Scott Morrison has repeatedly and vociferously championed keeping state borders open.
But on Monday, Morrison was forced to change course, agreeing, in a hook up with premiers Daniel Andrews and Gladys Berejiklian that the Victorian-NSW border should be closed.
In a somewhat Jesuitical distinction, Morrison said they had agreed “now is the time for Victoria to isolate itself from the rest of the country. What’s different here [is] this isn’t other states closing their borders to Victoria”.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd said later “the Commonwealth accepts the need for this action in response to containing spread of the virus”.
But, Kidd said, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee – the federal-state health advisory body so often invoked by Morrison – “was not involved in that decision”.
“The AHPCC does not provide advice on border closures,” Kidd added.
Even during the high stage of the pandemic, NSW and Victoria kept their border open, unlike Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania.
Monday’s decision to close the border from Tuesday night underlines that we are staring at a dangerous new phase in the evolution of the COVID crisis.
The latest Victorian tally of 127 new cases was a record for the state. Kidd said: “The situation in Melbourne has come as a jolt, not just for the people of Melbourne but people right across Australia who may have thought that this was all behind us. It is not.
“The outbreak in Victoria is a national issue. We are all at risk from a resurgence of COVID-19.”
If the Victorian situation can’t be brought under control quickly – and conditions in Melbourne are complicated, even chaotic – the country could face a new bleak outlook on the health front, with a substantial risk of the virus ticking up elsewhere, regardless of other states keeping out Victorians, and an even deeper than anticipated recession.
Borders have been a source of division among governments from early on.
In particular Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk – now reopening her state’s borders from this Friday though excluding Victorians – found herself under attack from the federal government and also from NSW.
As well, both Queensland and WA face challenges from Clive Palmer in the High Court over the constitutionality of their border closures. There’s also another case being brought by Queensland tourism operators.
The High Court has sent the three cases to the federal court to look at certain aspects. The WA matter will be before that court on July 13 and 14.
The constitution provides for free trade and intercourse between the states. The key issue is “proportionality” – whether keeping a border closed is reasonable on health grounds at a particular point of time.
The Morrison government, consistent with the Prime Minister’s argument from the get go, is intervening in the cases to argue the borders should have been opened.
WA premier Mark McGowan on Monday was quick to use the Victorian development to call on Morrison to pull out, saying that in light of the Victoria-NSW closure “I’ve asked the Prime Minister to formally withdraw [federal government] support from Clive Palmer’s High Court challenge.
“It does not make sense for the federal government to be supporting a border closure between NSW and Victoria but on the other hand challenging Western Australia’s border in the High Court.
“Quite frankly, the legal challenge, and especially the Commonwealth involvement in it, has now become completely ridiculous.”
But the federal government is refusing to take a step back.
Attorney-General Christian Porter noted the challenges were not being brought by the Commonwealth, and said it was the right of any citizen to take legal action if they believed “their basic rights of freedom of interstate movement are being disproportionately taken from them”.
“The Commonwealth has intervened to put evidence and views on the situation … the Court would normally expect the Commonwealth to be involved, given the importance of the issues raised.”
Porter said the Commonwealth’s intervention was to provide its view on whether, constitutionally, border closures were permitted in certain circumstances and not others.
“Clearly the courts will be required to consider whether, in determining these specific cases, border restrictions were proportionate to the health crisis at specific points in time as Australia dealt with the immediate and longer-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Court would expect to hear from the Commonwealth on those types of significant constitutional questions.”
Whatever the legal logic, to be endorsing the Victorian closure but arguing against other states’ abundant caution may be a complicated proposition to defend in the court of public opinion.
Victoria recorded its largest daily increase of 127 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, 16 more than the previous peak of 111 cases on March 28.
As I recently wrote, there’s no formal definition of what constitutes a second wave, but a reasonable one might be the return of an outbreak where the numbers of new daily cases reach a peak as high or higher than the original one.
By that definition, a second wave has arrived in Victoria. So why isn’t the state back in lockdown?
What can be done to bring the outbreak under control?
