Steve Waterson’s latest piece in the Daily Sceptic provoked me to finish an essay I’ve been putting together for a while.
As an historian, what really strikes me now is how brief the Covid crisis has been so far. Yes, I know it seems like 500 years since we were last able to travel freely and not hear about the pandemic on the nightly news. But in historical terms this is nothing. What will define the era is the social, political, and economic fallout and, trust me, that’s barely started. Governments are going to fall, millions of people are going to be ruined while others make fortunes, and some countries are going to disintegrate. But when, where or how is yet to be seen. This will take years – decades – but I think you can see the signs of fragmentation and epic change already – almost all self-inflicted as a result of the hysteria that has consumed us since early 2020.
Let me make it clear from the outset: I love Australia. I’ve been there several times and travelled long distances. My maternal grandfather, whom I never met, died in Sydney. Two of his brothers died out there. I have lots of relatives in Australia and many close friends in places as far apart as Wodonga VIC and Denmark WA. I’ve constantly discussed with them what has been going on, and only escaped myself in late March 2020 on one of the last flights out of Perth.
I was in the process of writing this piece when another article, this time by a pharmaceutical executive, about the terrible predicament Australia and New Zealand have placed themselves in, appeared on the Daily Sceptic. I decided to press on, because I hope this will complement that piece by showing just how dangerous that predicament is.
I have watched with apprehension and astonishment at the direction Australia and New Zealand have travelled in the last 18 months. One thing I know very well is that those in the present never learn from the past. It’s also true that the past does not determine the future. I’m not in the business of predicting what will happen. There’s been too much of that since the Covid crisis broke and much of it has been wrong. But we can see what might happen or what could now happen.
Early in this crisis, I wrote a piece for this site called Britain’s Covid Reich. In it I explained a central tenet of the totalitarian state: intolerance of diversity. This is an environment in which any variance from the state’s ideology is seen as a threat to the state. I had not envisaged when I wrote it that 15 months later I would be looking at a country on the other side of the world heading even further down that road. Not only that, but it looks dangerously like a country that could fall apart.
Both Australia and New Zealand have hitherto bought into the zero-Covid crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, though at least some Australian politicians, and quite a few of their subjects (the best word for them now), have woken up to the realisation that there is no future in that policy. But so far much of what their national and regional governments have done has been justified by claims that zero-Covid will be the outcome.
But the pandemic has created, and been allowed to create, destabilising circumstances that may be epoch-changing. We haven’t even yet reached the point in most countries where it is time for a major election. When the Black Death hit in the middle of the 14th century, the impact in terms of deaths, reaching up to half the population, was obvious. It took generations for the social, political, and economic effects to reveal themselves fully.
We can already see how political opportunism has taken hold, especially in the United Kingdom where the SNP has fallen over itself to exploit Covid for its own advantage, despite the fact that its measures have been even less effective than in England. Now in the second Covid year, far from opening up, more and more countries are seeking opportunities to restrict access. The consequences are likely to be parochialism, ignorance, border tensions, and ever more friction over resources.
My fear though is that Australia, of all the developed modern democratic states, has set out down a path that could in extremis result in the country breaking apart. Let’s not beat about the bush (a more appropriate term for Australia than anywhere else). This is a country that already teeters on the brink of viability. Natural disasters have the potential to destroy large swathes of Australia’s agriculture on a permanent basis. The country has never developed industry to a level that could serve it properly, preferring to rely on selling natural resources to China to make into things that get sent back to Australia. The national infrastructure is ramshackle. It was already the case that the individual states are more interested in their own futures than the country’s. That’s especially evident in WA, marginalised by Australian national politics.
Australia is to some extent only a nation in name. Western Australia, one of the least populous states, is also the largest. Apart from air travel, it is connected to the rest of Australia by a few scrappy roads, easily taken out by a single cyclone, and one railway. For years its colossal mineral resources have bankrolled the country’s wealth. That has caused no end of frustration to Western Australia which benefits less than most states from any federal handouts. Few Australians from the rest of the country ever bother with going to WA. There is little love lost between WA and the eastern states.
There is therefore an incipient sense of nationalism in Western Australia. It’s no more than a conceit at the moment, but Covid is accelerating the sense of frustration. Only now is the federal Government getting it together with the vaccine rollout and desperately trying to roll back the terrible mess it’s made. The chaotic response exhibited until recently has not been Australia’s finest hour. The fiasco has ridden on the back of the zero-Covid fantasy, a Land-That-Might-Have-Been.
I had this from a relative in Queensland, a senior academic in the university there:
The vaccine roll-out has been bungled although it is now getting better organised – this disorganisation is/was caused by our system of state and federal government, where the states actually are responsible for health delivery, vaccinations etc., but the feds for some strange reason decided they would be in charge – but had no mechanism to distribute it – so it was outsourced to a private trucking company and that failed – so there is now an army person in charge – that has improved it.
The NSW Government also approved vaccinations for grade 12 boys from one of the wealthiest private schools while not getting aged care workers or health workers vaccinated. Then they decided that grade 12 students generally should take precedence so they could go back to school, then essential workers should take precedence, then this group, then that group – so eventually every group seems to be the group with precedence. No wonder there is confusion.
So as of yesterday [last week] only 25% of eligible adults were fully vaccinated and 40% with one and its patchy across the country. So there is a lot of anger directed at the federal Government, but they have put an army general in charge of vaccine distribution and that has speeded things up by the looks of it – and he does not get angry or shout at reporters, members of the public, etc., and he does not disappear for days at a time.
