Australia in Nine Pieces - The State of the Commonwealth
By Elliott Merchant
It’s August, 2021. In Queensland a man attending an anti-lockdown protest in the town of Coolangatta on the Queensland-NSW border rides a horse through the streets and shouts “Cross over! They can’t arrest all of us!”. In New South Wales, the Premier Gladys Berejiklian announces a record 1029 new cases of COVID-19 overnight and pledges to ease restrictions when the vaccination rate hits 70%. The lockdown of regional NSW is extended. The Deputy Premier of New South Wales John Barilaro cites “the risk from Canberra” as justification for the extension, in an apparent defiance of arithmetic and geography. The same week the Premier is asked how many people will die when her lockdown is lifted. She avoids the question and compares the situation to the flu. She declares that Australia will never again return to COVID zero.
In Melbourne, the Premier of Victoria records increasing case numbers warning Victorians “We don’t want to be like Sydney.” In Canberra, the city enters its first lockdown in 18 months and the Chief Minister announces record after record of new cases. In the Northern Territory Darwin enters a three-day lockdown. Western Australia sits away from the nation looking more and more confident in its independence while Tasmania and South Australia watch on anxiously. The Premier of NSW appears on 7.30 that same week. She is asked if the national outbreak is a result of her refusal to lockdown back in June when Delta first landed in Australia. She replies “No”, takes a shot at Victoria, makes a veiled swipe at the vaccine rollout and says goodnight.
At Parliament House, a government backbencher from New South Wales asks the Minister for Home Affairs for an update on “the Morrison Government’s continuing assistance to help resettle Afghan nationals”. The opposition member for Bruce, the constituency with the highest population of Afghan-Australians in the nation, shouts across the House of Representatives, “You could have processed their visas years ago” and “You’re killing my constituents”. The Guardian remarks it’s the first-time actual emotion has been seen in the Australian Parliament for years. The Prime Minister tells the Speaker that he has to withdraw. The Speaker kicks him out of the chamber. On his way out he says that the government is leaving Australians in Afghanistan to die. Later that week, an attack outside Kabul airport kills 60 people.
In Question Time, the Opposition Leader asks the Prime Minister if he will accept responsibility for the national outbreak given reports he encouraged NSW not to enter lockdown back in June. The Prime Minister has something resembling a tantrum, says no, accuses the Labor Party of being treacherous and sits down. That week the Prime Minister announces a national plan to ‘live with COVID-19’ when 70%-80% of Australians are vaccinated. He compares the plan to the children’s film The Croods stating “we can’t stay in the cave and we can get out of it safely”. When asked about the comparison he says “I like the movie”. Within days of the announcement of the plan, Western Australia defects. The Queensland Premier announces a national quarantine facility without the cooperation of the Commonwealth stating “I’m tired of waiting for the federal government.” The Victorian Premier describes the Prime Minister as “The Prime Minister for NSW”. Later that week, it is reported that the NSW Premier describes him as “The Prime Minister for Scott Morrison.”
The long pandemic
What was once a success story that attracted the envy of the developed world is now a never-ending national nightmare which deteriorates by the day. Australia is more divided today than at any time since federation, it is a mismatched, disjointed and awkward puzzle of different states and territories posing as one joint-enterprise. The pandemic has brought out the best and the worst of Australia over the past two years. Our response to Covid-19 had an awkward start which saw the Premiers band together in joint defiance of the Commonwealth to shut down their economies for the greater good. The federal government poured billions into a gargantuan welfare program not seen since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the Great Depression some 90 years ago. As the queues outside Centrelink grew longer and longer and the lockdowns seemed to make midnight come at 6pm, Scott Morrison’s Liberal Party somewhat ironically proved that big government can be good government. Even then, when the nation faced its darkest days since World War II, many of us were hopeful. You could see that after almost a decade of dysfunction and the politics of doom and gloom the pandemic might have given Australia the opportunity to turn the corner.
Maybe, for the first time in almost half a century, those who had lost faith in government many years ago might come back. The signs were promising; business and unions worked together for the common good, the left-wing head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions was in regular contact with a conservative Minister for Industrial Relations, the Premiers of NSW and Victoria worked together in the early days of the crisis to push Scott Morrison in the right direction. The tone of question time came down, Ministers were measured, humbled by the times in which they lived. Politicians were constructive and decided to focus on solutions rather than championing a destructive politics of three world slogans, division and poorly phrased campaign jingles. People were kinder as we banded together to defeat this awful virus and save the lives and livelihoods of millions. Things were looking up in the Commonwealth of Australia. Here was a chance for the Australian political system to prove once and for all to its citizens that government can work for them, if they only give it a chance. There was a genuine opportunity for the political class to use this faith to build a new consensus delivering trust, peace, prosperity and fairness for all.
It was not to be. When Victoria went into lockdown in the winter of 2020, the Commonwealth saw an opportunity that was too good to resist and the rot of national division and discontent was replanted. The Prime Minister and the Treasurer savaged the Victorian Government for its failures and declared that its restrictions were too harsh. The Prime Minister cast doubt on the medical advice Victoria relied on to go into lockdown and ran a campaign supported by The Australian newspaper against the Premier Daniel Andrews himself. The federal government picked favourites and declared New South Wales the “gold standard” not just in Australia but around the world. Morrison urged all states and territories to prepare for life “out from under the doona”. What benefit the Commonwealth sought to gain by antagonizing an entire state was unclear. They seemed to just be targeting Victoria because it had a Labor government and a Labor premier. Why else would Morrison apply a standard to Victoria which a year later he might have to apply to NSW, Tasmania or South Australia?
