Australia’s covid surge has left states squabbling — and united against Morrison

A Queensland-New South Wales border sign in Australia on Sept. 2. (Jono Searle/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
A Queensland-New South Wales border sign in Australia on Sept. 2. (Jono Searle/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

“State against state, mate against mate” is the slogan of State of Origin, an annual rugby league tournament held between the states of Queensland and New South Wales. As the slogan suggests, the matches are fiercely contested, but the banter between the states’ political leaders is traditionally light-hearted.

After all, we’re all Australians.

Well, that was up to the arrival of covid-19. The past 18 months have reinvigorated the tribalism of Australian politics. Even the “footy” league series quickly became mired in unpleasantness, as the two state premiers argued over pandemic border restrictions.

As covid-19 continues to rise in Australia, so has parochialism. Borders between the various states have been closed, then reopened and then closed again. About 120 soldiers from the Australian Defence Force currently stand guard on the border between Queensland and New South Wales, at the request of the Queensland government. They are there to block southerners who might try to travel north without permission.

On Father’s Day, which Australians celebrate in early September, families attempted to hug each other across the border barricades, earning a rebuke from the Queensland premier. There have been cases where people have had to battle for the right to see a dying parent, while many required a permit to cross the border that separates their home and workplace.

The Australian states came together as a federation relatively recently, in 1901. The squabbles began instantly, with the two largest cities, Sydney in New South Wales and Melbourne in Victoria, claiming the right to be the national capital. A compromise saw the creation of Canberra, a capital built on prime farmland lying between the two cites — “a good sheep station, spoiled,” as one early politician dubbed the decision.

The Sydney-Melbourne rivalry, in particular, has become the stuff of legend. Even American presidents have been required to tiptoe around local sensibilities. When Lyndon B. Johnson visited in 1966 — the first visit by an incumbent U.S. president — his itinerary allowed for precisely four hours in each city.

The tension has been exacerbated during the pandemic by Australia’s shambolic vaccination program. The locally manufactured AstraZeneca vaccine was to be the workhorse of the Australian program, until health authorities restricted its use to those 60 and over, citing a rare blood-clotting side effect. That advice was later modified, but the damage had been done, leading to soaring demand for the limited supplies of the imported Pfizer vaccine. The states began to compete for vaccine supplies in a process one state health minister called “the Hunger Games.”

New South Wales, facing an escalating outbreak of the delta variant, requested extra vaccine supplies. The country’s conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, publicly rejected that request, but in practice, the biggest state started to receive more than its fair share.

Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, was livid about what he considered act of subterfuge, complaining that Sydney was sprinting ahead, “while the rest of us are supposed to do some sort of egg and spoon thing.”

Despite the current tension — and rising cases in New South Wales and Victoria — Australia still has an enviable record when it comes to covid-19. The death rate is 4.3 per 100,000, compared with more than 200 in the United States.

And yet, with just 42 percent of the country’s eligible population fully vaccinated, Australians are frustrated with their bickering political class. Morrison recently told Parliament there was nothing amiss: “We’ve worked together as a team of premiers, chief ministers and myself, to make sure we respond to each other’s needs.”

In reality, Australia’s leaders are involved in a “state of origin” as bloody as any football game — blaming each other for every pain endured by their citizens.

The current delta outbreak began in Sydney, apparently traveling to Melbourne via a team of movers. Andrews, the Victorian premier, says of his state’s current spike in cases: “If we could send it back to Sydney where it came from, we would.”

If that sounds harsh, he’s only returning fire after the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, repeated criticized Victoria for its handling of the pandemic.

At least the squabbling premiers can agree on one thing: The current outbreak, with its resulting lockdowns, is due to inadequate supply of vaccines. And that’s entirely the responsibility of the federal government.

Adding to the frustration were documents — revealed by the opposition Labor Party — that showed the federal health minister had declined an overture for a meeting from the vaccine manufacturer Pfizer in the middle of last year, offering to send a bureaucrat in his place.

The premiers from the Labor states have had it with Morrison. And even Berejiklian, the NSW premier who is from Morrison’s side of politics, is said to be exasperated with the prime minister and the slow supply of vaccines.

So maybe there’s hope for Australia’s fractured federation after all. There’s nothing like a common foe to bring people together.

Richard Glover presents the "Drive" show on ABC Radio Sydney. He’s a former news editor and European correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and author of 12 books, including the best-selling memoir “Flesh Wounds."

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