Part One: on law and order
On 21 December 2017, I was having a few drinks at the office Christmas party at a Docklands bar. The venue lies opposite a stadium whose old name is forgotten every few years, depending on which bunch of corporate executives are prepared to pay the most for naming rights. On any given Friday afternoon, the bar is full of cheap suits, overpriced drinks and office workers ritually forgetting another working week in their lives.
That afternoon was a Thursday but coming at year’s end it had the feel of a Friday – that is, before the driver of a white SUV forced the office Christmas party to remember the wider world. A few blocks from where we were drinking, a 32-year-old male drove through an afternoon crowd at the corner of Flinders and Elizabeth streets. Nineteen people were injured, and one man subsequently died.
The Flinders Street episode and the earlier January 2017 Bourke Street mall incident, in which six people were killed, are two acts of violence that bookend Victoria’s 2017. Both involved relatively young men with addiction illnesses, rage and a desire to use their cars to establish their dominance and control over citizens attempting to go about their lives.
The tragic trend of drivers deliberately running down pedestrians in Melbourne’s CBD appears to serve as a signifier for people that they’re living in a community out of control.
Saeed Noori, the Flinders Street perpetrator, spoke of hearing ‘dreams and voices’ prior to the incident, while Dimitrious Gargasoulas, the Bourke Street assailant, described his life as ‘being controlled by the Government’ and ‘the illuminati’. These were the acts of men empty of the words with which to make sense of their own lives. Their drive to permanently forget, founded on a lack of self-perceived agency over their own lives, could be fulfilled in a blaze of death that had the power to take others down with them.
That the two incidents occurred in the centre of Melbourne is no accident. The CBD lies at the heart of Victoria’s economic activity: the centre of power both in the corporate sector and for the state government. Material success is usually to be found in the city. Perhaps, therefore, the drivers were making a last ditch effort to establish their own standing in Victoria’s capital of capital.
For pedestrians, the cars hurtling seemingly out of nowhere is a fatal reminder of our intrinsic vulnerability. Lacking a voice at work, they now cannot even safely go shopping or walking in the CBD.
In late December 2017, as the camera crews at Flinders Street station focused on the emergency service workers securing the site of the latest pedestrian strike, just around the corner and only two days prior, the Victorian government quietly gave away cultural and community space at Federation Square to Apple for a new flagship store.
Amid the news reports of cars ramming people, privatisations, home invasions, suburban bawls, rising power prices, stagnant wages and exorbitant land prices, there is a real sense in which Victorians feel like they no longer have any meaningful agency over their own lives and communities.
This feeling is of course grounded in the economic reality of declining living standards.
As living standards went backwards for ordinary Victorians over the course of 2017, the top one per cent grabbed a greater share of the state’s wealth. The income imbalance between Melbourne’s poorest and richest suburbs continues to grow. A Fairfax analysis of Australian Tax Office data conducted in early 2017 indicated that the average pay of Toorak residents had reached nearly five times the level of Springvale residents when just over a decade prior the differential was 3.5 times.
In other words, the scales of equality continued to tip further out of balance.
With increasing inequality comes increasing social dysfunction. The data is clear. International evidence shows heightened inequality comes with lower social and health outcomes such as increased rates of mental illness and addiction, a loss of trust in other people, and greater levels of crime.
Inequality does to a population what heat does to a basket of raw corn kernels, turning up the levels of inequality means more and more people snap and pop.
Inequality-inducing economic policies, therefore, create social dysfunction, which in turn tends to produce a constituency of support for authoritarian and reactionary social policies.
Which is why Victorian Labor is on track to lose the next state election in November.
I find it hard to even write these words given the Andrews administration’s relative performance, especially in its first two years. At the end of 2016, the Labor Government was riding high in the polls, consistently beating the Liberal opposition by several percentage points, and Daniel Andrews himself was often lauded as Australia’s most progressive leader. This was a government that had legalised medical marijuana, instituted a highly ambitious spending package to tackle domestic violence, stood by Safe Schools, restored sanity to Victoria’s climate and renewable energy policy settings, set up an innovative Jobs Guarantee for Hazlewood power plant workers, started building the Melbourne Metro tunnel, removed level crossings at a pace and closed down puppy factories.
For all of these achievements, over the course of 2017, the Andrews Government consistently struggled in the polls. In the December Galaxy poll, Labor ended the year in a 50-50 dead heat with the Liberal-led opposition which in itself represented somewhat of an improvement on the more dire polling earlier in the year. That the Liberal Party has partially restored its fortunes under the leadership of Matthew Guy is even more galling.
