Steady on ranters, Victoria is not descending into totalitarianism

Nov 24, 2021
anti-lockdown protest melbourne
Anti-government protesters in Melbourne. (Image: AAP/James Ross)

The ”crowd” has not spoken. Media interests, and the Coalition, have no sure instinct for what voters think about pandemic management.

I have no idea how many Victorians have been overtaken by the panic that Victoria is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian communist state, with unlimited and unaccountable powers being divvied up among politicians, bureaucrats and policemen. Some of those, including opposition politicians, Scott Morrison and News Corp, as well as the usual conservative barristers from central casting, have massively overstated the threat and the problem, but a significant number of anti-vaxxer, anti “compulsion” and general nut-cases are now in a frenzy, to the point of constructing gallows for Andrews’s commissars.

My guess is that the “crowd” is not as big or representative of public opinion as street protesters,  opposition spokesmen and sundry News Corp ranters would suggest. Nor do I think that there is some tsunami of common sense and moderation which will soon sweep the present Victorian government out of office, possibly before its time, in much the same manner as the insurrectionists of January 6 attempted in Washington. It has long characterised News Corp campaigns in Victoria, as well as opposition attempts to stampede law-and-order debates, that they have significantly underestimated the support for Daniel Andrews, and public acceptance of his broad strategies and tactics during the course of the pandemic. The same people made the same mistake with the West Australian election, and the Queensland one. This is not to say that there weren’t some folk, including some business interests, who were entirely against lockdowns.

One has to balance the public interest in keeping the economy going and the preservation of life. But I don’t buy the oft-repeated claim that the pandemic response prioritised the health needs of a few elderly people above the rest of the population.

Nor that over a long period of time Australians who had been generally obedient and sensible about following expert advice came to be very weary of prolonged lockdowns and came to see the dropping of them as a sort of liberation. But that does not mean that they have rejected leaders who took the public into their confidence, and provided as much information as they could.

Now that even local lockdowns are largely over, any sense of drama and urgency about a tidy-up of government powers based on the experience of the pandemic (and of emergency services responses to the 2019-20 bushfires) is likely to dissipate, particularly if Andrews puts such legislation on the backburner.

But maybe he has jumped the gun anyway. He did not have answers to all the questions. His advisers seem to have been clear about the nature of the measures that ought to be adopted, and the powers and functions of various state officials and bureaucrats to back them up. Because experience with epidemics is old, and because emergency management of a flood or bushfire is not quite the same, it is hardly surprising that there was a fairly settled view in small-g government about the necessary structures, powers and duties. For that reason, a few key bureaucrats can draft legislation quickly. (I expect that such draft legislation would have been just the same had the advice been coming to a Victorian Liberal premier, and that such a person would have largely followed the advice, and probably with hostility from the media.)

But it is not just for bureaucrats, however expert and however self-righteous, to decide what powers and functions, and in what administratively convenient agencies such powers should be vested. If a fresh crisis arose, Victoria is quite capable of renewing some of the existing legislation, which seemed to work well enough, even if it could be fine-tuned. In the meantime even a review of functions, powers and duties would be improved by a general review of what happened, why, and what we can learn from it. And from extensive consultation, in advance of draft legislation.

I think the idea of such a review is the more important because it seems obvious that Scott Morrison has no intention of having any review, let alone an honest and non-partisan one into what the Commonwealth did. I do not suggest that everything he did was wrong; indeed, I consider that his performance was reasonably creditable during 2020. But through all of this year he has fluffed things again and again, frequently misled the public, and been far from transparent. His style is of always denying any wrongdoing, let alone any misstatement of the fact, and of ever insisting that he should move forward rather than look back. That personality and character, and his utter want of any restraint when he is deploying public resources to partisan purposes, would seem to make it certain that all of the same mistakes, and colossal waste of public money could occur again.

”Dictator Dan” need not get a set of Labor luvvies to do such an inquiry. Nor, in framing terms of reference need he greatly fear that some terms might rebound on Labor. He is not of the personality which cannot admit a mistake; likewise he has shown himself ready and capable of answering questions, including ones based on fresh knowledge of the virus. If I were him, I would go outside Victoria for my commissioners — who should, ideally be someone from business (but not finance); a skilled barrister (perhaps the very skilled Sophie Callan, SC), and someone from the health or scientific establishment, preferably someone not compromised by the advice they gave government. Plus, perhaps, a competent senior South Australian bureaucrat, and someone capable of addressing issues raised by the organisation of pandemic services for the aged, the institutionalised, the disabled, people with auto-immune diseases and indigenous Australians. Each with their own support, including some capacity to judge between different state strategies.

If Morrison loses the next election, federal Labor should immediately borrow from the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison playbook and organise inquiries into a range of matters, some having nothing to do with the pandemic. We need inquiries into patterns of spending public money, and the increasing lack of transparency or accountability involved. Likewise into the politicisation of the public service. We need a searching inquiry into the consciously planned attack on the universities. We need progress on a powerful integrity commission, as well as a new body, complementary to the National Audit Office, doing regular own-motion studies into the effectiveness and efficiency of public spending, co-ordination between federal agencies and also between Commonwealth and state ones. It would do federal Labor no harm if it foreshadowed some such systemic inquiries, ones established not for payback but so as to get good government back on its feet.

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