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Has federalism failed us in the pandemic?

30 September 2020

5:00 AM

30 September 2020

5:00 AM

Disparate government policies within Australia in response to the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic have highlighted strengths and weaknesses in our federal structure.

The recent actions of state governments serve as a reminder that the states are sovereign entities with strong powers. This has come as a revelation to many people accustomed to decades of creeping centralism.

But the reality is that in many spheres the states have substantial policy latitude and can have a major influence on our lives. Public health is one of them.

It is fair to say that many people like the way Premiers have wielded those powers to suppress the virus. Indeed, one of the strengths of federalism is that sub-national governments can try different solutions to a problem and follow the examples that work best. But is that what has happened?


The dissenting view – shared by this commentator — is that state governments have mostly taken a singular and unrealistic view of coronavirus risk management and failed in their duty to balance health advice against the economic, social and (broadly defined) health costs of their policies. Some of them are also pursuing parochial and populist state border restrictions that are doing enormous economic and social harm.

If Premiers are behaving badly, that doesn’t necessarily mean the federal system is broken and more powers should go to the Commonwealth. Any politician, including federal ones, can behave badly. That is what elections are for – and if we the voters don’t take the opportunity to reject bad behaviour and policies, then arguably we deserve what we get.

Rather, the question is whether the pandemic has exposed structural flaws in our federal system that have caused or enabled bad policies and need to be corrected through constitutional amendment or reform of Commonwealth-state relations.

The power of a state to stop residents of other states and territories from crossing their border — or imposing conditions of entry — is one such structural issue. This power is currently under legal challenge in the case of Western Australia. Depending on the outcome of the legal process now moving at snail’s pace, there may need to be some national soul-searching on this issue for the benefit of future generations.

Arguably, border restrictions imposed by one state affect everyone in the nation, not just residents of that state, and should only be imposed with the approval of the national government.

The distribution of financial powers also calls for examination, as the current arrangements do not give states the incentive to fully consider the economic and fiscal burden of the COVID restrictions they have imposed on economic activity.

Robert Carling is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.

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