The current strategy of mass testing and information campaigns in hotspot areas, and quarantining whole tower blocks, may not be working. Regardless, cases are now appearing outside the hotspot areas, among people who were most likely infected before the latest measures were put in place.
The Victorian government must now seriously consider going back into statewide Stage 3 lockdown restrictions. Under these rules, there are only four reasons to leave your home: shopping for food and supplies, care and caregiving, exercise, and study and work if it can’t be done from home. And exemptions to quarantine rules should not be granted.
Testing should no longer be a choice. People in 14-day quarantine should be tested on day 11, and if they refuse, made to go into another 14 days of quarantine. Breaking quarantine should be a serious offence.
Far better communication is needed to explain why these measures are essential, and health authorities should ensure their messaging also reaches those who do not speak English as a first language.
People should be encouraged to wear face masks whenever outside. There is increasingevidence they are effective in areas of high transmission.
Much more must be done to educate the public about panic buying. If necessary, Australian Defence Force personnel could be used to deliver food and essential supplies to those at high risk, and assist with logistics.
Some people living in border communities will be granted an exemption from this closure, including those whose nearest health provider or place of work is just across the border. Hopefully they will be closely monitored and regularly tested.
Finally, all other states and territories should rally to assist Victoria. It is in everyone’s interest to defeat this outbreak.
Where to from here?
At this stage, the situation is unclear. Daily cases could still rapidly increase, or we could have reached the peak and we might start seeing cases subside. However, the number of new cases each day isn’t necessarily the critical factor. More important is the daily number of new community-acquired infections. Because we have no idea where these people got infected, it makes controlling the situation very difficult.
Other cases are not a major threat as it’s possible to contain them with quarantine and contact tracing. If necessary, additional staff experienced at contact tracing can easily be brought in from other states.
The first epidemic wave was controlled by imposing severe restrictions. Unfortunately, history might have to repeat itself.
In a press conference on Monday morning, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said people seeking an exemption to the temporary border closure will be able to apply through the Service NSW portal.
It’s good exemptions are available – but it’s crucial these options are not abused. The exemption option is there for people who really need it but please don’t treat it as a challenge.
We all have a shared responsibility to do all we can to limit the spread of COVID-19. That means staying home if unwell, practising physical distancing where warranted, washing hands diligently and getting tested if you have any COVID-19 symptoms.
What we know about exemptions to the border closure
Tomorrow midnight is when all Victorians will be prevented from coming across the border unless they have a permit […] The next 72 hours will be difficult, for some people who normally travel across the border for their daily lives will be restrained until we get the permit system in place and we hope that will happen in the next two days.
When asked about people who already had flights or train trips booked, Berejiklian said
There will always be exemptions due to hardship cases, people can apply for permits or exemptions. And so, for those reasons, we anticipate there will still be some flights and trains services available. There will also be NSW residents returning home […] we will be relying on them to self-isolate.
In the same press conference, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said:
it will be difficult, not impossible, but difficult to make that crossing. There will be delays whilst we work through who are essential workers.
Victorians in NSW would be allowed to return to Victoria, the ABC reports. A NSW government press release said “NSW residents returning from a Melbourne hotspot are already required to go into 14 days of self-isolation. This requirement will be extended to anyone returning from Victoria. This will be backed by heavy penalties and fines.”
There will be a facility for people who live on those border communities to be able to travel to and from for the purposes of work, the purposes of the essential health services they might need… [but holidays would] not be an acceptable reason.
Infectious diseases clinicians and researchers in my field realise this will be frustrating for many people, especially as it comes during school holidays. But the risk of cross border transmission is very real.
Please don’t treat the border closure as a challenge, or seek exemption unless you have a very good reason to do so. Many of us will miss out on much-anticipated family catch-ups and events; it is sad but necessary, unfortunately. Any cross-border movement increases risk and we all have a responsibility to do what we can to minimise it. It’s not even a law enforcement issue; it’s about doing what’s right.
Everyone feels frustrated but moving across the border right now really does magnify risk and we risk losing control.
