THE END OF CERTAINTY
I’m writing this response to Katharine Murphy’s essay The End of Certainty the same day that the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, has announced what is effectively an end to the Melbourne lockdown. In mere minutes, for the first time since June, I will be able to see my parents, two of my siblings and one of my nephews, in a space where all of our new 25-kilometre radii overlap. Although I am just weeks away from completing my Masters, I may actually get to set foot on campus. In three weeks, my partner and I may be able to celebrate our anniversary at the very pub we met at. We’ve been in each other’s hair for seven months straight, but despite this, we still very much feel like celebrating us. Yet to be honest, it feels surreal, like I need to see it happen to believe it, because if I have learnt anything this year, it’s that situations can change so quickly. A healthy degree of cynicism is not just wise, it’s essential.
Murphy’s essay has provided us with invaluable insight into Scott Morrison and his government’s responses up until August; perhaps this comment will be more of a postscript to things she foreshadowed in the closing chapters – the tension between Morrison and Andrews, for example, as the second wave took hold in Victoria. And nationalism – why it seemed more important in a global pandemic and how it was manifesting.
I can’t help but feel let down by our political leadership. This pandemic and the formation of the National Cabinet could have led to some of Australia’s finest moments – it certainly provided opportunities for cohesion and growth – yet I don’t think this has been the case. I’m not an expert. I’m not an epidemiologist, nor a forensic pathologist. I’m a mere commentator rather than a journalist, and my COVID “comfort spending” credit card bill attests that I am definitely not an economist. I do, however, possess a keenly trained eye when it comes to social policy and political leadership. Despite this, Murphy reminded me of why I felt so incredibly confused back in March, when all of a sudden we were locked down. Political leaders had failed to inform the public properly about the threat of this terrible virus, and I myself made comparisons to the flu based on what I’d heard. Indeed, while videos circulated on social media of supermarket shoppers fighting over toilet paper and canned tomatoes, most of us sat back and laughed at people we deemed “doomsday prepper fools.”
Perhaps it is the progressive Melbourne bubble I live in, but at the beginning, the Morrison–Andrews situation felt very much like an interplay between a middle-aged white man viewed as an incompetent national leader and another middle-aged white man viewed as a competent state leader. Many Victorians saw the Andrews government’s moves for stronger early containment measures as a sign of strength. So, sadly, we said a temporary goodbye to our live venues, our pubs, our restaurants, our cultural scene, our sporting scene (even though these are the things we like to wave smugly in the faces of other Australian capitals) for the greater good.
Likewise, although Murphy is completely correct in highlighting just how unprecedented it was for a Liberal government to vastly increase welfare payments, I think many in Victoria saw the horrifically long queues at Centrelink and viewed the increase as long overdue. Probably more notable was that the Victorian government appeared to be looking after those the federal government had forgotten. Homeless people, for example, being housed in hotels, or the emergency payments made to international university students who’d been left without support and not much more from Morrison than a “go home.” It was rough, but we flattened the curve, rejoiced and then headed back to our (now completely seated and spaced-out) pubs for a celebratory pint.
It clearly didn’t last. In July I seized the opportunity to go to country Victoria for a break and just as we were leaving, the postcode lockdown and housing commission tower detention began. By the time I got back, all of Melbourne had plunged into Stage 3 restrictions, and Stage 4 followed weeks later. And here begins my criticism of the Andrews approach, but the writing had actually been on the wall several months earlier and I had failed to note it. Back in April, it had been reported that the majority of non-compliance fines for lockdowns were not being issued in the wealthy suburbs such as Toorak, whose residents were bringing the virus home with them from their international skiing trips. The fines were being issued in working-class outer areas with a higher proportion of migrant communities, and unfortunately, this divide between rich and poor, white and brown and black, continued. Perhaps what Murphy observed about government use of “nationalism” has even morphed into “Victorianism” (for want of a better term) at times.
The Andrews government was not responsible for the attacks on Asian students in February and March, when unthinking people read memes on the internet and set out to blame anyone they believed looked remotely Chinese: Australia remains a deeply racist country, shaped both by the fiction of terra nullius and its old friend the White Australia Policy. The Andrews government did, however, play a role in the demonisation of the Black Lives Matter rally in June. This is not just because a “senior government source” leaked a fake report to The Age that attendees planned to spit on police, but also because, despite all the efforts the diligent organisers made to work with community health organisations, provide personal protective equipment to attendees and ensure that messages of distancing were repeated throughout the protest, they were still slapped with large fines. Not a single case of COVID community transmission was recorded due to the rally, yet the waters were so muddied by the government and their police service that many ordinary Victorians came to believe it was the cause of the second wave.
