Season Three; Covid in the Antipodes.

It’s fascinating watching New Zealand’s Covid journey from New South Wales. There’s the sense of watching a TV series for the second time. Oh, here’s the initial panic episode and the strong and comforting central government. Oh, and the one with the lockdown, I loved that one, people are putting teddies in their windows! 

Then there’s the self-congratulatory faux humbleness, (surely New Zealand’s strongest suit), the confident commitment to technocratic, sensible management of crises, the endless positive affirmations of kindness and community mindedness. And then there’s the subsequent inevitable unraveling of aforementioned narrative, as pre-existing cracks in the technocracy are rendered not only visible but festering. 

New Zealand is up to the part where Covid illuminates every social faultline; The racism, the hungry kids in garages, the self-aggrandising carpet-baggers, the tragic Facebook warriors and through it all, the monolithic government like a doughty, bristle-lipped governess reminding everyone to be kind and ‘do the right thing’ while nimbly avoiding the service class downstairs. 

It turns out the Team of Five Million is actually more of a round-robin arrangement, and no-one’s washing the jerseys. 

And here’s where our Antipodean Covid TV series differs. New Zealand’s government assumes the best in people and governs in line with its expectations. New South Wales, which, you might recall, stuttered into life as a penal colony, expects the very worst of its citizens and plans accordingly.

Covid in New South Wales was a very Sydney affair. It hit the eastern suburbs and gathered pace, all lip-gloss and lattes, a beautiful, slick and sweaty shambles. Eventually, it crossed the Opal Line into the sprawling Western suburbs and got seriously on the razzle. 

There was a lockdown, for sure, but the Berejiklian government, and NSW Health both seemed to understand one thing; tipping points. That is, once a city reaches a certain size, movement around it will reach a critical mass, a tipping point, even under a lockdown.  

And this is where I think the NSW government got serious and decided to try to ‘vaccinate out’ of the outbreak. From the start, even before the rancorous anti-vaxxers really got cracking, NSW made it clear that if you were offered a vaccine you should bloody well take it, and that this was the key to ‘freedom’. 

Berejiklian’s management of the pandemic was widely supported. She was decisive and did something stunningly obvious but remarkably clever; she presented the virus as immutable. It would move from one person to another regardless of their family arrangements or how essential their work was. The virus doesn’t care about us, we are its environment.

It might seem obvious but compare this to alternatives. 

At the beginning of the first long outbreak in Victoria, workers in Melbourne’s boiler-plate suburbs were diagnosed and ordered to stay home, while other household members continued to attend school and work. This was viewed as reasonable, fair and kind. The reasoning was based on the idea that kids shouldn’t miss out on school, or employees on work. The virus, however, does not care for your feelings or ‘rights’. And so, constraining the movement of some but not others had a punitive feel about it, ‘You caught the virus, but your housemates shouldn’t be punished for it [sotto vocce: but you should]’. It served to further personalise the virus.

And the results of this approach were predictable – further spread of the virus, prolonged restrictions. 

Berejiklian knew her people. She knew that most people would get vaccinated, but worried that the final proportion would be too low to ‘end’ the outbreak in NSW. She also knew that the good burghurs (ratbags, all of us) of Sydney would be unmoved by Strawberry Shortcake moralising. And, most importantly, the Berejiklian government wanted to avoid a situation where citizens attempted to pressure one another socially over vaccination. This is an extremely poisonous situation, still evident in many places even now, where people align themselves into pre-existing ‘camps’ and politicise the shit out of vaccination. This is a very, very dangerous game to play.

The NSW government knew perfectly well that most people would get vaccinated with a bit of a push, and that this was preferable to the damage of a prolonged outbreak combined with the social disruption of pitting one ‘group’ against another. 

A consummate politician, I have no doubt that Berejiklian herself was also well aware of the Australian media’s thirst for whipping up polarising and dangerous debates.    

The government assumed, quite rightly, that people would lose interest in the pandemic once life started to resemble something close to normal. A leader who could make that happen had a lot to gain.

New South Wales had the benefit of watching the pandemic churn its way through similar jurisdictions with lower vaccination rates, and the social consequences of its inevitable politicisation. The wittering pomposity of the middle classes set against the white-hot rage of the disenfranchised, refracted through a prism of ethnic sectarianism that would make the Balkans look frankly vanilla is exactly not what a New South Wales Premier would like for Christmas.

Berejiklian knew that faced with similar circumstances to those overseas, the good people of New South Wales would likely dither over vaccination and ongoing restrictions would fan the embers of pre-exisitng discontents into an inferno. By about mid August, New South Wales had the makings of a nuclear shit-show. 

And so the NSW government went hard on its campaign; Get Vaxxed or Get Fucked. 

And it worked. 

