Freedom in quarantine

Capital Letters #2

Before you read another paragraph, let me assure you I’m double-vaccinated. I’m happy to show you the digital certificate. So, breathe easy.

But, what if I wasn’t? Would that end the conversation? Today, I want to introduce you to someone — a young senator from South Australia — who’s worried about vaccine mandates.

Senator Alex Antic says he supports vaccination. Quite strongly, as far as I can tell. But he’s dead against forcing people to be vaccinated or to declare whether they’re vaccinated or not. Because it divides people and can, potentially, damage our freedoms. The senator abides by this principle and has not declared his vaccination status.

Before you break out in hives, let’s just go gently. For one thing, the senator you’re about to meet is in a tight spot. After a fortnight away in Canberra, he’s been eager to get home to his family in East Adelaide (he and Edwina welcomed a little boy into their life four months ago). But the reunion was thwarted when he was escorted to a medi-hotel by SA police. It’s not because the senator has COVID – he’s been tested and found negative. Like a scene from a Franz Kafka novel, the reasons for his forced quarantine are not clear.

The whole thing makes me feel itchy. Especially as — you might remember from my last Capital Letter —  I’d been supporting the teaching of the great African philosopher, St Augustine, and his belief that rulers are always “at the service of God for your good.”

That’s easy to believe when — as I described — governments are repatriating a missionary family stuck in Spain with a desperately ill grandfather back in Australia. (And I can report that particular grandpa has rallied in his health.) Everyone feels good when governments bring families together.

However, it’s much harder to follow the African saint when governments appear to be taking away something good. There are many Australians who do not agree that governments should require proof of vaccination for travel, work and study. (Research from the Values Project found that 73 per cent say yes to Government mandates.) And if the rallies are any indications, it’s because some are worried that we may be losing a really good thing about Australian life — our freedom. One of those people is Senator Antic. You’ll notice that, like Augustine himself, he’s both critical of government while obeying government. 

I’ll let the senator speak for himself. About why this lawyer-turned-Liberal-Party-parliamentarian is worried about the dangers of unaccountable bureaucracy, about prayer, about his gradual shift from secularism, and the way his grandmother’s escape from communist Yugoslavia 70 years ago has made him a passionate advocate for liberty today.

Hi, Senator Antic — where are you right now?

AA: I’m in a hotel in the CBD of Adelaide. I’m looking at a building, basically. It’s a medi-hotel, a detention centre.

Okay. And I take it the requirement for you to quarantine came as a surprise. Did the health directives change?

AA: They changed to the effect that you needed to apply to come home. Mine was declined. My application for reconsideration was declined. I was granted a concession to come home to my home state which was to do 14 days in a medi-hotel, which had never happened to me before. The rules are increasingly difficult to navigate — even for someone with a legal background.

Frustrating. Couldn’t you quarantine at home?

AA: I was told to come here. I was perfectly happy to quarantine at home, as I’ve done before. But that wasn’t offered. I just don’t understand why that is. What I have noticed is I’ve been pretty critical of the measures that are in place with some of the health bureaucracies. Seconds after I found out I was going to a medi-hotel, I received a call from a journalist who knew about it. And I was greeted at the airport by cameras and journalists. So you have to wonder what the message is. And whether the message is, simply: ‘We can do this to anyone.’

Sounds chilling. 

AA:  I actually said to the attendants that were there, and the police there as well, look, I’m looking for the person I need to speak to because I’m told I need to check into a medi-hotel. From that moment I was guided into a van and driven directly here and went straight to this room and that was that. I was escorted from the airport.

Have you had any recourse?

AA: I have had email contact with some people from SA Health. I’ve made it very clear that even though I’ve had four negative COVID tests, they still won’t let me quarantine at home. There’s no negotiation. There’s no review panels. Nothing of the sort. That is the very nature of the powers that have been gifted by state parliament to the bureaucrats in this state. It is pretty worrying. I have some real concerns about where we’re headed, why we’re doing it and what the future looks like.

So, what are those concerns?

AA: The powers that have been gifted to the bureaucracy allow those in charge to do almost anything. For almost any length of time. But there is also discretion there to allow some common sense, particularly when people are clearly no threat to allow them to go home and serve out the term of their quarantine. We had reports today that former prime minister Julia Gillard came into the medi-hotel, and then was released. But that has not been my experience.

Right. Are you worried it’s a response to a stand that you’ve made?

