Politics

The State of Daniel Andrews: Victoria’s Governor Bligh

The fear of death: Ancient demagogues knew it. Thomas Hobbes knew it.[1] The fear of death trumps liberty. The necessity of acting to avoid death overrides the love of living in a free society. The fear of death communicates readily. The thought of the Grim Reaper is a great motivator. It stimulates caution, risk aversion, anxiety, fear, panic and hysteria. As the fear of death spreads in a community, the greater the likelihood a state will invoke emergency powers.

“Catastrophe is looming. We are facing the greatest emergency since World War Two. Coronavirus will kill tens of thousands of Victorians if we don’t act. What can we do? We will shut down the state.” So the script went as the Victorian government announced a public health state of emergency and later a police state of disaster, and Victorians were catapulted into three distinct lockdowns, two severe (March–May, August–October) and one mild (July–August).[2] In aggregate this was the longest shutdown in the world except for Peru. Melbourne was locked down for twice as long as the city of Wuhan, the original Chinese Communist model for shutdown. In the third lockdown, residents of Melbourne were subject to a night-time curfew. Day-time movement was only allowed within a five-kilometre radius of home. People could travel further for permitted work but only a limited number of workplaces were allowed to open. Victorians could leave their home during the day only for healthcare, shopping, exercise, and permitted work. For months exercise was limited to the prison norm of one hour a day. Parliament did not meet for seventy-five days.[3] The most fundamental of all civil liberties, the freedom of movement, was suspended.

The fear of death should not be confused with the reality of death. The general public’s estimate of deaths from coronavirus routinely overstates the number by a factor of ten. People imagine death more readily than they will ever confront it. Governments hype the risk of death; the media also. So what was the reality of deaths related to COVID-19? Deaths in Australia in 2020 to May 26 were 3 per cent above the comparable period in 2015 to 2019.[4] As of September 25, Victoria with a population of 6.5 million had suffered 781 Covid-related deaths—12 per 100,000 population.[5] The world average of Covid-related deaths on the same date was 12.7 per 100,000. Australia’s average was 3.4 per 100,000. With Victoria subtracted, Australia’s average dropped to 0.47 per 100,000.

How does that compare with deaths generally? For every 100,000 in the population, 640 Australians die each year. Influenza and pneumonia (viral and bacterial) annually kill 12.4 per 100,000 population.[6] Intentional self-harm kills 12.2 per 100,000; falls 11.8; infectious diseases excluding flu viruses, 9.7; transport accidents, 5.3; and accidental poisoning, 5.3. Deaths from COVID-19 are concentrated among a specific group—the population that is over seventy and has an average of 2.6 comorbidities (cancer, kidney disease, heart conditions, obesity, diabetes among them). Most of this high-risk group in Australia are in nursing homes.

As of September 25, 80 per cent (701 out of 869) Covid-related deaths in Australia were in the seventy-plus age cohort.[7] Of these, 92 per cent (652 out of 701) occurred in aged-care residential homes. And of these nursing home deaths, 95 per cent (622) occurred in Victoria. In Australia overwhelmingly the risk of death related to coronavirus was concentrated in nursing homes, and in turn that risk occurred primarily in Victoria.

The dangers posed by coronavirus to elderly infirm persons was not a particularly unusual one in spite of the way that COVID-19 is commonly portrayed. Take the case of the seasonal influenza virus. Influenza is not a coronavirus. COVID-19 belongs to the same virus family as the common cold. But flu’s impact on the aged nonetheless has some striking similarities with Covid. In 2016–2018, 61.5 per 100,000 75–84-year-old Australians died of influenza and pneumonia, along with 381.5 per 100,000 of 85–94-year-olds and 1501 per 100,000 of 95+-year-olds.[8] There are 56,700 places in residential aged care in Victoria.[9] By September 25, Covid-related deaths represented 1097 deaths per 100,000 among this aged-care population. This was worse than the annual impact of the seasonal flu on the aged but not as serious as the recurring toll from coronary heart disease or dementia. Conversely deaths from the flu in Australia during the coronavirus year have dropped dramatically. From January to July 2020 there were thirty-six flu-related deaths compared to 637 such deaths during the same period in 2019.[10]

In Victoria the overwhelming impact of coronavirus was on the susceptible immune-compromised population living in nursing homes and suffering from multiple other serious health conditions. This very specific impact was predictable as early as January when the first reports of the virus began to emerge from China.[11] The propensity of the virus to cause deaths among over-seventies with multiple serious health conditions was confirmed by the detailed medical profiles of the disease that came out of Italy in late April.[12]

Cocoons versus lockdowns

In a given population, three sub-populations are relevant to COVID-19. The first is most people, for whom Covid symptoms are no worse than the common cold. The second is the high-risk institutionalised nursing home population. The third is an in-between population, typically over fifty-five, who are not institutionalised. For each sub-population a different public policy response is appropriate.

The first group is the medium through which community immunity develops. As more persons with good immune responses are exposed to the virus, the less ability it has to reproduce itself. More cases of this type are good. Even vaccines are no more than a prompt or reminder to the body’s immune system of how to repel a virus. The third group benefits from social distancing. They are not in an institutional setting where serious infection control can be applied. Instead they rely on physical distance to reduce the chance of being exposed to the virus. Intergenerational transmission due to prolonged close contact, especially in multigenerational family settings, is a key risk for the third group. There’s a social balance to be struck between getting the virus and not getting the virus. The second group, the institutionalised, benefit from concentrated infection control and various forms of institution-specific lockdowns and quarantines.

Japan had no national lockdown. It managed the virus with government advice to social distance. It had a very low rate of death from coronavirus and a very low rate of death in its nursing homes. Sweden had no national lockdown and managed the virus through social distancing. It had a high rate of death per capita and a high percentage of those deaths in nursing homes, many of which are large barrack-like places. Singapore had a national lockdown and a very low rate of death per capita. Its cases were concentrated mainly in its guest-worker labour barracks.

