Pandemic federalism and the national plan

Sep 2, 2021
gladys berejiklian

With each state and territory facing different Covid situations, Australia is left with not one pandemic, but several.

If ever we thought Australia was on the way to becoming a unitary political entity rather than a federation of states and territories, the pandemic has shattered the illusion. In our moment of national crisis, unity behind our “national plan” for exiting Covid lockdowns and border closures is dissolving into a federal squabble.

At a political level, we witness the slow-motion, on-going dissolution of the National Cabinet into a battleground of political one-upmanship between national, state, and territory leaders, each facing very different political incentive structures in their respective jurisdictions.

Underlying this is a set of different unfolding pandemic-related events in each state and territory, producing accompanying jurisdiction-specific constructs of popular sentiment that shape the behaviour of political leaders. Our state or territory identities and loyalties still matter.

We now have lockdowns and alarming case numbers in three jurisdictions in the southeast of the country, containing the metropolitan population concentrations of Sydney and Melbourne. Everywhere else, the pubs are mostly open and the idea of zero-Covid is still alive and kicking.

So, we have not one pandemic, but several. New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian tells her voters that we must “learn to live with Covid”. With cases a day reaching the 1000 mark and elimination out of sight, she has no option.

In the early stages of the current delta variant outbreak in New South Wales, she despairingly cried, but in vain: “This is a national emergency”. She was right, but her call for a special allocation of vaccines from a limited supply, to control the spread “in the national interest”, was met with an instantaneous, resounding raspberry from every other state and territory leader. This was not (at least, not yet) an emergency in the places where they came from. New South Wales was left to stew in its own juice.

Just the other day, we saw TV images of a self-satisfied Queensland premier reminding her voters that (thanks to her, it went without saying) they could all go to the footy, the races, the pub, a wedding, and wherever else they desired (so long as it’s in Queensland). Those delta-carrying southerners had been stopped at the border.

Here in Canberra, as our own outbreak gathered pace, we enjoyed a belly laugh when we heard NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro warning Canberrans not to travel to the south coast of New South Wales for the weekend in case they brought delta with them. Now he blames Canberrans for a Covid alert in south coast sewage. Meanwhile, the ACT police have been stopping cars arriving from New South Wales at the territory border.

It makes sense to limit unnecessary travel if we want to slow down the spread of an infectious disease. Indeed, this was a foundational move in Australia’s war against COVID-19, in the form of strict national curbs on international arrivals and departures. But what started as a national, unifying response to the pandemic has morphed into a divisive internal inter-jurisdictional war.

The limitation of spread through travel restrictions was first thought of as a temporary measure. Everyone seemed to agree that at some point, thanks to vaccines plus public health measures, we could all “get back to normal”. The national plan for transitioning out of Covid lockdowns and border closures is premised on this assumption, but the end state is now framed as “living with Covid”. Seeing what this might look like from the New South Wales experience of delta, some state and territory leaders have begun to back off.

Several political leaders during the pandemic have found that elections can be won (indeed, spectacularly so) by tightening, not relaxing, travel bans and border closures. The halving of incoming international passenger quotas in June was forced onto a reluctant national government by a coalition of state and territory leaders, driven by their citizens’ fears. Under the same pressure, this has been followed by repeat cycles of state and territory border closures and lockdowns.

Meanwhile, the Morrison government’s missteps and mixed messaging throughout the pandemic have sapped public confidence in the capacity of the national government. The crawling trajectory of vaccine supply and distribution was the critical failure. One result was to heighten the sense that the states and territories had to take their own, firmer measures to keep their populations safe. In the process, they rediscovered some of their federal leverage in the shape of border controls, public health powers and the enforcement powers of their police forces.

From the viewpoint of state and territory electorates, lockdowns and border closures worked as an effective substitute for the promised but only distantly available vaccine. Vaccine indifference and complacency took hold. Then came the delta variant, creeping in via international arrivals into New South Wales through the failed quarantine system (again, a national government failure) and quickly popping up elsewhere as the New South Wales lockdown failed to contain the spread. This was when inter-state and inter-territory fractures, as well as the loss of confidence in the national government, really kicked in to heighten federal tensions.

The national vaccine rollout is now accelerating and is at the core of the national strategy to enable us to emerge from travel bans, lockdowns, and border closures. Faced with this strategy in Covid-zero jurisdictions, people are presented with the option of carrying on as now, or the national plan option of lowering the drawbridge once a vaccination target (such as 80% of the adult population fully vaccinated) is met. Their leaders seemingly signed on to rejecting the first of these options in the national plan, but they deliberately left a big loophole: the targets must be met in each jurisdiction. So long as WA (for example) falls short of 80% vaccinated, they can say they do not need to move to the next stage. Each jurisdiction has a veto.

Vaccine uptake is a variable with its own dynamic. There are signs that enthusiasm for the vaccine is directly related to the immediate presence and threat of the disease. In New South Wales and the ACT in particular, the community spread of delta has prompted a rush to sign up for the vaccine. This rush is not nearly so evident in other jurisdictions. At the time of writing, New South Wales has more than 69% of adults with a first dose, and Canberra has more than 65% of adults with a first dose, while WA and Queensland are at about 51%. Morrison has woken up to the danger and is pleading for “more urgency” from residents of these two laggard states.

But as they approach the 70% and 80% vaccination thresholds, the less safe will Queenslanders or Western Australians feel, because if the borders open, they’ll have to confront “living with Covid”. If a 70%-vaccinated New South Wales is still returning high case numbers, it would be perfectly rational in WA to seek to avoid crossing that threshold. Vaccine hesitancy could increase. And border-closing rhetoric and attacks on the national plan from WA’s political leaders will probably get louder.

Morrison is betting that the promise of “freedoms” is an enticement, but he may be wrong. Arm-twisting and tough talking can be expected as the national government seeks to achieve a uniform outcome. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is already threatening state leaders who depart from the national plan that their citizens can’t expect special financial support during lockdowns.

We can also expect good old “divide and rule” tactics. Assuming supply bottlenecks are cleared in the coming months, New South Wales (plus Canberra) may well be the first to meet all the vaccination targets. The NSW government shows the most enthusiasm for “getting back to normal”, including re-commencing international travel. The national and NSW governments may well strike a special deal to accelerate opening up, regardless of the response from other jurisdictions.

So be it if this eventuates. Opting out, “asymmetrical” deals and special treatment are as much part of a federal system as is exercising a veto. And don’t be surprised if Morrison ditches the “national” part of the plan and begins to talk about “fast track” and “slow track” jurisdictions (echoes of “this is not a race”, even). There is an upcoming national election, and the Morrison government depends on Queensland and WA voters to retain its majority. It’s going to be messy – which, after all, is what federalism is all about.

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