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How we can build on Australia’s COVID-19 response to reshape the federation

11 May 2020

News and media


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By Professor Ken Smith, ANZSOG Dean and CEO

Trust in government at record levels? The federation working smoothly, and politicians apologising for criticising each other? These would not have been among anyone’s predictions for 2020, but the global COVID-19 pandemic has upended most of what we have taken for granted.

Dealing with the COVID-19 crisis has been the biggest challenge the current generation of public sector leaders have ever faced. Bigger than the global financial crisis because its complexity means responses must simultaneously address social, economic and fundamental health concerns. It also dwarfs disaster responses to bush fires, drought, floods and cyclones where we often see a temporary abatement of the internecine warfare between and within our political systems.

While Australia and New Zealand are ahead of many other developed countries, there is no guarantee that we will stay that way. Despite this, some signs have emerged that the response to the COVID-19 crisis can be used as a blueprint to deal with other policy challenges that we face, but which have often been filed in the ‘too hard’ basket.

Australia’s federation is often criticised as broken and archaic, but the basic principle of subsidiarity: devolving decisions to the lowest level capable of performing them has largely served us well in the current evolving crisis. Australia’s federation has historically reflected the geographic and economic diversity of the country, and in this emergency we have shown that a complex federal system can effectively manage a crisis by creating a nationally co-ordinated response with strong and responsive flexibility at a regional and local level.

The national cabinet process (with only a few hiccups) has worked very effectively to date by building confidence and trust between jurisdictions and cutting through narrow partisan politics by focusing on the ‘public interest’. The fact that different levels of government have had to come together to negotiate, largely as equals, has meant better policy has emerged than if one level had simply dictated terms. The actions of the NSW and Victorian governments on the second weekend in March, where they pushed a Stage 3 lockdown ahead of a reluctant commonwealth have been shown to be correct. Likewise, the actions of Queensland in imposing quarantines on domestic travellers were followed by the NT, WA, SA and Tasmania, and have effectively stopped the spread of the virus.

Interestingly, the major recent split in the COVID-19 response – and in the greater scheme of things not a major one – has been over schools, an area that is funded dually and where the commonwealth has tried to use funding (yet again) to exert control over the states’ clear responsibilities.WA Premier Mark McGowan has called for the more regular national cabinet process to replace COAG, saying: “The politics is removed, and the sole focus is on working together to achieve a good outcome.”

Compare this to the chaotic response in the US – with state government split on the issue of lockdowns, state competing with each other for medical supplies and a president unable to hold a consistent truly national position. The issue isn’t about the structure of a federation, but the willingness to use its strengths and focus leadership on delivering coherent evidence-based policy responses in the public interest, rather than pandering to narrower sectional interests.

You would need to go back to the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 to find a similar case of federal and state governments working together to implement changes for the good of the broader community, led by prime minister John Howard, to quickly change laws to respond to a tragedy, and to develop a policy that had bi-partisan and voter support. This subsequently became an important model for New Zealand in response to the Christchurch massacre.

COVID-19 is a far more complex ongoing challenge than reforming gun laws, and one where the playing field is continually changing as new developments and information emerge.

Another area where accepted wisdom has been turned upside down relates to the important concept of institutional trust. One of the key long-term trends in Australian, and global, politics is the significant ongoing decline in public trust for politicians and our key political institutions. It has become a cliché to say that this lack of trust makes genuine policy reform and tackling important issues like climate change impossible.

Yet we now have an environment where parties from both sides of politics have won praise and popular support for major, almost unprecedented government interventions into everyday life, causing hardship for many. Governments are, rather than being marginalised, critical to helping the community adapt. This is not ‘hands-off’ or minimal government — it is control and intervention to protect the community from a clear and omnipresent danger.

John Howard is quoted as saying that ‘there is no ideology in a crisis’ – and the reason for the popularity is that ideology and partisanship have taken a back seat to evidence. Politicians have understood where their role starts and finishes, and where those with expertise in a particular subject area have their place.

Public sector leaders must begin thinking about how we can extend the success of this resurgence of the role of the federation, and the restoration of trust, beyond this present crisis. Again, the approach to other issues needs to begin with trying to seek bipartisan consensus, following the evidence of experts and working to communicate clearly to the public the reasons for important public policy and reform responses.

This is all easier said than done, and everyone in the broader public sector needs to remember that public approval can quickly turn sour once a crisis has passed.

Redefining the federation has greater long-term potential, and it is important that the momentum, and the personal relationships that have grown out of the national cabinet are not squandered.

Reform of the financial imbalance that sees the commonwealth tax, the states spend, and all parties complain about each other has been stalled for decades. This has been accompanied by little progress on issues such as tax reform, climate change, transport infrastructure pricing, electricity policy and water management, where a national framework is required.

Our COVID-19 response has focused on protecting citizens and preserving jobs. The JobSeeker/JobKeeper arrangements, even with recognised gaps, are innovative and effective public policy responses. We need to start looking at our federation from the same citizen and ask ourselves what is in the public interest, and reinvigorate our system of government based on where and how services should be delivered rather than argue entrenched positions based on protecting existing power bases and sectional interests.

The saying ‘never let a crisis go to waste’ is often associated with the most cynical kind of partisan politics, but if we do not use the lessons we have learned, and will learn in the months and years ahead from COVID-19 to significantly improve our federation and trust in government, then we will have wasted a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

This piece originally appeared in The Mandarin as part of their COVID-19 coverage.