What happened to the susceptible population, especially in aged care, was the key factor determining the national death rate. What happened among the general population, lockdown or not, had relatively little effect on the outcome.

Cocooning barrack-like nursing homes was particularly important in a state like Victoria. It has a high rate of institutional long-term care, with 8615 nursing home beds per million population. By comparison, Singapore has 2931, Hong Kong 4459 and Japan 6714.[13] So why did Victoria choose to lock down its entire population when that population mostly had a very low risk of dying or being hospitalised because of the virus? For most Victorians, exposure to the virus meant either mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Most people’s immune system is sufficiently robust to repel the virus with little or no consequence. So why lock down an entire society and economy rather than simply cocoon aged-care homes and apply rigorous infection controls in them? Why not target resources where they mattered and where they could be effective and make a difference?

In the nineteenth century, William Farr discovered that viruses rise and fall in a bell-curve pattern. Societies cannot control a pattern like this. But by understanding it they can adapt to it by finding techniques to control small components of it, such as its spread among highly susceptible immune-compromised populations, in order to mitigate the most deadly effects of the virus. The first responsibility of government is to work out what it can and cannot control. The first failing of Premier Daniel Andrews’s government in Victoria was the assumption that it could control things to the extent that it could “suppress” the spread of the virus. It believed it could “eliminate” virus cases by testing for infections, tracing the contacts of infected persons and locking down the population.

The problem with this approach is that case numbers are an artifice. They are the function of the number of tests performed on persons who have self-selected to be tested. US research based on serological data from March to May estimated that the number of Americans infected then was an average of ten times the number who tested positive.[14] There is no reason to think Australia is any different. On top of this, case numbers have no fixed causal relation to deaths. Japan did only 5 per cent of tests per capita that Australia did but it had a third of the deaths per capita. That New South Wales’s tracing of contacts was a bit more effective than Victoria’s (78 per cent of contacts traced compared with 90 per cent in New South Wales) is more or less irrelevant.[15] Recorded cases that can be traced are only the tip of the iceberg of infection. Testing and tracing are an effective measure for reducing the spread of a virus in its early phase of transmission. As time passes and the number of cases grows, the efficacy of the technique diminishes significantly.[16]

The great irony, and perhaps tragedy, is that the third lockdown in Victoria had no demonstrable effect on the virus. At the beginning of the lockdown the virus’s effective reproduction rate (RE) had already fallen to 0.94 after having averaged 1.06 through the last three weeks of July.[17] A drop of the virus’ RE below 1 indicates the virus is on the way out. Despite the severity of the third lockdown, the seven-day rolling average of the RE from August 2 through September 25 was 0.94.[18] In classic bell-curve style the RE ended its above-1 run on August 3, a week before any lockdown measures could have affected test-positive case numbers.

Whereas lockdown in Victoria provided no evident benefit, the other notable emergency method used by the Victorian government, quarantining international travellers from March onwards, was a clear negative. Quarantine hotels are a bad idea, irrespective of where they are, be it in Victoria or New South Wales. By April-May the international evidence was clear. Major virus transmission clusters occur in two settings.[19] First, among people in prolonged close contact in crowded enclosed spaces such as ships, labour barracks, nursing homes, conferences, churches and prisons. Second, in food processing plants and food markets. Quarantine hotels, if badly managed, are just another version of these.[20]

In Victoria the virus transmitted itself via hotel quarantine staff into the general population.[21] But this was not the primary cause of the state’s mounting deaths. Rather it was one step in a chain of causation, and by no means the most important. The virus moved from hotel staff into the barrack-style living quarters of many of these employees then onwards into Victoria’s public-housing tower blocks and through close-contact extended family networks.[22] The crucial factors were geographic, cultural, family and institutional. On leaving the hotel barracks the virus clustered geographically in four local government areas in the northern and western suburbs of Melbourne.[23] It spread through residually pre-modern extended family structures and nursing homes in those suburbs.[24] Its deadly effects were felt almost entirely in the nursing homes. The Andrews government didn’t target those specific causes, but resorted to a crude blanket lockdown of the state. The strategy was to manage an entire state of 6.5 million residents rather than the 56,000 persons in nursing homes.

The four temperaments

Lockdown will cost Victoria dearly. There are multiple factors to blame. A recession was likely in Australia in 2020 or thereabouts because of sluggish productivity growth during the 2010s. The panicked reaction of the world to COVID-19 inevitably had economic effects. These realities though were significantly exacerbated in Victoria by the Andrews government’s lockdown measures. A quarter of a million Victorians were stood down in August.[25] Australia will not return to pre-Covid economic levels till 2022, and the worst of the downturn will be experienced in Victoria.[26] Banks anticipate a decline in Victorian GDP of somewhere between 5 per cent and 9 per cent in 2020 in a $400 billion economy.[27] Small businesses and sole traders, the main drivers of employment, will be particularly hurt.[28]

Economies recover from recession; people less so. The UK government’s actuary office estimates that the number of indirect deaths caused by Covid public policy will exceed the number of Covid-related deaths that occurred to the end of August.[29] In Victoria there will be a comparable collateral cost—the result of mental illness, increased self-harm, reduced health and care service levels, the strain of mass unemployment, the loss of businesses and the nervous avoidance of hospitals and doctors.[30] The UK lockdown was 40 per cent shorter than Victoria’s. This suggests that the collateral problems faced by Victoria will be greater than Britain’s.

There was never a coherent or reasonable justification for the lockdown of Victoria—and certainly not for a prolonged lockdown. So why did it happen? It is not sufficient to say it was a matter only of bad policy or misleading numbers, even if there was plenty of those to go around. The overriding factor was psychological mood. In Victoria the mood was given shape and direction by the Andrews government. But that shape and direction did not occur in a vacuum. Its immediate context was a mass psychological disposition that had been developing for a decade or longer. The larger and deeper context reaches back into the early- and mid-nineteenth century—into the historical and psychological recesses of the Australian mind. What happened in Victoria in 2020 was not just a severe policy mistake. The Premier of the state, Daniel Andrews, also gave political expression to subterranean currents in Australian social psychology.

