After months of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt denouncing lockdowns and state border closures as crimes against humanity, and above all as slights against the sacred god of the economy (read profits), we have just seen South Australia’s Liberal government impose an even harsher lockdown than “Dictator Dan” in Victoria.
The Liberals were forced to carry out this enormous retreat from their profits-before-lives approach only because of the extraordinary resilience of workers in Victoria, who rigorously stuck to a tough lockdown that has saved countless lives.
The Liberals had said that the target of an average of five new coronavirus cases a day was totally unachievable. Well, the proof is in the pudding. Victoria has now had three weeks of no new cases. Lockdowns work. They save lives.
In his relentless attack on Victoria’s lockdown and Queensland’s border closures, Morrison said in September that “lockdowns and borders” should “not feature in how Australia is dealing with COVID-19 on a sustainable basis”. Morrison attempted to blackmail Andrews into prematurely and recklessly opening up by threatening a “wait and see” approach to further financial assistance for Victoria.
Treasurer Frydenberg went further, deploring the “callous indifference by the Victorian government ... to the plight of small business”. “The bloody mindedness is unforgivable. The stubbornness is unforgivable”, he told reporters.
Health Minister Hunt declared in October that there needed to be a large-scale reopening of businesses: “Victorian business, big and small, are just pleading for a fair go ... Enough is enough”.
The Liberals had nothing but callous indifference to the loss of lives of working-class people and the poor. Profits had to trump everything. Who knows how many thousands more lives would have been lost had their agenda been heeded.
Victorian Liberal leader Michael O’Brien was even more fervent in putting profits before lives, denouncing virtually everything the Labor government did to control the virus—from wearing masks, closing schools, limiting how many people could be crammed into gyms, dance studios or restaurants.
At times, the Liberals tried to disguise their profits before all else approach behind a facade of concern about mental health. This from a government that cut health spending. But in any case, as though people’s mental health would be improved by contracting the virus or seeing relatives or friends die from it.
The Liberals were far from alone in denouncing the lockdown. The journalists at Andrews’ press conferences acted as a pack of hyenas demanding “opening up”. It was not just the Murdoch press and Sky News’ Peta Credlin. The supposedly progressive Age and the ABC were equally relentless in defending business interests.
The ABC sought out every whingeing cafe owner, bar owner or gym owner to complain that it was an absolute disgrace that lives were being prioritised over making a buck. Behind them all stood the pillars of the business establishment and the major bosses’ associations.
Commonwealth Bank CEO Matt Comyn denounced the restrictions because they were having “a huge impact on businesses”. Despite making record profits, Harvey Norman head Gerry Harvey decried the restrictions as “overkill”.
By late October, a number of prominent Victorian bosses were at the point of open rebellion, planning to illegally open their businesses.
Business Council of Australia head Jennifer Westacott summed up the approach of the capitalist class: “We just have to get used to living with this virus and open up as much of the economy as we can”. It could not have been clearer: profits must come first.
The success of the Victorian lockdown shows that it is possible to go extremely close to wiping out domestic transmission of the virus. That should be our goal, not Morrison’s agenda of limited suppression.
The outbreak in South Australia is a dramatic confirmation that this virus is not going away any time soon. Given the number of people returning with infections from overseas, more outbreaks are likely. We can’t relax.
Lockdowns remain an essential part of the arsenal to fight this terrifying pandemic. One vital lesson from Victoria is that the lockdown after the initial wave of the virus was relaxed too soon. If it had been maintained longer, there would have been a better chance of limiting the impact of the breakout from hotel quarantine. Then in the second wave, Andrews did not close down quickly enough.
There are other major problems that need to be addressed, including the long-term rundown of spending on health care, the reliance on a privatised workforce of low-paid casualised workers to staff quarantine hotels. There also needs to be much more economic and social support for people during lockdowns.
Nonetheless, the success of the lockdown in Victoria has set the bar. It is hard to imagine that a Liberal state government would have imposed a lockdown if Andrews had not stood his ground and defied Morrison, the media and the bosses and won and gained record levels of support in the latest opinion polls.
After the success in Victoria, the Marshall government in South Australia knew that it would face a collapse in popular support if it did not move rapidly to contain the virus. But it is likely that any lockdown will face enormous pressure from business interests to open the economy too quickly.
At the beginning of South Australia’s lockdown, most of the bosses, other than the head of the Hotels Association, seem to have reluctantly accepted the six-day “circuit breaker” as an emergency measure. But any time a lockdown seems to bring the virus under control, the bosses and their hired help will undoubtedly start screaming to open up.
Health Minister Hunt made it clear that the federal government supported the South Australian lockdown only as a “short-term” measure. Already, the political editor of Sky News has condemned the lockdown as “overkill”, while Senator Cory Bernardi attacked Marshall, comparing him to the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.
That means that when lockdowns are necessary, there needs to be a concerted push back from our side demanding that public health be put before private profit. In Victoria it was not all down to Dan Andrews.
The lockdown could only be sustained by the endurance of working-class people who showed incredible solidarity in very trying circumstances. They had nothing but contempt for the right-wing anti-lockdown protesters.
Workers had seen how disastrous things were in Europe and North America, where the virus had been allowed to get out of control. They rejected the idea that business profits are the most important thing. That basic working-class commonsense is the hope of the world.