When it became abundantly clear the rally had not caused the second wave, government messaging seemed to focus on families having “large gatherings.” This was taken by some as a dog whistle allowing racists to blame ethnic families or Eid celebrations. The ground-work had been done to ensure mainstream society would give the required hegemonic assent to the lockdown of multicultural postcodes and commission towers, which housed a high proportion of impoverished migrants. The baddies were those “other people” and it was for Victoria’s own good that police were guarding their every move.
What we weren’t aware of then was that the government knew where the second wave had come from, and it wasn’t those “other people.” It was its own quarantine program. Findings of the commission into the quarantine program are due to be handed down soon, but we already know this: that the government elected to use private security guards, even though publicly funded options were available (for example, the police or Army Reserve); that the three companies it contracted the security to then sub-contracted out to other companies, which then contracted out further until some security guards were engaged via WhatsApp messages; that, notwithstanding reports in certain publications regarding security guards engaging in sex with guests, the first person infected was a hotel duty manager; that the infection spread from low-paid, insecure workers in one industry to low-paid, insecure workers in other industries, such as meatworks, aged care and factories. Eighty per cent of second-wave transmissions were happening in the workplace.
This was when the government script flipped from blaming “others” to “individuals.” Regardless of sentiments expressed at the daily press conferences, I’ve never felt we were “all in it together.” The quarantine outbreak and the infection chain that followed exposed deep systemic problems, but the key messaging at the press conferences was about “individual responsibility.” Sure, government directives on masks, restricting contact and movement, and getting tested even with the smallest of symptoms were prudent health policy. But when I heard that fines for “breaking curfew” – a government measure based purely on easier policing that had not been recommended by the Chief Health Officer or the Police Commissioner – had been worn disproportionately by Sudanese and Aboriginal people, or that residents in the locked-down commission towers and poorer, multicultural postcodes were forced to translate health directives for themselves with the assistance of NGOs, the sentiment of all being in it together seemed rather hollow. The towers were locked down with four hours’ notice and the “detention” measures were criticised in a scathing letter from the UN’s former special rapporteur on adequate housing.
What’s more, social media has been a particularly vicious place to “live” during lockdown. When I wasn’t seeing blatantly racist materials blaming Black Lives Matter for the second wave or comparing the premier to everyone from Mao to Hitler, I was setting my clock by the daily chants of #IStandWithDan as people reacted to criticism of the government from the right-wing press. An online cult of personality grew up around Andrews, with journalists demonised who directed tricky questions his way. When quality publications such as The Saturday Paper, The Guardian and The Age are publishing valid criticism and sections of the left on social media are treating it all as an affront requiring punishment of the journalists, I have real concerns for open and honest political dialogue.
COVID is going nowhere fast. The Andrews government knows this and has a plan leading to Victorians living a “COVID-normal” life. We’re in this until a vaccine is developed or the virus dies out, as SARS did – whatever comes first. In a recent opinion piece, Virginia Trioli put the question to the Victorian government: “Victorians have done our bit to suppress COVID. Premier, have you done yours?” She asked whether the Department of Health and Human Services had been bolstered, whether more contact tracers had been engaged, whether “infection protocols” had been strengthened and supported in high-risk areas such as hospitals, aged care and meatworks. I want to know all this too. The toll of the second wave on Victorians, particularly Melburnians, has been immense – economically, socially, physically, mentally and mortality-wise. We don’t want to end up here again.
Considering all this, the most striking takeaway from Murphy’s essay is that this tale of Australian political leadership is “to be continued.” For me it’s been an educational journey – I now know a lot more about a conservative prime minister in whom I’d previously shown little interest. I have indeed, at times, been surprised by his pragmatism and innovation while still gnashing my teeth at federal failures. Similarly, though, I have watched a much-admired Labor premier be punitive, fuel fear and division and be buffered in these problematic tactics by sections of the community who should know better. I want to be clear here: I am not saying I have not supported the Victorian leadership at times. I am saying that if we end up in this situation again and we do truly want to be “all in it together,” then we must be more critical and call for more accountability. We must be able to trust that our elected leaders, whether federal, state or in the form of a National Cabinet, are speaking to each other, that the various ministries collaborate and that they make the right decisions for the entire community, particularly supporting those who need help most. Simple hashtags deifying leadership while demonising reporters just ain’t going to cut it.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 80, The High Road.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY