Tuesday’s Melbourne COVID presser, helmed by our devoted Premier Dan Andrews – came with an unexpected twist: a pointed condemnation of anti-semitism. Apparently, the engagement party that took place during Melbourne’s lockdown, which Andrews used on Monday to extend Melbourne’s lockdown for two more weeks (with a 9pm curfew thrown in for good measure), was largely attended by Jewish-Australians. You can predict the rest. A bunch of people, pissed off by the lockdown extension, erupted in anti-semitism.
I was surprised to hear Andrews decide to suddenly stand up for the most recent in a long string of minority groups to be targeted during this pandemic. “Them breaking the rules was not a reflection on the Jewish community more broadly, it was not an act of faith or culture," he said. “We have a proud Jewish community, a significant Jewish community. It is simply unacceptable and evil for anyone to be trading in some of the anti-semitic comments we’ve seen. There is never, ever a place in Victoria for anti-semitic behaviour language.”
I was genuinely shocked. Was a politician actually taking a stand against racism? What was happening? Don’t get me wrong; I was pleased to see it. But I couldn’t help but see a missed opportunity for him to also condemn the targeting of other ethnic groups during this pandemic; not just in that moment, but over the past 18 months. Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton to some degree made up the slack, stating: “Hate directed to any community, geographically, by country of origin, ethnic background, language, whatever. It is destructive to the public health response. We’ve seen it with Islamophobia. And the reality is, communities are focused on protecting themselves, their families and those around them, and we should recognise that.”
You don’t need me to tell you that the COVID-19 pandemic has created the perfect storm for inequality; for racism against ethnic minorities to thrive. We had the dehumanising police presence at Melbourne’s public housing towers just over a year ago (the brainchild of Andrews himself) and the likely over-policing of areas home to communities of colour like Western Sydney. We’ve also seen a rise in attacks on people with Chinese heritage, the singling out of Muslim communities in mid-2020, and most recently the decision to strip Australian citizens in India of their right to return home.
At what point did Andrews go to bat for any of these communities in the same way he did Jewish-Australians? Where was his anti-racism when two African-Australian girls were essentially doxxed; their faces thrown on the front page of The Courier Mail as they were casually declared “Enemies Of The State”? As anti-Asian hate in Australia surged and surged? The Premier’s defence of Melbourne’s Jewish community was impassioned, forthright and principled. Good. It’s what leaders like Andrews should do: to call for the better angels of our nature, especially in times of crisis. But as far as we can tell, his responses to other instances of racism have been spurred on by journalists, and feeble to boot. The fact that Andrews was only moved to take a significant stand in this one particular case speaks volumes.
I didn’t even realise how impoverished Dan Andrews’ leadership has been until that moment. How bereft we have been of moral governance. And that’s the thing about Dan Andrews spontaneously deciding to care about one segment of the community. It made all the times he chose not to feel suddenly very palpable. How the people of colour targeted during the course of this pandemic have had to weather the vicissitudes alone.
So congrats to this man for his ephemeral moment of leadership. Now, we see the silences. Suddenly laid bare.
This is an opinion piece by Reena Gupta, a Melbourne-based contributor for MTV Australia. Follow her on Twitter at @purpletank.