Andrews is the spiritual heir of William Bligh. Bligh was the worst leader of a government in Australian history. Bligh was a stubborn, galling, high-handed personality and a chronic disciplinarian. For three unhappy years he was governor of New South Wales before he was deposed by a rebellion. Lachlan Macquarie, his successor, described him as “tyrannical in the extreme” and was relieved when Bligh finally returned to England.[31] The difference in temperament between Bligh and Macquarie had a lasting effect on the shape of Australian culture. Had Bligh not been deposed and replaced by Macquarie, Australia would have ended up a failed state.

Though there are important differences between the two, Bligh and Andrews share a choleric temperament. In 2020 Victorians discovered what it is like to live in a state that is run in an emphatic manner by a choleric personality. Such personalities are often found in positions of authority. They gravitate there naturally. Choleric personalities want to lead and be in control. Usually there are checks and balances that guard against the extremes of the choleric personality. As it turns out, though, this is not always the case.

The characteristics of a choleric personality in full flight are well known. For two thousand years, from Hippocrates and Galen to Shakespeare and Kant, the choleric personality has been the subject of recurring observation.[32] It is one of a typology of four temperaments. These are psychological dispositions that human beings are born with. Choleric personalities coexist with melancholic, sanguine and phlegmatic types. Most people are not a pure personality type but rather mixtures of different types. Galen’s works On Temperaments, On Non-Uniform Distemperment and The Soul’s Traits Depend on Bodily Temperament were treatises on such mixtures (“temperare”) and specifically on dysfunctional mixtures (“dyskrasia”).

Galen was a physician in the court of the stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. While his medicine is of historical interest only, Galen’s psychology (his study of the soul) has been remarkably enduring.[33] In the twentieth century it was overlaid with other typological grids. It was the premise for Jerome Kagan’s developmental psychology.[34] Hans Eysenck used the four-temperament theory as the building block of his E-N (Extravert-Neurotic) theory of personality. Carl Jung reconfigured the four types as a function of the energy (Extrovert v Introvert), perception (Sensing v Intuition) and judgment (Thinking v Feeling) that a person displays.[35] Patrick White’s The Solid Mandala interpreted the Australian soul as if it was an unfolding of episodes of tension and reconciliation between these dichotomies.

Neither Eysenck nor Jung bettered the original Hippocrates–Galen theory, which was rooted in two millennia of observations of human behaviour. Shakespeare, the greatest psychologist of the human condition, is (as ever) a reliable guide in this matter. The melancholic Hamlet, the phlegmatic Falstaff, the choleric Lady Macbeth, and the sanguine Viola are among the many Shakespearean characters who take their cue from the theory of the four temperaments.

Where Patrick White conceived of everyday Australian life in his fictional Sydney suburb of Sarsaparilla as an interplay of the four colours of hermetic thought (gold, green, red, blue) and the four seasons of Man, the four temperaments take us somewhat closer to understanding the social psychology that generates the broad sweep of politics and history. That is, closer to understanding the macrocosm of which Shakespearean court politics was the microcosm. In Australia’s case it all began with the admirers of Bligh and Macquarie. The contrast of Bligh’s choleric personality and Macquarie’s sanguine personality is striking. Each was almost a pure instance of his personality type, a rarity in itself. That one succeeded the other in New South Wales had a lasting effect on the social psychology of Australians.

Sanguine personalities like Macquarie are extroverts and optimists who are talkative and sociable. They like material comfort, material culture and big cities. Their personalities are outgoing. They are at ease with strangers, make friends easily and show little interest in status hierarchies. As a cohort, sanguine types are energetic, quick to adapt, curious, adventurous and interested in a wide diversity of things. They have a low boredom threshold and cope well with interruptions and changes of course. They don’t hold grudges and quickly move on from one job to another. Sanguine personalities dislike routine, repetition and monotony. They like luxury and travel, and often travel widely. They are able to take risks, make bold decisions and act spontaneously. By far the least sanguine of all of Australia’s current political leaders is Daniel Andrews.

The melancholic classes

Two factors explain why Andrews took Victoria down the path of prolonged lockdown. He is a choleric leader but one with a powerful melancholic side to his personality. This coupling echoes a plurality of Victorian public opinion. Majority support though was only loaned to Andrews by the large contingent of phlegmatic Victorians. This was unsurprising. The quiet Victorians do not make a fuss. They are by nature conciliatory and avoid conflict where possible. Phlegmatic personalities are slow to make judgments. They tend to patiently support the government in power. It takes a lot to exhaust their patience. Australian public opinion only turns slowly. The run-up to these turns tends to be measured in years rather than months or weeks. But when opinion does turn it can be decisive. Governments which for a long time have been patiently if reluctantly supported can find themselves out of power in a landslide.

Choleric and sanguine personalities usually take the lead in politics because they are extroverts. Most people, though, are not extroverts. Macquarie’s genius was to create the conditions in which phlegmatic personalities flourished. Among those who followed in his wake are the quiet Victorians. They are the unassuming plurality that is sympathetic, charitable, relaxed, congenial and reserved. Mostly they are non-political. They are slow in decision-making and they don’t readily make judgments. They try to avoid conflict and value being co-operative and supportive. They are people-orientated rather than numbers-focused, and are good-natured if indecisive. Phlegmatic personalities as a type are calm, impassive and stoical, and without aspiration to great action or achievement. They strive to be dependable, not to excel or stand out. Their motto is “she’ll be right”.

