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Sorry, but I do not stand with Dan

A singular focus on infection rates and the silencing of debate has obscured the real damage caused by government responses to COVID-19

Just another Sunday in Melbourne? Riot police in armoured gear patrol the Queen Victoria Market on Sunday, September 13. Photo: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

IT was just another spring Sunday in Melbourne. A warm sun bathed the streets as shoppers went about their business in the iconic Queen Victoria Market, the bustling mercantile heart of the city for more than 150 years.

Those bucolic scenes of everyday life were interrupted by a phalanx of riot police dressed like Stormtroopers in their heavy body armour who pushed their way up the aisles with their round perspex shields, their faces covered by similar plastic masks and batons at the ready. They were here to enforce the law to prevent a small group of people from assembling at the market to protest against the government imposed COVID-19 hard lockdown, now in its sixth week.

Can there be any more graphic image of the frightening dystopian state we have reached in 2020?

Just as disturbing was the media coverage of the event that night. The narrative was clearly on the side of the police and the excessive force they used, even though they greatly outnumbered the rag tag band of protesters, was not questioned.

At one stage, ABC news showed a police officer with his knee over the neck of a prone man while another officer handcuffed him — the same manoeuvre that choked the life out of George Floyd in Minneapolis and sparked violent protests across America about police brutality just three months ago. The public outrage at this blatantly disproportionate use of force against an unarmed and non-violent protester? There was none.

How has it come to this? How have we arrived at a point where protest is effectively criminalised?

Well, it’s complicated, but it encompasses the breakdown of trust in governments, the growing polarisation that prevents sensible political discourse politics, and the increasing secrecy and lack of transparency in the way political decisions are made.

BACK in the innocent days of April, May and early June when Australia’s COVID outbreak was under control and elimination was even possible, an innocuous hashtag began appearing in social media posts: #IstandwithDan.

For all we know, the phrase emerged from Victorian government focus groups but whatever its origins, the intentions were pure: an expression of solidarity for the collective sacrifices we were all making at the behest of the state government to suppress the virus as well as a gentle show of support for the Victorian Premier against the naysayers.

Those critics were definitely in a minority, a lunatic fringe who were well out of step with the 70+ per cent who backed the restrictions put in place. As he took command and acted decisively to contain the virus, the Premier’s popularity soared. As one, we all stood with Dan.

And then all hell broke loose.

The re-emergence of the virus in July, just as it seemed it had been conquered and restrictions were being relaxed, caught the government by surprise. When it became apparent that the virus had spread from quarantine hotels because of bureaucratic blunders, the state government panicked, firstly locking down 3000 residents in nine inner Melbourne public housing towers, then entire suburbs, and finally, on 2 August, announcing the world’s most restrictive regime with a stage 4 lockdown of all of metropolitan Melbourne.

Under stage 4, Melbourne residents are only allowed to leave their homes without a permit except for four mandated reasons — exercise, shopping, to attend medical care, or to care for someone else. No visiting friends or family, not even when child custody is split between two parents; not even for people who live alone. No attending work unless you are in an essential industry.

And even within those parameters, there were further restrictions: masks were compulsory and had to be worn at all times out of the house, even if you were on your own with no-one else in sight; only one visit to the shops was allowed each day; no more than one hour of exercise alone out of home a day; no travel for any reason at all beyond a five kilometre radius; and, most contentious of all, an absolute curfew between 8pm and 5am. To all intents and purposes, we were living under wartime conditions.

The decisions to impose these restrictions were made by a ‘crisis Cabinet’ of the Premier and a small inner circle of ministers and advisers, under the mandate of an emergency act of Parliament which granted this authority for a three month period to the government.

INITIALLY, Melburnians accepted this with the same stolid sense of duty and good humour they had dealt with the first lockdown. After all, with up to 800 new cases and dozens of deaths a day, no-one wanted to see the virus get out of control as it had in Europe and the United States. We put our faith in the government and its chief spokesman, the Premier, that they were doing the right thing.

And so the #IstandwithDan hashtags re-emerged. But soon, as some people began to question whether the restrictions were doing more damage than they were preventing, and evidence began to mount that some decisions had been made not based on health advice, the hashtag took on a more defensive tone.

After a period of relative peace, the political bipartisanship that had held the state together through the first lockdown began to fracture and soon we were back to the same polarisation that has paralysed politics for the past decade.

It has been left to the Premier to justify the lockdown every day in a nationally televised news conference and as the weeks have passed and his popularity has waned (a poll in the Herald Sun last weekend had the government losing an election) he has looked increasingly embattled and defensive. His opponents, smelling blood, have swarmed for the kill; while his supporters have dug in to protect their man.

#IstandwithDan has become cult-like; a form of blind loyalty to a supreme leader who has centralised all power, and a failure to find any fault in their man despite glaring evidence to the contrary.

