In summary

Commentary for The Australian by Professor Mirko Bagaric, Swinburne University of Technology

The COVID-19 pandemic is the largest natural social experiment in a century. It teaches us a lot about the human condition. One irrefutable finding is that material comforts trump abstract ideals.

People are happy to accept a universal wage (JobKeeper) as compensation for removal of their civil rights and freedoms. That’s the reason most Victorians approved of the extreme COVID measures taken by Dan Andrews, even though he barricaded them longer and more oppressively than any leader on the planet.

Many lawyers and political and social commentators were surprised that the unprecedented assault by Andrews on the rights and freedoms of Victorians did not result in a groundswell of community opposition. Every nameable right humans supposedly possess was being abrogated or curtailed. Worse still is that, as demonstrated by the final report of the hotel quarantine inquiry, the singular cause of the second wave was the breathtaking incompetence of the Andrews government and its agencies to put in place coherent systems and protocols to deal with the risk of infection from returned travellers.

What is lost in this assessment is that most people don’t care much about ideological interests. When it comes to human needs and wants, it is an error to depart from the basic premise that human rights are economic rights. If people are financially sound, they can carve out their own prosperity.

A cleaner removes graffiti from Daniel Andrews' electoral office at Noble Park. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Andrew Henshaw

The federal government, through the greatest welfare spend in Australia’s history, provided Victorians with all of Maslow’s basic needs in the form of food, water, rest and security. In addition, most Victorians have had some financial capacity to indulge in online shopping; a capacity enhanced by early access to $20,000 superannuation and deferral of mortgage payments.

More than one million Victorians enjoyed JobKeeper or beefed-up JobSeeker without lifting a finger. To derive this comfort, they did not have to endure the rigours of work in the form of the painstaking morning and afternoon commute or deal with demanding bosses or complete mundane tasks. The people that prospered most under the lockdown were public servants. Having to endure their kids pretending to be home-schooled as they paddled through Zoom meetings while still on full pay was a small price to pay for skipping the communal morning tea.

Even during the most restrictive phase of the lockdown, life was pretty comfortable for most Victorians. Sure, a restaurant meal or night at the pub was out of the question but things became far less hectic. Many Victorians got paid pretty well for doing nothing; apart from hitting the snooze button until their finger got a cramp. Yes, things were repetitive and boring but for most people this was preferable to anxiety-inducing matters such as work KPIs and deadlines.

For those comforts, Victorians had to give up many of their so-called fundamental rights and freedoms. Curfews, 23-hour-a-day house lockdowns and closures of schools, churches and the retail and hospitality sectors resulted in a trashing of the rights to liberty, freedom of assembly, education, religion and work. The ongoing support for the COVID measures taken by the Andrews’ government was made more surprising by the fact that many of the restrictions were clearly arbitrary and not directed at activities that involved a risk of infection (such as bans on golf and fishing).

Police stand guard at an anti lockdown protest in Melbourne. Pictures: Brianna Travers

The truth is these freedoms are always of secondary interest to material prosperity. Rights ideology is an anti-intellectual distraction promulgated by irrelevant debating bodies that have no accountability for implementing policies and practices that shape the lives of people. It is thus not surprising most rights charters are copied from a 50-year-old utopian document (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) drafted by the UN. Rights are intellectual luxuries, designed for an imaginary world where there is no competition for resources and no clashing of interests. They cannot inform coherent policy development because they are always expressed in absolute terms, without meaningful guidance regarding how they can be balanced with the common good.

Sure, some Victorians (about a third) — including me — believe Andrews was too severe, but I am tipping most of these are business owners who have been financially set back or destroyed by the lockdown. Certainly, this was the cohort (such as gym owners, hairdressers and restaurateurs) most vocally opposed to the restrictions. The diminution in their rights and freedoms was not offset by an enhancement in their material comfort. Little wonder they are angry.

The irony is that the reason most Victorians were so content with their state of affairs had little to do with the Andrews government. The welfare payments are largesse from the federal government, from the proceeds of the taxes of workers in the rest of Australia; the toils of whose labours are still being increasingly channelled to Victoria to make up for the breathtaking errors of an administration that thought it was a smart idea to employ untrained staff to manage COVID-infected returned travellers.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right) watches on as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews speaks to media following a national cabinet meeting earlier this month. Picture: Getty Images

No free ride lasts forever and, ultimately, even Victorians will start to recoil at the ruthless paternalism to which they have been subjected. The mindset is likely to change when one thing occurs: compensation payments stop coming and there are few jobs to go back to, which is likely given much of Victorian industry has been shut down for more than six months. Things don’t snap back after six months. The hardwiring of many people’s brains — their desires, plans and financial realities — has fundamentally changed. It is then, and only then, people will properly weigh the benefits and burdens of a fanatical desire to eliminate COVID, at the expense of all other social and economic problems.

Paradoxically, the most serious problems to confront Victorians and Australians once the universal wage ceases won’t be economic. They will be health; the inability to afford world-leading treatments. Last year the federal government put leukaemia-treating drugs on the PBS, reducing price from $123,000 to $40 per treatment. The Andrews job-shuttering program will likely end this sort of expenditure.

This article is republished from The Australian. Read the original article.

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