It’s possible to have trivial or even no symptoms but still be capable of spreading COVID-19.
Don’t dismiss it as ‘just a cough’
Australians have a culture of soldiering on when sick and dismissing symptoms as “just a cough” or “just a runny nose”. We really need to change that mindset and make sure we get tested if we have any symptoms at all, and physically distance from others.
The key messages are to wash hands and if you’re at all unwell, cover your cough and face, stay home, self-isolate and get tested.
Testing in Australia is phenomenally available. We are so lucky to have such great testing facilities so easily accessible and we should avail ourselves of them.
The risk is if we don’t observe the border closures sensibly, minimise spread and test appropriately we will do excessive damage to the economy or lose control of the outbreak – or both.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has announced the border between his state and NSW will close after 11:59pm on Tuesday to prevent the coronavirus outbreak in Melbourne from spreading further.
It will be the first border shutdown between the two states since 1919, when the Spanish flu epidemic prompted the NSW government to close its borders with Victoria, Queensland and South Australia to slow the spread of the virus.
What will this new shutdown mean for residents on both sides of the border and what are the potential longer-term consequences of the closure, as well as those between other states?
How will residents be affected?
There are more than 50 land crossings between NSW and Victoria, peppered between the coast and South Australia. Last year, NSW welcomed more than 4.7 million overnight visitors from Victoria.
There are also a number of interconnected communities along the length of the border, most notably Albury-Wodonga along the Murray River. There are some 89,000 people living in those towns, according to the 2016 census. Other large border towns include Echuca, Swan Hill and Mildura.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, many states have announced similar border “closures”. It should be noted, however, that borders rarely, if ever, close completely. They are designed to act as filters, allowing officials to decide who, or what, crosses.
In other states with closed borders, residents in border communities have been given permits or exemptions to cross for specific reasons, such as specialist work or to care for sick relatives.
Permits for the NSW-Victoria border will likely be made available for residents of border communities like Albury-Wodonga and for those who believe they must cross for “exceptional circumstances.”
The permit system will also likely allow people to cross the border for health care. The Albury and Wodonga health system is unique in that it straddles the state line, providing service to 250,000 people in the region. The state of Victoria runs the Albury Hospital, even though it is located in NSW.
Trade is also unlikely to be highly affected. The NSW-Queensland border has been closed since March, but freight trucks have generally been allowed to continue to cross unfettered, though perhaps more slowly than usual.
Constitutionality of border closures
Even though there have been few disruptions, this has not stopped challenges to the High Court over whether such closures are constitutional.
NSW unilaterally closed the border between the states, followed by other closures (notably between NSW and Queensland). Some people tried to circumvent the border restrictions by taking to the sea.
Have there been border disputes before?
Victoria officially became an independent colony on July 1, 1851, with the border defined under the Australian Constitutions Act as
a straight line drawn from Cape How (sic) to the nearest source of the River Murray and thence the course of that river to the eastern boundary of the province of South Australia.
A boundary survey was conducted in the 1870s by Alexander Black and Alexander Allan to demarcate the straight line portion of border through the often mountainous terrain between the two colonies.
Disputes over the boundary have persisted since then, with reports noting that fishermen blew up the original cairn at Cape Howe to avoid license fees.
These disputes eventually found their way to the High Court in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in regards to the boundary along the Murray River. The entirety of the river was found to sit within NSW in the 1980 ruling of a case involving bizarre circumstances – the jurisdiction of a murder that took place on the shoreline.
In 1984, the straight-line border between the states was resurveyed by the Department of Surveying, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and renamed the Black-Allan line in honour of the first surveyors. The border was not officially recognised in name until 1998 by the Geographic Place Names Act.
One point of concern in the states’ response to the pandemic is the way it has changed the way we talk and think about borders. We have begun to separate ourselves from our neighbours.
And while the political rhetoric that goes back and forth between states has been mostly trivial in nature (think of Andrews’ comment about who would want to travel to SA), there is a risk of longer-term damage to relations between states.