Macquarie was successful because he created a national couplet of phlegmatic and sanguine personalities, together the stabilisers and innovators of Australian society. Bligh had no such social complementarity to fall back on. Many of his numerous enemies were themselves choleric personalities. The social backstop of choleric government did not develop until after 1860 when the country saw a distinct uptick in melancholic personalities as the romantic strain in modern culture began to grow in Australia. The colonial era had not been fertile soil for a melancholic psychology. But as organisational, corporate, union, party, bureaucratic, public sector, intelligentsia, university and upper-middle-class life gradually expanded in Australia, the melancholic strain sprouted roots. The late nineteenth-century Victorian protectionist, publisher and writer David Syme is representative of the type.[36] If you blend Bligh together with Syme, you get the Daniel Andrews persona. In literary terms, he is the offspring of Lady Macbeth and Hamlet.

The melancholic strand has never been the dominant culture in Australia, though it has been more influential in Victoria than elsewhere. None of the four temperaments makes up more than a plurality of voters. Most Australians are mixes of the four. The melancholic strain, however, has grown since the 1970s. With the coming of post-industrial society, it grew especially among elites. The fusion of melancholia and bureaucracy in government, universities and corporations has been a recurrent theme of the era—rising in significance in the late 1960s and 1970s; abating in the 1980s and 1990s; rising again in the 2010s. The coronavirus year was the culminating moment of the melancholic wave of the 2010s.

Melancholic personalities are introverts. Often they are uncomfortable with strangers. Strangers represent the unknown and thus the uncertain. The primary drive of melancholic personalities is for certainty. Certainty—or its appearance—comes in a variety of forms. Melancholic individuals focus on details. Detail seems the easiest thing to control. Sometimes, in the case of perfectionists, this is paralysing. Other times it is just reassuring. Melancholic persons are prone to anxiety (the fear of “what might be”). They dampen these feelings with activities requiring minute attention and certainty-inducing repetition. As the incidence of anxiety has grown markedly since the end of the nineteenth century, so have bureaucratic jobs and government programs promising security. Regulation, precision and clarity convey a sense of certainty. So do plans, procedures and processes. Lockdowns are a concatenation of all of these.

Melancholic personalities are gloomy and pessimistic. They embody Shakespeare’s “surly spirit”.[37] For them, things always seem bad. Situations are always difficult; their glass is always half-empty. The world around them is filled with threats and emergencies. Safety is the highest good, not freedom. Melancholics are life’s natural socialists. When socialism collapsed, they gravitated to a mix of catastrophism and safetyism. The end of the world, they feel, is coming—whether it is because of climate change, coronavirus, the next epidemic, the Y2K bug, resource shortages, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, globalism, the hole in the ozone layer, atomic energy or computers. In the mind’s eye of the melancholic personality, the internet is Skynet, the networked artificial intelligence that unleashed Armageddon in the film Terminator. “Science” predicts catastrophe and counsels safety.

Melancholic personalities are relentlessly critical. Criticism offers them a momentary relief from anxiety. The critic knows “for sure” what is right. Yet melancholic critics hate being criticised. Challenging their certainty causes them “offence”, the hurt of the habitually consternated. So while criticism promises certainty it also induces anxiety. As does hierarchy. The melancholic critic routinely demands something called “equality” yet simultaneously craves status. This is not hypocrisy. Apodictic truth and rank order are reassuring. They promise to quell the anxious fears of “what might happen”.

Since the 1970s in Victoria, as elsewhere, the melancholic type has come to dominate the collective persona of public sector institutions including universities. This has generated a distinctive style of science and research. It is one that is interested in analytical detail and predictive modelling rather than big ideas or large-scale patterns. Often the predictions it makes are dire because it sees itself as the canary in the coal mine warning of disaster. It anticipates threats that require emergency measures. While the predictions may be ominous, the measures to deal with them are usually procedural and bureaucratic. End-of-the-world scenarios culminate in bureaucratic rules that promise the precision, certainty and safety that the melancholic personality desires.

In March, Victoria’s public health science began with apocalyptic modelling of COVID-19.[38] The apocalypse soon turned into a hyperbolic fixation on the spread of “cases” of persons who “test positive” to the virus. The obsessive counting of “cases” became a talisman of scientific superstition. Neither models nor testing proved reliable predictors of deaths per capita. Nor did either pinpoint the principal controllable causes of Covid-related deaths. Apocalyptic-procedural science has become a commonplace in recent decades. It melds anxiety with certainty. Anxiety projects a doom-laden future, while the hunger for certainty leads to rule-governed steps and procedures. Victoria’s lockdown epitomised the latter. It was a set of graduated stages, each characterised by numerous choleric rules of the kind that ban persons sitting alone on park benches or opening their contactless dog-grooming businesses or that specify council workers can mow lawns while private contractors cannot.

A choleric-melancholic government

Daniel Andrews’s temperament is a mix of choleric and melancholic parts. On one side he is a choleric extrovert who needs to lead and direct. Choleric individuals like to take charge. Andrews gives orders rather than makes requests. He issues imperatives rather than gives advice. He speaks with complete certainty. For him there is only one way—his way. He is intolerant of opposition in his party and among the public. During the coronavirus months he mobilised an extraordinary show of police force across Victoria. This officious and platitudinous melodrama was meant to discourage sceptical public opinion.

Andrews’s nickname—“Dictator Dan”—is apt. His ultimate creation was a constitutional dictatorship, a legally-mandated state of emergency intended as a short, sharp, liberty-crushing exception to the liberal parliamentary norm. Its mantra was a staged return to normality.

The modern theory of the brief constitutional dictatorship was developed in the early 1920s by Carl Schmitt.[39] A bright but atypical figure on the German Weimar political Right, his influence on the intellectual Left has grown in the past four decades, notably as emergency rhetoric such as the “climate emergency” has grown across the political spectrum.[40]

Looked at sideways, Andrews is the second coming of William Bligh. Looked at front-on though, he is a more complex personality. Andrews has a despotic personality. He exercises power with hubris. Nonetheless the overreach that characterised coronavirus policy in Victoria was not just the result of a despotic personality in charge or popular support for a “strong leader”, even if those were factors. The overreach also had its roots in Victoria’s large melancholic sub-culture. This is a significant electoral and psychological constituency and one that is influential among various Victorian elite groups.

