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Is COVID-19 conveniently silencing Australia’s critical sectors?

Wednesday, 7 October 2020  | Gordon Preece

Note: This article names Indigenous people who have died.

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison won the 2019 Australian federal election he honoured the ‘quiet Australians’. His recent tribute to late NSW Liberal Premier John Fahey represents this Australian: ‘…not your typical Liberal. A Catholic, rugby league player and smoker from South West Sydney… he broadened our outlook and connected us with an ever widening aspirational population’.

The Prime Minister normally connects well with this population, barring holidaying in Hawaii during the bushfires. But he recovered from that with his pastorally and pragmatically led National Cabinet’s early unity, urgency and generosity.

However this recently fractured through Federal-versus-state blame games over aged care and hotel quarantine. And border rivalries replicate our rejection of refugees – we want borders, not boarders. We’re becoming what we’ve feared.

Not wasting an emergency, the government shifted from the concepts of mercy expressed in Morrison’s maiden speech, inspired by Wilberforce, Tutu and U2, to its default of merit: ‘You get a go if you have a go’ – even if that means doing potentially futile job-hunting or going into the gig economy’s poverty and precariousness.

Massive funding for favourite sectors masks the ideological invisibility, inaudibility and economic exclusion of critical, questioning social sectors, often labelled the ‘chattering classes’. The ABC, the arts, universities, Indigenous groups, unions, environmental advocates, refugee and human rights advocates, whistleblowers and international students are so desperate competing to survive that most peak bodies muffle protests out of fear. They forget the need to join the dots and unite, which I’ll now do from a sample of the above.

‘The great Australian silence’

Rio Tinto’s flagrant destruction of 60 millennia-old sacred caves was a betrayal of Indigenous people and decades of relationship-building and employment. It rightly cost its French CEO and senior executives their jobs (as a result of shareholder activism). But they are not alone. Hundreds of sites are slated for destruction by BHP and Fortescue also.

Further, some sycophantic commentators try to silence Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters and scapegoat them for the COVID-19 ‘second waves’, as Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack mendaciously did on ABC’s Q+A program. BLM marchers protested Indigenous kids being detained at global record rates from age 10, while state Attorneys-General indefinitely postponed raising the age of criminal responsibility to the global standard of 14-16 (although some may act differently on this issue).

Aboriginal people continue to die alone in police custody (as Tanya Day did in Melbourne in December 2017). David Dungay Jr died in 2015 at Sydney’s Long Bay Jail. Dungay, who had diabetes and schizophrenia, had been brutally manhandled by five guards for eating much-needed biscuits. His last choking words, like black American George Floyd’s, were ‘I can’t breathe’.

BLM marches make visible and audible the ongoing black pandemic of poor health, police violence and 441 deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission – five since June alone. Yet Morrison’s defensiveness meant he was deaf to the correspondence, claiming ‘Australia is not the US’ nor a slave nation, though he did admit later that the latter was true.

Even when Aboriginal people’s striking Statement from the Heart demanded a long-awaited voice to Parliament, they were misinterpreted, muzzled and delayed until the next Parliament at least, ever to be ‘Quiet Australians’.

Silencing critical sectors

More subtly than Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s Thatcherism, Morrison allows COVID-19 and shutdown to winnow the worthy poor from the unworthy. Hence complete ‘critical’ sectors and a million jobs are left unsupported or now cut, against all economic, including conservative, business wisdom, let alone issues of equity.

For instance, although the arts got partial stimulus, the Prime Minister dog-whistled to his supporters that the arts instrumentally provides tradies with stage and prop-building work, but has no intrinsic value. And grants for extensions were offered to and largely ignored by many homeowners, while homeless housing, which could meet a great need and provide greater economic stimulation, was ignored.

Also, while much-needed trade courses were funded, the simultaneous contrast with the doubling of fees for humanities courses and the loss of a likely 30,000 university jobs by December, of largely casual female staff, is telling. Critique has rightly been made of Leftist ‘cancel culture’, but the Right is cancelling much of civil society, contrary to classic Deakinite and Menzies liberal conservatism.

And on the issue of press freedom, the ABC is being prepared by Murdoch and social media for another budget battering while the government starves the ABC (and SBS) of news revenues rightly owed by Google and Facebook.

Have churches become compliant, quiet and complicit?

Finally, despite churches’ enormous efforts in zooming services and providing pastoral care where they dare, we are clearly seen as a non-essential service to civil society. In response we appear to have only read 1 Timothy 2:2 and 1 Thessalonians 4:11’s exhortations to lead quiet, godly, hard-working and peaceful lives, as if for the sake of our own survival. Unlike members of the early church, we can democratically participate, critique and protest, as ‘Protest-ants’. If we are quiet, it must be, as for Paul’s communities, to seek the city’s shalom. And as Bonhoeffer counsels from prison, our temporary silence should add authentic practice to proclamation, patiently awaiting a more open society, not just an open economy.

However, the abuse crisis and the necessary stringent self- and bureaucratic policing required in response, along with the coronavirus pandemic, have caused almost complete absorption in quiet compliance. We barely raise questions about our being considered a non-essential service, so as part of Victoria’s Stage 4 lockdown the state’s Department of Health and Human Services banned the last rites or appropriate pastoral care for the elderly and dying, whose holistic health and salvation churches do know a bit about. Thank God for the Catholics who recently taught us Protestants to be less quiet and to remember how to protest, and to protect our flocks and society’s lost sheep, leading Victoria to reverse its decision.

Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos; Honorary Director of the Religion and Social Policy Network, University of Divinity; and Senior Policy Officer for Catholic Social Services Victoria. 

You can order a copy of the 'Going Viral' edition of Zadok from info@ethos.org.au.


This article was first published in The Melbourne Anglican’s September 2020 issue, p.15. Edited and republished with permission. This is the second of three articles in this series by Gordon Preece. You can read the first one here.

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