Perhaps more importantly, some cross-border residents have been subjected to abuse for legitimately crossing state lines, often identified by their license plates.
Health experts have also disagreed over the need for border closures, with some saying there is a lack of evidence for their effectiveness in curbing disease transmission. However, even these messages have been mixed, and some have been politicised.
How NSW and Victoria proceed in managing their highly crossed and integrated border will throw up previously unforeseen challenges that Black and Allan were unlikely to have considered while navigating the alpine terrain between the colonies 150 years ago.
The boundary marker monument on the NSW-Victoria border in Genoa, an area affected by this summer’s bushfires, reminds us of the need for cross-state cooperation on issues that are not confined neatly within borders.
This week, the Victorian government unilaterally placed the residents of nine public housing towers in inner Melbourne under “hard lockdown” due to the “explosive potential” of increasing COVID-19 cases.
The lockdown requires all residents of these estates to remain inside their homes for at least five days, placing around 3,000 residents under special punitive measures that apply to no one else in Victoria. Residents are “reeling”.
The lockdown is being enforced by a significant police presence on the estates, with officers on every floor, no warning and immediate effect. Other outbreak areas have been given more than 24 hours’ notice for similar numbers of coronavirus cases.
Emma King, the Victorian Council of Social Service CEO, described the lockdown of the estates as looking “like a crime scene”. A pandemic response should not be a crime scene. It is a collective, public health issue from which no one is immune.
The government’s justification for this action is that residents of public housing are vulnerable and living in high density with many shared spaces. The latter is true of any large apartment building in Melbourne.
Quarantine from Toorak to Broadmeadows should look the same if we are following public health guidelines. If living conditions in public housing are riskier than elsewhere then we need to ask why.
If it is true that communities in housing stress are more susceptible to pandemics, we need to ask how and why this should be true in such a privileged country as Australia.
What is unfolding in Melbourne this week is the product of a punitive public housing system whose residents have been neglected for decades. The status of “vulnerable” that governments so blithely apply to public housing tenants does not come from nowhere.
Vulnerability is not an objective condition, but the result of a system geared toward inequality and enabled by policy choices. Public housing in Victoria is the product of decades of neglect, disinvestment and stigmatisation by governments and media.
The amount of public housing in Victoria has been declining in real terms for at least two decades, with fewer dwellings in 2019 (64,428) than in 2009 (65,064). Victoria has the lowest proportion of public housing of all the Australian states.
At the same time, the number of people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity in Victoria has increased to 100,000, according to waiting lists. Repeated inquiries and reports point to inadequate investment, poor maintenance and lack of strategy. Overcrowding is a function of a broken system.
These conditions directly feed a narrative of decline that is used to stigmatise, detain, constrain and displace public housing residents.
It is no coincidence the estates under lockdown are also earmarked for “socially-mixed” redevelopment and privatisation, which will break up the existing communities and provide even fewer places for those on lowest incomes.
The residents of the affected towers do not need more policing. They have community-based and grassroots organisations such as RISE that have been actively engaged as members of the community. The spike in cases demands a health care response, not a police response.
What Victoria needs is more and better quality public housing and supportive community-building practices that grant everyone the same dignities. Let’s trust those living in public housing.
If the right information, in the right language, with trusting relationships with government and other authorities were enabled, this public health crisis could be worked through in a just and equitable way. As it seems to be in all other sections of Victorian society.
The Victorian government’s decision to “close and contain” nine public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne represents a significant escalation in the fight against COVID-19. Under the stringent new rules, some 3,000 residents will be placed under “hard lockdown” and banned from leaving their homes for at least five days.
The latest response follows the identification of 108 new cases in Victoria on Saturday – the second-highest daily count in Victoria since the pandemic began. Of these new cases, 23 were from 12 households in these housing estates.
There are many questions relating to this decision. But first we must acknowledge, as Housing Minister Richard Wynne already has, that “people living in these public housing towers are some of the most vulnerable people in our community”.
