public housing tower with police standing out front
One of the Flemington towers forced into lockdown. (Image: AAP/James Ross)

In Both Sides Now, author and ethicist Leslie Cannold presents two sides of an argument, and it’s up to you to decide what’s true.

Today: In December, the Victorian ombudsman found that citizens subjected to hard lockdown in Melbourne’s public housing towers had their human rights violated. Should the Andrews government apologise?

In favour

On July 4 last year, the Victorian government ordered residents of nine inner-Melbourne public housing towers to be detained, effective immediately.

The state, having been in lockdown with the rest of the country since March, had been enjoying the return of limited freedoms, before restrictions were reimposed to defeat what we now know would become a second wave.

First the government limited household gatherings. Ten days later, it ring-fenced affected postcodes. The lockdown of the public housing blocks came a few days after that.

To no avail. By July 7 all of Melbourne and Mitchell Shire had been included in the stay-at-home orders that, by early August, had been ramped up to became one of the strictest lockdowns in the world.

As this potted history makes clear, living in Victoria was no picnic for anyone last year. Why single out citizens from the public housing estates for special attention?

The answer is that these Victorians were particularly vulnerable and got a particularly raw deal. Economically underprivileged with up to 30% preferring communication in a language other than English, they found themselves treated differently to every other Victorian — including those who lived just across the street.

While every other Victorian was given time to arm themselves with the food, medicine (and of course toilet paper) required for lockdown, tower residents were given none and for no good reason. When interviewed by the ombudsman, the Health Department official in charge of the lockdown admitted that the lockdown could have started a day later with little detrimental effect on public health.

“In a just society,” Ombudsman Deborah Glass wrote, “human rights are not a convention to be ignored during a crisis, but a framework for how we will treat and be treated as the crisis unfolds.”

But in the case of Melbourne’s housing estates, she concludes, the human rights of tenants were disregarded in a way that risked their health and wellbeing as much as the virus the state hoped to contain.

That is why the Victorian government should apologise. Not because it lacked the legal and moral authority to impose restrictions to keep the public safe, but because the state applied that power without adequate consideration of the human rights of those impacted.

By so doing, it violated the very first principle in the state’s charter. The one that comes even before the right to life. What principle is that? You guessed it: equal treatment before the law.


The security of a nation is paramount, and the primary obligation of government is to keep us safe. Life is paramount because, without it, we cannot enjoy the other important freedoms a democratic society offers.

When a security crisis hits, governments aren’t just permitted to privilege human life above other rights, it is obliged to do so. Since the start of the pandemic, Victorian Premier Dan Andrews has been at the helm of a government that has worked tirelessly to stop the citizens of this state contracting and dying from COVID-19.

Have mistakes been made? Of course. We’re dealing with a virus that is highly communicable and sometimes deadly. Its novelty has forced us to try and understand it and to defeat it at the same time. But no mistakes were made with the fact or timing of the public housing lockdowns and that’s why no apology is required.

Here are the facts. On July 1 there were 17 active cases across nine towers that public health officials described as “vertical cruise ships”. By July 4, the day of the lockdown, that figure had doubled. Such rapid transmission was unheard of in Victoria, and something urgent had to be done, for the sake of both the housing estate residents and the community at large.

The proof is in the pudding. After a testing blitz that lasted five days, 200 residents were diagnosed with COVID-19. There had been a disaster brewing in the tower blocks but, thanks to the government’s quick action, it was averted.

While this would not prove enough to avoid the stage four lockdown to come, it did slow the acceleration of cases in the estate towers at a time when the rest of Victoria was recording hundreds of new cases every day.

That’s the government’s job: to save lives. And that’s what it did in this case. One can only imagine the cries of racism and discrimination if it hadn’t prioritised the health of vulnerable residents and proceeded this way.

Yes, the lockdown of the towers was a challenging and difficult time for residents. But that doesn’t require an apology, only a sincere thank you. One the premier has already provided.

Which side do you believe? Send your thoughts to [email protected] with Both Sides Now in the subject line.