Melbourne’s Double Lockdown | The American Conservative


Even when they closed their doors – in many cases, possibly forever – Melbourne’s battered hotels still clung to them. The bars, restaurants and cafes that Australia’s self-proclaimed Capital of Culture was proud of still took names and phone numbers on the door, asking guests to wear masks and still leaving bottles of hand sanitizer on the door.

They even kept the numbers under control, according to the occupancy limits that had made it basically impossible to make a profit. Nobody had thought of opening the doors, packing up as many of their old customers as possible and earning as much as possible in order to overcome the commercial apocalypse. Or maybe nobody had dared.

It was July 8, 2020 and Melbourne’s second lockdown went into effect that night. I was out with my girlfriend and joined hundreds of other Melburnians for one final blowout. There was a strange feeling of camaraderie that night, a kind of solidarity among the minority of people who were still comfortable venturing outside the home.

There was also sadness. The bartenders were depressed. The waitresses were shocked. I spoke to a few owners who had tears in their eyes. Their businesses had barely survived the first lockdown, and they stared at the barrel of total ruin over the second.

“Follow the rules” had become a fanatic cry from politicians and bureaucrats who insisted that everything was necessary, often with the circular logic that if the restrictions were not respected, there would be tougher and longer bans. The rules were there to “protect us”.

When the lockdown went into effect at 11:59 p.m. everyone left quietly. The patrons, the employees, the owners – the city of Melbourne, whose lights have been turned off by government decree. We would be locked in for 111 days.

* * *

The irony was that Melbourne’s first ban was the toughest and strictest in Australia. We were the first to close, the last to reopen, and in between we had the most criminal restrictions.

That said, the whole country had fallen into one form or another of lockdown when the coronavirus first reached our coast in March. The Prime Minister grabbed the “strong leadership” button and announced the formation of a “national cabinet” made up of himself and the Prime Ministers and Prime Ministers of Australia’s eight states and territories to coordinate the response.

In practice, however, day-to-day management of the virus has been almost entirely a matter for states. The federal government had only a few important levers to pull. One of them controlled the international arrival in Australia. The first restrictions on inbound travel were set back in January, which means that Australia has never been particularly badly hit by the virus anyway.

The other thing the government had that the states didn’t have was cash. Under Australia’s often dysfunctional federal system, most tax revenues are raised by the federal government and passed on to the states through a patchwork of grants and funding agreements. As our heads of government sat down at the table in the national cabinet, the prime minister announced the JobKeeper program, a cash subsidy for struggling companies that can be used to pay workers on leave.

The obvious moral hazard was that prime ministers were able to bring the sledgehammer into their economies without financial consequences. Heads of state participated in some kind of grotesque competition to see who could take the strongest measures against the virus. The winner was Dan Andrews, the radical left-wing prime minister of the state of Victoria (whose capital is Melbourne), who seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to terrorize private companies and make citizens dependent on the government.

And it would have worked too. Unfortunately for Victoria, the state government botched the quarantine system for returned travelers, allowing staff at the hotels managing the program to become infected and spark a second wave less than a month after the first lockdown was lifted.

Dan Andrews ignored the fact that he had caused the problem in the first place and returned to “strong leadership.” Almost all private companies were closed. A nationwide mask mandate was imposed. Melbourne has been put under curfew. Stay-at-home orders were re-imposed and brutally enforced. Movement was restricted to a strict three mile radius from your house. If you were fortunate enough to have a job that couldn’t be “reasonably” done from home, the government put in place a permit system that allowed the police to stop you on the street to check your papers.

And what was most annoying was that the majority of Victorians seemed to accept it.

* * *

If I’m honest I didn’t mind being locked down so much. I missed the night out, but I still had a job and I loved doing it from my apartment. I enjoyed the extra hours of sleep, the ability to write in peace without the routine interruptions of office life, the license to be a little closed off for a while.

The problem was there were too many people like me, knowledge workers, whose lives basically went on as normal via Zoom, treating the entire lockdown as a kind of work vacation. Then there were the people who didn’t have to work at all under the Prime Minister’s JobKeeper program, and in some cases received more from the government than they actually earned in their jobs.

Not everyone was like me. Not everyone cared about the massive national debt we would face. Not everyone cared about the small businesses that would never reopen. Not everyone saw the obvious economic problem in paying millions of people not to work.

And not everyone worked in a conservative think tank that had opposed the bans from the start. Not everyone, like me, was inundated with emails containing terrifying stories of the effects of the lockdown: business owners about to lose the house they borrowed, women trapped at home with abusive partners , Parents whose children had fallen into deep depression after months without school. In one heartbreaking case, a quadriplegic wrote to me that she “has nothing left to live on” after losing her few weekly trips.

No, not everyone knew or cared about these people. They were happy enough at home and believed in “following the rules”. Even the shocking picture of a pregnant woman handcuffed in her own home, in her pajamas, in front of her children, via a Facebook post about a peaceful anti-lockdown protest, or one of the many other videos of unprecedented police brutality around social media was enough to change the mood in the community.

This was an emergency and we had to follow the rules. Anything but uncritical obedience was selfish.

* * *

Watching American cable news these days can trigger some serious déjà vu. The horrors introduced by the state governors are all variants of what we went through in Melbourne.

Joe Biden controversially called for a national mask mandate; Victoria still has a week after the virus was contained. Andrew Cuomo proposed all sorts of restrictions on New York restaurants; ours were closed altogether. Kate Brown encouraged Oregonians to call the police if their neighbors had too many people for Thanksgiving. Police helicopters circled over Melbourne’s Jewish neighborhoods on Yom Kippur. Gavin Newsom put the state of California under 10 p.m. Curfew; Melbourne started at 8:00 am.

It is of course our fault. Victoria was patiently null on this monstrous population control exercise, proving that lockdowns “work” just like amputating your leg takes care of an ingrown toenail. It was only a matter of time before the Victorian model caught on through science and bureaucracy overseas, until it was cherished as a model of shrewdness and common sense by the likes of Anthony Fauci.

Dan Andrews’ approval rating remains alarmingly high, especially now that he’s dripping back on the fundamental freedoms he took from us from the start. Melburnians go on almost as if the lockdown never happened, apart from the fact that most people are still working from home.

The terrifying question for Australian Conservatives is what comes next. What will the next panic be? What rules will we then obey? The Australian left has been excited about a climate emergency for years – is this being used to club freedoms and livelihoods like this health emergency? If the police could get away with arresting someone over a dangerous Facebook post, what about freedom of speech in a country with no first change? And what will happen now when our politicians find out that it is popular with voters to pay healthy working-age adults to sit around and do nothing? When will the gigantic debt bomb finally explode?

But at least now the bars are open again and I can hide from the hot Australian summer, have my beer and wait.

Gideon Rozner is Director of Politics at the Institute for Public Affairs.

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