Most of the commentators seem to expect that Annastacia Palaszczuk, the Labor Premier of Queensland, will be comfortably returned to power on Saturday night. Assuming this happens, one can expect the Morrison government spin-doctors will more or less deny there is a lesson or message for the federal Coalition, and probably attribute most of the result to the Premier's populist management of the coronavirus pandemic, not least with the border closures that the feds have deplored.
In much the same way, the return of a Labor-Greens coalition in the ACT two weeks ago may have prompted some Liberal soul-searching into the viability of the ACT Liberal Party branch under current management, but was not generally seen as a signal to Morrison that his tenure was limited. Though in my opinion the result represented rather more of a rejection of the Liberal opposition than a whole-hearted embrace of Andrew Barr's record, platform or agenda, some of the local Liberals have already been denying that, saying Barr's successful management of local pandemic measures overwhelmed all other issues. This suggests successful pandemic management alone guarantees re-election for incumbents.
After all, Daniel Andrews in Victoria and Mark McGowan of Western Australia, both Labor premiers, seem to be very popular in their states because of their local measures against COVID-19, however unpopular their actions have been with other state premiers or with Scott Morrison and (in Victoria's case at least) Treasurer John Frydenberg. Neither that criticism, nor sustained attacks from News Corp newspapers or Sky News, seems to have had any impact on overall poll support for the particular premiers, or popular support for stringent lockdown or border measures. Nor has the standing of Michael Gunner, Labor Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, seemed to suffer from a genuinely successful attempt to contain the pandemic, particularly from Aboriginal communities.
Similarly, Steven Marshall in South Australia and Peter Gutwein in Tasmania, as well as Gladys Berejiklian in NSW, seem to have won praise from their own constituents at least for their management of the effects of the virus within their own bailiwicks. As with local actions by the Labor premiers and chief ministers, their actions have not always been so popular with other premiers and chief ministers, or with a Prime Minister who has been increasingly exasperated with all, even as he has pretended to admire what Berejiklian is doing, or trying to do, to lead an Australian economic recovery.
So far, opinion polls suggest that voters, in their own jurisdictions including the national one, have been fairly understanding and forgiving of mistakes, accepting both the novelty of the conditions faced by officials and sometimes the shortcomings in the flow of information.
The first catastrophic mistake was in allowing passengers from a cruise liner to disembark in Sydney without health checks, even though there were ample grounds for suspicion some were carrying the coronavirus. As it turned out, many were and their dispersal was a major cause of the transmission of the disease around Australia. Strictly, quarantine is a Commonwealth responsibility and duty, but Border Force, which had once marketed itself as protecting our borders, denied any responsibility, saying quarantine was not its business and NSW health officials were to blame. Border Force acted with spectacular incompetence in managing crowds at airports, creating proximity that made transmission virtually inevitable.
Naturally, almost all of the political players insisted that they were solely guided by medical advice. But each added or subtracted to it according to personal or political considerations.
In Victoria, mismanagement of quarantine security arrangements in hotels, including the hiring of security industry staff rather than assigning service folk, police or prison wardens to monitor strict compliance, was responsible for the significant stage two outbreak the state has just conquered. Both the Commonwealth and individual states, but particularly the Commonwealth, must accept responsibility for poor staffing, health protocols and outcomes in nursing homes, not least in the Commonwealth's clear failure to have any sort of plan in place to protect elderly people known to be most at risk. Perhaps there will be a full accounting once things settle down, but it is noticeable that no bureaucrats have been sacked, demoted, or shifted as a result of any failings, and only one, the head of the Premier's Department in Victoria, seems to have resigned. No one is apparently responsible for anything much.
Two state ministers paid a price - though one, accused of breaking the rules to go to a holiday home, was later reinstated. The Victorian health minister quit over the security guards fiasco, held responsible for a fault within her area of responsibility. A good, but in the modern era very rare, example of ministers being held accountable for failures of policy and administration within their department - something which would be fatal for a significant number of Morrison ministers were that rule enforced at federal level. But the Victorian minister did not go quietly, and seems to be stalking the premier.
Even if voters give premiers and chief ministers reasonably good marks for pandemic management, it seems doubtful this alone will guarantee political survival. Andrew Barr and Annastacia Palaszczuk - or, more properly, the ACT and Queensland - managed the pandemic with no great hiccoughs, and kept the first wave down to levels that the world, now deep in stage two and three, can only envy. But both are lucky in their opponents, and other leaders cannot be sure that they will have the same good fortune when they face their voters, in some cases three years from now. By then the outlook might have changed. Moreover, there is still the threat of fresh outbreaks, and no immediate certainties about the availability of vaccines. The international resurgence of COVID-19 threatens international recovery, and ultimately our own; neither the premiers nor the federal government are complete masters of their own destinies.
It was only 17 months ago that Scott Morrison won his "miracle" - chiefly from Queensland, where he had been expected to win seats. Voters in Queensland as much as anywhere else have shown themselves quite capable of separating state and federal factors; indeed some prefer different parties in power at different levels of government. But the Queensland LNP has been trying to work off just the same Labor weaknesses at the state level as it was able to exploit at the federal level, including ambivalence over coal, as well as a disconnect between Queensland's north and south-east. Federal and local Labor must ultimately resolve their contradictions: it is by no means certain Morrison will be able to exploit such divisions next time.
