Melbourne has been in lockdown for 234 days, and it shows. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that in a city set to overtake Buenos Aires as the most locked-down in the world, the social fabric might start fraying around the edges.
So it was yesterday as chaos hit the streets, ostensibly a response to the Andrews government mandating vaccines on construction sites, then hastily shutting down the sector for two weeks via night-time press release.
A motley assortment of far-right anti-vax grifters, Ustaše sympathisers and, yes, a few bona fide card-carrying members of the CFMMEU tore through the streets and ended up blocking traffic on the West Gate Bridge as they belted out Daryl Braithwaite’s cover of “The Horses” (presumably because they wanted ivermectin?). Then, just to drive home the apocalyptic vibes, an earthquake hit Victoria this morning.
After copping heat for not holding a trademark marathon presser on the day Victoria seemed to finally unravel, Premier Dan Andrews fronted the cameras this morning to condemn the “ugly scenes”.
“The notion that that’s a group of people who speak for the [construction] industry, no, they do not,” he said.
Andrews is right. Most Victorians, whatever their thoughts on the seemingly endless lockdowns, are sensible enough to stay at home, get vaccinated, and want no part of that conspiracy-pilled nonsense. Sometimes the shrill discourse about rule-breakers obscures the fact that Australians are some of the most well-behaved, law-abiding people in the world.
But after several days of protest in Melbourne, it also can’t be ignored that there is a real blind rage at the Andrews government. That rage is often confused and unconstructive — which is why recent protests have drawn together such a bizarre assortment of contradictory political identities. But it’s still real.
The Andrews government, which has always used a sledgehammer as its default tool in fighting the pandemic, bears some responsibility for that rage. Successfully suppressing the devastating 2020 outbreak through incredibly harsh lockdowns reinforced the belief that everything must be treated as a nail.
And while Delta and vaccines demand nuance, and have forced a belated public shift in thinking and an abandonment of COVID-zero, the sledgehammer approach remains the go-to impulse. The construction shutdown was a classic example, with a sudden blanket ban on a single industry to punish the rule-breakers.
It came just as New South Wales, which still has more cases than Victoria, announced it would return its construction industry to full capacity. The Berejiklian government has tried (and at times spectacularly failed) to walk a tightrope on COVID restrictions. Notably it also shut down construction, but with a staged return and less strict vaccine mandate.
Victoria’s construction ban caused far more anguish, in part because of very different internal politics within its CFMMEU division. But the anguish is also because Melbourne has been in lockdown for more than twice as long as Sydney, and where one government fights COVID with a scalpel, the other continues with the sledgehammer.
Sledgehammer thinking is why Victoria’s roadmap out of lockdown didn’t arrive until Sunday, and when it did, provided one of the most cautious reopenings in the world, underpinned by some typically pessimistic modelling from the Burnet Institute.
Sledgehammer thinking also resulted in the persistence of arbitrary, theatrical restrictions that have little epidemiological backing but go a long way to building community resentment. Victoria shut down playgrounds. It will continue with the curfew until October 26, even though we knew last year it was always about police enforcement, not public health. When picnics are allowed, people still won’t be able to take their masks off to drink alcohol because once there was an illegal pub crawl.
Many of the Andrews government’s tough public health measures have been very effective. But the sledgehammer approach results in too many blunt, reactive decisions that do little more than make people’s already crummy lives a little more miserable. And it means that even if the construction ban was justified, the government had burnt through so much public goodwill on nonsense like curfews that some people are no longer willing to give it benefit of the doubt.
Still, most Victorians agree with the sledgehammer and remain willing to sacrifice freedoms a little longer. But that shouldn’t mean we ignore the very real anger that is simmering. Next time it might not just be the crazies out in force.
This article was first published by Crikey.