The Politics    Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The petty and the petulant

By Rachel Withers

Image of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Image via News Breakfast

Is the Victorian government being “petulant” here, or is it right to gripe about double standards?

The war of words over the increased Commonwealth income support for the NSW lockdown has heated up. Last night, the Victorian Labor government slammed the federal Coalition over its actions, labelling its position a “disgrace” and a “double standard”, while acknowledging it was good that NSW was getting the help it needed. The federal Opposition, meanwhile, said it was “petty politics” from the Coalition, with shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers telling RN Breakfast that Victorians had “every right to be filthy”. But the federal government has fired back just as hard: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg accused the Victorian government of being “petulant” and “whingeing”, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison dismissed questions about double standards as “nonsense”, reeling off a series of deceptive numbers about how much help Victoria had received previously. Morrison’s dismissal of a double standard that, frankly, everyone can see (including Sydneysiders) is insulting. But the federal condemnation of the Victorian criticism as “petulant” may be warranted. Is now really the time for bitterness from a disgruntled state government, or should we all just be happy that the federal government has finally been forced to set a decent precedent for Australians who need financial help during lockdowns? 

Let’s be clear: these are absolutely double standards favouring NSW, as much as the Morrison government brazenly claims they aren’t. Even as he was first announcing changes to the COVID-19 Disaster Payment eligibility last Thursday, the PM was already pushing back against the idea that the rules were changing for Sydney, noting that the eased eligibility would only kick in from the third week (which Victoria’s recent lockdown never reached). But while the help the states have received is technically equal, no one is under any illusions that it would have increased for Victoria had its lockdown gone on, after the state government begged for the help, only to have it granted under strict, limiting conditions. And yet the federal government’s insulting “equal treatment” line has continued throughout its subsequent changes to the support offered, even as the double standard grows more stark. Government Services Minister Linda Reynolds yesterday ran with the line that the circumstances were different for Sydney, leaning heavily on the word “evolve”. Frydenberg told 7.30 last night that the “facts” were clearly on the Coalition’s side (they’re not), while both he and the prime minister today started pointing to the amount of JobKeeper that Victoria received last year, even though the hypocrisy claim is about this year’s lockdowns. (Even the Andrews government’s chief critic called that one out, since NSW received far more JobKeeper per capita per day in lockdown.) It would almost be better if the federal government would just admit that it made a mistake in not offering states more assistance, rather than shamelessly lying about it.

But even accepting that there are double standards at play, is it appropriate for the Victorian government to bring this up now, even with the repeated addendum that it is happy to see NSW getting the required help? The federal government would certainly have us think not, knowing its only defence to such criticism is to attack. The federal treasurer has accused his home state of politicising the current crisis, of being “petulant, childish and playing politics” (a favourite tactic of the Coalition when its policies are challenged, and one that involves a heavy dose of politics in itself). Victoria’s outcry does, in some ways, come across as whingeing, considering that NSW is currently facing a very serious lockdown. The Andrews government has repeatedly stressed that it is a “good thing” that NSW is getting support, which will help the state lock down and protect the nation, and that the support will now be in place for other states should they go through something similar. So why not just be quiet and accept it?

The state government certainly is playing politics with the situation, keen to take this opportunity to point out to Victorians that the federal government doesn’t care about them as much as it cares about citizens of NSW. But it’s not clear the Morrison government has introduced these changes because it cares about NSW more, or because the NSW government is of the same political persuasion. This increased support really is needed, and quite urgently, because the federal government’s stubbornness, along with the NSW government’s hubris, has plunged Australia’s largest city into a lockdown with no end in sight. The Commonwealth’s desperate ploy to disincentivise lockdowns has finally backfired, and it now owes the people who will suffer longer because of it an even larger amount of help, to get us all out of danger. Yes, this help should have been available to Victoria, and sooner, and the double standard is infuriating and insulting. But it’s not that the federal government doesn’t care about Victoria. It’s that it doesn’t care about anyone at all.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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