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Writing on the wall?

By David Southwell - posted Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Melbourne has become the Covid protest centre of Australia.

Once priding itself on being Australia's most "liveable city" the CBD and surrounds have increasingly seen chaotic disturbing scenes of riot police and protesters clashing.

Fittingly. with Crown Casino sitting across the Yarra River. the mayhem can be reminiscent of "Biff Town", the dystopia created by the alternate timeline Trump-like gambling mogul Biff in Back to the Future 2.


However, it's not a greedy garish lout sitting high up in the Crown Towers that has caused this situation but rather a Labor government financed by and beholden to construction (see previous article - "Who rules Victoria") and public sector unions.

It is the public sector that has most abysmally failed Victoria during Covid.

Andrews wanted Victoria to run hotel quarantine, he argued for it in National Cabinet and boasted the state was ready and "had done the work".

The gargantuan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), a super department created by a merger in 2015, was given the job.

So self-confident was the DHHS that after a month they released an inhouse video congratulating themselves on how well the program was running.

If there is one aspect of the Andrews Government that works brilliantly it is the ability to brag, a tone set from the top.


As is now sadly well-known, Victoria's attempt at hotel quarantine was catastrophic and led to a 112-day lockdown with over 800 deaths.

For reasons not quite satisfactorily explained, a dodgy security outfit was hired from a non-preferred list of tenderers, safety protocols were either never in place or blithely ignored and those who voiced increasingly desperate warnings were ignored.

Victorian Police had been asked to provide security and establish a chain of command, as happened in NSW, but said they'd rather not … and that was that apparently.

Perhaps even worse than the quarantine scandal was the state's lamentable track-and-trace capability.

Victoria's track-and-trace, perhaps more accurately termed fax-and-flail, was described by a state Upper House inquiry as a "failure".

The reliance on old data entry and computing technology, including faxes, "meant that the system for contact tracing and recording of testing was not fit to deal with any escalation in cases and led to significant errors", the report found.

Predictably Greens MP Adam Bandt blamed the poor showing on "years of cutting away at the public service".

Waleed Aly also noted Victoria's contract tracking "was abysmally small and under-resourced".

That makes it an odd standout because Victoria's public sector is hardly being whittled down to the bone by a Scrooge government, evilly chortling while slashing its blood-stained razor with abandon.

Under Andrews the public sector has grown by 21 per cent with the executive ranks doubling.

Andrews has more personnel answering to his chief of staff than the Prime Minister does. The Victorian Premier is also paid more than the national leader or any state counterpart.

The Department of Premier and Cabinet has tripled in size since Andrews came to power and has a head count of more than 1000.

The Herald Sun reported the Premier has 1100 spin doctors, with a wage bill estimated at $110 million.

To amplify the effectiveness of his army of spinners, the Premier spends almost $3000 a week on Facebook advertising, which adds up to nearly $800,000 over five years.

So, underfunding the infectious diseases unit speaks more to Andrews' priorities than penny-pinching.

The splurge on politically oriented public servants, more public servants generally, paying them more and the construction extravaganza was already weighing on the state before Covid.

Victoria was in structural deficit despite money freely flowing into state government coffers from a general construction boom.

The last state Budget stated that Victoria is $61 billion in debt, which is higher than NSW, and has liabilities growing twice as fast as its neighbour across the Murray.

Two international credit ratings agencies have downgraded Victoria, giving the state Australia's worst government rating.

The parliamentary inquiry into track-and-trace noted that, unlike NSW, Victoria's "highly centralised healthcare system did not have the means to deal with regional cases effectively".

Andrews, as demonstrated by the DHHS conglomeration, is a committed centraliser perhaps out of ideology but also it would seem his excessive need for control.

In a feature on who "really runs" Victoria, The Age reported: "Former and current ministers and some MPs, all speaking on condition of anonymity to preserve their positions, say decision-making in the Andrews Government is largely confined to an inner circle of ministers and political advisers."

This centralisation suits public servants who don't want to work in the regions and measure their importance and status by the scale of administrative fiefdoms.

These are the people who vote Labor and whose unions will protest any attempts at "neoliberal efficiency" – ie the ridiculous idea that the government serves the people rather than the people serving government.

