It looks as if the Prime Minister wants to make an election issue of his strategy to have a national approach to pandemic control. It looks as if he is more eager than most of the premiers, and most of the health establishment, to declare victory against COVID-19, albeit with some remnants, like a lone WWII Japanese soldier still carrying on the war. One doesn't see another High Court case in prospect, but he seems to want to frame ultimate Commonwealth power and authority over the matter as a matter of "freedom", consistency and aversion to bossiness.
He will, presumably, be asking voters whether Australia is one nation or eight, and whether the national interest, the restarting of the economy, and the need for an end to the stop-start conditions caused by regular shutdowns can afford a continuation of what has been happening over the past 19 months. Presumably, he will argue that the premiers, particularly (but not only) the Labor premiers and chief ministers are wedded to excessive caution and control, and that they threaten a return to a "normal" economy. Indeed that they might put the patient beyond any chance of recovery.
Right in the middle of his argument will be the proposition that once a certain percentage of the adult population - perhaps of the entire population - has been vaccinated, we can eschew all but local lockdowns. COVID-19 infections will become a background fact of life, though it is to be hoped that mass vaccination will reduce both its cases and deaths to acceptable levels. It is implicit in what Scott Morrison says that the magic day of a certain percentage of vaccinations will be an end to the need to pretend that any decisions will be based on professional medical advice - soon to be regarded, one expects, as a bossy and unwelcome tyranny, and enemy of freedom.
The spectator of such struggles should always watch for consistency and the logical consequences of significant shifts of power. How the issue is resolved will guide more than the management of future pandemics, or the resolution of disputes about state borders and the powers of premiers within them if there is some form of public health emergency.
It has been the first such significant practical shift since 1920, with a general tendency of the High Court to expand Commonwealth powers at the expense of the states.
Practical and expedient changes in the balance of power can be as significant as High Court judgments, if only because politicians who have gained some temporary right or advantage will hardly ever give them up. Morrison needed a co-ordinated response from state and territory governments to deal with the pandemic. Through devices such as the National Cabinet, but also the exercise of a host of spending discretions virtually outside parliamentary control, he gave rights and duties to premiers, each of whom took them up with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Elections and opinion polls since the pandemic began have shown that premiers and chief ministers have become wildly popular for the way they exercised these novel powers. The Prime Minister got some popular credit for his initial mobilisation of the population, the public health system and the economy. But this year he has not done much that will win him credit over the premiers. That's because of his own mistakes over the organisation and logistics of vaccines and vaccinations, and sundry marketing disasters where performance did not come up to the overblown forecasts.
The unwillingness of premiers and chief ministers to surrender newly gained powers owes a lot to history, too. With a necessarily legalistic document such as a constitution premiers have discovered that "practical" or "temporary" solutions have a habit of becoming impossible to change when circumstances change.
Eighty years ago the states surrendered their taxation apparatus and many of their powers to levy and collect taxes as a necessity of war. The Commonwealth, of course, promised that it would distribute much of what it raised back to the states, and at least implied that when the war was over it would go back to the status quo.
That never happened, with the result that the Commonwealth retains a stranglehold over state and territory finances. Prime ministers and federal treasurers, whether from Labor or Coalition governments, have discovered that premiers can be easily bribed with offers of special state grants.
It has been inevitable, and generally desirable, that Commonwealth power has tended to expand since federation. Increasingly we are a single market focused on operation in the world economy. Modern roads, communications, ICT and consumer rights have seriously inhibited the capability to have mini-economies, each with their own rules and regulations. We are progressing towards uniform standards even in areas traditionally regarded as state responsibilities, such as in health and education. One could say in some cases, that the states may administer many programs, but that they are increasingly doing so with national money and on national policies.
One modern "states' rights" argument against centrism is that the freedom-loving Coalition government has an ever-bigger authoritarian face.
We are giving defence, security and police forces ever greater, and ever less accountable, powers of intrusion, surveillance and invasion of privacy. Modern central government - even that part supposedly dedicated to abolishing red tape, reducing the size of the public sector and laissez-faire economics have become obsessively secretive, and increasingly inclined to rule by discretion rather than law. That reminds of the essential federal idea - that power is best widely distributed rather than centralised, and with lots of checks and balances
Should experts, or politicians, decide when the war has been won?
It is not obvious that the Commonwealth would win a public relations battle with the states over pandemic strategies. Morrison and the Commonwealth have lost a lot of cred in recent months over vaccines and vaccination programs. He did not focus sufficient resources in areas that were accepted as primarily Commonwealth vaccination responsibilities such as in aged care, Indigenous Australians and people with disabilities in institutional care. And carers, seemingly subject to particular neglect, even now.
The premiers seem to have already persuaded most voters about local responses to local problems, rather than one-size-fits-all solutions on the always minimalist Morrison model. They have never been prepared to go along with consensus decisions, particularly as interpreted from time to time by the Prime Minister, if they believe them to be inappropriate within their own jurisdictions.