In the midst of all this, WA is no hotbed of freedom. The state (which has a huge ex-pat British population) has been as keen on lockdowns as any other (though it has had remarkably few lockdown days – about 12 compared to Victoria’s 160+). But as Delta has taken a foothold in Victoria and New South Wales, WA has battened down its hatches further. WA is essentially closed to the rest of the country, desperate to keep Covid out at any price and terrified of what might happen if it gets in.
The individual states are asserting their autonomy and doing so with ever more strident bio-authoritarian measures, some buying deeper into zero-Covid. The destruction of individual freedoms in Australia and the epic speed with which that has happened has no parallel in the modern world in a modern democratic state. Yes, I know these have been hitherto widely welcomed by Australians, but you’d have to be spectacularly naïve to think that such support will necessarily be sustained. In 1943, Germany was full of people who fanatically supported the Nazis. Two years later the country was full of people shaking their heads and wondering what on Earth they’d been thinking.
The other day James Delingpole and Toby made a podcast in which they discussed Australia. They focused on Dan Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, and wondered how such an ordinary person could have become such a leader passing one arbitrary measure after another and speaking furiously about anyone who dares to challenge him.
The prohibition in Victoria on mask lifting to consume alcohol has plumbed new depths, but it was only to be expected. Resorting to increasingly puerile rules is a characteristic of a beleaguered authoritarian regime and marks the point where punishing the people and hurling abuse at them for their treachery and failings is the last resort. It’s straight out of the totalitarian leader’s textbook and is a sign of desperation.
One gathering Andrews was spitting blood about was an Orthodox Jewish engagement party. Last year I read a piece about some Orthodox Jews in New York whose views were very clearly expressed. If the choice was between following their way of life or being criminalised, they would choose the former even if it meant death.
It takes a certain amount of political acumen, wisdom, knowledge, and experience to understand that. It’s a cultural lesson Dan Andrews has yet to learn. In all seriousness, it is my belief that if Australia and its states continue down this path they are already only a short distance from one or other of the administrations seeking to detain without trial, and even suspend elections ‘until the crisis is over’. This is no indulgent and silly warning produced by my overactive imagination. This is what happens in authoritarian states. Over and over again.
The police in Victoria are already using protests to legitimate the severity of their own response. I’m not going to justify violence on anyone’s part, but the emergence of violent protests and the violent suppression of protests is an inevitable outcome of protracted limitations on personal freedoms. Even so, they mask what is probably far more widespread subversion. There are three possible outcomes: the crisis abates, the violence subsides and Australia goes back to normal, or the state succeeds in ramping up its controls to far more drastic levels and terrorising the population into acquiescence, or, in response to the suppression, the violence escalates to a far more serious and potentially fatal level in one city or another, attracting wider support and tipping towards the point of popular revolt.
Right now in Australia Covid is starting to drift out of control. The reality that Delta cannot be restrained without turning every house into a prison cell is just starting to sink in. It means the core justification of the measures, the utopia of zero-Covid, cannot be attained. Ever.
In the meantime at the very least WA is on a path that, if the crisis doesn’t fade, could one day lead to a secessionist movement. If that sounds ludicrous, you only need to consider the SNP’s secessionist dream, openly espoused and given huge momentum by capitalising on Covid. As a WA friend has just said to me: “We’ve never mattered over here.” When it comes to national elections all the votes are in Victoria and New South Wales.
Western Australia is now proudly seeing itself as ‘Fortress WA’. Even compassionate reasons to cross the border from the east are disregarded, though needless to say politicians can move around freely. The tension is rising with the other states, but the premier Mark McGowan is sticking to his guns because as far as he is concerned life is normal in his state – if you can call life ‘normal’ in a place you cannot leave. There’s a lurking fear that the clock is ticking with Delta, but right now WA seems content to make hay while the sun shines, locked away in a paradise cut off from the rest of the world (and some of WA is a paradise, believe me). The economy is doing just fine – apparently. And most of the voters are on message.
“The Covid situation seems to have enhanced that sense of Western Australia doing it itself and going its own way,” says University of Western Australia Social Demographer Amanda Davies.
There’s a subtext though. WA’s hospitals are already in crisis. A Covid outbreak could cripple the system.
WA’s stance and the mess elsewhere in Australia under the oppressive controls on movement and protest are leading to a pivotal moment in the nation’s history and with implications for the rest of the world.
I make no prediction about what will happen. What I do know about authoritarian states is that, unless checked, they eventually become even more ruthlessly authoritarian, aided and abetted by part of their terrorised populations, or they collapse and their leaders end up either vilified, in prison, or at worst executed. Ultimately they always collapse. It’s only a question of time and Australia’s clock is ticking.
Is change afoot? Gideon Rozner, an Australian at the Institute of Public Affairs, insisted in his piece in the Telegraph: “We Australians are sick of the zero-Covid delusion and the country’s ‘epidemiological time warp’.”
The latest news is that Qantas is wheeling its A380s out of storage and cranking them up for a restart in December for flights to the U.S. and the U.K. The Chief Executive Alan Joyce says: “Public sentiment is changing dramatically. People are saying ‘we need to have a path out of Covid, a path back to our pre-Covid lives’.”
Is he right? I certainly hope so, but Alan Joyce is really talking about the eastern states. WA for the moment is reading from another script. The stakes have never been higher, and especially for Australia as a country which it has only been since 1901. Here we see enshrined the potential fallout of Covid and the ruinous attempts to control it, as divergent interests and different priorities take over, whether in Australia or countless other places. It falls to only a few years to be turning points in world history. 2020 is going to be one of them but all bets should be off for now when it comes to the shape of things to come.