New Analysis: The Critical Role of the States in COVID-19 and Beyond

Australia’s states and territories have taken the lead in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, representing a potential re-alignment of state-federal relations, according to new research by the Australia Institute’s Democracy & Accountability Program.

Polling shows that the proportion of Australians who rate their state/territory government as doing a better job of handling the crisis has reached an all-time high of 42%, with 24% rating both as doing an equally good job. Just 16% rated the Federal Government as having done a better job than the states.

Key Findings:

  • The response to the COVID-19 crisis represents a potential re-alignment of state-federal relations, with the states exercising their constitutional and democratic authority.
  • Polling shows that Australians are more likely to identify their state or territory government as doing a better job of handling the COVID crisis than the Federal Government.
    • July 2021 saw the largest gap between state and federal satisfaction. An all-time high of 42% of Australians rated their state/territory government as doing a better job of handling the crisis, with 16% rating the Federal Government as doing a better job and 24% rating both as doing an equally good job.
  • While there are elements of National Cabinet that improve on the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), it lacks transparency and has led to duplication in some cases.
  • A parallel to the rise of the states in their handling of COVID-19, is their preparedness to take the lead on action on climate change.
    • Every Australian state and territory has a net-zero emissions by 2050 target, which the Federal Government so far has not set.
    • States and territories have pursued other ambitious plans, like the NSW renewable energy push and the ACT’s 100% renewables target (which has already been achieved.)

“With the states newly emboldened, further action on climate change, changes to federal-state financial arrangements, and reform of National Cabinet could all be on the agenda,” said Bill Browne, senior researcher in the Australia Institute’s Democracy & Accountability program.

“Australia’s states are sometimes disparaged as relics or mendicants, dependent on the federal government, and unnecessary for a country the size of Australia. However, the states and territories have shone during the COVID-19 crisis with strong, strict and decisive responses which have in turn won popularity with the public.

“The unprecedented support for Australia’s Premiers is one of the standout stories of the pandemic. This renewed public belief is a huge political opportunity for our political leaders and community. It represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — the question of course is whether they can take it and what they choose to do with it.

“On the urgent and necessary response to climate change, the states and territories have set the standard that the federal government – to date – fails to meet.

“This newfound public support in the role of government and our public institutions is a golden opportunity to re-energise and renew Australia’s democratic and public infrastructure for the better.”

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