Each of the six states and two territories has experienced the impact of COVID-19 in slightly different ways. Many have been fortunate enough to have largely escaped the worst of the pandemic, but several have experienced special crises.
There has been some blame attributed to certain state governments from time to time, but they have largely been insulated from the political heat. The solidarity of the National Cabinet and the various chief medical officers and the idea that "we are all in this together" has protected the premiers somewhat, though not entirely. There has been some rogue criticism of a partisan kind, but the premiers have generally been able to slap it down.
Much more blame has been attributed to individuals, especially young people, and institutions and companies for undisciplined behaviour and alleged mismanagement.
Let's now recall how the wheel has turned.
Early on NSW bore the brunt of the health focus, because of the Ruby Princess cruise ship and the Newmarch House aged care facility disasters. Two enquiries, one by the police and one by Bret Walker SC, were instituted by the government into Ruby Princess. For a while, a little later, attention switched to Tasmania because of an outbreak centred on the hospital sector in Burnie.
The other states largely escaped such early attention though that changed when the matter of appropriate lockdowns and prevention measures were debated. School and border closures became disputed. The NSW and Victorian premiers together put pressure on the prime minister and the National Cabinet to encourage early school closures. This was resisted and they were condemned as nervous nellies.
Gladys Berejiklian, the NSW Premier, and Dan Andrews, the Victorian Premier, kept the main interstate border between their two states open, but the other four states took a much harder line and closed their borders. Of these four the three smaller states, Western Australia, helped by its isolation, South Australia and Tasmania, escaped much national opprobrium. But Queensland, which refused to guarantee that its border would be open before September, took most of the flak.
Not only is the pressure off Queensland but Palaszczuk is now being praised for making her state a haven for tourism and the saviour of large swathes of sport.
The past four months has demonstrated the ebb and flow of not just the pandemic but the politics surrounding it. The lesson has been not to speak too soon because there but for the grace of God go I. This is best illustrated by a comparison of Queensland and Victoria, two Labor states.
If any State Premier had the blowtorch put on her in the early days it was the Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk. Her situation was particularly sensitive because a state election is due in September and she is under pressure to be reelected. She is a Labor premier with a small margin in a state where Labor was wiped out at the March 2019 federal election.
Queensland, a state dependent more than most on travel and tourism, took the most conservative position of the three big eastern states as far as border controls where concerned. The smaller states don't matter so much because Queensland is the magnet for winter tourists from around Australia.
Palaszczuk closed the NSW-Queensland border in April and resisted pressure for an early reopening. She particularly stoked the ire of her critics when she hinted that the border may stay closed till September. Her reliance on advice from her chief medical officer did not save her.
Coalition critics, led by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, attacked her mercilessly, accusing her of social engineering and acting like a dictator. One Nation's Pauline Hanson, backed by Dutton, instigated a High Court challenge to the constitutionality of border closures. Palaszczuk was a leader under extreme pressure.
Fast forward 10 weeks and not only is the pressure off Queensland but Palaszczuk is now being praised for making her state a haven for tourism and the saviour of large swathes of Australian sport, including the Australian Football League, motor racing and netball. The netballers have serenaded her on camera and AFL commentators have been almost obsequious in singing her praises.
How good is Queensland? Palaszczuk, having opened her borders in early July, is now so emboldened that she says she will have no hesitation in slamming shut Queensland's borders to NSW if that state's coronavirus numbers rise again. Her critics are strangely quiet and some of them, including Dutton, have switched their criticism to Victoria's Andrews.
The Victorian story is the reverse of that of Queensland. Early on Victoria escaped the worst of the health crises and Andrews stood tall as one of the major players in the National Cabinet, standing alongside his Liberal ally Berejiklian and exercising his muscle. His media image was of quiet competence and wise leadership.
Slowly the Victorian situation worsened until it is now leading the second wave of the pandemic. Andrews stands accused of presiding over the bungling of hotel quarantine and the lockdown of public housing towers. Victoria is now implicitly compared unfavourably with NSW in the management of contact tracing and other health measures. He is now referred to disparagingly as Chairman Dan and is under great pressure. Primarily because of the Victorian lockdown federal parliamentary sittings were cancelled.
The future of the pandemic, and with it the reputation of state governments, is uncertain and unpredictable. Strong state borders have returned for the foreseeable future. The examples of Queensland and Victoria show conflicting fortunes. All Australians must hope for the suppression of COVID-19 in Victoria. Only that or outbreaks in other states will take the pressure off Andrews. Queensland, and all the sports it is now sheltering, must hope that its luck doesn't change again for the worse.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.