2020 will be a year forever etched in our collective memory as the onset of a global crisis—the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world grappled with the novel virus, governments worldwide scrambled to implement measures to obliterate personal freedoms in the name of curbing the spread of this pathogen.
On 21 February 2020, Western Australia's Chief Health Officer, Dr Andrew Robertson, announced the state's first COVID-19 case, signalling the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Western Australia. Subsequently, Western Australia, like other states, initiated a series of legislative actions to contain the virus's spread. Notably, former Premier Mark McGowan declared a state of emergency. On 24 March, the state sealed its borders to the rest of Australia, and on 1 April, it imposed regional border restrictions preventing travel within the state. These measures drove many businesses into bankruptcy.
Of particular concern was the practice of compelling numerous Australians who had just returned from overseas and were imprisoned in hotels against their will, with the resulting costs that often reached thousands of dollars.  Hotel quarantine conditions were frequently been described as poor, as characterised by being confined to a room for two weeks without the ability to open a window or access fresh air, coupled with reported issues regarding the quality of food and services.
New South Wales has escalated its measures by resorting to raiding individuals' bank accounts to settle unpaid hotel quarantine imprisonment fees. As of the latest information, Revenue NSW is actively pursuing the collection of the $3,000 fee from over 17,000 individuals who have yet to remit their dues, aiming to recover nearly $40 million in outstanding hotel quarantine fees. This situation compels us to ask whether such actions infringe upon the rights and privacy of citizens and whether the government has indeed gone too far in its response to the pandemic.
Should the government access and seize funds from an individual's bank account? Or do we need to start stuffing our mattresses with cash to protect our own money? Or should we be buying gold or bitcoin to put our wealth beyond the reach of the authoritarians? In the realm of personal autonomy, few rights are as sacrosanct as the sovereignty over one's financial assets, particularly the funds tucked away in a bank account. This fundamental principle lies at the heart of individual freedom and economic security, making it a cornerstone of democratic societies and the foundation of the free market economy of Australia. If bank accounts are not as secure as we once thought, what are alternative means of asset storage?
This discussion will critically examine whether New South Wales and Australian laws permit such actions and whether the Western Australian government possesses similar powers. In doing so, we aim to illuminate the broader implications for financial sovereignty, individual rights, and the delicate balance between public health and personal freedom. As we venture into this complex territory, we must confront the essential question of whether individuals maintain true sovereignty over their bank accounts and whether governments have overstepped the boundaries of financial autonomy and personal liberties in their responses to the pandemic.
NEW SOUTH WALES FRAMEWORK
The legal framework governing the imposition of mandatory hotel quarantine and associated charges in New South Wales is primarily derived from the Public Health Act (2010) (NSW). This act provides the legal basis for the government's authority to enforce quarantine measures and levy fees for quarantine accommodation.
Under the provisions of the Public Health Act (2010) (NSW), the New South Wales government mandated that international travellers arriving in the state by aircraft or from a port must undergo quarantine for a minimum of 14 days. This requirement entails individuals being imprisoned under guard in government-arranged hotel rooms for the specified quarantine period. Returning Australians were forbidden from going to their own homes upon arrival.
As of Saturday, July 18, 2020, the New South Wales government initiated the practice of charging for hotel quarantine accommodation, referred to as "quarantine fees." These fees are standardised and do not vary based on the duration of the quarantine period. The fee structure is as follows:
· $3,000 for one adult traveler.
· $1,000 for each additional adult.
· $500 for each additional child.
To illustrate, a family consisting of two adults and two children over the age of 3, all staying in one room, would be subject to a quarantine fee of $5,000. Meanwhile, a family comprising two adults and four children over the age of 3 would incur a fee of $6,000. Which begs the question, with tourism being shut down by the government, was this some scam to keep the hotels afloat?
The fee collection process is handled by RevenueNSW. Under the Fines Act 1996 (NSW), RevenueNSW possesses a range of options for pursuing unpaid fines and outstanding penalty notices, including those related to quarantine bills and mask penalty notices. This act provides the legal framework for debt recovery and enforcement actions in New South Wales. That's right, rather than being free to go home, Australian citizens were imprisoned in hotel rooms and then charged exorbitant fees.
Some of the enforcement options available to Revenue NSW under this act typically encompass:
Bank Account and Wage Garnishment: RevenueNSW is authorised to withdraw funds directly from an individual's bank account or garnish their wages to recover outstanding quarantine fees.