To properly understand the power created by the coupling of choleric and melancholic temperaments, it is important to understand the psychological template that took shape in colonial Australia. William Bligh was deposed by the Rum Rebellion just as the mutiny on HMS Bounty earlier had cast him adrift on the ocean. Bligh was not a very successful choleric personality because he had no staff or bureaucracy, class or type, who would support his domineering manner. Daniel Andrews is different in this respect.

Andrews is high-handed and over-bearing. He has the manner of an imperious extrovert. He dominates all public communication from his government. He responds to criticism with a mix of irritation, scolding, sneers and scoffs.[41] But this always is leavened with an appeal to the melancholy outlook of anonymous unaccountable “experts”. For months during 2020 he monopolised the public lectern. He deployed a battery of peevish, testy, disdainful, snarky and derisive remarks aimed at anyone who disagreed with him. This was complemented with gloomy technocratic appeals to “the evidence”, “the science” and “the models”.[42] Forward attack was combined with the prickly, defensive rhetorical style of the introverted melancholic.

The vexation and melancholia had effects. The Andrews government refused or ignored repeated Commonwealth offers to staff the state’s quarantine hotels with Australian Defence Force personnel.[43] In effect Victoria went into a burrow. The result was a fiasco. As with labour barracks across the world, the four-star hotel barracks fast-tracked virus transmission, the opposite of what was intended.

Andrews’s go-it-alone actions had two sources. One was the single-mindedness typical of a choleric personality. In achieving modest goals, single-mindedness can focus energies and achieve things that otherwise would not happen. But single-mindedness does not scale very well. On a society-wide level, it turns into a form of obsessive behaviour. In August, when Scott Morrison raised concerns about Victoria’s infrastructure debt arrangements with China, Andrews replied in a deeply revealing way: “If the Prime Minister has got time to be doing those things, then that’s fine for him. I don’t. I’m exclusively focused on fighting this virus.”[44] National security, the economy, social wellbeing, human dignity, fundamental liberties and indirect deaths caused by public policy—all these questions mattered not one bit. The lack of balance evident in this approach is troubling. No government, irrespective of circumstances, can afford to pay attention to only one issue to the exclusion of all others. The very essence of good liberal-democratic government is the ability to find the right equilibrium point among conflicting purposes and needs.

The second source of the Premier’s go-it-alone attitude was his melancholic introverted side. The impulse of the melancholic is to burrow deeply, seek protection, subtract, retreat, brood, and repeat in isolation the same motions over and over again as a defence against anxiety. Through the coronavirus months, the Premier stayed at home, bunkered down, isolated—governing from his home office. The state’s aggressive stay-at-home policy and extraordinary night curfew was a projection of the mind-set of a choleric-melancholic leader for whom isolation was not so much a public health necessity as an ideal state of being.

Isolation at home was an extension of the leader’s own deep psychological sense of intellectual quarantine. A choleric-melancholic personality by nature seeks to be sequestered from the views and advice of others. Andrews governed for six years by informally centralising power in his own office and diminishing cabinet government. This created a situation of fluid hierarchies with overlapping and ambiguous responsibilities and fluctuating shifts in authority.[45] One Kafkaesque result of this was that no person or committee made the explicit operational decision to staff Victoria’s quarantine hotels with private security personnel. Rather the botched system emerged by collective osmosis in a state where the leader’s informal will had eroded formal cabinet and bureaucratic authority.[46]

Andrews’ choleric-imperious self could not delegate authority in a normal way to cabinet colleagues let alone other governments. Conversely his melancholic-analytic side was drawn to the daily melodrama of case numbers. Technical details offer apparent certainty, a fortified truth, seemingly safe from the disruptive irony of the sanguine segment of the population. A comforting collective illusion is induced by burrowing deep down into data that promises to provide yes/no answers.

Through the lockdown months Andrews ruled over a quiescent cabinet, party room and factional base. The job of others was to follow directions and not question “the science”.  Nobody in Victoria’s cabinet said “no” to him.[47] As the ship’s captain, William Bligh expected the same acquiescence from Fletcher Christian. Christian was his pupil and a gentleman sailor who paid his own way on the Bounty. Bligh did not get what he expected. His paranoid rages on the voyage back from Tahiti became too much for Christian and his compatriots.

The ballast among Australians is the phlegmatic personalities. They are not rebellious. They have little interest in militancy. Nor are they attracted to Fletcher Christian-style liberty-mongering rabble-rousing. The Rum Rebellion and the Eureka Stockade are the exceptions in Australian history that prove the rule. While the phlegmatic plurality of Australians might not be militant in any sense, it always reserves judgment. It does not rush to judgment, but weighs things slowly, sometimes very slowly. It is by nature cautious. It has been frightened by coronavirus, strained by the lockdown and reluctantly understanding of government throughout. As the case for the net benefit of lockdown becomes more and more implausible, and Victoria’s cumulative toll from economic downturn, destruction of businesses, increased domestic violence, mass unemployment, collateral deaths and mental illnesses, mendicant status and out-migration to other states grows, so may the tide of judgment turn.

Peter Murphy’s new book, COVID-19: Proportionality, Public Policy and Social Distancing, is scheduled to be published by Palgrave Pivot in December.

 

Notes

[1]              Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651/1668.

[2]              This included one severe lockdown (March 16 to May 11), one milder lockdown (July 7 to August 1) and one severe lockdown (August 2 to a projected October 19) at the time of writing. Assuming that the end-date of October 19 has not changed, Victoria’s serial lockdowns will have added up a total of 162 days of aggravated restrictions on movement, activity and business. China’s Wuhan shutdown (January 23 to April 8) was the model for all the world’s subsequent punitive lockdowns. It lasted 76 days. Victoria during 2020 will have been shut down for an extraordinary five and a half months. The state of emergency was declared on March 16. The emergency powers of the “state of disaster” were invoked on August 2. The latter was used to expand police powers to enforce a curfew and the restrictions on the freedom of movement. Under a “state of disaster” in Victoria, parliamentary laws can be suspended and individual property seized.

