The partisan criticism (and support) levelled at our politicians during COVID is a prime example of the nuance-free discussion that has taken root in Australia.
Once, in simpler times, I had a heated conversation in a bar after I criticised then-President Obama’s significant expansion of the US drone war in the Middle East. My friend accused me of being a “Bush supporter” and walked out without finishing her glass of wine. For the record, I most definitely did not support George W Bush.
I have been reminded of this moment (our friendship survived, by the way) every time I’ve made the mistake of doom-scrolling Twitter through the pandemic. My city of Melbourne was in lockdown for more than seven months, which caused a lot of strong sentiment on both sides of the political divide. Our State Premier Daniel Andrews has fronted a press conference for over 100 days straight and, each time he did, both #DictatorDan and #IStandWithDan began trending — without fail.
When I lived in the US, the default positions seemed to be either unwavering adulation or complete opposition — with little in between. And that was before Trump, who has lowered the bar so utterly that he has made every other leader look flawless. Biden, Trudeau, Macron and all their neo-liberal ilk have benefited from the comparison: “So are you saying you’d rather Trump?”
Obama has cemented his legacy as a leader beyond reproach, who offered the world a brief respite from the unrelenting awfulness of the Bush and Trump administrations (unless of course, you were a victim of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan or one of at least 2.5 million immigrants deported by his regime…but what would you rather — Trump?)
I used to feel that Australian political discussions held more nuance — that we were more sceptical of our leaders, we preferred taking the piss out of them to placing them on pedestals.
But the Melbourne lockdown seemed to have put an end to that. When it comes to Daniel Andrews, you’re either a Dan stan or anti-Dan — just as you can only be Trump or Biden, Obama or Bush. It is dangerous when a leader is held in such high regard that any discussion of their policies is instantly viewed as an attack on their character (and yes, that even includes Jacinda Ardern).
Under Dan Andrews’ leadership, the lockdown has been categorically effective. In July 2020, we had roughly the same number of cases as the UK — in the same time frame, three months later, we averaged around 5 new cases a day while the unfortunate Britons had over 20,000.
At the same time, we should be able to acknowledge that our state government got us into this position in the first place — with a monumental fuck-up in their hotel quarantine system for which no one has yet taken responsibility, and an inadequate contact-tracing regime that enabled the outbreak to spread across the community.
Yes, you can admire Daniel Andrews for his level-headed handling of Victoria’s second wave, and still question the need for a nightly curfew that was not a recommendation of the police or health authorities. And then there was the hard lockdown imposed on public housing tenants, and the over-policing of certain areas and demographics. The fact is, all Victorians have NOT been treated equally during these months of lockdown.
What I have found most surprising among all of this Dan-stanning, is how this has translated to unfettered support for riot police in the streets of Melbourne. My small-l liberal friends don’t seem remotely fazed by the sight of a squad carrying shields and batons marching through Queen Victoria Market and encircling a gaggle of protestors armed only with bananas, whom they easily outnumbered. “What do you expect? Those people are idiots,” is the reply.
I happen to agree that those people are idiots, albeit with some valid gripes about our current state of lockdown. But is it not possible to think people shouldn’t protest during a pandemic, AND simultaneously be alarmed at the use of riot police to quell a demonstration that only attracted some dozens of people? May we not dare to suggest that it is perhaps counterproductive for the police to act with brutal force during a culture war and play directly into the “Dictator Dan” memes?
Can we disagree with a 28-year-old pregnant woman who created a Facebook event for anti-lockdown protests — but also not be comfortable at the sight of her being arrested by multiple police officers in her own home, placed in handcuffs, and charged with incitement over her social media activity?
And yet I have encountered an astonishing lack of interest among my social circles, the same people who presumably would be up in arms (well, perhaps bananas) if there was the same police response to causes they DO support. But these very strategies — used against the “Covidiots” — could be turned on us in the future, like the next time we want to hold a climate rally. This is not science fiction, it has already happened in Queensland.
I think Daniel Andrews, in many ways, has done an incredible job in handling an unprecedented crisis. We have crushed the second wave and saved countless lives. I shudder to think how we would have managed under the opposition party but you only have to look to Europe to imagine that nightmare scenario.
But surely that does not mean we must defend ALL of his actions. Our political opinions do not have to be binary. The fact that a politician is doing a better job than another should not place them entirely above criticism. We, the voting public, need to be constantly holding them to account — ESPECIALLY if you are one of the people who voted for them.