Collectivism not individualism: a path out of COVID

Collectivism not individualism: a path out of COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a microscope on inequality in our community, but the law provides the tools to map our way through and beyond, says Victoria's Attorney-General Jill Hennessy.

Speaking at RMIT’s annual Higinbotham lecture last night, The Hon Jill Hennessy MP, Attorney-General and Minister for Workplace Safety, discussed the legal response of the Victorian Government to the current health and economic challenges.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically exposed the fault lines that exist in our society,” Hennessy said.

“We need to use this opportunity to reframe the role of the law and the state in reducing this inequality to relieve the burden for those struggling to keep their head above water in even the best of circumstances.”

She posited that inequality fundamentally inhibits a society’s ability to rise to the challenge of global crises and a huge collective effort was called for to navigate a path through.

“It is critical that we debate the limits of government authority and the law, now more than ever, but too often those who complain the loudest about encroachments on their human rights are not the ones in harm's way due to their social and economic advantage,” she said.

Hennessy argued against the ‘binary thinking’ that has characterised recent debate and said instead we must find ways to make people feel less constrained by limits to their freedoms, and more enabled by them.

“These are urgent problems and they go to the heart of how we organise ourselves as a society,” she said.

The 2020 Higinbotham Lecture was delivered by The Hon. Jill Hennessy MP, Attorney-General and Minister for Workplace Safety in the Victorian Government.

Fundamental questions about what the community expects of government during a crisis and beyond are necessarily being raised, a debate she said was much larger than just big versus small government.

“For governments to be effective in a time like this they have to work very nimbly. They need to be able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and respond to risks and new data.”

The State must work within a legal structure that enables this in order to best serve all Victorians, she said.

“We are in a consequential moment in time and it rightly feels like everything we do at the moment matters a great deal,” Hennessy said.

“While immensely challenging, it is an opportunity for us to ask: who has been hardest hit by this crisis and why; what isn’t working with our legal structures that we can change for the better; and how can we ensure that we create fairer conditions following the crisis so that human rights can be better realised?”

The annual public lecture, now in its eighth year, celebrates the legacy of politician and Chief Justice George Higinbotham (1826-1892) and explores topical legal issues, in particular, the interaction between the law and society.

Past speakers include Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs, the Hon Catherine Branson, Hugh de Kretser and former Australian soccer captain turned human rights advocate Craig Foster.

Graduate School of Business and Law Professor Anthony Forsyth said the Higinbotham Lecture was the faculty’s premier annual event, which deepened connections with the legal profession and industry.

“We were honoured to have the Attorney-General deliver this year’s lecture and help us mark the launch of RMIT’s new Bachelor of Laws degree which we will offer from 2021,” he said.

“The panel discussion led by Professor Bronwyn Naylor and Stan Winford helped to deepen our audience’s understanding of the critical issues confronting the Victorian legal system arising from the pandemic.”


Story: Grace Taylor


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