ALLAN PATIENCE. The coronavirus pandemic and the crisis of Australian federalism.

Despite the Prime Minister’s daily press conferences in which he fatuously tries (as is his wont) to reassure “all Australians” that they are “on the bridge to the other side” of the coronavirus pandemic, confusion and fear continue to stalk the land.

Supermarket shelves remain bereft of goods that were once abundantly available. “Non-essential businesses” (however defined) are being locked down. Contradictory advice about what we all should, or should not, be doing is appearing and disappearing almost as swiftly as the virus spreads. Social distancing is becoming the new normal. “Experts” are flooding social media with rumours and scams that are seriously aggravating the mayhem. But the biggest problem that is really undermining an effective national strategy to halt the virus is the abject failures of Australia’s federal system of government.

To try to impress on the public at large that he is on top of the crisis, Morrison has formed what he labels a “national cabinet”, composed of himself and the premiers of the Australian states and chief ministers of Commonwealth territories. The apparent rationale for this governance innovation is to ensure coordinated national policy responses to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the Australian population and to deal with its devastating health and economic consequences. However, the possibility this “cabinet” will nurture a sense of national unity has been undermined by Morrison’s spiteful refusal to include the Leader of the Opposition in its deliberations.

Moreover, just how the arrangement fits with the constitution, and precisely what the legality of its decisions are likely to be, remains a big unknown. However, what is abundantly clear is that it’s not working very well so far.

There are deep differences within the national cabinet between what some states and territories are able to do with the resources they have available and what the federal government thinks should be done. Different messages are being provided by different leaders and their advisers. Some states want to close down schools. The federal government doesn’t want this to happen (at least for now). Cruise liners have been allowed to dock and their passengers have dispersed willy-nilly across the country. Borders between states have been closed. The country’s borders have been closed. But in each case a range of exceptions on exactly who can cross those borders simply adds to the confusion.

We should not be surprised that Morrison’s national cabinet thought bubble is likely to have only limited success – or any real success at all. The federal structuring of Australia’s system of governance is a creaking nineteenth century mess that has been in urgent need of reform for many decades now. However, politicians at all levels have been way too complacent about the very serious problems at the core of the current federal arrangements now actively undermining Australia’s security when it comes to a pandemic like COVID-19 – or any other crisis such as a global recession (now very much on the cards), climate change (a roaring reality), terrorism (seemingly without end), and war (a grimly looming possibility all the time).

At the same time, the very same politicians are far too comfortable with the plethora of powers, salaries and perks afforded them by the multitude of parliamentary positions that the three tiers of Australian government (local, state and federal) impose on their citizens and for which tax payers have to pay.

The fact is that we now have territory, state and federal bureaucrats who are at odds with each other about the right measures to be taken to deal with COVID-19. This is because each of the jurisdictions these people represent reflect the particular provincial interests and loyalties of their own jurisdiction. The politicians whom they advise are exactly the same.

In short, there is no real Australian national interest as such. The country is composed of a fragmented series of sometimes seriously contradictory parochial interests over which the federal government tries to preside. (Just look at the Murray-Darling basin fiasco!) The fact that the Commonwealth’s “presiding” role has real limitations is being made abundantly clear as the COVID-19 imbroglio gains momentum. It has also been vividly demonstrated in the different policy approaches states are taking to climate change and the federal government’s abject failure on that ever-festering issue.

If there is another “side” after we’ve crossed Morrison’s coronavirus “bridge” it will be a very different Australia to the one that remains on “this” side of the pandemic. And if we don’t learn the lessons that COVID-19 is teaching us about our federal system of government that long ago passed its used-by date, that “other side” could be very bleak indeed.

What is to be devoutly hoped for is that there will be people who can lead the country into an intelligent conversation enabling the country to really understand how really shambolic are the federal structures under which the country presently – precariously – labouring, and how they can be effectively reformed.

It’s time to dispense with the crumbling nineteenth century system of federalism that is holding Australia back and replace it with a system of governance that will enable the country to flourish in the twenty-first century, and beyond.

Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne.


Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science at the University of Melbourne.

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7 Responses to ALLAN PATIENCE. The coronavirus pandemic and the crisis of Australian federalism.

  1. This crisis reinforces the urgent need to replace federation with a decentralised unitary system with much greater emphasis on local government that could be called a mezzanine level of regional organisation of local councils. The ROCs system could be
    a forerunner of that. One can read about that in the book by a group of enthusiasts
    published by BookPod, Melbourne at the end of 2014: Beyond Federation. The current crisis could well be the tipping point of a much more widespread awareness of the need for change as well the need for new Australia Constitution altogether. See these books:

    YES, we can …….rewrite the Australian Constitution, BookPod/Amazon, 2018
    Beyond Federation – Options to renew Australia’s 1901 Constitution, BookPod/Amazon, 2015 (Man. Editor)
    Australia Reconstructed, eBookPod/Amazon, 2013
    How about OUR Republic? BookPod/Amazon, 2006
    Australia – Republic or US Colony? Lulu, 2005

  2. Avatar Jerry Roberts says:

    Agree with you Rob, but for different reasons. Even in crisis, especially in crisis, we need a loyal opposition. Loyal, that is, to the country. The opposition in our system is an alternative government. In today’s circumstances a sensible opposition will not be making petty criticisms but it needs to retain an independent voice. I am a member of the ALP and I do not want to see Albanese on a national cabinet.

