Tensions between Australian states and PM Morrison rise as Covid-19 situation worsens

A pedestrian crosses the road Sydney's central business district, on July 26, 2021.
A pedestrian crosses the road Sydney's central business district, on July 26, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY - Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison is - supposedly - the most powerful person in the country, yet recent Covid-19 outbreaks have demonstrated that there is much beyond his control.

In the past month, state leaders have imposed lockdowns that have brought a sudden end to economic activity in Sydney and Melbourne, the two most populous cities in the country.

Elsewhere, states have imposed border closures that further crimped trade and tourism. More than half of the country's population or 13 million people are now living under stay-at-home orders. The costs of the current measures are forecast to be well over A$10 billion (S$10 billion) and are expected to shave up to 1.5 per cent off the nation's economic growth in the three months to September.

Mr Morrison's ruling federal coalition has at times attacked the states' stringent approach towards the pandemic, but can do little to prevent shutdowns or domestic border curbs.

But the states have their own gripes. Several state leaders have lashed out at Canberra over its handling of the vaccine rollout and its distribution of financial support for workers and businesses in affected areas.

Victoria's state government recently accused Mr Morrison of unfairly favouring his home state of New South Wales, suggesting that the Prime Minister had done more to provide financial aid to those affected by the current outbreak in Sydney than during last year's lengthy second-wave in Melbourne.

"His (Mr Morrison's)job is not to be the Prime Minister for NSW," a Victorian spokesman said.

The Federal Treasurer, Mr Josh Frydenberg, hit back, insisting that Canberra had offered support for any state that needed it.

"The Victorian government, unfortunately, is being petulant, childish, and playing politics," he told ABC Radio.

This bickering between Canberra and the states has long been a feature of Australia's federal system, which was based largely on the US model.

But the sense of crisis during the early days of the pandemic last year brought a burst of cooperation between Mr Morrison and state leaders, including the creation of a National Cabinet that sits regularly to coordinate responses.

In addition, the pandemic ended a long-term trend of centralisation which had seen power shift from the states to Canberra. Instead, states, which largely control public health systems and law enforcement, have been responsible for imposing sweeping lockdowns and police-enforced border controls.

However, the collegiality has largely ended, particularly as Australia has begun to struggle to combat the pandemic. Some parts of the country are blissfully virus-free. In Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania, there has been no local transmission in weeks.

But the rest of the country has experienced various recent lockdowns. In NSW, authorities have been unable to suppress a fast-moving outbreak of the Delta strain. The state is the most populous in the country but is currently more than four weeks into a lockdown that seems to have no end.

Part of the problem facing NSW is the nation's low vaccination rates. As of Sunday (July 25), just 13 per cent of Australians had been fully vaccinated and 30 per cent had one dose.

The vaccine rollout is being overseen by the federal government, which has struggled to secure supplies and initially showed little rush in administering vaccines because the pandemic appeared to be under control. For months, states have demanded that Mr Morrison increase the urgency and share more information about incoming supplies. The country's tangled federal system means that both states and Canberra run vaccine programmes.

As of Sunday, states had administered about 45 per cent of doses and Canberra about 55 per cent.

But the states appear to be winning the battle of public opinion. An opinion survey published last week by the Australia Institute, a progressive think-tank, found 42 per cent of Australians believe the states are doing a better job of handling the pandemic, with just 16 per cent preferring the federal government, 24 per cent believing they are equal, and the remainder uncommitted.

A researcher at the institute, Mr Bill Browne, said the pandemic was reversing the view among some Australians that the states are unnecessary "relics".

"The states and territories have shone during the Covid-19 crisis with strong, strict and decisive responses which have in turn won popularity with the public," he said.

Mr Morrison's own support, meanwhile, has been suffering. The latest Newspoll survey, taken last week, showed his ruling coalition trails the Labor opposition by 47 per to 53 per cent, its worst result since the 2019 election.