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The difficulty with speaking about the politics of anything in Victoria at the moment is that most people, apart from those professionally involved, are not interested in politics at this time.
That’s politics in the sense of the game of it, the point-scoring, the crafted soundbite, the professional conflict. Much of the media coverage of politics, too, that seeks out “shock” announcements and “explosive” revelations and looks forward to the next leadership challenge.
Politics in the sense of problem-solving, of crafting the best solution to a complicated challenge like the coronavirus epidemic, and explaining the compromises involved in those decisions, is very interesting to Victorians and has never been more critical.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, hollow-eyed with weariness, his usual stoop seemingly more exaggerated, is known as one of the hardest political players in recent history. He now says he’s uninterested in politics. “Let me be as frank as I can be,” he told the ABC’s 7.30 program. “Politics has never mattered less to me. Leadership is not about doing what’s popular, it’s about doing what’s right.”
Yet Andrews, who has led Victorian Labor for almost a decade, has never taken such a political gamble as he did on Sunday when he announced that Victoria’s brutal six-week lockdown would be extended beyond 13 September.
It was not the extension itself. Few question that a 14-day average of around 100 cases as it was on the weekend is too high. But there are far more than just the usual Dan-haters who are dismayed and even angry at the painfully slow easing of restrictions, wondering whether the benchmarks are unattainable and the cost to an economy already teetering too crushing.
The night curfew, with dubious evidence to justify it, is not due to end until after 26 October and only if average cases in a fortnight are less than five. Under that model, people in NSW would be fined for venturing outside at night right now.
Hospitality venues such as cafes and restaurants will only be able to welcome limited numbers of indoor diners after 23 November and only when there have been zero new cases for 14 days and no active cases in the state. Under those rules, Queensland cafes would be shut now.
“Covid Normal”, where people can get back to work and businesses can reopen with safety precautions will happen only after 28 days of no cases. Andrews says the NSW comparison is unfair because it has never had the degree of community transmission as Victoria has experienced, but that doesn’t explain the tighter rules once numbers are tiny.
The federal government is disdainful of Victoria’s plan and keen to blame the state for the nation’s Covid woes. Business is mostly furious. But more significantly, credible epidemiologists, who have been supportive of a cautious approach to the pandemic, have questioned the evidence and wisdom behind these new measures.
Peter Collignon, professor of microbiology at the Australian National University, said the plan was “unattainable”. Deakin’s chair of epidemiology, Catherine Bennett, told 3AW she found the announcement “bizarre” and disappointing. The focus should have been on suppressing cases in the high-risk areas of aged and health care and allowing a careful opening up of the rest of the state.
“What we do in Melbourne does matte … but stage four? We really didn’t get an argument to why we need to keep it that extreme.”
It is a truism that oppositions struggle at times of real crisis, and the Liberals in Victoria have swung from making sensible suggestions to the worst of politics – the reliable Tim Smith declared the state was “governed by a bunch of totalitarian leftwing nutters who are going to destroy Victoria”. But the opposition senses that this is the moment when Andrews – the most dominant leader in the state since Jeff Kennett – is on his knees.
“Still stand with Dan?” Liberal leader Michael O’Brien retweeted, and that is indeed the question.
Opinion polls have indicated strong public support for state governments and their restrictions and, even in Victoria, high levels of backing for mask-wearing and curfews. Support for Andrews has held up remarkably well to this point – before Sunday’s announcement – even though it has softened.
If political choices have as much to do with emotion as logic, there is so much emotion in Victoria that it is impossible to analyse it the traditional political way. Kos Samaras is a former senior party official in Victoria whose company RedBridge has held focus groups surveys in Victoria from the start of the pandemic. He says that at least before Sunday, most Victorians supported the lockdown.
His August survey did indicate a softening of support for Andrews, and a swirl of emotions. “This is not black and white,” Samaras says. “You cannot be happy with the world but at the same time know you’re living on a planet that’s riddled with Covid. You can be quite angry about it at the same time.”
Samaras’s research identifies three groups of Victorians, at least before the extension of the lockdown. It is hard to see that the Victorian roadmap will not erode support for Andrew’s government, but just before it was released, “Team Dan” was at between 40% and 50%, and these people agree with the premier’s argument that economic recovery depends on the health recovery. “The Lost” group comprises between 25-35% of people, and their support for Andrews is falling based mostly on despondency – their mental health is fragile, job prospects are weak and they fear contracting Covid-19.
The last group is “The Haters”, or 25% of respondents, who always loathed Andrews, blame the government for failures that led us to the second wave and revel in the politicisation of the crisis.
Those groups have popped up in media commentary. Former ABC radio presenter Jon Faine laments the “relentless, short-sighted, reckless and self-interested bullying” of Andrews, and is dismissive of the inevitable business closures because “that happened last year too, and every other year”, an insensitive comparison by any measure.
The haters have always hated the progressive Andrews, and call for his “immediate resignation” or for the federal government to considering looking “at all constitutional options to take control of the ailing state”.
Few Victorians see the issues in such narrow terms. Monash University’s Paul Strangio is an astute observer of Victorian politics and he is dismissive about any notion that Andrews is not interested in the politics of this pandemic – “he’s a quintessential political animal”.
There will be public resentment and even anger, but if the government can steer the state towards some form of normalcy by Christmas and there are tentative signs of economic recovery, there may be some public relief and even forgiveness, he says.
“If we experienced a third wave by a less concerted approach, not only would it do incalculable damage to the community, it would finish the government of Andrews. There’s a political imperative to this very conservative approach.”
Labor people, who declined to be identified, acknowledge the obvious. The party caucus is “jumpy” because people are ringing their offices with stories of hardship and despair. Some also acknowledge that Andrews’s sometimes dogmatic style means the communication strategy can be blunt.
For instance, on Sunday the deadlines seemed to be fixed – only if we get to a specific date and cases remain below a certain number, will the next step be triggered. But by Tuesday, Andrews and his chief health officer, Brett Sutton, were suggesting that the steps could be brought forward earlier if cases fell faster than anticipated. Why not say that on Sunday to give people a whiff of hope amid the gloom?
The “we are all Melburnians now” is long gone. As has the national cabinet’s consensus approach, or the idea that politics can be put aside a little to deal with a hideous challenge that faces all of us. The same politics has re-emerged, whatever the public yearning for something different. Andrews’ political career, at least, will live or die by it.
Source: The Guardian
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