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In Melbourne’s “Hard Lockdown,” Public Housing Residents Get the Harshest Measures

Nine public housing towers in Melbourne have been put under a police-enforced “hard lockdown” without warning, with isolation effectively policed at gunpoint. It’s a measure reserved for inner-city public housing residents, despite the rising wave of infections throughout the city. 

Residents are seen looking out of their window at the North Melbourne Public housing flats on July 05, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. Asanka Ratnayake / Getty

On Saturday, July 4, the Daniel Andrews Labor government in Victoria announced that nine public housing towers in Melbourne’s inner north were to be put under a “hard lockdown.” Effective immediately, the roughly three thousand tower residents would be subjected to the harshest COVID-19-related restrictions in Australia yet, unable to leave their apartments for any reason. More than five hundred police officers would patrol the buildings and enforce the new restrictions.

Before many residents had even learned of the announcement, the lockdown came into effect. Police surrounded the estates and began patrolling the floors in pairs. They also commandeered the buildings’ security systems (public housing residents are some of the most surveilled people in Australia) to watch residents’ every move. For the first time in Australia, isolation is being enforced en masse at gunpoint.

The latest measures from the Andrews government, now tackling what’s understood to be Melbourne’s second wave, have provoked outrage for their double standards. Though there are several viral “hot spots” in Melbourne, it’s only those who reside in high-rise public housing — largely poor and working-class immigrant and refugee families — that are subject to the measures. Other residents in the rapidly gentrifying area haven’t been subjected to the same restrictions, and they are still able to go to work, attend school, exercise outside, and shop for supplies.

There has been some pushback. Flemington residents’ groups are insisting on the same restrictions as the rest of the population. Residents’ groups in non-locked-down public housing estates across the inner city are urgently trying to avoid the fate of the Flemington and North Melbourne towers by mobilizing for widespread testing, available sanitizer, emergency Wi-Fi, and translation services. The lack of all of these factors — dire conditions created by the Office of Housing — was used as a pretext for the Flemington and North Melbourne lockdowns.

Andrews Needs a Scapegoat

In the weeks leading up to this “hard lockdown,” the Andrews government had been squirming in the spotlight. In mid-June, a corruption scandal involving electoral fraud claimed three ministerial scalps. More impactful during a pandemic, however, was the loud, growing clamor surrounding the coronavirus outbreak at Melbourne’s hotels, where citizens returning home were placed in compulsory quarantine for a period of two weeks. The state government contracted private security firms to manage the lockdown and monitor the hotels. The private security guards received minimal to no training and no protective equipment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these quarantine hotels then became the very source of Victoria’s new outbreaks.

All of the contracted companies — MSS, Unified, and Wilson — have recently been embroiled in union disputes involving sham contracting and chronic underpayment. In a further disturbing twist, allegations have emerged that some of the same untrained, subcontracted MSS security guards worked at both the quarantine hotels and the Flemington public housing estates.

The government is no stranger to playing racially charged games of divide and rule in the COVID-19 era. In early June, an anonymous government figure told the press that activists were planning to spit on and attack police at an upcoming Black Lives Matter protest. The media ran the salacious lie, and protest organizers began receiving death threats. Some outlets later apologized for not fact-checking the story, but the damage was done.

Far-right senator Pauline Hanson made the real message of Andrews’s new “hard lockdown” explicit when she said on national television that the “drug addicts,” “alcoholics,” and people “from war-torn countries” were to blame for the spread of COVID-19. She ranted that “we have got a lot of Victoria that is being isolated because these people, who cannot speak English, don’t know what the hell to do.”

Ulterior Motives

Why were the towers — and only the towers — targeted? The public housing towers are an annoyance to all the powerful players in Victorian politics. Despite a 100,000-strong waiting list, there hasn’t been any expansion of public housing in the state since the 1960s. Property developers — big donors to both the major parties — are keen to get access to the prime inner-city locations of the existing stock. Both Labor and the Coalition are committed to the privatization of public housing: since 2014, the Andrews government has sold off eleven public housing estates across the city as part of its misnamed “Public Housing Renewal Program.”

Unfortunately for both property moguls and politicians, many residents of the inner-city housing estates are quite politically organized. In 2013, Atherton Gardens residents in Fitzroy ran a successful community campaign against the partial privatization of their estate. The Building Industry Group of unions got involved and forced the then-Liberal government into an embarrassing retreat. More recently, youth at the Flemington estate joined forces with anti-racism activists to prevent far-right and fascist groups from holding an event featuring Milo Yiannopoulos.

Rather than risk open confrontation with potentially organized residents, the Andrews government and its predecessors have generally preferred quietly undermining living conditions on the estates. Renovations are delayed indefinitely, pest infestations are allowed to spiral out of control, and an ever-increasing security presence inflames community tensions and scares many residents into silence. When conditions reach a breaking point, the logic goes, the government can point to the need for “renewal” — a code word for privatization.

Police Brutality

The singling out of the Flemington estates in all this is particularly loaded. Young people of African background on these estates have been reporting out of control, racist police brutality for years. Mandating armed police in the halls of those towers is no innocent gesture.

The former Victorian chief commissioner of police, Ken Lay, was in charge of Flemington area operations during the infamous and violent Operation Molto in 2006. Molto specifically targeted young people of African appearance, who were almost nine times more likely to be stopped and questioned by police.

Police brutality against young Africans in the area has since been widely reported: strip searches, racial abuse, and violent treatment of those in handcuffs are not uncommon from a police force that clearly considers itself immune from punishment and above the law. In 2017, police punished youth who took part in an anti-fascist demonstration by chasing them through the estates, pepper-spraying them, and striking them with batons.

Some of these same police officers are now patrolling the homes of the kids they tormented. As Daniel Andrews himself warned, “This is not going to be a pleasant experience for those residents.”

Different Rules for Different Classes

The “hard lockdown” of the estates is the starkest example yet of the class divide in Australia’s coronavirus response.

Billionaires are being granted exemptions from the mandatory hotel quarantine rules that apply to working people and travelers returning from abroad. No comparable “hard lockdown” was imposed in wealthy Toorak, Malvern, or Portsea when the elite circle surrounding Flexigroup founder (and Liberal Party power broker) Andrew Abercrombie flouted isolation rules and spread COVID-19 throughout those suburbs.

In March, the Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton said that wealthy travelers clearly thought they did not have to follow the rules. This latest move from the Andrews government proves those well-heeled jet-setters right: there’s a series of rules designed to pit most of us against one another, and a series of business exemptions for the wealthy and powerful.