Victoria's underpinning assumption of who serves who justifies the rationale that so as not to "overwhelm" the health system the whole state must be shut down. Curfews have also been imposed to make policing easier.

The DHHS proved such an unwieldy monster during Covid, often with its different limbs moving independently and even against each other, that it has been split up.

During its,briefly interupted, two-decade hold on power, Labor has staffed government agencies, including watchdogs, with loyalists.

The Age identified more than 30 senior public seve acted as advisers to the Andrews Government.

The paper described them as: "Career political operatives and Labor loyalists inserted into the public service in decision-making jobs."

Under Labor's union-friendly OH&S laws there is a strong case for ministers to be held personally responsible for industrial scale manslaughter over the failed quarantine.

However, with the number of Labor appointees to WorkSafe this was never going to happen, and the agency is only seeking to fine the DHHS.

The Coate Inquiry in hotel quarantine somehow managed to conclude that "no one had made decisions" about quarantine, after its curiously incurious proceedings were repeatedly met with a wall of amnesia.

As an exercise in "failing to recall" it was an expensive one.

The government reportedly spent twice the amount on private lawyers to shore up the testimony and evidence given by ministers and bureaucrats than it did on the "fact-finding" inquiry.

Sadly, it is not the government's lack of accountability or the politicisation of the public service that emerge as the worst characteristics of Labor's handling of Covid, despite those things contributing to the government's terrible record.

Much more serious has been the trampling of fundamental tenets of liberal Western democracy.

Victoria has been under emergency powers since March last year, twice as long as Burma under military rule.

In its general guidelines on such powers the UN states they "should be time-bound and only exercised on a temporary basis with the aim to restore a state of normalcy as soon as possible".

While Victoria's state of emergency is due to end in December the Government is believed to be trying to find a work-around to keep them basically in place.

Under the emergency provisions parliament has been declared "inessential" and the rulings of an unelected official, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, are unquestionable law.

Following the brutal lockdown of public housing towers in inner Melbourne last year, the State Government was called out by Victoria's Ombudsman and international observers for human rights breaches.

The Government adopted a familiar tone in response, a defiant, even boastul, one that would make any authoritarian regime proud.

"We make no apology for saving people's lives," Housing Minister Richard Wynne said.

There is no right to public protest in Victoria under lockdown. It is not one of the "permitted" reasons to leave your home.

What is even more disturbing, as it goes to the heart of an impartial rule-of-law, is that "illegal" protests have been treated in vastly different fashions.

Police stood respectfully back for a Black Lives Matter protest last year and in some cases even "took a knee" to signal solidarity.

Admittedly, they did issue fines to three organisers afterwards, although presumably not to the officers who effectively participated.

By contrast, when Zoe Buhler advertised a "covid-safe" lockdown protest police barged into her Ballarat home and forced the pregnant woman to the floor to apply handcuffs in front of her children.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are also under attack.

Mainstream media reporters covering lockdown protests have twice been pepper sprayed by police despite saying they identified themselves.

The Government even tried (unsuccessfully thankfully, due to a court ruling) to stop media helicopters from covering protests in a public space.

Reporting on Andrews is not for the faint-hearted, if you make any attempt to hold him to account.

While one might like to believe, in a self-flattering way, that Australians are too level-headed and committed to the Tall Poppy Syndrome to fall for a strongman like Xi, Kim, Putin or Trump, Victoria punctures that fantasy.

Andrews has unabashedly centred the government around himself.

In an excellent behind-the-scenes account of how Victorian Labor reacted to the 2nd wave, The Age reported: "The government response took on the shape of a rolling election campaign, run out of the Premier's office. It was designed to control two things: the virus and the message."

Andrews' operatives and sympathisers have created the Trump-like cult of #IstandwithDan.

ABC journalists Lisa Millar and Leigh Sales, hardly hard-hearted harridans of the Right, have found themselves hounded on social media by the cult's devotees for any hint of criticism of Andrews.

Millar even decided to leave Twitter, while Sales declared: "Let's not duck the common thread here - it is overwhelmingly left-leaning Twitter users who are targeting ABC journalists for abuse."

