Here We Go Again…

At the time of writing, Melbourne is once again under a COVID19-related lock down. Currently, we are three-quarters of the way through a 14-day “snap” lock down or “circuit breaker”. Variously known as #lockdown4, v4.0 (now v4.1 with the added week), or simply “The South Australian One”. Along with a prevailing sense of déja vu, much of the political, media and social coverage has a very familiar ring to it – like, here we go again!

Overall, I would much rather be in Australia at the moment, compared to many other places in the world that are still struggling to cope with the pandemic. But there is no doubt that this latest lock down is once again revealing some political and structural weaknesses in the Australian Federal and State system – and the people of Victoria (and especially Melbourne) are paying a heavy price for these combined failings.

The blame game between Federal and State politicians is becoming a farce – most of us would rather see some effective leadership and practical solutions, as well as a bit more owning up and taking responsibility for where and when things have gone wrong. After all, the first known case of COVID19 was reported in Australia in late January 2020, so our elected representatives at levels and of all persuasions have had nearly 18 months to sort this out. It doesn’t help that our Prime Minister is generally regarded as being absent whenever there is a crisis – on the other hand, does it help to have him turn up in hi-vis and hard hat for another photo opportunity? And sometimes when he does bother to make it, he’s often made to feel unwelcome.

Here are just a few of the disconnects between Federal and State roles and responsibilities when it comes to managing COVID19:

First, the Federal government is responsible for external border control (i.e., immigration and quarantine). It’s generally argued that the Feds have failed to deliver a workable quarantine solution for anyone coming to or returning to Australia. For whatever reason (and we’ll probably have to wait 20 years before the relevant papers are released), National Cabinet in March 2020 agreed to delegate the management of hotel quarantine (HQ) to the individual States and Territories. The big question is: why did the States agree? Where there incentives on offer, or did they do so because they could see no solution coming from the Federal government? At the same time, the States have applied inconsistent border controls as between each other, and at times, Victoria has been able to suspend in-bound international flights, putting more demand on the other States’ HQ programmes.

On the other hand, Melbourne still managed to host an international Grand Slam tennis event in the summer (notwithstanding some COVID scares and cases), and our nation’s softball players have already been vaccinated prior to heading off to Japan for the Tokyo Olympic Games (which many locals want to cancel for obvious reasons). Plus, AFL teams were somehow able to travel interstate from Melbourne immediately prior to the lock down (did they get a tip-off?). Yet, at least one AFL club has breached COVID regulations, when travelling on a domestic passenger flight. I’m so glad we have got our priorities right when it comes to professional sport!

Second, health services (along with education, aged care and social services) are a strange mix of Federal and State responsibilities, services and delivery. As a result, there is bound to be some overlap and double handling, as well as some obvious gaps. The Federal government is being blamed for failing to secure and distribute adequate vaccine supplies when and where they are needed, and for failing to meet their own aspirational targets in terms of vaccine roll-out. Yet, as with so many public services, there is a (confusing) dual delivery system. Victoria set up a number of vaccination hubs – only it still hasn’t deployed an online booking system: only phone bookings (or walk-ins) are available. But the Federal delivery is via health clinics and GPs, with each service provider offering different booking systems.

Third, the vaccination roll-out (by age and priority categories) has seen the criteria move around, somewhat arbitrarily. There is anecdotal evidence that due to low take-up rates in March and April, some people within one of the priority age categories (initially 60, it was suddenly moved to 50 in May) could access a jab at a clinic or hub at short notice, as otherwise those stocks were going to waste. It doesn’t help that there was/is confusion over the vaccine requirement for certain front line workers (e.g., in aged care) and who is responsible for administering those vaccinations. Of course, since the latest lock down in Victoria, demand is outstripping supply, and it is difficult to verify data on whether anyone who was in a priority category was initially unable to access a vaccine (or was denied access) at the time they became eligible and wanted a jab.