While it is vital for the wider Victorian public that the tower block residents follow the rules, they will also need support during the lockdown. Already there are reports the strong police presence is triggering fear, as well as concern about further employment loss and financial stress.
It is vital close health and welfare supervision is provided, and all standard requirements for normal daily living delivered to their door. The government has waived residents’ rent for the next two weeks, and promised hardship payments of A$1,500 to residents forced to miss work and A$750 to those without employment.
The “close and contain” strategy is fundamental in outbreak control. Restricting residents’ movement aims to prevent further spread of the virus by sealing off known hotspot sites for the duration of the coronavirus’s incubation period.
The strategy is similar to that used in aged care facilities with reasonable success, and Andrews has refused to rule out further hard lockdowns in other sites with significant COVID-19 clusters.
Will the hard lockdown be successful in containing the virus? We know the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, is spread via close contact with droplets from an infected person, or by touching contaminated surfaces. Physical distancing, good hygiene, avoiding large gatherings, and isolation are the best defences.
Housing estates are characterised by their close confines and shared community spaces. Furthermore, Victorian Public Tenants Association executive officer Mark Feenane has acknowledged that “overcrowded living conditions” would assist the spread of the virus. Sadly, conditions in these tower blocks are ripe for spreading COVID-19.
Its not hard to do the maths. In an uncontrolled outbreak with a reported reproductive rate (the number of new cases spawned by each known case) of around 2, and cases doubling every four days, it is easy to see how 23 cases in 12 homes could rapidly escalate to hundreds or thousands if no action is taken. So the action to “close and contain” and test all residents is a sensible and necessary move.
The next move will depend on the test results and the number of further cases during the five-day hard lockdown. Unfortunately it is hard to say with confidence how many new cases may be identified.
So what happens next? Today (Sunday) there were 74 newly discovered cases in Victoria. Of these, four are residents of the towers. Across the state there are 543 active cases, and thousands of close contacts of those cases are in isolation while they await the results.
As Andrews has warned, further postcode lockdowns may be inevitable. What is uncertain is how many postcode lockdowns would have to occur before the decision is made to reinstate stage 3 restrictions across the entire state.
Stored somewhere behind the imposing glass edifice of The Age Spencer Street headquarters – keeping up appearances even as the newsroom it trumpets is progressively hacked away – is a cardboard box containing hundreds of envelopes addressed by hand to The Age Independence Committee. Tucked in with them are piles of yellowing forms clipped out of newspapers, with signatures, names and addresses – Doveton and South Yarra, Edithvale and Wheelers Hill, Castlemaine and Korumburra.
Cracking open this modest reliquary might provide some insight into the grief – albeit largely from a certain demographic – flowing from yesterday’s announcement of the passing of the House of Fairfax.
As a young reporter, I handled a good swag of the letters in this box back in 1991 at my desk in the tiny, smoky office of The Age’s storied Insight investigations unit, which in this period moonlighted as the headquarters of The Age Independence Committee. Then The Age was situated a couple of blocks north of its present building. It occupied a brutalist chocolate-brick box in what the columnist John Lahey described as the Siberian quarter of the city, a neighbourhood of “unloved warehouses and 7am sandwich shops”, whipped by a wicked wind off what would become Docklands.
Under the editorship of the venerated Graham Perkin (1966-75), The Age had been famously recognised as one of the world’s dozen great newspapers, acquiring a circulation of over 220,000. The legacy of that had endured the fraught transition of control from Melbourne’s Syme family to the Sydney-based Fairfax stable, and shaped my understanding of journalism. But by the time I gained a long-coveted desk in the ugly building in 1989 I’d missed the best of it, I was assured by old hands and readers.
Any time I introduced myself or sat down to do an interview I braced for the inevitable critique. People professed love for the paper in the way you might love family – with no inhibitions, indeed an enthusiasm, about highlighting flaws and disappointments. The Age had lost some of the panache of the Perkin era and some of the stylish writing nurtured by his successor, Michael Davie, opined media columnist and Melbourne son Sam Lipski in The Bulletin in 1988. That said, under Creighton Burns (my first editor) it had generally become “a steadier and more balanced paper”, he wrote. “Melbourne burghers like that.”
