Two federalism lessons from COVID-19

Two federalism lessons from COVID-19

In Queensland, the health aspects of the COVID health crisis, including hotel quarantine, are being overseen by Queensland Health. In NSW, the issue is being overseen by NSW Health. That is unsurprising, given quarantine is about virus detection and containment.

In Victoria, the Premier says he doesn’t know who was in charge but we know one of the lead agencies on the issue of hotel quarantine was the Department of Jobs. Apparently, Victoria thought a structure in which a whole lot of agencies, including but apparently not led by Health, was the way to go.

In our Federation, that divergence is perfectly acceptable. The drafters of our Constitution intended – indeed hoped – that the different paths taken by the states would encourage them to be their best. In having six test markets for every problem, Australians could be the judge of what ideas work best and encourage their state to also adopt that approach, move to another state that’s getting it right, or change their state government at the next opportunity. 

Similarly, in Queensland and NSW, state governments gratefully accepted offers from the Australian Defence Forces to work with state police officers to manage the challenge of hotel quarantine.

Victoria declined that offer of assistance from the Commonwealth.  Instead, their Jobs Minister took the lead. 

It’s worth asking why this responsibility was handed to a person with no health expertise or responsibility but with very close ties to the United Workers Union, representing the security staff who were bearing the brunt of COVID-related entertainment venue closures. The very staff who were hired to assist with managing hotel quarantine but were not given enough training to appreciate the seriousness of the task. 

It could be a mere coincidence, rather than a scheme to help the Minister’s mates – but we can’t tell because Premier Andrews and Victorian Labor hides behind the artifice of an inquiry to avoid having to engage with any uncomfortable questions. That’s despite the ex-judge leading it stating that her inquiry is not a court of law, nor is there any impediment to talking about the matters to come before it. 

Victorians should be weighing which of the three options contemplated by the founding fathers they will employ. If they decide to move they could be out of quarantine in their new home state sooner than the Victorian lockdowns will end. Victorians can only expect more craven dishonesty and underperformance while they remain in the Garden State – unless they are prepared to demand change with their vote. 

As the impact of this shutdown begins to bite Victoria’s economy hard, there’s a further lesson in Federalism dealt to us. With the states bearing responsibility for health outcomes but the federal government bearing responsibility for the economy more broadly, there is a perverse incentive for state governments to be so cautious on the health response that they do not properly balance the economic impact of those measures. 

All lives are valuable, yet it seems that the lives which are being harmed and lost as a consequence of the economic harm of draconian measures implemented as a part of the health response are not being measured – let alone balanced against the lives we seek to protect with the health response. 

It’s impossible to measure whether we are getting the balance right when the harm to life of one side isn’t being measured. Avoiding the balancing of health outcomes against economic and social consequences risks inflicting a disproportionate response without having even engaged with the question sufficiently to know whether that is the likely impact. It’s sleepwalking to economic disaster because the health decision maker does not bear responsibility for its economic impact.

As of 11 August we’ve lost 313 Australians to COVID-19, and 12,134 people have recovered but with unknown long-term consequences. There’s been 21,397 total cases. We’ve spent more than$300 billion and it will likely take even more before the economy can stand on its own again. It’s time we seriously considered the lives lost and harmed on the economic side of the ledger so that we can cut through the language of fear so generously applied by the Premiers and properly assess whether their health response is proportionate to the bill they are forwarding to the federal taxpayer.