The problem with Australians isn’t that so many of them are descended from convicts, Clive James once said, but that so many are descended from prison officers. Australia has astounded the world with its draconian corona confinement. Nowhere else on the planet, outside of the communist collectives, are people prevented from leaving their country, or returning home.
Not everyone, of course. Despite the sanctimonious saw that we are all in this together, we are not. Cricketers, movie stars, ministers of the Crown, mining moguls and the demi-monde of reality-TV types are free to come and go, flying in and out on private or publicly-owned jets and isolating in the comfort of their pads or palazzos. The rest of us are locked in, locked out, locked up or locked down. ‘Take me to the April Sun in Cuba,’ went the rock song of the Seventies. These days, it’s almost as hard to get in, or out, of Queensland. In Victoria, Melburnians must wait until Sunday for the premier to deign to disclose the no doubt long walk to freedom. In the meantime, he demands that parliamentarians give him unfettered emergency powers for another six months.
Never has the trivial tyranny of officious officialdom seemed so callous. A pregnant woman in medical distress is denied access to the nearest hospital because she is on the wrong side of the border and loses one of her twins. A grieving mother has to ask permission eight times before she is allowed to bury her daughter on the other side of another border. A young woman who lost her grandad and her brother during the lockdown is stranded overseas because of the cap on international arrivals. Another 23,000 Australians are in the same boat, so to speak. We are all unauthorised arrivals now.
As a counterpoint, this week we learnt of the illegal detention of Australian journalist Cheng Lei, more than a fortnight after Chinese officials notified our foreign minister. On the other side of the world, but just a hop, skip and a jump down China’s Yellow Brick Belt and Road, it is two years, this month, since Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps arrested Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert on trumped up charges of espionage. Both women are the victims of totalitarian regimes who have no respect for human rights or the rule of law. The misery in which they find themselves puts our own captivity in perspective.
Yet there is something all these Australians have in common and it is not just that each, in her own way, has lost the basic freedoms we are all used to taking for granted; it’s that each is now dependent on the powers vested in our public servants to prise back our precious liberty, while our administrators have no appetite for risk because they see in it no reward.
The PM, premiers, ministers, mandarins and their minions in Canberra and in the state capitals came to a cosy consensus months ago within the confines of the national cabinet that they would rather let us all rot in this peculiar pandemic prison, rather than run the risk, however small, of allowing a soupçon of freedom, that might contain a crumb of contagion.
That consensus has only been shattered because the Victorian premier wanted to pin the blame for the rocketing death toll in aged care facilities on the federal government. This has given both parties something to fear and fight over – not the death of our freedom or even the death of elderly Australians – but a fall in the polls. As harsh as that sounds, it is true. If either the premier or the prime minister was worried about saving lives they would be demanding that our scientists explain why we can’t use the commonplace treatments for Covid-19 that are saving so many lives in dozens of countries overseas. Instead, they argue about the incompetence of health care officials and who is responsible for regulating the aged care sector.
The same principle, if you can call it that, applies to our unjustly imprisoned Australians in Iran and China; they have to rely on Australia’s ‘softly, softly’ approach to securing the release of hostages, which oscillates between pigeon-hearted pusillanimity and paper-pushing inertia. The bureaucrats in Canberra and in our embassies are playing hostage chess with hardened criminals. So long as they can persuade family, friends and the general public to keep quiet – supposedly to protect their loved one – there is no incentive to risk a trade deal or anything else that they might hope to secure in the bilateral relationship. It is only when the pain of public protest starts to erode the popularity of a politician that the diplomats are put under pressure to secure the release of an imprisoned Australian. Politicians always find a way of accommodating their opponents, whether it’s the diminutive despotism of Desperate Dan, the gangsterism of the merciless mullahs, or the contemptuous cruelty of CCP cadres; ultimately, for all the rhetorical flourishes, they are driven by the imperative to win the next election.
Viewed through this metric, a perverse precautionary principle applies to anything that is unpopular or has not already been adopted in cosmopolitan capitals, however ruinous the policy. We have locked ourselves into exorbitantly expensive energy and lunatic lockdowns without giving a thought to the crippling costs because nobody wanted to explain the trade-offs involved. Once climate change and the coronavirus had been framed as a choice between absolute ideals on one hand and the apocalypse on the other, the appetite for risk is not just extinguished, its adherents must be excommunicated; playing golf will kill grandma as surely as coal-fired power will cook the planet and anyone who advocates anything else is anathematised. So, bureaucrats ban travel because they can’t be bothered with the risk of running quarantine; just as the diplomats beaver on with business as usual rather than ratcheting up reclamations on rogue nations holding our citizens captive.
As the pandemic starts burning out in the world’s most populous countries and herd immunity appears to have been achieved in the worst-hit cities, Australia is locked into an eternal elimination strategy with no exit in sight. Yet, if we consider our circumstances rationally, it is apparent that we are in the grip of a bout of collective insanity, in panicked flight from an infection for which there is already both prevention and cure. The ugly instincts of our leaders have plunged us into an authoritarian past, part throwback to Cold War communism, part return to a collection of penal colonies and our convict roots. Either way, the only way out is to tear down these walls.
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