(Image: AAP/James Ross)

Right now, anyone writing from Melbourne has to repeatedly remind themselves that not everyone is living like this.

The winter skies are grey and low, a chill is in the air, the cafes on the streets remain takeaway depots and the mask has become utterly normal. It’s weird.

You could say that you don’t see it, but it’s more that you don’t see the absence of face. The mask has become what psychoanalysts call a transitional object; there-not-there at the same time, like a toddler’s security blanket, which is both the mother and not-the-mother all at once.

Given the suffering, it’s a guilty pleasure to admit how much one is enjoying this (and hubris invites nemesis). Your correspondent had essential business in the far north of Melbourne and returned on the 901 orbital bus that takes a long loop from the airport to Frankston, via, well everywhere.

Not a stick, not a stone moved in suburb after suburb. No one else got on or off, streets scrolled by without a soul on them. By the end of it, even I was freaked and disturbed.

It was reminiscent of Chris Marker’s bizarre film La Jetée in which the journey of a post-apocalyptic time traveller to the present to avert catastrophe is told in still shots. This is what it will be like, I thought, after COVID-34, the one which kills 95% of us, and we run some sort of society on a mix of robot agriculture and horse-drawn carts.

So a disjuncture is opening up. As the rest of the country gets back to everyday life — nothing says business as usual like spin about Closing The Gap — minds in Melbourne remain focused on categorical shifts in everyday life.

Are we precursor or exception?

If the latter, then it will at least be a demonstration that public policy makes a difference — the Victorian Labor government’s determination to run an off-the-books neoliberal outfit with a powered-down state sector now having squandered most of the political capital they sought to gain from such a hybrid strategy.

Once the crisis is over, a wave of repressed anger may hit Dan Andrews so hard as to sweep former opposition leader Matthew Guy to power. But if we are a precursor, then the federal government is squandering its breathing space — a telling phrase — with an attempt to serve its corporate backers with what they have long sought: US-style precarious labour conditions and flattened wages.

The other targets have been political: universities eviscerated, super industry weakened, culture industries allowed to die on the vine —  anywhere that could be a base for opposition, even if attacking it damages the economy or leaves an aged-poverty problem for future governments.

As always when business pushes for lower wages in an economy permanently seeking more demand, it is difficult to know whether the corporate push is rational but nasty, or purely ideological/delusional.

The rational case for this strategy is that some fully employed people are actually salting up money they can’t spend at the moment, and so lowering wages, taxes etc would “free” them to try and entice spending with new product, and the new demand and profits will outstrip the lowered wage spending by the newly beaten down, for a while.

The effect of that would give the corporate sector the maximised class division and permanent, enlarged precariat it has always sought. But that assumes that the economy will roar back into life soon and there will be no lasting demand gap. That’s the other side of interpreting pushed by the Business Council of Australia and others — they’re so absolutely effing stupid and blinkered by Ayn Randish tales of dynamic entrepreneurs creating value that they pay no attention to demand at all.

They drank so much Kool-Aid of the anti-Keynesian economics faculties of the ’80s and ’90s that they simply reject macroeconomics out of hand.

How to truly read Josh Frydenberg’s paean to Thatcher and Reagan, which has launched a thousand articles?

Is it dead-cat-bounce distraction, desperate tap-dance vamping — or is he still the ’80s student politician who believes this crap?

The Morrison government has put itself on a permanent political war footing the likes of which we have never seen before. Howard was a piker compared to these folks. They’ll get away with it if we have, as a continent-nation, beaten this thing down.

If not, they have created a political cycle which undermines itself eventually, makes steered action — government — impossible. They are lucky that the opposition has its own opposition; a section of the federal ALP right actively working to lose the next election, permanently discredit the left, and align the party with fossil fuel and other corporate interests as a post-membership outfit. 

Here in Melbourne we don’t have that luxury. Thousands of businesses are on the brink of collapse having survived the first lockdown.

Now voluntary rent holidays and continued employment are being powered down as owners and bosses decide to get what cash they can, while they can.

The Andrews government is failing to step up to the challenge, which can only be done by using the law to enforce total mortgage and rent freezes, combined with mandated job guarantees — i.e. if you get a commercial rent freeze, you have to pay your workers and keep trading, not shut up shop.

How the Victorian right squirms at the thought of having to be bold and audacious, rather than reactive — oh please please please don’t make us do that. But every government is going to have to do that, should this continue.

Otherwise we get the perfect storm of a great depression — rents sucking money out of the circulating economy at one end, ever-lower wages crushing demand at the other, while the ideological right rub their Thatcher statues and hope that a genie will pop out and pull a trillion “entrepreneur” bucks out of its smoky ass and shout everyone a billion coffees.

If youse out there aren’t thinking about this stuff, you may soon be again.

Here in Melbourne, we are masked travellers from your future — and it’s grey skies, grey skies, nothing but grey skies from now on.

Is the rest of Australia bound to follow Victoria? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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