Australia was hit by the pandemic in what seemed a moment of national unity. Large stretches of the east coast had been on fire all summer and the nation had pulled together to help. Volunteers – from firefighters to helicopter pilots to fence-fixers – drove across state lines to the areas of greatest need.
Eighteen months later, the nation – or at least its two largest cities – appear to be pulling apart. Requests for additional vaccines, first from Victoria, then from New South Wales, were rejected. The political rhetoric is pernicious.
On Twitter the debate has become toxic. Friends and colleagues in different states are in open argument. Beloved broadcasters have joined the fray. Reactions – both the frustration of Victorians and the upset of their NSW counterparts – are being policed. No other state can get a look-in.
Many Victorians scarred from a 15-week-long lockdown in 2020 are seething that NSW was slow to lock down against an outbreak of the Delta variant.
The NSW government has rejected suggestions it mishandled the outbreak by not introducing a snap lockdown, and dismissed calls to copy the Victorian rules, citing a lack of evidence that measures such as a curfew curbed virus spread.
This week the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, has urged NSW to learn from Victoria’s “bitter experience” and introduce in full the harsh measures imposed in Melbourne’s hard lockdown, brushing off questions about the efficacy of individual rules by saying they worked as a package: “All I’m doing is telling others what worked here and it’s through painful, tragic, bitter experience that we are able to advise what actually works.”
The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, claimed on Thursday that new rules she had introduced “are the harshest measures any place in Australia has ever faced”, despite them being less restrictive than those imposed in Victoria’s second wave.
Only when discussing the failures of the federal government’s vaccine rollout do Andrews and Berejiklian, and their supporters, see eye to eye.
Cracks aren’t new
Animosity between Australia’s two biggest states is not new. The six independent colonies of settler Australia may have formed a federation, but the cracks remain.
“The pandemic is exposing the nature of Australia’s social fabric,” says senior researcher Mark Duckworth.
“There has been this veneer of a single Australian set of values, which works at certain times of sporting triumph or something. But underneath it, there are these divisions which have existed for the last 150 years.”
They existed in the bushfires, leaving communities along the NSW-Victorian border in danger because state emergency management information and radio networks did not extend beyond the borders.
And the pandemic has forced a significant improvement in interstate cooperation and effective national coordination, even as the feeling of national solidarity has dropped away.
“In many ways, a pandemic is about the only truly national emergency that Australia is likely to face,” Duckworth says. “Every part of Australia is to one extent or another having to work on preventing, responding to, or recovering an outbreak.”
It's hard to imagine a circumstance where the federal government would identify Dan Andrews’ Victoria as the gold standard
As in a bushfire, communities have rallied.
“But one of the paradoxes of that process in which people kind of circle the wagons is that they look inward,” Duckworth says. “In a pandemic where the impact is much broader, that can be accompanied by scapegoating and othering processes as well.”
The wagons were circled in Victoria during the second wave and have not yet broken formation.
In October last year, around week 11 of the 15-week lockdown, Melbourne writer Dave Milner wrote: “I’ve never felt more Victorian and less Australian.”
There is a strong feeling in Victoria that the federal government distanced itself from Melbourne crisis.
Victorians have not forgotten that last year the prime minister, Scott Morrison, described the Melbourne outbreak as the “Victorian wave” and praised the NSW government’s contact tracing system as the “gold standard”. The hashtag #PMforSydney now trends whenever Morrison does a press conference.
They also haven’t forgotten the headline in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph after NSW closed its border to Victoria, which read “Mexicans locked out”, or the cover story on the Australian Financial Review magazine – also, like most of Australia’s national media, based in Sydney – which called Berejiklian “The woman who saved Australia”.
— Andrew Greene (@AndrewBGreene) April 29, 2021
It was a hubristic portrait. Any wonder that on Twitter a Greek chorus waited for her fall.
NSW did remain open and economically active for much of 2020 – which is why both the AFR and Morrison branded Berejiklian a saviour – and the NSW contact tracing system did set the standard. Victoria based many of the changes in its contact tracing system, which helped the state shut down two outbreaks in two months, on the NSW model.
