Just who is being protected here?

August 29, 2021

The Morrison government has always loved to talk about protection. In fact the 2019 election was arguably won not by offering policy but by promising protection, especially economic protection.

The “protect and defend” trope, as deployed by the Morrison government, is capacious to say the least. You can basically fit anything into it. We have been variously assured that we needed to be protected from people seeking refuge, from terrorism (both threats usually spoken of in the same breath), and from anything, or anyone, deemed “unaustralian,” whatever that means.

We apparently also needed protection from those who allegedly wanted to destroy our way of life by, horror of horrors, taking the climate emergency seriously.

Shamefully, we’ve often been told that, because they are reportedly out to rip us off, we needed protection from people who are unemployed, people with a disability, sole parents and other carers, and students, which speaks volumes about who the “we” excludes, as well a providing a disgraceful argument for why people should be forced to live below the poverty line.

“We” were told that we needed to be protected from women (none of whom, according to the government, were “credible”) who raised their voices against gendered violence, including all forms of gendered inequality (for there is nothing nonviolent about deliberately structured inequality). Again, that “we’ is exponentially shrinking, isn’t it!

“We”, in this discursive frame, also needed to be protected from First Nations Peoples who didn’t realise how good Australia was and who kept wanting to talk about dispossession, hyper-incarceration and unremitting deaths in custody and who continued to demand action in response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The Morrison government made it clear, not least of all with their Ensuring Integrity and Industrial Relations Omnibus bills, that “we” allegedly needed protection from workers who wanted to be paid decent wages (on the grounds that this was bad for profits and therefore bad for “the economy”, noting that when this government talks about the economy it really means profits). We ostensibly needed protection from “double-dippers”, from casualised workers entitled to permanent employment, and from workers who wanted such luxuries as sick leave, annual leave, domestic violence leave, and paid vaccination leave.

At regular intervals the Morrison government therefore tried to tell us that we actually needed to be protected from unions, which it has predictably painted as being despicable. This is quite telling, given that the union movement is simply the working class daring to organise itself collectively. Obviously, nothing scares the bjeezus out of the Morrison government, and the interests it represents, than when the despised get organised.

Despite the malleability of the protection discourse, we do want to feel protected. But while the Morrison government was big on talking about protecting our borders, it had nothing to say about protecting our lives or protecting our future.

If it had cared about protecting our lives it would not only have been proactive in regards to a national public health crisis but would also have ensured that, while profits in some quarters soared, ordinary people did not suffer. Protecting the economy does not mean protection of profits whilst throwing the rest of us under the bus.

Looking at the prime minister’s past form it is striking how consistent he is in abrogating national responsibility not only for the pandemic but for everything from the climate emergency, the subsequent bushfires of the Summer of 2019/2020, the national crisis of gendered violence, the crisis of First Nations deaths in custody, chronic wage stagnation, and the entrenchment of insecure work, with one in four workers now being classified as casuals.

We have all paid the price for his lack of leadership during the current crisis. Despite the mess he has made of protecting the community, we can reasonably anticipate that, come the election, we will be in a much better position as far as vaccination rates are concerned, arguably a position that we would already be in had the prime minister provided effective national quarantining and the competent provision of vaccines.

It is clear though that the prime minister is more interested in protecting his prime ministership than protecting the people or, to put it more democratically, in ensuring that we, the people, have the power and the means to protect ourselves and each other.

Workers, including the members of the working class who are not in paid work, are standing together to protect themselves. Women are standing together to protect themselves. First Nations Peoples are standing together to protect themselves because Black Lives Matter.

We don’t expect the government to do everything for us. We do, at the very least, however, expect government to stop obstructing our collective efforts to protect ourselves. And we do expect government to fulfil its role in providing the resources, the social and economic infrastructure, including well-resourced, publicly owned and controlled health, education, housing, transport, social security, social services and regulatory frameworks, so that we can protect ourselves and those we love.

Defending the nation is not just about what happens at our borders. If our national government treated social infrastructure as the means of defence that, in truth, it is, then perhaps it would not be so grudging in the way it is resourced. As with past crises and disasters, members of our armed forces have assisted the community during the bushfire crisis and the current Covid crisis. But the“boots on the ground” that we need, not only during a crisis, but to avert future crises, are not just the “boots” of the armed forces. We need to similarly value, respect and resource the other workers, paid and unpaid, who offer us a defence against that which can harm us, denude us, or prevent us and those we love from having a fair crack at happiness.

The highly gendered work of caring, for a start, much of which is low-paid if not unpaid, is a work of protection and defence. Teachers, nurses and other health workers, social services and community workers, are all similarly engaged in defending our lives, our humanity, our right to happiness. It is hard to live, and impossible to thrive, if we do not have a place to live, a place to work (or income security if we cannot work), a place to learn, and a place to heal.

Beyond these obvious areas of community and public service, has not Covid taught us the profound importance to our lives of other essential workers? From transport workers to cleaners, from shelf-stackers to check-out assistants, from food industry workers to the workers who keep the lights on in our homes and the water running from our taps, have we not been given a crash-course in how these workers help us to protect ourselves? And have we not seen how insecure and low-paid many of these essential jobs are? We know, especially in the light of the pandemic, that secure jobs are worth fighting for. It is hard to understand how a government that says it is on the side of the people should deliberately not join us in this fight.

The recent statements by the prime minister on “embracing”, rather than fearing, the presence of Covid 19 in the community, and moving “forward together” are deeply concerning, from a health perspective. What lies beneath this quasi-Trumpist discourse, however, is a political strategy that he thinks will get him over the line at the next election.

We know what the prime minister is up to right now. He is setting the stage for an election in which he will blame the state and territory leaders for whatever is wrong in our lives, having taken no responsibility himself for what was squarely within his remit to do when it came to protection, from providing and securing quarantine facilities and a timely vaccine roll-out to ensuring that people’s jobs and incomes were secure. What he has done consistently is to build and bolster the neoliberal framework that protects and enhances the profits of those who already have much at the expense of those who have, or are at risk of having, not nearly enough.

Morrison is preparing to designate the states and territories where lockdowns continue to be necessary as “zones of chaos” to use the words so loved by his mentor, John Howard, who introduced this phrase in a 2006 speech that served as a prelude to the degrading and disempowering Northern Territory Intervention, a speech in which he distinctly singled out the “need to find ways of restoring order to zones of chaos in some homes and communities, zones of chaos that can wreck young Australian lives.” The zones of chaos metaphor is both powerful and provocative. It bespeaks the strategic assumption of a national or global order that is endangered by the exceptions to this order. The current prime minister intends to paint the states and territory governments as presiding over “zones of chaos” that only his re-election can save us from. 

Hence the prime minister’s recent references to “the deal” made with the Australian people as his frame for how his government is tackling Covid. At times he has referred to it as a “new deal” but we know that there is nothing new about a vague wish and a prayer that “this too shall pass.”

But the bottom line is this: deal or no deal, the Morrison government has not protected us.

John Falzon, The Canberra Times