AA: It’s hard to be sure that it’s any stand that has led me to be here. I have spent a long time prior to being here, being critical of some of the responses. I have sought documents about the medical advice from SA Health and there’s been no response. I sought to upscale that to the Ombudsman here in South Australia and then, a week later, I’m in here. It’s hard to know what to make of all that, but it doesn’t sound normal.

Are you against governments having these powers?

AA: We were told originally that it would be two weeks to flatten the curve. At the start of it, I took the view that sometimes, when crises emerge, we have to use these emergency powers. But I don’t think anyone envisaged that we would be doing this for two years. So I have concerns that there will ever be the political will to recall those powers.

I guess you didn’t expect to make a stand on freedom and public health.

AA: None of us saw this coming. I thought I would be making a stand on values – I talked about them in my maiden speech. I spoke about my travels to rural and regional areas of the state and how much I enjoy it. It reminds me of the Australia that the cities seem to have lost. A sense of patriotism. Freedom. Flag. Liberty. Our liberties were foremost in my mind, and here we are two years later.

Everyone in parliament has something to draw on. What do you draw on?

AA: My dad’s side of the family came from the former Yugoslavia, in what is now Serbia. He was born in Belgrade. My grandma, Zorka, was a fiercely loyal and principled person. She took a pretty significant step in 1952 to take two boys from her home country, effectively leave her husband, and travel to the other side of the world, to start a new life. She talked about communist rule, as it was then, what it was doing to the country. You can almost feel those social credit themes rolling into the Australia of today. She found that her voice was getting trumpeted by her son at school and it was getting back to the communist authorities. Things were getting hairy.

So, your grandmother, she shaped your thinking?

Subconsciously — I haven’t even really thought about it — I think a lot of the stuff that I now bring to this job comes from her and her worldview. She was a motivated woman. When she came here, she had a new husband. They put my father through medical school and he went off to become the director of thoracic medicine at Royal Adelaide Hospital for about 45 years. Grandma had a relationship with the Serbian Orthodox church. Dad drifted off from the Church as a child but my grandma was very involved. It wasn’t such a feature for me growing up. But the connection was always there. I was really glad to go and visit Belgrade — an incredible experience, when you’ve seen and smelt the food at your grandma’s house, then you see it in real life in a different country.

Young Alex Antic with his grandmother Zorka in 1980.

What values did Zorka pass on to you?

I think it’s sacrifice. She made a lot of sacrifices. She had a very comfortable life in her old country. They weren’t doing badly by any stretch. Her original husband was reasonably well off. Moving from your home, away from friends, was an enormous sacrifice. You do that for liberty.

Coming from an authoritarian regime would create a certain passion for freedom.

Talking to people about what’s going on in the country at the moment, speaking to people who have attended rallies, a lot of them are Eastern European people. I’ve spoken to Czechs, Slovakians, Poles. I’ve been saying, if you want to see true diversity in Australia at the moment, look at a freedom rally. There are flags from every nation, there are people of different races and religions, probably people in different voting patterns, and they are all standing as Australians. In many ways, it’s very positive.

You’re from a medical family — are you now pushing against the medical establishment?

This isn’t a medical issue. This is an issue of freedom. I have a real issue — from a mandate point of view — with people being told what to do with their own bodies. I can’t understand why the various state governments are insisting on doing that. And I’m very worried about the creation of a two-tiered society. I think it’s really dangerous and it’s really wrong.

Where do you see the danger?

One of the things that we are seeing, and it’s really troubling, is the use of language. The term “anti-vaxxer” is taken to be a pejorative term, but it’s been expanded now. These are average, everyday Aussies who are worried about their future, and worried about their jobs. I think the various communist outlets in the Cold War would have been very good at this kind of name-calling.

On Twitter, they say you’re an anti-vaxxer. What are they missing?

I’m not anti-vax. I understand that an anti-vaxxer is someone who doesn’t believe in the merits of vaccination — and that’s not me.

The world’s most famous Serbian sportsman, Novak Djokavic, has a strong view about vaccines and privacy. I heard his father say that even he doesn’t know if his son is vaccinated. 

I didn’t know that was his position! It must be something in my DNA because that is exactly my position, it’s exactly the position I’ve shared with those who have asked. My position is it is a solemn compact between you and your family, maybe your doctor, and I find it staggering that we live in a world that asks about your medical treatment, but would never think to ask uncomfortable questions about financial status or religious views even. It’s become a very strange coercive bubble we’re living in at the moment.

