COVID-19 has put fundamentals of federation in jeopardy

Simon Cowan

12 September 2020 | Canberra Times

Given the dearth of COVID-19 cases recorded in Canberra for months, it is hard to see a public health reason for such a rigid application of the rules. Rather than intervene in favour of common sense, the Queensland premier sought to defend the decision by accusing the prime minister of bullying her.

Nor is this the first time serious consequences have arisen from the border closure rules. A Ballina mother lost one of her unborn twins after being sent to Sydney rather than the far closer hospital in Brisbane.

In response, Annastacia Palaszczuk, after noting these decisions were made by health professionals not politicians, said: “People living in NSW, they have NSW hospitals. In Queensland we have Queensland hospitals for our people.” Such a claim would have been unthinkable pre-COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused individuals, communities and states to seek to isolate themselves for their fellow Australians, in part or altogether. Perhaps for the first time in living memory, we have reintroduced sharp line borders between states.

People who live in or near border communities, who have never had to factor the border into their daily lives, have suddenly been demarcated one side or the other – like the farmers who were told they had to drive their sheep to Melbourne, fly them to Sydney and then drive them back to the saleyards just over the border.

To treat state borders akin to borders between nations is a fundamentally warped view of federalism that, if it continues, should provoke a serious change in approach from the more populous states, New South Wales in particular.

The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has already flagged the GST distribution in the context of border closures. This should be made far more explicit. NSW in particular has subsidised Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania more or less continuously since federation.

This practice, called horizontal fiscal equalisation, is supposed to ensure the standards of public services are roughly equal in all the states. The Commonwealth also tips in substantial additional money to boost services in less well-off states.

In practice, this means the people of NSW shoulder an extra tax burden so Tasmania can have better schools and Queensland can have better hospitals. It is a slap in the face to turn around and say to people in border communities they cannot access these services that – at least indirectly – they helped pay for.

It is important to remember the principle behind this is that we are all Australians. We are supposed to all be in this together.

Perhaps Premier Berejiklian’s starting point should be if NSW people are not good enough to cross the border, then neither are NSW dollars.

It is important to distinguish the situation in Victoria, which has been far more severely impacted by the virus, from that in NSW, which has proven the effectiveness of its contact tracing and is currently averaging below 10 cases per day across the whole state. With some precautions at the border, and some common sense, the risk of transmission between states with tiny transmission rates is all but negligible.

However, even in respect of Victoria where the risks are far higher, it would make far more sense for restrictions to be directly related to community caseload and diminish as you move further outwards from hot spots, not be applied on the more or less arbitrary basis of state borders.

Far too many decisions in the pandemic have simply been haphazard pronouncements, based on nothing more than the whims and wishes of politicians, lacking any sort of scientific justification or even explanation.

A good example is the Victorian government’s night curfew. It’s not clear who actually proposed this deeply anti-liberal policy. No health justification has been provided for it. All night-time businesses have already been forced to close, so it’s not like people are sneaking out to go to nightclubs.

We are left to wonder: is the virus somehow more dangerous in the dark?

All of this is aside from the point that border closures are having a significant financial impact on the country, at a time we are already in a deep recession. There are trade-offs that must be considered – both financial and social.

It is simply not the case, as some would like to argue, that those on the side of hard lockdowns and border closures care about saving lives and those opposing some of those measures do not.

The fact is: recessions cost lives, unemployment costs lives and isolation costs lives. Preventing kids from going to school will cause some to fall behind permanently.

As NSW has shown, stopping COVID-19 absolutely – whatever the cost – and desperately waiting for a vaccine to save us, is not the best strategy; especially given the setbacks with recent vaccine trials.

We have to learn to live with the virus, within reasonable limits. Abandoning our freedoms – and our federation – in fear is not a good strategy at all.

After all, the Constitution opens: “The people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania … have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth.” The key words are ‘people’, ‘unite’ and ‘one indissoluble’.

Of course, views on our federation have changed over time, often as a result of significant challenges like COVID-19. When the Constitution was drafted in 1900, people initially envisaged a far larger role for the states and a lesser role for the federal government.

Over time the power, prestige and reach of the federal government has expanded as a result of favourable High Court rulings, the nature of politics and, perhaps most importantly, because of the massive fiscal imbalance between the states and the feds.

The loss of state independence has probably not been to the benefit of Australia. Yet this does not justify states taking a ‘bugger you Jack, we’re alright’ attitude to COVID-19 management. State politicians should act more independently, but they have a moral duty to do so in the best interests of both their state and the country.

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