Even as they shut their doors—quite possibly forever, in many cases—Melbourne’s battered hospitality businesses were still complying. The bars and restaurants and cafes for which Australia’s self-proclaimed cultural capital prided itself were still taking names and phone numbers at the door, still asking patrons to wear masks, still leaving bottles of hand sanitiser at the door.
They were even keeping a lid on numbers, in accordance with occupancy limits that had made turning a profit basically impossible. Nobody had thought of throwing the doors open, packing in as many of their old customers as they could, and making as much as they could to ride out the commercial apocalypse. Or perhaps nobody had dared.
It was July 8, 2020, and Melbourne’s second lockdown was coming into effect that night. I was out with my girlfriend, joining hundreds of other Melburnians for one last blowout. There was a weird feeling of camaraderie that night, a kind of solidarity among the minority of people who still felt comfortable venturing outside the house.
There was sorrow, too. The bartenders were glum. The waitresses were shell-shocked. I spoke to a couple of owners, who had tears in their eyes. Their businesses had barely survived the first lockdown, and they were staring down the barrel of total ruin on account of the second.
“Follow the rules” had become a catch cry of politicians and bureaucrats insisting that it was all necessary, often with the circular logic that unless the restrictions were adhered to, there’d be harsher and longer lockdowns to come. The rules were there to “keep us safe.”
So when the lockdown came into effect at 11:59 p.m., everyone went quietly. The patrons, the staff, the proprietors—the city of Melbourne, whose lights were being snuffed out by government edict. We would remain under lockdown for 111 days.
* * *
The irony was that Melbourne’s first lockdown had been the harshest and strictest in Australia. We had been the first to close, the last to reopen, and had the most punitive restrictions in between.
That said, the entire country was plunged into one form of lockdown or another when the coronavirus first hit our shores in March. The prime minister reached for the “strong leadership” button, announcing the formation of a “national cabinet” consisting of himself and the premiers and chief ministers governing Australia’s eight states and territories to coordinate the response.
In practice, though, the day-to-day business of managing the virus was almost entirely the domain of the states. The federal government had only a few major levers to pull. One of them was controlling international arrivals into Australia. The first limits on inbound travel were imposed as early as January, meaning that Australia was never hit particularly hard by the virus anyway.
The other thing the feds had, that the states didn’t, was cash. Under Australia’s often dysfunctional federal system, most tax revenue is raised by the federal government and redirected to the states through a patchwork of grants and funding agreements. So as our government leaders sat down around the national cabinet table, the prime minister announced the JobKeeper scheme, a cash subsidy for struggling businesses with which to pay furloughed workers.
The obvious moral hazard was that the premiers could take the sledgehammer to their economies with no financial consequence. State leaders entered into a kind of grotesque competition to see who could take the strongest action against the virus. The winner was Dan Andrews, the hard-left premier of the state of Victoria (of which Melbourne is the capital), who seemed to relish the opportunity to terrorise private businesses and render the citizenry dependent on government.
And it would have worked, too. But unfortunately for Victoria, the state government bungled the quarantine system for returned travellers, allowing staff at the hotels managing the program to become infected and triggering a second wave less than a month after the first lockdown had been lifted.
So, ignoring the fact that he had caused the problem in the first place, Dan Andrews reverted to “strong leadership.” Almost all private businesses were shut. A statewide mask mandate was imposed. Melbourne was put under curfew. Stay-at-home orders were reimposed and brutally enforced. Movement was limited to a strict three mile radius of your home. If you were lucky enough to still have a job, and one that couldn’t “reasonably” be done from home, the government introduced a permit system under which police could stop you on the street to check your papers.
And most infuriatingly of all, the majority of Victorians seemed to embrace it.
* * *
If I’m being honest, I didn’t mind being in lockdown all that much. I missed going out, but I still had a job, and I quite liked doing it from my apartment. I enjoyed the extra couple of hours’ sleep, the ability to write in peace without the routine interruptions of office life, the license to be a bit of a shut-in for a while.
The problem was, there were too many people like me, knowledge workers whose lives carried on basically as normal via Zoom and treated the whole lockdown as a kind of working holiday. Then there were the people who, under the prime minister’s JobKeeper scheme, didn’t have to work at all, and in some cases received more from the government than they had actually earned at their job.
Not everyone was like me. Not everyone cared about the massive government debt we’d be lumped with. Not everyone cared about the small businesses that would never reopen. Not everyone saw the obvious economic problem with paying millions of people not to work.
And not everyone worked at a conservative think tank, one which had opposed the lockdowns since the beginning. Not everyone was flooded by emails, like I was, containing terrible stories about the effect that the lockdown was having: business owners who were about to lose the home against which they’d borrowed money, women trapped at home with abusive partners, parents whose children had fallen into a deep depression after months without school. In one heartbreaking case, a quadriplegic wrote to me about having “nothing left to live for” after losing her few weekly outings.
No, not everyone knew or cared about these people. They were happy enough at home, and believed in “following the rules.” Even the shocking footage of a pregnant woman being handcuffed in her own home, in her pyjamas, in front of her children, over a Facebook post about a peaceful anti-lockdown protest, nor any other of the many other videos of unprecedented police brutality floating around social media, was enough to change community sentiment.
This was an emergency, and we had to follow the rules. Anything less than uncritical obedience was selfish.
* * *
Watching American cable news these days can trigger some serious déjà vu. The horrors being introduced by state governors are all variants of what we went through in Melbourne.
Joe Biden controversially called for a national mask mandate; Victoria still has one, weeks after the virus has been contained. Andrew Cuomo slapped all manner of restrictions on New York restaurants; ours were shut down altogether. Kate Brown encouraged Oregonians to call the police if their neighbours had too many people over on Thanksgiving; police helicopters circled over Melbourne’s Jewish neighbourhoods on Yom Kippur. Gavin Newsom put the state of California under a 10 p.m. curfew; Melbourne’s kicked in at 8:00.
It’s our fault, of course. Victoria was patient zero in terms of this monstrous exercise in population control, proving that lockdowns do “work,” in the same way that amputating your leg takes care of an ingrown toenail. It was only a matter of time before the Victorian model worked its way through academia and the bureaucracy abroad until the likes of Anthony Fauci were holding it up as a model of prudence and common sense.
Dan Andrews’ approval rating remains alarmingly high, especially now that he’s drip-feeding back the basic freedoms that he took from us to begin with. Melburnians are carrying on almost as if the lockdown never happened, aside from the fact that most people are still working from home.
The terrifying question for Australian conservatives is what comes next. What will the next panic be? What rules will they make us follow then? The Australian left has been agitating about a climate emergency for years—will that be used to bludgeon liberties and livelihoods like this health emergency was? If the police could get away with arresting someone over a dangerous Facebook post, what will become of free speech in a country with no First Amendment? And what will happen now that our politicians have figured out that it’s electorally popular to pay healthy, working-age adults to sit around and do nothing? When will the gargantuan debt bomb finally detonate?
But for now at least, the bars are open again, and I can hide from the sweltering Australian summer, drink my beer, and wait.
Gideon Rozner is director of policy at the Institute of Public Affairs.