Police patrol Bourke St, Melbourne during curfew in August (Image: AAP/Erik Anderson)

Melbourne is in its own bubble, enduring one of the world’s longest and harshest lockdowns. But until now, Premier Daniel Andrews has looked in control. Tired and at times testy, especially to federal colleagues, he’s nonetheless carried the majority of the people with him. The jibes about “Dictator Dan” simply have not cut through.

But yesterday, at a long-awaited press conference, Andrews delayed announcing when new restrictions would ease. Melburnians had to wait a little longer, the premier said. Then, an hour into the presser, he said restrictions would still probably be lifted on November 1. He’d had a late night, he told reporters.

And increasingly, the premier is becoming more combative. Last week, he snapped at his critics in the federal government, and at “selfish” beachgoers. Is it all a sign the premier, so steady all this time, is starting lose a little control, and struggling under pressure of the moment? Or simply an inevitability of holding one of the toughest jobs in the country?

Andrews is stuck in a bubble

Victorians at large aren’t the only ones in a locked down bubble. 

“The premier and his staff are in a bubble,” a former editor and political staffer with a PhD on narcissistic personality Mike Richards told Crikey. “They have an intensely shared set of assumptions, perceptions values and ideologies, that gets divorced from reality, and out of touch from the media and community bubble over time.”

You can see that bubble thinking coming into play through the government’s apparent lack of faith in its tracing capacity, the bizarre (albeit brief) decision to let racing owners attend the Cox Plate. It was also on display yesterday, in a press conference where a disconnect between political leaders and a population growing weary of ongoing lockdowns and increasingly cynical about the government’s ability to manage the pandemic became more apparent.

While inevitable for leaders working tirelessly to manage a crisis, the bubble can be dangerous, Richards said, because that sense of disconnect can tend to worsen political instincts. The way out of that bubble is for leaders like Andrews to break out of it, talk more to normal people outside a tight inner circle. 

Stick to openness 

The other way out of the bubble for Andrews is to stick to what has allowed him to coast through Victoria’s crisis with a healthy approval rating: his skill as a communicator.

“I’ve never seen a case of somebody being so calm and diligent and conscientious… he just stands there to the end,” Richards said. 

The premier has fronted up to more than 100 consecutive daily press conferences. He’s been grilled at an inquiry into hotel quarantine. That openness with the public probably helped build the premier plenty of goodwill, and helped him remain popular despite constant barbs from the Murdoch press, the Coalition and an infuriated business lobby.

To get out of the bubble, Andrews needs to continue that honesty. And at the same time, some of Andrews’ tougher critics could do well to acknowledge the incredible stress he’s under right now, University of Melbourne psychologist Brock Bastian said.

“What we know form work in moral psychology is that when bad things happen, people want someone to blame,” he said.

Andrews has held himself up as that figure. He’s accepted a lot of responsibility for where things have gone wrong. And Bastian said we could afford to be a bit forgiving.

“Even if we disagree, when someone is really trying to do their best, and has no ill-intentions, I think we should question things, but also give them a wide bandwidth.”

Today, Victoria recorded zero new infections for the first time since June 9.  There are worrying signs that the state’s health system has struggled with the latest outbreak. A family at the centre of the outbreak in the northern suburbs has claimed that the Department of Health and Human Services cleared them to leave their homes two days before one of their children unwittingly attended school while infectious. 

An email to the family from DHHS, obtained by The Age, claimed the family had “met the Department of Health and Human Services criteria to end isolation”. But testing commander Jeroen Weimar said on Saturday the family was “expressly told not to” send their child to school. 

The contradiction has sparked fears that the latest outbreak may have been mishandled, triggering concerns about the state’s ability to deal with outbreaks, even months after a second wave killed hundreds of people and led to an overhaul of Victoria’s contract tracing system. 

The pressure is enormous and growing on Andrews. The question is, when Melbourne’s bubble bursts, will he gain any relief? 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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