[3]              Between March 19 and June 2.

[4]              55,047 in 2020 compared to the 53,361 average across the years 2015-2019 for the period January 1 to May 26. Data: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Provisional Mortality Statistics, Jan-May 2020.

[5]              Australian Government, Department of Health, Coronavirus (COVID-19) current situation and case numbers, September 25, 2020.

[6]              Australian Bureau of Statistics, Causes of death, 2018.

[7]              Australian Government, Department of Health, Coronavirus (COVID-19) current situation and case numbers, September 25, 2020.

[8]              Australian Government, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Table S3.2: Leading causes of death, number and crude rates (deaths per 100,000 population) by age group, 2016–2018.

[9]              Australian Government, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, GEN Aged Care Data, Places in aged care by state and program type (All), June 30 2019.

[10]             Data: National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS).

[11]             I began reading reports about a new virus circulating in China in the second week of January. At the same time I was planning to visit my aged mother who lives in a nursing home interstate. Between January 15 and January 24, I weighed the following issue: if I travel interstate I might be flying with someone who has joined a domestic flight after flying from China. There’s a low chance of that. On the other hand if I catch the virus I’ll probably be asymptomatic and not be aware of it. What’s the most risky place I could visit? A nursing home. So I cancelled my trip on January 24.

[12]             SARS-CoV-2 Surveillance Group, Characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 patients dying in Italy. Report based on available data on April 23th, Istituto Superiore Sanità, 2020.

[13]             Social Welfare Department, The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Overview of Residential Care Services for the Elderly; Rahimah Rashith, “MOH to grow aged care services to meet rising demand”, The Straits Times, August 15, 2018; OECD Stats, Long-Term Care Resources and Utilisation: Beds in residential long-term care facilities, 2016.

[14]             Fiona P. Havers et al., “Seroprevalence of Antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 in 10 Sites in the United States, March 23-May 12, 2020”, JAMAInternal Medicine, American Medical Association, July 21, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.4130. The study included researchers from the US Centres for Disease Control and state health departments. The study encompassed serological results from 10 locations in the United States including the incidence of B cell antibodies in participants who were tested. B cell antibodies indicate persons who were infected by the virus but whose immune system fought it off. The study did not test for T cell indicators of successful immune responses. The research concluded that the numbers in the American population in April-May infected by the virus was 6-24 times (and an average of ten times) the number of registered cases. Extrapolating, that’s the equivalent of 3 percent of the US population on May 1, 6 percent on July 22 the US case peak, and 19 percent on September 15.

[15]             Percentages of effective tracing by state cited in Rachel Baxendale, “Coronavirus: Health chief backs data on ‘gold standard’ NSW”, The Australian, September 8 2020.

[16]             See for example Thomas House and Matt J. Keeling, “The Impact of Contact Tracing in Clustered Populations”, PLoS Computational Biology 6:3, 2010; Katayoun Farrahi, Remi Emonet and Manuel Cebrian, “Epidemic Contact Tracing via Communication Traces”, PLoS One 9:5 2014; Benjamin Armbruster and Margaret L. Brandeau, “Contact tracing to control infectious disease: when enough is enough”, Health Care Management Science, 10 2007, pp. 341–355.

[17]             Victorian Health Department case notification data collated by Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Australia https://www.covid19data.com.au

[18]             From September 1 to September 25, the 7-day rolling average was 0.93.

[19]             Leclerc, Q. J. et al. “What settings have been linked to SARS-CoV-2 transmission clusters?” Wellcome Open Research 5:83, June 5, 2020.

[20]             If hotel quarantine was anything more than political theatre, and if quarantining persons at home posed any kind of real concern, mandated isolation could be humanely and efficiently achieved by placing GPS ankle bracelets with flexible range, leave and proximity settings on the home detainees. In the case of Victoria, the government devised a system of hotel quarantine for returning travellers that restricted exercise outside the hotels to ten-minute blocks a handful of times a week. This form of mental cruelty fell well below human rights standards and prisoner conventions. A sign of despotism is petty gratuitous cruelties.

[21]             The transmission agent was mostly hotel staff but in two cases the “second wave” of the virus was traced to asymptomatic persons who had completed their 14-day detention period in hotel quarantine. Such was the quality of the quarantine that those exiting weren’t tested before they left even though they had been stuck for two weeks in a land-locked “Ruby Princess”-style barracks.

[22]             Victorian Chief Medical Officer Professor Brett Sutton’s testimony to Victoria’s Hotel Quarantine Inquiry, September 16, 2020: “It’s clear that there must have been close contacts who were not identified because we’re aware that this virus extended to the broader community without a clear epidemiological link back to the staff at hotel quarantine… there are unidentified close contacts in that chain who were never raised as close contacts with the outbreak management team”. He added: “The demographics of that workforce cohort provide for significant risks of transmission within the community.” He noted among the social obstacles were language and cultural barriers to social distancing. Senior Medical Advisor Dr. Claire Looker stated in her testimony to Victoria’s Hotel Quarantine Inquiry, September 16, 2020: “Social and health vulnerabilities in the security guard cohort meant that many of our usual outbreak control measures were more difficult to implement and have success with… For example, many of the guards live in crowded, dense accommodation and are reluctant to accept our offer of alternative accommodation.”

[23]             Brimbank, Wyndham, Hume and Melton: 952, 813, 702, 686 cases per 100,000 population. Adjacent local government areas of Maribyrnong, Moonee Valley, Moreland and Whittlesea also had a high level of cases per 100,000 population: 623, 611, 557 and 522 per 100,000. Data source: Covid Live, Vic Cases LGA, Total Cases per 100,000 people https://covidlive.com.au/report/cases-per-population-lga/vic Data collated from media reports and verified against Federal and State Health department reporting.  