Fourth, hotel quarantine continues to be the key weak point in the transmission chain. I’m not going to dwell on the systemic failure that led to Victoria’s second (and lengthy) lock down last winter/spring – from which we were only just starting to recover when #lockdown4 was imposed. The fact that the latest lock down was triggered by an apparent breach in South Austalia’s HQ is of some significance, as it re-introduced the Kappa “Variant of Interest” into Victoria. More worrying is the presence of the Delta “Variant of Concern”, whose precise source in Victoria is still unknown, but likely to have come from our own troubled HQ system.

Fifth, the calls for the Federal government to pay for dedicated and purpose-built quarantine facilities in each State are understandable – but I’m not sure why Victoria in particular didn’t just go ahead and build their own (and then later stick the Feds with the bill). It’s not as if there is a shortage of construction work going on at the moment in Victoria (much of it State-funded), so it would have been quite easy to pull that project together without waiting for the Feds to come to the party. After all, construction was one of the few industries to continue relatively unscathed during last winter’s lock down – and with the Federal job keeper and job maker subsidies available at the time, Victoria could easily have completed the task by now, especially with the support of a key developer such as the union-backed Cbus.

Sixth, Victoria has only just mandated a universal QR code system for checking visitors in at all business, commercial, retail and hospitality premises. Why it took so long, and why it allowed a mish-mash of third party apps and pen and paper systems is yet another example of poor IT implementation by government. (The Feds appear to be no better with their own COVID tracing app.)

Seventh, the Federal Government, via last week’s National Cabinet, appears to have established a common definition for a COVID19 “hot spot”. Again, it’s only taken the best part of 18 months, and we still don’t have consistent and national terms for defining “red zone”, “complex case”, “cluster”, “mystery case”, “complex case”, “unknown case”, “fleeting transmission”, “stranger to stranger transmission”, “primary contact”, “close contact” or “exposure site” tiers. Nor do we have a consistent framework for responding to a “hot spot”, especially when comparing Victoria to other States.

Finally, the latest lock down again reveals weaknesses and vulnerabilities in Australia’s manufacturing capabilities and supply chains (in terms of producing and distributing sufficient vaccines). It’s also shown up economic fragility with many people living pay cheque to pay cheque, and many small businesses, especially in retail, tourism and hospitality, will not manage to bounce back from a fourth shut down.

Next week: How about that AAA rating?

RONE in Geelong

Public art galleries need to attract paying customers if their funding derived from government grants is being cut. To pull in the punters, galleries have to resort to “blockbuster” exhibitions. In these uncertain, post lock-down times, the lack of international tourists means that galleries are forced to focus on local audiences. It’s good to showcase local talent in the shape of conquering heroes returning to their roots.

These may have been some of the arguments behind the Geelong Art Gallery‘s decision to mount a retrospective exhibition featuring the work of street artist Tryone Power (aka RONE). Of course, the planning began long before COVID struck, but otherwise the above assumptions would seem to be valid.

Let’s acknowledge the positives of this show: First, it is certainly pulling in the punters, and helping to bring in visitors and their wallets to the town. Second, it is hopefully creating a platform for future exhibitions, and public engagement with the Gallery itself. Third, it’s nice that a locally-born artist is being recognised (even if he has had to travel afar to make a name for himself at home).

Unfortunately, that’s where it ends, for me. My recent visit was probably the shortest time I have spent in an exhibition which I had paid to see. Overall, I found the work vapid – there was nothing of substance (nor anything challenging) underneath the painted surface, or behind the concept of “beauty and decay”. As a street artist, RONE does not have the wit or depth of a Banksy; as a conceptual/installation artist, he’s no Christo. The main images he creates or imposes on his work are highly stylised and extremely idealised portraits of young women – it’s a very limited exploration of “beauty”. At best, the work reveal something interesting about abandoned and overlooked locations. At worst, the installation reeked of interior decor magazines and displayed a taste for romanticised and sentimental kitsch.

Which is all a great shame, because given RONE’s apparent interest in deserted and decaying structures, there is a deep and rich vein of Australian Gothic he could have tapped into. (In comparison, think of the work of Nick Cave, Peter Weir, Peter Carey, Julia deVille, Rosalie Ham, etc.)

