Allan Patience: Is the Australian federation in danger of balkanisation?

Jul 29, 2021

The Morrison government’s dishonesty about obtaining sufficient anti-COVID vaccines and its reluctance to provide the nation with dedicated quarantine facilities threaten the cohesion of the Australian federal system. Is the historical shift of power to the federal government reversing as state premiers do their own thing in response to the immense public health crisis now confronting the nation?

Premier Berejiklian’s plea for other states’ vaccine supplies be redirected to NSW, to help curb the outbreak of the Delta variant of the COVID virus in Sydney, appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Simultaneously, Morrison is too afraid to demand that the vaccines be redirected (although he has the power to do so) for fear of confirming the label of “Prime Minister of NSW.” Meanwhile, state premiers are reluctant to give up whatever vaccine supplies they have, regardless of the seriousness of the NSW situation. It appears that state parochialism is now superior to the national interest.

The hubris of the NSW premier and her government at outbreak of the virus has certainly not helped matters. The virus is now out in the community, especially in western Sydney where people are most at risk. This is a state problem with national ramifications. If further breakouts of the virus occur in regional NSW, and erupt in other states, a national public health crisis will result. Checking the spread of the virus in NSW must be a national priority, a challenge for which the Morrison government obviously lacks the will or the capacity to meet head on.

What is occurring in NSW has economic repercussions that extend into the entire Australian economy. And while it is true that without a healthy population you can’t have a healthy economy, so too without a healthy economy you won’t have a healthy population. It’s not a simple either/or matter. The two policy areas are inextricably entwined.

Morrison and Frydenberg must stop being policy laggards and step up to provide real assistance for people suffering from the health and economic effects of the pandemic. It’s time for the kind of statesman-like federal leadership that has been completely absent for far too long. And this time the government must not have to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing. Frydenberg must immediately resurrect the Jobkeeper payments to the increasing numbers of workers who are being negatively affected by lockdowns – but this time without the rorts, and across all the states equally.

It’s high time Morrison stopped blaming everyone but himself for the problems for which his government is directly responsible. These include insufficient vaccines, inadequate quarantining arrangements, poor communications, contradictory messaging (especially about AstraZeneca), ever-changing strategies to deal with the problems the government itself has created, hiding away when the going gets tough. Morrison’s querulous blathering at press conferences must cease. And if he continues demonstrating that he is not up to the job (and he’s been pretty convincing about this for a long time now), his Liberal colleagues will have to bite the bullet and replace him.

Meanwhile, the bunkering down by the state premiers may have short-term political gains for them. However, their individual efforts are inflaming the problem, not solving it. Australia is a facing national challenge to the health of its people and its economy. The plethora of state health ministers, state chief medical officers and their deputies, and all the bureaucratic entanglements that go with them are making a mess of the handling of the COVID crisis. They are the clearest evidence yet of the internal contradictions besetting the decrepit Australian federal system.

A nationally coordinated response to the current pandemic would enable COVID hot spots to be identified and any lockdowns would be confined to those hot spots. The absurd pretence that state borders can be made impenetrable would then be avoidable. “Rings of steel” are a state fantasy. As much as possible, normal travel and economic activities could continue outside the hotspots. The logistics for this to happen are beyond the capabilities of individual states. Indeed the states themselves are obstacles to the arrangements that would make the fight against the pandemic more effective. In short, the states might think they are protecting their own people, but in fact they are getting in the way of protecting the entire nation.

The so-called “National Cabinet” has not provided the leadership that Australia so urgently needs amid the grip of the COVID crisis. Nor will its structuring allow it to be so. Premiers have been acting as prima donnas while Scott Morrison and his ministers have been glumly sitting on their hands, hoping it will all go away. The ridiculous “peer competitiveness” between NSW and Victoria during the two states’ differing responses to the pandemic is seriously undermining the national interest.

It’s obviously time for the constitutional responsibility for health to be handed to the federal government. The country needs a fully coordinated national strategy to deal with COVID-19 and all subsequent pandemics that are likely to hit our shores – probably sooner than later. That strategy must include a National Health Scheme modelled on the highly successful British NHS. This will facilitate getting the out-of-control medical profession (especially at specialist levels) under control. Doctors are aping the legal profession by pricing themselves out of the reach of all but the wealthy.

An Australian version of an NHS could commence simply by providing a public GP service to the community, in competition with the private sector GP service. Public specialist services could be added down the track. There would be no compulsion for medicos to submit to the system. Competition would be sufficient to make it a success. Neoliberals claim that competition will solve all market distortions. Its patent failure as far as medical costs are concerned is a direct cause of the excessive fees demanded by the medical profession today.

The pandemic is a national challenge, not a simple state concern. The chaotic approaches taken by the different states coupled with their childish political bickering with each other and with the federal government show that Australian politics lacks the democratic statesmanship that is essential if we are to get through the crisis.

This is all the result of a massive public policy failure and political leadership at the national level. The Morrison government will go down in history as one of the most meretricious, corrupt, and incompetent governments in Australian political history, a devastating failure especially in its mishandling of the federation. If this situation continues for much longer, the states will balkanise the country, rendering the federal government immaterial to its future. That may satisfy a lot of state egos, but it will mean the end of a united Australia as it disintegrates into a parochial conglomeration of mini-states in the South Pacific whose regional leader will be New Zealand.

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