Worse still, at a time when questions should be asked about how the Victorian government so royally fucked it up, the #IStandwithDan crowd refuses to brook any criticism, denying a voice to those who ask questions and shutting down any debate. This has exacerbated a lack of transparency and accountability and solidified an impression of a government that arrogantly acts as if it is not responsible to the people who voted for it.

The reality is that when given the task of protecting Victorians from the coronavirus, the Andrews government failed to keep us safe. And because of that mismanagement, it has sent the economy into a deep recession.

There were mitigating factors — including the rapacious greed of an aged care system that puts profits ahead of the safety of the elderly; and the insidiousness of insecure work that forces people to go to work even when they are feeling unwell — but government incompetence played a major part, and as the Premier himself says, the buck stops with him.

If I was giving a score out if 10, I’d say Andrews’ management of the crisis would be about a five: he’s doing the best he can in the circumstances but hardly a reason for high fives.

Andrews’ credibility took a major battering when it was revealed that the citywide 8pm-5am curfew was not imposed on health advice, nor at the request of police. It was a captain’s call, and for some people that was the final breach of their faith.

Here was a Premier who for months had said ‘trust me, do what I tell you and we can beat this thing’. So we did what he told us, and then there was the hotel quarantine fiasco.

And again, he said ‘trust me, it’s going to be hard going into a stage 4 lockdown but we can still beat this thing’. So we took him at his word, even if things like the curfew and the 5 kilometre radius were hard to swallow, and when people were arrested and fined for breaching those rules, we accepted it as a necessary evil.

But then it turned out that the curfew wasn’t there to keep us safe at all, but was a PR exercise to give the impression the government was in control after its manifest failures to control the outbreaks from the hotel quarantine. It fails the pub test.

Now Andrews has lost that faith from a large proportion of voters, he will struggle to get it back. Whether the curfew is 8pm, or 9pm, or midnight really doesn’t matter: people believe they were misled, and they won’t be so willing to trust the Premier again. And they will begin to question whether other government decisions were made for the right or wrong reasons.

Sensibly, state Parliament pushed back when the Andrews Government sought to extend its broad emergency powers for another 12 months.

This growing unease with the handling of the lockdown was the catalyst for Sunday’s protest at the Vic Market.

But Andrews’ most rabid supporters are having none of that. Perhaps they suffer an extreme form of Stockholm Syndrome. Their man can do no wrong, and politics is so broken that we can’t have a sensible discussion or find any middle ground. In this environment, you are either for or against. This isn’t helped by a conservative Opposition that has abandoned any pretence of adulthood and is shamelessly exploiting the situation for its own gain.

The Opposition calls for Andrews to resign are nothing more than political noise. There is nothing the Victorian Liberals have said or done that makes you think they would do a better job. In any case, Andrews will face his reckoning in two years’ time, and judgement will be cast not so much on how he managed the lockdown, but how the economy is faring then.

But the Opposition has been successful in whipping up a frenzy against the lockdown which has been seized by those with other agendas and funnelled into protests like the one at Vic Market, which was mostly attended by deluded and naive people who have had enough. Whatever they were, they weren’t criminals and they posed no effective threat that warranted the riot police response.

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that riot police were sent in to reinforce a message that no public dissent from the authorised line will be allowed.

It’s unfair to blame Daniel Andrews alone for this mess. At a federal level, Scott Morrison has so far managed to avoid a major COVID-related backlash to the same extent as Daniel Andrews. But Morrison is fortunate to be cushioned from the type of criticism Andrews has weathered because just like the bushfires during summer, most of the decisions that most directly impact on the community fall into a state jurisdiction rather than a federal one.

RUNNING in parallel with these waxing and waning political fortunes, COVID-19 has seen a ramping up of the reach of the state into everyday Australian life and a corresponding impact on our civil liberties.

For 20 years, we have complacently allowed the erosion of free speech and press freedom and stood by while the surveillance state encroaches into most aspects of our lives. We’ve let the state build computer algorithms that track our transactions and result in the persecution of welfare recipients for ‘robodebts’. We’ve turned a blind eye to the torture of asylum seekers in detention centres and the impunity with which police kill Indigenous Australians. We’ve waved through the increasing militarisation of the police and paid little attention as laws have been passed which further persecute the most vulnerable.

Ever since 9/11/01, politicians like John Howard, Philip Ruddock and Peter Dutton have ruthlessly exploited national security to isolate their opponents and tighten their grip on power.

COVID-19 has accelerated this process. We’ve barely blinked at the sight of soldiers in uniform patrolling public parks — yet the last time I saw soldiers on city streets was in Belfast 30 years ago. Without a second thought, millions of us allowed an app to be installed on our phones that can track our every movement. Most of us just shrugged when the residents of the public housing towers were treated like criminals for a week. We don’t notice the surveillance cameras that have been turned in our direction nor the drones filming us from above to make sure we are following the lockdown rules. The West Australian government has even begun forcing people in quarantine to wear electronic ankle bracelets.

