This week Australia hit a new low point in the COVID-19 pandemic, with record cases, a shambolic collapse in the testing system, businesses closed, workers furloughed without pay, supermarket shelves stripped bare and mass public confusion.Two years into the pandemic and Australia’s federal system of government is struggling with some of the most basic elements of pandemic response.While the blame game between Canberra and the states has become more than just unedifying, it is a failure of duty by political representatives to the public they are elected to serve.Public trust has swung towards state leaders during the pandemic, exposing the Prime Minister’s lack of power or lack political will.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen Which level of government is responsible for the procurement and distribution of rapid antigen tests? Depending on which politician is speaking, it is either the Morrison government, the state premiers, or the free market.Who is responsible for international tennis players’ entry into the country for the Australian Open? On Wednesday, the Prime Minister was telling us it was Victoria, but the following day he was proudly boasting it was him.
Stepping back from the day-to-day noise of these debates, there are some clear trends in the governing of Australia that have emerged.
Most significantly, the role and authority of state governments has risen significantly while the Commonwealth seems diminished.The hollowed-out role of the federal government has been reduced to that of “The Bank” and “The Military”.The pandemic has been a reminder that the Commonwealth constitution provides far-reaching powers to the states.
These powers have been latent for decades and largely forgotten about.Control over public-health orders being the most obvious.But there are also deeper changes that have occurred in the governing of Australia which suggest things may not simply bounce back to how they were pre-pandemic.As historian Stuart Macintrye observed, Scott Morrison’s infamous claim, “I don’t hold a hose”, was more than just an evasion of personal responsibility in a national bushfire emergency.
It was an expression of the fact that the federal government no longer has the capacity to undertake essential services.This lack of capability was starkly on display during the pandemic.
The hollowed-out role of the federal government has been reduced to that of “The Bank” and “The Military”.Economist John Quiggin pondered how the Commonwealth government of 50 years ago would have handled the pandemic.
Back then, it operated quarantine facilities, had a Department of Works, owned an airline, ran a network of repatriation hospitals and owned the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL).During this pandemic even the most basic functions like vaccine procurement were outsourced to management consultants at McKinsey, PWC, EY and Accenture.The result was an expensive shambles.Ironically, the Commonwealth government has never been as large in financial terms with a $1.2 trillion debt that accounts for 44.1 per cent of GDP.To be fair, the introduction of the national cabinet process, new income-support mechanisms like JobKeeper, new Telehealth services and the promise to establish a local mRNA manufacturing capability are all examples of the federal government rising to the challenge of the pandemic.Yet, the overall Commonwealth response to the pandemic has left it seeming belittled.
The Prime Minister has too often seemed like a commentator offering up opinions but not the person with the authority, or the will, to make decisions on important matters.
Political historian Judith Brett believes an underlying shift has occurred in public attitudes to government, with cultural identification with the states having risen significantly during the pandemic.For nearly two years now, the geographic lines that divide Australia into states have defined how Australians have lived their everyday lives.People are more strongly aware of their state-based identities, and the differences and old rivalries between cities and states are as strong as ever.Public polling appears to support this thesis with a shift in public sentiment.People rate their state government’s response to COVID-19 much more highly than the Commonwealth.This is true in every state jurisdiction by a big margin.People also now “trust” their state government more than the Commonwealth.
States have eclipsed the Commonwealth on climate and energy policy.Credit: AP A further factor has been the activist approach of state governments and a willingness to step up.What began with a takeover of quarantine has expanded into other areas of Commonwealth domain.
On climate change and energy policy, the states are now running a separate and far more ambitious agenda than the Commonwealth.
In areas like industry policy, support for universities, and employment programs, states are running the most expansive programs in decades.On revenue policy, the Victorian government has even introduced a road-user charge for electric vehicles which over time could replace fuel taxes raised by the Commonwealth.How all this develops in 2022 is the biggest question for Australia’s system of government.There is every likelihood that once the threat of the pandemic is over the forces for national integration that have been dominant in recent decades will return.On the other hand, with momentum running against the Commonwealth, the state governments are showing no intention of stepping back.In terms of the politics, the public doesn’t give a rats who supplies them with RATs, they just want them now at a price they can afford.
And they want the politicians they pay taxes to employ to sort it out for them.At the moment, Australians are being failed on both fronts.Nicholas Reece is a principal fellow at the University of Melbourne, deputy lord mayor of Melbourne and was a senior adviser to prime minister Julia Gillard and Victorian premiers Steve Bracks and John Brumby..