Features Australia

The Melbourne disease

The rebellious larrikin spirit disappeared long ago in Victoria

19 September 2020

9:00 AM

19 September 2020

9:00 AM

Alas, Australia’s sad little secret is out. If we ever were a nation of larrikins, we are no longer. Larrikin coppers wouldn’t be behaving like #DansDogs, and larrikin citizens wouldn’t be putting up with it – but they are, with a few brave exceptions.

Assistant Victorian Police Commissioner Luke Cornelius’s goons took a knee for Black Lives Matter, and customarily treat Extinction Rebellion protesters and African gangs with kid gloves, but are happy to arrest pyjamaed mums for Facebook posts, haul women out of cars for not giving their name on demand and move you on if you pause while drinking your coffee. This pandemic has seen Victoria cement its national ranking as our most left-wing state, our most authoritarian state and our most incompetent power elite, a coincidence of attributes that is not random.

Crocodile Dundee-style independence and hardiness was never typical of most Australians, in my experience, but it was a fun reputation while it lasted. The wildest colonial boys I’ve ever known have been fishermen and bushies and it was certainly a goodly helping of farm boys who acquitted themselves so bravely and well at Gallipoli and in the second world war, and who helped establish our reputation for irreverence. Generations of affluence and city life have bred citizens who are unused to getting out of their comfort zones; they are not the type to jump into billabongs rather than face arrest from police. With 30 per cent of Australians born overseas, many have barely learnt about life here and are unlikely to jeopardise hard-won gains with civil disobedience. The great American polymath Thomas Jefferson despised city values: ‘When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.’

These days, in Melbourne terms, radical behavior is crossing car-free Swanston Street against the pedestrian lights, and this isn’t even a joke. Fresh from Manhattan, where foot and courier traffic crosses streets any which way – a granular physicist once explained his field by likening it to Manhattan traffic: if you see a gap, you go for it – I was astonished to witness the compliance of Melbourne pedestrians, who were content to cluster at CBD corners waiting for the Walk sign before crossing deserted city streets.

This reached a height of idiocy one day when, walking down Collins Street, I halted with a large group at the Russell Street corner. I looked right and saw barricades across the road and remembered that a protest was on that day. So, no cars could enter or leave the double-carriageway, yet still the obedient city folk stood waiting, on autopilot, for the Walk light to change. Madness.

I feel honour-bound to disobey such instructions, because they resonate with a memorable exchange earlier in my life in, of all places, Karumba, home of the famed Animal Bar, where the hotel tables are bolted to the floor. There an elderly, larger-than-life bearded ex-fisherman turned bushie had expounded his theory that most Australians weren’t real Australians any more, they were just ordinary city folk. If you drew a line between Cairns and Perth, he said, you’d find all the real Aussies lived on the northern side of that divide. To illustrate his point, he said contemptuously: ‘In the city, if the power went out and the traffic lights got stuck, these people wouldn’t cross the road. They’d just stand there.’

So I customarily cross when I think it’s safe, and have been reprimanded by Melbourne police for doing so. I reply that it’s safer to use your own wits in city traffic. The one time I nearly came to grief on Manhattan’s mad streets was when I did, in fact, slavishly follow the traffic rules. In a hurry, I leapt into action to cross Madison Ave immediately the pedestrian light changed. On my second stride across the street I looked left and saw a sweaty, athletic bike courier hurtling towards me – he was gunning the lights. My body weight was too committed to change stride quickly and I braced for impact, hearing an intake of breath from the crowd behind. I felt a rush of wind as the courier changed course and flew past behind me, inches from flattening me. Phew! The safer option is to take responsibility for yourself and not trust the powers that be. The only good reason I’ve ever found for obeying Walk signs is if small children are about, and will automatically follow adults out into the road; otherwise, cross when it’s safe.

The preceding anecdotes are presented not because Melbourne traffic is interesting in itself, but because it displays a mindset of compliance among the population. In small things, so in big. There’s a reason a US admiral wrote a book with the title Make your Bed and why you ask a busy person to do something. Habits matter, attitudes matter, and the mild-mannered pen-pusher won’t suddenly turn into a rebel outside the office. These are muscles that need exercising, and in left-leaning Victoria it’s far easier to go along with the crowd if you want to advance your career. With state Labor in power for 30 of the last 40 years, the bureaucracy, media, academia and business world know what side their bread is buttered on and apart from an occasional Kennett-style departure from the norm, the opposition is irrelevant.

Interestingly, sporting identities such as Luke Darcy and Sam Newman are emerging as among the most effective critics of Dan’s pandemic management, taking over the job that should be done by civil liberties bodies, the media and academia, whose silence is telling. Sporting culture does breed self-reliance, self-confidence and independent thinking, because it’s black and white, with winners and losers, and reality can’t be faked, even with participation certificates.

We are all herd animals, of course, and running with the crowd is what most of us do, most of the time, and it’s usually safer and usually the best course of action. But not always and these are not normal times.

The politicised nature of Victoria’s police has been exposed, as has the Soviet-style incompetence of the bureaucracy, where no one can clearly explain how a curfew came to be promulgated. But many Victorians are only too happy to #StandwithDan, as they wait for the pandemic lights to change.

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