Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

Quick Post: Did federalism survive the pandemic?

I’m waiting for a pizza to arrive at my office, so here is a quick argument about Australian federalism now that we’re emerging from the ‘roni.

Back before he was Prime Minister, Tony Abbott wrote a book that was supposed to be his political manifesto.  In it, he argued strongly in favour of stripping powers away from the States and conferring them upon the Commonwealth (he specifically wanted a referendum that would allow the Commonwealth Parliament to go through a relatively simple process to give itself powers).  When he formed government, he did a massive backflip and converted to the way of States’ Rights.  There was a big audit of all the things that the Commonwealth did that should be sent to the States.

The audit delivered its report and it mostly collected dust.  There wasn’t the appetite for getting the States to do things.

Scott Morrison appears to believe, quite genuinely and not unseriously, in the federal system and devolving powers back to the States.  There are some exceptions to this belief, most notably about cyber-issues, particularly the digital economy.

For whatever reason, people forget what happened back at the start of the pandemic.  Trump and Johnson were largely disinterested in managing the outbreak.  For whatever reason, a lot of the online AusPol crowd think that the Morrison government did similarly.  In fact, Australia was criticised for how rapidly it shut down the border.  Dutton wanted to use Christmas Island as a quarantine station; the State Premiers criticised him, with McGowan claiming (quite awkwardly) that Christmas Island was no place for Australians.  Berejiklian thought that NSW would use hospitals for quarantining, causing a minor spat with the Commonwealth.

There are good reasons to believe that one of the reasons that Australia did so well during the pandemic was because of this early overreach.  We don’t share a major land border with another country, so once the Commonwealth went hard on the border, Australia was likely to do well (which it did).  The question that emerged was how to handle the ongoing aspects of the pandemic.

Enter Mr Federalism, the Prime Minister: these are matters that are more obviously within the legislative remit of the States and, therefore, the States should handle them.

So what happened?

One of the ongoing criticisms of the Prime Minister is that he shirks responsibilities and doesn’t lead.  This is, indeed, one of the well-known problems of federal structures: both levels of government try to argue that they’re not responsible for anything serious.  Here we see something interesting: the Prime Minister is right that (for nearly everything), managing the pandemics more naturally sat within the legislative powers of State parliaments.

But look at the intuition carefully: for everything serious–pandemics, floods, fires–the public doesn’t care what level of government is responsible, the public just wants the Commonwealth to fix the issue.   As noted by others, this is causing issues: the Commonwealth’s most convenient access to human labour is the ADF, thus pumping the Australian intuition that the ADF should be sent in to solve each and every problem… which is not great.

And the criticism that Scott Morrison didn’t do enough is only intelligible if we think that the Commonwealth should have taken on more responsibilities.  Using borders as the limit of jurisdiction for emergency directions was manifestly absurd.  If you were 400 kilometers from the nearest positive case, whether or not you were locked down depended on whether or not you were east or north of Melbourne.  If you lived on one side of the border but worked on the other, good luck.  If you lived on one side of the border but your livestock were on the other, grab a caravan.  And if you’re encountering those problems–or the myriad of others related to State Governments having control over their borders–then blaming the Prime Minister for this is to say that the Commonwealth shouldn’t let the States have control over their borders.

Which is absolutely my belief.  I think the Commonwealth should have done more and should have taken responsibilities away from the States.  He was right that, under a federal system, these are State issues.  But he had the power to go harder and oust the States, taking on the responsibility.  And I think that he should have done that.

As a final note, take into consideration that just about everybody who is vaguely paying attention to political media has opinions about individual State Premiers and how well they performed.  Perhaps they believe that NSW ‘let it rip’ (it objectively didn’t, but whatever).  Perhaps they believe that Dan Andrews is a dictator (certainly, the watchdogs in Victoria have concerns that his approach violated human rights and was unnecessarily draconian).  Perhaps they believe that NSW was right to put more trust in the efficacy of jabs, easing open as community protections increased (and this seems to be confirmed by the modelling showing NSW did better than predicted on key measures).  Perhaps they believe that Victoria’s approach really did slow down the flow on effects of outbreaks in NSW (and, again, there are good reasons to believe this is true).  The most common position is to like the Premier of the State you’re in, to think that the Premier of the State next door is incompetent, and that the Commonwealth should do something about the State next door.  What is this if not a collapse in the faith in federalism?

Just in case anybody thinks that this is too glowing about the Commonwealth: the two major stuff ups were the NDIS and not maintaining the higher rate of welfare payment to the un- and underemployed.


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