dan andrews north face mask
(Image: AAP/David Crosling

There is something grimly funny about the latest Victorian outbreak of an airborne respiratory disease, having begun with someone bringing in a nebuliser.

“What’s this sir?”

“Oh, it’s a device for spreading particles over the widest possible cubic area.”

“Very good sir. Don’t forget to visit our beautiful floral clock.”

In the midst of a pandemic of butthurt, someone had an arse-kicking machine in their carry-on luggage. You couldn’t make it up, etc… but of course, we have seen so many revisions of events over a year of COVID that the nebuliser story may, in a week or so, be rewritten entirely: it was/wasn’t declared; it played no role; there never was a nebuliser.

Most of us, at some point, simply gave up trying to track what was happening. I’m still unclear whether I should be angry with the Andrews government for keeping on with the Australian Open. Was that a factor? Is the nebuliser connected to that? Would be neat if it was, but who knows? And what of the vaccine?

When the global rollout was announced, the government announced we would be among the first to be vaccinated. Then, well we didn’t have any COVID and it was Christmas, and we kinda forgot about it till COVID came back and we realised that some countries had all but completed their rollouts.

No expectation that News Corp would put any pressure on this, but where were Nine papers and the ABC? The capacity to tell the story of something that didn’t happen appears to have been lost, in favour of the easy gotchas at Chairman Dan’s daily Mao-jacketed media struggle session. (Someone once wrote of Everest’s North Face: “a simple slip would mean death”. Maybe he wears it as a reminder…)

As far as the vaccine goes, the federal government has once again muddled through with their mix of lassitude spin and the dumb luck that nothing disastrous has occurred to direct the public’s attention towards actual politics.

To the increasing fury — near derangement — of my fellow progressives, nothing the federal government does or doesn’t do, or is exposed as having done earlier, makes a blind bit of difference to their standing.

Nick Feik has usefully collated all the scandals in a single article in The Monthly. And it’s a big list. Some years ago, it became clear that we had decided to be a sort of pacific Alabama or Guatemala, run by cronies, business, and government interpenetrating, shielded by a supine media — all three of Newscorp, Seven West and Nine — with giveaways aplenty, and an opposition unwilling to commit to a federal ICAC ahead of their turn at the honeypot.

But as m’colleague Keane noted on Monday, there is no demand from the public for anything else. (Whether rape allegations from inside Parliament, and Morrison’s McGuiresque handling of such will break through, remains to be seen.)

The repeated screw ups, the endemic petty scandals, and the lack of vociferous public anger are all inter-related.

They spring from a deeper cause, which many progressives and liberals — especially boomer progressives and liberals — are slow to recognise: the formal disengagement of many people from anything resembling a social whole or collectivity.

This is the great dividing line of the post-WW2 era, coming down sometime around the ’80s and ’90s, and changing the way people thought and acted about everything: the state, politics, equality, the works.

The immediate post-war period may have had more inequality and unfairness, but the direction of travel was towards fighting it, towards change. So some sense of accountability as regards both the effectiveness of government and the honesty or lack of such was a live element.

Now, we live in a period where just enough reform was achieved to lessen the worst inequalities and denial of rights to forestall mass protest, while the rise of neoliberalism in the ’80s ensured that would start to go backwards.

As class income and opportunity gaps first widened then soared apart dizzyingly, many people, whole societies, quietly abandoned the idea that citizenship, effort and ability should have some significant congruence with reward or reach.

We accept, silently, that the corporate class should be networks of friends from major private schools, that tech leaders the same from minor private schools, that though working class or non-anglos have a better chance of being a doctor or lawyer than in 1965, smooth access to the professions is reserved to the bourgeoisie.

We accept that about 20% of the population will be trapped in working-class precariousness, denied home ownership, retirement funds, or retraining opportunities. And that 10% below them will be in the permanent, miserable, penury of benefits poverty.

Over several decades, both major parties have trained the population to accept a multi-banded class society as one’s fate, offset by modest improvements within that class band — not by a greater liberation of human potential and possibility.

Labor has acquiesced in this above all — the Rudd interregnum excepted — with its atomised emphasis on “jobs, growth, schools, hospitals”. Yes, all good things, but if what is proposed is simply patching up capitalism’s relentless drive to privatise profits and socialise costs, then it becomes a force for stabilising such structural inequality.

And of course on top of this is the political fix: that elite university student politics, or the admin/corporate elite (“Scotty From Marketing”) is the near-sole route to major political power.

Thus, the muted reaction to serial incompetence, spin, and corruption is because they are not outrages in a system that has abandoned hope that such could change at a structural level.

What’s a sleazy little episode like $30 million to Foxtel for TV sport compared to CEO pay, the consultancy merry-go-round, the exclusionary housing bubble, state aid to megacorp private schools and much else?

More searchingly for progressives: who is fooled by the money and prestige that goes to their specific cultural preoccupations, which present themselves as general culture? When Melbourne’s ACMI’s expensive retooling is announced — small stuff comparatively but nevertheless — do we think that people using Melbourne’s wheezing, decaying Northern Hospital do not notice?

Do progressives not think that their elite, interconnected world of self-serving culture mixing talent with charlatanism, does not add to the cynicism of the wider populace?

There is one thing that has kept this show on the road, and that’s the resources boom, dribbling just enough money into the general economy — controlled by lecturing, moralising billionaires, their fortunes made on rents and royalties — to keep people happy.

The bottom 30% or so are excluded as a cautionary tale. The whole system kicks along until it cannot supply the modest rewards that the populace implicitly contracted to accept. What can shake it, return accountability?

The UK experience suggests that even the chaotic mishandling of a pandemic is not enough to rock the foundations, or even the parapets. Paradoxically it may be the continued not-happening — a housing system that never comes good, wage shrinkage below a threshold — that eventually disturbs the phoney peace.

Hard to think of a better symbol for our era than the nebuliser, atomising and mystifying, until the condition is everywhere and the cure yet to be administered.

Peter Fray

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