09 July 2020

When I first moved to Moonee Valley nearly three decades ago, the Flemington and North Melbourne Housing Commission towers had been there for three decades.

After boundary changes last year, the Flemington towers were moved into my electorate of Maribyrnong.

No one could have imagined, over that span from their creation in the 1960s to now, that those towers would be playing host to the extraordinary scenes we're seeing.

As our beloved city goes back into stage three restrictions, it is plain just how much the COVID-19 pandemic has utterly disrupted our society and the way we live our lives.

This deadly virus has proven to be resilient and in Victoria our initial happiness at getting it under control sadly premature.

This is going to be a much longer haul than the one many of us had expected, or quietly hoped for.

We will need to pace ourselves, look after ourselves, and be there for each other.

It is a particularly cruel and unusual form of torture for different groups - year 12s, small businesses, contractors and casual workers as well as frontline health staff.

We are living in a truly historical time of empty CBDs, near-empty highways, cruise ships moored offshore and atomised maskwearing individuals avoiding each other in public spaces.

Now we can add to that dystopian list the sight of predominantly African migrant families gazing longingly out their windows at the freedom below.

There are a few people lining up to give Premier Daniel Andrews a whack over his handling of the crisis. But the Premier has said where things have gone wrong, they will be investigated, and in acting boldly Dan is following the science and the medical advice.

Acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly has described these towers as vertical cruise ships in their contagion risk to the broader community. Of course, these towers are not holidays, they're homes and COVID-19 spreads like nothing we have seen.

These desperate times led to the desperate measures of the toughest lockdown conditions in the country, announced on Saturday afternoon.

But while these measures may be necessary for the common good, that does not lessen the shock of them for the thousands of residents.

The Flemington flats have 22 levels, nine apartments a level, and two lifts - sometimes one's not working so you've got to walk up and down 22 sets of windy, concrete stairways. They have small bathrooms, and the windows are designed to open only a crack.

Family is a wonderful thing. But imagine being cooped up day after day with your whole family - with moody teens and restless little kids - in a sky-high unit with no access to the great outdoors.

There are older people with little mobility. There are about 90 NDIS participants in these towers, there are autistic and special needs kids.

Some dog-whistling politicians would have you believe that it's party central up there - that they're all druggies and alcos and they've somehow won the lottery by getting a life in the Flemington flats.

The reality is they're battlers, they're trying to look after their families and go to work. There's nurses there, there's teachers there.

There's a whole lot of people trying to make ends meet.

These residents learnt on Saturday they were locked in their towers, no coming or going for any reason. Since then they have been in a veritable prison, but having committed no crime.

There are a few other noteworthy elements we shouldn't dance around that make this a precarious situation.

It would be disconcerting for anyone to find they had been made subject to home detention and had their building surrounded by hundreds of police.

But many of these residents come from brutalised countries where the protections of law are broken and people with guns - even the ones called police - are not professional officers of the law. There are public health reasons for the lockdown, but there are obvious race and class factors that make it sensitive.

Residents and community leaders, unhappy with the strictures of stage four, have told me they feel like they are being treated differently because they're tower residents.

Other residents who are concerned about the virus have expressed their relief action is being taken and their gratitude for community donations.

Rather than blaming these people, we should recognise that, as with the sacrifices we are all making, they are taking one for the team the Australian team.

Under the circumstances, they have so far conducted themselves impeccably and with grace.

The people in my electorate of Maribyrnong have big hearts.

With financial assistance from Victorian Trades Hall, well-meaning members of the community and myself (most importantly including the local halal butcher Abukar) have been getting grocery and meat deliveries to the towers since Sunday. And a lot of others are doing a lot more.

In recent days, communication and organisation at the sites has improved markedly, and residents are forming representative groups to get their daily issues organised and heard by authorities.

I look forward to one day soon, hopefully sooner rather than later, seeing children with their parents again playing outside on the grounds of the flats.

Bill Shorten is the Federal Member for Maribyrnong, Shadow Minister for Government Services and the NDIS, and former Labor Leader.

This column first appeared in the Herald-Sun on Thursday 9 July 2020