In NSW, Berejiklian has won herself a lot of sympathy as she has struggled to manoeuvre herself out of the problems caused for her by her secret boyfriend. She has certainly not been shown to be an accomplice in his corrupt tricks, but evidence before the corruption commission has suggested she may have at least suspected him of efforts to make a quid from his position - and to a degree hers - and did not do anything like enough to separate herself from him. But just as dangerously, she is now facing further inquiries about her management of a grants scheme critics have labelled a taxpayer-funded Liberal Party slush fund, the sort that has given the Morrison government such a bad name. I have previously underestimated her political resilience, but I cannot help but think she is overextending her political credit and the brownie points she has earned at disease control will do her little good.
The performance of Dan Andrews has been amazing, and might perhaps be an example to all politicians, in spite of some of the obvious mistakes of administration under his watch. The first point has been his availability to answer questions every day, without fail, for months, including deeply partisan questions from pseudo-journalists such as Peta Credlin. The questioning from News Corp journalists has been hostile, not least because the Andrews lockdown was at variance with the News Corp (and federal government) conviction that Victoria should lighten up before every business in the state collapsed.
The campaign, and the headlines, as well as the imputation from some politicians that Andrews was somehow personally responsible for 800 deaths in his state, seems to have rebounded. So much so that some critical journalists have suggested the state is suffering from Stockholm syndrome. There were plenty of people, particularly in the business community, annoyed by Andrews' caution in relaxing controls until the state had broken the back of its second wave. But there was another constituency, a bigger one, apparently, which accepted the need to get the job done.
Morrison was initially fairly supportive of Andrews in public. He could certainly have learnt some lessons from him in being straightforward, accepting responsibility for error, and in avoiding spin. Morrison has a slick eye for marketing, an aptitude for changing the subject or finding a distraction, and for burying anything inconvenient with verbiage. But his dissembling and prevarication, his efforts to rule legitimate questions out of order, and his habitual secretiveness and refusal ever to admit a political mistake are increasingly making him look guilty, shifty and untrustworthy. When that impression settles, it is hard to shift.
The unaccountable national cabinet is not a natural model for economic recovery
As premiers and chief ministers have worked to contain their pandemics, in the national cabinet as much as with their own administrations there have been no noticeable alliances of the Labor leaders against the conservatives, or the other way around. Each leader has been focused on local conditions and local responses, and has not cared much about what interstate party colleagues, or enemies, have thought. It is all of a one with Commonwealth-state meetings over a century, at which early unity, whether by premiers as a group or premiers arrayed in party colours, has been quickly broken up by differential promises of money for those who crossed the picket lines. Only this time, at least by the end, none of the states had been seduced by the Commonwealth - each, and the Commonwealth, was going in a different direction. So far as there is a national response - and there is - it has been through bilateral arrangements, rather than by general consensus, or by majority votes at national cabinet meetings.
Scott Morrison's original vision for the national cabinet came a complete cropper, but something workable seems to have survived. For now at least. At first Morrison and the Commonwealth hoped to dominate and control the premiers and chief ministers both by force of personality, a pretence of showing the cards they were playing and an offer of access to Commonwealth resources - now for all intents and purposes unlimited, given the way the federal government abandoned all of its debt and deficit ideology and rhetoric and became prepared to borrow by the hundreds of millions. Play along and they could share power, not least because the Commonwealth seemed anxious to outsource its new spending programs either to the states or to the private sector. Morrison, moreover, seemed initially at least to be evidence-driven so far as pandemic measures were concerned, willing to discuss and debate, and genuinely keen on finding consensus national solutions. The application of ideology, and determination to maintain the culture wars, has emerged over economic recovery plans.
Increasingly, however, he found it difficult as premiers, with their own experts, and their own conditions, refused to adopt many of his proposals, whether over school closures, border blockades, or the extent of business closures in the cities. Moreover it soon became clear that health experts were divided over some of the possible responses - school closures, for example - and that, at least for some of the health advisers, advice was far from frank and independent, but was instead tailored to what particular political masters wanted to hear.
MORE JACK WATERFORD:
Naturally, almost all of the political players insisted that they were solely guided by medical advice. But each added or subtracted to it according to personal or political considerations. Morrison gave us a weekend to watch football. Andrews invented a curfew. Berejiklian injected the full force of rage into her Victorian border blockade. Palaszczuk gratuitously threw the ACT into her NSW border blockade, arguing that otherwise Sydneysiders might smuggle themselves in through Canberra.
Morrison has options with how the national cabinet idea - with or without the assistance of hand-chosen mates, cronies and urgers from the business community - might be further developed. But there are limits. With the business element, it is starting to resemble Mussolini's Grand Council of Fascists - something Liberals suggested of Bob Hawke's tendency to rule through cabals of trusted businessmen and unionists.
It seems certain that the COAG model had run its course, if rather more from Commonwealth neglect since the Abbott government than from intrinsic weakness. But the national cabinet model has major problems of transparency and accountability, and of governance.
If it were to become the instrument of federation at work, it would almost certainly lead to demands that it be covered by the Commonwealth administrative law regime, wide powers for a much-expanded auditor-general's office, and coverage (including of premiers) inside a transparent corruption and integrity regime. It cannot assume its shape and structure simply because Morrison is resistant to questions, resistant to external scrutiny, resistant to process, and resistant to concepts of public interest.
Australia cannot afford the sort of accountability black hole that always seems to happen whenever the Commonwealth grants money to the states - out of the jurisdiction of the federal auditor, and rarely the subject of close scrutiny by his state counterparts. Nor can it be a government of spending money by discretion, whether for pet projects and pet lobbyists or to spite enemies. We have had enough of that from government, federal and state, over the past few years.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. email@example.com