The proposal to create the Metropolitan Police in London, in 1829, met with considerable opposition. To many people it sounded like another standing army which, ever since the Romans, had a history of suppressing dissent. Moreover France, with which Britain had been at war since 1793, was known for its secret and political police force.
Opposition ran deep. In Blackstone’s 1768 Commentaries on the Laws of England, Henry St. George Tucker wrote: “Wherever standing armies are kept up, and when the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.”
In newly independent America, the founding fathers, having freed themselves from British military tyranny, were in no hurry to suffer the same fate at the hands of their own government. Alexander Hamilton thought Congress should vote every two years “upon the propriety of keeping a military force on foot”, while Thomas Jefferson suggested the Greeks and Romans were wise “to put into the hands of their rulers no such engine of oppression as a standing army.” James Madison wrote: “Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”
Sir Robert Peel, who was responsible for the Metropolitan Police proposal, acknowledged this concern. He ensured police uniforms were different from the military, avoided military ranks, and armed officers with just a wooden truncheon and rattle (later a whistle) to signal the need for assistance. Every officer was issued a warrant card with a unique identification number to assure accountability for his actions.
He also established nine principles of policing, known as Peelian Principles, that defined the ethical requirements police officers must follow to be effective. These are based on the concept of policing by consent, the most well-known being, "The police are the public and the public are the police."
In the twentieth century, standing armies did nothing to redeem themselves. Every single dictatorship, fascist, communist or simply obnoxious, used its permanent military to retain power.
Despite misgivings, the democracies also found it necessary to establish a full-time professional military, particularly because of the increasing role of technology. Some, like Switzerland, limited this to a small full-time professional core supported by a much larger citizen militia. Others placed limits on the use of the military for anything other than national defence.
"Australia not only has a state police force with no respect for human rights, but a standing army that facilitates it."
The Australian Defence Force is similarly focused on national defence despite occasionally getting involved in such things as delivering relief supplies, erecting field hospitals or evacuating those affected by natural disasters. This is reinforced by the constitution, which nominates the Governor-General as commander in chief, not the Prime Minister or Defence Minister.
That changed in 2020. At the beginning of the year, during the NSW bushfires, the ADF not only provided logistics support but also engaged in traffic control with state police. Then when the coronavirus pandemic hit, it was brought in to work beside state police to enforce border closures, hotel and home quarantine and, in Victoria, a second lockdown. A very important line was crossed.
Preventing those in quarantine from leaving is without doubt a police role, as is enforcing closed state borders. Moreover, border closures are contrary to sections 92 and 117 of the constitution. In other words, the ADF is now not only engaged in policing but very likely helping enforce unconstitutional laws.
Assisting the Victorian police to enforce lockdown rules is similarly a policing role but it has also had another effect – it has freed up the actual police to do what so many standing armies have done – suppress freedom. Under a state of emergency, the police have been given extremely wide powers including entering premises without a warrant and enforcing rules on exercise, working from home, wearing a mask, home quarantine, leaving home and essential work.
In the process they have abandoned any respect for Peelian Principles; arresting people, often violently, for minor issues including not wearing a mask, breaking curfew, not identifying themselves and walking with others. Despite no arrests during the 10,000 strong Black Lives Matter protest, they are breaking down doors and arresting people for merely advocating anti-lockdown protests, as well as those actually protesting. By any measure this is intimidation intended to suppress dissent, and it is occurring with the assistance of the ADF.
We cannot pretend the lessons of history do not apply in Australia; indeed, failing to learn from them makes it more likely we will repeat the same mistakes. As was the case two hundred years ago, standing armies are a threat to freedom.
In 2020, Australia not only has a state police force with no respect for human rights, but a standing army that facilitates it.
David Leyonhjelm is a former senator for the Liberal Democrats