Artillery Row

Locked down under

Do Australia’s leaders really know what they’re doing?

You really have to feel for the poor people at Tourism Australia.

Having spent decades happily if not particularly creatively pitching their product to the world with the time honoured formula of “beaches, Opera House, outback, crocs”, they now have to figure out how to sell a country that looks more and more like a tropical North Korea.

That is, of course, if the federal government ever lets visitors in again without forcing them to first spend a week or two quarantined in some prefab hotel or desert facility in the name of “keeping Australians safe”.

The question thus becomes, both for those of us trapped here in Ozcatraz as well as bemused outside onlookers, how did a free and easy land of opportunity become gripped by a neurotic covid puritanism that truly believes any sort of fun or joy or sociability is deadly, and a place where protesters and cops are having pitched battles in the street over mandatory vaccinations?

If you don’t believe me, consider that in Melbourne — ground zero for Australia’s covid madness, the city just crossed the line to become the most locked-down city in the world — the state premier ordered playgrounds shut and had concrete bollards hoisted into skate parks to stop kids from riding their bikes.

Everyone knows the mask rule was imposed largely to shut up a depressingly totalitarian press gallery

A few weeks ago, after some wags took advantage of a loophole that allowed bars to offer takeaway cocktails and organised an al fresco pub crawl, outdoor consumption of alcohol was banned always and everywhere.

Even a tiny loosening of restrictions there to allow beleaguered residents to meet up for a brief, vaccinated, socially distanced picnics left the prohibition on alcohol in place, all in the name of the Holy Blessed Science.

In Sydney, which is comparatively sane and where there is at least a decent plan to get back to some sort of vague simulacrum of normal over the next few months, everyone still has to “mask up” when outdoors, even if not around anyone else. The only socialising allowed is under very limited outdoor circumstances, among the fully vaccinated, who are not allowed to travel too far to meet up with one another.

What makes it most bizarre is that even the state’s health minister recently admitted outdoors was the safest place to be and everyone understands that the mask rule was imposed largely to shut up a depressingly totalitarian press gallery that wasn’t going to shut up until everyone was welded into their homes Wuhan-style.

Yet, as Sydney moves into summer, every weekend sees Twitter flooded with photos of sunbakers on local beaches asking WHY IS THIS ALLOWED? and demanding police action.

On any given Monday in the local park where I exercise my spaniel, my very earnest bourgeoise-left neighbours grumble about it all not being “in the spirit” of the health orders while rabbinically parsing whatever latest decree has just come down from the Temple, er, Ministry of Health.

Therese Rein, the wife of former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, went so far recently to ask of beachgoers, “Why are they not being arrested?”

Rein and Rudd of course don’t have the cares of the average Sydneysider who has been cooped up trying to juggle kids and work in a flat, instead counting as their main residence a $17 million pile on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast they picked up last year off tennis ace Pat Rafter.

As someone who has lived in Sydney for 20 years, that the signs were always there that this could happen

(This was, incidentally, a wonderful example of the serious class overtones of how the pandemic has played out in Australia, a country that has for decades kidded itself that it was a classless society where Jack was as good as his master. Here as elsewhere it has always been about the “Zoom” classes paying public fealty to the new priestly class of health experts and lording it over those who can’t work from home yet who are the ones who really keep society moving. On the third day of protests in Melbourne, video emerged on Twitter of Zoomerati-caste residents of fancy apartment towers cheering on the cops from their balconies as they chased down protesters firing “non-lethal rounds” and tear gas. One can only hope they get the social credit points they deserve for their enthusiasm).

I suppose, as someone who has lived in Sydney for a good 20 years now, that the signs were always there that this could happen, given the right trigger.

On my first trip to Bondi Beach, I remember being startled at a sign several square metres large listing dozens and dozens of things visitors were not allowed to do on the sand — perfectly normal things like toss a ball — lest they have too much fun.

Later, I noticed punitive anti-smoking rules creep in at the pub (no food in the smoking section, so if you want to keep your mate company while he has a dart with a bowl of chips, you’re out of luck, presumably because your friend might catch second-hand salt).

But it was only when Covid hit that Australia was truly overtaken by a neurotic authoritarianism that has seen democratic government teeter in the face of public health puritans and their legions of Twitter scolds.

If you think I’m joking consider that as Sydney’s 5.3 million people were suffering — if that is the right word — a Delta variant outbreak that was racking up at the time a few hundred cases a day, they were warned not to go to the shops, and if they did, to absolutely under no circumstances say hello or be friendly to people.

In Melbourne, riot police and members of the most militantly left-wing construction union are having pitched battles

“Whilst it is in human nature to engage in conversation with others, to be friendly, unfortunately this is not the time to do that . . . don’t start up a conversation,” scolded Kerry Chant, the endlessly tut-tutting chief health officer of New South Wales, at a news conference last July.

“We want to make sure as we go about our daily lives that we do not come into contact with anyone who could pose a risk.”

Fast-forward to today, and Dr Chant’s imprecations seem almost sane compared to what’s going on.

In Melbourne, the world’s most locked down city — having spent, depending on how you count it, more than 250 days under heavy restrictions since the pandemic began — riot police and members of the country’s most militantly left-wing construction union have been having pitched battles in the streets over a local mandate requiring everyone on building sites to be vaccinated.

The whole thing has a very Bolsheviks and Mensheviks feel about it, as the unionists involved are part of the most vicious, militant, and doctrinaire labour organisation in Australia, while the local government led by Dan Andrews that has been sending out the cops to deal is easily the most left-wing in the country’s federation.

All of this has been cheered on by a media that for the most part rushes to condemn any hint of protest as potentially “creating deadly superspreader events’ (last year’s Black Lives Matters rallies were fine, natch) and “undermining trust in the public health system” (i.e., committing heresy).

Particularly on the left where lockdowns have become literally an article of faith and opposition to them diagnosed as a symptom of sociopathic libertarianism, a bizarre ecosystem has developed that to the casual reader appears to actively work against any sort of hope.

Various epidemiologists, often attached to lofty-sounding “institutes”, compete to offer journalists the glummest headlines possible — Australia will suffer thousands of deaths if we “open up” at 80 per cent vaccinated; mask wearing will be part of our lives forever — which are then broadcast entirely uncritically. These findings are retweeted and repeated endlessly in the echo chamber of social media and comment threads and woe be unto those who step out of line.

Without a hint of irony the fiercely secular Australian left has made a religion of Covid

Amazingly and without a hint of irony, the fiercely secular and fundamentally atheist Australian left has made a religion of Covid complete with a priestly caste, rituals of cleanliness, and ostracism for heretics and unbelievers. They’ve even co-opted the police to become their own Mutaween, handing out $500 fines for not wearing the proper facial coverings outside the house.

Clive James once remarked that the problem with Australia wasn’t so much that it was a nation of convicts as a nation of jailers. It’s a good line, but jailers don’t win in the long run without a deferential population happy to give up their lives to authority.

A scene in the brilliant 1971 cult Australian film Wake in Fright neatly captured the problem better than anything since.

The lead character is a bookish intellectual who finds himself trapped in a hellishly garrulous mining town trying to make his way back to Sydney from an even more hellish outback outpost where he has been teaching in a one-room schoolhouse to pay off a government bond for his education.

At the town’s raucous pub over beers with the local chief of police, he explains his plight, how he is basically an indentured slave of the state, and generally how miserable he is.

“Oh well,” says the copper, “I suppose they know what they’re doing.”

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