No sooner had Victorian premier Daniel Andrews announced that the state’s stage four lockdown would be extended than the knives were out. A big-business-led offensive to reopen the economy was unleashed on a scale not seen since the early 1990s, when the Kirner government was ruthlessly attacked by supporters of Victorian Liberal leader Jeff Kennett in order to accelerate privatisation, attacks on unions and other neoliberal measures.
You don’t have to be an uncritical supporter of Dan Andrews – and Red Flag certainly is not – to see that this is about getting business running and profits flowing, whatever the cost to public health. In this they have the backing of most of the media and the far right. There is a clear line drawn between those who think public health should come first and those falling in behind the pro-business agenda of reopening the economy.
Within hours of the Victorian announcement, Prime Minister Scott Morrison had waded in, demanding faster opening and warning of the terrible economic consequences of Andrews’ road map out of restrictions. He cited the supposed “gold standard” of disease management set by the Liberal government in New South Wales, where most businesses have remained open. Never mind that medical experts from the ABC’s Dr Norman Swan to infectious disease expert Professor Raina MacIntyre attribute that state’s low case numbers (so far) to good luck that could quickly end, while others, such as health economist Professor Stephen Duckett, are calling for New South Wales to adopt tighter restrictions to safeguard public health. Medical opinion, it seems, comes second to profits.
The anti-Andrews campaign leaders, including the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia, have long been unhappy about restrictions such as border closures and forced shutdowns. But, partly thanks to generous government handouts, they have so far been fairly subdued in their attacks. All that has now changed.
“Business lashes Victoria’s extended lockdown” was the headline of the bosses’ newspaper the Australian Financial Review after the announcement. Australian Industry Group CEO Innes Willox labelled the road map a “document of despair for industry and their employees”, pretending concern for “the economic and social pain that all Victorians are feeling”. Victorian Chamber of Commerce industry chief executive Paul Guerra was more transparent, criticising the plan as a “road to nowhere” that doesn’t do enough for the business community.
A common thread in the bosses’ whingeing has been that the government hasn’t taken notice of the business case for reopening. Wesfarmers CEO Rob Scott accused the Victorian government of failing to follow through on its promised consultation with the business sector. David Canny, president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Hotels Association, whined, “This is the tail wagging the dog, and bureaucrats having no understanding of what businesses need and don’t want”. But as Dr Omar Korshid, head of the Australian Medical Association, pointed out in response, it’s the medical evidence that should be considered first and foremost. But that’s not good for profits.
Most of the media have helped to amplify and give momentum to this right-wing business campaign. As well as the usual suspects from the Murdoch stable, like Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt or Sky News host Paul Murray, the liberal establishment – represented by the ABC and Melbourne Age – have also joined the fray. For every word of medical sense from the ABC’s Dr Norman Swan there have been a dozen sob stories about how the extended lockdown is ruining people’s lives, by which they mean businesses. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the entire population of Victoria were business owners.
On 11 September the Age ran the headline: “Curfew, stage four COVID lockdown under fire from all sides”. That appears to be wishful thinking when you consider the degree to which most of the working class and a fair swag of the middle class continue to support the restrictions imposed to help stem the key effect of the virus – not that on private profit, but on public health.
The Roy Morgan poll of 10 September shows Andrews’ measures enjoy majority support, with 70 approving of the premier’s overall performance. Clearly, workers realise they will not be the ones benefiting if health restrictions are eased so that businesses can get back to making money.
We can and should be critical of how Andrews’ neoliberal mindset led to the quarantine disgrace that opened up this second wave. We should be angry about the way public housing tenants were treated, the lack of adequate personal protective equipment for health workers, the appalling state of aged care, the increased authoritarianism of the police and much else. But that doesn’t mean joining in the chorus of capitalists, governments, media and the far right to open up. There is nothing radical or anti-authoritarian about opposing measures that have clearly succeeded in limiting the spread of a deadly disease.
Perhaps the most cynical aspect of the bosses’ campaign is their invocation of mental health to justify reopening. Leaving aside the obvious suffering and distress that will result from more deaths and illness—and the obvious consequences for mental health—if there is a premature return to business as usual, the bosses have shown no such concern as health budgets have been cut, inhuman policies towards refugees, Aboriginal people and other marginalised people imposed and workers’ living standards eroded. Only when their profits are at stake does our mental health suddenly matter to them.
The bosses’ current campaign for private profit above public health is not just about what happens in the short term. By establishing a narrative that it is business and “the economy” that are suffering due to the pandemic, they are laying the groundwork for future handouts, on top of their already generous subsidies—Star Casino, for example, just paid its chief executive an $830,000 bonus while at the same time receiving $64 million in JobKeeper payments, and it is far from alone.
In the face of this, we have to stand firm on the demand that public health be put above private profit.