Hypothetical protests cost not worth the hyperventilation

Shock, horror. Someone has been tested positive to COVID-19 after the Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne and  Peter Dutton is terrified – his worst fears have been realized, he hyperventilated.

Well, no, actually – Peter Dutton’s worst fear is that the pubic will finally see how silly he is and start ignoring him.

But in the meantime, he will have enough support to generate a few more headlines, like the one last Wednesday in The Australian – “Protests cost the economy $1bn. ”

It turns out that this wasn’t true either: what the fantasy revealed was that if the federal government kept social restrictions going for another week (which it had always intended to do anyway) one somewhat outdated Treasury projection was that it could cost somewhere in that vicinity.

Then again, it probably wouldn’t because the states would go ahead at their own pace, and right on cue Gladys Berejiklian opened the door on the undeniable grounds that community transmission of the virus in New South Wales had virtually ceased.

But even if the figure was correct, so what? In the same paper, we read that Westpac’s chief economist, Bill Evans, had found that the early containment of the pandemic in Australia had already saved treasury some $20 billion – and of course, there is that extra $60 billion sitting on the coffers after the JobKeeper discrepancy.

In the circumstances, the purely hypothetical billion is hardly life-threatening. But for the Murdoch press, that was entirely irrelevant. Next day the mouldering moguls mercenary minions mobilised to, invent a revolt, an outpouring of popular outrage about what the increasingly Duttonesque Matthias Corman characterized as the selfish and self-indulgent protests.

To back up this claim of rioting in the streets The Australian’s breathless propagandists located an undertaker and a clergyman who wanted an open go for their clientele, and of course a couple of right-wing Liberal MPs. And in case there was any doubt, one of the paper’s most zealous partisans, Dennis Shanahan, opined that the restrictions were stifling his spiritual life, and thus, presumably, the BLM movement was endangering his immortal soul.

Could it get any worse? You betcha. The OECD warned that if there was to be a second wave of coronavirus in Australia, it could cost $25 billion. This was a purely academic exercise – the organisation was not predicting a second wave and was in fact rather complimentary about the way the government had managed the crisis.

But by conflating the reports, it added to the pile on – the protests were not about saving black lives, but about a deliberate and sinister attack on Australia as we know it. And what’s more, they had evil fifth columnists at their backs.

Paul Kelly, who has apparently abandoned any pretence of rational debate, wrote one of his more pompous diatribes explaining that there were two equally credible views that needed to be weighed – those of loved and trusted aunty ABC, which thought that black lives did matter, and those of Murdoch’s gangrenous organ Sky News that thought that they didn’t – or at least not nearly as much the right to congregate at weddings and funerals.

These were not incompatible, except in Kelly’s limited view of the world. but you can’t run a culture war without setting out a conflict, however phony.

However, this one is all a bit difficult for the Oz, because it has spent the last few weeks screaming and steaming about the absolute necessity of everyone getting back to normal, to removing all those arbitrary and unnecessary barriers imposed by the government – and that includes the sacred cause of free speech.

And to a large extent, the protests were following their script, with the permission of the authorities – the state governments and their police forces – to go right ahead. But the paramount aim was to shoot the messengers, and as so often with the Murdoch press. self-interest won out over principle.

So the back narrative became that, sure, black lives matter –but not just now. And Marcia Langton’s simple solution – stop killing Aboriginals – was not the answer. The figures showed that black deaths in custody were not, on a per capita basis, any more alarming than white deaths in custody, and once the offenders were in custody they were seldom actually killed by police – well, at least not directly. Most committed suicide or died of neglect from those to whom they owed a duty of care, so that was all right then.

And certainly, blacks were many time more likely to be in custody than whites, but that must be because they were, by definition, more likely to offend. Yes. if you count drunkenness, offensive language, non-payment of parking fines and other such dastardly crimes that seldom if ever land white Australians in the slammer. But nothing to see here, move right along. Back to the proven failure of what the establishment mainstream likes to characterize as “practical reconciliation” – another round of telling the first Australians what is good for them.

Another week,  and another tirade from our national daily. So our fearless leader had received his riding instructions: the previous protest was terrible, but another one would be unacceptable. Police should charge offenders. Take no prisoners, ride over the bastards, dominate. He sounded positively Trumpish.

This was not his call: he himself has frequently excused inaction by pointing out that such issues are matters for the states. But not to worry: we’re all in this together, remember? Time for the wallopers to do their part.

So it must have been a disappointment that Friday’s protest was small, orderly and peaceful, with the cops outnumbering demonstrators by two to one and just one miserable arrest. But a statue of Captain Cook was protected through social distancing, which had to be counted as a win by The Australian.

Saturday saw a few largely desultory protests – one organiser was lumbered in a Sydney, but it looked more like as gesture from the obedient coppers than a serious effort to protect the public from mayhem. Hardly Armageddon: despite the urgings of the Murdoch-Morrison axis, the climactic conflict between good and evil did not eventuate. Never mind, better luck next time if possible.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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