Despite the use of physical objects, this exhibition felt very one-dimensional. Artists as disparate as Helen Chadwick, Paola Rego, Cindy Sherman and Rachel Whiteread have all deployed notions of female beauty, decay, abandonment and destruction to far greater effect and impact.

Next week: Intersekt FinTech Pitch Night

Life During Lock-down

As I write, Victoria is witnessing record numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the so-called second wave of the pandemic. Even as the State Government maintains the Stage 3 lock-down in Greater Melbourne (and most recently mandated the wearing of masks), some members of the public are trying to challenge these restrictions, while others have to keep being reminded to comply with the pandemic measures. Frankly, the way I have been feeling about the latest events, I don’t know whether to laugh, scream or cry.

The Village of Eyam – Image sourced from National Geographic

Laugh, because I can’t believe how crass or stupid some of these refuseniks are. Scream, because I am so angry at the State Government’s failure to properly manage the hotel quarantine programme (which has led to the widespread community transmission), and the delayed decision to require masks in public. Cry, because the whole situation is incredibly sad, given all the people who have lost loved ones to the virus, and the many more who are experiencing financial hardship.

The Premier keeps saying that now is not the time to debate the whys and wherefores of who is responsible for the failure in hotel security arrangements, what caused the community transmission, or why so many people continued with their normal routines despite being symptomatic or while waiting for coronavirus test results. OK, fair enough – the Government’s main focus is on protecting public health (and shoring up the local economy), but hopefully there will be plenty of time for analysis and debate once the virus is under control (and hopefully well before the next State election, due in 2022…).

Meanwhile, I don’t know why politicians and health administrators are so surprised when members of the public fail to “exercise common sense”. Maybe the public kept hearing the Government was doing a such a great job (hey, remember Lock-down Pt. I?). Perhaps they over-compensated after a few weeks’ social distancing, became complacent and let down their guard. Or maybe they took their lead from public messages about “returning to normal” – and going to the footy and getting on the beers again….. Perhaps there is a sizeable portion of the community who can’t be trusted “to do the right thing” (or maybe they just don’t trust politicians, public servants, health experts or mainstream media).

As for why those people carried on as usual (despite being symptomatic or awaiting test results): there may be economic factors at play (to be discussed another day, but if that doesn’t include a debate on a Universal Basic Income, it will be a lost opportunity). It could be a lack of information and awareness. It could simply be human nature. But for a culture that celebrates “chucking a sickie” (indeed, one former Prime Minister even suggested it would be a point of national pride to do so following Australia’s success in the Americas Cup), something has gone wrong somewhere if people don’t feel any responsibility or obligation towards the health of their fellow citizens.

In my more existentialist moments (and I seem to have so much more time for that these days…), I can’t help thinking the pandemic is a three-fold challenge to the future of the human race: 1) the virus is nature’s way of inoculating itself against homo sapiens; 2) it will prove Darwin’s theory of evolution (survival of the fittest) by exploiting our weakness as social creatures – it’s figured out how to get us to spread the virus on its behalf; 3) the reduced levels of human activity and pollution will give the earth some time to heal (at least for a while).

At other times, I think about Talking Heads’ song “Life During Wartime”* – especially the line “I got some groceries, some peanut butter to last a couple of days”. With the need to limit shopping trips, the various shortages, and the focus on being prepared for a total lock-down, is it any wonder we may feel some anxiety? Of course, we could be in a far worse situation than what we are currently experiencing in Melbourne, both in terms of the number of cases and the breakdown in social order we see elsewhere. Yet that just underscores how inconsiderate and selfish those people are who can’t bring themselves to wear masks, or observe Stage 3 restrictions. Yes, the restrictions are inconvenient, and at times tedious, but they are hardly onerous compared to a full scale health crisis. And if anyone wants to discuss public sacrifice in the face of a virulent disease, I suggest they do some research on the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England.

For myself, I know I have been very fortunate so far (probably thanks to some “compound privilege”). I have been able to work from home since March (although as an independent contractor, my monthly income has been reduced), but I have not seen any friends or family face-to-face either, and I won’t be traveling overseas next month for a family wedding, or to visit elderly parents. I am able to walk each day in the nearby park, but apart from food shops and the post office, I’ve not been inside any other retail premises. I haven’t been to pubs or restaurants, but I try to support the local hospitality sector by ordering prepare-at-home meals about once a week. I can’t get to see live music, but this has forced me to revisit my own music-making. And I don’t have to do any home-schooling, but I have friends and relatives who work in the health and education sectors.

