Playing the states against each other back-fires on the Prime Minister

by Richard Denniss
Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference following a national cabinet meeting

Like a struggling middle manager, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been playing the states against each other to distract from his own poor decisions. The interstate fight for vaccines, funding, and even praise from the Prime Minister, now dominates Australia’s response to COVID. But if COVID rarely breached our quarantine, if there was plenty of vaccine and if we were giving plenty of financial support to workers and businesses, what would the state Premiers have to fight about?

But because the Prime Minister splurged on support for Gerry Harvey and scrimped on paying for Pfizer interstate rivalry is at an all-time high. Back in June, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews wanted more money and more Pfizer vaccines from the Commonwealth, and today it’s NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian making the same requests. Both state leaders are right to ask—but the key question is not ‘should we help NSW?’ it is ‘why didn’t we do more help Victoria?’.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Treasurer Josh Frydenberg were not just reluctant to customise a support package for Melbourne during its three-month lockdown, they were hostile to it. In true neoliberal style, the Morrison Government argued that if it helped Labor state premiers through their lockdowns it would create an ‘incentive’ for state governments to keep locking down their citizenry and their economy. As the ABC reported in June:

“Prime Minister Scott Morrison does not want to establish any incentives for the states and territories to lock down, in response to COVID-19 outbreaks. The strong view within government is that the states decide what restrictions to impose and should therefore be responsible for the economic consequences.”

Read that sentence again if you need to. And, if it seems ridiculous, consider the fact that the Morrison Government justifies stingy unemployment benefits and our horrific treatment of asylum seekers based on the same perverse logic.

But that was June, and this is July. Now that Sydney is in its sixth week of some form of lockdown, and with no sign yet that the much vaunted ‘gold standard’ contract tracers are keeping up with COVID, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is in the pirouette of the pandemic. Having spent a year criticising trigger happy premiers for their faith in lockdowns, ScoMo 5.0 is now firmly of the view that lockdowns are the main weapon in his fight to remain Prime Minister. Having argued on July 2 that lockdowns should be a “last resort”, just three weeks later the Prime Minister was telling us that lockdowns were the “principal tool” for controlling the Delta variant.

This lurch towards lockdowns is no accident. Having turned down the offer of all the Pfizer we could inject and having told the nation that vaccination wasn’t ‘a race’, the Prime Minister has no choice but to learn to love the lockdown. In our unvaccinated population it’s the only thing he can lean on.

But the Prime Minister can’t support hard lockdowns and oppose generous support to workers and businesses, which is where things get interesting for Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. The Australian Electoral Commission now classifies the Treasurer’s formerly blue-ribbon seat of Kooyong as marginal. Having suffered an 8.2 percent swing against him at the last election, Josh Frydenberg delivered the lowest ever vote for the Liberals in Robert Menzies old seat of Kooyong. Ouch.

But despite his increasingly precarious electoral position, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has consistently argued against the need for the Commonwealth to provide additional support to those in his electorate or his home state. Indeed he launched a blistering attack on Daniel Andrews’ support for lockdown, accusing the popular premier of ‘callous indifference’ to workers and small business.

The PM’s latest U-turn means he’s now driving the lockdown bus straight at his Treasurer. Sydney will likely be in lockdown for another month and the task of developing a fiscal support package for Sydney will fall to the same Treasurer that refused to help his home state. Not only is Josh Frydenberg going to eat a huge slice of humble pie—he will have to do so as Victorian voters watch in rage.

There was a time when we were all in this pandemic together. But Mr Morrison’s repeated attacks on state premiers, who implemented the lockdowns he now calls the ‘principal tool’ in the fight against COVID, have drastically undermined the collective spirit.

While the health and economic risks that flow from the vaccine stroll-out are very real for us all, the political risk for the Prime Minister is that Australians unite in their contempt for his handling of quarantine and vaccines. The risk for the Treasurer is that if he does design an effective stimulus package for Sydney, he will enrage Victorian voters. But if he doesn’t, the Australian economy will likely plunge back into recession. Watch this space

Richard Denniss is chief economist at independent think tank, The Australia Institute @RDNS_TAI

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