We are all Victorians now, of course, as Scott Morrison recently noted, and thanks for those kind words of support as Melburnians begin six weeks of lockdown. This has been a horrible, gut-wrenching, dispiriting week, especially for the 3,000 public housing tenants confined to their flats for five days, their homes surrounded by police, and for all of us as the flickers of hope – seeing friends and family, watching cafes and swimming pools and playgrounds tentatively reopening – collapse again. As premier Daniel Andrews keeps telling us redundantly, this is not over.
It’s a continuing health and economic global crisis caused by a highly infectious virus. At this moment in Victoria, it’s a psychological crisis, too.
The psychology of politics is not always about logic and perspective, as much as we would like it to be. It’s equally about emotion and an intangible thing called trust. The problem for Andrews – the hero of the hour in the early stages of this pandemic – is that people in Victoria right now are demoralised and may settle on a powerful emotional response: blame.
What will be the story about this startling increase in daily coronavirus cases, now higher than they were in the early spike? The peak in March was 111 cases. There were two days in June with zero cases. On Friday, there were 288 new cases, a record increase. Every day, we await the latest figures with dread.
The most important story will be about keeping people safe and protecting jobs. The secondary story is about who wins the “politics” of this one, but the two are linked.
Will this be considered a stuff up? How a good, experienced premier giving his all made mistakes, exacerbated by bad luck and a few citizens being a bit slack? Could it have happened anywhere?
Or will blame become the story, people so frustrated at being back at the beginning – or in a worse place – that they turn on the premier for talking tough but making serious avoidable errors when it mattered? Will they blame the premier for getting sick or losing their jobs?
Which story will take hold – and there may be some truth in both of them – isn’t settled. It certainly matters for Andrews’ political legacy as the most experienced and senior premier in the country. If he stuffs this up, none of his other achievements will matter.
More critical than Andrews’ reputation is whether we get through this relatively intact, with a health system that copes and an economy that can recover, or are left with a state bitterly fractured, the “all in this together” mantra a distant memory.
Andrews’ vulnerabilities are threefold. First, he is famously stubborn. He’s a compassionate man but he’s tough and his instinct is to push through obstacles. So yes, he did lecture about not playing golf during the first lockdown (softened this time) and state that people could not visit their partners during lockdown, a suggestion quickly rescinded. All of that was forgivable – Scott Morrison expressing his intention to go to the football was a gaffe, too. People want to trust their leaders at the moment and know how hard and unprecedented this pandemic is.
But when announcing the Melbourne and the Mitchell shire lockdown this week, Andrews scolded. “I think there’s been some complacency,” he said. “Every Victorian knows at least one other person who perhaps hasn’t been following the rules as much as they should have.”
The ranting conservative commentators, who will loathe Andrews no matter what he does, went into overdrive. But even Andrews’ supporters were rankled. He could do with a touch of Jacinda Ardern’s warmth and empathy when ordering people inside for another six weeks.
On the substance, Andrews says “the buck stops with me”, but he has overseen an alarming increase in coronavirus cases compared to every other state and territory (so far). There are reasons for that. The narrative that it’s “bad luck” – and epidemiologists such Catherine Bennett from Deakin University insist that chance certainty is a factor – does not quite satisfy.
Andrews has admitted that there were bad practices at hotels where returning travellers were quarantined, which led to outbreaks when guards returned home and spread the disease. What he hasn’t explained is why the government relied on the private security industry – with a reported history of non-compliance to minimum standards – to oversee such a crucial job. Nor responded satisfactorily to reports that guards had poor training in infection control. Nor why Victoria’s system at hotels appeared to be quite different to states like NSW, which used police and defence personnel alongside security contractors. (Victoria is now using Corrections Victoria to manage quarantine.)
Andrews has fallen back on a tried and tested political strategy to avoid questions for which he must know the answer. An inquiry will be held by former judge Jennifer Coate into the quarantine debacle that won’t report for months. Why do we need this inquiry when the government should already know what happened and has already made significant changes? When he is asked about the shortcomings in quarantine, Andrews deflects, as he did this week on the ABC: “We’ve got a judicial inquiry to give us those answers and again, it’s best that politicians not sit in judgment of themselves. It will take some time.”
This is too convenient and likely to cause a wavering of public trust. And that’s the third vulnerability, the big risk, not just for Andrews’ fortunes, but for those of all of us. There is no doubt that many people – including me – got a little complacent after the first lockdown, thinking that Australia had done so well, and that we would avoid the horrors we see overseas.
I didn’t have sex with anyone quarantined in hotels, but I didn’t wash my hands quite so often and I did hug my daughter when she visited (guilty!). To get people to steel themselves again for six weeks, to go against the human instinct to congregate and comfort each other requires confidence in our leaders’ competence and transparency, that the sacrifices are consistent and based on the best evidence.
To date, Andrews has had that trust. Even now, there is no doubt that he and his health team are throwing everything at this, undertaking the most intensive testing of any state, and trying to prop up the economy at the same time. He is not Donald Trump, who has minimised the risks of Covid-19 and undermined public health advice. Andrews hammers home the seriousness of this day after day.
What he does in the next few weeks, and the way he does it, will be his biggest test. Despite gleeful commentary about “dictator” or “disaster” Dan, it’s in all our interests that he succeeds. It won’t be just about the numbers – as crucial as they are – but about whether he takes the people of Victoria with him, or whether they stop listening.
Gay Alcorn is a Guardian Australia columnist