"The collective wish for our society and others not to be permanently marooned is the compelling and optimistic narrative of our time"
by Julian Dowse
First, it was public areas, then neighbourhoods, now households. Australians are having to impose their own Berlin walls around family, friends and wider communities. Isolation, separation and distancing are the new norms. These are difficult requirements for a population that is naturally gregarious and sceptical of government directives.
Unlike the instant and obedient responses of the Singaporean population, a people who many might say are nervous about any form of civil disobedience, it took many outraged directives from our Prime Minister and Premiers to convince some of the populace that staying away from each other did not mean congregating on beaches.
It is clear we are all adapting, albeit some more reluctantly than others.
A few observations about the unintended social consequences of our new living arrangements:
The canine population of Australia will never have experienced their present combination of love and fitness. Walking the dog, a name given to a yo-yo trick in my high school days, has become the go-to experience du jour. No doubt many a favourite pooch are spending many more hours inside as their owner/s work from home;
These are good days for Learner drivers as they are able to practise their driving on relatively deserted streets and freeways. In Victoria, the need to accumulate a certain number of hours of driving experience will be much easier and no longer simply a weekend activity;
Supermarkets have become the focal point of daily activity. Although we are not having to brandish wartime ration cards to obtain supplies, we are all thinking more carefully about our shopping selections and recognising that, even in a land of plenty, a relative scarcity of goods can affect us all. Let’s not forget that bread and butter pudding was invented in the Depression to avoid wasting the stale bread. Many a millennial will discover the joys of boiling up the chicken bones for a hearty vegetable soup;
The technology that many believe has created a disconnected society, dominated by the screen obsessions of far too many, has become a social unifier: Electronic chats, videos, electronic lessons on line at school and universities, on-line medical consultations have now become indispensable- the virtual has become the new reality. One’s mobile phone is now an essential connection point to the wider world, especially when physical interaction and/or conversation is all but impossible. Even with the NBN, how astonishing it has been for many to be told that a mobile call could not be connected because of network congestion;
Many have discovered that necessity is truly the mother of invention. The kitchen of Victoria’s State Parliament now prepares meals for the homeless rather than the absent members. This morning I delivered a basket of ironing to a cousin’s partner who, until yesterday, was a window dresser for a major retail chain. Overnight, he has established an ironing business to keep ticking along; and
The divide between Australia’s urban and regional areas may well be disappearing. With overtones of the migration of the Hoad family in The Grapes of Wrath, many Australians are “heading bush” , happy to undertake the work formerly the domain of backpackers from overseas.
It is too early to adjudicate upon the long-term political consequences of the corona crisis. However, the gravity of the present is reflected in an almost apolitical atmosphere, where partisanship has given way to a focus on fellowship.
Politics truly makes strange bedfellows. The strident ACTU President, Sally McManus, works co-operatively with Industrial Relations Minister, Christian Porter, to protect workers’ conditions. One of Australia’s richest men, Solomon Lew, effectively stages a retail tenancy strike, by unilaterally closing many of his retail chains. A conservative Federal government, who were within weeks of confirming Australia’s first surplus budget for many years, has become more Keynesian and expansionary in its government spending than any government since Federation. Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg, at appropriate social distance, have announced three packages of economic assistance, each more extensive and breathtaking than the previous one, culminating in yesterday’s announcement of the ‘Jobkeeper’ allowance.
In an episode of the last series of The Crown, the Queen visits her ostracised uncle, the former Edward VIII, who lives in Paris as the exiled Duke of Windsor. Protocol and propriety barely allow honest emotion to punctuate their terse Teutonic exchanges. However, the Duke observes that the “Crown always finds its way to the right head.”
The same may be said of the current group of leaders that are managing our nation. The melange of Labor and Liberal leaders that comprise the National Cabinet seem to be working effectively. Our Chief Health Officer, Brendan Murphy conveys calm and competence. Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, is authoritative, but recognises the importance of acting on the advice of experienced medical professionals. We are being well served and our best wishes must go to them all as they work tirelessly to navigate us away from the shoals. I suspect most Victorians would find both the Prime Minister and the Premier to be sincere and committed to resolving this crisis in the most effective way. Our Prime Minister’s wish to “take us to the other side” is everyone’s hope.
How this all plays out at the ballot box at a State and Federal level is anyone’s guess. Churchill led England to a victory over Nazism and was immediately ejected from office by a nation looking for a fresh start. The saviours of a nation are not always instantly thanked or recognised. Whilst much political orthodoxy has been thrown overboard in recent years, it is still likely that times such as these make nations reluctant to change their leadership, making incumbency an even greater advantage.
It says so much about the corona virus that it has all but obliterated our recent political history. Bushfires, floods, droughts, water supply crises, Royal Commissions revealing uncomfortable truths about our religious and financial institutions and our treatment of the disabled and elderly, outrage about the behaviour of Lawyer X, controversy about whom the Prime Minister invited to dinner in Washington, a sports rort or two (or more!) and debates about appropriate levels of greenhouse emissions are now all forgotten political points of reference. Also waning in equally dramatic manner is interest in the forthcoming publication of books by Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne. Is it definitionally possible for autobiographies to be hagiographies? Pyne has promised a reflection on the period from 2007-2018 which he has called the “craziest twelve years of Australian politics. “
Whether they were or not, it is clear that the last twelve weeks have overtaken them in terms of importance. The Rudd/Gillard/Rudd/Abbott/Turnbull/ Morrison years may have rewritten the rules of party politics and the authority of the office of Prime Minister, but the corona virus has rewritten the rules and future of societies and nations.
There appears to be no end to the ramifications of this bacterial blight. From a personal point of view, I worry as a teacher about the educational future of my students, especially Year 12 students. State assessment authorities have to make some extraordinary decisions before too long about how the class of 2020 will have their academic work assessed.
Not to forget the likelihood of there being no Wimbledon tennis tournament for the first time since the Second World War! Will Roger Federer be stranded on the sidelines and not have the opportunity for a glorious farewell? For the moment, we are all stranded on the shore, not able to participate in the great currents and traditional activities of our lives. Fear not! The collective wish for our society and others not to be permanently marooned is the compelling and optimistic narrative of our time.
Julian Dowse, 31st March, 2020
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