/
 See generally our colleague A/Prof Andrew Edgar, https://auspublaw.org/2020/03/law-making-in-a-crisis-commonwealth-and-nsw-coronavirus-regulations/
 Compare eg Dr Holger Hestermeyer, http://constitutionnet.org/news/coronavirus-lockdown-measures-german-constitutional-court; and https://www.lepoint.fr/societe/coronavirus-le-conseil-d-etat-limite-le-pouvoir-des-maires-17-04-2020-2371882_23.php.
 Nottage, Luke R., Translating Tanase: Challenging Paradigms of Japanese Law and Society (May 27, 2006). Victoria University of Wellington Law Review, Vol.39, No. 4, pp. 755-778, 2009; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 07/17. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=921932
 Eg in comparative studies by Nottage on consumer law (especially product liability law), corporate governance, and contract law (many freely available via https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=488525) – all areas moreover that are now hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
 See eg Nottage, Luke R., Rebalancing Investment Treaties and Investor-State Arbitration: Two Approaches (June 14, 2016). Journal of World Investment and Trade, Vol. 17, No. 6, pp. 1015-1040, 2016; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 16/54. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2795396
 Nottage, Luke R. and Ubilava, Ana, Costs, Outcomes and Transparency in ISDS Arbitrations: Evidence for an Investment Treaty Parliamentary Inquiry (August 6, 2018). International Arbitration Law Review, Vol. 21, Issue 4, 2018; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 18/46. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3227401
 On the pros and cons of the eradication vs management strategies, from an interdisciplinary academic perspective, see generally the recent Go8 Report at https://go8.edu.au/research/roadmap-to-recovery
 Gary Hawke, https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/12/20/ardern-stardust-and-a-closer-than-you-would-think-2020-election/
 Unbridled Power (1st ed 1979), later edition reviewed here: http://www.nzlii.org/nz/journals/OtaLawRw/2005/10.html)
 Nottage, Luke R., Reformist Conservatism and Failures of Imagination in Japanese Legal Education. Asia-Pacific Law & Policy Journal, Vol. 2, pp. 28-65, 2001. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=837045