It’s difficult to recall, from this distance, what a potent force the paper was in Melbourne and Victoria. When I try to explain this landscape to my journalism students, they retreat behind that blank, politely suffering look you give nostalgic old people.
In 1988, The Age published a special report titled “Who Shapes Melbourne?” It was the product of weeks of reporting by a team of ten journalists who interviewed dozens of the city’s movers and shakers – an enterprise also beyond the comprehension of my students, raised on a diet of impoverished newsroom budgets. As part of the project, 130 of these doyens were asked to rank Melbourne’s most influential individuals and institutions.
Out of a field of 162 men (overwhelmingly) and women, then Premier John Cain emerged as the individual with the most clout. And of 153 nominated institutions, The Age itself romped into first place ahead of the Arts Centre, the National Gallery and the University of Melbourne (tied in second place); the ACTU (third); the ABC and the Victorian Football League (this was pre-AFL) (fourth) and BHP neck-and-neck with the state cabinet/government (fifth). The tabloid Sun came in sixth, The Herald eighth, alongside the Catholic Church and the police. “Whether The Age really is the most influential institution in Melbourne matters less than the perception, among many of its powerful readers, that it is,” observed Lipski.
“The Age’s role is perplexing,” Phillip Adams (now ABC broadcaster, then advertising guru) told another Bulletin reporter, Jan McGuinness, in a 1989 dig into its place in the Melbourne firmament, archly headlined “A pillow of the community” and featuring a photograph of the Syme family mausoleum captioned “a palace under siege”. “The Melbourne Herald hasn’t had a role in my lifetime; the Melbourne Sun does its job, yet has no image,” Adams expanded. “But The Age is tied to Melbourne’s self-esteem. And, as there isn’t much of that left, it’s very important.”
Commentators may have struggled to explain the enduring gravitas of the paper, but enjoyed pricking its pomposity along the way. A special report in The Australian – “Flaws in the Fairfax formula” (April 23 1991) – listed its sins as “self-indulgence, independence, tradition, superiority”.
The article pokes around the cultural ethos of The Age, contrasting it with The Sydney Morning Herald. The Melbourne paper had long cut its cloth in a more “Whiggish” style, it argued, despite serving a more conservative city. It quotes an unnamed senior Fairfax staffer who had worked at both mastheads. “You’ve got to remember that at the Eureka stockade The Age supported the miners while The Sydney Morning Herald supported the police – the Herald has always been the drapers’ paper.”
The same article quotes a young merchant banker, one Malcolm Turnbull, verbatim and at length, arguing “there is a great deal of sanctimoniousness about journalistic independence”, and that newspapers needed to be disciplined in their exercise of independence. “Why is it that Fairfax journalists believe a proprietor can have no hand in the editorial management but a journalist can? As long as the proprietor is acting honestly and responsibly, why can he not?”
When this article ran, John Fairfax Holdings Ltd was in receivership and the odds were high that The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review and other mastheads would soon be sold. Circulation and revenue from the classified “rivers of gold” were still bountiful, the technology that would steal them still evolving out of sight. But the fortunes and vulnerabilities of the paper were being pored over thanks to “Young” Warwick Fairfax’s disastrous play to privatise the publicly listed media empire on the eve of the 1987 stockmarket crash.
Maintain Your Age
The Age’s Charter of Editorial Independence – the first document of its type in Australia – emerged when British press tycoon Robert Maxwell took a run at the paper in 1988. Age employees banded together to defend the ethos of the masthead, and generous column space was given to reports and opinion pieces explaining to readers the implications of such a sale for editorial integrity and independence. As journalists organised and fortified, mercifully they could not have known this was merely the first skirmish in a 30-year siege to which the Fairfax name suddenly succumbed with a note to the markets just two mornings ago.
