ANZSOG Case Library compares pandemic approaches in Australia and New Zealand

an open book on a bundle of books
  • Published Date: 27 April 2021

Two new cases in ANZSOG’s John L. Alford Case Library outline the different approaches Australia and New Zealand took to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how those different routes led to success.

Covering the pros and cons of Australia’s federation, the role of experts and the importance of communications, the cases give an academic analysis to COVID responses.

Professor Alan Fenna’s ‘Pandemic Policy-Making in Australia’s Federal System’ outlines the history of Australia’s approach to COVID-19 and examines initial concerns, that Australia’s federal system and ‘patchwork’ of laws would fail to cope with a fast-moving national crisis coming so soon after the 2019/20 bushfire season.

As it turned out, Australia’s handling of the pandemic, was in many ways an instance of that under-recognised phenomenon, policy success. At 907, total deaths in 2020 were extremely low by international standards, and governments received much praise for the way they responded — both individually and collectively.

Professor Fenna concludes that federalism’s advantages of flexibility and ability to create policy calibrated to local conditions, outweighed its disadvantages and was able to provide effective and efficient responses to COVID-19.

This successful result also prompted a shake-up in the way Australia’s heads of government work together, with the Prime Minister declaring that National Cabinet would replace COAG permanently, claiming that this would be a “congestion-busting” move for intergovernmental policymaking more generally.

Dr Suze Wilson’s ‘Pandemic leadership: Lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19’ examines the leadership approach to COVID-19 adopted by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, focused on the first wave of the outbreak in early 2020.

That approach was characterised by science-led and timely decision-making, underpinned by strategic clarity about the nature of the challenges being faced and a focus on protecting lives and livelihoods as key guiding principles.

Ardern’s communication mobilised collective effort which, along with government initiatives designed to cushion the pandemic’s impact on individuals and businesses, helped secure the compliance needed to halt community-based transmission of COVID-19.

This response to the first wave of COVID-19 was strongly informed by science, which helped both to address the actual public health risks and to gain community support for the government’s approach

New Zealand’s emphasis on evidence-based decision-making was combined with skilfully articulated appeals for a united response, helping to build a base of support for the government’s approach that transcended partisan politics. These foundational features of the government’s approach meant people were persuaded that acting as the government asked was in their best interests, both individually and collectively.

Dr Wilson says that the overall approach taken by the Ardern-led government to dealing with the first wave of COVID-19 was characterised by the ability to act decisively when facing volatile, complex and uncertain conditions,.. It focused on facts and evidence, combined with an overarching concern to minimise harm to lives and livelihoods. This decision-making approach was combined with effective communication that mobilised the collective effort needed to actually give effect to those decisions.

Despite the differences both nations succeeded with an approach that relied on integrating expert advice into policy, and initially prioritising community safety and health outcomes. In both countries, the institutions of government were able to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19, increase collaboration and work in new ways to meet a new threat.

The full cases for Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand are available in ANZSOG’s John L. Alford Case Library. The Library contains almost 300 examples of public policy challenges from Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand, available for free and designed to be used in the development of public managers.