The COVID-19 crisis continues in Australia. This crisis was supposed to have manifested itself as a public health matter, with experts making dire predictions of significant mortality rates and an overwhelming of the health system. None of this has happened. Instead, COVID-19 has now become an economic crisis, due entirely to government policy. Indeed, the whole question of the way government does things has also become part of the crisis narrative, especially when the performance of the Victorian government is taken into account. It is thanks to Victoria’s administration – or perhaps maladministration – of the hotel quarantine program that the COVID-19 has now become the basis for a crisis in governance as well as a potential for economic disaster.
It is arguable that the Victorian government has been the worst performer in the whole COVID-19 matter. The failure of the state’s administrative arm to do what quarantine is supposed to do meant that the coronavirus infection rate in Victoria escalated whilst rates in all other states were falling. So glaring was the failure even the premier, Daniel Andrews, could see it and promised some form of inquiry into what went wrong. It has been under the auspices of this investigation that the political failings, mainly in the form of ministers claiming to have no knowledge of crucial decisions that were made on the use of private security firms to police the hotel program, have come to light. A minister and a senior public servant have since resigned. Accusations that senior people have made false or misleading submissions to the inquiry are being bandied around. The reputation of Victoria’s entire system of governance – including the police – has plumbed new depths.
So, the Andrews government would appear to be the most incompetent and least effective of Australia’s nine governments who have had carriage of the COVID-19 response this year. Moreover, its panacea to the crisis it caused, in the form of a total shutdown of the state, will damage the entire Australian economy possibly extensively. The Victorian government’s performance has been so bad it has obscured other instances of the way the parochial and often puerile performances of the other state and territory governments have also help turn a public health problem in to an economic and political crisis. Petty border closures have been the order of the day in Australian governance as one premier after another has sought to give the impression that they are doing something about COVID-19 by sending their respective police forces to undertake displays of strength at border crossings.
Apart from the offense this is causing to the free movement guarantee contained in section 92 of the Australian constitution, all this seems to have achieved is disruption of the daily lives of those unfortunate enough to live in border regions. In some cases, some of those citizens were suffering urgent health issues but were denied access to a nearby hospital because it was over the border. This has had tragic health outcomes – an appalling irony given that these border closures have been justified on the grounds of defending public health!
Whether it be the result of incompetence or a tendency to petty parochialism, it is clear that a national emergency response that has depended on the state and territory governments to take the lead on policy development has created more problems than it has solved. That the states should have such a prominent role is the fault of the federal government. For whatever reason, prime minister Scott Morrison decided to abrogate responsibility for taking national leadership over the national response to COVID-19 when he convened his ‘National Cabinet’. Instead of directing the states and territories, the prime minister sought to work with the regional governments and has been made to look impotent and frustrated ever since.
A national response that relies on the states and territories taking the lead will be beset with fragmentation, un-coordinated policies, and regional parochialism. At the moment, in some parts of Australia citizens are free to go about their business and can chose to wear face masks if they wish, while in other parts face masks are compulsory and the citizens are under house arrest even though the infection rates are about the same. There might be a time and place for a federated approach to policy, but a declared national emergency is probably not one of them.
The culpability of the prime minister and his government for the economic and governance mess that Australia is in at this time is made worse when it is remembered that in aged health-care and quarantining – the two policy areas that have been the most problematic throughout this crisis – the Commonwealth has the power to direct the states what to do. Quarantine in particular was a power given to the newly formed Commonwealth government at federation, and this power is explicitly stated in Section 51 (ix) of the constitution.
Why, then, was this Commonwealth responsibility allowed to be exercised by such an incompetent outfit as the Victorian Labor government? Had the national government taken control of the Australian response to COVID-19, there would have been one set of rules for all citizens, there would have been one chief medical office calling the shots rather than the current eight local petty officials exercising state and territory emergency power, there would have been no dispute over whether the state police wanted to look after hotel quarantining or not, the army would have been told what to do rather than wait for the Victorian police commissioner to resist its deployment, and there might not have been the quarantine breach that has led to the shut-down of the second largest state with its disastrous consequence for the national economy.
The prime minister and the treasurer might ponder this as they preside over a ballooning fiscal deficit caused by having to provide welfare to the millions of Victorians rendered unemployed by the Andrews government shut-down, and as the economic and political crisis caused by the poor governance of Australia drags on towards Christmas. It might be useful to re-think the idea of dealing with a national crisis via state and territory governments. It would be good if we can learn from this disastrously poor record of governance and get this side of the operation sorted before Australia is confronted with a real national crisis some time in the future.
Dr Nick Economou, a PhD graduate from the University of Melbourne, is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry. Dr Economou a commentator on Australian politics on behalf of a number of media outlets including the ABC, the BBC, Neos Kosmos, The Age and others.