Seizure and Sale of Personal Property: In cases of persistent non-payment, the agency has the authority to enlist the services of the Sheriff to seize and sell an individual's personal property as a means of debt recovery.
Property Liens: RevenueNSW may also register an interest on any property owned by the individual, effectively placing a charge on the property or land.
These enforcement measures underscore the seriousness with which the New South Wales government pursues the collection of unpaid imprisonment penalties. However, utilising these powers raises profound questions about the limits of governmental authority and individual financial sovereignty, which have ignited significant public concerns and legal debates. RevenueNSW's response to public concern underscores the agency's position regarding issuing garnishee orders for collecting unpaid fines and outstanding fees, such as quarantine bills. Revenue NSW has clarified that garnishee orders are only issued after an individual has received multiple notifications demanding payment and has not remitted the outstanding amount or reached out to Revenue NSW to discuss payment alternatives.
Moreover, Revenue NSW has emphasised that, in cases where garnishee orders are executed, the individual's bank is responsible for the withdrawal of funds from the person's account. It is also noted that a minimum amount, typically $570, is left untouched in the account to ensure that the individual has access to some funds. The government's actions in seizing your hard-earned money and leaving you with just $570 to get by undoubtedly feel like a flagrant violation of financial freedom. For a family of four, that doesn't even leave enough for a week's grocery bill. But of course the authoritarians don't care about whether citizens can pay their rent.
While this explanation offers insights into the agency's procedures and intentions, it does not necessarily address the broader concerns surrounding using theft orders and other enforcement powers to recover debts. The essential question remains whether the process, including the amount collected and how it is executed, is consistent with democratic principles, individual rights, and financial sovereignty.
YOUR BANK ACCOUNT, OR IS IT?
Australia has shifted its approach to bank accounts, deviating from the traditional notions of financial sovereignty and individual control. The Australian Constitution provides constitutional protections aimed at preventing the government from acquiring property, encompassing deposit accounts, without providing 'just terms' or compensation. These protections are primarily outlined in section 51 (xxxi) of the Constitution.
Section 51 (xxxi), also known as the "acquisition of property" clause, sets forth the legal requirement that any acquisition of property by the government must be on 'just terms.' This constitutional provision establishes a safeguard to ensure that when the government acquires or takes control of private property, including assets like deposit accounts, the affected individuals or entities are entitled to fair and equitable compensation. The aim is to protect the rights and interests of property owners against unjust confiscation or appropriation by the government. It seems like some sort of joke. Not even criminals are charged for their imprisonment accomodation costs, but returning citizens are?
Despite constitutional protections, the Banking Laws Amendment (Unclaimed Money) Act 2015 (Cth) was passed through the Australian Parliament. This act empowers the government to claim all funds from accounts that have remained inactive for seven years, channelling these dormant funds into the government's coffers.
This change has stirred considerable public concern, chiefly due to the substantial sums of money involved. According to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC), in 2013, when the period of inactivity was only three years, the federal government received an astounding amount of unclaimed funds, surpassing the total from the preceding half-century. The implications of these changes have sparked substantial controversy, particularly as some individuals, notably pensioners and retirees, have lost access to their deposited funds, which they may rely on for their retirement plans. ASIC's publication of unclaimed money records does provide individuals with an opportunity to locate and claim their lost funds. However, the broader issue remains: why can the government seize funds from inactive accounts without 'just terms' or compensation? This practice raises fundamental questions about its consistency with democratic principles, individual rights, and financial sovereignty.
HOW ABOUT WESTERN AUSTRALIA?
In Western Australia, hotel imprisonement measures were also implemented as part of the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. All individuals travelling to Western Australia and issued a Centre Quarantine Direction under the Emergency Management Act 2005 (WA) were mandated to undergo a 14-day quarantine period in a designated hotel following their arrival.
On July 10, 2020, the Western Australian Government announced a policy change regarding quarantine fees. Specifically, anyone arriving in Western Australia and directed to enter a State Quarantine Facility on or after July 17, 2020, would be required to bear the cost of their quarantine period. The fee structure for this hotel quarantine was set at $180 per room per day, with an additional charge of $60 per day for each additional person in the same room. It's important to mention that children under the age of six at the time of check-in were exempt from this additional fee. This amounted to a fee of $2,520. The policy acknowledged that individuals who were experiencing financial hardship could apply for a partial or complete exemption from the hotel quarantine fee—this provision aimed to address situations where individuals may face financial constraints during the quarantine period.  A majority, more than 75 per cent, of people who applied to waive their hotel quarantine fees were successful between 17 July and 16 October 2020.
