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Wren's Week: Liberal Government to blame for NSW lockdown failure

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Socialist attitudes and better political leadership were key reasons why Melbourne fared better against COVID-19 than Sydney, writes John Wren.

SINCE MY LAST COLUMN, Sydney has belatedly gone into lockdown with its outbreak of the delta COVID-19 variant. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian delayed the lockdown too long, allowing the virus to circulate and replicate within the community, increasing cases and making the control of the virus that much more difficult.

Bewilderingly, her lockdown was not tough enough, either. Without tough restrictions on the movement of people, we are seeing an alarming increase in cases today and an extension of the lockdown for at least another week. Unless drastic actions are taken, Sydney could be locked down for many more weeks yet. Most Victorians, including this writer, are looking on with a mix of horror and disbelief.

Without vaccines, the only way to control the spread of the virus is to control the spread of people. The virus hitches a ride on us and the only way to get rid of it is to restrict its transmission — social distancing, tight lockdowns and masks. That the Sydney lockdown has few restrictions of movement and allows people to gather outside in groups of up to ten means that many Sydneysiders have not taken the lockdown seriously. They have held parties in their homes, have swamped beaches and continued to visit shopping centres.

In Melbourne, our beaches were shut and the only shops allowed open were supermarkets, restaurants for takeaway only, pharmacies, banks, liquor stores and a few other exceptions. Stores such as Bunnings, Kmart, JB HiFi were click-and-collect only and only one person per household was allowed out once per day to do the essential shopping. It worked. Melbourne remains the only city in the world to eliminate the virus after a major outbreak.

What’s the difference between these two similarly-sized Australian cities?

The difference lies in our cultures and political leadership. Melbourne and Sydney have different histories with different events that have shaped our respective cultures. Anybody who has conducted business in the two cities understands that the way business is done and the way relationships are formed is quite different. Melbourne has historically always been more centre-left, while Sydney is more centre-right.

Manufacturing has always dominated Melbourne, while Sydney has been a financial and insurance centre. That strong manufacturing base, admittedly now dwindling, meant Melbourne always had very high union membership, which in turn influenced Labor politics. It is not by accident that the eight-hour day was established in Melbourne and that is also where the ACTU is based.

But perhaps it goes back even further than that, to 1854 and the Eureka rebellion that led to the establishment of Australia’s first democratically elected representative (sans women) parliament. Although the rebellion was not union led (rebels were effectively disenfranchised small businesspeople), the Eureka flag is now widely representative of the union movement and its ideals.

Sydney, on the other hand, was established by convicts and their guards. It was a dog-eat-dog world, where authoritarianism prevailed, rules were in place to be circumvented and not followed, dobbing on your mates was the worst you could do and everyone was out for a quick buck. The most corrupt government in Australia’s history was that perpetrated in Sydney’s early colonial days by the Rum Corps. And let’s not even get started on how the indigenous Eora and Gadigal First Nations’ people were treated.

These two histories affect how Melburnians relate to each other. Make no mistake, there is old money in Victoria and elite private schools are there as they are in Sydney. However, they don’t hold the same sway in Melbourne that they do in Sydney. Anybody with talent and ambition can muscle their way into the elite. That’s much harder to do in Sydney — they often distinguish between old money and new money as though the latter is somehow inferior to the former.

What these two cultures meant was that when Victoria locked down, Melburnians largely had a shared sense of duty to each other. We understood that the virus did not care which school you attended, what suburb you lived in or the size of your bank balance. We all looked out for each other, followed the rules, because our political leadership was trusted and the reasons for the restrictions were well communicated. In a sense, it was Victoria’s inherent socialist ideals that saw it through one of the world’s longest lockdowns — all members of society working together for the betterment of all.

It has become apparent over the last fortnight that the majority of Sydney people do not share those ideals. Their individualism and focus on making money has meant that the lockdown has been ignored by many. The rules have not been followed and we have seen weak political leadership pleading with their people to follow them. Unsurprisingly, the lockdown isn’t working as it should.

NSW’s political leadership is, in fact, so weak, we saw Health Minister Brad Hazzard even say that if the extended lockdown still doesn’t work, they might just give up and let the virus rip. If that happens, expect borders to NSW to remain closed tight until next year. Victoria and Queensland (and, to a lesser extent, SA) may even need troops at the border to keep the plague out. If it runs unchecked, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, dead and affected by debilitating “long COVID”.

It will be the first instance of a Western government giving up the fight against the virus.

The upshot of this is that without vaccines, the only way to manage or eliminate COVID-19 is the utilisation of socialist initiatives. Individualism and capitalism simply don’t work. This is fundamentally why Labor states like Victoria, Queensland and WA have managed lockdowns better than NSW. Tasmania and SA have also been effective, but without major outbreaks to truly test them yet. It also explains why the Federal Liberal Government has been so ideologically anti-lockdown and that the right-wing media outlets of Murdoch, Stokes and Costello have been so critical of Labor states. They refuse to admit that socialism has its uses.

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