There has been a subtle but nevertheless significant shift in the operation of the National Cabinet. It reflects the growing evidence that Prime Minister Scott Morrison recognises he is no longer in control of Australia’s response to the Covid pandemic and that many people are questioning his increasingly inept performance.
Originally, the National Cabinet was in place because the Commonwealth had to use the states to implement its policies (though that was not the way the States saw their role). Now the National Cabinet is being used by the Prime Minister as a protective shield.
The creation of the National Cabinet was forced on the Prime Minister by constitutional facts and political circumstances beyond his control. In the beginning, it was the States, primarily, that were able to respond to the Covid-19 threat. The Commonwealth shut our external borders (though it had to rely on the States to enforce the quarantine of cruise ships, a task that New South Wales failed with the Ruby Princess) but internally the battle to control the virus was essentially left to the States.
It was the States that ran the health systems, that determined whether schools and businesses should operate normally or be shut down, that decided whether to close or open their own borders. Theoretically, the Commonwealth had the constitutional and legislative power to take full control of all quarantine matters – including over those borders between the states – but it wisely opted not to do so (though at one stage then Attorney-General Christian Porter backed Clive Palmer’s constitutional challenge to Western Australia’s strict border controls).
So initially the Prime Minister tried to use the National Cabinet to persuade the States to act together in the national interest, but without much success, because their main concern was the health and safety of their own citizens, while the Prime Minister’s focus was on restoring the nation’s economic health.
As it turned out, thanks in large part to the Commonwealth’s massive budgetary support for most businesses affected by the pandemic, the fact that most States (NSW being the exception) would not follow the Commonwealth’s lead did not result in lasting damage to the economy.
The change in the relationship between the Prime Minister and the rest of the National Cabinet can probably be dated back to when Mr Morrison panicked after he finally realised that his timetable to have the population (or most of it) vaccinated by October was not only hopelessly wrong but was seen by almost everyone to be a failure.
That happened in April this year when Morrison declared that he would hold a bi-weekly meeting of the National Cabinet for the “forseeable future”. He said, “There are serious challenges we need to overcome caused by patchy international vaccine supplies, changing medical advice and a global environment of need caused by millions of COVID-19 cases and deaths. This is a complex task and there are problems with the program that we need to solve to ensure more Australians can be vaccinated safely and more quickly.”
Morrison’s vision was faulty. The “forseeable future” lasted just one week. After that, the National Cabinet dropped the two meetings a week idea and resumed its previous routine. In retrospect, it seems that what Morrison was trying to do was shift responsibility for the rollout of vaccines from his own Government (which alone had decided what vaccines to buy, and when, and how they would be distributed in Australia, and – mostly – to whom) to the National Cabinet.
That blame sharing has continued, but this week most of the Premiers hit out at the Commonwealth’s management of the roll-out and the overseas component of the quarantine system. Even the NSW Premier joined the critical chorus to complain about the limited number of GPs in her state who had been involved in the scheme.
Most of the complaints were triggered by the Prime Minister’s unscripted (that is, something not included in the National Cabinet’s official communique) announcement that people under 40 could get the AstraZeneca vaccine through their GPs.
The anger of some of the Premiers was not restricted just to that issue. From now on the Premiers are not going to accept responsibility for decisions made solely by the Prime Minister and his government. National unity in dealing with the continuing crisis is no longer guaranteed.