Delays in government paperwork that caused parents to miss out on a single day of childcare were regarded as catastrophic. Others who still had jobs and could work remotely expressed their misery at having to look after their children. Mask refusers got big play in the media, encouraging others to defy the law.
More and more experts came into view. Either the lockdown was too late or too much or too little or it targeted the wrong things. Even the appalling argument that people in their 60s and older should be somehow ring-fenced so that “the young” can live their lives started to get more play.
A hard lockdown is, by definition, an emergency measure, formulated and imposed quickly, and will need refining in its early stages. But that did not intrude on the narrative. Instead, any teething problems were seen as further evidence of the Andrews government’s incompetence.
What was most interesting to see was how the business community was so willing to criticise Andrews’ measures to the media and to the Morrison government as it sought carve-outs from the restrictions. Few seemed willing to show patience or to do their negotiating privately. Employers in the building industry publicly threatened to shut down altogether if they did not get what they wanted.
This is what happens when a government starts to fall. Its circle of friends shrinks, and more and more interest groups feel encouraged to join the pile-on.
Of course, CEOs and business lobbyists knew they could expect a sympathetic ear from the federal government; they’ve paid attention to the media during the past month and have seen what’s been going on. The Morrison government has been playing a double game with Victoria ever since Victoria’s infection numbers started to head north, offering public support for Andrews while privately backgrounding against him, his ministers and his health team to selected journalists.
The stories have regularly portrayed the PM and his senior people as frustrated heroes who have had to bang sense into the heads of the clueless Victorians. Andrews, who in his current condition needs the feds more than they need him, has had to simply cop it.
To an extent, the heat that Andrews has been getting has been fair enough. If not for the mishandling of the Victorian hotel quarantine program, the outlook for the nation would be better. And it follows that many Victorians are unhappy about the new, harsher lockdown because they did the right thing before and look at where it got them. They feel let down by their state government.
But it leaves the idea that we are all Australians, going through this together, looking tatty.
In purely political terms, Victoria’s misfortune is a gift to all other Australian governments. The speed with which Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was able to trot out a revised economic forecast showing how much Victoria was going to hurt the national economy was a sign of what we can expect: every bit of bad news anywhere in Australia will be able to be sheeted home to Victoria for at least the next year and all the way to the next federal election. Sometimes it will be justified, sometimes not. And let’s remember that Treasury forecasts are just forecasts, not reality.
Having seen the enduring grief that Andrews’ mistake is causing for him, you can be certain that every premier and chief minister will do whatever it takes to avoid his fate. The ever harsher border controls introduced by NSW and Queensland, where the infection rates are at levels that Victoria could only dream of, are just a taste of what’s to come.
Scott Morrison is going to find that the premiers, having been reacquainted with the extent of their powers and the political benefits that come with exaggerated parochialism, are going to be harder to rein in.
What this all means is that it’s going to be harder to maintain a national outlook. The public debate is likely to get crankier, less tolerant and, probably, more self-interested as we move through the next few months. Let’s face it: We’re not used to being told to do so much and for so long or for being subject to the scrutiny of our fellow citizens as we go about our business. We’re getting sick of it. And the economic pain is severe for millions of us.
This is the moment when we and our leaders are really being tested, when our expectations have been frustrated and hope is wearing thin.
Shaun Carney is a regular columnist.
Shaun Carney is a regular columnist. He is the author of books on industrial relations and the life of Peter Costello, and has been commended by the Walkley Award judges for his political columns.