Things have obviously been worse than we thought. The strains in the Federation, brought on primarily by tension over border closures, have long since rendered the Prime Minister’s “we’re all in this together” slogan redundant.
But perhaps we didn’t appreciate the gravity of the situation.
On Friday, the Prime Minister emerged from a turning point National Cabinet meeting to reveal that “at times it has felt like Australia could break apart”.
Whether the comment was a bit of hyperbole or a genuine glimpse of how close the nation has come to splitting during this crisis, it was quite a statement for an Australian Prime Minister to make.
Fortunately, it was promptly followed by an assurance these “break apart” moments have been accompanied by a collective understanding of “how important Australia is”.
What a relief!
The death of a consensus approach
The Federation held together on Friday, thanks to an agreement to disagree. The earlier consensus approach, a hang-over from the old COAG model, is now gone.
In one sense, this marks a defeat for Scott Morrison. He couldn’t convince everyone to support his plan to re-open by Christmas. It also marks a statement of the bleeding obvious, that since the second COVID wave struck Victoria, states have been doing their own thing.
In another sense, the end of the consensus approach marks an important break that allows states who want to move forward to do so.
All states, with the exception of Western Australia, agreed on Friday to move towards a “hot spot” model for dealing with the movement of people by Christmas.
There is currently no agreed definition of a “hot spot”, and this may prove an intractable sticking point, but if consensus can be found among NSW, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, then far more free movement could be possible than is currently allowed.
The Prime Minister is resisting any direct criticism of the WA or Queensland Premiers (although he’s not stopping his ministers from doing do), nor is he threatening to punish them financially. To do so would be politically insane. That doesn’t mean he won’t enter into new partnership agreements on infrastructure or other projects with the states that are opening up. A carrot, rather than a stick approach.
State and territory leaders are calling the shots
Ultimately, though, it’s the states who are calling the shots on the immediate steps in Australia’s economic recovery.
The Prime Minister and Treasurer are now finalising next month’s budget in an environment where they have virtually no control over the re-opening.
Which brings us to Dan Andrews. The Victorian Premier today unveils his much-awaited plan to end the harsh Stage 4 lockdown in Melbourne and map out the future for the rest of the state.
It’s another critical moment in this national crisis, with implications for millions of families, businesses, the Australian economy and indeed all interstate borders.
The most important, and potentially contentious, aspect of the plan is Andrews’ insistence that the re-opening be driven by “data not dates”.
Business groups and Victorian Liberals (both state and federal) would prefer the certainty of clear dates for re-opening sectors of the economy, so plans can be put in place, stock purchased and so on. The state should be able to manage 20-30 cases a day, or so the argument goes.
The fate of the Federation
The Premier said yesterday’s 76 new cases was still too high to allow any relaxation.
He won’t wait until there are zero daily cases, but just what level is deemed acceptable before businesses can re-open, is still unclear. We’ll find out today.
As with the border debate, this comes down to the question of what level of risk we can tolerate. Whatever Andrews announces today, there will be debate and disagreement over the level of acceptable risk until this pandemic is gone.
At least there is something of a unity ticket between Scott Morrison and Dan Andrews on the need for caution in this plan.
The Premier says opening too quickly would mean “five minutes of sunshine” before the restrictions are re-applied. The Prime Minister agrees Victorians “don’t want to have gone through all of this… only to re-emerge and relapse”.
Andrews says the decisions he’s making are the most difficult he has faced in 20 years of public life. That’s undoubtedly true.
They could also be some of the most important decisions for the fate of the Federation.
David Speers is the host of Insiders, which airs on ABC TV at 9am on Sunday or on iview.