October 20, 2020

Society

Hopelessly devoted to Dan

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews with screenshots from #IStandWithDan
The government is your servant, not your friend

There’s a population of Victorians – small, I hope – that can be identified by the hashtag #IStandWithDan, and is characterised by a near-religious devotion to their premier and a pronounced distaste for any journalist committed to his accountability.

To which I say: government is not your friend, footy club or a replacement for God. It is not Bono or Paddington Bear. It is not a wrist bracelet or a yoga mat.

It is your servant. A powerful one, comprised of flawed people who often forget their servitude, and who are helped in their complacency by your strange devotion. You should expect no more or less from your government than competency, transparency and accountability. And I’ll add decency. As for its political leaders, they zealously sought the job – so leave the iconography for future poets and sculptors.

Let me remind you that parliaments are significantly comprised of freaks and bullies. I’m generalising, of course. All I’m saying is that if you look at a room of parliamentarians, versus a random control group, the probability of finding someone who sleeps with their own high-school ball photo under their pillow will be considerably higher. Don’t sentimentalise or fetishise your elected representatives. It’s weird, and it devalues your power. 

Some have likened their defence of the premier, and their hysterical contempt for any journalist who doesn’t share this adulation, to the Trump MAGA crew’s violent attitude towards CNN, et al. This comparison resonates with me, but I think it better resembles my then tween sister’s veneration of Hanson in the ’90s. Once her bedroom was transformed into a gaudy shrine for the brothers, there was no act so vulgar or transgressive to her as their ridicule. After I fixed a plasticine dick to one of their foreheads, many years passed before she spoke to me again. 

By twice campaigning for premier, Daniel Andrews has twice declared himself to be uniquely fit to lead a state of almost seven million people. This qualifies him to be psychologically aberrant. It also obliges his unsentimental scrutiny. 

That a health minister has resigned following a public-health disaster shouldn’t be hugely baffling or controversial. One might call it accountability, even if the premier prefers the tactically gentler formulation of “the appropriate course of action for her to take”. It can also be true that the ex-minister feels betrayed, that she didn’t act corruptly or in bad faith, and that responsibility for the quarantine hotels is far more complicated and diffuse.

Nonetheless, steroidal partisanship helps obscure the historical context of these failures. You can draw a fairly straight line back to the time when Jeff Kennett was premier and successive Victorian governments, of both parties, began cheerfully cannibalising themselves in the name of efficiency and surplus. Experts have lamented Victoria’s public-health system for a long time. These failures are much larger than this government. 

And, yes: the Ruby Princess was a fiasco. The federal regulation of aged care in this country is an abomination. And there have been systemic failures in Victoria. All of this is true, simultaneously. F. Scott Fitzgerald reputedly once said: “Zelda, my pants are on fire.” He also said something about the value of holding competing ideas in your head at the same time.

And sure, I get it: you can’t assume the good faith of the media. It’s an industry replete with laziness, laundering, personal vendettas and a kind of vaudeville contrarianism. This column will confirm that for many. I can appreciate that the #IStandWithDan sentiment is partly conceived – sometimes explicitly – as a countervailing force to the often feral campaigns of the Murdoch press.

The Herald Sun’s campaign against Andrews preceded the hotel-quarantine nightmare, and I’m still unsure how they’ve reconciled the “Dictator Dan” stuff with the later realisation that he had, in fact, been rather lax in some areas. It’s always worth remembering that Sky News invited a white supremacist on as a policy analyst. And none of the 12 people who watched Paul Murray’s clownish pilgrimage to the White House last year will ever forget the moment when, in his few exclusive minutes with the alleged leader of the free world – who just hours earlier had threatened to bomb Iran – he asked Trump what his favourite meal in the canteen was. (Steak, by the way.)

But Rupert Murdoch’s influence, great as it’s been, does not extend to every corner of every newsroom in Australia; and nor does a journalist’s impatience with this government’s opacity suddenly render them demonic or half-witted. (A short note: the Victorian government’s disclosure of COVID-related data has compared woefully to that of New South Wales, and Andrews’ nine billion successive appearances before the media pack doesn’t improve it.)

As a former, repentant media officer in various political and government offices, allow me to confirm that a politician’s desire for favourable publicity is comparable with Fleetwood Mac’s desire for cocaine in the ’70s. It is an endless quest, fiercely myopic, and has little mind for public benefit – only for how many references they score in that week’s media. “Wins” are defined as planting positive stories, or sabotaging negative ones.

It’s a private game of media courtship and manipulation, and rarely defined by the public’s need to know – unless it coincides with personal benefit. They often believe they’re being artfully subtle, like the coke fiend who thinks their 12 trips to the bathroom and missing septum have gone unnoticed. But the sum of these games is the public’s disgust and alienation – there’s a reason why “Scotty from Marketing” has stuck.  

Political culture has glibly transformed public governance into a private and personally thrilling game, and this has helped ensure that the publics faith in its institutions is now historically degraded. Perfect conditions, incidentally, for the growth of radicalism and destructive conspiracy theories. This isn’t firm ground for credulous cheerleading.

Recently, The Age’s Chloe Booker wrote of a senior public servant’s attempt to dissuade her from publishing a story that was both true and of immense public importance: it detailed the catastrophic failure of the state’s hotel-quarantine program. 

This intervention won’t surprise any journalist. Perhaps it won’t surprise anyone else, except the religiously devoted. But it is worth emphatically stating that the public is literally paying people to obscure the truth from them. 

Government isn’t your friend, mistakes were made, and we live in a country where a cat may look at a king – or a journalist may ask the premier: “Dude, what the fuck happened?”

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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