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Crossing the line: Why people breach borders and break the rules

Since then there has also been a security contractor who claimed to have a consular exemption so he could avoid hotel quarantine and isolate at his Toowoomba home, and three men who drove from Melbourne to Brisbane, allegedly lying about where they had been when entering Queensland.

Even Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was “furious” about the women who travelled from Victoria.

Deputy Police Commissioner Steve Gollschewski outlined the harsh penalties in place for anyone breaching border restrictions.

“Can I highlight to the community that these are very serious offences, they carry an on-the-spot fine of $4000, and perhaps more significantly can result in 18 months’ imprisonment,” he said last week.

Deputy Premier Steven Miles expressed his frustration at the number of people caught trying to breach restrictions at the border.

“People go to great lengths to avoid our border lockdown … people try to deceive our police, people lie on their border passes … police have now served more than a dozen notices to appear in court,” he said.

Why ‘good’ people do ‘bad’ things

Queensland University of Technology ethics expert Alistair Ping says people should pause before judging those who break restrictions too harshly.

Dr Ping has written and researched extensively into the question of why “good” people do “bad” things.

He said while there were examples of egregious flouting of the rules, most breaches have been minor – people visiting family during lockdown, people in nightclubs not social distancing and so on.

What it hinges on for every individual, Dr Ping said, was whether they could justify to themselves that they were still a good person despite doing something society had deemed to be bad.

“We all have a story we tell ourselves about whether we’re good or bad, and most of us will tell ourselves we’re good people,” he said.

“The rational mind likes to protect that story, so we don’t like to reassess ourselves as being bad. So the key relationship here is between intentions, actions and justifications.

“Let’s take an example where you live in Byron Bay and your girlfriend or boyfriend lives on the Gold Coast.

“You start from the assumption you’re a good person, but you really want to see your partner, and the border restrictions are really unfair. It doesn’t actually apply to me, because I’m a good person, right? So I’ll lie on my border pass because it’s not hurting anybody and I’m a good person. Also, it’s a stupid rule anyway.

“Suddenly you’ve justified doing the wrong thing without having to reassess yourself as being bad.”

By the same token, Dr Ping argued, society at large could dismiss people who broke rules as “bad” without examining whether they might make similar decisions.

“We assume that ethical decision-making is a rational cognitive process and as a result we assume from there that ‘bad’ people do bad things,” he said.

“The problem is that all the research tells us that only about 5 per cent of the population is habitually acting against societal values, so our assumption that ethical decision-making is rational is flawed.”

Risk v reward of rebellion

University of Queensland Criminologist Professor Lorraine Mazerolle agreed that a small percentage of a population was consciously flouting laws put in place to protect the community from disease.

Professor Mazerolle said she based the likelihood of whether someone would breach pandemic restrictions on a risk-versus-reward scenario.

“When people weigh up the risks and benefits, and the benefits outweigh the risks, then part of their decision-making is they will violate laws,” she said.

“The other really big piece of this is legitimacy of authority. These new rules around not crossing borders and movement restrictions, if people don’t understand the laws, they don’t see them as legitimate, then that is a really significant factor that impacts whether they’ll be willing to follow those laws.”

Professor Mazerolle said the big challenge for the government and police was to convince people that the laws were being put in place for good reasons, and to enforce them consistently.

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“Just saying to someone ‘Do this!’ will not elicit compliance. What will is having authorities convey trustworthy motives, convey neutral intentions, not singling anyone out, being fair, and that the authorities are saying it in a manner that conveys understanding,” she said.

“If people are being confronted with dialogue that is not procedurally just, that is when you will see people not buying into the laws.”

Professor Mazerolle, along with her colleague Dr Sarah Bennett, has developed a standard “script” for officers on COVID compliance duty to use, with the basic framework being used in Queensland and Victoria, as well as in parts of New Zealand.

She said Australians in general had a fairly high trust in authorities compared with similar nations, and therefore the compliance rates across the country had been high.

How successful authorities had been in convincing people to comply with laws varied from state to state, she said.

“Although you have to wonder, if someone is hiding in the trunk of a car, they clearly understand what the laws are, they’ve just made a decision that it’s worth their while to try to get around them,” she said, in reference to an incident on the Queensland-NSW border recently.

Strange times, stranger behaviour

University of Southern Queensland lecturer in justice studies Suzanne Reich said a lot of what she was seeing in people breaching laws was fear.

“In a case when there’s a crisis at hand, it incites fear in people, and the way people respond to fear is different,” she said.

“Some would comply and trust authorities to protect them, and other people for a variety of reasons will not comply.”

Dr Reich said she believed authorities had done a good job in getting the messages out about what people needed to do to stay safe.

But people were reacting to an unprecedented situation, she said, which meant the way they behaved might not be normal.

“People will do strange things in strange times where there is that fear of the unknown and they perhaps want to insulate themselves from that,” Dr Reich said.

“The situation is not isolated to one part of the world, everyone is suffering from this, and we just have nothing to deal with that. We can look at something like the Spanish flu 100 years ago but none of us experienced that personally. Everyone’s just walking through this, hoping it will be OK.”

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