Still, as the state which has to date sacrificed the most to keep outbreaks contained, is it any wonder that Victorians felt a sense of vindication when NSW tripped?
Andrews, the most ruthless and effective political communicator in the country, has returned some of the barbs he was dealt last year. On Thursday he levelled up from the gold standard to describe PCR Covid tests as the “diamond standard” compared with rapid antigen tests, in response to NSW announcing it may use it to test year 12 students so they can return to school.
The Victorian government has paid for TV and radio ads on NSW channels warning people not to travel interstate, in a campaign that has drawn comparisons to national anti-asylum seeker campaigns.
Just running the Geiger counter over these and I am detecting a similar energy pic.twitter.com/5nQep8v9UP
— jason wilson (@jason_a_w) July 28, 2021
The Australia Institute’s Bill Bowes says to the extent that parochialism has risen in the pandemic, it has been driven by politicians.
“The federal government, if it’s concerned about parochialism, could do a lot more to create a national spirit,” he says.
When Queensland went into a snap lockdown in April, Queenslander and defence minister Peter Dutton accused Labor premier Annastacia Palaszczuk of being a panicker. The Liberal premier for South Australia, Steven Marshall, was not accused of panicking in response to his snap lockdown this month.
The Nationals senator Matt Canavan called the second wave a “Dan-made disaster”.
When Victoria went into its fourth lockdown in May, the federal government initially resisted providing income support saying it did not want to incentivise lockdowns. Under pressure from the Victorian government it then announced a $500 a week Covid disaster payment, which was raised to $600 in a deal negotiated with NSW. It increased that to $750 a week on Wednesday.
The federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, whose electorate is in Melbourne, last year described Victoria’s extended lockdown as “the biggest public policy failure by a state government in living memory”. He did not bite when Melbourne-based ABC host Patricia Karvelas asked him this week if that mistake was now rivalled by what NSW was doing, and if Victoria was now the gold standard.
“You need to lock down fast when you get the outbreak of the Delta variant,” Frydenberg said. “Victoria has done that.”
Bowes says it is “hard to imagine a circumstance where the federal government would be identifying Dan Andrews’ Victoria as the gold standard, regardless of what kind of approach they took”.
Backing their premiers
Polling conducted by the Australia Institute shows that 42% of Australians think their state or territory government is doing better at responding to the pandemic than the federal government, with the gap narrowest in Victoria.
“It’s not simply the case that people are backing their own state, but rather that people in general support the premiers’ approaches, and the premiers’ approaches have been fairly consistent – at least, compared to what the federal government would prefer,” Bowes says. “States have had a popular authority that’s come from the pandemic.”
The state and territory governments seized control of the pandemic response over a single weekend in March last year when Andrews and Berejiklian pressured the federal government into implementing a national shutdown by releasing coordinated statements in favour of tougher restrictions, and the leaders of five other states, led by Tasmania, closed their borders.
They have maintained that control in the absence of stronger federal leadership.
The federal government had an opportunity to reclaim the narrative with a successful vaccine rollout, says Bowes, but that failed. Instead it was again the states that proved successful, running mass vaccination hubs that have delivered the bulk of the doses.
But the rise of state governments does not explain why NSW and Victoria are scrapping, while the other states and territories remain unbothered.
The perception in Victoria that NSW is the federal favourite has some truth to it that goes beyond political allegiance and the electorate of the prime minister, says Duckworth.
“Going back to my days working in government relations, there was a basic view which is that the interests of NSW and the national interest are always the same thing,” he says.
Sydney was the biggest city, the international city. But Melbourne has caught up.
“Sydney and Melbourne are basically exactly the same size cities, if it weren’t for the statistical anomaly that I think Gosford is included in the statistics for the size of Sydney,” he says. “Sydney and its role is obviously going to remain very important, but compared to other parts of Australia it is no longer as important as it was, and I don’t think the federal government has actually caught up with that.”
Part of that bias is geographical: Canberra picks up NSW broadcasts.
“If you work in Canberra you get a lot of your news from Sydney,” Duckworth says. “So what’s going on in Sydney tends to be your view of what’s going on in Australia.”