Can Morrison sell his risky plan as a ‘contract with the Australian people’?

Aug 31, 2021

This year Morrison has not done much that will win him credit over the premiers. That’s because of his own mistakes.

It looks as if the prime minister wants to make an election issue of his strategy to have a national approach to pandemic control. It looks as if he is more eager than most of the premiers, and most of the health establishment, to declare victory against Covid-19, albeit with some remnants, like a lone WWII Japanese soldier still carrying on the war. One doesn’t see another High Court case in prospect, but he seems to want to frame ultimate Commonwealth power and authority over the matter as a matter of “freedom”, consistency and aversion to bossiness.

He will, presumably, be asking voters whether Australia is one nation or eight, and whether the national interest, the restarting of the economy, and the need for an end to the stop-start conditions caused by regular shutdowns can afford a continuation of what has been happening over the past 19 months. Presumably, he will argue that the premiers, particularly (but not only) the Labor premiers and chief ministers are wedded to excessive caution and control, and that they threaten a return to a “normal” economy. Indeed that they might put the patient beyond any chance of recovery.

Right in the middle of his argument will be the proposition that once a certain percentage of the adult population — perhaps of the entire population — has been vaccinated, we can eschew all but local lockdowns. Covid-19 infections will become a background fact of life, though it is to be hoped that mass vaccination will reduce both its cases and deaths to acceptable levels. It is implicit in what Morrison says that the magic day of a certain percentage of vaccinations will be an end to the need to pretend that any decisions will be based on professional medical advice — soon to be regarded, one expects, as a bossy and unwelcome tyranny, and enemy of freedom.

The spectator of such struggles should always watch for consistency and the logical consequences of significant shifts of power. How the issue is resolved will guide more than the management of future pandemics, or the resolution of disputes about state borders and the powers of premiers within them if there is some form of public health emergency.

The pandemic has already seen a significant shift of power away from the Commonwealth towards the states — a position that the Commonwealth will find hard to retrieve for years  

It has been the first such significant practical shift since 1920, with a general tendency of the High Court to expand Commonwealth powers at the expense of the states.

Practical and expedient changes in the balance of power can be as significant as High Court judgments, if only on because politicians who have gained some temporary right or advantage will hardly ever give them up. Morrison needed a co-ordinated response from state and territory governments to deal with the pandemic. Through devices such as the National Cabinet, but also the exercise of a host of spending discretions virtually outside parliamentary control, he gave rights and duties to premiers, each of whom took them up with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Elections and opinion polls since the pandemic began have shown that premiers and chief ministers have become wildly popular for the way they exercised these novel powers. The prime minister got some popular credit for his initial mobilisation of the population, the public health system and the economy. But this year he has not done much that will win him credit over the premiers. That’s because of his own mistakes over the organisation and logistics of vaccines and vaccinations, and sundry marketing disasters where performance did not come up to the overblown forecasts.

The unwillingness of premiers and chief ministers to surrender newly gained powers owes a lot to history, too. With a necessarily legalistic document such as a constitution premiers have discovered that “practical” or “temporary” solutions have a habit of becoming impossible to change when circumstances change.

Eighty years ago the states surrendered their taxation apparatus and many of their powers to levy and collect taxes as a necessity of war. The Commonwealth, of course, promised that it would distribute much of what it raised back to the states, and at least implied that when the war was over it would go back to the status quo.

That never happened, with the result that the Commonwealth retains a stranglehold over state and territory finances. Prime ministers and federal treasurers, whether from Labor or coalition governments, have discovered that premiers can be easily bribed with offers of special state grants.

It has been inevitable, and generally desirable, that Commonwealth power has tended to expand since federation. Increasingly we are a single market focused on operation in the world economy. Modern roads, communications, ICT and consumer rights have seriously inhibited the capability to have mini-economies, each with their own rules and regulations. We are progressing towards  uniform standards even in areas traditionally regarded as state responsibilities, such as in health and education. One could say in some cases, that the states may administer many programs, but that they are increasingly doing so with national money and on national policies.

One modern states-right argument against centrism is that the freedom-loving coalition government has an ever-bigger authoritarian face.  

We are giving defence, security and police forces ever greater, and ever less accountable, powers of intrusion, surveillance and invasion of privacy. Modern central government — even that part supposedly dedicated to abolishing red tape, reducing the size of the public sector and laissez-faire economics have become obsessively secretive, and increasingly inclined to rule by discretion rather than law. That reminds of the essential federal idea — that power is best widely distributed rather than centralised, and with lots of checks and balances

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