All the more so if they think - and they do think - that Morrison has been unfairly indulgent to the political and economic interests of his own state, NSW, at the expense of other states and territories. Morrison, and in particular his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg and Minister for Health, Greg Hunt excoriated Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews over his 2020 management of the pandemic, as did News.com newspapers. But when similar circumstances arose in NSW, and were managed far less firmly and efficiently by a Liberal premier, these critics have been silent, even supportive of tactics they once described as mad, dictatorial and wild overreaction. One can expect that even a still mild-mannered federal Labor will be constantly reminding voters of what was said and done.
Scott Morrison was leaning primarily on political and economic advice, not health advice, in drawing up his "roadmap" of stages by which the economy would emerge from the depths of the pandemic. It was factored on expert health advice from the Doherty Institute about the range of consequences, in terms of infection rates, hospitalisation rates, and death rates, with particular levels of vaccinations. The calculations were also dependent on assumptions about the continuing effectiveness of case finding and treatment, allowing for a good deal of variation with the various morbidities and mortalities if relative efficiency could not be maintained.
By whatever assumptions, it was clear people would continue to get infected and die - indeed probably a lot more than now - and that for some years sharp lockdowns would be needed, though not at whole state level. Preventive strategies such as masking and social separation will continue to be needed.
There are continuing uncertainties about the behaviour of the virus, the long-term efficacy of some vaccines, and whether children should be vaccinated. Doherty is a best-guess, but still fraught with these uncertainties.
I stress that the decisions about the working "minimal levels of vaccination" were made by politicians and bureaucrats from a menu of possible scenarios of the probable effect at different rates. The Doherty report made no recommendations as such. It ought to be impossible for Morrison (or the premiers) to blame the doctors or the epidemiologists if the outcomes are at the worst ranges. Based on British and American experience of infection, hospitalisation and mortality rates after high levels of vaccination were achieved, the outcomes could be far worse.
Morrison received a grudging endorsement of the outlines of his theoretical plan from premiers and chief ministers. But it was adopted as a broad strategy, not as a detailed plan. The deal was not reasonably capable of being described as a "contract" between the national cabinet and the Australian people. Not one of the premiers, even the hapless and increasingly hopeless Gladys Berejiklian, has any intention of foregoing their own freedoms within their borders. They are the ones who will suffer if the plan fails. This is even if they also, like Berejiklian, are desperate to be in a position to relax lockdowns and to let business operate again.
Politically canny premiers have been determined to make the decisions that seemed best in their local circumstances, such as on school closures. There was no way, for example, that Morrison could get West Australia to change its border arrangements (and I do not expect that he can do so now, at least while the pandemic rages in eastern Australian.) The light touch methods adopted by Berejiklian, in closer conformity to national "agreements" than in the other states are now part of the package dismissed as weak, too little and too late.
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Premiers are also entitled to tartly insist that many of the plans Morrison has attempted to impose would have had worse results had not premiers followed their own advice and their own instincts. The biggest failure, which Labor is trying to sheet home to Morrison personally, is the debacles of organising the vaccines and the vaccinations, as well as those caused by an ideological attempt to contract out much of the delivery. Those failures were, of course, the more severe for continuing high levels of unvaccinated vulnerable groups, uneven availabilities of vaccines, and the recent NSW-Commonwealth habit of failing to accept responsibility for bad management. Berejiklian has a scolding approach which blames the victims, (mostly conveniently not of Anglo-Saxon background) accusing them of non-compliance, and misbehaviour. The NSW Police, with a similar dim view of people of "foreign" background, has continued, at higher amplitude, its usual hectoring, coercive, non-accountable and intrusive approach to Sydney Westies.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, leaders have had to juggle the relative priorities of either eliminating the disease, or getting it under control on the one hand, and getting the economy going again. The Commonwealth and business lobbies, and the ranters from News.com may be right, up to a point, in thinking that premiers have regarded lasting damage to the economy as the Commonwealth's problem, while concentrating on eliminating local flare-ups. Be that as it may, it is a brave politician who will talk cheerfully about "acceptable" levels of deaths, particularly when, as now, NSW simply does not have the disease under any sort of control. Ms Berejiklian may have given up and now think one can never eliminate the virus. But other leaders have done a far better job, and without anything like the assistance lavished on the state by the Prime Minister.
Morrison may get plaudits of business interests in pushing for a re-opening of the economy. He can join to that constituency people exhausted and impoverished by lockdowns, and with an increasing tendency to regard public health controls as assaults on their freedom. But he would be wrong to think that the population at large is ready to drop the ball, or ready to casually dismiss fatalities as being in an acceptable range. He need only look at state election results, and, in particular, the results in Western Australia where the Liberals were almost wiped out. I doubt that he could win an election on the treachery of the premiers and chief ministers or a popular view that he, rather than they, have the credentials to carry on the struggle, medical or economic.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org