The reason it worked is because it removed the immediate problem – Covid overwhelming the hospital system and people dying as a result. It provided ample opportunity for pissing and moaning about the ‘manufacture of consent’ but the threat was defanged. Suddenly, it seemed, most people couldn’t give much of a toss about Covid, or the vaccine. And many of the ‘social dilemmas’ that were acute at 60% vaccination rate are quite benign at 95%. You might balk at inviting the unvaccinated cousin to Christmas dinner, but no-one’s really going to take it outside. It turned a potentially devastating debate about the social contract into a parlour game for the Twitterati.

To be clear, the New South Wales government forced many people into getting vaccinated, on the basis that it was for the greater good, even if it was unlikely to benefit them personally.

Berejiklian’s Get Vaxxed or Get Fucked campaign was precisely to avoid fostering acrimonious debates about whose individual rights should prevail over the collective, a debate that always taps into the deepest, extant notions of just who has been wronged, like a tongue on an open nerve. No government ever wants to provide the conditions for these kinds of excavations. It bears repeating, there is nothing more corrosive than a deep and searching public discussion over whose individual rights should prevail over the collective. It ferments a kind of toxic grievance-based partisanship that can never, ever end well.

Berejiklian knew that the path to social harmony was not paved with goodwill and community spiritedness (are you listening, NZ?). Rather, it is a gravel road, shellacked with a quick and dirty layer of prosperity and self interest.

I can’t wait to see what Season Four, Covid in Aotearoa brings.  

*to be clear, I am not referring to Ms Ardern as a bristle-lipped governess. I use this term to refer to the government of the day, as is clear in the sentence. It infuriates me no end that Ms Ardern has personal attacks made against her, especially given that she is arguably the best Prime Minister New Zealand has had in recent times.

Anzackered

For those of you who have been completely zipped up in a sleeping bag for the last week or so, last Saturday was ANZAC Day, the day that academics and bobble-headed breakfast TV broadcasters knit together in a breathless tussle for self-legitimisation.

Of course, we all know that the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli was folly – thousands were mindlessly slaughtered, buried in shallow graves or left to peel and rot in the chilly sunshine. It was a failure so tremendous that its repercussions are still felt to this day, provoking annual soul-searching about Australia’s grisly fascination with dogged failure.

In the spirit of ANZAC then, here’s my recipe for the eponymous biscuits.

– Start off with not quite enough butter. Put it in a bowl and feebly chop at it with a bread-knife. Then, add the dog ends of two other blocks. You’ll find these in the flip-up compartment of the fridge door.

– Explode a new bag of coconut. Put some of it into a bowl. Squirt some molasses that is clearly not golden syrup into the bowl with the butter and coconut. Add the remains of a bag of rolled oats, taking care to include the slightly dusty grit at the bottom of the bag. Each biscuit should leave you feeling a bit like you’ve french-kissed a vacuum cleaner.

– Substitute a bit too much baking soda for a bit too much baking powder. As all us wholesome mummies know, baking soda is just great for everything from stubborn bathroom tiles to yeast infections. And it’d be great in the fucking biscuits too. Next time.

– Add some brown sugar. A lot of brown sugar. Test for taste. You should be able to feel your pancreas giving you the finger. Add more sugar.

– Now, spoon mixture onto baking tray, placing blobs of dough just far enough apart that they will join up perfectly on baking. This will ensure that when you remove the biscuits (exactly one Octonaut operation after they should have come out of the oven) you will maximise the seamless ‘tar-seal’ effect.

– While still molten and pliable, distribute mixture down inside of left forearm.

– Serve on iPhone5 (serving suggestion).

Attending the opening of a lotus.

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In some ways, Bermagui could be a coastal town anywhere; 1980s feature-brick arches hosting ice cream parlours and shops selling sarongs, the cloying smell of incense cut through with waves of cigarette smoke and urinal cakes from the tavern’s gaping verandah, its armpitty patrons leaning away from the creep of the mid-morning sun. And then of course there’s the ubiquitous seaside motif – seagulls and brightly coloured, swirly whale-tails emerging out of toilet blocks and rubbish bins.

After navigating the mandatory whale tails at Bermagui’s annual Sculpture on the Edge exhibition last weekend, I noticed something that’s made me wonder if it might just be time to rethink this lynchpin of the clunky seaside theme. And that’s because there’s another ubiquitous marine symbol on the rise, one that is invariably represented at art exhibitions in touristy, coastal towns – the pink-lipped muscle.

You’ve no doubt seen this sculpture or one like it before – a set of interleaving ‘lips’, rendered in stone or clay. The artist’s statement usually describes the work as a ‘form’ that represents ‘sacred femininity’, as if there’s something subtle, abstract or interpretive about a weary gash at eye level. It may or may not reference an opening lotus flower.

