After the pandemic war, no political point in refighting the battles

Jun 30, 2021

Anthony Albanese has become too fond of saying that Scott Morrison had two big jobs this year – to roll out the vaccine, and to fix quarantine, and that he’s failed with both. The next election will not be a report card on how the coalition managed the pandemic, but about the future.

Albanese is, of course, quite right in suggesting that the management of the vaccination program has been poor, right from the time, more than a year ago, when the government and the health bureaucracy took a bet on which vaccine would be quickest, cheapest and most effective, and spurned some of the opportunities open to them to spread the risk. A lack of frankness with voters about the shortness of supplies, and a reckless decision to depend on contractors rather than the established public and private health system compounded the disaster, with Australia an embarrassing last among first world countries in vaccination rates.

In the past few weeks, however, the outlook has improved. Belatedly the government has, or will soon have, access to adequate supplies to manage an orderly program of vaccination. Second, the government has brought some political insulation by handing over to military officers the management of the logistics task – of getting vaccines to doctors, health centres and other places so that the coverage can start to improve. Even if this does not have an immediate effect on coverage – and the evidence suggests that this and improved supplies mean it is finally starting to happen, it is far harder for the opposition to criticise soldiers and sailors than it is for them to criticise ministers and bureaucrats. That’s as Morrison intended when, recently, he finally began to address his misjudgements over distribution, including the all-too-confident predictions about how quickly, efficiently and effectively the roll-out would go.

The issue may remain live if Morrison were to go to an election this year, because the rollout will not be completed before Christmas, and even then may have significant backlogs. Government mistakes and mismanagement of the program will rankle as long as the greater proportion of the population remains unvaccinated, particularly as it brings in its train continuing problems of local and international quarantine, population movement, the re-opening of airline travel, and occasional lockdowns. Widespread coverage will by no means solve all of these problems but will make addressing them easier. It should also reduce continuing problems with the management of quarantine, including the use of lockdowns – the other problem which, according to Albanese, bedevils the government.

Labor is fond of pointing out that the Constitution gives the Commonwealth, rather than the states, primacy over matters of quarantine. If it wanted (and if it was prepared to pay the bill) the Commonwealth could occupy the entire quarantine field, running from measures to prevent the entry into Australia of any person, animal or thing, capable of spreading contagion, to the local management of any epidemics – human or animal – including by bans on travel and movement, and the organisation and delivery of any treatment, vaccines or systems of containment.

If it wanted (and if it was prepared to foot the bill) the Commonwealth could commandeer public and private hospitals and health workers, as well as the military, state and territorial police, and private resources to do whatever it wanted or needed. It could entirely freeze out the states. If it wanted, it could probably also freeze out – or control – private health resources, such as the ordinary general practitioner system, as well as a lot of generally accepted principles of individual choice. At least until the need for quarantine had abated.

I anticipate that some constitutional smarties will point out that a placitum in Section 51 of the Constitution seems explicit in rejecting any form of civil conscription of doctors, dentists, or, probably, other health care workers. Yes, that prevails in relation to ordinary and routine health services but no more limits the quarantine power than it limits the power of the government to conscript or coerce doctors or health workers in a defence emergency.

Quarantine responsibilities are a matter of practical arrangements, not the constitution

That the Commonwealth could do such things does not mean that it must do so, or that it cannot organise for such things to be done (arguably its duty if there is a pandemic) by cooperative arrangements with the states, private sector providers or public and private health networks. If the Commonwealth chooses to occupy the whole field – as it does, for example with its power to control “currency, coinage, and legal tender” – other entities have no right to play. It can equally decide to share its power, and it can authorise the states – whether from their own powers or as agents of the Commonwealth – to do whatever is necessary from their point of view.

It has always been thus. State health networks managed the Spanish flu 100 years ago. The Commonwealth gave as much support as it could – including by restricting the entry of people into Australia, and by providing military resources to assist police and other people maintaining local exclusion areas. State health systems managed other outbreaks of epidemic disease – local and general, including outbreaks of measles, diphtheria and, in the 1950s and 1960s, polio. The Commonwealth, developing some public health capacity of its own after World War II – took a lead role with some programs, particularly over tuberculosis, but has never tried to shove the states or territories, or the ordinary health system out of the way.

Those allocating blame and praise should understand that government powers and duties are not confined to matters that could be said to be quarantine in action. Organising hotels, or other facilities, to hold people having, or potentially having coronavirus infections, involves quarantine, but, once an infectious disease is around (whether or not of foreign origin) all measures to combat it can be called quarantine. Whether that was a state or a federal responsibility was not a matter for constitutional interpretation, but a matter of reading the practical arrangements. (Likewise, with the practical management of the health of persons in aged care homes, though in this case, it seems, the Commonwealth did take practical day-to-day responsibility.)

When (it is not a matter of if) foot and mouth disease enters Australia, requiring sheep and cattle herds to be destroyed where the outbreak takes place, I shall blame the Commonwealth. Most likely the disease will come from infected pigs in Papua New Guinea. There may well be widespread panic – as with the last outbreak in Britain, and government, having negligently left the stable door open, will move heaven and earth to contain and limit the epidemic among cloven-hoofed animals. Commonwealth constitutional powers over animal or vegetable quarantine are wider than over human epidemics. (One can order that stock be killed, but not, I think, humans, though Queensland police could argue unpunished precedent even for that.) One can be confident that it will be mostly state or territory veterinarians, and agricultural officials who will be ordering the destruction of flocks, the setting of containment lines, and organising any mass movement of stock.

There’s plenty to criticise, but a lot to be relieved about. Our death rate has been amazingly low.

Some of the Commonwealth’s successes in managing the Covid-19 pandemic come from good planning by both federal and state officials, particularly after frights from SARS, MARS and fears of transmission of bird flu over the past few decades.

Officials, particularly under the leadership of Jane Halton when she was Secretary of the Commonwealth Health Department had war-gamed outbreaks, rehearsed responses and found out – sometimes anew – what had to be done and with what resources. Halton and others extended their expertise by closely studying the challenges that had been presented by other epidemics in other places.

We were not expecting Covid-19 as such, but we were expecting something like it and were not caught unprepared. Our politicians – state and federal – and our bureaucrats – may have occasionally mismanaged things or brawled about local versus federal factors. History – perhaps voters at the next election – will judge the performance of various players. But they have generally followed the broad scripts, never succumbed to the paralysis, defeatism or superstition of some other countries, and, mostly, learnt from their mistakes.

One can argue that critical errors by Commonwealth politicians and some bureaucrats delayed the rollout, and exposed citizens to needless danger that would have been averted had supplies been adequate from the beginning. Among the consequences have been extra lockdowns, prolonged local and international isolation, and an economic recovery that might not have been as strong as it could have.

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