The Hotel Quarantine Mess is Peak Neoliberalism

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Governments need to stop outsourcing and start taking responsibility.

The outsourcing of quarantine control to a security company with no experience in public health protocols has led to the biggest Covid-19 outbreak in Australia so far. People arriving from overseas were quarantined in hotels for 14 days, guarded by security contractors who have breached quarantine rules to interact with isolated guests, infecting themselves and their communities with the virus. Melbourne is now on its second lockdown as a result, with an even more draconian ‘hard’ lockdown having just come to an end in some public housing towers.

I don’t blame the security guards for this mess. They are trained as guards, not as public health or quarantine officials. They work long, dull shifts standing guard for very little money, in an industry renowned for wage theft and cowboy antics. Without training specifically for this situation, they can’t have known how serious their quarantine breaches would end up being. But the Government knew. And the Department of Health officials knew. All the people who should have been responsible for ensuring strict quarantine measures to keep communities safe failed to do so in order to save money through outsourcing. We know the security company awarded the hotel quarantine contract didn’t even have to tender for the job. It’s clear that in this instance, the Victorian state government’s entrenched neoliberalism has proven more important than the safety of the community.

Neoliberalism is our current ruling ideology, the one that drives government agendas, economies and societies, at least in the global north. Coming into favour in the 1970s, and hitting its stride with the Thatcher and Reagan administrations of the 1980s, neoliberalism generally favours free markets, private property, deregulation and free trade. Outsourcing to private companies what were once government-provided services is a key marker of neoliberalism. These services generally end up costing the taxpayer more than if they were provided by public servants, for lesser quality and with huge profits earmarked for company shareholders and directors, who are often big donors to the political parties awarding the contracts. It is this system that has led to the current lockdown in Melbourne.

Outsourcing was once the domain of conservative, right-wing governments. It was a federal Labor government, under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the 1970s, who introduced a lot of Australia’s beloved social democratic systems, such as Medicare and free higher education. I am still a firm believer in a system where essential services such as education (including childcare), health and utilities are provided by the government, backed up with strong support services for the disadvantaged, such as public housing, unemployment payments and robust mental health support. However, this view does not mesh with the current neoliberal system, which sees most of these services outsourced, privatised or de-funded, from all sides of politics. Even Labor, the party of Whitlam, has become a champion for neoliberalism.

In his book Capitalist Realism, the late Mark Fisher laid out his thesis for how it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. This includes the neoliberal agenda, which is now so entrenched that governments and citizens alike struggle to conceive of any alternative way of existing in the world. Governments on the left of the political spectrum have failed to contest neoliberal ideology and policy, playing catch-up to their right-wing counterparts in the belief that the people would have it no other way. This is how we have arrived at a point where instead of protecting the people, a purportedly left Labor government outsourced a critical public health function, leading to low-paid, poorly-trained security guards breaching quarantine and causing the biggest outbreak of Covid-19 in Australia.

It is time for governments on the left to reject outsourcing and privatisation. Presumably those politicians went into politics because they wanted to make a difference — well, here is their chance. They should ask themselves who the outsourcing and privatisation really serves. Is it the people, the taxpayers, whose taxes pay for these services? Or is it the private companies who win these multi-million-dollar contracts and provide sub-par, expensive services to the people, in order to make even more money? People deserve access to high quality, free education and health care in the very least. The hotel quarantine mess just reinforces how far to the right Labor has drifted since Whitlam. It’s not too late to fix it, but it will take a concerted effort to reject the neoliberal agenda, be brave, and start serving the people once again.

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