In the middle of last week Melbourne had its biggest earthquake on record. It was the first time in my life I’ve experienced an earthquake. It only lasted about fifteen seconds at my house but that was certainly enough to get my attention. Up until corona, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the symbolism of such an event but nowadays I am not so sure. The literal earthquake came just two days after a metaphorical earthquake which made headlines around the world in the form of a mass protest by construction workers in the Melbourne CBD followed by days of police violence the likes of which we haven’t seen since this country was a prison colony. In a post back in May I predicted that Australia was going to have a severe political and cultural meltdown before corona was over. Boy was I right. It was fitting that the meltdown happened in Melbourne; the epicentre of our corona earthquake. On the day of the real earthquake, Melbourne equalled Buenos Aires as the most locked down city in the world a record we now hold by a comfortable margin. Melbourne used to call itself the world’s most liveable city. Turns out we are also the world’s most lockdownable city. Who knew? With the events of last week, I think Australia has finally hit rock bottom in our corona story. We are heading into summer now, vaccinations rates are up and governments are finally talking of getting back to normal. Nothing is certain in these times, but it would take something special for things not to be back to some kind of normality by Christmas. The long-term effects of corona will then become apparent and it is here that I think the earthquake may be symbolic. Things have happened here in the last year and a half that will not be forgotten and are going to need to find some kind of resolution. What that looks like is too early to tell but a political earthquake is certainly one of the options.
What was key to the Melbourne protests last week was that they were carried out by union members against a Labor state government. To know how significant that is you have to know that the Labor Party in Australia was built on union power which is still very strong in Australia. Like its counterparts in Britain and the US, Australian Labor abandoned its traditional economic platform in the 90s to get on board the neoliberalism train. However, that shift was carried out far more successfully in Australia than other countries and in the last few decades the working class here have not economically suffered anywhere near as much as in Britain and the US which is part of the reason why Australian politics has been a snooze-fest while Brexit and Trump happened. Although the Australian Labor Party is now also the party of the inner-city intelligentsia, it has still kept its working-class base. Until now. The first signs of the loss of that base came during the last federal election where the Liberal-National Party picked up an increasing share of the working class vote and won a surprise victory. I think that trend is now set to go into overdrive. With corona, the unions around the country have failed to stand up for their members in the face of vaccines mandates. Starting last week, the construction union became the latest one to sell out its members. The Victorian construction union is the most old-school in the country and is notorious for both its violence and its willingness to flout the law to achieve its aims. The membership was quite willing to turn those capabilities on its leader and let him know what they thought of his agreeing to mandatory vaccinations for construction workers. In fact, the CFMEU is probably the only institution in the country that could have carried out a protest such as the one that happened last week. The fact that a Labor politician was unable to know that is quite telling. It was an incredible political miscalculation. The important point in the medium term is that the union movement is going to face a political crisis and that crisis should directly impact the Labor Party. The 20-30% of the union workforce who did not want to take the vaccine but who have been forced into doing so are not going to forgive either the unions or the Labor Party. That should have a direct impact at elections in the years ahead.
In normal course of events, that should help the other side of the political spectrum except the Liberal Party has also betrayed its supposed values and its base during corona. The liberal Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, gave an absurd address to the United Nations general assembly last week in which he decided to highlight the fact that Australia was one of the few countries involved in the drafting of the universal charter of human rights. Not only that, Morrison stated that Australia puts its belief in human rights into practice right here at home. Really, Mr Morrison? Article 13 states that everyone has right to freedom of movement within their own country and also the right to leave and return to that country. Australia has been blatantly in breach of this article for most of the last eighteen months. Why would the Prime Minister make this a point of his speech at this time? You could argue it was just a slip up. But this dissociation from reality has been a feature of the Morrison prime ministership. He was famously on the beach in Hawaii during the massive Australian bushfires of 2019 and seemed genuinely not to understand why he needed to break his holiday and, y’know, lead the country during a time of emergency. During covid he has been little more than a cipher often just missing completely from the public view. He appeared unable to foresee the political consequences of not securing enough vaccines and he has been unable to bring State leaders together to agree on, well, anything. That he should get up and blab on about freedom and human rights while there were “anti-terrorism” police firing rubber bullets on unarmed civilians on the streets of Melbourne is stunningly naïve at best. This is the same Prime Minister who changed the words of the national anthem to “we are one and free” at a time when states borders were closed. You get the impression Morrison just hopes that if he ignores such problems long enough they might go away.
Will they go away? There is actually a possibility they will. The NSW state premier yesterday released a road map that she said was definitely not about “freedom day” but that included the dropping of all restrictions even against the unvaccinated on 1 December, which kind of makes 1 December just like freedom day except it’s definitely not a freedom day. This came just a week after stories started circulating about how the state’s vaccine passport app was not going to be ready in time for the easing of restrictions. Given that the passports are apparently only going to be in place for a month and a half, I’d say that means the government won’t even bother to roll the app out. This was certainly an about face on the rhetoric of the last few months and a clever bit of politics. If the Premier can pull it off, the other states will almost certainly have to follow suit and drop all restrictions too. That would mean life goes back to some kind of normal just in time for the start of summer. If things go well in the northern hemisphere winter, it may just be that the Australian government can bring The Plague Story to an apparent end . The vaccines were provided just in time for the summer off-season. Any corona surge won’t happen until the following winter by which time I’d say everybody will be over the whole thing. If that happens, it may be that things barely change and life goes on as normal. It’s far too early to say whether this will happen but it is now an actual possibility.
Another possibility is that Australian politics is about to receive a big shakeup. Both major parties have betrayed their base and their ostensible ideals in the last year and a half. Indeed, it is plain that there really is no discernible difference at all between the two parties; a fact which was also clear in the recent Canadian elections. Like Canada, Australia may just vote on party lines again. However, there is now a sizeable demographic ready to vote for an alternative. The only question is whether there is a politician with the smarts to win them over. In any case, I’d expect to see the minor parties do very well in the next federal and Victorian elections. There are a lot of unknowns moving forward. How bad is the damage to the real economy in particular the tourism and higher education sectors? What will be the mindset of people who think the vaccine will stop them getting infected when they do inevitably test positive? What happens if things get really bad next flu season? What if things get really bad in the upcoming northern hemisphere flu season? If the Melbourne earthquake is an omen for any of these things, we may see something seismic in the year ahead.