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Government response to pandemic has divided the nation

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State premiers have responded to the pandemic with varying degrees of success and criticism (Image by Dan Jensen)

The Federal Government has managed the pandemic poorly, resulting in disunity and a lack of social cohesion between states, writes Emma Dawson.

WE LEARN A LOT about ourselves in times of crisis. The COVID-19 crisis has reminded us of some things we forget too easily during the everyday hustle of our ordinary lives: that we aren’t just family units, but part of a community; that we can be happier with less stuff and more time; that what really matters is the people we love and the care we show for one another.

These have been some of the positive lessons of the pandemic. But the shock of COVID-19 has also served up some less welcome reminders, one of which is surely that Australia’s nationhood is still a fragile, fractious creature that cannot be taken for granted. Just 120 years after federation, the bonds that hold our country together have frayed over the last 18 months — not inevitably, but due to a failure of national leadership.

The creation of the Australian nation was a remarkable feat. The bringing together of six British Colonies under one Federal Government was achieved through negotiation and persuasion led by some of Australia’s earliest statesmen, such as NSW Premier Henry Parkes, known as the Father of Federation, and Edmund Barton, our first Prime Minister. While, typically of the time, the White men in charge of the process of federation embedded within it a shamefully racist exclusion of First Nations people and the explicitly xenophobic “White Australia” immigration policy, the achievement of nationhood without bloodshed or revolution was an otherwise auspicious start for a new country.

Those 19th and early 20th Century leaders must be turning in their graves to see the state of our national leadership today. For rather than focusing on uniting the country during the COVID-19 crisis, the leaders of our Federal Government – not a future statesman among them – have deliberately played the politics of division for electoral advantage and our nation is more divided now than at any time in living memory.

The early unity of the National Cabinet began to fray during Victoria’s long lockdown last year, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced the first real criticism of his leadership since his pathetic response to the bushfires of the previous summer. As the extent of the outbreak of COVID-19 in federally-funded aged care homes across Victoria became clear, Morrison’s ability to maintain the façade of a genuinely collaborative national leader collapsed almost immediately. The care and protection of residents and staff in these aged care homes were a federal responsibility, but the Prime Minister, in a display of blame-shifting that has since become all too familiar, was having none of it.

Instead, he swung straight into his I don’t hold a hose, mate routine, shamelessly sheeting home the responsibility to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. In the ensuing months, Morrison’s sniping at Victoria increased and was abetted by his government’s most senior Victorian MP, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, as the feds stopped pretending to care about the lives of Victorian residents more than they did about the fortunes of their supporters in the business community.

This famously prompted the withering response from Andrews that Frydenberg was “not a leader, he is just a Liberal” and the gloves were off.

The rancorous rhetoric between the Coalition in Canberra and the Labor premiers ramped up in the last quarter of 2020, as the State Election in Queensland saw the PM swing firmly into campaign mode, unashamed to politicise the measures Annastacia Palaszczuk put in place to protect her constituents from the virus.

After Palaszczuk’s historic election win at the end of October, in which her government received large swings of support from older voters apparently grateful for her strong border protection policies, Morrison dialled the divisive rhetoric down ahead of the State Election in WA in March this year.

Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan – perhaps the boldest and most effective critic of the Prime Minister’s partisan commentary last year – reduced the Liberal Party in that state to just two MPs, making them the junior Coalition partner to the Nationals in Opposition. Though, Morrison’s tribal instincts roared back to the fore and there they have stayed in the months since.

Throughout all of 2020, of course, the “Prime Minister for Sydney” lavished praise on Coalition Premier Gladys Berejiklian, repeatedly referring to her lucky escape from serious outbreaks in NSW that year as due to her gold standard management of the pandemic. So it shouldn’t be surprising that, now that her luck has run out, Morrison has responded with a gold standard rescue package of his own — one more generous than that afforded to Victoria during its own two-week lockdown last month.

This extreme partisanship during a time of unprecedented national crisis may no longer shock, but it should outrage us as Australians. What is the purpose of a federal government if not to maintain our federation, protect our nationhood and nurture our unity? The barriers between states that were so carefully deconstructed by the leaders of Australia’s early federation have been wilfully reimposed by a government led by a man so determined to avoid responsibility and yet maintain power that he will literally divide the country into state-based, partisan tribes.

Our Prime Minister is acting more like the state director of the Liberal Party — a role he once held and which, it is becoming increasingly clear, was probably suited to the limits of his ability.

Meanwhile, our Deputy Prime Minister announced, just a week after returning to the Nationals leadership, that residents of regional Australia couldn’t really give a shit about the impact of COVID-19 on Melbourne. It was clear that Barnaby Joyce, who wants us to believe his years on the backbench have made him a better person, included himself among those country-folk who care not a jot for their city-based compatriots. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise, given one of his predecessor’s last public contributions as Deputy PM was to wish a plague of mice on the inner-city homes of animal rights activists, to “scratch the feet of their children at night”.

Yes, this would be funny if it weren’t so serious — but it is. Like the architects of Brexit and the forces that propelled Donald Trump to the most powerful political office in the world, our reactionary right-wing federal leaders are now openly wielding the politics of resentment and tribalism for electoral gain.

With no real policies to improve the lives of Australians and having made a complete hash of the most basic demands of government service delivery during a crisis, these hollow men are wholly focused on their re-election, using the only playbook they can comprehend: divide and conquer.

It is possible the Coalition will, by picking up votes in key marginal seats in NSW and defending their hold on regional Queensland, win the Election now likely to be held early next year. If so, their tactics of fear and division will have paid off for them — but the great achievement of Australian federation and our social cohesion as a nation will almost certainly be the price we pay.

Emma Dawson is an IA columnist and executive director of Per Capita. You can follow Emma on Twitter @DawsonEJ.

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