The Western Australian government has detailed its powers to chase up debts in the Public Health Amendment (COVID-19 Response) Act 2020 (WA). This legislation includes section 202K, which outlines the procedures for the recovery of fees related to quarantine. In accordance with this section, any amount that remains unpaid by an individual as specified in this Division can be pursued through legal means. Specifically, it can be recovered as a debt owed to the state, taking the matter to a court of competent jurisdiction for resolution.
Western Australia seems to adopt a more rational approach than its counterparts in the eastern states. Western Australia is waiving many fees and relying on debt recovery agencies that employ techniques like phone calls and emails. This approach may be attributed to the relatively minor number of people who underwent hotel quarantine in the state and the substantial state treasury surplus, which results in a lighter financial burden. This raises the question of, what if our circumstances were different, and our financial stability was at stake? Would the Western Australian government resort to more aggressive measures, such as garnishing wages and seizing money from bank accounts, as seen in New South Wales? As informed citizens, we must question, challenge, and hold our governments accountable for their actions, especially regarding our financial well-being and personal freedoms. We must demand transparency, fairness, and adherence to constitutional principles even when our circumstances appear favourable.
The case of New South Wales, where the government has resorted to seizing funds from individuals' bank accounts to recover unpaid hotel quarantine imprisonment fees, has ignited concerns about the boundaries of government authority and the balance between public health imperatives and personal freedoms. As informed citizens, shouldn't we constantly be questioning this? Shouldn't we be asking why, in a democracy, our bank accounts can be seized without our consent? Isn't it enraging to see our hard-earned money taken away, and is not that a violation of our financial sovereignty? These actions have prompted necessary inquiries into whether the government's responses align with the constitutional requirement of 'just terms' and the principles of democratic societies that value individual rights and privacy.
Disclaimer: The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. We recommend contacting Carter Dickens Lawyers or consulting a qualified legal practitioner if you need legal assistance. Legal matters can vary based on laws and regulations, and seeking professional advice for your situation is important.
 Dr Andrew Robertson, ‘Chief Health Officer Statement COVID-19 update #6' (Media Release, 21 February 2020) <https://www.health.wa.gov.au/Media-releases/2020/Chief-Health-Officer-statement-COVID19-update-6>.  Department of the Premier and Cabinet, ‘New quarantine arrangements under WA’s controlled border’ (Media Release, 14 January 2022) <https://www.wa.gov.au/government/announcements/new-quarantine-arrangements-under-was-controlled-border>.  For a Guardian investigation of quarantine hotels in the United Kingdom, See Diane Taylor, ‘UK travellers complain of ‘prison-like’ conditions in quarantine hotels’ The Guardian (Online, 11 May 2021) < https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/11/uk-travellers-complain-of-prison-like-conditions-in-quarantine-hotels>.  Isobel Roe, ‘NSW premier defends collection of unpaid quarantine hotel fee from people's bank account’, ABC (Online, 8 October 2023) <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-10-08/nsw-premier-defends-garnishee-orders-hotel-quarantine-debts/102949138>.  See generally, ‘ Fines and Fees’ RevenueNSW (Web Page) <https://www.nsw.gov.au/money-and-taxes/fines-and-fees/fees/what-happens-if-you-dont-pay-your-fee>.  See, Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim, ‘Garnishee Orders in New South Wales’ Mondaq (Online, 14 October 2023) < https://www.mondaq.com/australia/civil-law/1377130/garnishee-orders-in-new-south-wales>.  Government of Western Australia, ‘ Hotel Qurantine Fee Exemption (Web Page, 23 May 2023) < https://www.wa.gov.au/service/community-services/community-support/hotel-quarantine-fee-exemption>.  Charlotte Elton, ‘Coronavirus: Majority of hotel quarantine fee waiver applications approved by McGowan Government’ The West Australian (Online 21 October 2020) < https://thewest.com.au/news/coronavirus/coronavirus-majority-of-hotel-quarantine-fee-waiver-applications-approved-by-mcgowan-government-ng-b881700286z>.