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COMMENT: By Joe Hildebrand

The last big research essay I did at Melbourne Uni was on housing commission blocks.

This was partly because I was one of the few student socialists who had experienced poverty involuntarily and partly because there was a shortcut through one of them to my pot dealer's house and I needed to know if it was safe or not.

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The construction of the giant Soviet-style flats in the inner suburbs of Melbourne was, like many government policies, conceived with good intentions and as usual those intentions paved the way to hell — only this time not with gold but prefabricated concrete slabs.

Indeed, it was this revolutionary post-war construction method that enabled them to spring up so fast and so high and so uncompromisingly grey. By the time the far more rational and compassionate idea of properly integrated social housing came around these giant square blocks had already overrun struggling working-class suburbs like a virus – fittingly enough given recent events.

It all began when anti-poverty campaigners, both the brilliant and the busybodies, were alarmed by what was seen as a ring of slums around the Melbourne CBD. Likewise conservative politicians and businessmen felt awkward about having to run the proverbial gauntlet from Spring St and Collins St to their comfortable homes in the suburbs.

The professor who taught me much of this, a lovely man who believed far too many of my excuses for late work — including the deaths of more than four grandparents — was adamant they had nothing to fear.

In fact the one thing that has stayed with me more than anything else was a number of photographs he unearthed proving that the working-class families of Depression-era Fitzroy and Flemington were in fact uncommonly decent – even as their picture was being taken to demonstrate how desperate they were.

Their faces may have been stony but they were clean. Children were shod in old but polished boots. Freshly washed clothes were often strung out on clotheslines in the background.

In the same pictures in which the great reformers saw only poverty, he saw pride. The so-called "great unwashed" were in fact scrubbed to within an inch of their lives.

Still, there was an evangelical conviction that these people were inescapably stricken by some moral, economic and geographic disease and these communities needed to be razed to the ground in order to create a more perfect world.

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It was literally a sledgehammer approach. Block after block of old workers' cottages – which, in the ultimate irony, would later be highly sought after by the inner-city gentry – were demolished and replaced with these towering Stalinist-style monoliths.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews walks to a press conference in Melbourne. Photo / AP
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews walks to a press conference in Melbourne. Photo / AP

The reformers thought they were liberating these families from their history and their circumstance and delivering them a bright new future of cleanliness, communality and modern living.

In fact it gave them a modern living hell. Populations in some of these city blocks multiplied from the hundreds to the thousands effectively overnight. Public amenities like schools and playgrounds were instantly overwhelmed while the needs of the community were simultaneously starved and social networks shattered.

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The big picture thinkers in government still couldn't understand what they had done – evicting and eviscerating the families and communities that had grown organically, warehousing them elsewhere, and then cramming them in with thousands of other strangers in this new alien environment.

The most perfect summation of this was found in an old 1970s book that I had to trace to the Melbourne Uni Architecture library, of all places. To my shame I cannot recall the author and title offhand but it recorded a huffy old politician or bureaucrat lamenting that the residents of the new tower blocks were overly critical of their new living arrangements.

"Honestly, the way they complain you'd think we had changed the weather," he sniffed.

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In fact, the author noted, they did change the weather. The endless shade of mass high-rise buildings made temperatures colder and their close proximity created bone chilling wind tunnels that howled through the communal areas.

Still, even the most pessimistic progressive would have been hard-pressed to predict that some half a century later a Labor state government would find a way to make them even more unbearable.

Yet here we are.

Victoria premier Daniel Andrews' decision to lock public housing residents in their meagre flats is extraordinary and unprecedented but to be fair these are extraordinary and unprecedented times.

I am loathe to criticise it, given it appears to be the sort of targeted action that has been long-called for from his government and, refreshingly for the southern state, is finally in line with the top level public health advice.

But it is an extraordinarily cruel irony that when Andrews did apply targeted action it was directed most extremely at the very most vulnerable and only slightly less extremely at the battling migrant working-class suburbs of northern and western Melbourne.

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And now of course all of Melbourne is back in lockdown for the seemingly arbitrary time frame of six weeks – three times the usual 14 day quarantine period – and the NSW border closed for the first time in a century. Clearly few people have all the answers, especially south of the Murray, but it certainly raises some serious questions.

