Premier Daniel Andrews is the increasingly-exhausted face of Victoria’s virus crisis – but he’s not actually the one to blame for it, writes Joe Hildebrand.
Premier Daniel Andrews is the increasingly-exhausted face of Victoria’s virus crisis – but he’s not actually the one to blame for it, writes Joe Hildebrand.

'Premier is not the real villain in state's virus crisis'

OPINION

The Simpsons predicted Donald Trump, the coronavirus, the coronavirus conspiracy theory and pretty much every other earth-changing event and so it is only prudent that in Australia's darkest hour we turn to Springfield's first family once more.

This time Homer and Marge are attempting to hire a brainwasher to deprogram Bart. They meet in his office and press him for his credentials.

"I did get Paul McCartney out of Wings," the deprogrammer says smugly.

"You idiot!" yells Homer. "He was the most talented one!"

As usual, Homer is right. And I think of his words whenever I hear calls for Daniel Andrews to resign.

The Simpsons scene where Homer and Marge hire a deprogrammer to save their son Bart. Picture: The Simpsons
The Simpsons scene where Homer and Marge hire a deprogrammer to save their son Bart. Picture: The Simpsons

There is no doubt my beloved home state of Victoria is currently a basket case. You can see it in the forlorn deserted streets and read it in the ever-escalating case numbers and deaths which perversely seem to rise with each new wave of lockdowns.

And I hear it every day in the voices of my family and friends - loyal Labor voters all - who are stuck in their homes with heightened anxiety and diminishing faith.

Melbourne has become a tale of two cities. In the progressive and affluent inner suburbs there is a devotional adherence to mask-wearing and shop-shutting that borders on zealotry - to the point where commentators are writing public love-letters to the Premier and chief health officer.

Meanwhile in the poorer outer suburbs of the west and south-east people have simply ceased to give a f**k. They have stopped listening and stopped caring.

On the first day of the state's unprecedented curfews and travel bans there were more people violating stay-at-home orders than ever before. On the second day positive cases had skyrocketed to record numbers and deaths. The harder the lockdown, it seemed, the more people resisted.

Hence the government is flying blind. They allowed the virus to escape from quarantine, had no ability to effectively track and trace it in its early spread and have been woefully unable to suppress it ever since, even with evermore draconian measures. In thousands of cases they simply have no idea where the virus has come from nor where it is going.

The reasons for this are multiple and manifest. A Labor mate of mine who has worked for both state and federal health ministers blamed the break-up of the Victorian health system into more autonomous parts under the Kennett government, meaning there is no clear centralised authority to manage things in times of crisis such as these.

This certainly checks out with what I have been hearing on the ground, including from a high-risk patient who has been moved between hospitals amid the lockdown and was stunned to discover they had completely different protocols. But Jeff Kennett hasn't been in power in Victoria for more than 20 years.

RELATED: Victoria's new lockdown rules explained

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has made some mistakes – but at least he’s done something. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Daniel Pockett
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has made some mistakes – but at least he’s done something. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Daniel Pockett

I have also heard that the health databases in Victoria are hopelessly inadequate and that contact tracing is piecemeal and sometimes even paper-based.

This is supported by a report in The Age last week revealing Victoria's public health unit was the worst resourced in the country and this was warned about more than a year ago. Despite this, Victoria still had only 14 contact tracers when the coronavirus hit in March this year. By contrast, as reported by The Daily Telegraph last month, the number of contact tracers in NSW was 150 and being expanded to 380 - of whom up to 80 are now being deployed to Victoria.

And then of course there was the fact the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services was officially and publicly advising at-risk people waiting for test results that they could go out in the community even as the Premier was publicly telling people they were forbidden from doing so.

Or the chief health officer saying that actual positive cases who were in enforced isolation in apartments - like housing commission flats for example - could still go out and exercise because of Victoria's bespoke Charter of Human Rights. Again Andrews was forced to shut down an off-Broadway sh*tshow he apparently didn't even know was running.

In other words, for all the daily briefings and public health orders, the Victorian government simply had no apparatus to actually handle the crisis. The cogs were not connected. It is like a mechanic giving a long and impassioned speech about how your car ought to run only for you to pop the bonnet and discover it has no engine.

This is far from saying that Andrews is blameless in his handling of the crisis - of which I have been deeply critical - but it certainly explains the expression on his face each day.

And so if the Victorian government is Wings then Dan Andrews is Paul McCartney. Removing him from the equation might do wonders for his solo career but it wouldn't be great for the band.

Indeed, even when I went on my somewhat infamous rant on Studio 10 last week lamenting the fate of my quadriplegic best mate left isolated in hospital by both the idiotic outbreak and the idiotic overkill, it wasn't actually Andrews I imagined resigning but his Health Minister.

Dan Andrews has done dumb things but at least he's done some things. Jenny Mikakos has effectively done nothing, a nothing which includes her response to the alarms raised about hotel quarantine on day one.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Health Minister Jenny Mikakos. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Andrew Henshaw
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Health Minister Jenny Mikakos. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Andrew Henshaw

As the first elected checkpoint in the chain of command which started with bureaucrats warning senior health officials about private security guards being played, plied and pleasured by infected quarantine cases, the buck unquestionably stops with the minister.

She also named and shamed a public school where a single music teacher had contracted coronavirus from an outside source while the virus ran rampant through a meatworks she refused to identify.

And this week she attended state parliament in defiance of the chief health officer's advice, only to refuse to answer any questions and complain that she shouldn't have been there in the first place.

Contrast this to the weary figure of Dan Andrews who submits himself daily to an exhaustive interrogation of his government's catalogue of woe.

Perhaps it is a form of chivalry - for all his mule-like stubbornness Dan strikes me as a fundamentally decent bloke - or perhaps it is just the hard line set-and-forget style of Victorian politics that makes it keep marching dogmatically into disaster. Either way, in the Bear Pit of NSW politics Mikakos wouldn't have made it to Tuesday morning

And so we see in my old home state a sadness that is slowly creeping into us all. My favourite axiom about parenthood is that you are only ever as happy as your unhappiest child, and that is the way all of Australia feels at the moment.

 

Lonsdale Street, Docklands end, has been almost empty this week. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Sarah Matray
Lonsdale Street, Docklands end, has been almost empty this week. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Sarah Matray

Victoria must recover, not just for its own sake but for all of ours. The fear is that the only plan the government has for that recovery is ever-increasing waves of restrictions, each of which has failed to deliver that recovery, which has in turn only prompted ever-increasing waves of restrictions.

By now such measures may well be necessary and inevitable but let us not forget that this is a crude, cruel and blunt approach which has only been needed because almost every level of Victoria's government failed to do the most basic things that every other jurisdiction has managed without fuss or fervour: Managing people in quarantine, tracking cases, isolating the sick and keeping the public informed and on side. No horde of historical revisionists can erase that inalterable fact.

And yet Daniel Andrews is probably the best choice to lead Victoria out of this disaster for good reasons and bad.

It's partly because for all his myriad mistakes he's still a pretty genuine and dedicated leader, partly because the alternatives are either invisible or unthinkable and partly because sometimes the only person who can get you out of a disaster is the one who got you into it.

Joe Hildebrand is a columnist for news.com.au and co-host of Studio 10, 8am-noon weekdays on Channel 10.

Originally published as Real villain in Victoria's virus crisis



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