Three years ago, I was approached at a pub in Brisbane by a television station reporting on the mask mandates to be put in place by our state premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk. I was asked what I thought of having to wear a mask and remain seated when at cafes, restaurants, and pubs. I said it was a laugh and that I would be eating, smoking, or drinking anyway, and if they started fining us for dancing, I’d write a novel about Queensland turning into a revenue raising quasi-religious state. That did not make it on TV, but a short bit of my diatribe did, when I said, ‘Who cares? Very few people will be bothered to follow these rules.’ I pointed to a bloke emerging from the pokies den for a cigarette and said, ‘Try getting old mate over there to wear a mask, he’s not even wearing shoes…!’
Three years later and I have moved from one Labor-run state to another: from the Stasi north to the dictatorial south, as they say. Melbourne was the most locked down place on the planet during Covid, and people are still wearing masks. It is not just the elderly going about their grocery shopping, but fit men in suits walking down Collins Street on their lunch breaks and young healthy women at art galleries on their weekends.
I attended a panel discussion in a theatre recently and a young woman was sitting inside, alone, wearing a mask. A stranger seated three chairs apart from the masked woman leapt over and asked her if she would feel more comfortable if she, too, put on a mask: ‘I have one in my bag! I can put it on!’ The masked woman assured her this would not be necessary. ‘Oh but we still must be so careful!’ the stranger cooed.
As a Queenslander, I would like to dismiss this nauseatingly effusive display as so very Melbourne – home of the nouveau riche with a social conscience, the Australian luvvie, and the birthplace of Dame Edna – but all-around Australia young, healthy people are still peering anxiously from beneath their masks and the rest of us are nodding along with them.
When I wrongly assumed that lockdowns and mask mandates would be impossible for our politicians and police to enforce, I did not only underestimate the lengths the authorities were willing to go to curtail basic freedoms, I deeply misunderstood the Australian psyche, or what became of it during the pandemic. I had faith in the larrikin: our convict swagger, our healthy mistrust of authority, our ability to remain nonchalant in the face of almost anything, and our unwavering commitment to preserve the Australian way of life in the luckiest country in the world. ‘She’ll be right!’ I thought. What I didn’t bet on was that the other side of the Australian character, the dark underbelly of the double edged-sword that is our easy-going nature, would instead be the side to emerge triumphant.
As women’s rights activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull has recently observed, reflecting on her tour of the antipodes, Australians are easy to coerce because of our easy-going nature. ‘I think you have a really worrying rise of authoritarianism,’ she said. ‘Nobody thinks it’s going to be nefarious. Australians are a bit like, well, that’d be right now, it’d be fine… And then next time they have no rights.’ Keen identified a link between hard lockdowns and a reluctance to stand up for the rapidly escalating erosion of woman’s rights. ‘If we think about the worst countries in the world for this gender bulls**t: Scotland, Canada, the blue states in the United States, not the red states, you’ve got New Zealand, Ireland, and Australia, and what they have in common is really hard lockdowns.’
I would argue that what we now also have in common is an all-pervasive fear – a mass, generalised anxiety relating to any transgression of unwritten rules. We were told that wearing masks would keep us safe from disease, we obliged, the threat of disease abated, but we have continued to cling to our masks like a child clings to a security blanket in the night. Our easy-going nature put us to sleep and we woke up petrified, haunted by the spectre of disease. The devastating consequence of this state of passivity and panic is that we are now not only germaphobes, we have created a whole culture where we have allowed ourselves to be completely dominated by fear and beholden to arbitrary, unwritten, rules.
As the reactions to Keen’s demonstrations showed, standing up and peacefully advocating for a cause as innocuous as women’s rights now carries the threat of being branded ‘anti-trans’, a Nazi, and physically attacked. It is not surprising that this phenomenon has surfaced, and holds great weight, in a post-Covid world. It is a world where we are now so used to having our freedoms restricted that we choose to imprison ourselves ‘just in case’.
What is most disturbing, and what we saw at the woman’s rights protests, is how this perverse mindset has taken on a distinctively political and moral tone. In the same way that we were told to wear a mask to avoid contracting Covid, we are now told we must wear LGBTQ+ insignia and the like, in order to protect ourselves from the disease of bigotry. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the most ardent mask and lockdown advocates were on the left of politics.
Today we fear committing some new transgression like we fear the plague, and so we blindly follow the new unwritten rules which are enforced with all the zealotry of the draconian lockdown laws. Our other great national characteristic – tolerance (aided by our easy-going nature) – has fallen prey to its own paradox. A society that is tolerant without limit will always be eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant. That is what happened to liberal MP Moira Deeming when she spoke at the Melbourne woman’s rights rally. John Pesutto, once easy-going and tolerant, looked to the Marxists who heckled Deeming, and petrified of public criticism, nodded along.
‘Oh, but we still must be so careful…’ Like the dreaded plague that never was in Australia, there is no Nazi cabal of feminists running amok in Melbourne. What we do have is a society that is conditioned by fear and self-loathing.