[24]             For a mapping of affected nursing homes by postcode, see Craig Butt, Richard Lama, Mark Stehle, Rachael Dexter and Peter Quattrocelli, “Aged care key to city postcode cases as country largely in the clear”, The Age, September 11, 2020. The affected nursing homes were predominately in Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs.

[25]             The effective unemployment rate in Victoria in September 2020 was 13.5 percent. These included workers on the Commonwealth government’s temporary JobKeeper allowance who were nominally still employed but who were working zero hours.

[26]             So much so that Victoria will become effectively a mendicant state in the four-year fiscal-year period 2019-2020 to 2022-2023. Henry Ergas estimates that the state will receive as much as an additional $10 billion in GST receipts mostly at the expense of taxpayers in New South Wales—in addition to the Commonwealth government pandemic assistance to Victorians of $11,000 per capita, transfer payments that, Ergas observes, are “substantially greater than Victoria’s total public spending in 2019-20”. Henry Ergas, “Force Daniel Andrews to bear the costs of the damage he wreaks”, The Australian, September 11, 2020.

[27]             The previous worst decline in Victoria occurred in 1991-1992 during the years of the Joan Kirner government. Growth fell -2.7 percent in 1990-1991 and -1.1 percent in 1991-1992. These were bleak years, economically and socially, for Victoria. Data from State of Victoria, Department of Treasury and Finance, Victorian real gross state product, 2019-20 Budget Update, December 2019.     

[28]             Through the period of lockdown the Andrews government demonstrated its strong ideological preference for large managerial organizations and the nexus of unions, big-and-medium business and government.

[29]             Department of Health and Social Care, Office for National Statistics, Government Actuary’s Department and Home Office, Direct and Indirect Impacts of COVID-19 on Excess Deaths and Morbidity: Executive Summary, July 15, 2020. England and Wales in 2020 to Week 31 registered 51,210 deaths (most of these deaths occurred between March 23 and July 5). Annually in England and Wales 0.8 percent of the population dies—currently around 530,000 persons. In the year from July 5 2019 to July 4 2020, 572,000 persons in England and Wales died, 42,000 of them—or 7.9 percent—above the annual average of 532,000 annual deaths for the years 2015-2018. [Data: UK Office of National Statistics]. Around 20,000 COVID-related nursing home deaths occurred in the UK between March and June 2020. Comparing each year in the UK back to 1901 with the average number of deaths for the preceding four years, the years in which there was a noticeable uptick in deaths [by year, increase and cause] are: 2015 (6 percent, influenza epidemic), 1968 (5 percent, pandemic “Hong Kong flu”), 1962 (5 percent, pandemic “Asian flu” wave), 1961 (5 percent, pandemic “Asian flu” wave), 1951 (9 percent, influenza epidemic), 1947 (5 percent, influenza pseudo-pandemic), 1940 (17 percent, war, influenza epidemic), 1937 (5 percent, influenza epidemic), 1929 (14 percent, economic depression, influenza epidemic), 1918 (17 percent, war, Spanish flu), 1915 (10 percent, war). [Data: UK, Office of National Statistics, Annual data: Deaths (numbers and rates: total, infant, neonatal).] Comparable spikes in the death rate occurred in Australia in 1964 (5 percent), 1942 (7 percent), 1939 (5 percent), 1935 (6 percent), 1934 (7 percent), 1919 (22 percent). [Data: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Deaths web report, Table S4.1: Deaths by sex, number and death rates (deaths per 100,000 population), 1907–2018, 7 August 2020.] Comparing the January-May period in 2020 with the same period in the years 2015-2019, the increase in numbers of death was 3 percent. [Data: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Provisional Mortality Statistics, Jan-May 2020.]

[30]             By mid-September 2020, the backlog of surgeries delayed due to Victoria’s suspension of elective surgeries during lockdown had reached 60,000. Calls to Victorian mental health hotlines for children during March-August increased by 30 percent year-on-year (Anna Prytz and Adam Carey, “Calls for help surge as teens’ mental health suffers in lockdown”, The Age, September 10, 2020). Calls to the Lifeline help line in 2020 were up 25 percent. Melbourne’s outer east Headspace mental health service estimated a 50 percent rise in referrals for young people to hospital emergency departments because of a mental health crisis. Nationwide Ian Hickie at the Sydney University’ Brain and Mind Centre estimates between 4,000 additional suicides (possibly more) will occur in Australia in the next five years because of the effects of COVID public policy—a thirty percent annual increase. Those effects will be felt most in Victoria. (Elise Kinsella, “As Victoria endures prolonged coronavirus lockdown, mental health workers see devastating impacts of COVID-19”, ABC News, September 1 2020.) Researchers from Ambulance Victoria found a significant decrease in cardiac-arrest survival rates between March and May in Victoria and they estimated that 186 additional preventable cardiac deaths would occur in 2020 compared to the past three years. At the Alfred Hospital, heart attack presentations had fallen by 30 percent. Fear of going to hospital was delaying persons seeking potentially life-saving treatments. (Melissa Cunningham, “’I couldn’t let a mate die’: Study shows hidden spike in cardiac deaths”, The Age, September 26, 2020.)

[31]             Macquarie to his brother Charles, 10 March 1810.

[32]             Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2006 [1798], pp. 186-191; Lectures on Anthropology, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 171- 174, 181-192 [1775-1776 lecture series], 295-314, 334 [1781-1782 lecture series], 428, 444-448, 465-482 [1784-1785 lecture series], 523-524 [1788-1789 lecture series]; Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and Other Writings, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2011 [1764], pp. 26-31.

