The political asymmetry of Covid

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A couple of days ago, Greg Sheridan had a piece in The Australian in which he argued:

‘Covid has been diabolical for centre-right governments around the world. They handled Covid generally no better or worse than centre-left governments. But Covid hurt conservatives in two crippling ways.’

Sheridan then at length goes into how all the massive spending crippled the reputation of conservative governments (or supposedly conservative ones) because it gutted one of their main selling points: that they were more fiscally careful, more thrifty, and more likely to deliver a balanced budget than the left-of-centre crowd. And that is true, sort of, subject to a caveat I’ll make below. What is not true, in my view, is Sheridan’s implicit suggestion that this is the main way in which the pandemic hurt right-of-centre parties around the anglosphere and more widely across the democratic world.

At this point readers might be wondering what that second crippling way in which ‘Covid hurt conservatives’ might have been. After over half an article on the loss of fiscal credentials, Sheridan gives this second circumstance or feature to the readers in one sentence, in under twenty words. Sheridan writes that on top of the emasculation of their economic credentials, ‘Covid left centre-right constituencies confused over civil liberties, with a segment of their base disgruntled.’ Have you ever read a more Jesuitical, weasel-wordy, sophistical, dissembling account (I’m trying to be kind) of what irks us conservatives about the last two-plus years of life in an anglosphere democracy?

Look, we have just lived through the worst inroads on our civil liberties in three centuries (those are retired UK Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption’s words, not mine, though he’s right). Greg, it’s a bit more than being ‘confused over civil liberties’.

Right-of-centre politicians in Britain and here in Australian were a disgrace. They either enacted thuggish policies (here in Australia think inter alia about stopping citizens from leaving the country, no other democracy was doing that, or deferring with nary a criticism to despotic premiers) or deferred holus bolus to a public health clerisy that genuflected before models, not hard data (when world’s best epidemiologists were laying down what the data and facts pointed towards in the Great Barrington Declaration) or they disempowered their own real Cabinet in favour of a cadre of mostly lefty Premiers in the name of a made-up ‘National Cabinet’ that is nowhere in the Constitution.

Boris Johnson has an actual communist in his SAGE advisory group but not Oxford’s Professor Sunetra Gupta, holder of the world’s most prestigious chair in the field. ScoMo couldn’t summon up the will to say a single negative thing about Chairman Dan and his world’s toughest lockdowns. And as near on everyone here in the pages of The Spectator Australia pointed out from the beginning, right back in March of 2020, this set of policies was going to devastate the young in favour of the very old and very obese (without even asking the old whether they wanted to ruin their grandchildren’s lives). It was going to crush the small business sector (many of whom will never forgive the Liberals, and I say that after a night on stage with Jay Bhattacharya in Melbourne filled with over 500 people, mostly from the small business sector, who relentlessly booed any politician linked to the Libs, as well Dan the Dictator). These policies produced the best two years ever for the uber-wealthy, for the big corporations (who could stay open when small businesses were shut down), for the public service types with nice homes who quite liked working from home, for the already rich, the list goes on. And you’ll note that this list of beneficiaries is comprised of people who generally vote Left.

These were also policies that devastated school results – go and check out the differences in the US between lockdown states and non-lockdown states on math and English scores of high school students. Before the pandemic, Australia was behind Kazakhstan and now is probably battling it out with Sierre Leone to avoid basement status. Poor kids will never make this up. They have had their lives massively affected. For the virtue-signalling laptop class, the core beneficiaries of lockdowns, you might also like to know that these policies will take away some 75 million life years from those in the third-world (that’s Professor Bhattacharya’s claim, and he is an epidemiologist for all the ‘you’re not a doctor’ buffoons out there).

It gets worse. These brutal, thuggish, despotic laws and regulations (recall that Greg described them as ‘confusions over civil liberties’) had absolutely no science behind them. In October 2019, a century of data that lay behind the WHO pandemic plan and the British plan (that Sweden alone followed) said ‘don’t lock down; trust your citizens; give them information; focus your efforts and protections on the vulnerable’. In the course of six or seven weeks, we threw that all out based on bogus claims from China and a few videos from Italy. Worse again, from the start we knew that the young and healthy were not at any real risk at all. Our conservative governments flat-out lied to us and pretended we were all at risk. They lied; we’re not confused.

Or look at the institutions supposedly there to protect our civil liberties. The Australian Human Rights Commission was composed of Commissioners that were all Coalition appointees. Each and every one of them. Not one uttered a peep throughout the pandemic about the brutality of police behaviour or the idiocy and irrationality of most of the rules or the heartlessness of the border regulations. Not a single peep from these self-styled human rights defenders. Nada. Nothing. Zippo. Give them three uni students who wander into an empty computer room reserved for Aboriginal students and the AHRC will bring the weight of the state down on them, pour encourager les autres. But brutalise the population and transmogrify the police into thugs and they turn into Sargeant Shulz of ‘I see nothing’ fame.