These vag-sculptures resonate with a zeitgeist of baby boomer towns, full of women who have ‘realised their artistic spirit’ around the same time that they discover purple is their power colour. You can be sure that every stone-vag has had several predecessors, all rendered in felt, by women whose sacred femininity is actualised with the help of unflattering rayon pants and the inability to change a tyre.

This is not to suggest that Bermagui’s Sculpture on the Edge exhibition isn’t without its charms. Whale tails and stone vaginas aside, the exhibition provides more readable works than its Sydney counterpart, running concurrently. And frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. A well executed figurative sculpture is a joy and a delight. For me, the giant Rhino, artfully plated in translucent white plastic, was eerily compelling, while several other pieces made me smile or think. Most importantly, hordes of people were wandering around, discussing and taking photos of the artworks. There’s definitely room for art that rejects smartypants abstractionism and tired ‘styles’ in favour of something clever, surprising and aesthetically appealing. Sculpture on the Edge contained some quite splendid pieces. If you go, make sure you also have a look at the indoors exhibition at the community hall down the road.

And, as with all regional exhibitions, do check out the large stone flange, if for no other reason than it is set to replace the whale tail as the true icon of coastal Australia, welcoming visitors into its warm embrace alongside a perennially glowing Woolworths and a string of skin cancer clinics.

P.S Bermagui is currently at war over a proposed Woolworths. For all of the above, Bermagui is gentrifying in interesting ways. If I go there again I might talk more about that.

 

 

Who is doing the fishing?

At the risk of sounding churlish, I’m wondering, am I the only person who begrudges the Westpac rescue helicopter, manfully searching for some poor lost soul, bobbing around the in vast expanse of ocean, more dead than alive? I mean how is one meant to quietly relish one’s peaceful nighttime idyll when it is constantly interrupted by the chattering of a glorified metal house-fly, packed to the gunnels with day-glo attendants, all gawping out the doors like over-fed budgies? This is the second night running that we’ve been subjected to the ‘spotlight’ chopper searching for some pissed fisherman who has failed to navigate the nimble ballet between rock and girth.

Perhaps what is more surprising is that these fishermen manage to find themselves in the ocean at all, given their propensity to almost entirely cover themselves and the surrounding area with a birdnest of nylon fishing line, leaving only a square metre of brown-edged toilet paper to mark their precise location.

I mean seriously, how often does that huge spotlight thing work? Having spent my holidays from finishing school spotlighting from the back of a ute, I can honestly say that unless Damo is looking straight at the light from a distance of about three metres then really, he’s Neptune’s smoothie. Unless of course the chopper happens to contain a couple of frustrated, half-pissed deer hunters, in which case Damo will almost certainly be ‘located’.

Charlotte’s Law

dawsonWhen it comes to social change, there’s nothing more galvanising than an online petition. Change.Org is a citizen-sponsored, online platform for petitions, recently lauded as an effective agent for change. From shark culling to refugee rights, Change.Org has rallied thousands of supporters to causes they might otherwise have neglected to spend 8-12 seconds tabbing through an auto-filled form on.

So deep and abiding is my concern for the most vexing social, political and environmental issues of the day that I am on their mailing list. Change.Org has democratised public support for important causes.

For instance, today’s petition titled ‘Charlotte’s Law’ asks for restrictions on social media following the death of Sydneysider Charlotte Dawson. For those of you babbling away in a bobble-headed, gleeful existence bereft of death-grip social media, Charlotte Dawson was a vapid two bit show pony, who exuded the kind of grasping inadequacy that attracts the attention of wall-eyed mouth breathers who buy cosmetics off the television. Perhaps the most anodyne yet astute assessment of Dawson comes, quite rightly, from her loving fan base, a group of women just as sparky as Dawson herself. The introduction to the petition describes the deceased as a skillful socialite, someone “that could light up an empty room”. And yet despite this clear social advantage, Dawson struggled to break into the upper echelons of high society.

According to the petition, Dawson “campaigned so hard for something so simple – a better world.” Yes, it does seem rather simple doesn’t it? The cruel irony is that Dawson had only just started a clothing line with Aung San Suu Kyi, a collaboration that was to include a reality television show highlighting the tensions surrounding structural adjustment in the developing world, and women who are just a little too boxy (but with SUCH lovely spirits).

The reality is that Dawson represented the worst excesses of bargain bin celebrity, finding minor fame with her dull Anglo prettiness and nice teeth and the cheap attention that comes from blundering unreflexively through an endless stream of knocks like a blond sea anemone.

And of course, she was depressed, a condition whose first victim is perspective. I’m thinking of starting a petition on Change.Org to remove spurious, ill-considered knee jerk petitions whose first draft invariably begins with “So, it’s just like, really mean when….”.

Join me!