If your objection is not to vaccination, what exactly are you objecting to?

I’m objecting to people being told when they have to comply. When they have to bow down to medical directions at the risk of losing their jobs, probably losing friends, even family members. We’re seeing the condition we’re in dividing families. I think it’s all really sad. I think it’s all really avoidable.

And now, you’re apart from your family.

AA: I would love to be at home. I mean, two weeks in Canberra and now two weeks here, all that time away from a young family is not good. I’m not going to suggest I’m in anything but a privileged position. It’s a privileged role being a parliamentarian. I still pinch myself every day. There are many people out there who are losing jobs, losing businesses. That has really weighed on my heart. I find that really upsetting. I’m not really an emotional person — another feature of my grandmother’s Serbian background. But I do find myself getting a bit emotional about some of these themes that are coming out of these rallies. I feel very, very angry about people being demonised and marginalised in the way they are by the media, by the political class. I don’t think it’s helpful. I think we have to stop it. And I think we have to be a little more magnanimous about other people’s choices. From the polling that we’ve done, somewhere between 30 and 40, I’ve seen polling as high as 40 per cent of South Australians feel pressured and coerced into taking the vaccine because they thought their jobs and their world relied on it. I don’t think this is the absolute majority, but I think it’s a significant percentage of Australians, many of whom deserve a voice.

There are a lot of religious people worried about coercion. Why is that happening?

AA: There are religious views, there are people who are worried about adverse reactions, there are people who just don’t want to be told what to do. There’s a range of reasons. But they’re all consistent in that freedom of choice argument. And I support that. I think there’s a lot of concern about a broad range of measures that have been brought in across Australia against religious communities. We’ve seen some very ordinary laws in Victoria regarding conversion therapy — which are, of course, more than that. We’ve seen the threats of equal opportunity acts being amended such that institutions won’t be able to hire as they please. We’ve seen abortion laws across the country being extended. These are all things that faith-based groups feel strongly about. COVID restrictions feel like the tip of the spear. People feel like they are under attack.

Is it true you try to recruit Christians to join the Liberal Party? 

AA: I try to encourage anyone who shares our values to join the party. Robert Menzies was a Christian. He was a person who talked about it in his speeches. The Constitution was framed with those Judeo-Christian beliefs in mind. So I think it’s a natural fit for parties of liberty and freedom like the Liberal Party. There are lots of people who have never been to church who feel strongly about these values. It’s all about principles and values and I think a lot of them are very consistent with the Christian faith.

One of the features of the rallies has been prayer, from the Bible, with the Lord’s Prayer. Why is that?

AA: I’ve seen that at one rally in Adelaide. It was terrific. It was spot on. There were many, many people in the crowd who have not been to a church in their life. A lot of people find a lot of comfort in what the Scripture says about times past. People are concerned about where we’re up to and they’re looking for answers. It was [former US president] Ronald Reagan who said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” There is a sense in the community that we are losing a lot. I didn’t sense any anger. I didn’t see any bad behaviour. I saw people who are hopeful. And I think the prayer created that.

Of all the values in the Bible, the highest would have to be love. Shouldn’t we value love over freedom? 

AA: I think they flow together. I see that in people who have made a decision about their own medical care. What I see at the moment is no love being shown for them. I see extraordinary marginalisation. We need to bring people with us. We started this pandemic saying, “We’re all in this together.” It didn’t say anything about, “unless you don’t comply.” I think we do need to extend that love to people who’ve made their own medical choices.

Faith wasn’t a big part of how you were raised. Has that changed? 

AA: It has. My eyes have been opened by some of the reading I’ve done. It culminated with a trip to Israel which was a really life-changing moment for me. It reinforced the fact that what we’re looking at in the Bible is real. It was life-changing to see the sights. I had the privilege to go underground in the city of Jerusalem. We were given access to a dig which was a footpath. I sat down on this particular plinth. And this professor from the university said, “Do you know what you’re sitting on?” I said, “No I don’t, to be honest.” I thought it was a rock, but I looked at it, and it was much more evenly cut than that. And he said we know this was a walkway and we know that people came up this walkway to go up to the temple, and we expect that Jesus would have preached from that very rock that you’re sitting on. It was an extraordinary experience. It’s funny how these experiences change you, change your outlook and make you want to know more.

What is Christ expecting from you?

AA: Persistence. Being true. True to the Judeo-Christian principles that have got us to this point in this country. They’ve served us well. We need to keep the fire alive.