One nation or eight? COVID fuels Australia’s shift in power to states


MELBOURNE – Australian states’ strict internal border policies to tackle COVID-19 have at times divided the country into several mini-countries.

They have prevented a fully vaccinated Sydney woman from visiting her daughter with cancer in Victoria. They have barred a baby from New South Wales from entering Queensland for a crucial brain scan. From Monday, Australians will be able to travel to places like London and Singapore as international travel gradually resumes, but residents of the east coast still cannot enter their own westerly state, even for compassionate reasons.

The country’s fragmentation during the pandemic prompts many to ask a question that could persist long after these rules are fully lifted: What does it mean to be Australian?

Without a time-honored bill of rights like the United States or Canada, Australia’s six states and two territories have been able to implement unprecedented restrictions on the civil liberties of their residents, along with some of the containment and strictest health in the democratic world. This has not been any clearer than when they, at various points in the pandemic, closed their internal borders to other states in response to the increase in coronavirus cases. Some political veterans believe this could have implications for governance and national identity.

Since the federation in 1901, power has shifted almost exclusively to the central government, and not far from it. Australia’s second Prime Minister Alfred Deakin once prophesied that states would be “legally free, but financially tied to the Commonwealth tank.”

Indeed, Australia has one of the highest rates of “vertical fiscal imbalance” of any federation in the world, with almost half of state funding coming from national grants. Until recently, the idea was that even though states managed issues such as health, education, and public order, the federal government could use its financial leverage to bend them to its will.

The pandemic has turned this notion upside down.

This month, the premiers of the four most populous states – New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia – collectively topped the Australian Financial Review’s power list. It was the first time in more than 20 years that the prime minister was not seen as the most powerful figure in the country by the influential newspaper.

“What the pandemic has taught us is that states have a lot more power than we probably thought,” said Judith Brett, a political scientist at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “We have a [national] government that is weak and not very confident, and states have stepped up. “

Despite the downside of tough rules and pressure on families, and dispersed protests, surveys from the Australia Institute show a yawning gap in perceptions of government performance. In July, 42% said their state was coping better with the crisis, compared to just 16% for the federal administration. Another survey last year found broad support for state border closures, with 77% of their support.

Not all prime ministers liked the rush to close the states. Shortly before her resignation following a corruption probe in early October, former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said: “I think every state has a responsibility to accept that we are a nation, we are a federation. We are all a part of it. family of Australians, proudly. “

Others have doubled, however. The Western Australian government of Prime Minister Mark McGowan currently considers Victoria and New South Wales to be ‘extreme risk’ jurisdictions due to their high number of coronavirus cases, barring their residents from entering its state. McGowan is still pushing for a “zero COVID” approach, as New South Wales and Victoria “learn to live” with the disease after hitting their 70% double vaccination targets.

“We will have a meeting with people from NSW and Victoria in the first half of next year,” McGowan said this week, according to local media. He also warned his state could impose a hard border with others reopening in time for Christmas, according to reports. Western Australia had the biggest advantage over the federal government in the COVID-19 management poll, with 61% to 11%.

Peter Beattie, a Labor Party veteran who served as Premier of Queensland from 1998-2007, criticizes Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison for allowing states to “run away and control the agenda” by offloading key responsibilities for virus containment and overseeing an initially slow vaccine deployment. The federal government, Beattie said, “has the power of money, they could have taken it over here if they had the courage and the strength to lead, but they didn’t.”

Beattie left politics while lamenting that the states had become the “handmaid” of the federal government. Now he has a different point of view. “States have taken power and used that power excessively, we have now paid an economic price,” he said. “When you are faced with a national crisis, you need a national response. The states have pursued a crass policy that has convinced many fearful and worried Australians. Was it good for the federation? No.”

The states of Victoria and New South Wales, home to Sydney, are currently considered “extreme risk jurisdictions” by Western Australia. © Reuters

Under the Australian constitution, the federal government can provide “financial assistance to any state on such terms as it sees fit.” But Morrison, according to Corinna Economic Advisory director Saul Eslake, has taken an unconditional approach.

“It could, today, make it a condition of state subsidies that they fully open when the national immunization rate reaches 80%,” Eslake said. “He could do that, but he doesn’t want to, because he doesn’t stand up for anything.”

Brett, of La Trobe University, explained that the roots of it all run deeper, dating back to the 1980s when Australia started privatizing and contracting out government services to boost economic growth and gave up “nation-building policies”.

“With neoliberalism,” she said, “the federal government has stopped doing a lot of the things it once did, so it has become a more empty level of government.”

Beyond the response to the coronavirus, States have asserted themselves on climate and energy policy. All adopted their own net zero emissions targets before Morrison’s government on Tuesday committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, but without legislating on the target.

Brett also noted that state loyalty is particularly strong in parts of the country, notably Western Australia and Tasmania, which have flirted with secessionist movements. Western Australia voted to leave the Commonwealth of Australia by a 2: 1 margin in 1933, but the offer was rejected by the British parliament. The iron-rich state has long harbored grievances against Canberra, arguing that it contributes more to federal coffers than it recovers and is ignored for the benefit of the largest population centers on the East Coast.

Eslake said that a multilevel governance model has advantages, with Australia’s large geographic size making a truly centralized model undesirable. While the national government holds the purse strings, he noted that there is much less inequality between states compared to other federations.

“To a much greater extent than Canada, the United States, Germany and Switzerland, the federal government distributes money among states in a way that equalizes the ability of state governments to provide services. that state governments are doing, ”he said. “This is an important reason why the differences in living standards between our poorest and richest states are much smaller.”

Now that states are gradually easing restrictions as vaccination rates rise, Professor Brett has speculated that the change in power might “seem like a temporary repeal when we learn to live with coronavirus, it could move on. second plan. Western Australia could find itself in a lonely outlier.

But some believe states could use their high status for other purposes. An Australia Institute article in July suggested they could push for changes in federal-state financial arrangements, tougher climate change policies and other reforms. “The pandemic has highlighted that it is state and territory governments that are responsible for much of the infrastructure and services Australians use on a daily basis, and the obvious popularity of state and state prime ministers. leader of the territories can encourage them to take further action, “It said.

Former Queensland Premier Beattie senses a change that will not be reversed anytime soon. “It will take a long time for the Commonwealth to reassert itself,” he said. “The real problem that worries me about my grandchildren is how the hell can we rebuild the federation and the nation?

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