Is COVID-19 bringing the worst out of Australian politics?

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Fourteen months ago, we posed the question of whether the COVID-19 pandemic — then still in its early stages — was bringing out the best, or the worst, of democratic politics. In that earlier episode, what preoccupied our thinking was the way that the “emergency situation” occasioned by the pandemic was exacerbating the tendencies toward technocracy, despotism, and populism in some of the world’s advanced democracies. It seemed premature to interrogate Australia’s response to COVID-19. No longer. This could be considered “part two” of last year’s episode.

What we can see is that Australia’s “zero-COVID” strategy has worked comparatively well, but that this strategy was only possible due to the extreme concentration of all decision-making power in the executive branches of federal and state governments — especially their ability to declare and enforce lockdowns and border closures. The public have proven remarkably compliant and willing to acquiesce to forms of executive power that, in ordinary times, would have seemed draconian and unaccountable, on the understanding that these are not ordinary times, and public health calls for the exercise of “emergency” powers.

But now, because of widespread public exasperation that lockdowns and border closures (far from being merely temporary measures) have continued into the second year of the pandemic, because the national vaccine rollout has been both inefficient and ineffective, and because the advice concerning vaccines has been both confused and inconsistent, we seem to be seeing the reassertion of “politics as usual” … though, under the conditions of a “public health emergency”.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the way both NSW and the federal government have cast Victoria as an object of ridicule, of contempt — as an example of a state that can’t manage its own affairs when it comes to public health, and that it, consequently, perhaps too prepared to plunge its population back into lockdown. But that has meant that NSW, which now finds itself in the grip of an outbreak of the Delta variant of COVID-19, has neglected to learn the hard-won lessons from Victoria when it comes to containment and contact tracing. Accordingly, Sydney — a city which prided itself on the way it has avoided imposing a lockdown — now seems (morally?) unprepared for this experience of prolonged lockdown, and perhaps too prepared to give in to impatience, a sense of entitlement, and blame-shifting.

So what is the prolonged experience of the pandemic showing us about the nature of Australian politics, about the limits of executive power, about the role of experts in the administration of public life, and about the fault-lines that continue to undermine our sense of common purpose? What is the pandemic showing us about the political and moral virtues — not least a recognition of the role of “luck”, the willingness to live with risk, and proper humility in the face of radical uncertainty — that are needed to maintain a healthy democratic community?

Period15 Jul 2021

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