There was something almost sad about the feeble announcement and spin from Scott Morrison after Friday’s national cabinet meeting.
Having briefed the government’s chief stenographer about how Friday’s meeting was to be portrayed, the prime minister’s “leadership” consisted of a plan for exiting from the pandemic composed of four “stages”, “components” or “phases”.
Unlike traditional uses of the word “plan”, this one had no detail, no timetable, no direction, no way of establishing in which “component” we would be located — in essence, a heading “plan” with four dot points, each of which read TBA.
It was, to be accurate, a plan for establishing a process by which a plan would be developed — nearly seven months after the vaccination rollout began.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
It confirmed that the primary capacity within the Morrison government, with an army of a quarter of a million public servants — and, for that matter, an actual army — is to write media releases.
The actual concrete announcement was a halving of international arrivals, which the Queensland and Victorian governments had demanded before the meeting. Having ceded responsibility for quarantine to the states in what at the time must have seemed a clever move, Morrison is now stuck with the states making decisions about migration policy.
Power abhors a vacuum, and tends to rush in to fill it. Morrison’s incapacity to lead, a reflection of his own political tactics, his ideological view of the role of government, and his background in marketing, has created a vacuum that premiers have been only too happy to fill.
They are now the most powerful people in Australia. They can send millions of us into lockdown, dictate where we travel, lock us up for breaking public health rules, prevent us from returning to Australia, and slow down or speed up migration — in addition to their control of the services most people count as the most important provided by government: health and education.
They’ve also taken the lead on climate policy, another leadership vacuum created by Morrison, for the same reasons: he can’t and doesn’t want to lead.
These premiers also have the power of public support, the kind of raw power other politicians understand. That’s why Morrison went from supporting a challenge to Western Australia’s Premier Mark McGowan’s border lockdown to aping McGowan after the latter destroyed his political opposition in an election.
That leaves Morrison almost as bit-player, reduced to endorsing state proposals and proffering half-arsed “four stage pathways”.
Progressives are delighted. The hated Morrison is being overridden by the likes of McGowan, Daniel Andrews and Annastacia Palaszczuk. It doesn’t occur to them that the boot can easily be on the other foot with a Labor government in Canberra struggling to assert its authority against recalcitrant Coalition premiers. Or that the centrifugal shift of power that has occurred won’t be easily or quickly reversed.
And how much do we trust state premiers with such power? How has Victoria benefited from Andrews’ close connections with Crown casinos, in which generous donations have coincided with funding cuts to the gambling regulator and an accommodating regime in which money-laundering, links with organised crime and problem gambling flourished?
Those consequences are — finally — on display every day at the royal commission Andrews belatedly called.
How much benefit have Victorians got from the Victorian Labor Party’s compulsive branch stacking and misuse of taxpayer funds? And how did a major quarantine disaster manage to unfold on Andrews’ watch last year without, apparently, anyone being responsible?
The response from Danistans will be “what about the Liberals?”, as if that magics away corruption, rorting and influence-peddling.
What about Palaszczuk, who spent much of last week hyping fears about the AstraZeneca vaccine and making completely false claims that the Morrison government was planning mass vaccination hubs for under-40s with AZ? Not to mention the close links between Labor-aligned lobbyists, their corporate clients and the Palaszczuk government.
Presumably progressives are also relaxed about the flow of power to the Berejiklian government in NSW as well, despite the shabby standards of conduct within that government — up to and including the premier.
Some small-government advocates might not be too fussed, either, with the prospect of a more federal federation becoming reality, in which Canberra, for nearly a century in the ascendancy over the states, pushed back towards a role more akin to Edwardian times.
These changes — good or bad, depending on your point of view — haven’t been occasioned by some formal process, or by agreement, or by constitutional change, but by the political tactics and failings of one prime minister in response to a major crisis.
Perhaps they were inevitable, like many other changes occasioned by the pandemic. But who’s thinking about the consequences of a different form of federation than the one with which we entered 2020?