Duly, the state government complied. We of the lower northern beaches had our own man, Health Minister Brad Hazzard, inside the room. All of those around our intensely process-driven Premier understand that if you control the process, you control the decisions. So the lower northern beaches were gifted softer restrictions.
With the beach at our doorstep, we were compensated for our privations by the barring of outsiders. Win-win! While the surf lifesavers closed the beaches, few locals paid attention. Beaches are often closed, and we use them anyway. We, the born allowed, can handle ourselves. During the hot weather, those beaches were more crowded than in a normal summer and the biggest inconvenience of the pseudo-lockdown was the lack of parking.
With few COVID cases on the lower northern beaches residents settled back into the governing idea of NSW under COVID. The Premier explains the daily rules, and we nut out what we can get away with. The born allowed know how to work these rules. You know where the speed radars are, you know how to avoid a tax audit. Here is how to watch your New Year’s Eve fireworks. You play the game. It helps when the state’s leader takes on the guise and morality of a rugby league referee: “Here is what we say you are allowed to do, now go do what you decide you are allowed to do. But don’t tell me what you’re doing, I don’t want to know.”
Nowhere is the “born-allowed” attitude better expressed than in our professional sporting spectacles. During the winter, the National Rugby League – which is built on the idea of circumventing rules – was the first major competition in the world to restart after the initial lockdowns. And the NRL got away with it, because that’s what the NRL has been doing for 100 years. The greatest player in the game, Cameron Smith, is the one who gets away with playing offside for two decades. The standard player, on his pedestal, gets away with what he can, on and off the field.
One of the key understandings the league had, in its dealings with the NSW government, was that the Gladys Berejiklian who thinks pork barrelling and selective don’t-ask-don’t-tell finagling with Daryl Maguire are okay because they are not illegal, and the Gladys Berejiklian who spreads confidence in the community by clearly elucidating the latest COVID-19 rules, are not contradictory. They are two sides of the one idea of governance, which is that establishing processes comes first, and principle, if it is a consideration at all, can always be reverse-engineered to fit a good set of rules. If you can control the process, you control the Premier. The men of the NRL, like the men who run NSW, have understood that for some time.
Inevitably, the born allowed of the cricket world figured out this game. Just a fortnight ago, the issue facing the Sydney cricket Test match was the processes facing the playing and broadcast caravan when it travels from Sydney to Brisbane on January 12. It was not a question of the real danger of spreading COVID-19, which seemed somewhat theoretical, but how to wriggle around the rules devised by another state premier whose love of process is bolstered by interstate parochialism. The administrators went into overdrive to work their way around those rules, and “saved” Sydney’s Test match. The born allowed of Sydney congratulated themselves energetically. Even though only five people are permitted indoors and 30 outdoors, cricket gets an exception for 25,000. Nice set of rules, that! The born allowed, always winning.
But the real issue had changed over those days. The pandemic, in Sydney, is not playing games. The problem was not about protecting Queensland from a few dozen unlikely potential carriers, but about the 25,000 people who will go to the Sydney Cricket Ground for five straight days to run the gauntlet of what Professor Raina MacIntyre says is the most dangerous week of the year in Sydney, when people who have picked up the virus during the festive season will be at their most infectious.
Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, says he will not take his parents. The health counter-argument is that it’s an outdoor event (except for all the public transport, toilets, food outlets, entry vestibules and passageways in the SCG), which is, of course, a figleaf for the real mindset, which is that we of the born allowed are entitled to our Test match, and we have figured out how to get what we want within the rules.
When you are one of the born allowed, is there any other response than merely going along, getting away with it? Getting away with it is not just the motto of this government, it was the founding ethos of this state. It’s a hard habit to break in the name of doing the right thing.
And yet, if the privileged won’t do the right thing, what are our privileges worth? I am a white, middle class, male, northern beaches cricket person who attends the Sydney Test match every year, and when not paid to be there, I go anyway. I guess there is minimal chance that I will take the COVID infection to the SCG, or that I will pick it up and bring it away with me. But even though I am allowed to go, it just seems like a fundamentally wrong and selfish thing to do. As a public health matter, it’s on the same spectrum as those who went to Trump rallies in November. How we laughed at them. It’s hanging onto our entitlements at the cost of taking the pandemic sufficiently seriously. It’s an up-yours to the pandemic, challenging it to take away our inherited privileges. (Hint: old mate pandemic isn’t listening.) It’s an expression of complacency in an isolated country that has been, simply, fortunate.
In all probability, the Test match won’t be a super-spreading event with dire consequences not only for Sydney but for the thousands of country people coming in and out of town. But if it does have that result, I personally don’t want to be complicit. Were any of those Trump rally attendees less culpable if they, personally, didn’t spread the virus? Conscientious objection isn’t a sanctimonious stance and it’s not telling anyone else what to do. It is simply a personal withdrawal.
To all those who do go, I wish you good luck, because it’s luck, even more than masks and hygienic habits, that you will need. The Test match is an important ritual to start the new year, and in 2021 that kind of celebration feels more necessary than ever. I have a keen appreciation of why people want it. I want it too. The virus, however, doesn’t go by the calendar, and nor should conscience. I will have my fingers crossed for those who take part, but I won’t be among them.
Malcolm Knox is a journalist, author and columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.