So, ya Greg, some of us conservatives are fuming mad. And if you think I’m angry here’s what a decades-long conservative voter (at one point incredibly well-connected to the Libs) sent to me recently:

‘I don’t think you are angry enough Jim. Not since the worship of Baal, or whatever the alternative Aztec deity was, have we sacrificed so many children for such low returns. [These whitewash efforts are] just an attempt by courtiers to paper over the cracks and provide a defensible defeat for those whose favour they like to curry.’

And trust me Greg, there are loads of conservative voters like me, more Old Testament than New Testament in our anger right now, who want a grovelling apology – of the sort that the newly installed conservative premier in Alberta, Canada just offered last week.

Peter Dutton, whom I like and supported over Morrison after the riddance of Turnbull, is making a big mistake in offering up enervated pleas ‘that we didn’t know how devastating the school closures would be’. Yes, Peter, you did – or should have. Because I and others were saying it in print from March of 2020. And so were three of the world’s best epidemiologists in the Great Barrington Declaration. If you didn’t hear it then your decision-making procedures were woeful. No, they were criminally negligent. Where was the red team, the people assigned to put across the opposing views and positions.

Frankly, these sort of waffly, enfeebled pleas in mitigation will ensure core conservatives take a decade to return to the tent. Admit you were shockingly wrong, give a proper heartfelt apology, and many of us can move on. We’ll be angry still. But we’ll move on. Half-hearted justifications of the last two-plus years are a terrible mistake. Boris lost power because he failed to follow his hero Churchill and stand up for what (by all accounts) he knew was the right thing to do.

Want to see conservative politicians who did stand up for civil liberties throughout the pandemic and how they’re faring? Look at Ron DeSantis. In 2018 he won the Florida governorship by 30,000 odd votes out of 8.5 million. In a fortnight he’s going to win by a massive amount. Same for all the other Republican Governors who stood up against the wrongheaded public health clerisy and, yes, the media class. Because what Greg Sheridan nowhere touches upon is the role of the legacy press in the last two years – how they stoked fear; how they never bothered to learn the data and read the studies and look at the actual infection fatality rates for different age groups; how they became the fear porn Pravda arm of the lockdown state. And my memory is that you, Greg, were as supportive of lockdowns as the next journalist. Right?

So the base is a little more than disgruntled. In point of fact we are not ‘confused over civil liberties’ as Sheridan quaintly claims. We thought conservative governments were for freedom of the individual, for small business, for not jumping straight to policies that emulated China’s ‘let’s weld them in their homes’ approach and we turned out to be wrong.

Last thing. It was not Covid that did this to right-of-centre parties. It was the response to Covid by politicians. As Sheridan correctly points out, the anger about this thuggish, wrong-headed, massively costly, response is asymmetrical. Left-of-centre voters (I generalise you understand) are more in sync with big government, with imposing answers on the rest of us, with not tolerating dissent approaches. But for conservative politicians this was always going to come back to bite them down the road. Let me point out that Sweden, right now, has fewer cumulative excess deaths per capita than we do – and that is surely the one ungameable, deaths statistic that matters. Be clear. Australia did not handle the pandemic well, Scott Morrison and his attempts to line up speaking gigs notwithstanding. We were awful and on just about every axis of concern. And enough conservative voters can see this to make it likely the Coalition loses in NSW next year.

Principle and values matter. Conservative parties and politicians around the world, with a few noteworthy exceptions, showed they didn’t have them. They succumbed to cowardice and focus groupitis. It was that that really killed their electoral prospects for the foreseeable future. You’ll note that just about every new Republican running in the midterms is not tainted with a pro-lockdown record. Same goes for Premier Danielle Smith in Alberta and the new Opposition conservative leader in Canada who marched with the trucker protesters.

‘Not on my watch’ should have been made of sterner stuff.

This article is a republication of an article originally published here by the Spectator Australia.

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  • Prof James Allan

    Professor James Allan holds the oldest named chair at The University of Queensland. He practised law in a large Toronto law firm and at the Bar in London before shifting to teaching law and has taught around the Commonwealth, arriving in Australia in 2005. Allan also writes regularly for the Spectator Australia, the Australian and Law & Liberty in the US as well as semi-regularly for British and Canadian outlets. He came out against lockdowns, in print, as soon as they were imposed and never waivered from that position. His core research areas are moral and legal philosophy and anglosphere constitutional law.

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