[33]             Among those who adapted the idea were Johann Goethe and Friedrich Schiller in their Rose of Temperaments (1789), a colour wheel (based on Goethe’s theory of colour) that illustrated human occupations with twelve colours clustered into the four temperaments.

[34]             Jerome Kagan, Galen’s prophecy: Temperament in human nature, New York, Routledge, 2018 [1994].

[35]             The Americans Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers developed a psychological test (the Myers Briggs Type Indicator) based on sixteen different combinations of these bifurcated traits. Drawing on data from neurobiology, neuropharmacology and genetics, C. Robert Cloniger fashioned a set of four biopsychosocial temperament pairs: persistence persevering, ambitious vs. easily discouraged, underachieving, harm avoidance anxious, pessimistic vs. outgoing, optimistic, novelty seeking impulsive, quick-tempered vs. rigid, slow-tempered and reward dependence warm, approval-seeking vs. cold, aloof.

[36]             On Syme, see Gregory Melleuish, Despotic State or Free Individual? Two Traditions of Democracy in Australia, North Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014, pp. 107-121.

[37]             Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John, Act 3, Scene 3.

[38]             R. Moss et al., “Modelling the impact of COVID-19 in Australia to inform transmission reducing measures and health system preparedness”, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, The University of Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital, medRxiv preprint, April 7, 2020. The paper began with the proposition, which was based on extremely sketchy evidence, that “early reports from China estimated that 20% of all COVID-19 patients progressed to severe disease and required hospitalisation, with 5-16% of these individuals going on to require management within an Intensive Care Unit (ICU).” The paper’s model then went on to assume that “the proportion of all infections severe enough to require hospitalisation ranged between 4.3 and 8.6%”. It predicted that 17.88 percent to 35.76 percent of 70-79 year olds infected would have to be hospitalised and 5.25 percent to 10.50 percent of them would end up in an ICU. Daily ICU demand in Australia would reach a median predicted peak of 37,500 beds if no action on the disease was taken; if mitigated with quarantine and isolation measures this median predicted peak daily admission demand would drop to 15,000 beds (Figure 2); if mitigated with quarantine, isolation, and social distancing, the daily demand would be 1,125 ICU beds (Figure 4). In sharp contrast with the projection, between January 20 and August 25 in Australia a total only of 420 patients were admitted to an Australian hospital ICU with COVID-19 symptoms. In the peak week (the first week of April), the number of persons admitted to an ICU was 73. (COVID-19 Australia: Epidemiology Report 24, Figure 7. Weekly COVID-19 notifications and weekly admissions to ICU, Australia, 20 January-25 August 2020.)

[39]             Carl Schmitt, On Dictatorship (1921) and Political Theology (1922). In the immediate setting of Weimar Germany, Schmitt saw the temporary dictatorship as a means to replace a dysfunctional constitution with another less flawed one.

[40]             One a number of works introducing the intellectual Left to Schmitt was the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception (2005). While Agamben may have been critical of states of exception promulgated by the political Right, works like this helped birth a current of left-wing Schmitt admirers.

[41]             Daniel Andrews’ view of his critics is summed up in his peeved and condescending take on democracy from September 22. “People can have different views, and if people have got the time to share those views, that’s fine.” In essence, only persons with time on their hands would criticise him publicly. He was responding to a parade of retired QCs and judges lined up to condemn his plan to legislate to give “authorised officers” the power to peremptorily detain a close contact of someone with COVID-19 if they thought that the contact might fail to comply with an “emergency direction”. How would these “authorised officers” possibly know what somebody might do?

[42]             Most of the research that the Victorian government stated it relied on in making decisions was never published. Unpublished science is not really science at all.

[43]             On March 27, April 1, April 8, June 23, June 24, and June 26. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Defence, Voluntary submission to the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry Commonwealth of Australia.

[44]             August 27, 2020.

[45]             The repeated description of it tendered to the state’s Quarantine Hotel Inquiry by officials and ministers was that responsibility was “shared” and no one could identify the specific person or committee who made the decision to use private security workers in the quarantine hotels. The decision was just “assumed” to have been made. The vague and equivocal structure of the Andrews’ government was not a bug in the system but was there by design. Its evolution and purpose was succinctly described by Robert Gottliebsen: “…under Daniel Andrews the Victorian public service administration was vastly increased in size and sets of complex interrelated responsibility networks were set up to cover many issues. All around the state… people dealing with the Victorian government find it incredibly difficult because responsibility is divided into so many departments and committees. Very often only the Premier can sort through the morass.” (“Victorian politicians caught in their own trap”, The Australian, September 27, 2020.) This hazy and confusing system of administration expanded the power of the leader because only the leader could resolve its intentionally abstruse nature.

[46]             The Premier’s own description of this process was that it was a “creeping assumption”. Daniel Andrews, Statement of Daniel Andrews Premier of Victoria in the matter of the Board of Inquiry into the Covid-19 Hotel Quarantine Program.

[47]             Andrews created a “crisis” cabinet that circumvented the normal functioning of cabinet government and centralised power in the hands of the Premier, his department and advisers.

3 comments
  • pgang

    ’80 per cent (701 out of 869) Covid-related deaths in Australia were in the seventy-plus age cohort.[7] Of these, 92 per cent (652 out of 701) occurred in aged-care residential homes.’

    Where do people over 70 usually die? Probably in aged care homes. Does anybody know? I’ve never really understood the significance of the covid/aged-care statistic. Were these elderly people expected to die at home? How is possible to keep all viruses out of aged care facilities?

  • Peter OBrien

    As I noted over a week ago at the time Johnson was announcing his new lockdown, it appeared that new cases in the UK might have already peaked. That now seems to be the case. Since 1 Sep the UK has recorded 876,194 new cases but only 7,734 deaths – a death rate of 0.009.

  • pgang

    Peter that is a totally insignificant mortality rate. Astonishing. Yet they are back in total lock-down. I still maintain that there are non human forces at work behind this confounding madness that has enveloped the world.

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