The Politics    Tuesday, July 27, 2021

A tale of two lockdowns

By Rachel Withers

Composite image of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Images via ABC News

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Images via ABC News

As some states lift restrictions, the NSW premier is keen to reject comparisons with Victoria

Several lockdowns are set to lift across the country: Victoria, South Australia and the central west of NSW will cautiously loosen their respective restrictions at midnight tonight. But the successes have been hard to enjoy, with NSW announcing the highest daily case numbers since its five-week lockdown began (172, with at least 79 people infectious in the community), leaving the premier unable to provide any details on which measures might change come Friday. Most political attention has been focused on the conclusion of Victoria’s 12-day “snap” lockdown, and the contrast between the approaches taken by the two largest states. As expected, Victoria’s successful exit from lockdown well before Sydney’s has created yet more debate over the two distinct strategies, as commentators argue over whether or not the Victorian approach has been vindicated. Muted barbs continued to be traded across the Murray during Daniel Andrews’ and Gladys Berejiklian’s concurrent press conferences, with the Victorian premier inviting comparisons and the NSW premier resisting them, other than to note how many lockdowns the southern state had undergone to date. The pejorative phrase “lockdown lite” now refers to two different circumstances: heavily locked-down Sydneysiders are growing frustrated by the questioning of their lockdown’s severity, while those in Victoria have been offended by weird attempts to take away from their successes, leaving the country more angry and divided than ever. The prime minister, unsurprisingly, has been neither seen nor heard.

The interstate comparisons were flowing during this morning’s Victorian and NSW press conferences, and the contrast was hard to ignore. Andrews, who has further restricted Victoria’s border with NSW, insisted his government was “in no way boastful” about the state’s success, and that he wasn’t out to “lecture” NSW. But he couldn’t help but continue to push for tighter restrictions in Sydney, including a curfew and a “ring of steel” around the city, saying he couldn’t understand why his state’s tragic 2020 experience wasn’t being learnt from. “I would think they’d look at what we did and have a long, hard think about whether they should do that,” Andrews said. “What they do is a matter for them, but they are making decisions that go well beyond their own state.”

But up in NSW, Berejiklian was not willing to be compared to Victoria when a journalist put it to her that the southerners were “showing us up” and that it perhaps proved she should have locked down harder and faster. “Every state has had its own course during the pandemic,” she said, noting Victoria was emerging from its fifth lockdown. Up until this point in time, she pointed out, NSW citizens had been leading a “free life”.

While the premiers were muted in their criticism of one another, many people were less timid, using Victoria’s announcement to either champion or condemn a particular approach. The conservative media was desperate to limit any vindication of hard and early lockdowns: The Australian’s John Ferguson wrote that the news was no endorsement of snap lockdowns, and Victoria’s “draconian” measures were still too excessive, while Berejiklian’s “rhetoric on civil liberties have been much more comforting”. (This comes after 3AW’s Neil Mitchell rejected the idea that this was Victoria’s second quashing of the Delta variant.) Others have claimed that the fact Victoria is still under heavy restrictions limits its success. Victorian Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien – who last week tried attacking Andrews for not acting cautiously enough – has now returned to his usual self, criticising the anticipated easing as “just a bigger cell”. But it’s impossible for anyone to claim that Berejiklian’s approach has been vindicated, much as they might like to.

No two outbreaks are the same: the conditions faced by Victorians and Sydneysiders in their recent Delta battles were not identical, and no particular approach has been definitively proven over another. There is no perfect test of the methods, and Andrews was wise not to gloat, even as he pleaded with NSW to do more. But it’s a fairly stark contrast, and there are rather unavoidable inferences now being drawn about which state’s approach was more costly – in terms of both the economy and the wellbeing of citizens. Those optics will be hard to shake for Berejiklian – not to mention for the prime minister, who aggressively backed the anti-lockdown “gold standard” state for months on end, and now seemingly has nothing to say.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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