As Minister for Planning, Guy rezoned Fishermans Bend residential. With the stroke of his pen, key Liberal party powerbrokers and donors netted hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of unearned income. The timing of the property purchases and the lack of due process in Guy’s decision-making makes one suspect that Liberal insiders were enriching themselves at the expense of the Victorian taxpayer. Moreover, this is a man who as Opposition Leader had a dinner meeting with alleged Mafia leader Tony Madaferri at the Lobster Cave in April 2017. Who knows what the two discussed over crustaceans and bottles of Penfold’s Grange? But it’s a safe bet that it involved Madaferri investing in Guy becoming the next premier of Victoria.
Victorians are willing to again consider the Liberal Party because many people feel that loss of control and agency.
The money of Victorians is being siphoned to a multinational corporation every time an e-tag in a car dings from a toll or the myki card beeps when touching on or off public transport. Many know when they’ve reached their workplace that they cannot raise a simple issue such as an underpayment or taking some time off without putting their job in danger. Meanwhile, more and more Victorians return home from work not being able to even contemplate ever being in a position to own their own place.
It is, therefore, unsurprising that over two-thirds of Australians feel that the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful.
Guy may consistently rank behind Andrews as preferred premier but the relative parity between Labor and the Liberals in two-party-preferred terms suggests Victorians are seriously considering electing Guy in November, even with his proven track record of rigging the economy in favour of his donors and elite supporters.
Resolving the question of why is key to Victorian Labor securing a second term in government. Part of the answer involves the Liberal Party’s political narrative; the other part involves the Andrews Government’s actions.
The Liberal Opposition’s consistent attack lines on both law and order and Labor’s union connections highlight how it taps into people’s sense of regaining control over their lives. According to the Liberals, it’s Labor attitude to crime – soft on ‘African gangs’ and soft on union leaders – which is causing a fraying of the social fabric. For them, the answer is a tough Liberal Government that will restore order and ensure people once again feel in control of their lives.
In January 2017, following several juvenile inmates escaping Malmsbury youth justice centre, Guy compared Melbourne with Johannesburg: ‘Every day we’re seeing riots, we’re seeing crime waves. This is a government who is standing by and allowing Melbourne to become the Johannesburg of the South Pacific.’
Guy’s framing of the controversy works on three levels.
First, it points to a group of people for Victorians to blame. The naming of a major South African city is a not so subtle racist reference to African-Australian youths being to blame for people’s sense that they are losing control over their lives.
Second, the direct dig at another country allows the comment to echo back as a diplomatic disagreement and reinforce the underlying message through repetition. It also has the side-benefit of giving Guy an opportunity to look strong by standing up to a foreign government, and he took the chance to respond stating, ‘I am more interested in solving Victoria’s crime wave than responding to press releases from South Africa’s left wing ANC political party.’
Third, Guy’s reply labels South Africa’s government as leftist – and because Andrews is a socially progressive premier, invites the conclusion that Melbourne will end up like Johannesburg unless Guy is elected to the position instead.
In short, the January 2018 moral panic around #Africangangs has not magically appeared from thin air. The media appears to be following a carefully laid out script that Guy and his Liberals have been hammering away at for months, years even.
It’s a simple three-step script. First, Guy picks up on any media report of ‘African gangs’. He retweets and retells stories of violence against people, footage of ransacked properties and accounts of youths wielding baseball bats or knives, police descriptions of being trapped in laneways by a large number of alleged gang-members and photos of a teenager on top of a police van apparently yelling ‘fuck the police’. It all amounts to a picture of a state out of control.
At the next step, he constantly hammers the state government on ‘restoring control’. His twitter feed continually pushes the message that the Andrews Government is ‘soft’, ‘avoiding responsibility’, ‘going easy’ on perpetrators, or ‘doing nothing’. In the Liberal Opposition story, it is a weak Andrews Government that is allowing crime to flourish in Victoria.
Finally, Guy puts himself forward as the hero who will ‘take back our State’ with a tough on crime approach. He invites the Victorian people to elect him so that a Liberal Government ‘strong’ on crime can restore order.
The fact that the crime rate is falling in Victoria does not get in the way of Guy’s story.
He is tapping into something far more powerful: people’s perception of their own lived experiences. For instance, a January ReachTEL poll found that over one-third of voters in Tarneit identified that they or someone they knew had been a gang violence victim in the last year.
Guy is attempting to speak to a deeper emotional truth – that people feel they are losing control of their lives.
He serves up youths of African heritage as an alternative target for popular anger over the influence of Victoria’s corporate elite, and offers the solution of the soft authoritarianism of a Liberal State Government as a substitute for any semblance of agency and control.
This article is the first in a three-part series. Read ‘Part Two: Victoria’s lost love for Labor: firefighters and unions’ and ‘Part Three: How Labor can win back Victoria’s love’.
Image: Jes / flickr