Monday, May 4, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

States rate
NSW and Victoria deserve much credit for Australia’s pandemic response

© James Ross and Dean Lewins / AAP Images

When the history of this country’s COVID-19 experience is written, let’s hope that the premiers of Victoria and NSW get due recognition, because their decisive intervention to enforce a stricter lockdown on March 22 – working across the Liberal–Labor divide – has undoubtedly saved thousands of Australian lives. As Victoria’s Daniel Andrews told the ABC’s Four Corners, talking of that day: “This thing needed a big jolt, we needed to take a big step.” He was working in tandem with his NSW counterpart, Gladys Berejiklian, who said the pair felt they “couldn’t afford to wait a few more days because it would have got out of control”. Looking back, we can be grateful to the leaders of the two biggest states, who showed leadership when the federal government was still unsure how to respond to the pandemic. Both premiers will likely be marked up by voters when they next face the people, although the next elections in both states are years away. Indeed, the pandemic has provided the best demonstration of the value of Australia’s federation for a very long time, certainly in my lifetime. 

To his credit, Scott Morrison was quick to recognise that the pandemic posed a new challenge that required the Commonwealth, states and territories to work together much more closely, and he came up with the notion of the national cabinet on March 13. The new body may prove to be one of the enduring legacies of Morrison’s prime ministership, and its standing will only be burnished by hearing from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern tomorrow. This makes yesterday’s direct assault on the national cabinet process by the federal education minister, Dan Tehan, in an ill-considered interview on Insiders, all the more surprising. By accusing Premier Andrews of a failure of leadership and of taking a sledgehammer to the state’s school system – on the very day a Victorian teacher had contracted the virus, as it turned out – Tehan jeopardised the goodwill shown around the national cabinet table. Tehan was on thin ice: Andrews is a rarity, a genuinely popular politician. Tehan withdrew within hours, and looked like just another lightweight Morrison government minister. Good at pointing the finger elsewhere, not very good at policy substance or taking responsibility. Just like Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton stoking an obscure culture war against Victoria’s deputy chief health officer, while ducking responsibility for the Ruby Princess debacle (which should come under focus when Border Force faces the COVID-19 committee tomorrow). 

The pandemic proves it is good that the power of the Commonwealth is bounded by the states and territories. In the late 1980s former Liberal premier Nick Greiner challenged his party’s “states rights” tradition and championed a new federalism, arguing the underlying problem with the federation was vertical fiscal imbalance (the Commonwealth raised the revenue, while the states spent it) with over-reliance on tied grants, which created overlapping responsibilities and buck-passing. According to his biographer, Greiner believed countries across the world irrespective of ideology had been “mugged by reality” and there was now “an international market for smaller, more efficient government”. Between the Commonwealth, states and territories, and local councils, Australia did seem comparatively over-governed. Former Labor PM Bob Hawke had argued the states should be abolished as far back as 1979, and at various times [$] former premiers Peter Beattie and Jeff Kennett argued the same thing. Even former PM John Howard once conceded: “If you were starting again, you wouldn’t have [the states].”

Efficiency is fine, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. The checks and balances offered by Australia’s federation have helped this country avoid what could have been a real disaster, perhaps our biggest test since the war. When the PM was unsure, the premiers of the two largest state governments, who run our schools and hospitals, stepped up. So, too, is it a good thing that we have a prime minister who is accountable to the parliament, rather than a president who is first among equals, appointed by his party colleagues rather than directly elected. In the result, Australia’s PM has been pulled quickly into line by two powerful state premiers, has pinched the policy platform of the federal Opposition, and has landed on his feet. Contrast this with the US and UK, floundering in the hands of unaccountable populist demagogues whose reliance on their own base instinct has betrayed the public interest at every turn. 

“I think we should listen to science much more on issues like climate change. And I hope that the government takes its new-found respect for science and expert advice, and puts that into practice in other policy areas.”

Labor leader Anthony Albanese calls for consistency.

“Unnecessarily alarmist”

In an email sent to ABC News director Gaven Morris with the subject line “COMPLAINT”, the PM’s senior media adviser, Nick Creevey, expressed his displeasure at an ABC investigation revealing that data drawn from Australians via the COVIDSafe app may be obtainable by the US government.

The real reason supermarket shelves were empty
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many Australians to shortages of food and essential items for the first time. Empty shelves across the country have revealed deep vulnerabilities in our food-supply system. Today, Margaret Simons on why our supermarkets weren’t prepared for this crisis.

The latest estimate of the construction cost of Australia’s Future Submarine program – up $10 billion or 12 per cent in just five months, largely due to adverse exchange-rate movements.

“Recommendations: (i) That the cuts to the ABC’s operational funding since 2013 be restored in full in the October 2020 federal budget [and]
(ii) The government commits to fully funding the ABC’s original request for additional money to support newsgathering and digital distribution [and]
(iii) The government provides the ABC with additional, untied funding in the October 2020 budget, to allow the ABC to restore its innovative capacity and invest in new programs and services, as determined by the management of the ABC.”

The first few recommendations of a new report, “It’s our ABC”, created by independent think tank Per Capita for activist group GetUp!, which finds real funding per annum has declined by 29.5 per cent since the mid 1980s.

The list

“Brian Houston says that God can provide a vaccine at any moment of His choosing. In the meantime, Houston prescribes laying hands on the sick – figuratively, of course, due to social-distancing guidelines – and synchronising with the Holy Spirit by speaking in tongues. The astute schemer views a once-in-lifetime recruitment opportunity for Hillsong.”

“Sure, says News Corp, it was a bit of a downer for the Indigenous population, but Cook was the start of the brilliant process that culminated in the supreme achievement of the Australian story: the life and works of Rupert Murdoch. But readers may still have been confused: Cook was obviously a riddle. Was the real man a progressive or a conservative?”

“Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, says the unions had advocated a subsidy ‘way before’ the inadequate second support package. ‘In the early meetings with employers and [Industrial Relations minister] Christian Porter, they were all completely opposed to a wage subsidy,’ she says. Instead, they were ‘fixated on doing it through social security … through Centrelink’. The decision to double the dole, she says, simply sent the message to employers ‘that you can just let people go, and they’ll be looked after. And that’s exactly what happened.’”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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