When politicians reject “the blame game”, it’s only ever because they’re being correctly held responsible.
We’ve seen some shock policy swings from the NSW Government of Premier Gladys Berejiklian during the Sydney lockdown, which started in July and every day seems less and less likely to end during an odd-numbered year.
Cases have been growing day on day, along with fatalities — including, for the first time, children being hospitalised with the virus and the first heartbreaking teenage death.
Yet last week, the NSW Government seemed right on the brink of actively embracing their implied “live with the virus” approach amid several unsettling new developments, including the silencing of Chief Medical Officer Kerry Chant in a parliamentary inquiry by an aggressively out of his depth Health Minister Brad Hazzard, followed by her unexplained absence from subsequent media briefings.
The constantly growing case numbers may well put paid to this ill-advised non-decision for NSW to go it alone. But even so, it's the logical extension of the Berejiklian Government's approach, which has been to emphasise that rather than go hard or early they would instead trust people to do the right things and then get very disappointed when a small number don't.
For jurisdictions that have instituted hard statewide stay-at-home orders, seeing restaurants and retail stores coming up as new exposure sites during what is ostensibly a lockdown seems utterly baffling.
Equally baffling is setting different rules for local government areas as though the general public know or care what the boundaries of their council district are, much less remain exclusively inside said borders lest they intermingle with dangerous outsiders and their debauched and unfamiliar ways. Aside from the Sutherland Shire, obviously, where that's a condition of residency.
But through all of this, the Premier and her team have been quietly peddling the damaging idea that it's not the Government's job to sort this disaster out, but that it's up to individuals to follow a series of confused and changing edicts whilst attempting to navigate the now more complicated daily pressures of work, education and looking after family, with limited and minimal financial support which still hasn't manifested as actual money in bank accounts for many of the people so affected.
You can see it in the press conferences where the Premier and Health Minister are happy to call attention to people breaking the rules, announcing fierce new fines and deploying police and military to areas of concern which also happen to be areas with communities who a) aren't necessarily used to trusting the Government with taking care of their health and b) have had previous and terrifying experiences of armed men banging on their doors.
And the media have been very helpful in printing stories, often with names and photos, of the people who’ve crossed borders or thrown parties or gone around Byron Bay refusing to use QR codes, because human nature is predictable and people very reasonably read and then outrage-share the hell out of those articles.
And we all want a way out of this cursed epoch. Even people who aren't anti-vax, mask-denying freedom warriors are exhausted and miserable and frustrated. Meanwhile, the Delta variant has raised the stakes dramatically.
Yet people still do the wrong things. And this, to be clear, is bad.
But some people are always going to do the wrong thing. Competent governments know this and they factor that into their response.
There is always going to be a small number of irresponsible people deliberately flouting the rules and a larger cohort of people making honest mistakes, plus a handful of unfortunate accidents (cough, hotel quarantine, cough). The idea that the community should let the Government off the hook and successfully police themselves 24/7 is just plain wrong. Not least because the whole “mob with pitchforks” thing went out of vogue some time ago, certain Alan Jones-approved riots on well-known beaches notwithstanding.
And yes, the vaccine-hesitant are not making anyone's job or family WhatsApp thread easier. But we've had anti-vaxxers as long as we’ve had vaccines. And as long as the rest of us roll our eyes and roll up our sleeves to get vaccinated, it doesn't really matter that the odd jerk does a jerk thing because the community should have enough of a buffer to withstand those effects. It's why our measles outbreaks are small and infrequent and it's why our polio outbreaks are never.
And that is the point which both Gladys and Prime Minister Scott Morrison would rather you didn't focus upon: that a successful and comprehensive vaccination programme was our best (partial) defence in the pre-Delta months and, despite some disheartening recent developments, remains the only possible pathway out of where we are now.
That, however, requires adequate doses of vaccines and traveller quarantine facilities, which Morrison's Government has failed to secure or provide. Also, ample testing, swift contact tracing and access to vaccinations, which Berejiklian's Government has done badly — especially and unsurprisingly in Western Sydney where the population are poorer, in less secure work, less likely to have English as a first language, more likely to be Indigenous and in seats the Government doesn't hold.
Even if Gladys doesn't decide it's all too hard and to just open NSW up, you can expect that same droning riff on individual responsibility to recur because rebuilding trust in the Government is hard. Also because getting people to furiously blame each other for what are actually regulatory cock-ups is so Australian that it's amazing it's not printed on our money.
And that’s the official gaslighting that’s going on during this crisis. The Coalition is not into suggesting that it's the Government’s first and arguably only job to keep everyone safe, or that no one is okay until everyone is, or that the buck stops with them. No, it's that everything would be fine if only you people were more responsible for your own health.
In short, Gladys and Scott would very much like you to blame yourself for their failures. And that’s a game they seem to be winning.
Andrew P Street is an Adelaide-based, Sydney-built journalist, author, editor and broadcaster and an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewPStreet.
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