The Morrison Government’s botched and controversial ban on Australians returning from India shows just how error-prone it can be when it makes Covid-19 related decisions without the help of State and Territory leaders.
For most of the past year or so, it has been the national cabinet – the renamed and re-jigged Council of Australian Governments (COAG) – that has guided decision-making by the Commonwealth on how Australia should deal with the Covid-19 epidemic, though the states have gone their separate ways in implementing such things as state border controls and quarantine management.
Federal ministers have made no secret of their disapproval of much of what the states have done independently of the national cabinet. The Prime Minister has reluctantly refused to endorse his minister’s criticisms of the states.
Last week was a rare example of the Commonwealth acting alone, using its constitutional powers to give effect to its own decisions and made by the National Security Committee of cabinet. Some state premiers were urging the government to stop flights coming from India, but it was the Morrison Government’s decision to act in the way that it did.
Part of what it did was recommended by its health advisors. Those advisors deny the government’s claims that they also recommended the specific ban and threat to imprison and/or fine Australian citizens and permanent residents who dares try to escape covid-ravaged India to return home to Australia.
Morrison’s ministers said its their decision to criminalise returns to Australia from India was ‘entirely founded in the advice of the chief medical officer’. But the chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, says he did not provide specific advice to the government around fines and jail time for people returning home from India, but rather provided health advice on ‘how to keep Australians safe’.
It is true that the legislation relied on by the Government to invoke the ban on returning Australians already contained the penal provisions, but the Morrison Government didn’t have to adopt it. Whether any public servants or ministerial advisors actually pointed out to ministers that this might be controversial we don’t know. But the reaction of Ministers suggests that they didn’t think this would be a problem with the public. After all, the states imposed penalties on people who crossed their borders in defiance of quarantine orders, why shouldn’t the Commonwealth?
But the states didn’t threaten to gaol anyone, and the financial penalties were relatively light. And the Commonwealth is refusing to let Australian citizens return to their own country to try to escape a deadly epidemic.
And its not as though the Australians in India have left it to the last minute to try to get home. Thousands of them have been waiting many, many months for evacuation flights to be organised by the Commonwealth – another policy failure owned exclusively by the Commonwealth.
The Morrison Government argues that flights need to be limited because of the shortage of quarantine facilities – in particular, of quarantine hotels. It argues that this aspect of quarantine has been a great success – a 99.99 percent success rate according to the Prime Minister. This is based on the system having processed over 140,000 people with breaches on only 13 occasions.
The figures sound impressive, but they don’t take account of the failures of the system, particularly of infections being spread from people with Covid-19 to people who were free of it. Nor of some of the consequences when there have been what the Prime Minister referred to as ‘incursions’ – when a breach has caused a state government to lock down a city or part of it until the virus has been successfully contained.
The states have long complained about the hotel quarantine system, arguing that the Commonwealth should fund the construction of proper, dedicated quarantine stations -rather than using makeshift arrangements. Had their advice been adopted months ago, some of those facilities would already be available – and able to be used by Australians returning from India.
Throughout the past year, the Morrison Government response to the threat and reality of the epidemic, has been to opt for stop-gap solutions in the expectation – hope – that the danger would soon pass and we would snap-back to the old normal. Even when it got the response right – for example, massive support for the economy – it warned measures were for the short term and would be wound back quickly.
The states have been much more realistic and the national cabinet has worked well because the states have been able to influence and often determine policy outcomes.
Even Morrison seemed to recognise this a few weeks ago when it became obvious to everyone that the vaccine distribution system that the Commonwealth had devised was a disastrous failure, delivering only about a quarter of the jabs that had been targeted by the end of March.
On April 13 Morrison announced that the National Cabinet would be meeting ‘biweekly for the foreseeable future’ to get the vaccine roll-out back on track. National Cabinet did meet twice the following week, but only that week (so much for the ‘foreseeable future’). The roll-out plan was changed to accommodate the complaints of the states.
Everything is working better, except in those areas where the Commonwealth retains sole responsibility, such as homes accommodating the vulnerable elderly.
Footnote: Now that the leadership role of the states has been establishing using the national cabinet – the exact opposite of what the Prime Minister had anticipated – that body should take on responsibility for providing policy guidance on climate change and renewables. In the absence of any Commonwealth initiatives or desire to act in this area, most states have already set goals to substantially increase the role of renewables in providing power, and are venturing into other relevant areas – such as encouraging people to buy electric powered vehicles (a policy derided by Morrison at the last election) and the recent Victorian government promise to cut the state’s greenhouse emissions by 50 per cent by 2030.
Irony note: COAG was first established as the Premier’s Conference, a body in which the Premiers has no power and little influence. Now it is the national cabinet, and contrary to what that name might imply, the national government appears to have less weight than the states.