Most political decisions at both federal and state level have been made in secret. Relevant information is withheld from the public. Parliaments have hardly sat and even when they do meet, Ministers refuse to answer legitimate questions. Restrictions are introduced with no scientific basis — for instance, despite no evidence of community transmission in the retail sector, almost all Victorian shops have been forced to close for the past six weeks.

I carry no torch for conspiracy theorists, flat earthers, anti-vaxxers, the tin foil hat brigade or other assorted right wing crazies who think COVID is a fiction invented by the deep state to control their lives. And I definitely don’t support the Liberal Party or the toxic and equally polarising #giveDantheboot campaign.

The virus is real and it is sensible to take some precautions, including physical distancing and wearing masks.

But is it any surprise that in this environment, when trust in politicians and institutions is declining, some people will seek to assert their freedom and independence from a state that has extended its control over their lives?

This is the volatile mix that led to Sunday’s flashpoint at the Queen Victoria Market.

True to form, the police response divided most people into two diametrically opposed camps. What was surprising is that those on the left — the same people who like to show their woke credentials by sharing some spicy internet meme about police brutality against African-Americans — mostly support an iron fisted enforcement of COVID restrictions. They cheered when a woman in Ballarat was arrested and handcuffed in her pyjamas in her living room, and they were silent when the riot police occupied the Vic Market.

It’s almost as if they fail to see the long-term consequences of allowing their rights to be dictated by a government and enforced by the police, and how this could easily be misused by a more devious politician than Daniel Andrews or Scott Morrison.

This has been a boiling frog moment when we were too wrapped up in our own selfish daily lives to notice what was happening to our civil liberties. And it will be very difficult to wind back.

Just imagine if the force by riot police witnessed at Queen Victoria Market last Sunday was used one day to prevent people rallying for labour rights, or against Aboriginal deaths in custody, or to oppose the mistreatment of refugees. Imagine if protest was regularly outlawed as a ‘public health risk’.

Imagine if soldiers patrolling public spaces and police checkpoints became commonplace. Imagine if police routinely busted down people’s front doors and arrested them in their own homes for something they posted on Facebook.

Just imagine if an app on your mobile phone allowed the government to trace your every step, and surveillance cameras on every corner captured every time you blinked in public.

It sounds far-fetched, perhaps even a little paranoid, an Orwellian nightmare. Australia is not an authoritarian state, is it?

But every one of these things has happened here in the past six months and the justification was COVID-19.

MELBOURNE’S COVID numbers are now trending in the right direction. On September 15, Victoria experienced its first 24 hour period without a single COVID death for the first time in well over a month. New infections are now averaging just below 50 a day, and most restrictions are about to be lifted in regional Victoria.

It remains doubtful that the target of an average of five daily new infections over a 14 day period will be achievable, but no doubt the Andrews government is working on a plan B with enough wriggle room to begin easing the restrictions anyway.

We are so close to suppressing the virus now that we need to see the lockdown through to the end – indeed, lifting it prematurely would be counterproductive and risk undoing the good work.

But whether Melbourne is in stage 4, 3, 2 or 1, or no lockdown at all, is beyond the point now. The damage has been done. The economic and social cost from the government response will be deep and long. Thousands of businesses will collapse between now and Christmas, and hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost. Livelihoods have been destroyed. The once vibrant city centre will take a long time — possibly several years — to recover its energy. The delayed impact of mental illness and anxiety will only surface in higher suicide numbers some time in the future.

We will never know for sure, but history is likely to judge the response of governments around the globe to COVID-19 to have been a horrible over-reaction which plunged the world into the worst recession in almost a century over a disease that to date has killed fewer people than die from the flu each year.

In Australia, we can be grateful that our isolated status on an island at the bottom of the world meant were able to control the spread of the virus earlier and more effectively than in the northern hemisphere. This was more by luck than good management. When the virus is eventually contained and a vaccine found, there will be little credit due to our governments for having done better or more than others.

But the damage to our economy and society is just as devastating as in Europe and the US. The containment of infection rates are not the only measure of success; just as important is the health of the economy.

The blame for this must be shared by both Scott Morrison and the state governments, but they were not alone: virtually every government in the world has made the same mistakes. But politicians are psychologically incapable of admitting they were wrong, so don’t expect any apologies soon.

While the federal government is also culpable, the fact does remain that COVID has been far worse in Victoria than any other state, both as a health emergency, but also in terms of the economic damage. And the Andrews government must accept responsibility for most of this, despite what the #IstandwithDan crowd thinks.

So what will be the legacy of the state and federal governments’ handling of COVID-19?

A stifling of debate and dissent. Increased surveillance by the state and control by governments over freedom of expression and movement. Normalisation of excessive policing and police powers. Future generations burdened with the repayment of mountains of public debt.

Double digit unemployment, tens of thousands of bankruptcies and a long and painful recession. High rates of mental illness and suicide. Declining trust in politicians and government institutions. And a widening political poliarisation.

After all that, if you think Australia’s political leaders deserve a pat on the back, good on you. But excuse me for sitting out the #IstandwithDan lovefest. I’m just not in the mood.

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