ALLAN PATIENCE. The coronavirus pandemic and the crisis of Australian federalism.Mar 25, 2020
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.