My biggest concern, apart from the pandemic itself, is that we miss the opportunity to re-think the large areas of the economy that need restructuring. Politicians keep talking about “jobs, jobs, jobs”, as if the archaic labour structures inherent in the traditional master and servant relationship is the be-all and end-all of social economics. But where are these jobs coming from? COVID19 shows we can consume less, make do with less stuff, and so it can’t just be a demand-led stimulus. Nor should it just be a construction-led recovery (more “Big Build”), unless it is combined with innovation, sustainability, hi-tech, smart cities, etc. There is definitely a need to think about national self-sufficiency, and figure out what to do about supply chains, manufacturing and renewable energy.

Somehow, we have to turn this uncertainty and these challenges into positive outcomes.

Next week: The Limits of Technology

* The whole album, “Fear of Music” is the perfect soundtrack for the nervous paranoia and unease of the pandemic…..

Startup Victoria: supporting successful founders

I’ve been attending Startup Victoria’s meetups for more than 5 years, and have been a paid-up member for most of that time. The event formats and the key personalities have changed over the years, but the mission has always been to help create more founders and better founders, and to support the broader startup ecosystem. At last month’s AGM and panel discussion, the Board announced that the focus has now shifted to “helping founders to succeed”. A subtle change, but an indication that the local startup scene is finally maturing.

As part of this renewed focus, Startup Vic wants more corporates to engage with local startups – as suppliers, strategic partners and potential target acquisitions. Given the challenges startups face in meeting enterprise procurement processes (especially in the public sector…), this will not be easy. The path to engagement with startups has to be considerably de-risked before purchasing managers will get the sign-off to onboard new vendors.

That challenge aside, another observation from the panel discussion of founders and advisors was that Startup Vic needs to connect newer founders with more experienced founders, those who have already taken a startup to scale up to exit. Plus, as a leadership organisation, Startup Vic recognises that more needs to be done to highlight local success stories. That doesn’t just mean the startup community celebrating itself – it means spreading the word publicly and getting more media airtime for businesses that are building sustainable growth in the new economy.

One of the panelists asserted that “some of our politicians would rather have their photo taken with the winner of the Melbourne Cup, than be seen with the founders of Atlassian”. A bit harsh, perhaps – but I know that they mean. Aligning themselves with sporting heroes probably does more for their public profile, compared to hanging out with our key tech entrepreneurs in order to learn what government could do to foster more startup success.

To be fair to the Victorian Government, it has been trying to implement an innovation strategy that brings participants together – founders, investors, incubators, accelerators, etc. This has resulted in: the Victorian Innovation Hub (plus a number of sector-specific tech centres); LaunchVic (to provide grants to projects designed to foster the startup community); and engagement with overseas VC funds and offshore tech companies (to position Victoria as an investment destination, and as a national, regional or even global HQ).

Meanwhile, the panel also debated whether too many local founders are more interested in building a “lifestyle business” for themselves, rather than creating say, a $250m company. This apparent lack of ambition was seen as something of a local phenomena, partly linked to Melbourne’s status as one of the world’s most livable cities, partly linked to a generally benign Australian economy (but with a growing number of stress points), and the usual cultural factors such as the tall poppy syndrome. There are also some structural challenges in the economy (restrictive trade practices, a lack of competition in highly concentrated markets, continued economic uncertainty post-mining boom, delays in rolling out the NBN, a potential credit squeeze…), plus a growing distrust of public institutions and major corporations. This disenchantment and disengagement is not helped by a lack of strong leadership in government and in business – so why would anyone with any sense want to get involved, and hence the desire to take care of one’s own needs first.

Finally, emphasizing the need to re-think the founder mindset and to provide a better foundation for building the businesses of the future, Startup Vic is also committed to both the professional and personal development of founders.

Next week: Blipverts vs the Attention Economy