That creaking, groaning sound you hear is our federation cracking under great stress

By Bernard Keane

Monday August 16, 2021

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian
Australia’s federation is more disjointed than at any time in recent decades, relying more on state leaders than federal ones. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Canberrans have discovered what Victorians and South Australians already knew: the failures of Gladys Berejiklian’s New South Wales government in the current outbreak have very real consequences for people and businesses outside that state.

For days, the failure of Berejiklian’s government to isolate Sydney from the rest of NSW — even allowing Sydney people to go roaming around the state to inspect property, the most Sydney virus vector it’s possible to imagine — has sent COVID creeping out into the regions.

Now the creep is accelerating, with regional communities — having hitherto been deprived of vaccines so Sydney could be prioritised — facing lockdown. It’s a debacle almost on the same scale as Berejiklian’s decision to delay going into lockdown and the initial lockdown-lite mode that gave the Delta variant a precious head start. Whether it can ever be brought under control again is uncertain.

That’s left Berejiklian politically desperate and with nothing to offer NSW voters except constant urgings to get vaccinated as case numbers mounted to the mid-300s and the death toll into the dozens, which is why she publicly toyed with the idea this week of relaxing some restrictions if Sydney reaches 50% vaccination next month.

That elicited a collective WTF from other first ministers and set the scene for another showdown in national cabinet, which had already upbraided her when she pleaded for more vaccines. The national cabinet position is the Doherty Institute-based plan for successive stages of easing of restrictions from 70% and then 80% in each state.

The ACT’s Andrew Barr, now facing the pointy end of Berejiklian’s failures, was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. Western Australia’s Mark McGowan, unsurprisingly, sounded like he’s ready to start digging a continent-wide moat along his borders. But one very real outcome from the NSW crisis, even without an easing of restrictions, could be that the virus is allowed to roam freely in a mostly vaccinated population and NSW is isolated from the rest of the country until well into 2022.

WA isolating itself in its fortress of distance is one thing, but NSW, the largest state economy and abutting four other states and territories (OK, five for the Jervis Bay purists), is quite different. A federation with NSW cut off isn’t much of a federation — but that’s what Berejiklian might deliver for us.

So far the federation angle on the pandemic has, rightly, been about how power has been centrifugally distributed to the states and territories from Canberra. We now have a very different federation from the one we had at the start of the year. Part of that was inevitable, but much of the responsibility lies with a man we haven’t even mentioned yet: the prime minister. Scott Morrison’s unwillingness or incapacity to lead has accelerated the reallocation of power to state capitals.

But now the structure of the federation is under challenge. Temporary border lockdowns and zealous leaders making political capital from keeping those terrible southerners/easterners/Victorians out could give way to something longer term and more permanent — at least until the pandemic is over. The silly ‘team Australia’ rhetoric from the Morrison and the likes of Michael Stutchbury at The Australian Financial Review was always crass, misleading and a cover for the assertion of power by vested interests. But it now looks painfully at odds with reality, too. We’re team Queensland, team ACT, team Victoria, team NSW — in the latter case, a miserable huddled mass facing a long, and wholly preventable, health emergency.

It’s significant that no one’s looking to Canberra for leadership on this, or hoping Morrison can at least hold the federation together better with a display of policy and political skill. We’ve collectively given up on him. All eyes turn to the state capital every morning for an update on the numbers, a tweak of the lockdown settings — and then await the response from other state capitals. A Commonwealth? Hardly.


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