by Davey Heller, 17th February 2022
Headlines recently went around the world describing how the Australian Government detained and then deported high profile anti-vaxxer and world number one tennis play Serbian Novak Djokovic. Djokovic had come to play in the Australian Open in Melbourne but refused to be vaccinated. Many around the world would have interpreted this as the continuation of strategies in Australia that had largely suppressed Covid19 resulting in a far lower death toll than Europe, the US and many other countries. However, looks can be deceiving. The deportation of Djokovic was in fact just a political manoeuvre to give cover to the abandonment of the policy of suppression and a switch to letting Covid19 rip through the working class.
Whilst its true that the Australian Government originally wanted to let Djokovic in to be a draw card in the Australian Tennis Open, which is a huge money spinner, once the public got wind that Djokovic was being given a bogus “exemption” public furore resulted. Not surprisingly after two years of health measures to restrict Covid19, the sight of an entitled multi-millionaire being allowed to thumb his nose at restrictions did not go down well.
Sensing a political opportunity, the far-right Federal Liberal Government moved into action and turned deporting Djokovic into an example of it taking strong “border protection” action to protect public health. “Djokovic’s visa has been cancelled. Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules,”, pontificated Prime Minister Morrison from his Twitter pulpit. The Liberal Party in Australia has branded itself the party of “border control” for over twenty years boasting of its murderous and cruel policy of turning back refugee boats at sea and imprisoning indefinitely any poor souls who made it by boat to Australia seeking asylum.
The sheer cynicism of this posturing was breathtaking. Whilst the press was tirelessly covered the deportation procedures against Djokovic, a massive Omicron wave was being deliberately unleashed on the Australian working class. Despite knowing that Omicron was so much more transmissible than Delta, all state and Federal Governments (except West Australia) removed nearly all public health measures to suppress Covid19. Quarantine at the international border and between states was removed. This was possibly the most important policy in addition to Test, Trace, Isolate and Quarantine (TTIQ) that had kept large parts of Australia virtually Covid19 free for almost two years were removed. Limits on nearly all retail, hospitality and public events were lifted.
The sad irony was that the focus on the supposed threat to public health posed by one unvaccinated player at the Australian Open disguised the fact that the entire event was a super spreader. Tens of thousands attended the event no doubt playing a role in spreading the virus. Unlike in March 2020 when on health advice the Melbourne Formula One Grand Prix was cancelled at the start of the pandemic, nothing was going to stop the tennis going ahead. The Labor Party in Australia is the social democratic party that rests upon the support of the trade union bureaucracies. The Labor Premier of Victoria, Dan Andrews, had dropped his earlier commitments to public health and adopted the Boris Johnson “let the bodies pile high” mentality. Letting Covid19 rip is truly a bipartisan project in the Australian capitalist class.
The result of letting Covid19 rip over the busy Christmas/New Years period were as tragic as there were predictable. Up to 1 in 12 Australian’s caught Covid within a few weeks. The supply chain was threatened as workers sickened or were in isolation. This problem was of course “solved “ by the weakening of isolation rules. Testing was quickly overwhelmed. This was “solved” by restricting who could get tested. Fifteen hundred people died in January 2022 alone which at that rate made Covid19 the largest single cause of death in the country. Hundreds died miserable deaths in Aged Care facilities. Like elsewhere it is the vulnerable who pay the highest price for letting Covid19 rip.
Like in Europe and the US, there was endless bourgeois propaganda that this was the new “normal” and Australian’s simply had to accept that suppressing Covid19 was impossible. Of course the fact that large sectors of the country had been free of Covid19 for most of the last two years had to be conveniently “forgotten”. It goes without saying that the continuing success of China must be alternatively ignored or demonised as “Communist tyranny” at work.
The Covid19 pandemic is causing deep ructions in Australian politics. Public support for the Federal Liberal Government has collapsed just months out from an election. This is fuelling yet another round of conjecture that an Australian Prime Minister might be rolled before the election. There has not been an Australian Prime Minister that has served a full term of three years since 2007, reflecting the conflicts within the ruling class since the outbreak of the GFC.
Like elsewhere around the world, the Covid19 restrictions and the impact they have had an ordinary people has been used to whip up an extra-parliamentary anti-science, anti-public health far right or fascist movement. This has seen trade union offices attacked in Melbourne, “freedom” marches of tens of thousands and most recently a large gathering in Parliament.
The confused rallies have been funded and exploited by far-right billionaires like the coal magnate Clive Palmer. It is part of a project to not only defeat public health measures against Covid19 but to create a far right “anti-establishment” movement along the lines of MAGA in the US. Such a movement can help ensure far right parties, both fringe parties and the Liberal Party control of Parliament at the cost of their social democratic rivals. However, the ultimate target of this movement is the working class as both the drive to war and the class struggle more generally intensifies. As in other countries of course the movement has also been used by explicitly fascist forces to recruit from the disorientated petty-bourgeois and lumpen proletariat layers attending. Trump flags and Q Anon imagery has been common at the rallies.
No mass workers or socialist parties exist in Australia; therefore the Left has not been able to intervene significantly in the politics of the pandemic as yet. The Labor Party at a national level has faithfully towed the line of the Federal Government for two years. The state based leaders, despite some earlier resistance, have all fallen into line with the let it rip agenda. The Trade Unions bureaucrats have carried out a historic betrayal in not fighting for either safe workplaces or the suppression of the virus more broadly. The few squeaks now heard from the likes of Australian Council of Trades Union (ACTU) Secretary now being made are a last-ditch effort to try and herd popular discontent behind the reelection of the Labor Party and not into industrial struggles.
The small Trotskyist parties have also struggled politically. Some such as the Cliffite Solidarity party followed the dangerous trend of trying to “win over” the disaffected “freedom” protestors by trying to give a left gloss to anti-public health demands. The Australian section of the ICFI has published many useful articles on the pandemic in Australia but are of course ham strung by their own sectarianism and ultra-leftist “rank and file committee” strategy. Socialist Alternative another Cliffite/IST grouping which is perhaps the largest of the small Trotskyist group in Australia, did mount a “Health Before Profits” Campaign in support of the maintenance of public health measures. This was a campaign I participated in. However, the campaign has failed to become more than an online propaganda campaign. The campaign is also crippled politically as it has not taken a consistent and strong line working to expose the trade union bureaucrats’ betrayals.
There are signs that the dam on working class resistance may be cracking. A very significant strike has broken out amongst New South Wales Nurses and Midwifes. They struck on February 15th for the first time in a decade, demanding higher pay and better staffing nurse to patient ratios. Health care workers in Australia have of course been pushed to the brink by the ongoing onslaught of Covid19 patients straining an already underfunded public health system. Most significantly perhaps the strike in NSW was carried out in defiance of a last-minute injunction from the Industrial Relations Commission to stop it. Australia has some of the most draconian anti-strike legislation in the world and any real struggle by workers will have to be done by breaking free of the shackles of the Industrial Relations Commission and the misnamed Fair Work Commission.
The decision by the Australian ruling class to switch to a “let it rip” policy is a crossing of the Rubicon moment in the class struggle. Intersecting with other factors such as the ecological crisis which saw so much of Australia recently burn, the deepening economic crisis and of course the drive to war with China and Russia, it will continue to push the working class into struggle and the ruling class further towards authoritarianism.