As the segregated Victorian population emerged into a state full of smoke and mirrors last week, something else also swirled into the thick, murky, heavy air.
Distracted by diversion tactics around the most devastating Bill this nation has ever faced, a motion passed the Upper House calling for the creation of yet another ministry. It went almost unnoticed.
The Minister for Loneliness.
It comes courtesy of the pandemic restrictions brought to you by the Premier, cheered on by his favourite crossbench genie, the Reason Party’s Fiona Patten.
She has granted the Premier’s every legislative wish, ticked every State of Emergency extension box she could find. She even describes those opposing the Pandemic Bill as intellectually and morally weak.
At least we know now the academic amongst us.
It was Ms Patten who presented and pushed the motion through the parliament calling for a Minister for Loneliness.
I say this very clearly: Ms Patten was right to raise loneliness as a serious issue and to nominate the physical and mental health impacts it can have on people.
But Ms Patten’s words and her actions are in sharp contrast.
Victorians know Fiona Patten as the Legislative Councillor who has sided with the Premier to enable every one of his draconian restrictions during the pandemic.
In this way, it is Fiona Patten who has forced people to be alone. She enabled the fines for those who dared visit a lonely, aged and frail family member.
By her vote, Fiona Patten enabled separation. She enabled the divide. She enabled no visitors. She stopped more than 10 people going to a funeral.
She enabled the 1.5m separation rule stopping human contact. Indeed, she even enabled curfews.
In short, she enabled loneliness.
She effectively forced many people onto social media to engage – a medium that can do more damage than good – potentially compounding the sense of isolation and fragility.
As a proponent of the drug injecting facility, one could imagine her supportive vote for the Premier’s diktats may have required the site remain open when almost everything around it was shutting – including the school next door. Drug users were able to ignore the five-kilometre travel restriction that applied to all others.
Yet, Ms Patten was quite happy to stop millions of other Victorians from working, meeting, being close to each other, having relationships, having the contact that humans crave as social beings. She stopped someone giving, or getting, a hug.
It is unadulterated hypocrisy that she has now secured the creation of a Minister for Loneliness.
Perhaps the Ministry for Loneliness can sit within the Department of Fairness? It could also clear space for a Minister for Happiness, for surely, we’ll need one of those too?
I spoke on Ms Patten’s motion in the Parliament. In my speech, I acknowledged the seriousness of loneliness. But I also emphasised that society, friends, families and communities resolve these issues, not big government and certainly not bureaucracies.
The clearest remedy for our loneliness epidemic is not to address it with surveys, programs, commissioners and ministerial portfolios. And certainly not lockdowns, lockouts and curfews. It is much easier: it simply requires the removal of artificial restrictions on social and economic interaction.
The Pandemic Bill won’t stop loneliness. It will make it worse.
Society is an organic construct, and we cannot recreate it by government fiat.
Will a Minister for Loneliness force someone to join the CWA, or a Men’s Shed or the local cricket team, or golf club, their local theatre group? Will the Minister say today’s a nice day for a walk with a friend, or why don’t you learn how to knit?
There will no doubt be a highly paid Commissioner for Loneliness – will he, she, they or it now suggest granny take the kiddies to the playground, given that was banned because adults might ‘assemble’ with a coffee by the swings?
The Minister for Loneliness cannot surely prescribe why someone is lonely and how they can stop being lonely.
You can be lonely in a crowd with a soaring IQ and a skill set to match.
Fiona Patten should consider her back well scratched in this grand ministerial gesture from Labor.
The surest things are this: the Ministry will come with its own empire, a blossoming bureaucracy, a Commissioner for Loneliness, another department and millions to billions of taxpayers’ money.
And how would success be measured: a survey asking if you feel happy today, or less lonely than yesterday? Entirely subjective measures.
Ms Patten claims thousands of people – including her father – book up unnecessary health appointments simply because they are lonely. How does she know?
The irony is breathtaking – for her evergreen kowtow to the Government took away the right to access health appointments and elective surgeries. The waiting list for these is 70,000 strong.
In that sense, a Minister for Scramble and Catch-up would be more appropriate. I could possibly vote for one of those.
Maybe Ms Patten thinks she could one day be the Commissioner for Loneliness?
That would be a real sting in the tail.
Bev McArthur is Liberal Member for Western Victoria and Shadow Assistant Minister for Scrutiny of Government.
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