Flat White

Government has failed Victoria – and Victoria has failed government

6 August 2020

5:00 AM

6 August 2020

5:00 AM

The biggest crisis currently facing Victoria is not the coronavirus.  It is the failure of government itself; the lack of leadership, clarity and consistency necessary to master difficulty.  The Andrews Government has floundered in response to the pandemic, encouraged in these efforts by the failure of government departments (particularly DHHS) to understand the situation.  The opposition has fared no better, failing to provide an alternate vision of government in policy or principle.  There is also the failure of Victorians to demand more of those who are trusted to lead the state and to apply adequate scrutiny before ceding liberty.   

It is easy to be a good leader in good times, but true leadership is demonstrated in bad times.  Daniel Andrews has shown a preference for glib, pithy and ultimately hubristic soundbites over consistent or coherent policy.  The Premier escaped early scrutiny in response to the crisis by hosting regular press conferences, dazzling the political-media establishment which lapped up the ability to string sentences together as a triumph over a virus which cares not a whit for political hot air.  “Staying apart keeps us together”, “now is not the time to get on the beers” and “why would any Victorian want to go to South Australia?” have been the hallmarks of a government not up to the task.  Public paeans to ‘science’ and ‘statistics’ by the Premier cannot mask the fact his government has been clueless in addressing the pandemic.  

When Daniel Andrews, in reference to anti-maskers, said “their behaviour is appalling, their views have no basis in science or fact or law”, he could easily have been talking about himself and his government.  Pick a substantive issue in relation to coronavirus and the government has wrongly been on both sides of it.  The virus was initially nothing to worry about and Victorians should go about their business as normal gave way to lockdown and, now, curfew.  Face masks were not necessary and could make things worse morphed into face masks becoming mandatory in public spaces.   

If there was science to staying apart, with emphasis on social distancing, to keep Victorians together, why was the Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne not seriously opposed by the government?  That failure of consistency and leadership may have the most lasting consequences.  Not for the transmission of the virus itself, but the transmission to Victorians of the notion that government policy was insincere and could be conveniently disregarded.  Compare the wink and nod approval of the BLM protest in Victoria with the strong objection of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her government to the Sydney BLM protest.  While the protest went ahead, the Berejiklian Government demonstrated political resolve and consistency which has provided it with ongoing clout and public support.   


While Daniel Andrews and his Cabinet may be the ‘head of the snake’ of failure in Victoria, government departments have been the brittle and contorted spine incapable of holding up under pressure.  The DHHS, and in particular the Chief Health Officer, have failed the people of Victoria by failing to understand the situation.  For example, it is beyond belief that career professionals — presumably dedicated to the fields of medicine, health and science — were so bereft of authority and knowledge it took several months to come up with a consistent position on something as basic as the wearing of face masks.  Yet the government continues to listen to the so-called experts who have got so many aspects of this situation wrong.  It is the job of elected officials to balance competing interests and make decisions accordingly, not to slavishly hand over the administration of the state to unelected officials.   

The opposition, supposedly ideologically inclined toward individual liberty, reduced government, and small business, has failed to hold the government to account.  There has been no alternate vision or policy, no clarion call to competence and consistency.  The media has sought to provide cover for the Andrews Government, calling for solidarity and disparaging criticism as disunity, and the opposition has acquiesced.  There needs to be open debate and scrutiny of government decisions, even in tough times.  The opposition needs to come out of hiding and provide a clear and differentiated response to government, not just for its political base but for all of Victoria. 

Ultimately, the Victorian people bear responsibility too; not for the reasons Daniel Andrews has lazily used to seek to apportion blame away from his government, but for failing to demand more of those in government.  For too long, Victorians have allowed careerist politicians of limited talent and experience to hold the reigns of power.  For too long, Victorians have allowed elected officials to be led by faceless careerist public servants who are rewarded for incompetence with job security.  For too long, Victorians have fallen for political spin that has papered over a lack of crisis planning and preparedness. 

While there will doubtless come a lasting medical solution to this situation, there must also come a lasting political solution so that Victoria is better prepared to face future challenges. 

Josh Karpin is an academic, specialising in domestic and international politics with a keen interest in democracy and the rule of law.

Illustration: Ben R Davis.

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