News Politics Australian Politics It’s politics – not the pandemic – that’s straining the federation

It’s politics – not the pandemic – that’s straining the federation

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The political games being played as the Delta strain cuts a swathe of fear and loathing though the Commonwealth of Australia have become unedifying and self-defeating.

Unedifying, because we are now seeing a brazen blame-shifting game after the preferred prescriptions of the federal and New South Wales governments have become victims of a devilish, more infectious and threatening strain of the COVID-19 virus.

Self-defeating, because for almost 18 months Gladys Berejiklian and Scott Morrison derided lockdowns as unnecessary knee-jerk reactions by all the other state and territory leaders.

This goes a long way to explain the thousands who protested in Sydney on the weekend, and the reluctance of so many to embrace the creeping lockdown imposed by the Berejiklian government.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard was quick to blame parochialism for the refusal of the other states to heed his desperate calls for them to divert their scarce Pfizer vaccines his state’s way, as infection numbers ballooned and the death toll mounted.

Mr Hazzard’s desperation was palpable as he frankly admitted last Friday that NSW needed all the help that other states and territories could “possibly give us”.

Like Premier Berejiklian, he reminded the nation how much heavy lifting the state has done during the pandemic – particularly in bringing stranded Australians home.

Scott Morrison and Gladys Berejiklian with Brad Hazzard
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard, PM Scott Morrison and Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Photo: AAP

But it was in the spirit of the federated Commonwealth Mr Hazzard particularly framed his pleadings.

He said it disturbed him that all the work the nation has done together has “just seemingly been cast aside”.

He said: “When we have bushfires, when we have floods, people from our state go to help others.”

It was this last point that unmasked just how self-serving this spiel was; it missed the point completely that in this crisis no part of the country is free from the threat of the Delta strain and all states and territories suffer the same vaccine scarcity making them every bit as vulnerable.

None of the other states objected to PM Morrison announcing thousands more doses of vaccine for NSW, as long as he didn’t take it from their previously announced allotments.

(Where he got them is an interesting question in itself.)

But sympathy from the other two locked-down states was in short supply.

Indeed, as South Australia’s Premier Steven Marshall said on Monday, when he announced the end of that state’s seven-day lockdown, he was able to do it because he had acted quickly and decisively shutting down the state.

Victoria, similarly, was able to foreshadow an end to its two-week lockdown on Tuesday night, citing the same decisiveness in reacting to the mutating bug that originally travelled into the state from Sydney.

What is not to be missed is the constitutional role the state governments have in being primarily responsible to their citizens: They have ceded many of their sovereign powers to create the nation, but not all of them – and certainly not the health services required to keep their people safe.

Economist Richard Denniss is of the view that if we are seeing parochialism, it’s because of the lack of federal leadership.

He took to Twitter to say, “if Scott Morrison had shown leadership on quarantine, vaccine and been generous to Victoria during its 100-day lockdown, state policies wouldn’t be at the forefront”.

That’s another way of saying if Mr Morrison had done his job better the premiers would not have had anything much to complain about.

Mr Morrison can certainly be criticised by Ms Berejiklian and the other premiers for not being more prudent and urgent in the purchase of vaccines, let alone the provision of purpose-built quarantine beyond Howard Springs.

They are not threatening the cohesion of the federation in doing so, just lamenting a failure in competence to make it work better.

It must be galling for Ms Berejiklian to hear Mr Morrison just this weekend arguing that the answer to getting on top of the Delta wave is a strict lockdown, rather than more vaccines.

At one level the PM is right: Only a tight lockdown can suppress the virus now, but the premier is also right in saying had her state been substantially vaccinated by now – as originally promised – she wouldn’t be facing the present crisis.

Sydney in lockdown
Millions are under stay-at-home orders in Sydney and surrounds. Photo: AAP

Ms Berejiklian insists thousands more Pfizer vaccines are needed to slow the spread of the Delta strain, or at the very least restrict its severity.

Mr Morrison told The Project that the premier didn’t even raise the request for more vaccines being diverted from other states at Friday’s national cabinet meeting.

On Monday Ms Berejiklian flatly contradicted Mr Morrison.

She claimed that at the Friday meeting she “argued her little heart out” because she will always fight for her state.

She concedes national cabinet didn’t back her, but is taking heart from the new medical advice now recommending AstraZeneca for adults above the age of 19, and will set up mass vaccination hubs to do it.

Mr Morrison is promising millions more doses of mRNA vaccines over the next two years, which is little consolation for the millions in lockdown, the businesses going to the wall, and the jobs lost with less generous support than last year.

Australia winning gold in the pool at Tokyo is the only inoculation on offer against the depressing spectacle of it all.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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