“A newspaper cannot function effectively, cannot put the readers first, if the editor and his staff always have their ears cocked to hear what the proprietor wants,” wrote former editor Michael Davie. The newly formed independence committee reached out to readers for support, establishing a fighting fund, which bought a banner advertisement declaring: “The Age must continue to present the news honestly and without fear or favour. It must not become an organ to peddle the views of a person, a political party, or an interest group.”
And here’s where the letters in the cardboard box come in, a small surviving sample of pre-internet clicktivism, requiring scissors, a stamp and a trip to the mailbox. Thousands of coupons poured in over a couple of campaigns, many with encouraging notes and $5 and $10 notes and cheques attached. The operation to save The Age and its editorial culture was coordinated by Insight chief and associate editor David Wilson, the committee’s chargé de mission and hustler, lobbying powerbrokers, opinion-shapers and glitterati for their support. Like so many others in this story, Wilson is deceased, but my recollection from hours listening to him work the phones was that he rarely encountered anything but enthusiasm for the cause, even as he copped no-holds-barred commentary on all that was wrong with the paper.
But his fondest recruit was surgeon and POW Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop, who apparently on initial approach assumed the campaign was concerned with elderly rights, but who nonetheless threw himself wholeheartedly behind The Age because that was a good cause too.
The paper was then facing a takeover by a consortium led by Canadian mogul Conrad Black (later jailed) and Australia’s Kerry Packer. Thousands of readers marched up Collins Street. Whitlam moved a motion calling on the Hawke Labor government to do everything possible to prevent further media concentration and foreign ownership. Fraser seconded it.
As the columnist Bob Millington had reflected in a piece rifling through the “Maintain Your Age” mailbag, “if politics makes strange bedfellows, defending a newspaper brings an even stranger, yet wonderful, collection of people together”. Over these early years the campaign enlisted support from individuals you could not imagine having any more in common than a football team (it is, after all, Melbourne). BHP chairman Sir James Balderstone, historian Professor Manning Clark, ACTU secretary Bill Kelty, Victorian Farmers Federation chief Heather Mitchell, former Victorian premiers John Cain and Sir Rupert Hamer, philanthropist and prisons campaigner Dame Phyllis Frost, Greens leader Bob Brown and RSL president Bruce Ruxton.
And then there were the coupon signers. Millington unearthed coupons and cheques from descendants of the Syme family and a 12-year-old boy from Brighton. Readers in Albury, Rosanna and Bentleigh declared their decades of subscription, the prize for longevity going to Mrs Florence Williams of St Kilda who “says she reads The Age from cover to cover each day. Mrs Williams will be 99 next Wednesday”. Bless her, and Millo, (both departed), but Mrs Williams represents the extreme end of a once rusted-on and apparently worthless demographic, which the enterprise has long since jettisoned.
A certain hollowness
The box of letters sat under my desk when we revived the independence committee a decade ago as we tried to defend the spirit of the charter from the storm of the great disruption. We wearily dusted off and enlisted the old tactics, reaching out to influencers and readers, this time using the infinitely more powerful tools of the same cybersphere that was eating us alive. The response was gratifying, but had a certain hollowness. Was it real, or just an echo?
As efforts crank up to defend Fairfax’s editorial tradition, if not its name, when it is consumed by Nine, I’m all too aware that the institutional journalism that defines my generation and my imagination has all but vanished. When I summon up Fairfax in talking journalism with my students, for me it’s this great warts-and-all beast with a proud history, noble ambition and organic connection to its community; for them it’s a limp tagline in their feed.
Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood yesterday tried to assure journalists that “there will be plenty of Fairfax Media DNA in the merged company and the board”. I hope so, because the remaining journalists and editors continue to produce stories of extraordinary calibre with little time and ever diminishing resources. But I wondered, given the vanishing of the masthead’s resonance in their lives, whether the community Fairfax served has already been lost, and might only be retrieved by extracting DNA from the coupons in the box, like extinct creatures out of amber.
“Where do you get your news?” I asked my students on Monday, as I do at the beginning of every semester. “Twitter” one of them replied. No, actually, you don’t.
Jo Chandler was a journalist at The Age from 1989-2012, and a former chair of the Age Independence Committee.