To uphold the right

No police officer will face criminal charges over the death of Tanya Day. No officer will be investigated, charged or held personally responsible, despite the coroner finding an “indictable offence may have been committed in connection” to her death.

A Yorta Yorta woman, a grandmother, Day died from a brain haemorrhage in December 2017 after she sustained a serious head injury while held in a police cell in Castlemaine, in regional Victoria.

Caught sleeping on a train on the way to visit her daughter, Day had been arrested for public drunkenness and taken into custody to sober up. Unchecked by the officers tasked with her safety, it took more than three hours for anyone to notice that she was hurt, or how seriously. Scans later taken at Bendigo Health hospital revealed a massive brain bleed; 17 days later, she passed away at St Vincent’s in Melbourne.

Foremost in the coroner’s findings was a recommendation that Victoria’s public drunkenness laws be repealed, similarly called for by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody three decades earlier.

And yet, despite promising to change the law before the coroner’s inquiry even began, the Victorian government has still not introduced any legislation into parliament to do so.

This is a government that has proved itself, time and again, entirely averse to checking the powers of law enforcement.

Instead, since it came to power in 2014, the Andrews government has expanded Victoria Police’s budget by more than $1 billion. Nearly 2500 police officers have been added to the force. And the number of protective services officers, cleared to carry a weapon after just 12 weeks’ training, has also swelled.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, this large and well-funded force has been at the forefront of the government’s response. It was police who were first sent to housing towers when they were placed in hard lockdown. It has been police who were handed expanded powers – to stop, question and detain people, to enter homes without a warrant, to fine people in breach of the pandemic restrictions.

Officers have issued nearly 20,000 of these fines in recent months.

Against this backdrop, the pushback this week to the Victorian government’s attempt to extend the state of emergency by 12 months is a vital spasm of democratic oversight.

Undoubtedly decisive action by governments is necessary, compliance with public health orders is necessary – but the precedents set during this pandemic will have a long half-life.

Similarly, the things governments choose not to set in stone – the public health programs not given long-term funding, the affordable housing not built, the laws not repealed – also have generational consequences.

Covid-19 has shown that when it suits its agenda the government is able to act fast: to rush through a 300-page bill changing how courts and prisons operate, to hand police greater powers without oversight or clear communication.

But 30 years on from the royal commission, and 12 months since a promise to appeal the law that killed Tanya Day was made, her family and the community are still waiting.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 29, 2020 as "To uphold the right".

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