HomeDaniel Andrews pandemic powers: What the Victoria premier has got wrong

Daniel Andrews pandemic powers: What the Victoria premier has got wrong

Daniel Andrews only needs to look at the past to see warning signs about trying to wield too much power.

The story of democracy is the story of power, not the acquiring of it but the yielding of it.

In the United States the revolutionaries were so concerned not to replace one tyrant with another that they gave their new leader a title as meek and passive as they could imagine: “president” — literally someone who presides over meetings.

In the Westminster system the equivalent position is prime minister — literally “the first minister” who, again, simply presides over the cabinet.

And even the founder of the Roman Empire himself was always at pains never to call himself emperor. Instead he described himself merely as “princeps” — again, literally “the first among equals”.

All this might seem either obvious or esoteric but there is a simple lesson to be had: If a Roman emperor is sh*t-scared of looking like he’s wielding too much power then perhaps a Victorian premier should be a tad cautious too.

In a way there is much that is rational about Dan Andrews’ attempt to grant himself wide-ranging “pandemic” powers but rationality and democracy rarely go together.

Indeed, as long as we’re talking about the Romans, they too had a mechanism in their Republican days by which the usual processes of governance could be suspended to address a state of emergency. They called it a “dictatorship”.

The granting of special powers to the premier might be just as effective at combating Covid as the Romans were at combating the Gauls — not to mention each other. But that doesn’t make it right.

The theoretical principle of democracy is for the people to rule their government, not the other way around. In practice this is a messy and convoluted compromise which ideally ends up with everybody feeling vaguely dissatisfied but otherwise able to get on with their lives.

The problem with the Andrews approach is that it seems to dictate — for want of a better word — what the common good must be and require all citizens to adhere to it or face the consequences.

To some extent we all accept and expect this. Some acts — like murder, assault and theft — are clearly intolerable. They cannot be considered rights of the individual because they impinge on the rights of other individuals.

In other words, rights — despite the common catchcry — are not inalienable at all. They only exist until they collide with other rights. The rest is just pragmatism.

It is this nuance which has always been lacking in the Victorian approach to Covid-19, a hardline stance that seems to be getting evermore hardline even as its target recedes into the distance.

And that is what is so disturbingly odd about the legislation being rammed through the Victorian parliament right now. It is an extreme response to a problem that is becoming less extreme by the day.

Vaccinations are soaring, lockdowns are loosening and whether from fight or fatigue Covid is a boxer on the ropes. The crisis is ending, be it by the decline of the disease itself or the exhaustion of popular will.

This is a moment in which all governments should be rapidly ceding power, not cementing it. Policymakers should be obsessed with getting kids back in school and adults back in work rather than shoring up their own authority for the next imagined Armageddon.

And they should also let people be free.

This includes, dare I say it, the lunatic anti-vaxxers who held Australia back for so long as they ummed and ahhed about AstraZeneca and spread fear and misinformation about what has been perhaps the greatest en masse scientific accomplishment of modern history.

When we were all caged up in our homes, effectively held to ransom by a bunch of luddites who wouldn’t do the smallest possible thing to ease our collective suffering, I declared that such people could not consider themselves a part of decent society.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I must admit I couldn’t agree with myself more.

In fact I’ll say it again: For all of you who hesitated and waited, who kept kids out of school and parents locked in homes, who let businesses die and workers lose their jobs, for all of you who let this happen even one second longer than it needed to, please take these sincere words from me: You are truly, completely and honestly, a massive bunch of douchebags.

But now that we are released and your idiotic idea of freedom is no longer restricting ours there is a different calculation at play, a different political and moral test.

As long as there is an acceptable level of herd immunity and an acceptable level of freedom then it no longer becomes a matter of balancing the anti-vaxxers rights against the rest of ours. It becomes a question of whether the state is simply punishing them for having incorrect views.

Here we have polar opposite positions of principle in NSW and Victoria. In NSW even idiots are deemed to have innate liberties that the state cannot deprive unless for the protection of other citizens’ liberties. In Victoria it appears that liberty is something you can only obtain if you subscribe to the correct orthodoxy, which of course isn’t liberty at all.

And that brings us to the troubled but vital heart of any true liberal democracy: People have the right to be wrong.


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