It was the image that shocked Australia and soon went global. A pregnant woman, handcuffed in her own kitchen, in front of her children, as police officers seized every computer, tablet and cell phone in the house before frog-marching her off to the station.
It’s the treatment that Australians are used to seeing meted out to drug traffickers, suspected terrorists and child pornography rings. But in Zoe Lee Buhler’s case, her ‘crime’ was a Facebook post.
Zoe had tried to organise a protest against coronavirus restrictions in place in the state of Victoria. For this, she was charged with ‘incitement,’ and now faces a sentence of up to 15 years. She has been released on bail, and will go to court in January.
The most remarkable thing, though, is it’s taken until now for some sort of protest movement to emerge. Melbourne—Victoria’s capital city—has been under some form of lockdown since March. When the coronavirus first hit, the premiers governing Australia’s eight states and territories descended into a kind of unspoken competition to see who could take the ‘toughest action’ against the virus—that is, which leader could close the most businesses, destroy the most jobs, and stifle the most liberties in the name of being seen to be ‘doing something’ about the virus.
It was a contest that hard-left Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews won by a mile. Almost six months later, Melbourne is still under what is by far the strictest lockdown in Australia, and probably the world. At time of writing, a city-wide curfew applies between 8 pm and 5 am. Melburnians are permitted to leave the house for exercise for an hour a day and in groups of no more than two. You’re allowed to go out to get food as well, but only by yourself, and only once a day. The increasingly few people with jobs must carry a government-issued permit indicating that they’re allowed to go to work—and even then only if your job is deemed ‘essential’.
If this shatters your idea of Australia as a rugged, relaxed, irreverent wonderland, then I apologise. That Australia died long ago, to the extent it ever really existed at all. Australia has no First Amendment, and its political culture is closer to continental Europe than the U.S. Fundamental freedoms have been largely left to conventions inherited from the British. They have proved fragile, though nobody ever imagined that they would be this fragile.
The fact that Melbourne has allowed itself to be decimated in the name of the coronavirus is as predictable as it is heartbreaking. It’s a city a bit like San Francisco or Seattle—A beautiful, vibrant, dynamic metropolis that until now had among the best food, culture and nightlife in the world. But like America’s coastal cities, left-wing politics is a package deal—street art in aid of one asinine cause or another almost becomes part of the scenery.
Daniel Andrews knows this and exploits it. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the playbook of Democrats who preside over dysfunction, poverty, crime and thinly-veiled corruption, and make up for it all by wheeling out some woke gimmick every so often—almost always involving vast sums of public money. The coronavirus has given him the best talking point of all: ‘The economy versus human life.’
It’s the recurring theme in Andrews’ interminable press conferences—daily sermons that are so theatrical and dishonest they would make Andrew Cuomo blush. Behind him always, a purple banner with the state government’s Orwellian coronavirus slogan, which can also be found plastered on billboards all over the city: Staying Apart Keeps Us Together.
The media response is—with a few exceptions—fawning and uncritical, but it’s the only real check or balance we have: The state parliament has barely sat since March, and coronavirus restrictions have been made by executive fiat under dubious ’emergency powers.’
All that said, Andrews’ hitherto insurmountable hold on power is slipping. The lockdown has wrought enough joblessness, business closures and outright despair that people are starting to take notice. Even in the People’s Republic of Victoria, the mood is turning against the man now widely derided as ‘Chairman Dan’.
But in the meantime, Melbourne’s lockdowns continue. Andrews sought an extension for his emergency powers, which the parliament inexplicably gave him. And over the weekend, he announced a convoluted ‘roadmap to reopening’ which basically means that Melburnians will enter Australia’s sweltering summer under house arrest, and will be holding their Christmas dinners via Zoom.
It’s a cautionary tale, and then some. For the sake of a nasty strain of viral pneumonia, Victorians eagerly cashed in their freedoms for the promise of safety. In so doing, we have turned one of the greatest cities in the world to a dystopian hellscape with no end in sight.