The first and most obvious is why a second spike of Covid-19 has emerged only in the one state that was more hard line than any other in its restrictions.

Incredibly, some diehard ideologues still blame the lifting of restrictions, which is so deeply irrational it can only be born of the most base-level rote thinking. Just to reiterate for these poor souls who may genuinely not know, virtually every other jurisdiction in Australia imposed fewer restrictions and lifted them earlier and none has seen the resurgence that has happened in Victoria.

Others have blamed multiculturalism, which is, frankly, horseshit. NSW is just as multicultural as Victoria, if not more so, and has not seen any second spike – again despite fewer restrictions that were eased earlier. Sydney is also more densely populated that Melbourne.

The Black Lives Matter protests are another easy target but again there does not appear to be any evidence that transmission occurred at these events. What is galling is that the Victorian government gave an effective free pass to the protesters while imposing irrational bans on everyone else from school students to fishermen.

Nothing so encourages disrespect and disobedience than the perception of unfairness or double standards, a perception that certainly wasn't helped by the Victorian Deputy Chief Health Officer's bizarre and idiotic tweet likening the coronavirus to Captain Cook.

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Then there is the "a few bad apples" question. The horny security guard who shagged his way through quarantined overseas travellers while moonlighting as an Uber driver is a story that even the hungriest tabloid editor would never dare pray for and yet the People's Republic made his wildest dreams come true.

There have also been reports of mass gatherings and Covid-positive people going to work – again, in violation of even the eased restrictions – but all along the way there are staggering failures not just of the poor battlers trying to get by – and get lucky – but the authorities charged with literally keeping an eye on these people.

How on earth these security guards got through screening and training and monitoring is a question for the ages.

And then there is the question of how a supermarket worker who tested positive for coronavirus was released from quarantine and allowed to return to NSW without being tested again.

And the question of how a teenager who got tested for coronavirus was also given the all-clear to travel to NSW and party like it was 1999 only for the Victorian health authorities to contact their NSW counterparts and say that his negative result was actually a positive.

That is one call I'd definitely put on speaker.

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Every government in Australia and the world has understandably made mistakes in dealing with the corona crisis – that is impossible to avoid in any complex rapid response. The Ruby Princess was certainly a doozy.

But these weren't high-pressure judgment calls at the apex of an onslaught by an unknown enemy, these weren't life and death decisions made under fire. These were all fundamental procedural screw ups that occurred not in the first chaotic wave of the virus but in the mopping up and recovery period. And they all occurred in one place at one time.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that for all the tough talk and rousing speeches the people in charge simply failed to do their jobs and the people on the ground simply didn't give a f*ck.

And this brings us to the most perplexing question of all. All the people in those housing commission flats, all the people in those lockdown suburbs of north and west Melbourne who are being blamed for the latest virus outbreak, they are pure Labor heartland. They are working-class battlers, migrant families fighting for a better life and people on welfare just struggling to get by.

They are like the people I grew up with. They shouldn't just be voting for Labor leaders, they should be branch-stacking for them with unbridled enthusiasm. And yet these are apparently the people to whom the message of an apparently adored Labor leader is just not getting through.

It's a funny thing. I've been whacked by Dan's Handbag Hit Squad for daring to suggest that kids deserve school and workers deserve jobs but now that I think about it I can't recall any group of people who were a whiter shade of beige. As one hilarious but unpublishable clip doing the rounds on social media shows, the brothers of Broadmeadows don't seem to be on side.

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Maybe there really is a language barrier that is hampering the government's messaging to these communities but I doubt it's Arabic or Sudanese. It is the government not speaking the language of commonsense – of naming and shaming uncontaminated schools while the virus ran rampant through a meatworks, of police herding fishermen off a pier while allowing thousands to gather in the streets, of blaming families and workers for not doing the right thing while their own staff were making equally idiotic mistakes.

Now the whole country will suffer while Victorians go into Lockdown Mark II. The road to hell might be paved with good intentions but it is almost always sealed with hypocrisy.

Joe Hildebrand is a columnist for news.com.au and co-host of Studio 10, 8am-noon weekdays on Channel 10.