  3. Avatar Rob Stewart says:

    Agree with most of the article and certainly it’s central theme – about the failure of our Federal system of government. As COAG has shown time and time again it’s like trying to herd cats. Morrison’s National Cabinet to deal with COVID-19 is proving to be the same. I also agree that Morrison is a spiteful politician but I think rejection of Albanese’ call to include Labor in the national cabinet was fair enough. Actually I think Albo was also just politicking. If the ALP was included then why shouldn’t all the opposition parties in the State and Territories also be included? The National Cabinet is bad enough as it is without throwing more cooks into the kitchen. Albo has got what he wants out of it. He can claim to have offered the hand of bipartisanship, only to have had it spurned, but I think, privately, he will be glad Labor is distanced from the debacle of a thing.

    On the bridge landing in a very different place after we get through the crisis, I don’t think so. I think Scomo’s bridge will be a big useless circular contraption that lands us back in the pre-Coronavirus political world of neoliberal ideology, bashing dole bludgers, corporate welfare and a renewed determination for fiscal austerity to resume dismantling what’s left of social institutions and programs. With a massively increased deficit, calls for fiscal rectitude will be ringing loudly from the right and will be harder to resist. And as always the poor and vulnerable will pay the highest costs. Yep, it will be back to business as usual when we get past this “Team Australia” moment.

  4. Avatar Anthony Pun says:

    Watching President Trunp’s daily TV broadcast showed a more subdued Trump trying to “pacify” his fellow Americans from panicking. Other news commentaries suggest Trump not in sync with his medical advisers. Trump is treating clinical symptoms of the Coronavirus infection with political double talk and not the right dose of medicine.
    From Alan Patience’s article and the commentaries, I conclude that our PM Morrison is using the same MO as President Trump.
    If we want to contain the spread of the Coronavirus in Australia, we need to act as a nation and care for each other, despite our political leader’s failing. Like Trump, Morrison has no previous experience in handling national crisis, but have to learn on the job. His first major error as a politician is to deny the Opposition equal standing to join in as a partner to contain the disease and this, could be a major political error.
    The lack of national consensus on most things in the lucky country is symptomatic of our care free nature – she’ll be right mate and look after No. 1. However, if we consider Coronavirus declaring war on us, we may get a chance to be united and fight it together.
    The Chinese has shown us that the fight against the epidemic needs the whole of government approach and all the peoples’ involvement/ Medicine is the second line of defense.

  5. Avatar George Wendell says:

    Very good points made in this article indeed.

    The contradictions from the government continue today as well:

    1. People returning from overseas should self-isolate but catching a bus or taxi home from the wharf or airport in the company of others seems to not even to be considered as a very likely way to infect other people. Some of these people have even passed by the chemist or supermarket on the way home to self-isolation, knowing they could have been exposed to the virus. We know that people returning from other countries is the principal vector for spreading the disease in Australia.

    2. Schools are said by the prime minister to be ‘safe environments’ but they are in fact (as everybody knows) absolute breeding grounds for other virus-based illnesses like colds and flu. Sure children are at lower risk with this virus, but grandparents and parents are often involved in minding children after school, and often pick up the kids as well – is this not a high risk? Why is it that children could not innocently infect older members in the extended family? While many children are now home schooling, I say this because Morrison still seems to think schools are safe places.

    2. Border Force blames NSW Health for the mishap with the Ruby Princess, but NSW Health was strictly following the protocol of directives from Border Force in releasing the passengers.

    3. While social distancing is repeatedly impressed on the minds of people, and rightly so, it is perfectly OK through appalling mismanagement to have people lining up in queues for many hours in close proximity to others so they can apply for some kind of assistance from Centrelink. Also Centrelink shopfront employees have to face hours each day under the opposite of social distancing conditions, and put up with a lot of disgruntled and often irate clients who just lost their jobs.

    4. Many businesses have been shut down and elective surgery cancelled, yet there has been no mention or guidance for dentists and patients who not only have to sit in waiting rooms close to receptionists and other patients, but also enter into a room to be treated that seems obviously high risk in potential virus transmission – blood and saliva, endangering both dentists and their clients. In my view dentistry should be reduced to emergency or highly necessary work.

  6. Avatar Stephen Dunn says:

    Let’s remove the middle level and revert to one National government with amalgamated council areas. There were over 600 state and territory politicians last time I looked, not including their “support” staff. An effective efficiency move!

  7. Avatar Ken Dyer says:

    In addition to the issues currently facing Australia (and the World) described in the article, I believe that we are at the end of neo-liberal capitalism and its failed promise.

    We are also nearing the end of the fossil fuel era on which the World economy has relied for 200 years.

    We are approaching a whole new way of life as this article postulates:

    Allan Patience is spot on in his analysis.

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