Around this time, the public and the media began to look more closely at the JobKeeper program. Without any real explanation, universities had been completely excluded from the program, deemed undeserving of federal funds by the Prime Minister and the Treasurer despite their reliance on foreign students fee, a revenue stream which the pandemic had brutally turned off. Despite the pleas of the university sector and economists all around Australia, the government refused to give them a cent. While Harvey Norman made millions off JobKeeper, universities were left to drown in a pool of debt while the government raised fees on students who would see their courses and services cut. It’s hard to find another explanation for this act of economic, social and political vandalism other than a deep-seated suspicion and contempt for universities as the creators and exporters of ideology and political thought which challenges the government. It seems that not even a global pandemic could bring an end to the Australian culture wars. Already, the federal government decided to spend good will on punishing its political enemies, picking petty fights and pitting citizens against each other.
2021 saw any remaining trust in government and faith in politics blasted away as the calamity of the vaccine rollout destroyed any sense of national unity. As the vaccine rollout was revealed to be the greatest public policy failure since federation, the public grew frustrated, more and more convinced that the sacrifices they had made in 2020 were not being rightly rewarded in 2021 by good governance. Instead, a federal government bitter at being outshone by the states and plagued by complacency and sheer incompetence failed every target it set for itself before abandoning any vaccine ambition all together. The slow realisation that the Prime Minister failed both to secure an adequate supply of vaccines and distribute them correctly has put the nation on edge. Now, NSW and Victoria openly swipe at each other over their perceived successes and failures, now, the states openly criticize the Commonwealth and an ugly Trumpian anti-lockdown movement has come out from behind the shadows to spur civil unrest across the eastern seaboard. We have gone from a nation briefly united by solidarity and a common purpose to a deeply divided loose collection of states and territories. From “we’re all in this together” to every state, territory and individual for themselves.
So once again, we are a nation in nine pieces, pushed into a place of anxiety and angst by poor governance engineered by those who care more about their political fortunes than the people they serve. How this will end is anyone’s guess but things look like they are going to get worse before they get better. Eventually, New South Wales will come out of lockdown and begin to open up whether they report zero cases a day or 1000 cases a day. At this point, the other states and territories will have to make a choice: do they open up at 70% in accordance with the national plan and allow COVID-19 to leak into their communities from NSW or elsewhere? Or do they defy the Commonwealth and weld their domestic borders shut and continue to pursue a strategy of elimination? Western Australia has already signalled its intention to operate outside of the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 strategy while NSW is itching to open up after three long months of a complex, frustrating and on all-accounts failed lockdown. Which way the other states and territories will move is completely unknown.
The next federal election is only nine months away. All the signs point to a political contest focused almost exclusively on the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the federal opposition’s ability to do better. Each federal election since 2010 has split Australia down the middle producing a confused result which has reflected the division within the community and greater levels of voter distrust and dissatisfaction with democracy. An election held either just before or just after the nation hits the 80% vaccination rate will likely produce the most disparate and contradictory election result in the nation’s history. A population relieved after months of lockdown might reward the federal government in NSW whilst the people of a state which has been consistently targeted and threatened by the federal government might see fit to punish them in Victoria. A newly energised and empowered WA might vote to reflect the dynamics and popularity of its all-powerful state government and paint Perth red for the first time this century. An electorate like Queensland enjoying zero COVID-19 terrified of importing cases from other jurisdictions might back their state government over the Commonwealth, giving Labor a chance to end the Coalition’s crucial super-majority in the deep-north.
How this pandemic will end is the great unknown of our time. The path forward is very much unclear. But what we do know is that the COVID-19 pandemic will eventually come to an end. What we don’t know is what Australia will look like once the 11am press conferences stop, when the case numbers are no longer reported and when the masks come off. After the next election, will we be a united nation working together state by state to build a better society inspired by some vision of national renewal? Or will the divisions of this great national challenge remain, entrenched in our national politics, forever pitting state against state and government against government as our progress once again grinds to a halt? Will we remain a nation of nine pieces? As always, time will tell.
7.30, “Gladys Berejiklian Speaks to 7.30”, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (Webpage, 2021) < https://www.abc.net.au/7.30/gladys-berejiklian-speaks-to-7.30/13510684>
Barlow, Karen, “NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro says he is not trying to offend Canberra over COVID comments”, The Canberra Times (Webpage, 2021) < https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/7393884/not-political-barilaro-says-no-offence-intended-to-canberra-over-covid-comments/>
Hartcher, Peter, "Even Gladys Berejiklian is fed up with PM, who she privately regards as 'evil' and a 'bully'", The Sydney Morning Herald (Webpage, 2021) <https://www.smh.com.au/national/even-berejiklian-is-fed-up-with-the-pm-who-she-privately-regards-as-an-evil-bully-20210827-p58mde.html>
Lawson, Kirsten, “Morrison throws off the doona to embrace danger”, The Canberra Times (Webpage, 2021) < https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6750819/morrison-throws-off-the-doona-to-embrace-the-danger/>
Massola, James, “No more talk of ‘gold standard’: How NSW and federal relations have cooled”, The Sydney Morning Herald (Webpage, 2021) < https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/no-more-talk-of-gold-standard-how-nsw-and-federal-relations-have-cooled-20210806-p58ght.html>
Ross, Hannah, “Eight Arrested as 1000 gather on NSW-Queensland border to protest COVID restrictions”, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (Webpage, 2021) < https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-08-22/hundreds-protest-on-nsw-queensland-border/100397584>
The Guardian, “’It’s like that movie The Croods’: PM Scott Morrison likens Australia’s COVID exit plan to cartoon”, August 24, 2021, video, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqLDi0T75iM&ab_channel=GuardianAustralia>
The Guardian, “Labor MP Julian Hill accuses Karen Andrews of ‘killing my constituents’”, August 26, 2021, video, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQebg7YINvc&ab_channel=GuardianAustralia>