These are testing times for New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
This latest Covid outbreak is the biggest since the four-month lockdown in Victoria that started almost a year ago. Greater Sydney and environs are locked down for their third week, and Berejiklian and her treasurer Dominic Perrottet (who opposed the current one-week extension) have more than hinted it will continue beyond next weekend.
Yesterday’s new case load was 77, and the premier said she would be ‘shocked’ if it isn’t more than 100 today. On Friday, she talked of ‘thousands of deaths’ as she vented her frustration at the under- and non-compliance of some Sydneysiders with her government’s stay-at-home orders.
It’s also become a feature of Berejiklian’s pressers to highlight instances of bad behaviour by members of the public, shaming malefactors pour encourager les autres. Perhaps she should do an Admiral Byng on them for not doing their utmost to comply with instructions: it sounds as if she’d like to.
More concerningly, the NSW Police is getting into the heavy-handed act. Senior Plod are warning shopping bags will be checked to see if their owners are shopping for luxuries rather than essentials. That retailers selling non-essential items have been allowed to stay open is neither here nor there.
Overblown shroud-waving rhetoric. Public shamings. Police commissioners and deputy commissioners unleashing their inner authoritarians. Treating the population as subjects to be directed, not as responsible adults trusted to make responsible choices.
This is what we are seeing from Berejiklian and those around her. The premier herself sounds rattled and uncertain. For the first time, the Colgate ring of confidence that has circled Berejiklian since this pandemic began is slipping. The political capital she has earned by her good governance through the pandemic is being spent rapidly, if not squandered.
But the most alarming thing about recent days is the longer this goes on, the more Berejiklian sounds like Victoria’s Daniel Andrews in drag.
Andrews tells all and sundry that he has done whatever needed to be done to suppress the virus and protect his people. But in doing so, Andrews has not hesitated to resort to rule-by-decree that would not have been out of place behind the former Iron Curtain, or China today.
His government hasn’t hesitated to trample on individual freedoms; his police force intimidated citizens going about their lawful business; his public health officials have free and unquestioned rein to kill the Victorian economy and damage the fabric of society to eliminate the spread of a virus for which it was clear, even a year ago, that elimination was a deluded pipe dream of pedestalled experts who didn’t need to worry whether they’d have a job when the crisis passed.
As things have become more fraught in NSW Berejiklian, the one state premier who seriously has tried to balance the public health, social and economic consequences of Covid equally, is falling into the trap of Victorian-style over-reaction and heavy-handed enforcement.
It can’t be easy for her to strive for that balance in current circumstances. But, even now, Berejiklian must not forget that curing the disease by killing the patient – in this case the NSW and, by extension, Australian economy – is not the way. Something she, herself, has until now shown us.
Gladys Berejiklian must not morph into authoritarian Daniel Andrews. She is better than that.
Terry Barnes edits our daily newsletter, the Morning Double Shot. You can sign up for your Morning Double Shot of news and comment here.
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