Leading article Australia

State of disastrous decision-making

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

Wherever you are on the political spectrum, one word that should strike fear into you is ‘curfew’. Curfews are tools of political repression, of martial law, of military occupation. They are not part of living in a thriving parliamentary democracy.

Yet this week, and for weeks if not months to come, nearly five million Victorians are living under a nightly curfew. From 8pm to 5 am the streets of Australia’s fastest-growing city are all but deserted, save for police cars, with anyone else needing to have a damned good excuse to be out. The life of Melbourne is squeezed out of it, its vibrant nightlife stilled, shops closed with many unlikely to reopen, and when you are allowed out the sight of everyone masked up, even in the most open places, conveys a sinister sense of fear and menace.

Impotent in the face of a second, more virulent wave of community transmission, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has gone for authoritarian broke against a microscopic enemy that has infected many but hospitalised, let alone killed, few. His Stage 4 lockdown is far more draconian than that which closed most of Australia between March and May. As of last Thursday, most of Victorian industry is shuttered. Retailers deemed non-essential are shut. And you won’t even be able to get your hair cut until mid-September.

Mr Andrews, who always talks of ‘my’ decisions, not his government’s – Dictator Dan some call him – stands condemned for his too willingly embracing curfews and sweeping emergency powers that will sweep away businesses, livelihoods and jobs and turn Victoria, at least temporarily, into a police state. Yet condemnation of him should not just be for how he is using those powers, but for why. Victoria is a self-declared State of Disaster because community transmission of Wuhan virus has got out of hand. Daily new infections in the hundreds, where for the rest of Australian they barely reach double figures, required drastic action.

All because of the Andrews government’s incompetence and cronyism in entrusting its hotel quarantine programme to unionised and untrained pub bouncers recruited via WhatsApp, in permitting internees to fraternise and not socially distance and in allowing them to leave quarantine even if they had refused a Covid-19 test. It simply beggars belief.    Even Victoria’s Chief Health Officer has admitted that it is conceivable that most if not all community transmission cases in Victoria’s second wave came from the breakdown of hotel quarantine.

Yet Mr Andrews continues to point more arms than an octopus at everyone else for doing the wrong thing, from Bunnings Karen to surreptitious partygoers.  This lockdown is all your fault, he tells Victorians day after day. There’s no apology, no expression of regret, no attempt to make amends. Just a determination to retrieve his monumental stuff-up by ruining the lives and livelihoods of millions of his fellow Victorians. The ludicrous spectacle of Mr Andrews’s health minister taking the Fifth in Question Time this week highlighted the utter contempt he and his government have for public scrutiny of their actions. To them, parliament is an annoying fly to be swatted, not a convocation of democracy to be respected.

The Wuhan virus has infected and is killing Australian democracy. But conservatives who condemn Mr Andrews for using his powers should take a pause themselves. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has publicly backed the premier, including his imposing of de facto martial law. Surely Liberals are supposed to be about defending freedoms, not suppressing them? Alarmingly, Mr Morrison’s attitude is matched by Liberal premiers in NSW, SA and Tasmania. Granted, who would want to be governing in this crisis, but centre-right governments all too willingly ruling by decree should alarm us all.

And in Victoria, frustrated Liberals who think that personally abusing Mr Andrews through social media is a valid substitute for constructive criticism and proposing sensible policy alternatives should look in the mirror. The Public Health and Wellbeing Act, which is the main source of the premier’s draconian powers, was passed by the Victorian parliament in 2008 unopposed by the Coalition opposition of the day despite Labor then, as now, not having an upper house majority. It’s no virtue complaining about dictatorial powers if your party betrayed its founding principles to enable them in the first place.

From Victorian democracy’s darkest hour, we must take urgent lessons. We must ensure that any emergency powers are constrained and not abused and that fundamental freedoms always are balanced with the common good, even in dire crises. We must ensure our political leaders have parliamentary and judicial checks on such powers and how they use them. Indeed, perhaps we now need some form of ‘recall’ mechanism that would enable citizens to petition to call an election in the event of such woefully inept state governance.

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