Sales has discovered Twitter is full of nasty delusional leftists. And in other breaking news – water is wet.

Whenever the hashtag: #thisisnotjournalism trends on Twitter it almost guarantees that what it refers to will be journalism, but what's being asked or reported does not favour Labor.

The greatest example of #thisisnotjournalism but #tremendousjournalism was Peta Credlin's embarrassing the non-inquiring Coate Inquiry to ask for phone records in trying to find the mysterious decision-makers around hotel quarantine.

The phone records revealed that the Premier's top public servant Chris Eccles (who ironically first suggested the Coate Inquiry, according to The Age) had been misleading and he was forced to resign.

For this tremendous service to the people of Victoria, Peta Credlin has been met with a barrage of hatred.

A case-in-point is The Chaser's online offshoot The Shot, where chief vitriol slinger and darling of Twitter David Milner thought he had a good gotcha when Credlin said there were more than enough baseball bats for Victorian voters to use on both Anthony Albanese and Andrews.

"Peta Credlin took to the unhinged airwaves of Sky News to stoke violence against her employer's political opponents," Milner frothed.

For a commentator on Australian politics, he knows astonishingly little about Australian politics.

Voters brandishing baseball bats is a common trope used by political insiders and commentators. It dates back to Labor Queensland Premier Wayne Goss ruefully bemoaning his government getting the whacking meant for Keating.

This was a case of The Shot into The Foot.

It's symptomatic of the Bizzaro Covid world we find ourselves in that political attitudes have inverted.

Progressive left types have become staunch and harsh cheer squads for the Covid law-and-order approach, emphasising individual responsibility rather than a systems or societal failure.

Previously when lefties encountered something that largely works, such as a mixed economy liberal democracy, they pointed to the problems, which are mostly reflections of stubbornly imperfect humanity, and called them "systemic".

However, when confronted with Victoria's genuine systems failure they become individual moralists castigating "rule-breakers" for undermining the great and glorious government's efforts in curtailing Covid.

This has been encouraged by the Premier's communications, which have been a dark mixture of fear, blame and threat.

It's always useful to find the enemy within – whether that be a sick man with a nebuliser. wrongly blamed by Andrews for another hotel quarantine failure which was traced to multiple covered up managerial offences, or a Jewish engagement party.

After being held up for the ritual two-minutes hate by the Premier for their "shitty" actions in celebrating their love with family and friends the engaged couple said they had to hire bodyguard because of the threats they were getting.

Andrews stopped short of calling them the "enemies of the people" but as in so many of the Premier's methods (especially his social media focus) there was more than a touch of Trump.

Unlike Trump, Andrews has up until now controlled and corralled both the chattering classes and the blue collar workers, which has made his rule almost impregnable.

The flipside has been the outmatched and often internally squabbling Liberal Party. It recently ditched the milquetoast Michael O'Brien as leader and went back to Matthew Guy, who was drubbed by Andrews at the last election.

Victoria's Covid catastrophes are the classic signs and pitfalls of a one-party state.

The purpose of government is to keep Labor in power and the unions happy, not deliver outcomes to the punters. An engineered lack of transparency and accountability has meant problems have been hidden, denied or ignored.

In terms of rot masked by a thin democratic veneer, you might compare today's Victoria to gerrymandered Queensland under the Joh Bjelke Petersen Government.

Still, even the most solid-looking monolithic edifice may be hiding structural fissures that only need the right amount of pressure to become alarming cracks.

For example, the Berlin Wall stood so obdurately up until the surprising point where it was overrun and progressively torn down.

In Victoria's effectively one-party state the most telling rebellion against the continued ham-fisted approach to Covid was always likely to come from within.

As ordinary unionists and other workers (plus a few nutcases) decided enough was enough, the pressure of Covid finally revealed a startling crack in the Labor/union establishment.

Fittingly, you might even say portentously, the state also recorded a 5.9-magnitude earthquake that week.

It remains to be seen if the faultlines in Labor's rule run deep and wide enough to shake down the whole rotten superstructure.

The writing is no longer on the ambulances but for Labor's long calamitous misrule there is slight hope it might be on the wall.

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About the Author

David Southwell is a writer and editor living in Melbourne.

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